Are We Seeing the Closing of Sociology’s Mind?

Wednesday 17th December, 2014

Les Back

In this special series for The Sociological Review website, innovative sociologists reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the discipline today. In the second essay, Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths College, highlights the dangers posed to Sociology by the narrow criteria through which 'impact' is measured. He argues that we risk a closing of sociology's mind unless we resist this short-sighted instrumentalism and the broader audit culture of which it is a part.  

A few years ago I co-edited a book with Nirmal Puwar called Live Methods. In it I commented that a timid and conservative sociology had no future. Now it seems that the optimism of this view was premature. Under the influence of a variety of external and internal forces there is a narrowing of sociology’s vision and a limiting of who is qualified - both substantively and within institutional forms of validation - for a sociological vocation.

When the Coalition government came to power many sociologists were angered and galvanized into action. The dramatic increase in student fees and the waves of protest that followed seemed to awaken sociology’s public mission. The BSA hosted a blog called Sociology and the Cuts that fostered a tremendous sense of urgency and a desire to do something. In this austere moment some sociologists found a renewed political conscience and public purpose.

I think this atmosphere has permeated sociological writing with a need to make the case for why sociology matters. In tough times many argued for the importance of inventiveness, public conscience and to develop new forms for sociological writing to take. This is most alive in the on-line world, from the free digital journal Discover Society to the lively democratic discussions between readers, students and faculty on Twitter.

The renewed sense of a public mission for sociology – that was a response to the attack on the university accompanied by an embrace of digital culture - has become something of an irritant to some. It seems that a section of sociology’s senior citizenry finds all the talk of ‘liveness’, politics and digital gadgetry tiresome and profoundly irritating. Perhaps advocates like myself of such new opportunities have become analogous to the frustrations they feel as they try in exasperation to get a memory stick to work on their iPad. I would like to be proven wrong on this but my sense - and it is just speculative – is that there are colleagues around the country who yearn for a simpler time in which sociology knew what it was and also how it would engage with the world. 

To me, the ‘impact agenda’ is emblematic of how this externally imposed scheme comes to regulate the practice of sociologists. For those readers who haven’t already been habituated to what this means, ‘impact’ in crude terms is the demand by government - through the medium of the Higher Education Funding Council for England - that academics evidence the value of what they do and write through the ways it impacts upon the world. Within the Research Excellence Framework academic departments are required to submit ‘impact case studies,’ the number of case studies depending on the size of the department and the number of people submitted for assessment. Not every academic researcher has to be submitted within an ‘impact case study’ but ultimately every sociologist working in a university is being judged – to a greater or lesser degree – according to these criteria. 

The narrow terms in which our public ‘impact’ is measured means a limited version of ‘evidence based’ social policy is favoured at the expense of a broader understanding of sociology’s public mission. In simple terms it is easier to evidence a small claim. For example, a piece of policy-orientated work aiming to change the way patients are treated in hospital waiting rooms is relatively easy to evidence. The big problems of our time like the thicker lines of social division being drawn within the global human family are less amenable to change and more difficult to measure. The ambition to address the key problems of the 21st century are simply too much to take on.

Those institutions that play the neoliberal game tactically by submitting a highly selective group of their research stars will be rewarded. The ugly consequence is that members of staff in those institutions who are not selected are relegated to having a secondary importance. It undermines them and the work they feel is important and relegates it to a lower level on sociology’s vocational hierarchy. Sociologists who are committed to traditions of theoretical work or inventive or collaborative research craft will find it very hard to play this game successfully because the game isn’t designed for them. 

A tension exists between two conflicting ways in which sociology is responding to austere times. On the one hand, there is the opportunity to broaden the boundaries of sociology to make a wide range of ways of ‘telling society’ admissible as sociology. Ironically, one illustration of this is a collection by John Scott – the Chair of the REF Panel – whose book Fifty Key Sociologists includes a very wide range of social thinkers encompassing Judith Butler, Stuart Hall, Donna Haraway and Paul Gilroy. Here the tacit suggestion is that a broader and inclusive Republic of Sociological Letters is a stronger one. 

It might be pure mischief on my part but I’d like to read an attempt to narrate the extraordinary work of some of Scott’s contemporary theorists transposed into the language of an ‘Impact Case Study.” How would Simone de Beauvoir’s transformation of the way we understand sexual politics be evidenced empirically in direct policy outcomes or financial investments in gender equality? 

In the year of Stuart Hall’s death it is important to remember that he was the first Black president of the British Sociological Association. Between 1995 and 1997, he was President of the BSA and, after leaving the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham in 1981, was Professor of Sociology at the Open University until his retirement in 2002. With his characteristic humour and humility, he commented: “So when the Vice Chancellor of the Open University said, ‘But you’ve been in literature, you’ve been in cultural studies, are you willing to profess sociology?’ I said, ‘I’m willing to profess anything if you’ll only give me a job’.” Sociology was more than an intellectual home of convenience or necessity. 

At the Open University Stuart Hall made sociologically inspired educational television programmes on the nature of British culture for the distance learning courses offered to working people – particularly women – who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to access higher education. He was British culture’s interpreter to millions of viewers tuning into the Open University in the early hours of the morning or in the middle of the night. His prominence as a public intellectual is captured in John Akomfrah’s film The Stuart Hall Project, which shapes an account of his life from these television and radio appearances. At the Open University, Hall continued and transformed the strand in Cultural Studies that was grounded in the workers’ education movement. 

Under pressure from the audit culture and the narrowing processes of professionalization, Stuart Hall’s kind of sociological vision will be harder to sustain. There are indications that the wider shifts within the regulation of university life is narrowing the discipline and hardening its boundaries. The larger shift, I would argue, will lead to a lessening of intellectual diversity within the discipline.

Paul Gilroy’s departure from the LSE’s Anthony Giddens Chair of Social Theory for a future in English literature is perhaps an indication of the hardening of disciplinary boundaries. I asked him about his sense of the direction of sociology in Britain. He commented “because I was drummed out of writing about crime by the realists during the 80s I have always been sensitive to political changes in the institutional climate. Sociology seems once again to be in a crisis.”  

Gilroy continued: “The ever-tighter policing of disciplinary boundaries is not a sign of good intellectual health. The wholesale importation of narrow, US-oriented definitions of excellence, knowledge and methodological probity have also been damaging. Are sociologists still nurturing the curiosity of those they teach or are they pressuring them to write strictly to templates and formulae? All I can say is that a humanities environment has proved to be a more stimulating one for me. There is a great respect for ‘sociological’ thinking there too.” 

Personally, I have always been very grateful to sociology for providing a home for the problems and issues that I care about. I came to sociological ideas by an eccentric route without being inducted into the discipline through studying it formally. Perhaps, that is why I am committed to the idea of sociology with other crafts be it photography or computer science. I think Paul Gilroy is also referring to this broader sense and in a way it is what Stuart Hall’s example offers us too. 

Academic sociology faces both deep challenges and real openings. There are profound threats to the life of the mind, while at the same time there are unprecedented opportunities to do sociology differently. The corporatizing impulse has transformed the university and it is hard not to become possessed by the metrics of auditing and measuring intellectual value and worth. To me, this is nothing short of the closing of sociology’s mind. There are many people who are trying to defend a space and defend each other in order to avoid committing either institutional or intellectual suicide. The hard and regrettable truth - as I see it - is that this space is increasingly besieged. At the same time, there is an urgent need to keep trying to steer the discipline towards an alternative future in order not to betray its promise. 

Les Back has been teaching in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London since 1993. His main areas of academic interest are the sociology of racism, multiculture, popular culture, music and sound studies and city life. 

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