Sociologists failing to practise what they preach, says report

April 3, 2008

"Purist" understandings of sociology are holding academics back from practising a key feature of the discipline, according to new research.

Many academics working in the field say that interdisciplinarity is ingrained in sociology, but a paper presented at the British Sociological Association's annual conference last week suggests that it is under threat.

Elisabeth Simbuerger, a final-year PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, has been investigating the self-understanding of sociologists, and has conducted 30 qualitative interviews with sociologists in ten sociology departments. She found signs of a gap between sociologists' claims about what the discipline is, and should be, and their practices.

"Sociologists who are working at the boundaries of sociology and who are more open to engaging with other disciplines, seem to encounter tensions within their own discipline," Ms Simbuerger told Times Higher Education.

"In fact, there are indications (that sociology is) sometimes exercising a slightly purist understanding of what the discipline is and ought to be."

Sociologists conducting interdisciplinary work found that peers did not always recognise the sociological character of their work, and could experience difficulties publishing in sociology journals and in getting funding, she discovered.

"Patchwork research profiles may not match with a more purist understanding of sociology," Ms Simbuerger said.

In her paper, she quotes "Hayley", a professor at a redbrick university who describes her work as "right at the edge" of the discipline, as saying: "When I am with people from other disciplines I always feel like a sociologist. When I am with sociologists I never feel like a proper sociologist."

Meanwhile "Celine", a senior lecturer at a London university, says the research assessment exercise calls into question the definition of sociology. "That's when we start having these conversations about what is sociology ... Will the sociology RAE panel see what we are doing as sociological? That is when the discipline becomes imposed on us," she told Ms Simbuerger, whose paper is entitled Disciplining the Discipline: Sociology's Complicity in Constraining its Most Analytical Voices.

Ted Benton, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex, agreed that sociology was more "intellectually porous" than most other disciplines. But he said interdisciplinarity was being discouraged in most fields of academic teaching and research, not just in sociology.

The RAE, the policies of research councils and financial pressure exerted on universities by government strongly discourage interdisciplinary research, according to Professor Benton. "I find this deeply objectionable and likely to obstruct the creative 'breakthroughs' that have historically come from cross-disciplinary fertilisation of ideas," he said.

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