Our service is not soundbites

October 22, 1999

Some years ago, while working at the University of Manchester, I was having a drink in a pub in the then notorious Hulme district of the city when I fell into conversation with a man who asked me what I did for a living.

This was at a time when the neighbouring district of Moss Side was experiencing - according to police reports - almost daily firearms incidents; and it was perhaps not altogether surprising that when I told my interlocutor I was a sociologist he asked me - in a voice mixing aggression and sardonicism - what I was going to do about "the problem" in Moss Side.

As a relatively inexperienced young researcher I wriggled, felt profoundly irrelevant, and protested that I was not a social worker, and that it was all "very complex" anyway. And indeed it was, and is, even though that was not of much help to that man at that moment.

I recalled this conversation, and found myself wriggling again, as I read Charles Leadbeater's recent assault on the irrelevance of the intellectuals in universities ("Innovate or atrophy", THES, October 15). However, my discomfort in the pub stemmed from my inability to respond effectively to a stranger's expression of powerlessness. My discomfort on reading Leadbeater, on the other hand, arises from my disagreement that writing speeches for the powerful such as Tony Blair and my failure "to provide the centre-left with its big story" has much of a bearing on solving the problems of Britain's inner cities or de-industrialised coalfields.

There are many social scientists who, when liberated from the constraints of their undergraduate teaching, are only too happy to take their research into policy and practice, and to rub shoulders, if not with Blair, than with local politicians, industrialists, trade unionists, health-service managers, tenants groups and the unorganised residents of run-down housing estates.

Nice as it is to have the support of Leadbeater and, lately, Anthony Giddens for this kind of work, they should realise that we are not waiting for their permission or exhortation to go do it. We have been there for a long time.

Gareth Williams Cardiff School of Social Sciences Cardiff University Wales

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