Eric Lybeck is an historical sociologist and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Exeter, and will be joining the faculty at the University of Manchester (UK) in fall 2018. He is Editor-in-Chief of Civic Sociology, an open-access journal from University of California Press which is slated to publish its first articles in summer 2019.
UC Press: A big welcome for Civic Sociology, you, and your editorial team to UC Press!
Eric Lybeck: Thank you very much indeed! It is really exciting to see this journal launching in the next academic year.
UC Press: First off, can you tell us: what is “civic sociology?” And why do we need a “civic” sociology?
Eric Lybeck: Civic sociology is a new effort to make sociological research more relevant and effective within professional, policy, and public forms of engagement, by proposing solutions to, rather than just explaining, criticising or describing social problems. It’s an effort to put our sociological insights into action—to start solving problems, particularly starting at the local and regional level.
Why do we need a civic sociology now? We began these discussions after the 2016 elections—in the USA of Donald Trump, in the UK, the referendum to leave the European Union—each of which suggested a real distrust of experts has emerged at the same time our faith in political institutions has waned. We are interested in seeing what we can do to be proactive in rebalancing these trends, to avoid losing hope in the face of growing dissatisfaction with politics and expertise.
And we don’t just think this will benefit local communities. In fact, we think our research will improve as we work through difficult challenges in collaboration with the public, rather than just studying societies for the sake of research publications alone. In doing so, we are recovering historical traditions, some of which were called “civic sociology” back in the early 20th century, as exemplified in the research and activism of W.E.B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, Patrick Geddes and more!
UC Press: Why the focus on local problems in particular?
Eric Lybeck: It’s not just that we are interested in local issues for their own sake; rather, like Geddes used to say “Think Global, Act Local!,” to which we might add: “Act Local to Think Global!” Our editorial board and contributing editors are from all over the world and recognise that everywhere is “local” somewhere. What we tend to lose sight of within sociology too focused on the “national” level of analysis is that there are particularities of place which need to be considered, particularly when proposing policy and practical solutions. There are rarely one-size-fits-all approaches that don’t do more harm than good, and we can often neglect really significant variations when we focus too much on the major cities and countries without adequately recognising these historical and geographic particularities.
So, yes, we are absolutely committed to international scholarship and want to encourage sociologists all around the world to develop their local forms of civic sociology so that we might share in best practices and figure ways to coordinate and integrate our knowledge and engagements in future.
UC Press: Is there an audience for civic sociology, outside of the Academy?
Eric Lybeck: We’ll see! What we do know is that a lot of sociology is already done outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries of what we would call “sociology.” In particular, work in professional schools, such as organizational studies in business schools; research, pedagogy and practice in schools of education, in medical schools and more besides suggests that even within traditional academia there is a wider audience of professionals, policy-makers and knowledgeable publics who would like to know more about sociological issues.
I often find that efforts to engage in what is called “public sociology” simply leaps over this population of non-specialist audiences to produce watered-down versions of sociological research which can be alternately patronising and/or common-sense. Too often these messages come across as preaching to a choir. At Civic Sociology, we are interested in sustained engagement with a wide community of non-sociologists—I think that is the real target!—who have their heads, hearts and feet in a range of civic activities. Perhaps by getting these folks into conversation with one another about how we solve problems together at local and regional levels, we might be able to actually start tackling these challenges together.
We expect these audiences are missing out on key sociological insights due to the perception that we are using specialist language, jargon, are focused on internal academic debates and so on; Or, perhaps paywalls simply block access, which is why we are publishing this journal open access. We think that if we can get a conversation going here at the interface between a number of different fields and types of knowledge—academic, professional, public, religious, political and so on—we can start talking to one another as opposed to talking past each other. We can then get the ball rolling on collaborative work that is both difficult and necessary if we are to solve major challenges facing us around the world.
UC Press: Outside of your core group of editorial stakeholders, scholars got their first glimpse of your ideas about civic sociology at the 2017 American Sociological Association annual meeting. How did they receive this notion of a new, civic sociology?
Eric Lybeck: Thanks to the support of the University of Exeter, we were able to hold a reception in Montreal at the Pointe-à-Callière, the archaeological and historical museum at the location where the city was originally founded. We invited sociologists from a range of backgrounds—some in the sociology of religion, some critical theorists, some specifically focused on civics and participatory democracy—and we simply got together in one room and talked with one another. What was remarkable was so many of us knew one another and had the clear sense that yes, we all do this new thing we’re calling “civic sociology;” we just need to learn how to describe it more fully. We thus agreed it would be fascinating to explore what this particular approach might consist of in the future pages of this journal!
UC Press: As you mention, another unusual aspect of the journal is that it will be open access—that is, what the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) defines as “the free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment.” Why did you want to launch Civic Sociology as an open-access journal?
Eric Lybeck: The particular audiences we are trying to reach will be best served and accessible if we publish open access. There is also a further sense of collective ownership that the open-access movement encourages. This connects with some brewing thoughts surrounding the possibility of recovering “civic republican” ethics of engagement—in other words, if we write in order to make a difference for the public, rather than simply to fill in our tenure portfolios or Research Excellence Framework submissions in the UK, we might want those publications to be shared widely amongst what used to be called the “republic of letters.” The current funding models of expensive journals is unsustainable and rooted in a particular era of financialised academic research and teaching that we hope will go the way of the dinosaurs. In the meantime, we are encouraged to reconstruct the “commons” and see this open-access journal as one contribution to a widening of participation in academic research, discourse and engagement more broadly.
UC Press: At UC Press, we have a long tradition of seeking to affect change through scholarship, so count us as among those eager to see the first Civic Sociology articles publish! In the meantime, what are some things sociologists can do to get involved?
Eric Lybeck: That is fantastic to hear! Yes, UC Press has led the way, both in terms of the scholarly contributions to social change, and also innovative cooperative funding models for open-access journals. It is a real honor and a privilege to be working with you at the Press along with the fantastic editors we have on board. To learn more, sign up for our email list or send us a message at email@example.com. Really looking forward to seeing where the road ahead takes us!
You can learn more about UC Press’s new, open-access journal Civic Sociology at civicsociology.org.
Civic Sociology is an open-access journal which encourages a scholarship oriented toward more effective, ethical interventions into systemic social problems, and which emphasizes problem-solving and professional practice; local and regional issues; and normative and ethical reflection.