The Accidental Sociologist: disciplinarity and academic identity

Originally this column was intended to chart my way through my first formal study of sociology. I’d tripped from one degree to another, with some arty, creative, musical projects in between and ended up in sociology. Apparently, accidentally. When I began my MRes I didn’t really know if I was a ‘proper’ sociologist, because I didn’t really know what sociology was.  All I had ascertained was that the theoretical texts underpinning the discipline spoke strongly to me and that, as an intellectual space, it was the more likely discipline to let me do what I wanted. I’m almost completely through my Master’s now and about to embark on my PhD in sociology in the autumn, so do I now feel like a sociologist – and more importantly, do I feel accidental?

Honestly, I have no idea. The paucity of writing in this column is testament to the fact that, ultimately, I’ve managed to fit in with the discipline rather well. Frankly the original piece was a rather heartfelt cry for help – a plaintive grasping for a steadying rock amid the fluctuations of my academic path. Essentially it was therapy, and indeed proved therapeutic. That I haven’t really felt the need to write more often indicates to me that after an initial spell of “WTF?” I’ve managed to ground my research questions, knowledge and skills quite happily within sociology. More than this, when I now talk to people working in my old subject, English Literature, I approach their work with a combination of bafflement and amusement. I have almost no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing, nor how they’re going to make a case for impact out of it. Of course, excellent work is done in other subjects (but obviously the best and most relevant is done in sociology) but my complete alienation from something that used to be second nature seems further proof of my current comfortable place as a sociologist.

On the other hand, several recent incidents have brought into sharp relief the disjunction between me and sociology – or more specifically, what I might regard as dominant or hegemonic sociology. For me this is very much The Other Stuff, or What I Don’t Do, i.e. large scale empirical work where you have an actual chapter headed “Findings”. My chapter headings are all quotations from Alice in Wonderland. What I have are more musings than findings. Let’s take a moment to mark the difference there. I’m interested in power, legitimacy, values and knowledge. I appreciate the scientific method and applying this to theoretical reasoning. I fail to see why emotion and practice and affect (apparently) cannot be part of science. Fortunately I have the opportunity to investigate this question in my PhD, but it’s this specific gap that is always what makes me feel out of step with sociology. I write about writing but I don’t classify myself as a cultural sociologist.

At the 2013 BSA Annual Conference the organisers put my presentation in the ‘cultural sociology’ panel. If I had to define myself it would be within the remit of critical sociology or critical theory. I sort of resent the idea that anything even remotely drawing on art or artistry is put in the ‘cultural’ bracket, as if it can be demarcated and dealt with separately to scientific sociology. A recent email exchange with another sociologist, this time someone rather further ahead in their career than I, revealed further disjunctions in how art is dealt with in terms of sociological knowledge formation. We made a link based on mutual research interests concerning an unusual topic within sociology (which is in a sense a very good thing), but equally there was a sense of shared relief in finding someone else who thinks this stuff is important. Now that may be a common feeling, but I’d argue that when your research almost directly contradicts the foundations of your discipline, it’s a particular joy to find other folk who care.

Recently I have found myself abusing a phrase – I am guilty, in my representation of sociology to those outside the subject, of constantly describing the discipline as ‘a broad church’. Ultimately, I still don’t really know what sociology is but I’m slowly learning that it’s more in the doing than the definition. Sociology is essentially a set of epistemological and methodological tools for interpreting society and people, but more than that it is a particular form of imagination. A sociological imagination is a tool as much as a certain theoretical viewpoint or methodology. So perhaps the reason I no longer feel so very accidental, so very much here by chance, is that the underpinning of sociology appears to be something quite amorphous and indeed, fortuitous: we might attempt to define a sociological imagination but fundamentally the imagination is slippery, indistinct, personal. The concept itself is suffused with artistry. Doing sociology should be similarly so.


Categories: C. Wright Mills, Higher Education

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22 replies »

  1. You have summed up all that is destroying sociology as a serious discipline.

  2. It has no core. Just lots of peripheries.

    • You’re awfully aphoristic for someone who derides French theorists so enthusiastically.

    • Max Parkin: This “coreless” structure in itself is not necessarily the problem with sociology. The existence of multiple paradigms in the social sciences reflects the multiple possible ways of understanding what goes on in the world. It is not (at least) immediately possible to say which paradigm or style of analysis is superior – and the answer might differ depending on the research angle. Besides, there are competing paradigms in the “natural” sciences as well.

      That said, scientists (social and other) can (and do) argue about what is the best degree of precision for each purpose, and I agree that in sociology it really is harder to judge what is waffle and what is good work. However, this is because the world is complicated. I see sociology as a type of chaos theory with ∞ dimensions – that necessarily makes it and its methods fuzzy and imprecise.

      • The short road to chaos, you mean?

      • Astute observation.

        I incline to think of this ‘matrix’ as a synthetic manifold of paradigms that go to constitute the Existential Field for Perception, both objective and subjective elements and aspects of orientation, motivation, interest and planning (or mapping) strategies (cognitive frame or affective disposition, creative or responsive, reflective) enduing a momentum that can be characterized as dual-directional…having interiority and exteriority of experience, whether through Discovery, Invention or passive absorbsion of the cultural milieu in which we move about and have our being, so to speak. More on that in the “Prolegomena to the Models of Agency,” being Value/s instinctively, fundamentally derived or reasonably contrived to serve ends both intrinsic and extrinsic to their realm/space/terrain…intuitive, sensate, cognitive, rational and ideal (projection of the Possible Real) having different orders of realization, different principles of instantiation as experience or differently organized set of value valences, synthetic and dynamically cooperative or competitive, as aspects of Perception that informs the EF, for all organic intelligence as for any Agency, rational purpose, aesthetic, or instinct.

  3. Pitysome of the the French aren’t! They take far more words to say far less!

  4. I have 40 years of experience of the influence of French intellectuals on UK sociology. Yet to see anything that I thought advanced the discipline. Just because it’s hard to understand doesn’t make it valuable.

    • Any particular examples of bad sociology? Do you have any examples of good sociology? What is your own field?

      • and do you make a habit of walking up to PhD students and saying “YOU’RE what’s wrong with sociology”? If you don’t do it in person then why do you think it’s ok to do it online?

    • Any particular examples of bad sociology? Do you have any examples of good sociology? What is your own field?

      • No, I just expect young sociologists to justify what they do and how and why, like I had to do. Bad sociology? The GBCS for starters.

  5. French intellectuals have contributed nothing to sociology? This is baffling having just given a talk in Copenhagen about Bourdieu’s early work in Algeria and his sociological craft. Preserving the discipline in the way suggested in Max’s comment will embalm it. This couldn’t be more wrong at a time when computer scientists, artists, life writers and musicians are all falling over themselves to collaborate with sociologists. This is a great opportunity rather than a threat. There is no future for a timid or conservative sociology.

    • “There is no future for a timid or conservative sociology”. Absolutely!

      Les Back. As a graduating sociology student, just completed an applied research project, I couldn’t agree more.

      The organisation I worked with warmed to sociology as I have myself through a four year journey. At times I have almost hated it, but I really love it, now that it’s beginning to make some sense to me. The amount of times I’ve used Bourdieu, and to be fair, Durkheim is very undervalued and unappreciated in an impersonal neo-liberal regime/ era where sympathy, empathy, tolerance and patience are at a premium. Well, maybe that has been the case in the past too and the ‘founding fathers’ saw similar in their days. I’m sure they did.

      I worked with a ‘homeless’ football club. Their strength was that they were patient and non-judgmental, They never wrote anyone off. Lots of complex, problematic people. Lots of ‘write-offs’. From place to place, some in and out of prison, little if any structure or stability and so on. Amazing people too with stories worth hearing and knowledge to be made from them. Social bonds, trust, self-esteem, hope and (crucially) solidarity were missing from many homeless players lives before they started having a game of 5-a-side in Liverpool Homeless Football Club.

      When I’ve raked through Bourdieu, Wacquant and also a lovely paper by Stepan Mestovic (1987) on the value Durkheim’s and Mauss’ ideas, for all the economism around, some basic humanity, reflexivity and imagination are vital ingredients of any good sociological imagination.

      As well as learning so much myself, about myself as well as the community I have worked with; sharing this journey and my thoughts with the key workers in a voluntary organisation has opened their eyes and minds too. The ‘old’, ‘classic’ sociological ideas and research in times of rapid change still resonate now.

      The over-cautious, conservative sociology is as bad as the coldness and blatant over-intellectualism of postmodernism. The reflexive approach is what we’ve been exposed to in Liverpool, i.e. using the resources we have available to us and the skills and concepts we’ve learned… All humans are capable of high levels of self-understanding and we use this to make social changes. Maybe not huge macro revolutions. Small changes can and have made a big difference to ordinary lives. Some people may be on the pitch but the game is far from over…

      Just thought I’d share my thoughts.

      Best wishes,

      • Les, I have no idea what you mean, maybe because what you say has no meaning? I don’t share your apparent idea of progess in the discipline. I don’t care who is falling over themselves to collaborate with a discipline that has no core.

  6. I’ve been thinking about Max’s comments and this is what keeps coming to mind:

    “Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” – Tracey Emin to Billy Childish

    Sociology, like art, can’t be preserved in aspic and remain unchanged and unchanging. I have no time for deadness; I want my sociology to be full of life – to be exciting. So if my kind of sociology is destroying the discipline, I’d suggest that maybe ongoing destruction and revision is no bad thing.

    • Soicology is not art. It has nothing to do with art, nor with literary crit, nor with French eumerdification. It isn’t about preserving anything in aspic. It’s about trying to make the discipline cumulative and not just continually revolutionary. Revolutions don’t emerge from eumerdification. If the core concerns of sociology are constantly changing, that’s a problem. For me, the core concern of sociology is the problem of order – and not just for me but for every sociologist whose work I have admired from the classics to Lockwood. But who reads – who among the current young generation has even heard of – Lockwood today? Only the best theoretical sociologist the UK has had in the last 50+ years, of course. Yet the youngsters don’t know his work (I know they don’t; I have asked wherever I go; so did Ray Pahl who was equally puzzled), but have Bourdieu quotes tumbling from their laptops and mouths. And even the many French sociolgists I know don’t take Bourdieu that seriously! For empirical work, they find Goldthorpe more useful. You know, the Goldthorpe who is the best empirical macro-sociologist the UK has had in the last 50 years. It was G and L whose work attracted me to sociology and nothing since has persuaded me that their way isn’t the most promising for sociology. Why do UK sociologists prefer and keep turning to prophets from other countries? Naturally, I accept that there are other ways of doing sociology that are very insightful, too. But if one’s concerns are macro-sociological, as mine are, I fail to understand why the newer generations are so ignorant of what’s on their doorstep. Read Solidarity and Schism; read Lockwood in BJS 1996 – there’s a research agenda for today! Read Goldthorpe’s On Sociology. Read Runciman’s three volume magnum opus. Then explain to me why eumerdification is a better way forawrd. My ears are receiving.

      • Oh dear Max, if you think sociology has nothing to do with art maybe it’s you that needs to do some reading…..

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