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.