Experiencing sociology’s midlife crisis?

Is it possible for an academic discipline to experience a midlife crisis? The recent exchange in the British Journal of Sociology on ‘sociology’s misfortune’ (Holmwood, 2010; Savage, 2010a; Rosenfeld, 2010) was just the most recent of a raft of work exploring the peculiar contemporary challenges and difficulties that face British sociology. This growing set of literature has come to exemplify and define what Savage (2010a: 659) has referred to as the ‘sense of malaise that currently hovers over British sociology’. But in response, can this sense of malaise be understood as a type of disciplinary mid-life crisis?

The story of sociology’s establishment as a discipline is likely to be relatively familiar to most readers of this journal. In his history of British empirical sociology Raymond Kent makes the following observation:

The 1950s…saw the beginnings of the institutionalisation of sociology on a new footing and its gradual acceptance as an academic discipline in the universities. Both the old Institute of Sociology and the LePlay House found themselves in financial difficulties after the war…The Institute itself was finally dissolved in 1955…Meanwhile the British Sociological Association had been established in 1951. The 13 founders – six of whom held chairs at the LSE at the time and included Glass and Ginsberg who acted as chairman – did not see the new body as a professional association. Rather, one of its major purposes was to encourage contact and co-operation’ (Kent, 1981: 140)

Kent goes on to note that there were those in the association who were keen to promote sociology as a unique specialism, but that these sentiments were really quite marginal at that time. Kent (1981: 141) acknowledges that the membership of the British Sociological Association (BSA) grew to 600 by 1960 but that at the same time there were fewer than 40 sociologists teaching in British universities with only 12 offering degree courses (this contrasts sharply with the 305 sociology courses listed on UCAS for 2013 entry, and the 1045 courses listed under the ‘all sociology’ courses classification). Clearly the BSA as playing its part in expanding sociology although not necessarily as a discrete discipline, rather in its early years it contributed to shaping sociology as a space for collaboration between social science disciplines (see also Savage, 2010b: 106).

Sociology remained throughout the 1950s to be an area of synthesis in the social sciences rather than a discipline in its own right – in support of this observation Savage (2010b) points towards the early synthetic articles in the British Journal of Sociology. Savage’s (2010b) core argument on this matter is that sociology established itself as a discipline in Britain in the 1960s by claiming its own jurisdiction through the focus upon novelty and by claiming particular methodological resources as its own, this operated alongside its integration into the developing university infrastructure of the 1960s (see also Halsey, 2004). Wherever we might choose to place the exact moment of conception of a discrete British sociology it is safe from this to conclude it is a discipline in its middle age.

So, if sociology can be said to be middle aged can it also be said to be suffering a midlife crisis of any sort? We might point here towards what can be understood to be a heightened sense of crisis in British Sociology over the last few years. To give one prominent instance, Halsey’s famous history of British sociology claims that, ‘[t]here is no doubt that sociology is in peril in the twenty-first century, at least in Britain and America’ (Halsey, 2004: 206). Halsey is far from being alone in drawing such bleak conclusions. We might contend that sociology is the victim of a perpetual sense of crisis, with narratives of critical and precarious moments littering its history. Despite this ongoing narrative of crisis, this sense of disciplinary uncertainty in British Sociology seems to have been even more acute in recent years (Gane, 2012).

The midlife crisis type preoccupations that we might point to in recent sociological literature include the searching for a sense of disciplinary identity and purpose, the thinking through and reflecting upon a relatively halcyon past and imagining a more difficult and problematical future, uncertainty about past achievements and the value of our ongoing contribution, the need for reinvention and a new start, worry about our decreasing impact and chances of impact upon the world, worry about and a sense of the need to redesign our appearance, and finally an increasing sensitivity towards outside perceptions (for a fantastic sociological account of the midlife crisis from which these core themes can be extracted see Hepworth & Featherstone, 1998). A selective list of the wide range of literature that covers these types of issues with regard to the discipline of sociology would include Mike Savage and Roger Burrows’ (2007) influential article (this article must have tapped into a sense of crisis as it has already accumulated 152 citations according to Google Scholar), John Holmwoods’ (2010) aforementioned reflections on the audit culture and sociology’s misfortune, Harriet Bradley’s (2011) response to the international benchmarking review of British sociology, and many other examples that includes work by Liz Stanley (2008; see also Hollands & Stanley, 2009), Rosemary Crompton (2009), the introduction and all of the papers collected in Osborne et al (2008), Richard Webber (2009), Les Back (2007), Holmwood & Scott (2007) and Lisa Adkins and Celia Lury (2009 & 2012; again see a number of the papers gathered in both of  these collections as well as the introductions). This is really only the tip of the iceberg of a broader literature that engages in different ways with our current challenges and which are evoking, perpetuating and debating a sense of crisis. We are forced to ask if these kinds of narratives and reflections upon the discipline would have been possible before it reached its 50s?

When considering the possibility of thinking of British Sociology as being in the grips of a midlife crisis we should of course show some caution, we might well wish to heed Walter Benjamin’s (2002: 481) warning that we have an overwhelming tendency to place ourselves in the ‘midday of history’. We might also point toward the large number of sociologists who clearly aren’t feeling any real sense of crisis but rather regard their discipline to be in rude health. On reflection though, and if you will indulge me for the moment, given the weight of the literature and the wide engagement with themes of crisis and renewal it seems fair to conclude that British sociology is viewing itself increasingly as being in a state of crisis. This crisis might be a product of our times or of the atrophy of our discipline, of both or maybe of neither. The question we might want to consider though is whether these worries and preoccupations are just a product of our over-active self-reflective tendencies or whether we have something more substantive to worry about? A reading of the outputs which directly consider the future of sociology indicates that responses to this question are likely to be very mixed. It seems though that whether we are in the grip of an imagined crisis or not, we now need to look at ways of relieving the anxiety that we have produced for ourselves.

There is clearly a tension in contemporary academia between fostering a critical discipline and the public relations activities that are necessary to protect the academic and social standing of the discipline. To be a viable discipline critique and debate are crucial but these do not mesh well with the need to present a united front in the face of the externally manifest changes we are experiencing. For those, like myself, at a relatively early career stage it is a bit of a baffling time to be a sociologist, what look to have been the certainties of the past seem to have slipped away into this sense of crisis. The debates I have outlined here are really exciting and encouraging but they do contribute to a sense of anxiety.


Adkins, L. & Lury, C. (2009) ‘What is the empirical?’, European Journal of Social Theory 12(1): 5-20.

Adkins, L. & Lury, C. (eds) (2012) Measure and Value. Oxford: Blackwell.

Back, L., 2007. The Art of Listening. Oxford: Berg.

Benjamin, W. (2002) The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bradley, H. (2011) ‘The crisis continues: personal reflections on the International Benchmarking Review of UK Sociology’, Sociological Review 59 (1): 155-159.

Crompton, R. (2008) ‘Forty Years of Sociology: Some Comments’, Sociology 42(6): 1218-1227.

Gane, N. (2012) ‘Measure, value and the current crises of sociology’ in Adkins, L. & Lury, C. (eds) Measure and Value. Oxford: Blackwell.

Halsey, A.H. (2004) A History of Sociology in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hepworth, M. & Featherstone, M. (1998) ‘The Male Menopause: lay accounts and the cultural reconstruction of midlife’, in Nettleton, S. & Watson, J. (eds) The Body in Everyday Life. London: Routledge. pp. 275-300.

Hollands, R. & Stanley, L. (2009) ‘Rethinking ‘Current Crisis’ Arguments: Gouldner and the Legacy of Critical Sociology’ 14(1): http://www.socresonline.org.uk/14/1/1.html

Holmwood, J. (2010), ‘Sociology’s misfortune: disciplines, interdisciplinarity and the impact of audt culture’, British Journal of Sociology, 61:4, pp. 639-658.

Holmwood, J. & Scott, S. (2007) (eds) ‘Special Issue on Sociology and its Public Faces’, Sociology 41(5): 779-975.

Kent, R.A. (1981) A History of British Empirical Sociology. Aldershot: Gower.

Osborne, T., Rose, N. & Savage, M., (2008), ‘Reinscribing British Sociology: Some Critical Reflections’, The Sociological Review 56(4): 519-534

Rosenfeld, R. (2010) ‘Sociology: a view from the diaspora’, British Journal of Sociology 61(4): 666-670.

Savage, M. (2010a), ‘Unpicking Sociology’s misfortunes’, British Journal of Sociology, 61:4, pp. 659-665.

Savage, M. (2010b) Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: The Politics of Method. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Savage, M. and Burrows, R. (2007) ‘The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology’, Sociology 41(6): 885-899.

Stanley, L. (2008) ‘It has always known, and we have always been ‘other’: Knowing capitalism and the ‘coming crisis’ of sociology confront the concentration system and Mass-Observation’, The Sociological Review 56(4): 535-551.

 Webber, R. (2009) Response to ‘The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology’: An Outline of the Research Potential of administrative and transactional data, Sociology 43(1): 169-178.

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. He works mainly in the area of the sociology of culture. He blogs at Thinking Culture.

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