Filling the need for isms and isations

June 29, 2001

Sociology has had many critics but it is still responding to society's desire to be explained. Alison Utley charts the history of the discipline.

Of all the seemingly unanswerable questions tackled by sociologists over the years, the quest to uncover the meaning of sociology itself has been among the most contentious. Although much has changed since 1951 when the British Sociological Association was formed, and when just two universities - Leicester and the London School of Economics - had sociology departments, it was another decade before the debate really took off.

By 1960 there were staff listed as sociologists in 16 universities but still only 54 teaching posts, of which 15 were at the LSE. From then on, however, sociology seemed to come into its own with the sudden explosion of competing discourses.

This was a time of political and intellectual ferment, a period of student unrest that caused enormous upheaval in universities - nowhere more so than in sociology. "Sociology students were often involved and some staff were sympathetic, making sociology unpopular in certain quarters," says Jennifer Platt, author of The History of the BSA . Indeed, the BSA felt the need to issue a defensive press release in 1969. Then came the so-called Atkinson affair.

Dick Atkinson, a supporter of radical students, was chosen for a post at Birmingham University's sociology department, but the recommendation was rejected by the university authorities. The BSA objected, urging that only professional sociologists could judge the competency of other sociologists. The Birmingham department was blacklisted.

The 1960s also saw the rise of new areas of sociology in Britain, such as the sociology of development, military sociology and the study of socialist societies.

According to John Scott, the BSA's incoming president, the diverse backgrounds of those recruited to the discipline in the 1960s was partly responsible for this more open approach. In the large departments formed at Essex, Lancaster, Warwick and elsewhere, structural functionalists rubbed shoulders with Weberians and Marxists and a variety of philosophical traditions began to have an impact.

During the 1970s, British sociologists began to give more attention to contemporary European debates as well as to newer US-based theoretical approaches. This led to a greater concern for subjectivity and social action, says Scott. However, it meant that less attention was given to the wider structural picture and long-term historical change. Added to this was the rise of gender as a challenger to class's central position in sociological study. This reflected a crucial change in the gender composition of socio-logy itself as a growing number of women began to emerge within it. Race and ethnicity have since led to similar reassessments of the discipline.

Outgoing BSA president Sara Arber says that, by its very nature, sociology is a reflection of societal changes so the discipline has had to change with the times, but at the same time there has been continuity. Social inequality has been a recurring theme since Marx and Weber were writing and the topic is at the forefront of much government thinking today. What has changed, though, is the emergence of a wide variety of specialisations within sociology. Consumption, globalisation, gender, race and technology would all have been incomprehensible to the discipline's founding figures. And, Arber points out, methodologies have evolved significantly to take account of the more extensive data available to modern-day academics.

Scott agrees that sociology is being transformed, both as a response to a changing world and in response to the new academic environment. "Sociology is open-ended and has no fixed agenda or subject matter," he says. "The excitement of sociology as a subject is that there can be a sociology of almost anything and that studying one's chosen specialism means being open to theoretical ideas developed by other scholars."

Today there are 91 sociology departments in Britain with some 17,000 undergraduates. How are they making sense of the major trends unfolding within societies? Graham Crow, of the University of Southampton, told this year's BSA jubilee conference that the increasingly common practice of identifying trends ending with the suffix "isation" needed to be treated with great care. "This style of theorising is valuable, but it is also problematic," he said. The proliferation of terms such as McDonaldisation, bureaucratisation, postmodernisation, proletarianisation and so on is valuable because it encourages theorists to think comparatively since the trends identified need reference points and their uneven progress in different societies can be compared. But it is also problematic because there is no agreement on what constitutes evidence that these processes are unfolding. There is not even agreement on the need for such evidence. "Such theorisation needs to be grounded in empirical evidence if it is to go beyond mere speculation," Crow argues.

But how far to go? In common with other social science and humanities disciplines, there have been moves to turn socio-logy into a more precise science. According to Paula Surridge, of the University of Aberdeen, current trends in social theory are pulling in opposite directions - rational action theory with its emphasis on economics, and postmodernism - neither of which appears useful for socio-logy. She says: "Failure to resist postmodernism leads us down a road where sociology can say nothing with authority, while failure to resist rational action theory ultimately leaves sociology as a sub-discipline of economics."

The relationship of sociology to other academic disciplines has always been complicated, but there has been renewed interest in it recently. In a talk at the BSA 20 years ago, John Urry of Lancaster University argued that sociology should draw on other social sciences, but look at the areas of society they choose to ignore. "I saw sociology as an undisciplined discipline that is swept over by, and then takes up, various concerns and issues. I maintained that sociology could not and should not be a boundary-maintaining social science, inward-looking and seeking to keep out the deviant and the disruptive." Today, Urry believes some sociologists still wish to build walls rather than bridges. "We have not advanced much although the past 20-odd years has seen huge developments in our understanding of the parallel scientific and technological disciplines. There are so many social, technological, political and scientific transformations that attempt to draw up the drawbridge and keep them at bay cannot succeed."

Sociology should be fluid-like, open to change and new perspectives. Mostly it is, says Urry, although certain theories do sometimes hold temporary sway.

One future agenda then is for sociology to go with the flow. Andrew Sayer, head of sociology at Lancaster University, goes one step further, saying that boundaries between the social sciences should be dissolved entirely. "I believe we should celebrate, not mourn, the decline of disciplines," he says. "I know some people strongly identify with the discipline and feel threatened by this approach, but we must remember that disciplines are a relatively recent invention." Indeed, some of the founders of sociology were not sociologists at all. And some modern theorists, such as Michel Foucault, cannot be classified. "To attempt to select out Marx the sociologist is to fail to understand his critique of political economy," Sayer says. "For me, it makes more sense to start with a question and follow wherever that question leads. This leads to coherence as opposed to fragmentation."

This kind of approach prevents parochialism, he says, adding that, where boundaries are strongly policed, they risk being imperialistic and may stifle scholarship and innovation. So, rather than encourage interdisciplinary studies - which is often competition disguised behind a mask of cooperation - Sayer argues that it is time to recognise post-disciplinary studies. This may be too radical for more mainstream social scientists, but it is clearly a response to concerns about sociology's future.




rights of man...peoples'/citizens' rights




old masters.....classic art


seminal.........classical, formative

Negroes/negress...African-American (in US)

pagan...........non-Christian peoples

Third World.....North/South


invalid.........disabled person

special needs...additional needs


the blind.......blind and partially sighted/visually impaired

cripple.........mobility impaired person

mentally handicapped...person with learning disability

mentally ill....mental health service user

able-bodied.....non disabled

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