A Proposal for Public Sociology as Localized Intervention and Collective Enterprise: The Makings and Impact of Invisible in Austin

Abstract

What can local public sociology look like, and what does it accomplish? This essay tracks the origins, makings and impacts of the book Invisible in Austin to evaluate its model of public sociology: as a collective enterprise with a local aim. Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City, the culmination of a three-year collaborative qualitative research project between a professor and twelve graduate students, depicts social suffering as lived for 11 individuals in Austin, Texas—a booming, highly segregated city with one of the country’s highest levels of income inequality. In its design, production, and effects, it envisions public sociology in a two-fold sense—in its joint, horizontal making, and in its intent to intervene in the local public sphere to make visible the daily lived experience of social marginality for those whose labor allows Austin to survive and thrive as a hip, creative technopolis—house cleaners, office machine repairers, cab drivers, restaurant cooks and dish washers, exotic dancers, musicians, and roofers, among them. Reflecting on the origins of the book, its joint assembling, and its outcomes thus far, we take stock of the lessons learned. In so doing, we provide a rubric for evaluating the wide spectrum of possible impacts of a public sociological intervention: through direct and indirect audience engagements, on the project’s subjects, and on local public policy. This reflection concludes with three suggestions: to approach public sociology as collective enterprise, to take narrative seriously, and to seek wide exposure.

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Acknowledgements

We thank our co-authors Eric Borja, Jacinto Cuvi, Jessica Dunning-Lozano, Kristine Kilanski, Amias Maldonado, Pamela Neumann, Marcos Pérez, Jennifer Scott, Katherine Sobering, and Maggie Tate (fellow founding members of the Urban Ethnography Lab at the University of Texas at Austin), as well as our photographers Eva Hershaw and Julia Robinson, and the subjects of our book (whom we call Chip, Clarissa, Ella, Ethan, Inés, Keith, Kumar, Manuel, Raven, Santos, and Xiomara)—without whom the book (and this article) wouldn’t be possible. We are grateful to David Smilde and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions.

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Correspondence to Javier Auyero.

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Small portions of this essay appear in Metropolitiques, the Austin American-Statesman, and Invisible in Austin.

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Collins, C., Jensen, K. & Auyero, J. A Proposal for Public Sociology as Localized Intervention and Collective Enterprise: The Makings and Impact of Invisible in Austin . Qual Sociol 40, 191–214 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-017-9353-z

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Keywords

  • Public sociology
  • Social suffering
  • Collective qualitative research
  • Bourdieu