Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The "So What?"

When asked to describe the mentorship and advising I receive here at Vanderbilt the discussion of finding my "so what" is one of my go-to responses.  I vividly remember hearing this phrase for the first time from my mentor, Jennifer Lena, in my first semester of grad school.  I was in Jenn's office making a timid attempt to describe my research interests in the area of cultural production when she, in the direct, no frills manner I came to know well, asked, "So what if I don't care about [insert my topic here], why should I care about what you're saying?"  Over the years Jenn's words have come back to haunt me in a variety of forms: Why should I care? What's the sociological contribution of your study? If I have no interest in deafness what can you tell me about community, technology, disability, etc.?  What is theoretically interesting or innovative about your study?  What are the debates you are engaged with? And the list goes on and on.

The other day I found myself needing encouragement and motivation to tackle another round of these questions in an upcoming meeting so I  started asking peers in my department if they too were asked these questions, and if so, how did they respond. Being a sociologist, I began to notice patterns in their responses.  Immigration scholars, gender scholars, education scholars, social movement scholars, and health scholars weren't being asked these questions with the same frequency that I seemed to be encountering them.  In fact, the only students who seemed to be able to commiserate with me were students who studied culture in some form. So I began to wonder, is this an effect of the culture faculty members at Vanderbilt?  Is this an issue specific to the subfield of the sociology of culture?  In my research I am asked to extend to other subfields of sociology: to migration, social movements, race, ethnicity, etc.  But why doesn't someone ask a health scholar at Vanderbilt: "So if I didn't care about disparities in health outcomes why should I care about your project?" Or, "If I am not interested in immigration reform why does your work matter to me?" Or, "Why should sociologists outside your field care about this research?" Is it just evident that studies of health, immigration, gender, social movements, etc. are interesting in and of themselves in a way that culture is not?  Is this because the field of culture and theory are more intertwined than I'm admitting? (The sections do always have joint receptions at ASA.) Are faculty members who study culture at Vanderbilt more theoretically engaged than their peers? Are my fellow students being asked these same so what questions in different ways?  Should they be asked these so what questions?  I don't know, but if you have thoughts, please share!

Okay, enough "why me?", now back to figuring out "so what?"

UPDATE: After some discussion with a few readers and a second read of this post I've come to the conclusion that I need to specify the types of "so what" questions I encounter.  Because, as Mary Laske, a colleague and friend of mine appropriately noted: "Everyone wants to know what is new about your work or what we can learn from it--if there's nothing new, then it's not science, it's a lit review."

A common response to my dissertation is "So what can your research on culture and embodiment tell us about immigration [or health, social movements, etc.]?"  Its as if connecting two diverse subfields in sociology isn't enough.  It's like I'm being asked to connect my work to every section of ASA in order for it to be accepted as a valuable contribution to the field of sociology.  Do others outside of culture scholars encounter these types of "so what" question?

I don't find these types of so what questions discouraging (most of the time), but rather I'm just interested to know if this is a common response to all research?


  1. It is definitely not just you, or just you culture folks. My work on identity and identifications, which are typically studied at the micro-level, confronts this question all the time. But I think it is a really good question to have to grapple with. Why do these things matter? And why do they matter for everyone?

    I think most people who study the kind of go-to stratification topics (e.g., health, education, immigration) might not encounter this question as often because these issues are in-your-face macro-level social problems. We have legislation talking about health reform, education reform, immigration reform constantly. We know why they matter and why they matter now. I doubt, however, that they are never asked what their particular project means within their field of health, education, or immigration.

    I think I am finally approaching why my stuff on identity matters and my solution is actually linking it to a larger social problem (i.e., racism). Is it fair to do this? Well since we are sociologists who study patterns in the social world I think it is fair for us to have to have to articulate how our piece of the puzzle fits into the larger picture.

    PS: love the blog!!

    1. Thanks, Whit! Yeah I also grappled with the idea that this might be a micro/macro issue. I think your reasons for why more macro focused studies aren't asked these questions with the same frequency could be true.

      And as a side note, I think I am coming closer to identifying the larger social force/problem that I'm dealing with in my work. Spoiler alert: I think at a broad level my research addresses a question somewhere along the lines of: How does a community respond to threats against cultural reproduction when the threat comes from within the bodies of the community members? I think the answers to this question can speak to larger issues about cultural reproduction, technology and society, boundary work, the migration experience, and the intersection of biology/culture in fields like health. Still working. Stay tuned!

      I find these questions valuable for my development as a scholar, and beginning to think that perhaps my questions and/or my sample of peers were problematic. Maybe everyone faces these criticisms of their work?