Stating the Sociological: Robin Smith

Image: Ravi Roshan

Friday 9th November, 2018

By Robin Smith

The state of sociology: or imagining Sisyphus happy

Sociology, once again, finds itself in a hostile environment, with particular forms of Sociology experiencing this hostility more than others. Often the source of the hostility is internal. Sociology, we hear, is a broad church but the congregation remains divided. Externally, sociology continues to be measured against other disciplines that more readily and confidently claim the ground of truth, despite shaky evidence of their warrant to do so. Perhaps the external hostility against certain forms of sociology is the surest sign of the potential challenge to the established order the discipline still poses? At the same time, the very sociology offering a radical rethinking of society and its study is often kept at the margins of the discipline. And the ‘coming crises’ continue to come. From the outside, sociologists must appear to be engaged in a kind of Sisyphean endeavour, pushing a boulder up a hill of their own making in a disciplinary-defined purgatory.

Recent accounts depict sociology in a sorry state indeed – taught badly or not really taught at all, an impotent intellectual and political force, not present where it matters, not like it was in the old days. Yet, there are those who provide a more positive account. Dave Beer notes the ‘almost chronic sense of crisis’ but looks to how crises can be productive in his call for a revitalised, confident, sociology. Les Back, to name another carefully positive contemporary chronicler of disciplinary sociology, also remains hopeful. Les recommends, humbly yet profoundly, that for us to realise sociology’s potential we need to listen that little bit more and that little bit better to one another, both within and without academia.

Whilst there is ‘good work’ and ‘bad work’ in all walks of life, sociology, at times, becomes its own worst enemy in discipline specific ways. Sociology has steadfastly ignored the most serious of those internal methodological critiques – for example, that it relies upon common-sense renderings of the world, rather than analysing common-sense itself. We have also, in Michael Billig’s words, taught ourselves to write badly. And these failings are more severe in consequence for sociology than for other disciplines; people can far more readily disagree with a sociology that is it itself grounded in the same language and reasoning that they employ. I’ll bet many a sociologist has had a conversation in which they explain their work to a layperson only for the listener to say, “I don’t think it works like that”. Brian Cox doesn’t have that problem. In the ‘post-truth’ era we need to find other ways to communicate what is essential or challenging or groundbreaking about sociology, and this goes beyond simple notions of communicating in the right language. It’s about the training of the sociological imagination of an audience who may not want to hear the message; and that’s the real challenge.

Speaking of training, it seems the classroom is another arena of dissatisfaction. Both internal and external critics claim we are teaching the wrong stuff. The right-wing, most prominently in the US, are agitating against and attempting to police what is being taught; closer to home, the UK government made requests for details of ‘Brexit lecturers’. The spread of the derogatory phrase ‘grievance studies’ has been surprisingly wide. Recent discussions perhaps prompt a return to Becker’s question: whose side are you on?

There are other concerns with whether we are providing adequately trained ‘data consumers’ and ‘data technicians’ with the right transferable skills for the contemporary labour market. These are, no doubt, an important part of our responsibility as educators but they are outcomes not necessarily commensurate with teaching pitched at bolstering the sociological imagination of our students. Erving Goffman, in his 1983 ASA Presidential Address, spoke of a ‘trained incompetence’. We might well be concerned today with producing a ‘trained impotence’ in which narrow technical competency comes at the expense of a critical and political imagination. It is not much good being able to write code or breakdown a dataset if you cannot see the societal impact or contribution of doing so. It is the imagination, as Mills wrote, that distinguishes the social scientist from the mere technician.

If we are engaged in some kind of Sisyphean struggle, then we might heed the advice of Albert Camus and ask that the cynics imagine us happy. It is, after all, our struggle. When viewed from afar, through the lens of the past, or against ‘big picture’ utopian visions, our labours can indeed seem futile. Looking a little closer – and sociology itself does, still, need to closer at its own phenomena – we might find some comfort, even freedom, in the everyday struggle; not because we might reach some end point or singularly defined goal, or live up to externally defined demands, but rather because doing what we do, in itself and with others, continues to open up new questions and possibilities for understanding society.

Realising that potential may well require the reorientation and reimagining of how we do sociology collectively. Something of this was tangible at The Sociological Review Undisciplining conference. There was far less sense of struggling against each other, a competition of who could push their boulder furthest, fastest, and far more of a sense of a coming together across different boundaries and divides. A conversation. Such a conversation does not mean rejecting rigour or denying disciplinary identity, but realising that these things take on different forms in different endeavours. Indeed, identifying and fostering the sociological sensibility in all its venues is what really matters.

Robin teaches sociology at Cardiff University. He researches interaction in public spaces and, more recently, in the work of Mountain Rescue. He is Editor of Qualitative Research and a Board Member of The Sociological Review and Discourse, Context, Media. He tweets @Dr_Robin_Smith

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