The continuing relevance of the ideals that have inspired one of Britain’s pioneering departments of sociology is examined in a new book.
Ken Plummer, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Essex, has devoted much of his research to issues of storytelling. He worked at Essex from 1975 until 2006, when a major bout of ill health forced him into retirement. That led him to reflect on his life, to realise that the sociology department had been very important to him and to decide that, if he survived, he wanted to write about it.
“All institutions have fascinating stories to tell,” he explained, “and the history is lost very rapidly.”
He therefore assembled a large team of contributors to produce Imaginations: Fifty Years of Essex Sociology, which has just been published as part of the events celebrating the 50th anniversary of Essex’s opening. The volume describes the “distinctive, some say inspirational, vision of what a new large modern, research-based, interdisciplinary, democratically run, ‘open’ university for the 20th century could look like” set out by Essex’s first vice-chancellor, Sir Albert Sloman, in his 1963 Reith Lectures.
It goes on to explore the pressures put on this vision by episodes of student unrest (often led by those studying sociology) in 1968 and 1974. In the latter case, the police response was led by a chief inspector who was himself an Essex sociology graduate. One contributor recalls a magistrate turning down an application to open a sex shop in Colchester on the grounds that “only sociologists and other perverts will want this”.
“In the 1960s,” said Professor Plummer, “nobody quite knew what they were doing. Sociology was a very young discipline and most of the early appointments were not sociologists” but anthropologists, criminologists, economists, historians, psychologists, philosophers and policymakers.
Yet along with this multidisciplinary approach went a commitment to “the pursuit of justice”, as shown in major research on poverty, social class, South Africa, feminism and lesbian and gay identity.
Although he said that he looked back fondly to a time of “massive optimism about the power of sociology to change the world” and was keen to celebrate Essex’s “important and relatively distinctive” contribution, Professor Plummer acknowledged that “all radical universities have been tamed” and that “sociology is now in crisis”.
His book describes a world where Essex’s original interdisciplinary ideals have been watered down and “where university life is increasingly shaped by money, mass markets, measurement and managers”.
This echoes the recent criticisms from novelist Marina Warner, who has savaged Essex in particular and UK universities more generally for subordinating the true goals of scholarship to the pursuit of “prestige, publicity, glory, impact”.
So how far is the kind of sociology recalled in Imaginations any longer possible or relevant?
“You do see people still continuing in the same way, still writing similar books, even if they are now constrained by the environment,” said Professor Plummer, who continued to teach short courses at Essex until last year.
“You have to believe it is possible to maintain some of the traditions,” he added, even within today’s very different sort of institution. “If not, what is a university for?”