Tuesday, January 24, 2006

conferring with interested publics

i did a conference call yesterday, tied to the release of on your own without a net: the transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations. the book has chapters on homelessness, mental health, juvenile justice, foster care, disabilities, mental disorders, and other issues. my piece with sara wakefield discussed difficulties facing young adults coming home from the criminal justice system. i think that conducting and disseminating research in interaction with affected communities is an important public sociology and policy sociology task. so, i'm usually happy to participate in such calls when i feel qualified.

here's how it worked. connect for kids publicized the date, time, and call-in number to its mailing list. some of these folks called in at the time to listen, email questions, or ask questions directly of the panelists. we had 5 presenters, each with about 10 minutes to talk before taking questions. we were asked to start with a brief review of the data in the chapter (e.g., trends), but then focus our remarks on policy solutions (e.g., what do we do about it?). approximately 130 people were listening, with a mix of policy folks, advocates, and on-the-ground practitioners and program coordinators.

the other presenters were real experts on their topics (e.g., john hagan on homeless adolescents, mark courtney on foster care) who did a terrific job speaking to the policy and practitioner audience. i too tried my best to give a responsible overview of the field without getting bogged down in statistics or jargon. everybody seemed to make 3 or 4 take-home points that were reasonable and constructive. relative to the call-in talk radio i've done, this audience seemed well-informed and quite expert in their fields.

that said, i was struck by the real-world concreteness of the questions relative to our 20,000-foot aerial view answers. for example, one woman with a teenage son in the mental health system asked for some guidance or suggestions on transitioning out of care, but we pretty much replied in abstractions and generalities. i would have been similarly stumped if a caller had asked whether her felony conviction prevented her from getting, say, a fireworks license in albuquerque, new mexico. even though i'd call myself an expert on felon exclusions, i'd likely do what any non-expert would: start googling. lacking much on-the-ground experience ourselves(or a staff to chase things down), individual academics have trouble bridging this gap. i learn a great deal from the journalists, practitioners, and felons who ask me questions (e.g., ohio? no I didn't know that. who is pushing the legislation? does it look like it will pass?), so i now make it a point to interrogate my interrogators whenever possible.

during yesterday's call-in questioning i had the distinct sense that the audience probably had more useful answers than the panelists -- and that they could help frame more interesting questions for the next round of research. for me, such conference calls illustrate burawoy's distinction between simply disseminating our work to affected publics versus doing work in dialogue with those publics. dissemination is a good and worthy endeavor, of course, and more of us should probably do more of it. engaging in dialogue with affected publics throughout the research process, however, might help produce rich scholarship of even greater utility.

No comments: