Sociology Podcasts: Thinking Allowed vs. The Annex Sociology

The first blog entry I wrote is about the increasing listenership of podcasts. Since then I have received many recommendations from friends, and those who read and commented on my post. Among the suggestions, a few stand out to be excellent entertainment, and intellectual channels for my commute. One of them is Imaginary Worlds, which is a podcast about science fictions. It is a delicious show with many bite-size science fiction audibles. Alternatively, I listen to New York standup comedy shows such as Sleepyhead. Another weird one that has to do with insect and the science of Entomophagy is the Ento. It seems that anything you want to listen to, there is a podcast for it. The choices are endless. One faces with the paradox of choice in one’s consumption of audible, which is at the end of the day a quintessential American consumption problem.

The phrase “have a listen” now becomes a part of my daily language, which is in and of itself an interesting development. Sometimes a friend recommends a new show; other times I just follow suggestions on the podcast-sphere.

A few weeks ago, I discovered a podcast which targets sociology nerds. What a great find! It is the Annex Sociology, a podcast solely dedicated to sociology. It is, however, not the first sociology podcast that I ever listened to. I have been a big fan of Thinking Allowed, hosted by Laurie Taylor, a British sociologist. The Annex Sociology, however, is different. It is co-hosted by three sociologists: Joseph Cohen (CUNY Queens College), Leslie Hinkson (Georgetown), and Gabriel Rossman (UCLA). That means it is made on the American soil, and dedicated to American sociology!

This blog post is about good bits and can-be-improved parts that the Annex Sociology has in comparison to its British counterpart. Overall, it is a great podcast for sociology graduate students. I do not recommend it to undergraduate students, or popular audience mainly because of the amount of inside jokes, and jargons that the hosts throw out.

Thinking Allowed

For starters, Thinking Allowed is a British show, a BBC Radio 4 series discussing social science. The earliest episode available online is dated back to November 2007. That means it has been in existence for at least 10 years, and bas been consistently hosted by the sociologist, Laurie Taylor, now a retired professor of sociology. Each episode lasts only 28 minutes. The number of minutes is very strict, and has been kept 28 minutes for the past decade. Within the limited amount of time, Laurie Taylor manages to be very compact, includes various debates, and invites a wide range of speakers in only one episode. Take for example one of my favorite episode: The Subway.  The main guest of the show is William Kornblum, whose new book is about the 7 train in New York. Kornblum basically uses the train as a social lab to study social interactions of different immigrant and ethnic groups. Laurie Taylor invited two other guests including Iain Sinclair, writer and film maker, and Melissa Butcher, a reader in social and cultural sociology. That is to say, in 30 minutes, he is able to entertain listeners with three experts from completely different fields on the topic of the subway as a social laboratory. Sometimes Taylor cut the guest speakers off  when they  try to make a long-winded argument. In other contexts, it might sound rude, but it is totally understandable in a limited air-time show. He uses the phrase “in the interest of time” almost every episode to suggest that the speaker should put their thoughts in a more succinct manner.

By the virtue of being aired from the UK, a lot of research on the UK soil is featured. It is important because sociologists tend to do research where they live. To paraphrase Les Back: sociologists are like social scientists like anthropologists, but we like to study a local bus station rather than a village in Southeast Asia. That means by listening to Thinking Allowed, I get a sense of what a good sociological research from the UK sounds like. At times Taylor would invite German, Italian, French and Russian researchers to share their works. Put differently, his podcast is European in nature. As the example above demonstrated, he also invites American scholars to speak in his show. The kind of transatlantic, transcontinental scholarly exchange in Laurie Taylor’s show is very impressive.

On the artistic and performative side, the show makes one feel that sociology is not a science but a true art form. Whenever an ethnographer is invited to speak, Laurie would skillfully inject an excerpt from the speaker’s newest book. A voice actor/actress would read something that an informant says about his/her social world, or what he/she thinks about certain phenomenon/practice. This form of spoken ethnography transports the listener immediately into that person’s social world, and helps the listener to be able to make sense of the informant’s worldview. This is qualitative sociology at its best: being performed.

All of the artistic, story-telling, and impactful that Thinking Allowed has to provide keeps me a loyal listener for the past 5 years. I discovered it when I was not even aware of what a typical sociologist does. I just listened to it for the sheer amount of interesting information, and knowledge that I learned from the show. The show has a popular appeal. Now let me turn to the younger American podcast, the Annex Sociology, and compares it with its British friend.

The Annex Sociology  

It is a weekly podcast. A new episode is uploaded every Monday. The hosts, Joseph Cohen, Leslie Hinkson, and Gabriel Rossman provide readers with the state of the art updates on what is going on in American Sociology. Each episode is a feast of discussion of theoretical and methodological innovations. Besides, the three hosts are really funny. They make me feel as if I was listening to The Simpson sometimes.

The three hosts, even though are based at different universities across the country have a few things in common. For one, they all got their PhD from Princeton University. For another, they are all quantitative researchers. Yet speakers come from a diverse methodological background including ethnography, interview, etc.

According to Leslie Hickson, “Annex” means something outside, beyond the main premises of a property, so they talk about things that are often not discussed in a classroom context for example. For a sociology enthusiast like me, the content of all episodes is great, especially when all hosts agree that “we should purge STATA out of sociology.” This statement was a brutal attack for my current training because I have not even learned much of STATA skill yet, and already feel like my skills are no longer needed. Why wasting my time acquiring something that will go extinct? It is similar my other debate: why I should get a driver’s license in the era of driverless cars.

In the first few episodes, I was lost most of the times because the hosts use vocabulary that is inherent to quantitative research to make their points cross. Currently focusing on honing my qualitative research skills, I pay very little attention to quantitative research language. In other words, even being trained as a sociologist, I still need some cultural translation to understand various points. Unlike its social science kin disciplines such as anthropology and economics, sociology suffers from methodological tribalism. It is both an advantage and a curse of the field. Within qualitative method, there are at least four different sub-methods: ethnography, interview, media/content analysis, and comparative historical analysis. Certainly the process of sub-tribalization is even more intense in quantitative research. In total, one has a lot to choose from, or one suffers again from “a paradox of choice.”

However, listening to these young and enthusiastic researchers/ professors, who are full of energy, and willing to put their words, opinions out there about the field is exciting. They create a very good space to invite young academics to share their research. That means sociologists are engaging more in public dissemination of knowledge. This is a great improvement.

Furthermore, they are all hilarious, and I could not stop laughing at their various jokes on popular culture. In one episode, Leslie Hickson talks about Taylor Swift and her brand, and how Taylor Swift has outgrown her brand, but she does not know how to make the adjustment. For a person who does not listen to American pop music, and follow tabloid news. Their tuning in to scandals gives me a secondary source to talk with my undergraduate students.

In comparison to Laurie’s Thinking allowed episodes in general the American counterparts are a lot longer generally around 70 minutes. That means it takes me maybe 1.5 days to finish an episode because my commute is in generally less than 30 minutes. When I pick up the episode again, I have already forgotten what was discussed the day before.

There are a lot of methodology discussions more than Laurie’s channel. This is what I see as a strength of American sociology in comparison to its European counterpart. Social scientists in this country constantly come up with methodological innovation. Sociologists borrow techniques from various fields such as biostatistics, computer science, physics to better measure and model social world. This borrowing is a double edge sword because it makes the podcast so much out of reach to the majority of lay people. Even at a graduate level, I still find a discussion of Python and object-oriented R language to be exoteric. Sometimes these discussions increase my professional anxiety. I keep asking myself whether I have been receiving the wrong kind of training, and obsolete training already. I am already becoming a dinosaur before I am even born a baby. What’s the matter with my education? I know it’s not the state-of-the-art kind of research education, but it seems that what I am studying now should have gone extinct long time ago. So instead of enlightening me in terms of providing me vocabulary to articulate some social problems, the podcast re-enforces the existing pressure in academia: there are very few jobs; it’s very competitive now; and one has to publish [peer-reviewed articles].

At the end of the day, the three well-meaning academics bring their professional stress, and spread it to their audience. Whether I should take this stress as something real or not, it is still a question. Whether I should convert my methodological inclination to quantitative or not, it depends on my research question.

One needs to acknowledge that they are doing needed work here by making information more transparent in the field. In comparison to the British one, they probably do not receive any governmental or institutional funding. That means they have been using their “free” time to create public knowledge. The fact that they do not receive funding for their project sadly highlights the neoliberal nature of higher education, and knowledge production in this country.

If they received funding, I am sure that they could shorten the episodes by writing very structured script before airing anything. The episodes would be less in conversational style, but more in structural form. They would be able to invite speakers from outside the US, etc. Being inclusive is a big thing here. Sociologists are very diverse in terms of their theoretical and methodological approach. I am looking forward to more interesting talks, and also more innovation from the Podcast. I hope that the learning curve is not steep, and that these three brilliant sociologists will soon figure out that their production of knowledge can be improved really fast.


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