It might be better not to rise to the bait. But when the playground is chanting ‘your mama smells’ - however silly the taunt, we have to say something.
We seem to have moved seamlessly from the aristocratic university of gentleman scholars remaking the manners and enclosed practices of their own kind to the neoliberal university where access has been extended but only through the worship of the market. In the process, it can be hard to think clearly about what universities could and should be for. Some bad-mouthing of Sociology (and various other arts/humanities/socal science endeavours) arises from this sense of mission-drift. When it is suggested that Sociology teaches nothing useful, the underlying fear is that none of us is quite sure what might be useful to learn.
At the same time, we live through seismic changes and challenges which demand better understanding and, despite its many shortcomings, the university remains a precious resource of collective thought and memory. Not because it slices up disciplinary territory so tidily but because flinging together thinkers, puzzlers and experimenters occasionally lets us see clearly, back to where we have been and forward to where we might go, and despite whatever short-term political folly is shaping higher education policy in the moment.
The point is, surely, not that Sociology can do it, has done it, is doing it, doesn’t smell at all how very dare you - but rather that there are things to be learned, we don’t altogether know the shape or boundaries of that learning, disciplines can help and hinder our understanding (simultaneously), sharing and mixing and melding together ideas and approaches has been our most fruitful tactic in the face of new challenges.
My modest ‘defence’ of Sociology and other seemingly out-dated scholarly endeavours arises from this mixedness. The neoliberal university is imploding, unable to sustain its twin goals of extending the market and cutting production costs. In this shape-shifting moment, Sociology alongside other variously ancient and new-fangled practices makes space for some important concerns. Among them:
- Grievance studies, another term of abuse to make our own. What the slur contains is the nudge beyond documenting systems of disprivilege and violence and on to modes of understanding that might illuminate our troubled relations to each other. The business of grief, wounding, claims and counter-claims and what might be useful knowledge in such attempted interchanges remains a topic that deserves greater understanding;
- Technologised living. Perhaps the core of taught programmes is slow to change (titles), but the remaking of humanness through technology has remade sociological inquiry. We grapple with a shifting understanding of where, how and what social relations might be in such a time - and, increasingly, with an expanding sense of who/what might be included in this thing, the social. These questions may disperse Sociology into other spaces and disciplinary names, or they may result in an expanded and differently hybridised Sociology;
- Globality, both the longue duree of global interdependency and the urgency of environmental catastrophe. Our species survival depends on a more fruitful navigation of our relations to each other, to resources, to others, and that is a question of social, not only technical, understandings. Perhaps panic might excise ‘Sociology’ from universities in crisis, but these sociological questions will haunt us nevertheless.
Gargi Bhattacharyya teaches sociology at the University of East London. She has written on racism, sexuality, austerity and racial capitalism