Committing Sociology: Defending the Public University

Sunday 24th May, 2015

Gurminder K Bhambra

In this special series for The Sociological Review website, innovative sociologists reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the discipline today. In the fifth essay, Gurminder K. Bhambra, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, places the attack upon the public university in historical context, arguing that the intellectual and political vitality of the social sciences is imperilled by their diminishing diversity.  

The public university needs to be defended for many reasons, including that of the facilitation of critical social thought for public purposes. The privatization of the academy and the removal of universities from the public sphere into the realm of the market has, I argue – building on the work of the Campaign for the Public University – seriously damaging consequences for the idea of democratic knowledge, generally, and for critical progressive work within the academy, more specifically.

It’s no accident that along with the move to mass higher education in the 1960s – that opened up opportunities for increasing numbers of people who had not traditionally gone to university – there was a simultaneous proliferation of critical positions and a concerted, although by no means coordinated, challenge to the dominant positions within academic debates. This was a period that saw the rise of subaltern studies, histories from below, of women’s studies, of queer theory and critical race theory.

The demographic diversity of the university faculty and students was central, not to the emergence and development of these ideas – they had been circulating for much longer in other spaces – but to the legitimation and validation of such ideas within wider publics. The university, as the commonly recognised site of knowledge production, has a key role to play in this wider legitimation of ideas and the shift from a public to a privatised university system impacts also on this.


The number of women entering higher education increased significantly in the post-war period. One of the first consequences of this, within the social sciences, was a growing realisation that women’s lives and experiences were rarely to be encountered within the knowledge emanating from the academy. The efforts of an earlier generation of feminist scholars, then, were oriented to rectifying such omissions. Over time, however, there was a concern that the very methods of social science were implicated in the production of such glaring omissions and questions were raised about whether the master’s tools, in the words of Audre Lorde, could be used to dismantle the master’s house.

Arguments about the missing feminist revolution in sociology, made by Stacey and Thorne, for example, put forward the idea that despite the extent of empirical research undertaken by women and on issues of gender, the concepts of sociology remained immune to transformation in the light of such research. The arguments made by Stein and Plummer, in terms of the missing queer revolution, follow a similar structure and logic. Ultimately, there is concern that the insights of a queer approach to sociology have not required sociology to take those on board in terms of reformulating its key concepts and paradigms.

So what is it about sociology that makes it so impervious to critique and why might taking the ‘missing postcolonial revolution’ into account be any different? Part of the answer, I suggest, lies in a consideration of the very structure of the social sciences. (For a longer answer, see my article on ‘Sociology and Postcolonialism: Another “Missing” Revolution?’)

As Habermas and others set out, the social sciences are divided, with politics and economics on one side – which are seen to address the individual and system aspects of state and market – and sociology on the other, which takes up the residue of problems not addressed by politics and economics – that is, issues of the inter-subjective and social aspects of the lifeworld. In taking up the social, however, and distinguishing that social from the system it also sets up the structure of system and social as an internal division and an over-arching structure that incorporates both.

When feminists and queer scholars make arguments about the lack of research on women and gay people, there is an acknowledgement that these people had existed historically and that there is a problem with the social science disciplines that neglected to take into account their experiences. This historical absence within social research is remedied, in part, by now taking women and gay people into account in understandings of the social.

To the extent that the system and the social are understood as separate, however, research on women and gay people remains bound to the realm of the social and rarely has an impact in transforming ideas of the system – or structure – which theorists often believe can continue to be understood without reference to the diverse particularities that constitute the social.

Insofar as race is constructed as simply another diverse particularity – as ethnic difference – it also suffers a similar fate. But there is one other division here which is significant and separates out race as a category different from that of gender or sexuality – this is the idea of the ‘modern’ and the way in which an understanding of modernity itself structures or disciplines what and how we know.

In relation to women and gay people – while there may not have been research on these groups previously, there is a sense that they had historically constituted the modern social – or, at least, had been present within the modern social – but were just missing from academic analysis of it. With race, however, the deeper divide of the modern separates out the historical existence of those perceived as non-modern – usually those who were colonised and not white – and makes them the domain of anthropology or history.

The division between anthropology and sociology – the non-modern and the modern – is structured on a racial division that it is harder to overcome through simple inclusion. To include the non-modern requires the reconstitution of the very idea of what we had understood the modern to be. It requires a reconfiguring of our understanding of the modern to understand it instead in terms of the ‘connected sociologies’ of the colonial modern. It is this double status, I suggest, that enables postcolonial critique to be more effective in addressing the highlighted inadequacies within standard sociological paradigms.


Much of the critical work highlighted in the preceding section came about as a consequence of the academy being opened up to diverse demographics, specifically to scholars from social locations not typical of those entering higher education. This occurred as a consequence of the moves to mass public higher education and the general processes of democratisation that accompanied this. John Holmwood has used the work of Dewey to argue for the public university to be seen as a repository of the common learning of communities and directed toward a deepening of democracy.

Changing demographics in the 1960s led to changing understandings of what constituted knowledge given that the communities who were now within the institutional forms of validating learning as knowledge had themselves changed. The current marketisation of the public university entails an attack on precisely this diversity within the institutional forms of knowledge production. By reducing the demographic diversity of those within the academy, any chance of meaningful social critique and resistance – and thus democratisation – is also made much more difficult.

It is in times such as ours that social critique is needed more than ever. In committing sociology, we also need to commit to the demographic diversity of our institutional spaces that enables us to work towards democracy.

Gurminder K. Bhambra is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her new book Connected Sociologies takes up the classical concerns of sociology and social theory and shows how they can be rethought through an engagement with postcolonial studies and decoloniality, two of the most distinctive critical approaches of the past decades.

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