“On Publishing”: An Interview with Joanna Kempner

Coordinated by Danielle Giffort

Joanna Kempner

Joanna Kempner is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers University. She studies, speaks and teaches about the politics of medicine, science, the body, and inequality. She is the author of Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health, an award winning book that examines the gendered social values embedded in the way we talk about, understand, and make policies for people in pain. The SKAT Mentoring Committee asked Dr. Kempner to talk about her experiences publishing in STS and her advice for junior scholars navigating the publishing world. The discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity.

On the importance of identifying your audience

JK:  I always start by identifying the audience I want to reach. I know that when you are a junior scholar, it’s hard enough to get papers out and in print, but it’s helpful to think about who you want to reach: which subfield in sociology? Do you have something to say to the scientists you study? Can your research help people understand a policy debate, and if so, would it work as an op-ed or for a blog written for a popular website? Publishing is about picking your audience. That’s always the first question you should ask yourself.

On publishing STS work as a sociologist

JK:  I’m often unclear about when to publish my research in an STS journal and when to publish my work elsewhere. STS journal editors often bounce my work on biomedicine to medical sociology journals even when I think the research is squarely about knowledge production. I sometimes wonder whether this is because my work tends to be motivated by social problems, rather than by questions about theory—and that this social problems approach has historically been less interesting to STS scholars than it has been in other subfields of sociology. But I think that’s changing for at least two reasons. First, although understanding the social and political context in which science operates remains vital, scholars are increasingly concerned about the social problems raised by post-truth movements and publics’ decreased trust in science. Second, STS scholarship is now being done by an increasingly diverse group of scholars who are rightfully directing attention to questions about inequality in science, medicine and technology. Ultimately, I hope this will lead to the publication of STS research in a broader range of publications, which will, in turn, allow STS to become a more central area of sociology.

On public sociology & publishing in non-academic outlets

JK:  Not only are STS scholars becoming more engaged in social problems but the public is also increasingly attuned to the role that science, medicine and technology play in their lives. The public is savvier about science and technology than we give them credit for, and—especially now, given how are lives have changed as a result of COVID-19, public audiences are seeking clarity on these very issues. Now, more than ever, STS scholars ought to be engaging the public, helping people understand issues like how scientific evidence is created and interpreted, how surveillance operates, and how trust in expertise matters.

I’d also like to encourage sociologists to think about public sociology as something that can occur on a small, more targeted scale, than say, an op-ed published in the New York Times or Washington Post. Much of my impact as a scholar has come from working within biomedicine, by talking to doctors about how they can improve their care, and by talking to people in pain about how they can better understand their experiences. I’ve always believed that sociology is at its most powerful when it helps people see their personal issues as social problems. That’s why I started to write for Migraine.com, a website that features blog posts by various experts and advocates. The blog posts I write for Migraine.com don’t carry much status on my CV, but they do reach millions of readers who have migraine, and a broadly-circulated blog can reach more readers than many prestige outlets. There’s power in being able to explain to people, “I see you have experienced this thing, and what you’re feeling has a sociological name. We call it stigma. Here’s what you can do.” Just defining a term like stigma sometimes gives readers a reason to advocate for themselves. Public sociology is not just twitter or the New York Times. When publishing, think about under what circumstances public sociology matters.


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