Sociology has identity crisis

March 26, 2004

The Times Higher reports from this week's British Sociological Association meeting

Sociology is suffering a damaging identity "crisis", a meeting of the British Sociological Association concluded this week.

Gathering in York for their biggest annual event, delegates heard there is a lack of consensus about what it means to be a contemporary sociologist.

One consequence is that students are increasingly unsure about what constitutes the core syllabus of the subject.

Gregor McLennan, professor of sociology at Bristol University, said outdated self-images hindered the profession.

He said: "The crisis we are talking about today, the fact that we are struggling professionally, has arisen, in part at least, because we have been so tremendously successful. Sociology now constitutes so much of everyday life, even down to the level of reality TV, that we just take it for granted.

"But in the meantime, within the academy we have got a big problem about who we are - the scholarly scientific expert of society or the pragmatic researcher. We have lost sight of ourselves as critical public intellectuals - as people of ideas."

The conference's rather gloomy theme this year is conflict, anxiety and discontent, which the BSA said was designed to reflect the tasks of sociology.

But the association's own publicity reveals a profession wracked with uncertainty: "In recent years our sociological imagination has been spurred on by issues of social division, economic hardship, cultural disadvantage and political oppression. This conference offers us the chance to answer the question: how are we sociologists able to identify our purpose and identity in the world we seek to explain?"

One of the biggest hurdles facing sociologists, according to Professor McLennan, is the emergence over the past ten years of new disciplines that have "kicked us in the teeth after plundering us for post-sociological discourses".

Jennifer Platt, sociology professor at Sussex University who is writing a history of the teaching of sociology, said part of the problem was pressure from the research assessment exercise. This meant there was no longer any consensus across the country on what a sociology student needed to know.

"A lot of courses that are called An Introduction to Sociology are actually very narrow and very specialist and reflect the research interests of a few academics," she said.

"As teaching is becoming more research-led we are focusing on much narrower segments of the world, which can make sociology look very odd to the outside world."

But John Holmwoood, professor of sociology at Sussex, said the current obsession with navel gazing and with finding agreement among sociologists was further damaging the discipline. "It is a mistake to look for mutual agreement," he told delegates. "We should see ourselves as overlapping theoretical communities who engage with each other's problems, share them even, but accept that differences lie within our answers."

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