Sociology: Dark and Difficult Work, but Someone Has to Do It

By Morrison, Blake | The Independent (London, England), April 16, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Sociology: Dark and Difficult Work, but Someone Has to Do It

Morrison, Blake, The Independent (London, England)

"WE'RE not dead yet," says the sociologist at the bar, with his authenticating pint. "It's only a midlife crisis. We're not as sexy as we were in the Sixties. We're a bit greyer. We've had some catching up to do. But look round you: there's life in us yet."

I look round me, and he's right. There are 600 delegates at the 1995 British Sociological Association conference in Leicester, most of them, it seems, at the bar. The comedian Jeremy Hardy has just been entertaining them with jokes about themselves - their out-of-touchness, the tinny cars they drive, even (a cheek, given how they're whooping) their lack of humour.

But the state of the profession is no laughing matter. Once merely attacked, it's now, more woundingly, being marginalised. Despite its topical theme - cities, and the future of cities - there are no national newspapers (except this one) represented at the conference, whereas journalists flock to hear psychologists and even geographers. The media seem to have decided that, as an incisive piece in the Times Higher Education Supplement, by the BBC's urban affairs correspondent, David Walker, recently put it, today's sociologists "have nothing worth saying" about the issues of the age.

In the late-Sixties and early-Seventies, sociology had a very different image. As a relatively new subject associated with the new universities and with polytechnics, it promised, almost hubristically, to find answers to all our social problems. Its practitioners, most of them left-wing, were fted by the media. The work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Michael Young, Peter Wilmott and even Marshall McLuhan helped dignify the discipline, and opened up new lines of inquiry. Dons such as Laurie Taylor became household names. The weekly magazine New Society, founded in 1962, published some of the most incisive writing around.

What went wrong? Why is sociology no longer chic? Several of those I spoke to in Leicester blame Margaret Thatcher, whose declaration that "There is no such thing as society" implied that sociology, too, must be redundant. Some mention Keith Joseph and his onslaught on the Social Science Research Council, now the Social and Economic Research Council. Others say that the profession's failure to take root in the old universities, notably Oxford, kept it a poor cousin to PPE. Still others say the "image problem" began 20 years ago with Howard Kirk, Zapata-moustached hero of Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, charismatic, community-minded and a complete charlatan.

These days sociologists look distinctly un-Kirk-like. A random survey of delegates, conducted by a single researcher over an intensive 36-hour period, suggests that 85 per cent of male sociologists wear open collars, 37 per cent woolly jumpers, and 28 per cent carry over-the-shoulder canvas bags. Across both genders - and there are now many more female sociologists than there used to be - 72 per cent speak in regional accents, 95 per cent prefer beer to wine, 81 per cent exhibit Labour sympathies but have doubts about Tony Blair, 99 per cent use the word discourse, 37 per cent write learned articles with the word "space", as used by Henri Lefebvre, in the title (space that is variously contested, gendered and constructed), and 49 per cent, instead of taking notes while listening to conference papers, draw diagrams with loops, boxes and circles.

The image is dowdier than it used to be, but not as moribund as it is in the US, where several sociology departments have recently closed through lack of demand, as undergraduate numbers fell from 36,000 in 1973 to 14,000 in 1991. On display at the conference was a book called The Decomposition of Sociology. Its author, Irving Louis Horovitz, claims that different interest groups have hi-jacked and fragmented the profession, and that its core values have been lost.

Balkanisation and modularisation have also had an effect in Britain, with historical, founding-fathers sociology (Durkheim, Comte, Weber, etc) losing appeal, and the sociology of film, literature, gender, sport and leisure being annexed to Cultural Studies.

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