The Challenges of Doing Public Social Science

I started this site as a means of getting my findings out to the public quickly so the work can contribute to the conversation about the Resistance and where it is going in America.  To that end, I post drafts of chapters as they are written, provide summaries of preliminary findings, and give an overview of the research process generally as the work develops.  Last week I experienced first hand just how challenging doing public sociology can be.

Like previous large-scale marches since the Inauguration, I collected data with a research team in Washington DC at the March for Our Lives.   The results from the data we collected from 256 individuals randomly sampled throughout the crowd yielded very interesting results.  The findings were different than expected (in terms of the ages of the people who turned out) and different from my findings from samples collected at previous marches in the Resistance (in terms of the motivations of the new people who participated)–see my previous post for a summary.  I presented some of these preliminary findings on Morning Joe on the following Monday (the 26th) and gave the highlights.  I was also asked to write up a piece for the Monkey Cage blog for the Washington Post.

These findings were then picked up by Fox, the National Review, and Breitbart and I started getting nasty emails and phone calls.   The pieces framed my work as exposing the bias in the media narrative that had focused exclusively on the teens who organized the event, calling it a “student movement.” On Friday, Vox ran a piece focusing more deeply on the findings that got so much attention initially.  Then, Steve Kornacki presented my preliminary findings on MSNBC and spoke a little about the implications of these preliminary numbers with a panel on his show.

Overall, the work is getting out in the public sphere as I intended but it is a huge challenge:  first, I am used to working on a much different timeline–usually, I spend months doing data analysis and writing up my findings before it is even submitted for peer review (let alone published); second, I continue to be surprised that most people in the media do not wanted to hear/discuss interpretations of my findings with me.  Instead, they extrapolate on the preliminary (and relatively simplistic descriptive) analyses themselves.  There is no question that doing public sociology is worth it.  I just hope to learn from this experience and do it better moving forward…