The Applied Liberal Arts

As I sat in my qualitative research methods class this Spring, I thought a lot about the intersection between various ways of gathering and creating knowledge in the world. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about these overlaps, either. What a journalist does when gathering information is not necessarily all that different from what a doctor does, in some ways, for instance. Asking questions, putting together narratives, et cetera. And when I’m teaching the research paper in my intro classes at LaGuardia Community College, I make some of the same connections. Adding up the collective knowledge of the world, shaking it around a little bit, adding your own insights… Voila, a new contribution to that collective knowledge.

But then this started to become a little bit more solid as Harty Mokros‘s qualitative class. We started discussing ethnography–the research tool of the anthropolgist. The researcher immerses herself in a culture, and makes her research breakthroughs by writing down her experiences. This isn’t really any different than some of the best journalism. You go to a place where news is happening. You experience. You describe. Maybe there are no footnotes, but it’s the same approach to information gathering.

When I was an undergraduate, I took a sociology course. It was my freshman year, and I was attracted to the idea of a course about deviance and social control. I did OK, but I didn’t really get it. The same thing happened–I forget if it was freshman or sophomore year–when I took cultural anthropology. For one thing, I didn’t understand the fundamental difference between sociology and anthro–aren’t they studying the same subject matter? Why are they different departments? At the time, I didn’t think about it enough to figure it out. But the difference isn’t in what sociologists and anthropologists study; it’s in how they study it. Anthropologists do what I outlined above. Sociologists rely more on surveys and statistics.

This all may sound simple to people who figured this out long ago, but it’s all apropos to finding a place in academia for journalism. Journalists can learn quite a bit from all of these research methods. The nature of journalism doesn’t require quite the same rigor that academe does, however. At the same time, academics can learn from journalists, too. There’s a grittiness that they bring, and a voice that allows journalists to translate complex ideas for a general audience.

I’ve come up with a nascent theory that journalism could function in the academy as a sort of applied liberal arts, in the same way that doctors practice applied chemistry and biology and anatomy and engineers practice applied physics and accountants practice applied mathematics, in a way. A liberal arts education provides the sort of broad knowledge base that journalists work with every day. There’s a natural connection there, and it’s one I intend to continue to pursue at least through graduate school, and quite probably beyond, thoughout my career.


  1. Still here. Glad to see that you are too.

  2. Ah… “Deviance and Social Control.” One of my favorite Penn classes. I have “Stigma” on my bookshelf still. I don’t use it all that often, but I know where it is…

  3. a little bit · ·

    You might want to reconsider your choice of words. Certainly, I agree with your sentiment, but in an era when the word liberal comes with so much baggage, and certain conservatives love to claim the media has a liberal bias, Applied Social Sciences might be a better appellation.

    The best journalists, it seems to me, like social scientists, take the available data, both normative and empirical, and use their discipline as the screen through which to filter it. That’s why Freakonomics was so ridiculously popular (although the Stev(ph)ens are guilty of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy throughout).

    Journalists have a tricky job however. A sociologist or an anthrologist or economist chooses a discipline that she believes results in the most satisfactory answers for herself, while a journalist does best when she can understand how other people arrive at their conclusions. That’s a tall order and calls for a special kind of intellect.

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