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Introduction by Phillip Vannini

It was the first year of the new millennium. I was a young sociology PhD student at a research university in the US. Interested in popular culture and popular music in particular, I thought of utilizing a graduate social psychology seminar in which I was enrolled as an opportunity to do some research on personal identity, youth, and Top 40 pop music. I was an eager student—driven to find a secure academic post immediately after graduation. I knew I had to publish, well before my dissertation defense. So I pitched the idea about my possible paper to my professor—a tenured and well-regarded social psychologist.

“Who cares? It’s just pop music, Phillip,” was her reaction. Studying popular music and popular culture wasn’t quite Sociological, she explained. To be sure, it was sociological in nature, but it wasn’t Sociological with a capital “S”—the “S” that rubberstamps mainstream, institutionalized, respectable American Sociology. She hinted that if I wanted to practice the kind of Sociology that could get me a job I had to toe the party line.

Digging a little bit deeper the attitude behind her answer—and the broader collective attitude for which it stood—I soon learned my lessons. First, forget the popular and the populace. Surely, as any good Sociologist, I should feel free to speak on behalf of the common (wo)man, but for the most part I should do so only paternalistically and demagogically, without doing anything about it. What they—the members of the populace—do like is not what we—respectable academics—like. And what they are like is not what we are like.

Second, and following the first point, I shouldn’t bother communicating with laypeople about my research, as it wouldn’t get me an academic job. They watch reality TV, listen to bad music, digest dumbed-down knowledge provided by whatever journalists decide to feed them. We, on the other hand, produce intellectual material too precious to be sullied by easily digestible formulas, too complex to be broken down for easier appreciation by their unsophisticated palate.

The story ends years later with me leaving Sociology with a capital “S,” slamming the door on my way out, never to return. But that detail is much less interesting than what the story itself reveals: popular research is something that all academic should do at their own risk. So before I move on any further with my writing, I’ll need to issue a loud and clear warning: proceed at your own risk. Determine whether your higher-ups will appreciate you messing with the needs and the wants of the populace. Think carefully about it: will your thesis or dissertation committees dig it? With your tenure mentors value it? Will your grant agencies care? How much time will it take? How much will it cost you? But hey, on the other hand, if you think that life without taking a little risk isn’t fun—and if you think that research without imagination is, well, not that much fun either—stick around. This should be a sweet ride.

What this book is, and who it’s for

In pitching my proposal to my acquisitions editor at Peter Lang, I loudly exclaimed that this book was meant for people who have had enough of spending months, if not years, to produce research that will be read in less than minutes by five distracted readers who will forget what they have read in less than three minutes. That was my raw message. I could have baked it up a bit more. I could have sold it to her by saying that this book was targeted for audiences interested in knowledge mobilization, or knowledge exchange, or knowledge transfer, or research outreach and dissemination best practices, and/or the various flavors of “public” disciplines like public sociology, public anthropology, etc., but instead I decided to cut to the chase and promised to deliver a book for the bored and disenfranchised, for those feeling alienated from the drudgery of academic writing and inauthentic about producing more of the same drivel, and for those willing to let their academic imagination play.

She wasn’t the only one to really get my idea. Earlier, I had gotten on as many lists as I could, and put out a call for proposals that read:

I am inviting chapter proposals for an edited book that will show and tell ways that scholars can make research more popular to larger lay, media, and other popular audiences. Much too often research in the social sciences and humanities suffers from an ivory-tower complex, the symptoms of which prevent wide audiences from fully enjoying the processes or appreciating the value and utility of research. As a result, research is often destined for and consumed by a small cadre of readers who have access to both the narrowly accessible media in which research is published, and the difficult lexicon that characterizes academic writing. As new, experimental, blurred genres of research, as well as new distribution media, new academic imperatives, and new ideas and wills emerge, the need to popularize academic research grows. How to popularize research is, however, neither always clear nor easy. Students and scholars often lack a comprehensive vision of the contemporary possibilities available and the procedures involved. The goal of this book is to provide students and scholars with a broad and thorough overview and serve as a companion for any research method course or as a handy reference for career academics. Since the goal is to make research popular, the means themselves should abide by that principle. Therefore, I am not interested in editing a dry, tedious, abstract book. I am seeking witty, fun, funny, enthusiastic, thrilling, suspenseful, dramatic, performative, artistic, documentary, provocative, innovative, sensual, sexy, genre-blurring, multi-modal, multi-media, charismatic, experimental, funky, cool research material. In other words, I am seeking to collect examples and reflections of ways in which research in the social sciences and humanities can be more like popular culture.

A little less than a month later I had received over 150 ideas. Two months later, I had twice as many new messages in my inbox, accompanied by at least 50 emails that were not sent to propose anything to me, but simple congratulate me on the idea. I realized that across the disciplines and across the world, many students and scholars had come across noxious attitudes of people like my social psychology professor. The idea for this book had struck a chord with them, and the process of making research more popular—a decade after my encounter with navel-gazing academia in that graduate seminar—was now fully under way for a lot of people.

So, what exactly is this book now, after it’s all said and done? A tempting sound bite such as “an illustrated guide to making research public” might characterize it in part, but there’s more to it than that. The idea behind this project is to go beyond the book as medium of academic knowledge dissemination, and to exploit the potential of the web to facilitate access to new media, new research genres, and therefore new audiences whom the book alone could not reach. As a result, this book comes with this website. The website and the book together deliver a multimodal message about popularizing research, which seems truly innovative to me, for a few reasons.

First, books on how to make research more accessible are now legion. And so are books on why we should reach out to broader publics. Yet, neither of these bodies of useful knowledge are particularly adept or transparent about actually doing it—that is, about showing the outcomes of popularized research.

Second, the web is vastly underused by academic book authors and editors, and academic journals as well. While every peer-reviewed journal these days has a website, and every other introductory textbook does too, the multimodal potential of the web is not thoroughly exploited. Thus, we get websites that mirror text-based content (e.g., peer-reviewed journal websites) and companion websites that mostly mirror some of the most unimaginative material of classroom teaching (e.g., quizzes and text-based PowerPoint lectures, with a few hyperlinks thrown in for good flavor).

Third, despite the potential of the internet to reach more people than the academic book, the organizational state of internet-based popularized research is a sorry mess. Whereas freely accessible broad internet search engines like Google Scholar and more specialized and restricted academic search engines like ProQuest provide easy and fast access to overwhelming amounts and types of research, no search engine or directory for non-text-based academic research is available. As a result, searching for examples of popularized research is time-consuming and frustrating, if not downright futile. Try this for yourself on Google, YouTube, or Vimeo.

For all these reasons, and others that I do not have the space to enumerate here, combining a book with a web-based directory of popularized research seemed like a good, and a terribly simple idea. This also seemed appealing to me because this strategy allows me and all the other contributors to tell the audiences of this book and website not only how this kind of research is done and why, but also to show them what the fuss is all about.

So, in sum, this book/website package is meant for people like you: students, academics, and professional researchers who are keen on expanding the audiences of their research, and who are tired of producing inaccessible writing distributed through inaccessible media to largely invisible audiences. As I like to tell my communication students, a decade after that miserable exchange with my social psychology professor, it is not sufficient to be familiar with the cultures and the languages of the people we study and to investigate the multiple media through which cultures are reproduced. Rather, what we need to do is find ways to directly employ the cultures and languages of the people we study, and communicate with them through the very same multiple media, in order to learn from them and in order to educate and produce new public cultures. If you find this to be a possible, albeit admittedly partial, solution against academic elitism and irrelevance, then this book and website are for you.  

Kindred spirits

The move toward public research is not new, fortunately. Several pioneers in the social sciences and humanities have distinguished themselves throughout the last century for their popularization work. In some disciplines these pioneers are also recognized as the very founding fathers and mothers of their discipline. For example the ethnographic writings (combined with political activities) of anthropologists Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Claude Levi-Strauss, Bronislav Malinowski, and Franz Boas managed to reach large numbers of citizens throughout the early twentieth century, becoming classics not only in their own field, but also of our civilization as a whole. As McClancy (1996, p. 4) rightly remarks their success proves that:

the space between the academic and the popular is not a one-way street but an arena of voices where one may inspire the others. As the example of Ruth Benedict’s Chrysanthemum and the Sword shows, that space is potentially one of productive dialogue rather than patronizing monologue. Popular anthropology need not be a downmarket derivative of “the real stuff.” It is not a cheapened version of a high-quality product which has been allowed to “trickle down” (a patronizing metaphor of treacly hierarchy). It is an integral, contributory part of the discipline, broadly conceived).

Notwithstanding these illustrious kindred spirits, for the better part of the last century academia as a whole seemed mostly to further cave in itself. Anthropological writing, for example, became inaccessible because of its technical, theoretical nature (McClancy, 1996). The same happened in sociology (Burawoy, 2005), which had earlier enjoyed a good measure of popularity through writings of authors such as William H. Whyte (1956) and David Riesman (1950). Similar trends unfolded in other disciplines, for a variety of reasons.

Chief amongst these reasons might be a widely shared affective disposition amongst many academics: the fear of being popular. Some might view this as the outcome of a bad experience with the media—being misquoted, for example, or seeing one’s work dumbed down by a journalist in need of condensing a long and complex argument into a few words. Others might view it as a typical disposition of all those individuals who dedicate years of their life, especially in their young formative years, to the lone pursuit of intellectual matters. After all, who amongst advanced students has not once looked down in disdain from the high floors of the university library at the masses of raucous students amusing themselves with the moot victories of their sports team, or otherwise busying themselves with equally seemingly trivial and crass pleasures typical of the “common man”?

Some might even argue that these dispositions are at the very ideological core of cutthroat academic politics, and that the practices of gate-keeping committees—whether in charge of awarding degrees, tenure, or publication—are in fact nothing but the reproduction of an exclusive and elitist ego-defending attitude disdained with the value of popularity. Whatever the case, what is obvious is that graduation and career prospects in academia have long mostly hinged upon students and aspiring professors preaching to the choir, rather than sullying their hands with the needs and the wants of the populace. What graduate student hasn’t been reminded that to make tenure one must write research and theory monographs instead of textbooks, and peer-reviewed journal articles instead of magazine and newspaper columns? As a result, the scorn and stigma of “pop” psychology, “pop” political science, or “pop” this and that attached to those who dare aim their writings for the shelves of bookstore chains and newspaper kiosks echo through the hallways of the ivory tower, haunting and halting careers, and preventing authentic peer acceptance. 

This ideology and shared affect has acted like a vicious cycle across the social sciences and humanities. When being a “generalist” becomes equated with being unsophisticated and superficial, it becomes logical for the social sciences and humanities to splinter. New disciplines like communication studies and cultural studies and women studies are born from once common social theory. Old disciplines such as anthropology split asunder in cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and biological anthropology. Then, geo-political and organizational divisions compound the effects. Thus we witness splits between social and cultural anthropology, social and cultural geography, the sociology of culture and cultural sociology—and so on. Soon enough then book and journal publishers realize that their best marketing bet is not to aim for large audiences but for narrow, specialized niches—an editorial practice which further Balkanizes scholarship and reinforces the idea that 1,000 audiences of 100 are easier to achieve than one of 100,000.    

The corollary of all this is that it is rather easy and common for any academic to feel irrelevant. And this is more than just a feeling. In an era of ever-deepening cuts to university budgets and constantly increasing political pressure on universities to contribute to a knowledge-based creative economy, researchers are beginning to deal with shifting political priorities. Whether universities are pushing academics to find commercial applications for their research, or to popularize their teaching material and methods to appeal new student markets, or simply to apply their research to concrete problem-solving and thus more directly benefit communities of stakeholders the latest trends in academic politics are obvious: researchers must begin to climb down the ivory tower, and need to do so swiftly, even though they may not know how.

Such was the realization inherent in various turns toward the publicization and popularization of academic research which marked the beginning of the millennium. In sociology, for example, the turning point was undoubtedly Michael Burawoy’s 2004 enormously influential (and equally controversial) address to the American Sociological Association (Burawoy, 2005). Burawoy had been noticing a growing disconnect between an American political culture swerving toward the right and a Sociological culture becoming more and more leftist. Keen on seeing a growth in the impact of Sociology on public discourse Burawoy called upon his colleagues to reach out to American voters and the world. Sociology could achieve this aim by reverting to its traditionally public role and by better appreciating its new organic public function. His incitation is worth quoting at length.

Public sociology brings sociology into a conversation with publics, understood as people who are themselves involved in a conversation. It entails, therefore, a double conversation. Obvious candidates are W.E. DuBois (1903), The Souls of Black Folks, Gunnar Myrdal (1994), An American Dilemma, David Riesman (1950), The Lonely Crowd, and Robert Bellah et al. (1985), Habits of the Heart. What do all these books have in common? They are written by sociologists, they are read beyond the academy, and they become the vehicle of a public discussion about the nature of U.S. society—the nature of its values, the gap between its promise and reality, its malaise, its tendencies. In the same genre of what I call traditional public sociology we can locate sociologists who write in the opinion pages of our national newspapers where they comment on matter of public importance. [
] The traditional public sociologist instigates debates within or between publics, although he or she might not actually participate in them. There is however another type of public sociology—organic public sociology in which the sociologist works in close connection with a visible, thick, active, local and often counterpublic. The bulk of public sociology is indeed of an organic kind—sociologists working with a labor movement, neighborhood associations, communities of faith, immigrant rights groups, human right organizations. Between the organic public sociologist and public is a dialogue, a process of mutual education. [
] The project of such public sociologies is to make visible the invisible, to make the private public, to validate these organic connections as part of our sociological life (Burawoy, 2005, pp. 7-8).

While inevitably cloaked in the mantra of mainstream American Sociology, Burawoy’s characterization of a public scholarship attempting to reach out to publics through mediated communication and/or through face-to-face collaboration easily characterizes all of social scientific research aiming at popularization. In one way or another all the research discussed in the pages of this book falls into either one, or both of his categories.

Public sociology has probably generated more attention and debate than any other version of “public” discipline or field, but it is certainly neither the first kind of popularized research nor the only type. Public anthropology came to life a few years earlier, at first with the publication of McClancy and McDonaugh’s (1996) edited book Popularizing anthropology, and then with the formulation of a mission statement for public anthropology by Borofsky (2000, n.d.) and Purcell (2000). As opposed to sociology—where applied work has traditionally meant “social work” and has been almost entirely relegated to a marginal “practitioner” status—anthropology has had a stronger applied tradition. While applied anthropology has clearly not enjoyed the status of its theory-driven, “pure” scholarship cousin, its existence has made the rise of popular anthropology easier, albeit not without controversy (see Gottlieb, 1997; Lamphere, 2004; Lassiter, 2005, 2008; Singer, 2000). In light of this, applied and collaborative fieldwork in international settings have benefited from a broader dialogue on development and education, stimulating and being stimulated by various pedagogies of the oppressed and forms of action research—the kind of work that Burawoy might call “organic.”

The importance of the ethnographic tradition of Boas, Malinowski, Benedict, and Mead has also helped anthropology connect with broader publics by way of effective representational aesthetics. According to Gans (2010) ethnography’s foci on the personal, the intimate, the particular, and the narrative are key elements for popularization. This opens the way for not only good writing, but also for a sensuous scholarship (Stoller, 1997) capable of appealing to wider publics through visual media such as film (Scheper-Hughes, 2009). This is where public anthropology and another tradition, qualitative inquiry, begin to blend.

Qualitative inquiry is a highly influential movement in qualitative social science research which rejects the realism and the uncommitted objectivism of positivist scholarship (see Denzin and Lincoln 1994, 2000, 2005). According to Denzin—the foremost exponent of this movement—qualitative inquiry offers an empirical alternative to the supposedly apolitical stance of positivism and post-positivism. Mixing a transformative drive for social justice, an ethos of aesthetic sensibility, and a commitment to public relevance, qualitative inquiry has expanded the definition of ethnography to encompass more or less all forms of research carried out through scholarly reflexive engagement and in-depth participation of people into the research process.

If qualitative inquiry can be viewed as an offspring of post-structural and postmodern anthropological and ethnographic traditions, one of its manifestations, art-based research, can be viewed as originating from long-standing traditions in the fields of education, arts, and communication. Volumes such as Knowles and Cole (2008)’s Handbook of the arts in qualitative research, Leavy’s (2008) Method meets art, and Sullivan’s (2009) Art practice as research, serve as prominent contemporary examples of the vitality of research strategies that attempt to connect with broader publics. Utilizing old and new media, performative and representational arts, classic, folk, and popular culture genres these new forms of scholarship manage to popularize research and scholarship writ large by way of constant experimentation, innovation, genre-blurring, collaboration, and application to multiple social problems and issues.

Whether inspired by public sociology, public anthropology, qualitative inquiry, art-based research, or whatever other tradition not covered in this introduction, the popularization of research answers the need to make scholarship relevant to the many, not the few. And whether in communication or education, sociology or anthropology, geography or cultural studies, or whatever other discipline or field, more and more scholars and students are now starting to recognize that a scholarship that wants to be meaningful has to have an audience and has to be consequential to its stakeholders. As a result, outreach activities are now more and more fully recognized by both universities and funding agencies, which now often demand them as form of service to the wider community. This has generated an entire new field, which has come to be known by various names such as knowledge mobilization, knowledge transfer, knowledge translation, and knowledge exchange, only to name a few.

Such growing body of literature recognizes the need for research to be communicated through a variety of media, to be community-based, to be consequential and transformative, and truly cumulative in nature. A growing awareness of the importance of knowledge management is changing universities for good (Hardill and Baines, 2009), initiating new partnerships with governmental and non-governmental organizations (Phipps and Shapson, 2009), and changing the criteria by which good research is consumed by multiple publics (Levin, 2008). It is in light of these trends that the essays in this book and the products on must be understood and appreciated, and it is in light of this history that they must be judged.

Plan of the book and the website

Following this introduction the book is divided into nine parts, some containing three and some containing four chapters. Each of these parts of the book is organized around a particular medium or genre of research production and distribution. Overlaps between the various parts of the book are inevitable, as these boundaries are merely organizational devices employed to keep things relatively tidy. It should also be kept in mind that the genres and media covered by the book are not intended to be exhaustive—there are undoubtedly more kinds of popularized research that I could have included. As it always goes, however, availability of authors and space were limited.

Without getting into the details of what each chapter covers—since there would be a lot to summarize—it might be useful to briefly outline the plan of the book. Part one covers film and video, drawing primarily from the documentary genre. Part two continues to look at visual media, but switches to still photography and graphic arts, in particular photovoice, cartoons, and poster exhibits. Part three segues into exhibits by examining art installations and web galleries. Part four discusses research making use of audio technologies, ranging from radio to music and digital documentaries. Part five and part six focus on renovating the potential of the written word. The former examines periodicals and related print media and genres such as op-eds, ethnodramas, and autoethnography. The latter hones in on how books and reports can be produced and distributed to reach broader audiences. Part seven concentrates on engaging in dialogue with research publics and stakeholders through web cafes, online conversations, and the web 2.0. Contributions to part eight examine various kinds of performative renderings of research such as slam poetry, performance ethnography, playback theatre, and performance autoethnography. Finally part nine teaches us how to communicate better with news media gatekeepers; from releasing effective media tips to interacting well with journalists.    

Almost all the contributors were asked to deliver a “show” to be uploaded on the website and a “tell” to be featured on the book. The “tell”—authors were told—was meant as a narrative reflection on the experience of producing and distributing popularized research (i.e. “the show”). I asked each contributor to keep their writing accessible, indeed I asked them to avoid terminology entirely, and to write clearly and employ basic language that any student and faculty across the social sciences and humanities could understand. Each chapter discusses unique experiences, but every chapter follows a relatively standard format, touching upon common elements. These elements are intended to tell readers what the research they popularized was about, why the decision to popularize it was made, why certain media and genres were employed, what lessons researchers learned in the process, and how audiences responded.

Each chapter is meant to strike a compromise between two extremes: the practical extreme of teaching technical components of research popularization (e.g. how to use Adobe creator to edit media material) and the abstract extreme of reflecting on the epistemological value of popularized research. As a result, the information presented in each chapter is meant to stimulate and guide readers to popularize research, and to provide them with a rough directory on the possibilities available. On the other hand, advanced readers keen on learning the ins and outs of, say, recording audio documentaries using digital or analog technologies, will find the need to learn these techniques by accessing more in-depth reference material. The same goes with the theorists and the philosophers amongst our readers, who may find value in accessing edited books such as Denzin and Lincoln (2005) and Knowles and Cole (2008) which provide in-depth reflections on the politics, epistemology, and ontology of qualitative inquiry and post-realist knowledge production. 

For easy reference, the website follows the organizational scheme of the book. Most chapters in the book refer to material available on the web, though some chapters did not need additional material and therefore have no web content at all. The website also features this introduction to this book, each chapter’s introductory words, and other resources and links. As it often goes with web-based communication a website is merely a starting point. Thus while some material is immediately available on other material is available on contributors’ own websites, and simply hyperlinked to from the book’s website. Video-based material is available on Vimeo and YouTube, and hyperlinked to from the book’s website.

One of the most noteworthy characteristics of this book and website, in my mind, is the remarkable diversity of the contributors. From communication to education, and from sociology to anthropology and almost everything in between, both traditional disciplines and new interdisciplinary fields are duly represented by authors’ affiliations, training, and subject matter. Further contributing to this diversity is the age of contributors. It was my intent to host a variety of popularization strategies, and therefore featuring the work of no one but well-established academics—with greater access to research funds, research assistants, and broad team collaborations—would have been pointless. Thus amongst the contributors there are academics, but also students and professionals who are not affiliated with universities. Lastly, I am keen on seeing the movement for popularized research cross geo-political boundaries. Therefore I was happy to receive responses to my call for papers from many areas of the globe. As the author biographical notes attest, at least two dozen countries are represented here by authors’ place of birth and institutional affiliation.

While vast areas of the globe remain populated by institutions of higher learning that practice elitist knowledge and thus restrict the freedom of researchers to reach out, and while disciplinary and university politics still limit many students and academics from achieving a greater impact with their research, the prospects for the future are much rosier than they were a decade ago, and infinitely better than they were in the better part of the last millennium. The growth in the opportunities provided by more user-friendly and more democratically accessible media and technologies can only push the possibilities to popularize research in the right direction.

Technology, often touted as the driving energy of change, is only a tool box, however. The true driving force for popularized research can only be a keen determination to do it, a determination unfettered by institutional obstacles, less-than-ideal budgets, and unproven skills. Where there is a will, there is a way—and while this sounds like a clichĂ© the only real alternative to the will for popularization is to continue to find excuses for remaining irrelevant, unheard, and unimaginative. We all—students, teachers, academics, professional researchers—have a lot to learn from making research-based knowledge more popular, and a whole lot to lose from not doing it.