All quiet on the home front

March 17, 1995

David Walker looks in vain for meaningful messages from Britain's silent sociologists. Fond as they are of the word, British sociologists do not discourse much. Indeed at the midpoint of this decade, when society, values, identity are so much the matter of our lives, their silence is painful. Two reasons proffer themselves. The first is that the keepers of public conversation - the media - give them the cultural cold shoulder, "the remorseless chill of received opinion about sociology" said A. H. Halsey in the 1989 navel-gazing issue of the British Journal of Sociology.

Sociologists themselves prefer this kind of explanation. In the substantial sub-genre of "Whither sociology?" pieces audible self-pity jostles with the perceived damage inflicted by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in their attacks against the Social Science Research Council and the idea of society. And they acknowledge that the press exhibits a sociological commonplace - simultaneously fascinated by the evidence of social change while finding most of its manifestations repugnant. Bad-news bearers tread a fine line between grateful reward and obloquy.

Yet the we-wus-robbed argument is unsatisfactory. The second reason for the silence of sociologists is more persuasive: they have little of interest to say, despite the richness of the social agenda of mid-1990s Britain. To say, that is, outside the autistic circle of periodical literature and monographs written with an eye on official publication counts. (There is a kind of symmetry in the way Conservative higher education policy in Britain has encouraged, especially in the humanities and softer social sciences, what Americans call academic "fast capitalism", characterised by the rapid, large-scale production and accumulation of texts.) Sociologists are all too aware of being shut in a cultural Chateau d'If. They registered long since they are not there. No department of state employs a sociologist in a senior advisory capacity. The question of their political presence can be rephrased like this. Why have sociologists not had the chutzpah, the gall to put themselves out like the economists, to get it wrong, hugely wrong, and still get government jobs?

The answer cannot be Conservative perversity. For one thing, Conservatism has many mansions and the present Cabinet inhabits a different suite from Lady Thatcher's; besides, the subject's big wheels can spin conservatively. For another, at a time when daily we see unwelcome social and economic realities clout ministers over the head, sociologists could at the very least come on Cassandra-like - but only if they were any better informed than the bruised ministers.

Economists are in favour if only for their talismanic qualities. A public that suffers, sometimes acutely, from the onward march of the global division of labour continues to invest credence in those social scientists whose nerve has held and can, without blushing, make programmatic statements about the size and shape of that great collective entity, the British economy and its future. If discourse about the future shape of that other great collective entity, British society, is not valued is that just because sociologists lack style and the skills of academic self-projection?

Or is it just that British sociologist have lost it, lost the way, lost their maps, lost their heads. Journal articles about homosexual escort agencies are trivial. This is not the same as regretting the lost vitality of a descriptive ethnography of coal-fields communities or studies of affluent Luton car workers. It is to note that sociologists have nothing worth saying about things that matter, in the here and now of contemporary politics, in the national conversation about identity and purpose. There ought to be a grand sociologically informed literature of British exceptionalism. Instead there are merely isolated works, at least by labelled sociologists, for the best "sociology" is produced by historians. Perhaps Higher Education Funding Council labels are at fault. It has been true for years that good sociology has been produced by other badge-wearers, that serious work on the shape and forms of capitalist enterprise in Britain comes more from management and business schools, by people who have labelled themselves anything but . . . sociologists. The promise, in British sociology, is to deliver a powerful mode of understanding of social life. That is Chelly Halsey's existential sentence for his discipline. To understand you need data and it would be wrong not to value the empirical work that is undertaken - for example, the great longitudinal studies that are one benefit of British statism; data collected on crime and the effectiveness of penal sanctions that Home Office ministers may not like much. The problem is what do the trends mean; where is the synthesis that brings understanding?

What Martin Bulmer, professor of sociology at the University of Surrey, calls the tertiary and quaternary literature is stuffed with theory, and it is largely poor stuff.

The proposition needs to be advanced ad hominem. So let me swallow iconoclastically and ask, what is the idea about Britain, even the little idea, that we might readily associate with that most prolific modern British social theorist Anthony Giddens? Social change has shot sociology's fox; without class and class conflict in industrial society what have sociologists to say? Even those who were not Marxists could safely believe in their own intellectual importance because they were able to reveal important movements that might creep up on politicians and the public and (in the form of the working-class movement) upset the apple cart. That Nuffield electoral and mobility studies are technically accomplished and keep the flag aloft at foreign conferences is true, but where do they fit, and what do they say about this bigger thing that is British society?

The trouble with talking about the historical failure of British sociology is that it takes the Comtian promise at its face value - sociology is about understanding modernity and so the current confusion is . . . post-modernity. Culprits abound. Marxism, ethno-methodology, premature theoretical ejaculation, relativism and withal that callow History Man style which cannot be supplanted by any number of serious grey-beards of the Halsey and Norman Dennis stripe, and their sententious concern, somewhat late in the day, for changes in family structure. Yet sociology would have prospered more had some of its practitioners been identifiably on the political right and perhaps somewhat more intellectually distinguished than the few who do locate themselves there. A few more angry albeit prelapsarian sociologists would help the cause. What is striking about the adulatory notices being given to American Amitai Etzioni and his communitarian show is how easily older strands of British social thinking celebrating aspects of the deep-dyed conservatism of British society might have been developed, to be available as its proponents claim this North American prescription is now available to a Tony Blair. Perhaps Ralf Dahrendorf's forthcoming study of the London School of Economics on its centenary will shed some light.

British sociology is not alone in its discontents. Raj Mohan and Arthur S. Wilke, editors of the International Handbook of Contemporary Developments in Sociology, condemn sociology in the United States "with concerns directed away from actual efforts at intellectual work or illuminating the world in which people live", mired in metatheory. The prospects, here, are not good. An older generation, scholars and gents of the Runciman, Dahrendorf stripe, pass unsucceeded. In Britain, generally, the social phenomena get measured but social understanding is not forthcoming, the sociologists are silent, the gods of Enlightenment are not served, and discourse is diminished as a result.

David Walker is the BBC's urban affairs correspondent.

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