From Marx to mass market

December 7, 2001

Sociology was young when Margo Russell came to it. Over her career, it went from a tool for social change to a much-derided Mickey Mouse subject - but its value remains.

I came to sociology before it was a joke, before it was an O level, before tens of thousands of British undergraduates chose it as an easy option to cushion their three subsidised years of late nights, black coffee, exhilarating independence and the occasional hasty essay.

I learnt sociology from a passionate, meticulous scholar in South Africa as a craft and a skill to be employed to undermine the propaganda of the apartheid machine, which was then in its robust infancy.

"What is sociology?" people in South Africa asked me. I struggled to answer, reading and re-reading the opening chapters of the half dozen existing, mainly American texts devoted to this question and trying to reconcile their pat, yet arcane, answers with the problems we tussled with in Durban: black unemployment, compulsory urban segregation of the Indian community, correlates of race prejudice, the expansion of state control, black resistance, the politicisation of the churches.

"Sociology?" queried my psychology lecturer when he heard of my postgraduate plans. "It's nothing but political journalism. You can do better than that." Thus forewarned, I recklessly plunged into academic life in the early 1960s as standard bearer for the Cinderella subject.

The fairy godmother was Robbins, whose report in 1963 justified the second great expansion of British universities, just as I arrived in Britain to tumble into one of the new academic posts in sociology.

I was ill-prepared for the well-read British school-leavers who took my classes. I had never read Karl Marx. His work was banned in South Africa, his name merely a label one proudly, if ignorantly, pinned to one's reputation to show which side you were on. As to the other Dead White Men, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, they were history, known of rather than known. Now, suddenly, they were sociology.

So I joined in the dissection of the stiff English translations of the 19th-century French and German corpus. Like medieval theological scholars, we illuminated favourite texts, trying to squeeze the truth about our society from their insights. We looked steadfastly backwards, poking occasional fun at the shallowness of transatlantic sociology and its preoccupation with statistics. We talked inequality, power, deprivation transformation, not the dating patterns of 461 university sophomores.

Our lecture and seminar rooms were crowded in the 1970s as the reputation of sociology spread. We counted our students, secured new posts and asked for a proportionately bigger share of the cake. Then the jokes started. At first they were playful, but they quickly turned nasty when, in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher started to curb university funding.

Something had to give.

Everyone picked on sociology. It was vague, pretentious, woolly and verbose. Its graduates were unskilled, innumerate and subversive. Posts must be frozen, numbers must be capped. I seized the opportunity to take unpaid leave to teach in Sudan. My university was delighted. The registrar congratulated me on my initiative and imagination, and, Hey presto!

I am standing in about 40C heat in a half-built lecture room somewhere near the equator trying to explain to 40 eager mature students what sociology is. Ceiling fans churn the air. Humped, horned cattle with bells pad softly past. In the distance, haunting sing-song Arabic calls the faithful to prayer. Durkheim, Marx and Weber seem a long way away.

"Why have you chosen sociology?" I ask them. "We do not choose," one student explains. "The government tells us where to go. Because we do not perform so well at school certificate, we do sociology. Above us, they do science. But there are others even not so good as us. They do education." I ruefully accept this explicit piece of state planning, but I have much more trouble with its corollary when at a faculty meeting to report student progress a month later. My students have done well, I say, handing in their marks, which range from 50-70 per cent. My Sudanese colleagues are indignant. Seventy per cent is too high for sociology students, they argue. Only maths students get 70 per cent. Even the science students get only 60 per cent. The sociology students should get no more than 55 per cent because, as everyone knows, they are not clever.

Five years later, drifting south, I discover the discreditable but alluring world of international consultancy. Suddenly, sociology is in demand in a world of colloquiums, technical experts, focus groups, strategies, pre-pilot projects, feasibility studies, workshops and developmental initiatives. The economy air fares and subsistence allowances come free. The hotels are comfortable, the latest reports of one's predecessors invaluable. Cannibalising one another's work, writing for each other, we manoeuvre and compete for the next international contract. Rome, Geneva, Washington. Who really cares about Marx, Durkheim and Weber?

Back in the new South Africa in the 1990s, sociology lecture halls are bursting with ambitious black students who want to study something else but have not passed matriculation maths, for which they fairly blame under-equipped schools, alcoholic teachers and uneducated parents. They have heard that you can sometimes slip from a first year in sociology to a second year in economics or commerce. They want their lectures at dictation speed. They hiss when your enthusiasm quickens your pace.

"Any questions?" you ask hopefully. There always is one, and it's usually the same one: "Is this going to be in the exam?" Exams rather than ideas concentrate the mind. Students stay up all night and learn whole pages by heart. Their ability to reproduce these in an exam the next day is impressive, but the piece does not always match the question asked and, unfortunately, they sometimes choose to memorise a page from their own hand-written notes.

Libraries cannot stock, nor teachers list, enough books to meet the needs of 600 students following the same course simultaneously. The phrase "reading sociology" is quaint. Most students usually intend to read something, sometime but, in the meantime, they photocopy. Then there is the essay. Not infrequently the richer, more sophisticated students submit as their own work unmodified pages of print downloaded from the internet. Among the less privileged, there is a brisk trade in last year's passing essays and a terrible indignation and confrontation if you change your evaluation of the piece from one year to the next.

But even essays are a disappearing luxury as the government tries to make good its promise of education for all. When there are 600 students taking a course, just one essay a term generates at least seven weeks of full-time work, reading and grading. Consistency is improbable. Censure, pleading and abuse are common.

It is hard to get on with doing sociology when you are so taken up with the fallout of teaching it. Electronically marked multiple-choice question papers offer one way out of the morass, cheap postgraduate student labour another. Both are increasingly common. The hidden cost is the poor quality of education this new generation is experiencing, not because the teachers lack the requisite skills - though 40 years of academic isolation have taken their toll - but because there is no time to identify and nurture creativity and talent.

So maybe, in the long term, British sociologists must view the impact of Thatcher's savage cuts on their discipline more kindly. In the United Kingdom, there are now fewer students to be taught, and accordingly, more time to reflect and gather evidence for what is written and said. Arguments for research funding must now be more succinct and persuasive than in the past.

In short, sociologists have to justify their existence, and this entails necessary reflection and robust action. When they get it right, their ideas, concepts and propositions slip into general knowledge without a ripple of resistance - or a byline. Other times, they bump into vested interests and have to shout a little louder and longer, and get labelled mad or bad.

Sociology is too good not to be shared. Teaching must remain one of its central activities, but not to children. I want to weep when I see how much wasted effort goes into sociological textbooks for schoolchildren who cannot possibly comprehend. Serious sustained sociological study would be better reserved as a postgraduate specialism. Introductory sociology could be taught throughout the university in short, focused courses: the sociology of medicine for the medical students, the sociology of business management for the would-be business managers, the sociology of the novel for the English literature majors, the sociology of housing for the architects and quantity surveyors, the sociology of science for the physicists and the sociology of knowledge for the historians.

As for Marx, Weber and Durkheim, they are for the insiders who should read them by all means, and then re-read them and think through them. It may, however, be prudent not to mention any names. Their best ideas are easily reduced to simple colloquial English. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Margo Russell is a retired sociology lecturer. This essay won second prize in The THES /Palgrave Humanities and Social Sciences writing prize.

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