Sociology as art as a powerful way to reveal the social

By Janna Klostermann (@jannaKlos)

In her reflections at the opening session of Undisciplining, Dr. Michaela Benson beautifully differentiated between sociology and the sociological. The conversation that followed raised questions about how to extend our work – engaging in public sociology outside of academe and honouring alternative and experimental modes of doing sociology.

I was excited to attend this conference to deepen my public work and connect with others making (or asking questions about!) juicy, provocative interventions. I was grateful to hear Dr. Benson and co. kicking off the event by thinking through these questions and the tensions around them.

I have been actively engaging in ‘sociology as art’ – writing memoirs and taking my sociological analytic to comedy clubs and storytelling festivals. I tell stories that cut and that challenge some of the social currents or conventions I have been learning about through my ethnographic research into the social organization of care in Ontario Canada.

While my public efforts are fueled by my research and work as an academic, very rarely do I present evidence on stage or in print. Educating and informing others about ‘how things work’ is important work, but I think there are other possibilities for public sociology.

I am learning through my through my engagement with the work of other artists, activists and academics (Sheila Cavanagh, Ann Cvetkovich, Naila Keleta-Mae, Claudia Rankine and George Smith come to mind) that engaging in ‘sociology as art’ can be a powerful way to…

Contribute to public discourse.

Collapse interpretation and evidence into stories or images that cut.

Communicate in visceral and ethical ways.

Make change.

Pack a punch.

I am also learning through my work as a storyteller and performer that engaging in ‘sociology as art’ can be a powerful way to …

Situate artists and audiences alike within the social relations of which they are part.

Generate new knowledges about ‘how things work’ or about social currents and conventions.

So, as a storyteller, I’m not out to educate per se, I do think public or performative interventions can be a useful sociological practice in other ways. I am learning to listen and learn from the collective sigh of a crowd, from the silence when a joke flops and from the ‘vulnerability burn’ that follows after the odd over-share. Seeing how stories land or settle in a room is a powerful experience.

Performing can be a powerful way to reveal the social.


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