Accidental sociologists

Today I stumbled across an interesting biographical account by Sarah Burton, sociology postgraduate researcher, entitled The Accidental Sociologist. Sarah writes that she – as, it seems, a great many other sociologists – ended up in sociology ‘by chance’. She wonders whether ‘sociology is where people go when they simply want to delve into ideas that fascinate them’.  It was great to read someone else asking the same question that I have asked myself, so perhaps I ought to take the chance to share my own answer to it.

To me, sociology is far more than a place just reserved for fascinating ideas. It is where people go to ask questions and seek answers not simply to fascinating questions, but to important questions that otherwise remain hidden from us.  Sociology is a toolbox for answering questions that we are not supposed to ask or know about – because the way society functions obscures them from us in daily life. Some of these questions can initially seem dull or boring, but can be immensely important, yet others are fascinating for their own sake. Sociology is a meeting place for important questions that concern all of us and that we, as participants in society, have a hard time even noticing: to paraphrase Marx, it is hard to see the ground beneath your own feet. And it is these questions that hide the potential for social change. I suppose, Marx must have influenced my particular way of seeing sociology because I cannot help but recall another phrase of his: that philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world, while the point (of sociology) is to change it. The amazing thing is, that ‘let’s change the world’ is not the only type of sociology out there. There is space for observation, analysis, change, calculation, provocation, images, art, and anything else you can think of.

Now, how did I end up in sociology? Just like Sarah, accidentally, thanks to a peculiar constellation of personal and institutional reasons, and as a result of being fascinated by too many things.  Thinking back, all those reasons seem far less compelling than they seemed at the time.

Tracing my academic path leads me back to high school in early post-1989 Bulgaria, where my favourite subjects were mathematics and English. If asked what I wanted to be, I would hesitate, but in all honesty I would probably admit that I would most enjoy studying either linguistics (especially English or Scandinavian), or math. However, everyone I spoke to seemed convinced that studying English philology would amount to becoming an unemployed English teacher, and studying math for the math, and not as part of, say, a course in economics, somehow did not even cross my horizon. Economics didn’t seem very interesting.  Being an unemployed English teacher seemed a less dull, but more frustrating and frowned upon by my family, career choice. After much hesitation in my last year of school I chose to specialise in Bulgarian literature and History (the equivalent of UK A-levels) in order to study law. I did not know what sociology was. Well, I did, in a way… I thought it was election polling and questionnaires and pie charts. Little did I know that sociology was nothing of the kind!

My exam grades were not enough to get me into either Law or International Relations.  I ended up in a close third, the then new subject European Studies. In 2000, Bulgaria was an European Union accession country and this was a popular new course aimed to prepare much wanted specialists for many areas in which knowledge of EU-integration and the way the EU works were required. But I didn’t know that we were prepared to be Eurobureaucrats.  I had misinterpreted the course outline and had assumed that it would focus on philosophy, literature, and European languages. Its actual focus on law, economics, and the history of the EU came as something of a surprise. As sociology would later confirm, institutions are never what they say on the tin, but are inhabited by people, defined by conventions. Despite my initial dismay (and the decision to always from then on read at least the large print carefully), the European Studies degree turned out to be a very good course. Although it was new (I was part of only the second year in which the course ran), it had attracted an ambitious group of some 40 students, some fantastic teachers and professors, and an amazing head of department. I enjoyed the studies and the crowd.  My favourite subjects were taught by sociologists and a cultural studies professor.  We could also study two or more languages, so I took up advanced English and medium German, as before, but my time was devoted to beginners French, at which I did very fervently and equally badly. Knowing when to give up has never been my strength – c’est la vie!  I also worked part-time: in several small NGO projects funded by the EU’s accession funds, as a PHARE project assessor, and as audience in a TV debate show.  But something was missing. I reallydon’t know how to put it better: most subjects I studied seemed to give answers and shape my world, but what I wanted was to ask questions and break it all down.  This is exactly how I think I ought to have ended up in sociology – if the world were a rational place. But it wasn’t quite that straight-forward.

Anyway, I decided to take on a second university course in parallel with the first one.  The university allowed two options: a partial second specialism in addition to your main degree, which for some unbeknownst to me reason was unavailable that year; and a full second degree in parallel. English and psychology, my first two choices, were both unavailable as second options due to oversubscription.  This left sociology or philosophy, the next items on my list. After much agonising, I took up sociology – partly because of my favourite lecturers, and partly in a joint decision with my then partner, thanks to a complicated but seemingly convincing constellation of family and personal details. By the way, we are no longer an item, but both of us still work in sociology.

But this was not all. In the next four years, I completed my second degree in sociology,  in parallel with finishing my first BA in European studies and a masters in the same. Although I did very well in all exams and really enjoyed the course, I never wrote a dissertation, so I don’t actually have a BA in sociology – something I have to keep explaining on my CV!  Six years after having started my studies, I finally really faced the job market.  I worked 4h a day as a news abstractor, translating business news from German into English for one of Reuters’ subsidiaries. It was a fun, but exhausting and badly paid job, which left me with very fast typing skills, the ability to translate from a language I don’t know that well, and a lingering Internet addiction which I am still fighting. And then, in another strike of biographic accident, my former English teacher and friend nudged me to apply for a scholarship to study in a UK university. I did – by the time I applied, the only available place was Warwick. Well, I thought – Warwick seems pretty cool, so I applied, even though chances were very slim. I got to the interview stage, but the interview went, I thought, really badly: I had got myself into an argument over social policy towards ethnic minorities with the interviewer. Unexpectedly, I got the place. Perhaps the argument hadn’t been that bad. In the autumn of 2006, still an overseas student as my country was not in the EU, I found myself studying Social and Political Thought at Warwick with an Open Society Institute / Chevening scholarship.  This was far too amazing not to make good use of it. I loved the course, the department, the university, and the country, so I decided to stay. In another stroke of luck and university funding, I had the chance to continue with a PhD in sociology for which – using another ‘accidental’ configuration of personal and institutional opportunities – I returned to Bulgaria to do a study of the careers and experiences of seafarers and transformations of the post-socialist maritime labour market.

In other words, ‘me and sociology’ really was not a rational, thought through, straight-forward encounter. It was all stumbling in the dark, and never finding quite the right alley, and yet moving forward somehow. And yet, it now seems like the best place for me – that is, the most intellectually uncomfortable, uncertain, and baffling subject imaginable.

How did YOU end up in Sociology – as a researcher, university student or even in school? Did you always know that you wanted to study sociology? Was it curiosity,? Or was it ‘by chance’? Comment on this post, tweet your thoughts or email us your story and we will post it on SI.

Editor’s note: Mark also stumbled across the same post, also thought it was great and asked Sarah to write for the site. Her new column, The Accidental Sociologist, starts on Monday.

Assistant Editor’s note: Fantastic news! Welcome, Sarah!

Categories: The Idle Ethnographer

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2 replies »

  1. I am 45 years old and when I decided to go back to school and get my GED, I did so passed with flying colors. I was accepted to Penn State University,accidentally I came across Sociology. I am now in my 2nd semester as a Sophomore and I have been on the Deans list ever since. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else

    • Hi Eugene,
      Inspiring story, thanks for sharing! And well done. I wonder, what is it that you like best about your sociology course? And how do you find being back in school – does it feel like it is it the right time, or do you wish you’d done it earlier on? I often wish I had worked for a few years rather than going to university straight after school.

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