Scholarship, and beyond … Sociology in the 21st century

By Graham Scambler

When commenting on the challenges confronting sociologists and their allies in this harsh, austere and topsy-turvy era of financial capitalism it is only too easy to overlook very real talent and accomplishment. So let me begin this brief offering by celebrating sociology’s young, committed, creative and often battered if stoical practitioners. If a number of we babyboomers remain active contributors the cohorts just and further behind us comprise many exciting talents.

BUT … Perhaps inevitably, and certainly significantly, the threats presently facing the discipline are prime foci for comment and analysis. The neoliberalisation of many a social institution, including our universities, has had at least two important effects. It has delivered: (a) pressure, insecurity and stress for sociologists inside and outside of universities, and (b) a generalized ‘taming’ of a – nevertheless extraordinary and rapidly accumulating – output. Both should be contested.

I will frame my remarks here in terms of a trio of typologies of sociology/sociologists/outputs. With due acknowledgement to Michael Burawoy for 1-4, here are the typologies: (1) professional sociology is associated with the scholar and produces cumulative theory; (2) policy sociology with the reformer and utilitarian theory; (3) critical sociology with the radical and meta-theory; (4) public sociology with the democrat and communicative theory; (5) foresight sociology with the visionary and speculative theory; and (6) action sociology with the activist and strategic theory (see blogs here).

Part of the pressure being exerted on sociologists is via the ‘constrained’ decisions they must make to maximize returns for their institutions, which is of course linked to personal tenure, security, promotion and income as well as quality of life. Academic freedom is too often merely a rhetorical device used by management. All this favours (1) and (2) above, but in attenuated form: research revenue is key, but research funding is increasingly commissioned and selective. Constrained academics often do constrained research. In other words, we are witnessing a taming of sociologists and sociology. While it would be counter-productive to overstate this process – great work is still being done from (1) to (4) – there is little doubt in my mind that fewer of sociology’s classical or bread-and-butter macro- and meso-queries are being posed (e.g. concerning enduring structural determinants of policy and practice).

What about (5) and (6), my additions to Burawoy’s quartet? Foresight sociology commends explorations of ‘alternative futures’. Sociologists of climate change have perhaps contributed most here, although exemplars can also be found in other areas, notably in job markets and housing. Action sociology refers to positive engagement in civil society and the public sphere beyond making the results of professional, policy, critical and foresight sociologies public. It involves, at a minimum, actively contesting attempts to ignore, sideline, undermine or ‘rubbish’ sociological research.

What kind of interrogations might (1) to (6) offer up? Well, consider for example the sociology of health inequalities:

  1. professional sociology: what are the principal social mechanisms that produce and reproduce health inequalities?
  2. policy sociology: how might we optimally address and ‘tackle’ health inequalities in the here-and-now?
  3. critical sociology: what are the enabling/constraining factors for a credible sociology of health inequalities?
  4. public sociology: how might sociology’s theories and findings be most effectively transmitted to civil society and the public sphere of the lifeworld?
  5. foresight sociology: how might we optimally devise or reform institutions and means to deliver health equality?
  6. action sociology: what do we do when (1) to (5) are subjected to ruthless attacks by those with vested interests in eradicating and erasing them?

In a recent blog I identified three subtypes of action sociology. The first is co-opted action sociology, represented by the ideologist. The ideologist enters any fray on the side of the prevailing and ruling ideologies of the day. In Habermas’ terminology, this is an example of ‘distorted communication’. S/he marks a perversion of the sociological project.

The second is status quo action sociology, represented by the bystander. S/he bypasses questions, phenomena and topics that challenge the status quo of the day. This is often entirely legitimate (e.g. ethnographic studies of café society). But innocence is not a defense once in civil society and the public sphere (e.g. there are exploitative markets in coffee production and retailing). We are in the realm of Habermas’ ‘systematically distorted communication’.

The third is oppositional action sociology, represented by the subversive. The subversives capture what I regard as an essential element of the sociological project. They insist that the findings of the other sociologies are not dismissed by vested interests. To be a subversive is to bear symbolic arms against interest-based ideologies.

In that blog I appended two comments. My general concept of action sociology is clearly premised on a distinction between ‘sociology-as-science’ and ‘ideology’. I have defended this elsewhere. Second, to engage with action sociology via activism is to become strategic, that is, to adopt a means-ends orientation. This involves a significant and for many an uncomfortably transition from our crucial ‘core’ of professional sociology and communicative theory to action sociology’s strategic theory: to be active in the public sphere is to intervene to make a difference. It is a transition with a long history that nonetheless remains under-theorized in my view.

Where does all this leave us? I venture two propositions. The first is that ‘we’, that is, the sociological community, need to cover bases (1) to (6), although there is plenty of room for a division of labour (I think I personally fall short on at least three of the six). Professional sociology remains for me the core of what we do: if we do not deliver on this we are in terminable trouble.

The second engages directly with the much-changed practice of academic sociology in financial capitalism, outside as well as inside universities. The principle that informed my own work-orientation from the mid-1970s onwards still applies: take out enough of whatever insurance is required to do what you must, need or want to do. Sociologists, most conspicuously those pursuing agendas through feminism, neo-colonialism, disability theory and so on, cannot submit to constraints that divert them from what matters most not only to them but to sociology as a whole. We cannot retreat to an ideologically corrupted, masculine, white, Occidental and ‘able-ist’ (plus hierarchical heterosexualist etc) sociology!

What does this mean in practice? And are there strategies and tactics? New resources are emerging in which I confess to having limited expertise. First, the sociological community must resist – Habermas again – its ‘colonisation’. Second, our best-placed professoriate must expose and oppose those of our line-managers who sell out to neo-liberal ideology, typically for personal recognition and reward (‘I hate aspects of my job, but someone has to do it’). Third, cohorts following babyboomers like me should hook into virtual as well as actual networks to cement solidarity. Fourth, there needs to be a concerted campaign to acknowledge 21st century modes of communication: a blog that reaches hundreds or even thousands of readers should trump and ‘out-score’ an unread peer-review article (is this not public engagement?).

Systems for appraising public sector workers in general, extending to our community, are being pushed, or more politely ‘nudged’, by neoliberal ideology. University management, from over-remunerated vice-chancellors through deans and down to heads of departments, are increasingly emperors without clothes. Fight back, or we are lost. Even in the prime of ‘babyboomerhood’ it was not comfortable to resist colonisation. Now it is exponentially more difficult. But a sociology that abandons the (reconstructed, neo-Enlightenment) project of modernity is in my view ‘lost’.

Graham Scambler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at UCL. He tweets at @GrahamScambler.

Originally published 3rd September 2016.

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