Austerity knocks, sociology listens

Scholars restate the public value of their discipline in age of shrinking mobility. Matthew Reisz writes

April 12, 2012

Although it is "eminently feasible" for sociology to embrace the impact agenda in research, the principle should be resisted for its "inherent bias towards economic and policy benefits" and the way "it is inevitably bound up with marketisation".

That is the view of John Brewer, sixth-century professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, and president of the British Sociological Association, who spoke at the opening of the BSA's annual conference.

Professor Brewer said the debate should be reclaimed by making a case for the "public value" of sociology "in making people aware of themselves as comprising a society, for helping in the development and dissemination of key social values that make society possible".

His address on 11 April preceded a full programme of presentations at the conference in Leeds, titled Sociology in an Age of Austerity, which is set to run until 13 April.

Many speakers focused on issues of exclusion in higher education. Penny Jane Burke, professor of education at the University of Roehampton, was to set out her view that "widening participation has been an impossible project due to a range of problematic assumptions and a lack of attention to the complex nature of inequalities".

Professor Burke said that those responsible for widening participation "work on the periphery of universities" and are often patronised or ignored, making it hardly surprising if they have "little or no impact on institutional structure and culture". Andrew Pilkington, professor of sociology at the University of Northampton, was due to argue that diversity issues had "fallen down the agenda" in the UK academy.

The available evidence, he said, showed "serious lacunae in the way many universities are pursuing equal opportunities and thereby race equality". Meanwhile, Diane Reay, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, was to use a session to argue that the ideal of "social mobility" in the UK now "operates as a very inadequate sticking plaster over the gaping wound social inequalities have become".

She held out little hope of education becoming a vehicle of social mobility. This was because "far from becoming a society of hyper-rational and high-powered 'knowledge workers'...the UK is becoming a society of care workers, cashiers, computer technicians and educational support staff, while the size of the professional-managerial section of the labour market is falling".

"In such a competitive context, the highly educated children of the middle and upper classes will find ways to keep all but the most determined children of the working classes out," Professor Reay said.

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