Sociology is Dead! Long live Sociologies!

By Anne Kerr

Special Section on Future Sociologies

Sociology is often said to be having a bit of a crisis these days. Whatever we may think of the language of crisis, or the extent of the demise it portends, there is a definite sense amongst many UK sociologists of considerable dismay about the process, not to mention some of the results, of the Research Excellence Framework 2014, the narrowness of the ‘impact’ agenda and reductions to the Economic and Social Research Council’s budget in favour of more ‘challenge’ oriented interdisciplinary research agendas where the social sciences support scientific and technological developments. Sociologists have also been at the forefront of critical analyses of the neoliberal University, the accelerated academy and the marketization of Higher Education in the context of austerity. We have produced numerous blogs, comments, meetings and petitions opposing the casualization and deprofessionalisation of academic labour, the intensity and pressures of long working hours, metrics, audit, the transformation of students into consumers and the instrumentalisation of research at the expense of critical inquiry. Why, then, would anyone want to ‘commit Sociology’?

This was the question that prompted the School of Sociology & Social Policy at the University of Leeds to organise our Future Sociologies conference at The Tetley in Leeds earlier in July. We were lucky to attract a diverse, talented and energetic group of speakers and audience members from across the career spectrum to reflect on these challenges and, more importantly, to identify what we value and seek to nurture in sociologies from a diversity of perspectives and approaches, on the day and on-line in discussions about #futuresociologies on Twitter. These discussions spanned the question of how sociologists can influence and interpolate the changing landscape of H.E., the impact agenda and other exercises in measuring and valuing our work and its benefits to students, and other kinds of ‘users’ within and beyond government. We also spoke and thought about how to do sociology in conditions of scarcity, what kinds of critical intellectual traditions and practices we can develop in and through pedagogy, and how we can work together with marginalised and oppressed groups and develop a truly global sensibility to challenge myths and enable positive change.

From the not-so-heady vantage point of my current position as head of school, I was particularly struck by the importance contributors to these discussions placed on the vocation of the sociologist, as investigator, educator and campaigner. Although we often ‘measure’ our days and our work in terms of our contributions to ‘teaching’, ‘research’ and ‘impact’ these activities are intertwined in practice and in our ethos as they are all versions of the same thing: to reveal and to revel in the diversity of practices, perspectives and processes which make up social actors and the social world. Although I am enthused and inspired by thinking of sociologies in these ways, I am also wary of the implications of this kind of thinking for the work we do, especially the gendered and racial politics of how work is divided, celebrated and accounted for: the machismo of long working hours, the difficulty primary carers face when trying to ‘switch off’ work to attend to personal and family life and the vilification and marginalisation of critical voices in the social media age. I also worry that any ‘call to vocation’ on the part of anyone considered to be ‘in management’ (as I find myself being described, on occasion) would be interpreted as an unwelcome intensification of academic labour. And I can’t help wondering how colleagues would feel if the number of followers on social media became part of their appraisals for promotion, as a recent set of discussions on how to better value public engagement in academic career progression might imply.

This, for me, sums up the paradox and the promise of future sociologies. As we critique we also construct a future for our disciplines and our practices. We enact the very processes of incorporation and exclusions of power that we are so adept at revealing elsewhere. Our challenge is to try to practice our craft in such a way that we each of us are able to commit sociology in the classroom and the community, in the institution, the public and the private realm but that we take care around the politics and distribution of commitments: attending to how these very commitments accrue benefits for some at the same time as they create burdens for others. But more importantly still, we need to look beyond our own practices and politics to how commitments and value are enacted beyond the academy and to focus our attention on revealing the paradoxes, inequalities and power dynamics of future societies, not just future sociologies.

Anne Kerr is Professor of Sociology and Head of School in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. She tweets at @eannekerr.

Originally posted 21st September 2015

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