Punk Sociology, by David Beer

Les Gofton on the application of the punk ethos to studying sociology

May 1, 2014

Another day another dollar and I’m going to Hebburn Tech to struggle with F&Wet 3 (Fabrication and Welding Technology), otherwise known as the lair of Torquemada and his crew disguised as apprentice welders. Two of them have decided that they are “punks” and have formed a group called the Fauves, although they didn’t know much about painting when we were talking about it last week. As a hippy part-timer I’m still trying to be their friend. Big mistake.

To make it worse, I’ve got a pad over my left eye after a rumble with a thorn bush. The room erupts into snorts and guffaws as I enter. “Fried Egg!!!” the biggest Fauve announces triumphantly, to the delight of the assembly. My day is complete.

Fast-forward 20 years. It’s 1996, and my two children have a band, although punk is now known as indie, grunge or DIY. I’m the roadie at this point, driving them to the Brixton Academy and their biggest gig to date – supporting the legendary Ramones on their final tour. Given my history, I enter carrying an amp with trepidation – only to find the hall occupied by accountants and middle managers little younger than my baby boomer self, dressed in slightly too small motorcycle jackets and Sta-Prests, clutching cans of lager or soft drinks. I’ve got an access-all-areas pass, so I go backstage – but the headliners have closed their area off, and there is no smoking, because of Joey Ramone’s asthma. Their rider is anyone’s guess.

As you may surmise, my personal history has jaundiced my view of punk more than somewhat. David Beer’s eulogy to the spirit of punk, and his commendable entreaty to his fellow sociologists to imbibe of its energy, inventiveness and iconoclasm, is a pleasant journey through some sensible and for the most part laudatory imprecations. He revisits two of my heroes from student days. Howard Becker has never really gone out of fashion – class acts rarely do – and C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination is still on the reading list, I would guess, for every newbie sociologist.

Much of what is recommended here is unexceptionable. Crossing boundaries, using varieties of “foreign” cultural and social resources and analytical strategies, refusing to accept the dominant orthodoxies and avoiding slavish adherence to methodological shibboleths and theoretical dogma…well, of course, and we should all brush our teeth three times a day. The heritage of punk – nowadays focusing on the DIY/communitarian ideas that inform contemporary social movements such as Occupy and feminist/LGBT activism – is emphasised here, although much can be traced back to the ideas and practices of the punks’ bête noire, the hippy, and beyond. Beer’s abhorrence of sociology mired in arcane concepts and unnecessarily abstruse terminology and methodology is familiar, and he quotes Zygmunt Bauman to that effect.

Breaking down the private languages of sociological specialisms is a hardy perennial… I well remember one seminar in which ethnomethodologists, Blumian analysts and radical cultural theorists confronted an aged visiting professor with their critiques. With a twinkle, he produced an ancient dog-eared and indexed copy of their biggest target, Talcott Parsons’ The Social System. Ah yes, he murmured, that is right here…

Cycling to work in the new century, I’m passed by a Cosworth doing about 60. “FRIEEEDDDD EEEEEEGG!!!!” wafts back to me as it disappears along the Felling bypass…Punk rules, OK?

Punk Sociology

By David Beer
Palgrave Macmillan, 90pp, £45.00
ISBN 9781137371201
Published 6 January 2014

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