Elisabeth Becker is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Religion & Its Publics project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture, where her research focuses on Muslim migrant/post-migrant responses to exclusion in urban contexts. She is also Associate Editor of University of California Press’s open-access journal Civic Sociology, which will be publishing its first articles in early 2019.
UC Press: Welcome to Civic Sociology!
Elisabeth Becker: Thank you!
UC Press: The Religion & Its Publics project, where you currently are a Postdoctoral Fellow, seeks to bridge “the gap between the academic study of religion and public conversations about religion.” How do you see this work dovetailing with your role with Civic Sociology?”
Elisabeth Becker: I see these as very much complementary projects albeit in different forms: one an initiative at a university and the other, a publication. Both respond to the glaring need for bridges between the social sciences (and humanities) and the “real world”, making research not only legible but meaningful to broader audiences. In a way, both seek to reinvigorate this tradition, which has become not only lost but somehow degraded over time. Public-facing or engaged work is sometimes looked down upon in the academy, yet all of us who study the social world also have commitments to, and multiple locations within, it. I think that Civic Sociology creates an honest and open forum to bring these multiple locations together, rather than attempt to neatly divide them into an academic/non-academic dichotomy. We are simply at a point in time in which we cannot afford to not think about our responsibility as social scientists and where we have fallen short in having our work speak to, and with, rather than just about our societies.
This week, one of the world’s greatest authors and social thinkers, Toni Morrison died, and some of her eloquent words have been echoing in my head as I think about the meaning of civic and how it relates to our professional responsibility. “There is no time for despair” she wrote, “no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language.” While referencing the artist, I think that us sociologists must also heed this call.
UC Press: What does the idea of a “civic” sociology mean to you?
Elisabeth Becker: For me, “civic” sociology signals the relationality of personhood and place, and the idea of citizenship as more than just legal belonging–as community belonging and real commitment to a community’s flourishing. As sociologists, we do belong to the sociological and academic communities, but also to society at large, including local, national, and transnational realms. Civic sociology relates all of these spheres instead of creating false boundaries between them. It allows sociologists to speak to community in all of its forms–from the very local to the regional, the national to the global, focusing on academic needs and critiques, as well as wider publics. It makes room for the voices we are sometimes encouraged to keep out of the academic conversation, but which are in fact intertwined, if not fundamental, to all of our work. I see civic sociology as a venue for sociologists and others in related fields to think through questions of practice and questions of ethics alike in rigorous, critical form.
In some ways, such “turns”–reinvoking ethics and deepening reflexivity–have occurred in close disciplines, as with the anthropological moral school, and are, in the words of Jean Bethke Elshtain, responsive to a larger calling to “think really honestly.” If we think really honestly as sociologists, we will recognize that the sociological tradition took all of the underpinnings of civic life seriously, from ethics and normativity to the broader public good; somehow these got sidelined or lost upon the way in the professionalization of the discipline. That this is a real and significant loss has been hammered home for me, personally, after moving to Charlottesville, at the center of major social cleavages since the Unite the Right Rally in 2017; and it has motivated me to take seriously my responsibility as a local, national, and global sociologist and citizen.
UC Press: Specifically with regards to religion and the public sphere, are there specific topics or issues you’d like to see addressed in the journal?
Elisabeth Becker: I personally would like to see pieces relating to current sociopolitical trends of rising right-wing movements across the globe, and the location/responsibility of sociologists in a time of questioning “facts.” I am interested in seeing how sociologists are re-thinking their praxis in relation to both fields of research and lived social realities grappling with hard questions about socioeconomic divisions and cultural exclusions. This also includes sociologists who are currently working on larger projects, but able and willing to draw out ideas and reflections on their relevance to current social trends. And I also think its vital to feature the research of sociologists working in geographical spaces and places that are often left out of the conversation, not just major global hubs but also locales across the United States and the world that can help us to become better informed of the diverse experiences of less visible groups. Regarding religion, specifically, I am interested in seeing reflexive accounts of sociologists who take theological perspectives seriously in their work, as well as those working in post-secular paradigms (here I think we can learn a lot from the moral anthropologists) even when rooted in secular normativities. To be really specific, I think we need interventions on how to negotiate how differing (interreligious and/or secular-religious) normativities shape sociological research on religious communities, just as they shape the societies in which we live.
Continuing in the theoretical vein, I am really excited about writing that grapples with the ethical and normative questions of sociology, social science, and academics, more broadly. I would love to see contributions that ask the hard, and pressing, questions about the responsibilities of sociologists, social scientists, and academics to speak with society, as a whole, as well as how to create more spaces for rigorous academic work that is of interest to wider publics.
UC Press: This week, the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association begins. Should people at ASA read this post and want to submit to Civic Sociology, what should they do?
UC Press: Thank you for your work on Civic Sociology!
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.