Twitter and the Public Sociologist: Why You Should Tweet and Where to Begin

Eve L. Ewing

Postdoctoral Scholar
University of Chicago School of Social Service

In his widely-cited 2004 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, Michael Buroway calls for the defense, use, and analysis of public sociology: a sociology that takes as its audience individuals and groups beyond the academy. Buroway notes what he sees as a dis4nc4on between traditional and organic forms of public sociology:

“[In] what I call traditional public sociology we can locate sociologists who write in the opinion pages of our national newspapers where they comment on matters of public importance…. With traditional public sociology the publics being addressed are generally invisible in that they cannot be seen, thin in that they do not generate much internal interaction…. There is however, another type of public sociology— organic public sociology in which the sociologist works in close connection with a visible, thick, ac4ve, local and oNen counter-public…. Between the organic public sociologist and a public is a dialogue, a process of mutual education”.

As Buroway acknowledges in his speech, and as Aldon Morris discusses in greater detail in The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, Du Bois’s stature as the progenitor of the sociological field is
inextricable from his practice of public sociology. For instance, in the pages of The Crisis, Du Bois introduced, explained, analyzed, and critiqued contemporary social science, and expounded on his own theories—all for popular
as well as academic audiences. Arguably, however, the comparatively unidirectional nature of the magazine as a medium and the constraints of the era limited the degree to which Du Bois could prac4ce an organic public sociology of the magnitude possible today. In our moment, the speed and accessibility of communications media enables us to engage with publics in new ways: from Facebook to blogs to podcasts, sociologists committed to conversations with broader audiences are increasingly able to reach them without relying on the mediation or grace of forces like cable television or op-ed pages. And yet, one of the most accessible, democra4zing, and effective tools for public sociology remains unused by many who could add much to its conversations. I’m speaking, of course, of Twitter.

If you sigh at the mere mention of Twitter, or remark that you “can’t get into it,” or “tried it, but didn’t stick with it,” or simply lost your password and never looked back, you’re not alone. The platform has faced widely-reported challenges to growing its user base; unlike Facebook, it has not transitioned into a mundane aspect of daily life. Rather, it remains lauded and celebrated among a core dedicated user base, while being viewed as confusing or purposeless by potential new users. But for scholars in general and sociologists in particular, it can be a powerful pla\orm for engaging with an interested and responsive public. In what follows, I share perspectives on why Twitter can be a rewarding enterprise, and some tips for where to begin, based on my 9 years of using the platform.

Twitter and “Visible, Thick, Active, and Local” Communities

  • Unlike Facebook, where bonds are formed based primarily on real-life interactions (e.g. classmates, colleagues, relatives, friends, and acquaintances), Twitter bonds tend to be formed based on shared interests or topics of conversation. Put differently, people on Facebook will add you as a friend because you met at a dinner party, while people on Twitter will follow you because they find the content you post interesting or agreeable. This can lead to much more honed, specific, and in-depth Conversations.
  • Twitter conversations are real-time, rather than algorithmic. What does this mean? Whereas your Facebook feed is created based on a series of algorithms predicting which content the platform thinks you want to see (based on your past user behavior), your Twitter timeline shows you tweets directly from the people you follow, in chronological order. This means that topics or ideas that may be more interesting to a niche audience—but might be missed or suppressed on Facebook—can thrive on Twitter.
  • Unlike a blog post, media appearance, or o p – e d p i e c e , Twitter allows instantaneous engagement with others regardless of their social position. All tweets are created equal, allowing politicians, journalists, students, professors, and people of all ages and backgrounds to communicate on a level playing field. Additionally, black internet users are disproportionately represented on Twitter (see).
    Where to Begin? But what do you tweet about? If you are used to spending your day conversing mostly with your colleagues, it can be easy to forget that aspects of your daily life as a scholar would be interesting and informative to a general
  • Books and articles. The title of a book you’re reading and a quick summary of why it’s interesting can be a great tweet. You might also highlight or underline a portion of the text and tweet a picture of it, or share a statistic or fact that you found interesting. You can cite with the author’s last name, of course, but what’s even better is to tag them (if they are on Twitter themselves) or include an Amazon link, which allows others to quickly learn more about the book. The same principle applies to articles. Since many users outside of academia may not have journal access, tweeting out a picture of an abstract or an excerpt can be helpful, and also allows followers to see the nuance of an author’s original idea.
  • Lectures and conferences. Consider sharing quotations, key ideas, or provocative questions from lectures and conference presentations you attend. If the conference has a hashtag, use it in your tweet, and check it periodically to see what other conference attendees are sharing. This can help you make connections with other people at the conference, and make the ideas presented accessible to those who are not able to attend. Graphs and tables (with attribution) from conference and lecture presentations can be especially powerful—they allow the data to tell the story directly, and allow other Twitter users to see what lies beneath popular media headlines that often distort or misrepresent researcher findings.
  • Course materials. When I finished designing the syllabus for a course I was teaching on African-American youth and educational inequality, I made the PDF available via a public link and shared it on Twitter. It was shared and re-shared endlessly by people who are interested in the topic and want to learn more, but wanted suggested readings and a place to begin. I received messages and emails from people who told me they were seeking the readings out for themselves and following along with the course as it progressed. If publicly-available links or Google Books exist for assigned texts, these can also be powerful to share.
  • Current events. If you have knowledge or perspective that can provide useful insight on a policy debate, an issue in popular culture, or something that is getting media attention, share it. This is especially
    powerful if you can share findings from your own research, or empirical evidence that most people might not be aware of but would find informative in developing their opinions on an issue.

Since Twitter’s rise in popularity, many scholars have created accounts only to use them sporadically and conservatively—to promote their own books or to occasionally retweet news items without commentary. While this type of use can have some utility from a marketing perspective, it would be hard to classify it as a robust public
sociology. While every individual should develop their own set of guidelines regarding what kind of content to include on their Twitter feed, venturing beyond strictly self-promotional tweets and into conversations with wide audiences can be as rewarding as it is challenging. This requires multidirectional engagement—wherein you pose questions and topics of conversation not only as an avowed “expert,” but as a true interlocutor hoping to learn as well as teach. The exercise of discussing your scholarship with people beyond the academy, with the forced constraint of brevity and concision required in 140 characters, can only make you a sharper and more accountable scholar.


These 4ps were also shared in a workshop co-led by myself and Clint Smith at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color Conference in March 2016.

Eve L. Ewing is a qualitative sociologist whose work explores racism and inequality, particularly in the context of urban school districts. She is currently a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Chicago, where she will join the faculty of the School of Social Service Administration in 2018.