Farewell to 'cuddly' ethos of yesteryear

March 19, 2004

Laurie Taylor recalls his time at York, its collegial atmosphere and rival factions, and returns to find Thatcher's children holding sway and the sociology department facing an uncertain future

On the train to York, I try to revive my memories of the place where I spent much of my academic life by flicking through the latest edition of Grapevine , the university's breezy alumni magazine, which charitably keeps me on its mailing list even though I haven't contributed a cent to the development fund since I took my lump sum back in 1995.

I'm on my way to York University because in recent years the place has become the favoured campus for the annual conference of the British Sociological Association. For the first three days of next week, nearly 200 sociologists will be giving papers that bear some sort of relationship to the slightly bulbous conference theme of "Sociological challenges: Conflict, anxiety and discontent". (I'm particularly looking forward to "Pluck, wax or thread: Normalising hair removal in the beauty salon" and "Wind power and the middle classes"). What's more, some of these papers will be given by members of my old department, so it seems like the ideal opportunity to check how the discipline and the department have made out since I filed away my lecture notes.

Sociology doesn't feature too prominently in the latest Grapevine , which is overwhelmingly concerned with letting its readers know that York was " The Sunday Times' University of the Year" in 2003. But there's some slight comfort in discovering that the editor responsible for such a readable and energetic magazine is a former York sociology undergraduate called Dominic Boyd.

Boyd is also delighted to announce that York's new chancellor will be its most famous old boy, Greg Dyke. I can just about remember teaching Dyke some Durkheim at York, but I have far better memories of him as a student representative. Lord Hutton might be surprised to hear it, but he was known then for a mastery of detail that could readily disconcert languid academics who hadn't even bothered to read the minutes. One elderly philosopher got so rattled by Dyke's precision that he denounced him as "a barrack-room lawyer".

Grapevine 's most curious item, though, is a picture of the university's 40th reunion party. How on earth did they manage to attract as many as 80 people from way back in 1963? When I first arrived, three years after that, the place still seemed deserted. There wasn't even a proper building to house our five-person sociology department, so we were shunted off to a temporary block in Heslington Village called "The Stables". It was all very cuddly and familial. Our professor, Ronald Fletcher, exercised a benevolent paternal authority, and we were intimately connected to every other social scientist on the tiny campus because of the university's wonderfully eclectic approach to social science. Every student, whether they'd enrolled for a final degree in sociology or politics or economics, was required to spend five terms out of their nine studying all three subjects. There were projects that spanned the disciplines and joint seminars on topics of common interest, such as housing and social deprivation. Almost immediately, though, this arrangement came under fire. The students were happy enough, but some lecturers didn't take well to the amorphous title of "social scientist". They argued that their promotion depended upon their peers knowing them as economists or political scientists. Over the next decade, the social science introduction was first cut down to four terms and then to three, and then, eventually, after a unilateral declaration of independence by the economics department, dropped completely. It was, you might say, a classic example of professional ambition overriding intellectual integrity.

There were other ways, though, in which our original family feeling was dissipated. Fletcher's preference for a paternalistic style of government proved inappropriate as the department expanded, and in the mid-1970s he was forced out in a battle of extraordinary intensity, which, as I remember, was precipitated by his reference, in a departmental board of studies, to the inadequacies of a lecturer. One half of the academic staff not only stopped speaking to the other half, but formally established a "department in exile" over in social administration. Solicitors' letters winged their expensive way back and forth, abusive late-night phone calls became almost commonplace and a politics professor, who had foolishly allowed himself to be drawn in to the dispute, claimed to have received an anonymous letter threatening him with death by drowning in the university's plastic-bottomed lake.

So infuriated was the university administration by all this unsavoury brouhaha that it banished the entire department of sociology to Wentworth, the remotest college on campus. This not only kept the noise of warring academics away from the sensitive ears of the bursar and the vice-chancellor, but also ensured that any leftwing students wishing to occupy the administrative block had to keep their consciousness raised for the best part of three-quarters of a mile to attain their revolutionary destination.

There were, of course, intellectual differences lurking around behind some of these violent interpersonal conflicts. In the early days of the department, the majority of lecturers would probably have described themselves as radical or Marxist (most preferred the early gently alienated Marx to the later hard-headed economist of surplus value) but as time went, by there were one or two controversial conversions to the elaborate Russian doll system-building of Talcott Parsons, and a small faction of rather amiable liberals who'd read a lot of Erving Goffman began to describe themselves as "symbolic interactionists". But despite all these ideological differences, there was still a general subscription to the idea that sociology was a subject with a historical and theoretical core incorporating figures such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel and the Chicago ecologists.

But well before I left York, even this narrow consensus was collapsing. Part of the reason was the fragmentation of the discipline, which began everywhere in the UK in the early 1980s. In what seemed like a defensive reaction to the relentless stereotyping of the subject as either facile or incomprehensible, individual academics retreated into ghettos and became sociologists of medicine, or deviance, or religion, or popular culture. They renamed themselves as "conversational analysts" or "ethnomethodologists".

And then, as if the discipline wasn't already sufficiently fragmented, along came modularisation. Suddenly there was a good procedural reason to abolish long, bulky compulsory courses and replace them with transferable, cumulative, one-term gobbets. Specialists didn't need to do much more than run a course named after their latest book and devote a seminar to each chapter. The arrival of the research assessment exercise a few years later further compounded this atomisation. Whereas in the past it had been possible to spend three years writing a substantial book, now the demand for instant research returns positively privileged little articles about small matters.

One of the most coherent critics at York of such developments was Barry Sandywell. He had been working for years on a critical history of the manner in which reflexivity had slowly emerged within philosophy and social thought. Everyone in the department recognised his enormous scholarship and commitment, and he didn't disappoint. In 1996, Routledge published the first three volumes under the generic title Logological Investigations . But all this critically appraised work took him only as far as the pre-Socratics. And that is where he may have to stop. For so insistent are the demands of the RAE that instead of following his deepest intellectual desire, he now finds himself forced to knock out brief articles for journals so that he can make up the five pieces of international scholarship that the department will need from every member if it is to retain its coveted 5 ranking in the 2007 assessment.

Sandywell hates the rise of what he calls "spaghetti publishing" and its devastating effect on "collegiality". He laments the production lines of modern universities and the constant demand for concrete signs of success.

He gloomily mentions one, apparently approving, description of the new York vice-chancellor as "a man who never takes his foot off the accelerator", and recalls a motivational workshop he attended where the tutor urged the assembled academics, "irrespective of gender", adds Sandywell sardonically, "to piss higher up the wall".

My next stop is only a couple of doors down the corridor. Phil Stanworth, at York for nearly 30 years, has been one of the most conscientious teachers in the department - one of the only people who will say that he likes students and looks forward to the beginning of term. But that counts for nothing in the new "publish or be downgraded" atmosphere of the modern university. Some years ago, Stanworth's failure to toe the publishing line meant that he was deemed "research inactive". He was told that he was not fulfilling his university contract and must therefore take on the extra job of graduate recruiter. He doesn't complain about this. "That's the way it goes," he says. I suggest that it's outrageous that he should be publicly demeaned for caring so passionately about students. He shrugs.

No one at York blames the head of department, Steve Yearley, for developments such as these. I was told repeatedly that he was refreshingly non-managerial and had done a lot to lift the department out of the doldrums and to raise it to its present research status. It's unusual for such a small department to have a 5 ranking, and Yearley's success in attracting the respected Science and Technology Studies Unit to York means that there are even hopes of a 5* ranking in the next round. The department can boast first-class research in cultural studies and conversational analysis as well as the sociology of science, and, with a student population of 430, it's now one of the largest in the country.

But all the favourable statistics and rankings don't seem to have produced any great sense of solidarity. Other members of staff who didn't want to be named confirmed that the atomism and individualism that had been detectable in the department when I left were now full-blown. One told me that, tragically, even new staff were only too happy to collude with the system.

"When they arrive, they know they've been picked only because they have some research money in hand or a batch of upcoming research papers that will earn RAE credits. They're on short-term contracts and if the department doesn't keep its 5, they'll be out on their ears. That means they want the minimum of teaching so that they can do research. In this department, all our first-year seminars are already taught by graduates, and if some of these new people get their way, that will extend into the second year. These are Thatcher's children. They know the game and how to play it. They have no memories of the time when universities were academic communities."

Some doubt if sociology itself has much of a future. One former colleague put it bluntly: "It's obvious really. Now that students pay top-up fees, they'll want to study something with a vocational pay-off. They can't afford the luxury of sociology or philosophy. It's happening already. In the social policy department, they've just set up a criminology degree. Nice and vocational. Hundreds of applications. I reckon we should give up sociology now and go in for golf-course management. At least with that you'd be sure of the occasional breath of fresh air."

The British Sociological Association annual conference takes place at York University, March 22-24.

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