What Happened and What’s Happening: Update November 2019

By Bev Skeggs

I can’t believe it was over four years ago I wrote the last update, and when we held our first annual lecture. A few weeks ago we held our fifth, a wonderful session from Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith.

There are many things happening at the The Sociological Review Foundation, which you will hopefully know about, and may have been engaged in: the conference, the seminar series, the new monographs, the writing workshops, conference funding and kick-start grants, the Fellowships, our bookstalls and presence at international conferences, the website and social media accounts, and of course the journal itself.

To be able to offer all these activities we do a huge amount of background infrastructural work, which is carried out by a small team of dedicated people.

In 2015, when I last wrote, I was supported on the journal by two editors: Professors Sarah Green and Mike Michael. Together we wrote the manifesto (aided by ex-co-editor Rolland Munro) and tried to develop a suite of activities to provide a space for sociology beyond the journal, and to champion early career researchers. With Sarah – an anthropologist – and Mike – an STS expert – I tried to answer the demands we had placed on ourselves to be more interdisciplinary and international. These challenges remain.

In 2016, we three stepped aside for new journal editors (we have expanded from two, to three, now to six) in order to expediate the flow of articles, but also to address different interdisciplinary spaces – eg geography, law, urban issues, anthropology, and criminology – and to increase our international scope.

During this time we established a Board of Trustees to oversee our charitable work at The Sociological Review Foundation. The Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that acquires its funds from any profits made by the journal. All monies received from the journal are ploughed back into the Foundation, which is how we fund all the activities we provide, such as free events, bursaries, digital activities, the Sociological Review Fellowship, and infrastructural support. Part of the role of the foundation is to regulate and hold the organisation to account against its objectives. The Trustees underwent training by the Charity Commission and took on specific roles. We – including me; I moved to the trustees, as Chief Exec – all have “senior” experience of running departments, and so have an organisational sensibility. There are many dull, regulatory institutional processes to which the Foundation adheres: risk assessments, leases, licences, all finance arrangements, legal issues, employment contracts. We have also employed people to provide the infrastructure to support all the activities in which we are engaged.

Most paid team members started working for us on a self-employed basis: the pioneering setup of our charity meant that we had to develop all work processes from scratch. We do not have a finance department, a legal department or an HR department, and so have had to craft policies as we develop. As soon as the different roles and responsibilities were firmly established, we went through a long and expensive legal process in late 2017 and early 2018 to ensure all our employees are given proper conditions. Today, everyone who regularly works more than one day per week has an employment contract with a guaranteed minimum number of hours and the possibility to claim for any overtime worked. We offer contractual company sick pay to all our employees and pay salaries that are equivalent to comparable academic roles. I tell all this because people often assume we are a university – with all the support that universities have. We don’t. The Foundation has one part-time administrative manager and me (on a voluntary basis). Our SRF Trustees are appointed to oversee our operations. It is the Foundation that is responsible for all paid employees. The journal is run by editors (with Michaela Benson as managing editor) and is an independent organisation that publishes the journal through Sage. So, unlike most other sociology organisations of our size, we do not have membership fees, a long term institutionally-established administrative structure, or even offices. But we do have a talented and committed group of people who support and deliver our activity, many of them working from home in virtual and so somewhat behind-the-scenes, fractional roles. They are the ones holding up the structure that enables everything to happen. We have developed with incredible energy and enthusiasm, from the following people: 

We have a superb Administrative Manager who has been with us from the establishment of the Foundation. Attila Szanto manages all the different functions. He works for the organisation on a fractional, usually virtual, basis (by his choice).  As well as having a PhD in Sociology, Attila is also a professional acupuncturist. He is amazing. Without his efficiency nothing could happen. He has steered us through all the legal and financial hurdles in making our structures right from the start of the Foundation.

Marcus Gilroy Ware and Mark Carrigan expanded our social media profile into a stunning offer at a rate of acceleration which was remarkable. Sadly, they have both moved on but their virtual imprint will remain, and we will be forever grateful to them. Dan Silver picked up the Digital Engagement Fellow role from Mark, and did a great job while he was here; he left to take up a post-doctoral post in Social Policy at the University of Birmingham.  Simon Yuill picked up from Marcus and was the genius who spent years, literally, designing the bespoke submission system for the journal, one that protects rather than tracks and sells your data (as per mainstream publishing systems). Simon, as an incredibly careful man committed to open-access, accessibility and user-ease, listened to all the editors’ demands and tried to design a system that worked for all, which meant he dealt with a huge number of contradictory requests, and making everyone happy in the end.

The same applies to Jenny Thatcher, our events manager, who has developed systems for and handled all our events. Her running of the Undisciplining conference was an example of her superb work, carried out with incredible expertise and care. Jenny resigned her position a few weeks ago, and will move onto pastures new from December 31st 2019. She will be sadly missed.

Hilja Aunela worked as our fantastic editorial manager for the journal during her time as a PhD student in Helsinki; she was superseded by the fabulous Chantelle Lewis, who also dealt perfectly with the horror that can occur in a system in re-design; Chantelle has gone on to pastures new, and the role has in turn been occupied by the wonderful, unflappable Kaoru Takahashi. All of these people work/ed far beyond their job descriptions. Because our offer (of events, activities, grants) expands all the time we are constantly trying to keep up with a rapidly-developing context. We realise that the people in post are exceptional, they bring a passion and commitment that means they pursue unanticipated avenues, developing more efficient processes, expanding connections, and seeing new possibilities. This means we are in a constant state of dynamic development.

As those responsible for regulation and accountability, we have to keep reviewing roles and responsibilities. This brings me to our recent proposals to institutionalise many of the activities that have expanded beyond our control. We have new posts, responsibilities and communication strategies. We did have a five-year plan, which we exceeded, and are now developing another; but we are always over-extending such things, building on new knowledge and new enthusiasm.

We’ve recently expanded our team with new colleagues, who have already made me full of admiration. We have a newly-constituted Digital Team, who provide review and strategy around all of our expanding online content. Paul Jones, who initially joined as a General Editor providing maternity cover for Emma Jackson, will now head up this significant new team, acting as Digital Editor.  Working with Paul – job sharing the role of Digital Engagement Fellow – are two very talented people, Sarah K Perry and Laura Harris.

Sarah is an AHRC-funded PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University, who uses an intersectional feminist lens to interrogate depictions of sex in literary fiction and to explore the embodied process of writing about sex and sexual violence. Laura is based at the University of Liverpool, and alongside taking care of our social media accounts, is completing a PhD in collaboration with Bluecoat, Liverpool’s Centre for the Contemporary Arts. Her research straddles sociology and contemporary art, and she draws on artists moving image to make sociological films. In addition, we have Charlotte Bates doing an exemplary job taking care of the book reviews and Ashleigh Watson pulling together our exciting section on Sociological Fiction. The whole team are extremely ably supported by Digital Content Officer Zoe Walshe, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths researching children and families’ experiences of housing precarity in London, whose attention to detail and superb planning skills underpin our digital endeavours.    

On the publishing side of things – so back to The Sociological Review journal – we also welcome new editorial board members. The sharp sociological minds that we have been able to assemble will help us to remain vital, and to continually support new developments.

Having been a sociologist for so long I now realise we live in a condition of constant crisis, reeling from one change to another, as government changes rules such as REF, impact, tuition fees, library licencing, publishing (eg gold access). We are forced to respond to these whilst keeping the journal and Foundation running. We set up the kickstart grants to provide support for ECRs including writing retreats (to offer what we felt was missing for young sociologists in a time of disinvestment in the social sciences). At the moment, with the journal editors, we are about to re-tender for publishers. We did this three years ago and it was a huge process, requiring analysis of all our data, and now takes place in a phenomenally insecure publishing as open access is likely to restructure the journal industry and library licencing again. It is our relationship with publishers that guarantees us financial security to support all our activities so this is an important time for us.

In 2013 our Editorial Board made a unanimous vote to become open access but then realised we would very quickly run out of money to fund any of our activities if we did. We support the idea of open access and have since been looking for financial models that work over the long term, work with the REF criteria enabling scholars to get jobs, and allow us to be sustainable.

As a not-for-profit organisation, we have a fiscal duty to spend down our investment but in five years we will need a new source of funds. We are considering the best way to do this: Membership fees? Paid events? More T-shirts? These are serious challenges, and ones we need to address ethically.

We still feel we need to work more on one of our charitable “objectives”: to make sociological knowledge more relevant to how we live. We want to take our public engagement a stage further.  

We are now in the process of redesigning our organisation to cope with all the expanding activities, consulting and developing “business plans” about what and how to fund.

I hope this has given you a sense of what is involved and how much we believe in our project. We need to be an agile, politically alert organisation that can quickly respond to the changes that constantly hit social science. We are still firmly committed to the Manifesto that we wrote in 2014 but now want to extend our sociological spirit into public spaces to have real impact, not just supporting and sustaining the social sciences, but attempting to influence agendas for a better world in the future. Goodness we need it. Here’s hoping!

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