Although sociology is by definition a study of society there are key areas that despite being of high public interest are often considered of low scholarly value. These ‘glossy topics’, as Ruth Penfold-Mounce shows in this guest post, have to fight hard to gain recognition as being worthy alongside highbrow theory or policy based research with measurable impact factor. Glossy topics it would seem often need validation from research funding in order to be taken seriously. Significantly studying glossy issues is incredibly popular amongst undergraduates and if we are to provide research-based teaching more support and recognition should go to those grappling with glossiness in a sometimes hostile scholarly environment.
Recently I had a sociology undergraduate dissertation supervisee ask me if I thought their topic was too ‘fun’ to get a high mark because it drew on films as a key source of data. Having reassured them that as long as there was substantial scholarship and an argument present within their work, nothing was too fun or frivolous to be tackled by sociology. However I was left considering the question of whether research could be too much of a glossy topic to be taken seriously by academics.
When I tell people that I’m a criminologist who researches in the area of celebrity and crime along with a good dollop of the macabre and death as well they go, ‘Wow. I wish I could do your job’ or ‘You actually get paid to do that?’ closely followed by ‘Do you work with the police like on CSI?’ This response suggests to me that they are somewhat dazzled by the glossiness of what I study and my job title. Celebrity and crime are buzz words that make people prick up their ears and listen. It does sound appealing to spend a chunk of time reading through tabloid and celebrity gossip sites on a regular basis and get paid for it. However to work in the field of glossy topics, of which celebrity is the exemplar, is to work in an area where you are constantly justifying the value of your work.
Glossy topics are issues that are ‘largely found to be of public interest but are perhaps not considered to be of public value’ and include celebrity but also film, television, media, gaming, music and popular culture amongst many others. Kim Allen and Heather Mendick discuss this through the positioning of RTV as frivolous compared to science TV. The significance of glossy topics is that they do matter despite being glossy and despite being apparently frivolous. The glossiness of certain issues should be used to gain greater understanding of sociological issues. Beverley Skeggs uses the glossy to explore social divisions and inequality whilst Imogen Tyler explores class through the phenomenon of chavs. They reflect key issues that are impacting on society and therefore as sociologists it is our duty to respond despite more traditional and conservative scholars being dismissive of such topics.
What is particularly interesting about glossy topics in the current higher education climate with its focus on new systems of measurement and metricization, research money cuts, and new fee structures, is the expansion of topics that are potentially becoming too glossy. No longer is it the obvious glossy issues such as celebrity but other topics are also becoming considered a luxury that cannot be afforded in austere time. David Beer suggests the possibility that some subjects and topics will be replaced by ‘safe topics’ meaning we will lose much of the vitality and variation central to social science and humanities. This is concerning because as topics become categorized as glossy they may well be disincentivized for researchers and lecturers leading to large parts of, or in an extreme case, all of the social sciences and humanities.
So in answer to the question of, is there value in researching the glossy, the frivolous and the insignificant? the resounding response is YES! In a time of austerity the importance of researching glossy topics continues despite continual challenges to teaching and research. However we must anticipate such challenges and position our work in explicit and accessible terms. My own response has been to set up a Glossy Topics Blog to discuss such issues and ideas and to create an archive for future research. What will yours be?
About the author
Ruth Penfold-Mounce is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of York, UK. She is a cultural criminologist who is interested in celebrity, crime, and popular culture whilst expanding into the arena of death, the macabre and dark tourism. Ruth has published on celebrity gossip, celebrity and criminality as well as criminal corpse tourism, glossy topics, and the HBO series The Wire.
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