Out of the Tower and Into the Field: Fieldwork as Public Scholarship in the Face of Social Injustice

Thomas J Billard


I argue for a new model of public scholarship in the field of communication—one that defines public-ness not in terms of publicity but in terms of the public good. Synthesizing work on public scholarship in communication and sociology with participatory action research frameworks, I narrate my experiences of fieldwork in the U.S. transgender rights movement. In doing so, I demonstrate the reciprocal benefits of fieldwork for both scholars and the publics served by social justice organizations. I further discuss the depths of public engagement permitted and achieved via fieldwork relative to publicity-centered scholarship. Finally, I address the ideal role of public engagement as scholars: contributing specialized skills and knowledge toward the mitigation of social problems. Ultimately, I argue, if a scholar publicly engages in issues of social justice without orienting their public work toward alleviating injustice, then they are actively sustaining the systems of oppression they benefit from researching.


public scholarship, ethnographic fieldwork, participatory action research, social justice, transgender, National Center for Transgender Equality

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