Stating the Sociological: Hannah Jones

Image: Ravi Roshan

Tuesday 30th October, 2018

By Hannah Jones

I can’t speak for the state of sociology everywhere. What I can tell you is that many of the problems that embattle academic sociology in the UK are the same as for all academic disciplines, in the UK and elsewhere. Among these, the present neoliberal underpinning of universities (which older generations of academics bemoan, but are as implicated in as the politicians and managers who implemented it, and more so than those early career academics struggling to survive in it) can reduce all of us to anxious fixation on student numbers, grant income, the ‘right’ types of publication, and certain types of established prestige, while limiting the time for actual thinking; similar anxieties also dog our students. The dominance of and reliance on English-language work and translations into English narrow the horizons (while boosting the cachet) of Anglophone research and restrict and distort intellectual exchange worldwide. And pressure for relevance (translated through ‘impact’) can misfire into uninformed media appearances and click-bait twitter controversy, rather than thoughtful and timely intervention in areas where our specific areas of expertise *should* be being put to more public use.

There is plenty to be excited about in the current ‘state’ of sociology. I teach a Sociology Masters module called ‘Social Research for Social Change’. At the beginning of the module, I ask the students to write on a board what makes them angry in the social world. Then I ask them to think about write they think (academic) social research is on a second board. Then – how do they think the second set of things can help to address the first? Sometimes we get side-tracked – it turns out there are too many things to be angry about. Isn’t it paralysing? But then we look at sociological resources (few of which are necessarily from self-identified sociologists, but all of which are sociological in that they engage with understanding how power works in society, how the structural forces of society relate to and with the individual experiences of everyday life) from Paulo Freire to Audre Lorde to Rebecca Solnit – to think about how anger (as a feeling stemming from a critical understanding of social injustice) can be translated into action (constituted of sociological engagement through research, analysis and practice), and into hope.

And there is hope. Though @AcademicMale may not like it, sociology is out on the streets, intervening in political struggles over justice, and that’s where it should be. That might mean sociological thinking being used to inform social policy or movements for social change; it might mean professional sociologists engaging in online or ‘old media’ debates (hopefully drawing on expertise, rather than their knee-jerk opinions); and it might mean sociologists engaging in theatre and the arts to connect their critiques and research with audiences beyond the classroom or the academic journal. Sociology – now and ever – is far from perfect. But there’s certainly a lot more happening in sociology that transcends ‘employability’-speak and/or ‘political correctness’ slurs, and those of us making a living from sociology should be all about sharing that excitement with students, publics, and colleagues.

Hannah Jones writes, researches and teaches about racism, migration and belonging, and public sociology. She is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and she tweets at @uncomfy.

Here's more you may be interested in: