From the libidinous excesses of The History Man to Marxist meditations on skateboarding, sociology has long suffered as the satirical punchbag of modern academia.
While Malcolm Bradbury's 1975 hit novel, The History Man, offered Howard Kirk as the oversexed and ruthless epitome of a sociology lecturer, Margaret Thatcher's declaration that "there is no such thing as society" threatened to consign a powerhouse of Sixties radicalism to a forgotten discipline.
But today more than 650 leading sociologists will crowd into a conference centre in east London for the annual gathering of the British Sociological Association (BSA) to declare the subject in rude health.
Among the topics up for discussion over the next three days will be attitudes to IVF among British Asians, the impact of night working on nurses and "the trajectory of Taiwanese baseball".
After a decade in the doldrums when it was overtaken by "sexier" subjects such as psychology, the number of undergraduates taking sociology degrees is rising and now stands at 33,200 - a rise of a third since 1996. A-level entries have also risen by 15 per cent in the past three years to more than 27,000 - more than French, law or economics.
Together with a profusion of television programmes touching on sociological topics - from globalisation to ageing populations - the message is that the one-time bastion of bearded leftist professors in orange nylon shirts arguing over dialectical materialism is once more setting political and social agendas.
Sociology emerged as a scientific discipline in the mid-19th century as a belated child of the Enlightenment. The presumption then was that the principles of rational inquiry which had transformed understanding of the natural world could be applied to human societies. But the badge of academic respectability did not last.
Syd Jeffers, senior sociology lecturer at the University of East London and organiser of the BSA conference, said: "I think we suffered for a long time from the Maureen Lipman effect - we are simply an 'ology' to many people. Sociology is an infamously broad subject and we have never been stuffy about other areas encroaching on it. In fact, it is the meeting point for a multitude of disciplines. I think there is a recognition of the relevance of sociology to a lot of the issues that we face as a society. How do we deal with changing demographics? What is the right response to globalisation? Sociology is responsible for informing things such as Tony Blair's "respect" agenda.
"It has also become a more hard-nosed discipline. The American preference for number-crunching sociology, pinpointing trends, has become a bigger part of the subject."
Nowhere is this more obvious than the emergence of the lucrative world of "commercial soci-ology" with websites such as upmystreet.com, which specialises in demographic data.
Data gathered and analysed by sociologists working in the private sector is now used in multiple areas, from supermarkets deciding what to stock to match the profile of its customers in a particular area to corporations deciding where best to target their …