Group think: scholars assess the state of sociology

Sociology, once a discipline seen as the embodiment of social progress, is now subject to frequent scepticism over its methodology, politics and career relevance. Here, five sociologists offer their assessment of the challenges facing the subject and what the future holds

October 4, 2018
High angle view of a crowded square
Source: Getty

Sociology was once the height of academic fashion. It seemed to embody the spirit of social progress that characterised the 1960s and 1970s and, in the UK, was particularly associated with the “plate-glass” universities established during that optimistic era.

Yet in the 1980s, student numbers plummeted as faith in progress withered and sociology found itself in the cross hairs of right-wing activists, who accused it of being in the vanguard of a politically correct orthodoxy on university campuses that excluded more conservative viewpoints and justified cuts to public funding.

Meanwhile, sociology itself became less of a community, fragmenting into a number of different subdisciplines that embrace very different approaches. The rise of big data raises particularly stark questions about the relative merits of quantitative versus qualitative approaches.

Student numbers recovered in the 1990s and have largely held firm since. But in an era of renewed right-wing attacks, in which students are becoming ever more focused on their professional futures in a highly competitive graduate jobs market, many in the discipline will be viewing the future nervously.

Here, five sociologists, from a range of countries and career levels, give their views on the biggest challenges sociology currently faces – and what it should do to address them.

Man in front of riot police during rally in solidarity with Charlottesville, US

 

Sociology in the UK ought to be in a healthy state given the vast range of skills it promises to confer on its graduates. Ideally, sociology graduates are well equipped to handle all contemporary forms of information. While they are comfortable with quantitative data, they also know how to deal with information from observing people, from asking them questions and from critically reading the documents those people produce about themselves.

Other disciplines may specialise in each of these skills but sociology is not a monoculture. Its graduates ought to know that fancy modelling based on flaky data is garbage out from garbage in, and that what people say and do can rarely be taken at face value since all actions are interactions: performances designed to establish the moral and rational character of their producer to their intended audience.

Sociology involves analysing how social interactions add up to social systems – understanding the worlds of top dogs, underdogs and lapdogs. Understanding how our society comes to work in the way that it does also encourages thought about whether there are better ways of organising it. Could we use our resources – human and natural – more efficiently and effectively? Could we treat each other more humanely and civilly?

Sociology fills the space between innovation and society, or between organisations and their publics. It can improve major institutions by examining the experiences of employees and users as services or products are developed, delivered and redesigned. People with this combination of skills, understanding and judgement are highly employable. Within the academy alone, they are demanded by fields like healthcare, computer science, engineering and environmental studies.

However, it is difficult to see how these qualities are developed by some UK sociology courses. The discipline risks degenerating into grievance studies, a place for any minority group that feels disadvantaged to complain about its place in society. Courses focus on social activism rather than societal understanding. Experiential learning, for example, is limited to placements with a coterie of approved public or third sector organisations.

Other courses have responded to the employability agenda with a narrow scientism. Credulous quantophrenia is touted as the way forward. But cloning economics is not a profitable strategy. The comparative advantage for sociology lies precisely in its graduates’ scepticism about numbers. How were the data created in the first place? What does this mean for the conclusions drawn from them?

Key topics have migrated to other locations. Quasi-sociologies have been invented elsewhere. Work, organisations and professions, for example, used to be core curriculum. Now they mostly belong to business schools. Studies of science and technology are being rebranded as “innovation studies” and going the same way. Ergonomics has been reinvented as “human factors” in engineering. “User experience” has become central to computer science and design studies. Both have incorporated large chunks of sociology in the process.

These movements do not exclude the moral vision of sociology: user experience studies, for example, have promoted inclusive understandings of product and service design. They do, however, represent a quite different vision of engagement with society.

There will always be a niche market for grievance studies. Is there a bigger space for a discipline that seeks to diminish the imperfections of the world rather than to overturn them? Should sociologists learn to appreciate the benefits of markets – could they be better managed rather than abolished? Can sociology be more respectful of the sentiments that give rise to cultural conservatism?

Maybe it is time for a hard look at where sociology stands on the road to Utopia. What would make it more than the glum study of a world where glasses are always half empty?

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist and part-time professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. His most recent work is a translation of Howard S. Becker: Sociology and Music in the Chicago School, by Jean Peneff.


 Graph - The big picture: trends in total UK sociology qualifiers

 


Where are the sociologists? As profound social change rages around us – from the digital revolution to climate change – sociology is conspicuously absent from public debate and policy. Sociologists have become spectators rather than active shapers of the present and future.

There was a moment that summed it up for me this year. Australia’s popular ABC TV show Q&A featured an episode on class and inequality. These issues are the bread and butter of sociology but there was not one sociologist on the panel (or even on the Twitter backchannel).

This is an endemic problem. Sociological voices are not being heard in public debate about issues of profound social, cultural and economic importance. Sociologists are at risk of being irrelevant, content with abstract and esoteric debates that have little impact beyond the academy and little connection to the everyday lives with which they purport to concern themselves.

A dramatic example of this silence is the relative failure of sociologists to account for the digital and artificial intelligence (AI) revolution. From intimate life and education to geopolitical struggles, AI and the internet are part of the biggest and most transformative changes in the world today. Yet sociology has had relatively little to say about how AI and digital innovations – from driverless cars to sexbots – are transforming democracy, work, community and personal life.

Children playing a computer game

 

There has been very good work done on the internet and social media, but, as former London School of Economics director Anthony Giddens argues, the digital revolution is something more: the “integration of the internet, supercomputers and robotics”. While technology scholars will warn of “technological determinism”, there is a pressing need for sociologists to attend to the fears and worries that many have about how technology is changing society – from screen-addicted children and growing loneliness to the mass “confessing” of private information to big tech companies.

This failure to attend to the big issues – and the digital revolution is just one example – relates to the decline of the sociological generalist. I worry that we’re losing the big sociological storytellers. This is why someone like Zygmunt Bauman was so mesmerising: whatever his shortcomings, the professor of sociology at the University of Leeds was always provocative and engaging in his wide-scale analysis of what makes contemporary societies tick, whether it be in the realm of work, love, consumerism or politics. This versatility made for great sociology but also a sociology that translated and had impact beyond the academy.

Modern sociologists are rewarded by recruiters, line managers and grant panels for carving out expertise in increasingly microscopic areas of research, but the resulting tendency to play it safe within our own niche areas, rather than following our noses to track the big transformative issues, risks creating a fragmented discipline that can’t see the forest for the trees.

I still tell my first-year sociology students that sociology will change their lives. I still tell them that it may even make them better people, by enabling them to see to how human circumstances and decisions are the result not simply of individual choice but of complex social forces. But unless modern sociologists do more to make their voices heard – and to be worthy of being heard – then shows like Q&A will continue to ignore us.

Nicholas Hookway is lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania.


 Graphs - Popular choice: sociology holds its interest

 


Does sociology have a future as a discipline? The radical decline in the number of departments in the quarter-century I have lived in the UK does not inspire confidence.

Moreover, the problem does not relate to any general perceived malaise of social science. The issue is much more about what the “added value” of sociology is, within a set of disciplines that range over the entire human condition in multiple overlapping ways, separated sometimes only by the jargon they employ.

We can take stock by asking why sociology was created in the first place. The people we call “classical sociologists” – the Holy Trinity of Marx, Weber and Durkheim, plus a few others – were uniformly impressed by humans’ collective ability to learn from the past in order to break decisively with it. They generally questioned inheritance in all its forms as a source of legitimacy, which, in turn, made sociology a politically progressive “science of modernity”.

I believe that this original framing is sound, but needs upgrading. Unfortunately, today’s version of the discipline is its own worst enemy. Instead of showing how far we have progressed and suggesting how we might go still further, sociology focuses on showing that whatever little progress we have made is illusory or doomed to failure. Indeed, the first step in this defeatist argument is to cast doubt on the validity if not the very existence of the “we” that I am referring to.

Man in suit walking past homeless man

 

A sign of the times is that sociologists now like to fashion themselves as anthropologists, who take modernity to be a myth that helps to stabilise power relations between “the West and the Rest”. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ 1962 book The Savage Mind was the classic ratification of the notion that anthropology was distinguished from sociology by its focus on “pre-modern” societies, which were by definition static. Yet by Bruno Latour’s 1991 book We Have Never Been Modern, the declining fortunes of Marxism – which until the fall of the Berlin Wall had been the most ambitious self-described “progressive” movement in history – had led sociologists to lose faith in the whole notion of progress.

However, the classical sociologists – including Marx – had agreed that the main engine of modernisation was capitalism, not socialism. Socialism was just one possible – and in Marx’s case, desirable – future for capitalism. In fact, none of the historical forms of socialism may survive our century, although capitalism is likely to reign supreme. But instead of applying what remains of value in the failed socialist experiments to the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” on which capitalism appears to be embarking, the concept of progress is scorned, if not demonised by sociologists. “Anti-capitalist resistance” is the closest that sociology comes to projecting a coherent political horizon, and it is largely confined to esoteric “critiques”, occasionally punctuated by some street theatre.

Moreover, the rise of identity politics as the main expression of sociology’s “post-socialist” mentality may make matters worse by stressing ideas of restorative or reparative justice. Encouraging people to claim entitlement by identifying with their socially recognised ancestors sounds like the sort of inheritance-based conception of social order that sociology was designed to oppose. The twist now is that such claims are meant to come from the historically disadvantaged instead of the advantaged. The post-apartheid South African settlement inspires this line of thought, but its extension to American descendants of African slaves has so far been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, real people from historically disadvantaged groups continue to try to free themselves from their roots – not only through class mobility but also by gender and even race transformation. That they are unable to change their identity with equal measures of success is the sort of social inequality on which sociologists should focus if they want to remain true to the original spirit of the discipline. Indeed, the future-facing spirit of these identity shapeshifters should provide inspiration to members of a discipline that, as things stand, has largely lost its faith.

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick. His latest book is Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Anthem).


 Graph - Changing picture: trends in US sociology degrees awarded

 


The rise of the ideological right to the highest positions of power has put academia on the defensive. Social science is most frequently in the cross hairs for budget cuts, with proponents accusing its practitioners of leftwing bias. And sociologists often get tagged as the worst offenders, pushing a politically correct, leftist agenda that is intolerant to other views.

Are today’s sociologists more liberal than the typical voter? Probably, but that isn’t new. Sociology has long been a discipline that produces research with an eye towards social reform. So attempting to argue that sociology is politically neutral would probably be a waste of energy.

But I worry about a different more internal threat to sociology. The subject’s tendency to employ deconstruction as a method of critical inquiry has turned inward, and we are tearing each other apart rather than working together across differences to produce better research.

The divisiveness is observable at conferences, in peer reviews, on blogs and even in faculty meetings. What does it say that in the spaces where we come together as colleagues we feel compelled to expose each other’s supposed failings – sometimes with glee? Women and people of colour face the worst forms of intradisciplinary policing (the tenure- and promotion-denying kind). Admittedly, vitriol also comes from outsiders, but criticism from within is more common. Simply put, we won’t have to worry about the far-right bringing us down because we’ll do it to ourselves.

Exacerbated by funding cuts and the neoliberalisation of the university, we are becoming a loose affiliation of individual entrepreneurs in competition for finite resources. Sociology isn’t the only place where the squeeze can be felt. Attacks have turned personal in other disciplines. But sociology, better than any other discipline, should know the value of community and social support in hard times. We should see the proverbial writing on the wall and arm ourselves with the tools to fight back, implementing lessons learned from thousands of research studies that show how communities persevere amid structural neglect or decline. Instead, we learn early in our training to pull down our peers so they don’t climb higher than us. Just like crabs in a barrel.

Fight breaks out during football match

 

Three years out of graduate school, I can still feel the wounds. It was boot camp without the brotherhood that builds cadets into armies. With no formal mechanisms to scaffold a spirit of construction, students learn that the easiest way to earn a reputation is to deconstruct each other. A member of my cohort once took me out for drinks under the guise of celebrating my birthday, only to spend an hour detailing everything that I had said during our first-year courses that he deemed stupid. Rather than being geared towards helping a peer new to the discipline to think more sociologically, his critique turned personal.

Encounters like this crippled me. I expected harsh critiques from faculty members, but I did not expect the people I saw as equals working toward a common goal to throw themselves into feeding an intellectual anxiety built on fear and intimidation.

After my second year, I stopped talking as much in class. I limited my attendance at workshops and conferences. I retreated from the department unless I had meetings or teaching duties. The worst thing I did for my career was to leave unfinished papers collecting digital dust for fear of being criticised for them. Luckily, I eventually found a partner, Marie, in the same position, and we made a pact to write every day, read each other’s (very different) work, and offer only constructive criticism.

Marie liked to quote Madeleine Albright’s comment that there should be a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. Her explicitly feminist support gave me courage to send in-progress work to my adviser, who did his part by reading (multiple) drafts with an eye towards building me up as a scholar. But there was still much negative noise I had to filter out to move forward.

French sociologist Bruno Latour describes critique as “a potent euphoric drug” because when you deliver a critique “you are always right!” Sociologists, myself included, get hooked on this drug early in their careers. But I can’t help but wonder how much further along in my development as a sociologist I would be if graduate school fostered a culture of construction, harnessing the insights of sociology to teach peers to do more for each other, not less – to deliver critiques that multiply rather than subtract, to borrow Latour’s words.

As an assistant professor, I have started to experiment with ways to use critique to create a more constructive environment. When we discuss a reading in class, I tell my students that they have to say something useful they learned from the research before they can launch into criticisms. Like a game of building blocks, you can build bigger and higher if you don’t knock down the other blocks as you go.

Pamela Prickett is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam.


 Graph - The female persuasion: sociology now dominated by women

 


The spirit of the times: when everyone wanted an ‘ology’

“Dear Mr Taylor, I have much pleasure in writing on behalf of the University to offer you the post of assistant lecturer in Sociology from 1st October 1965. The salary offered is £1,050 pa with [pension] and children’s allowance.”

That congratulatory letter from the registrar of the University of York was hardly a testament to my expertise in sociology. My first degree had been in psychology and only a hugely generous grant from the Nuffield Foundation – a grant based on the foundation’s recognition of the shortage of qualified social scientists – allowed me to complete a one-year MA at the University of Leicester in the subject that I was now required to teach to undergraduates.

There were plenty waiting to be taught. As the UK’s plate-glass universities came on stream in the early 1960s – East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick and York – there was no subject more in demand. Sociology caught the spirit of the times.

As I quickly learned in my stuttering first seminars, many of these students regarded sociology as in tune with the growing radicalism of the age: the civil rights campaign in the US, the mounting opposition to the war in Vietnam, the emergence of feminism as an influential ideology, the quest for new fashions and lifestyles.

This was a conflation that exercised other academics. I recall a meeting at which a science professor claimed that the leading role played by undergraduate sociologists in a recent occupation of the administration block was further proof that the subject was nothing other than an academic ruse to smuggle radical socialism on to the campus.

Maureen Lipman holding five telephones

 

Many of the newly recruited sociology teachers shared their students’ radical predilections. Senior common room arguments were far less likely to be about the relative sociological insights of Weber and Durkheim and Simmel than the validity of different versions of Marxism. Only later in the 1960s, when occupations and demonstrations almost assumed a place on the curriculum at these plate-glass universities, did some of these academics feel the need to stress that their interest in red-blooded revolution was strictly theoretical.

Other disciplines began to resent the ever-increasing number of sociology undergraduates, and the manner in which this allowed sociology departments to enjoy more funds and regular increases in staff. Sociology was also a subject that threatened other modes of study because of its lack of clear-cut disciplinary boundaries: there was a sociology of sport and leisure, sociology of art and music, of deviance and control, of religion and belief.

This meant that, at several plate-glass universities, disciplines such as politics and economics and social history, which had originally entered into teaching alliances with sociology, gradually sought to disentangle themselves and offer their own single-subject degrees. At York, the original five-term introduction to social science was gradually whittled down to four terms, and then to three, and finally disappeared altogether.

There was also a pedagogic backlash. Why was sociology so very popular? It was an easy subject, a Mickey Mouse subject. Jokes about the toilet roll dispenser labelled “Sociology degrees. Please take one” began to circulate, eventually gaining a public audience in Maureen Lipman’s famous BT commercial in the late 1980s (pictured above) in which she praised her grandson, who failed all his school exams except for pottery and sociology, for at least obtaining an “ology”.

I remember the moment when my own arrogance about sociology’s place in the curriculum was gently undermined. At a senior university board meeting I’d offered a rather tendentious defence of the claim by undergraduate sociology students that the campus should free itself from government funding and become an institution in intellectual opposition to the status quo. After the meeting, a professor of philosophy caught up with me as I strolled alongside York’s artificial lake. “Dr Taylor,” said the philosopher, grasping me by the elbow. “A small word of warning. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Laurie Taylor is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of York. He presents BBC Radio 4’s weekly social science programme, Thinking Allowed.

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Reader's comments (12)

Ironic lack of diversity in your line up of sociologists
It's only ironic if you didn't read it.
Amazing! This write up may seem to be true. Because we have low turnout of students' in the course "Sociology"
Here is a potential reason for the decline. As more and more sociologists moved into massive quantitative data analysis, many potential scholars have become alienated from the discipline. This move had a boring snd chilling effect and too much of what appears in sociology journals has become irrelevant, boring and uninteresing. Sociology discourse has become too technical and students simply vote by going to other disciplines.
Extremely interesting article, excellent read.
Extremely interesting article, excellent read.
An excellent article, well worth the time it takes to read! There is a major difficulty with sociology and sociologists which differentiates them from, say, physics and physical scientists. It is impossible to divorce themselves from their subject matter as do physical scientists. Such being the case, their empathy for their subject overrides their scientific objectivity to the point where they become advocates for solutions to problems (social pathology and welfare ) that may have temporary success, but usually have long-lasting serious problems that are not easily foreseen. An example of such a solution is the one proposed by a very prominent sociologist some years past; Socialism.
An excellent article, well worth the time it takes to read! There is a major difficulty with sociology and sociologists which differentiates them from, say, physics and physical scientists. It is impossible to divorce themselves from their subject matter as do physical scientists. Such being the case, their empathy for their subject overrides their scientific objectivity to the point where they become advocates for solutions to problems (social pathology and welfare ) that may have temporary success, but usually have long-lasting serious problems that are not easily foreseen. An example of such a solution is the one proposed by a very prominent sociologist some years past; Socialism.
How could you believe that such a evidence-less view point would have any credibility?
Or hire sociologists from Mars...
I enjoyed this parody.
In the US, sociology is dead, taken over by political ideologies and victimization. It only survives because it's the easiest subject to get a degree in. All that is required is to parrot the ideology of the instructor. David Null, PhD (CUNY)

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