There were more than a few claims in the Times Higher Education group think article published at the beginning of this month that caught my attention. However, those I have to take issue with are concerns over what has been framed as 1) a methodological impasse within the discipline, and 2) the viability of the scholar-activist.
Activism is at the core of sociology. This is not a downfall of the discipline but what makes it unique, and moreover one of the most pragmatic disciplines in the social sciences. Sociology is not stymied by the academic pursuit for knowledge, but has always – and more so than ever now - sought to go further. It acutely sees the irony in witnessing, recording, interpreting, and communicating inequalities and injustices and standing idly by. Although social progress is difficult and slow, and as we have seen in recent years liable to turn back on itself, the turnout of those in my sociological community at protests, marches, campaigns and rallies is indicative of a firm and laudable commitment to justice by those within the discipline. Within academia itself, I have acutely noticed - this year especially with the recent strikes over pensions - that sociologists strive to create a community not only of colleagues but of friends and comrades. When academia seems riddled with crises – bullying, career progression, sexual harassment, racism, funding cuts and pay attacks – I have found endless solace and support in my community of academic sociologists.
Sociology is a discipline that seeks to understand how each of us – a product of the communities that form us, the groups that we belong to, the systems we are implicated in, the injustices we partake in and the injustices meted out against us – affect the way we see the world and how we approach the study of social reality. This ability to not only be reflexive but incorporate it within the meaning-making of our own research is not only carried out by theoreticians or qualitative researchers but by sociologists working with statistical data. Quantitative sociology is, in my opinion, interpretivist, critical, reflexive, and innovative. It understands its own limitations better than any other discipline which employs statistical methods.
I would go so far as to say sociologists do methods better than anyone else. Which other discipline can so artfully combine the micro and the macro, the observational and the experiential, often painstakingly matching and / or combining methods to the complexities of the social phenomena it seeks to capture? The methods at my disposal have allowed me to research phenomena at the heart of my own social world through numbers and words, through murmurs, glances and coughs, through pictures and drawings and graphs, through the vast political changes occurring above our heads and the history being shaped in front of us. Communicating the richness of this to students is possibly one of the most rewarding aspects of being a sociologist today, and why students do keep coming back year on year.
The sociology I know is rigorous, responsive, innovative, and critical. Moreover, it has been inclusive and kind to an eager but ultimately insecure female, minority ethnic academic. The struggle from here on out is to make sure this is the kind of sociology fostered going forward. This is not only for the sake of its students and its academics, but its role as a – continuing and important - force for necessary change.
Rima Saini recently completed her PhD in sociology at City, University of London. She has taught at City, the University of Kent, and the University of Southampton where she now lives and works as a researcher and visiting lecturer across sociology, social policy, demography and social statistics. She hold degrees from SOAS and UCL in international politics and political theory. Her expertise lies in mixed methods research into ethnic minority social and political identity. She is also a long-standing co-convenor of the British Sociological Association (BSA) Race and Ethnicity study group.