Shocking truth about sociology

May 20, 2005

Norman Bonney reflects that the discipline has still not overcome its growing pains

Over the past week I have been to two celebrations - the 40th anniversary party of the department of sociology at Aberdeen University and the centenary conference of the sociology department at the London School of Economics. Both held special meanings for me. I studied for my first degree at the LSE and I was a lecturer at Aberdeen for more than half its lifetime. During my career I have seen sociology grow, stumble and struggle to maintain its potential. These anniversary celebrations have not reassured me.

The rapid 1960s expansion of sociology led to numerous growing pains. It was not always popular with other university disciplines and was often associated with student protest movements.

The 1980s were particularly lean years: Margaret Thatcher's view that there was no such thing as society might have been the subject's death knell but for the buffer of the funding system. Today, sociology graduates are found in responsible positions in government, business and education. Some are even vice-chancellors.

Perhaps the most influential sociologist is Anthony Giddens, former director of the LSE. He has been the architect of social theories that provide a comfortable reconciliation of the belief in the efficacy of individual action with an understanding of the power of social forces. This work has given ideological justification for new Labour, a seat for its author in the House of Lords and a useful theoretical scheme for many sociologists.

The Aberdeen department experienced the elation and pains of rapid growth in the 1960s and just survived the pressures of the Thatcher/Major years.

Since then, it has recovered greatly and ranks as one of the highest achieving departments in the UK.

But sitting through the afternoon proceedings at the LSE, I concluded that the discipline has not wholly recovered from its adolescent growing pains.

Speakers were on surer ground talking about the past than when dealing with the present and the future, perhaps because the hidden agenda of the present continues coded debates from the turbulent years.

The erstwhile revolutionaries and their disciples who would overthrow the social and gender order have retreated to the academy having failed to connect with the masses. Marxism has failed and gender relations have not been transformed - still only one in five women, for instance, continues in full-time paid employment when she has a child.

If the choice of panellists at the LSE was indicative of the new intellectual programme for the department, then there are causes for concern. I was alarmed to see it asserted without rejoinder that gender relations are based on violence and domination. To me this suggests that doctrine has supplanted sceptical inquiry.

A sociologist such as Catherine Hakim, who is associated with the LSE department and who puts forward speculative theories and extensive evidence that challenge the prevailing orthodoxy on gender relations, is that now rare example of the controversial sociologist. A major article by her in The British Journal of Sociology had to be accompanied by health warnings penned by leading colleagues. Thanks, Dr Hakim. We need more controversy! The inheritance must not be squandered.

Norman Bonney is senior research fellow at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.

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