Does Sociology as a Discipline Have a Future in the UK after the REF?

The British Sociological Association (BSA), the main professional body for sociology as a discipline in this country, has recently called for some calm soul-searching about the results of the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF), in which the lowest ever number of submissions were returned — 29, down from 67 in 1992. Moreover, some historically important departments to the discipline (including my own) were ranked low. These two facts alone suggest that sociology as a discipline may be in decline. I tend to share this assessment – for two reasons.

One reason is that REF doesn’t respect discipline-based prerogatives, which were established prior to our neo-liberal regime. Rather what seems to have happened (and I wasn’t here when it happened 30 years ago) is that academics decided that if they had to show value for public money, then these matters should be decided through self-constituting peer review processes that tracked established disciplines. (The imagined nightmare alternative was probably some bureaucrat in Whitehall making the judgement without consulting academics.) But there were at least couple of other options available: (1) Continue resisting the impending neo-liberal regime, at least until a more favourable deal was on offer; (2) go for metrics of some sort, which the academics themselves might design, presumably to highlight their value to society.

David Willetts, the ex-Minister for Higher Education in our Tory-led government, has often observed that no government has a vested interest in funding such a labour-intensive process as the current REF. It operates on the pretence that many academics will read many pieces of work over a relatively short period, disrupting the normal course of academic life. Politicians would much prefer that we found a more efficient way of dealing with the funding issue. Indeed, it is a testimony to their respect for academics that politicians allow us to hang ourselves by such a richly brocaded noose. And why shouldn’t we be entitled at least to this?

This brings me to the second reason. The pieces that are submitted to REF for evaluation have been already peer reviewed and hence judged fit for wider consumption in the knowledge system. So what’s the point of peer reviewing them again?  The most obvious answer is that, in some sense, academics don’t think that the peer review process itself provides an adequate means of judging the ultimate value of a piece of work. And I would certainly count myself among those academics.

However, only a ‘cargo cult’ mentality would conclude that what we need is more peer review to solve the problem. Rather, we need some orthogonal means of assessing value – and here metrics opens up opportunities, since you don’t need to assume prior disciplinary formations to see the relevance and interrelations. As a result, you can get a different and certainly more dynamic view of the overall knowledge system.

There is a general and more specific lesson here. The general lesson is that the more academics stick to peer review in administering processes like REF (i.e. evaluations at the system-level of knowledge production), the more they reveal their unwillingness or inability to think about the value of their work beyond those with whom they most comfortably share knowledge. This is something that should concern politicians and policymakers.

The specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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2 replies »

  1. I’ve been through the process of shaping an RAE or REF return twice now, although in a different unit of assessment (Sociologists are widely distributed). I take a slightly different view. It’s worth disentangling the REF from the future of the discipline.

    First, the REF is a rather more holistic enterprise than is described here. In it, representatives of Units of Assessment are asked to select the best published work work (outputs) from participating academics, report on grant income and numbers of postgraduate research students, describe the important features of the research environment, and demonstrate wider impact on society. These are then rated by senior academics in the field in a process that is designed to make it difficult for an individual (or a clique) to skew the outcome.

    Because the REF asks each sociology group or department to present its best work, and then to contextualise this against a number of other aspects of performance, there is a clear competitive and comparative element to this. But to give the game a twist, the rules are changed slightly each time. It’s not just about reviewing papers, and in REF 2014, the introduction of impact case studies and an impact narrative has been the innovation in competition. It’s clear that these have been a problem for departments and subject groups that are not closely engaged with shaping or supporting policy and practice beyond the academy. Those academics that are busy critiquing other people’s critiques are unlikely to do well in this process. This is not confined to sociology, it’s the case for all social and health science submissions: those units or departments that could show clear ‘impact’ effects in a narrative and describe these in accounts of specific cases. When these are published later in the month, we will have a much better understanding, I suspect, of the distribution scores.

    There are many things wrong with REF, not least the burden of work that falls on academic units, but the future of the discipline of Sociology might not be one of them. There are many reasons why historically important departments could have been ranked lower in the current REF. I don’t know Steve Fuller’s department and I don’t want to comment about that particular case. But historical importance and contemporary significance are not the same thing. The declining number of submissions for the discipline of sociology may well be related to poor performance in the REF, and that’s true in other disciplines too. If this is so then the long cool look that the BSA recommends might need to be about what stands for quality, and how this is defined, in the most pragmatic way.

  2. Everything that Carl May says is true and in most cases obvious (and sometimes even mentioned in my post). The question is what if anything would count for him as signs of a discipline in decline. However, one can’t but admire his HEFCE-friendly brave face…

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