State of Sociology: Des Fitzgerald

Image: Ravi Roshan

Tuesday 6th November, 2018

By Des Fitzgerald

In his contribution to Times Higher Education’s predictably weird set of contributions on ‘the state of sociology,’ Laurie Taylor recounts how, in 1965, he was offered his first lectureship in the discipline having only completed his (funded) MA degree – and in fact with no BA in sociology, let alone a PhD. These were, of course, expansive times: an enormous growth in student numbers from the emergence of the plate glass universities and the Robbins report was matched to a certain kind of 1960 ‘radicalism’ that sociology was thought to embody – and the discipline, says Taylor, simply ‘caught the spirit of the times.’ Student numbers grew to the point where other departments were increasingly jealous of the new discipline’s popularity – while faculty members were free to spend their time debating ‘the validity of different versions of Marxism.’

It’s not Laurie Taylor’s fault of course - but I wonder what someone currently on the sociology job market in the UK is intended to make of such reminiscence. I wonder, in particular, what a sociologist who has completed her PhD maybe a few years ago now, has since published several highly-regarded articles, organised a conference and brought in some research funding – and yet who is still carrying a weight of student debt, has seen her pay go down year on year, and is perhaps even now contemplating a move hundreds of miles from home and family for a 9-month teaching post (because who needs to eat in the summer?) – what, precisely, is this colleague meant to make of such reflections and their relationship to ‘the state of sociology’ today?

Laurie Taylor is, as they say, so very close to The Point– but he then veers into over-familiar tales of student occupations, and strolls with philosophers along the (artificial) lake. What might we have learned if instead he had more to say about what is glaringly on the surface of his account, and yet missing from his analysis – viz. the radical changes that have taken place in the political economy and administration of the university since the 1960s and, as a direct consequence, the devastation of the conditions and prospects of the people in those universities (with the academic precariat continuing to bear the worst of these conditions). And all of it, of course, taking place entirely under the noses of the same self-styled 1960s radicals, busily debating Marxism in their ‘senior common room.’

‘What would it mean,’ asked Rosalind Gill in a potent account of the economic and affective cruelties of the academic workplace, ‘to turn our lens upon our own labour processes, organisational governance and conditions of production?’. It is naïve, perhaps, to imagine that the Senior Men of Sociology would ever have great interest in such topics – and yet it still is so depressing, and so exhausting, to see such figures, in reflections on the state of the discipline today, largely ignore these concerns in favour of those sadly predictable topoi of professorial lamentation, i.e. the preponderance of ‘identity politics’ and ‘social activism.’ It is also unfortunate to see less senior figures arguing that the role of ‘deconstruction’ and the presence of ‘abstract and esoteric debates’ are at the root of sociology’s current problems. Is it the shared argument that the travails of the discipline might be traced to its being a bit too critical, a bit too theoretical? Would it be a good idea, as Robert Dingwall asks, if we would ‘learn to appreciate the benefits of markets’ – to give up on the ‘street theatre’ of anticapitalism, as Steve Fuller has it?

Such everyday conservative standpoints are, of course, unremarkable in the history of sociology; nor should it surprise anyone to find this precise characterisation of sociology in the pages of that great producer of ‘data’ and university league tables, Times Higher Education; nor still should we be surprised to find such a striking absence of diversity of opinion (no one thinks sociology is actually doing alright? no one thinks the discipline’s problem is that it isn’t revolutionary enough?) amid a panel that does not seem to reflect the diversity of the discipline, or of its practitioners, or its contemporary trends.

In some of my own work, I have begun to understand texts like these through the lens of reproduction and am moved to recall, as Sarah Franklin reminds us, that the reproduction of scholarly communities is always the reproduction of scholarly hierarchy too. It is always also the work of reproducing what ideas, what politics, what subjects, what bodies, are going to matter within the imagined future of some intellectual assemblage. What melancholy labour this is though. And what an especially melancholy labour it is to enact the progressive momentum of the 1960s only as a failure to understand the most generative forms of political thought and action in sociology today – thought that does indeed insist that standpoints of race, class and gender still matter; that insists that working conditions matter; that insists that critical thinking and activism matters; that insists that the politics of scholarly community matter; and so on, and on, and on. Laurie Taylor closes the piece with the well-worn advice of his lake-side philosopher friend: ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ What can we possibly say to such counsel? Don’t worry. You didn’t.

Des Fitzgerald is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Cardiff University. His research explores psychological cultures, interdisciplinary experiments and urban space. He is an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker 2018. He tweets at @Des_Fitzgerald.

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