Special Section on Future Sociologies
By Les Back
Twenty years ago public sociology was something you did in your spare time. Even writing for newspapers or magazines was thought of as an extra-curricula and extra mural pursuit. That all changed as a result of the debate stimulated by Michael Burawoy’s influential Presidential address to the American Sociological Association address in 2004 that called for a public sociology. Burawoy’s spirited appeal to revive sociology’s public mission licensed a wide range of productive arguments and unruly activities. I have always held the view that intellectual life is nothing if it is not addressed to a wider public.
More recently, and significantly in the UK, the emergence of the ‘impact agenda’ in British universities has forced academic researchers to evidence our influence on society and ultimately to justify our worth. In austere times universities are required to show that they are worth their salt. Indeed, this was legislated by the Treasury as part of the spending review in order to secure continued investment in university research. It is embarrassing to remember that some of us – at least initially – thought that ‘impact’ promised the possibility of institutional recognition for public sociology. Might the emphasis on relevance and engagement create a ‘public agora’ for sociological ideas of the kind described by Helga Nowotny and her colleagues?
Another President, this time of the British Sociological Association, had a very different view. John Holmwood warned in 2011 that it was “naïve” to think that the turn to impact would lead to an enhanced public sociology. Rather, he suggested in contrast that UK research would likely be “diverted into a pathway to mediocrity”. Surely not, I felt when I first read this piece. John you are being overly pessimistic! How right he has been proved to be.
Academic research in the UK is evaluated and scored by periodic reviews of the research of every sociology department. This has taken different forms and the latest version is called the Research Excellence Framework. Sociologists are required to nominate four publication for review by a panel of senior academics within each field. Impact was institutionalized in the recent REF2014 and 20% of the scores were measured through ‘impact case studies.’ The impact case studies were required to narrate and evidence the detail of the impact that the underpinning research had on society and they either focused on individual staff members or clusters of academics. These impact case studies were scored by ‘practitioners’ working in applied areas that were added to the overall judgment of the REF panel. In case readers need to be reminded, HEFCE defined public value of impact along the following lines:
Impact includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:
• the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
• of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
• in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.
Also, the number of impact case studies required for each unit of assessment varied according to the number of staff submitted for the assessment. Small submissions of up to 15 members of staff required just two case studies, while large submission of over 35 members of staff required five cases studies.
It seems clear that impact is here to stay. At present it is likely to increase to 25% of the grade for each unit of assessment in the next REF2020. A whole infrastructure is emerging to assess the assessment, where consultants act as ‘Impact Tsars’ and offer advice and software designers are developing digital tools to trace and matriculate the public imprint of our research endeavors.
The shame of the Research Excellence Framework is it secrecy: all the data on the process of the decision-making was destroyed. There is no mechanism for appealing or questioning these judgments. While the list of panel members is public, the specific reviewers are anonymous and therefore individual department’s sociologists do not know who is judging them and whether or not they are qualified (see Derek Sayer’s analysis). The level of feedback is insubstantial. While the results have profound consequences for each unit of assessment in terms of their income and academic reputation.
In large part the ‘impact agenda’ has licensed an arrogant, self-crediting, boastful and narrow disciplinary version of sociology in public. This is impact through ‘big research stars’ that are scripted – probably by the editors of the impact case studies rather than themselves – as impact ‘super heroes’ advising cabinet ministers and giving evidence to parliamentary select committees. This version of public intervention is by definition narrowly concerned with evidencing its own claims. It is aligned with providing a kind of reformist “empirical intelligence” that nudges at the edges of policy and political influence. Reviewing the 96 REF2014 impact case for sociology, 80% of them can be categorised in this way.
That isn’t the whole story and 20% of those impact case studies entered showed radical ambition. What was inspiring in the best of the impact case studies is how they also point towards a different kind of model of public engagement by challenging campus sexism though collaboration with Students Unions or creating archives of political activism. In the most appealing and compelling cases, clusters of scholars worked together to try and shift the public agenda through evidence and critical enquiry that challenged conventional thinking be it around race and segregation or casual forms of class stigma and hatred. These examples offer an alternative way to think about how to hold to a public commitment within the current climate.
In 1967 Howard S Becker wrote an influential essay called ‘Whose Side Are We On?”. This essay is often understood simplistically as a sociological call to simply to align with the underdog. It is important to note that Becker’s argument is critical of sentimentality that also can be blinding while posing in colours of radicalism. Rather, Becker says it is not possible for a sociologists to stand outside the issue of value and values: “the question is not whether we should take sides, since we inevitably will, but rather whose side we are on”.
For all of our radical affections and promises, a close look at the public portrayals of sociology in REF2014 show the ‘impact agenda’ to be tinkering with minor reforms. In the final analysis, this agenda puts us on the side of the political elite, Ministers of State, Job Centre Managers, Immigration Officers and the apparatchiks of prevailing government policy. Bluntly, it puts us on the side of the powerful.
Is that version of sociology worth its salt? Is this a compromise too far for the discipline? Some will say, “well this is ‘just a neo-liberal game” and this “isn’t all of sociology.” They are right. Not every sociologist in Britain has to write an impact case study… Yet. They might also console themselves with the idea that this is just a language game: we need to play and not take it too seriously. I would suggest that these patterns amount to more than that. The ‘impact agenda’ is coming to constitute our self-understanding, guide our decisions around job appointments, and I would go further to suggest it limits the public ambition of our discourse. Remember that next time someone says: “I think that might make a really good impact case study.” This preoccupation is acting as a filter for our sociological attention.
It is a reminder to those of us who feel that sociology has or had radical potential that ‘the public’ is not necessarily populated by incipient transformative forces and potentials. Burawoy’s conception was limited by leftist assumptions regarding the radical potential of civil society. What we are seeing is something much closer to Antonio Gramsci’s characterization of ‘organic intellectuals’ who are tied to the interests of institutions and a narrow set of functions that are “organisational and connective”. Edward Said, commenting on Gramsci’s prescience, wrote that, as a result, “organic intellectuals are always on the move, on the make”. This is reminiscent of today’s “impact agenda” and the opportunistic way we have been steered to think about sociology in public, where the bottom line becomes “can I make this into a impact case study?” We are required – by our institutional commitments and responsibilities – to be on the move and on the make.
Today sociology’s radical ambition is being dwarfed by a conservative and timid version of the discipline. This is what we are seeing in the Research Excellence Framework, which itself produces an academic performance of self that is in keeping with its own definition of public value. There are other ways to think of public sociology that return us to Buroway’s intervention of more than a decade ago. His vision of sociology in public might be usefully supplemented with the educational ethos that is steeped in the tradition of extra-mural studies led by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall and out of which cultural studies emerged. This was a communal vision of higher learning or what the Worker’s Education Association called a collective highway.
A sociology with and for the public, is, I would argue, one that is humble, collective, dialogic, inventive, artful and trans-disciplinary. Here sociological ideas can offer a navigation device or a compass and a way of attending to what is before us but also to determine our direction of travel. That would be a future sociology worth its salt.
Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths. He writes The Academic Diary.
Originally published 23rd September 2015.