What makes a discipline “successful”? Thoughts on the counter-productive anarchy of UK sociology

Colin Mills from Oxford Sociology has posted an interesting response to Steve Fuller’s piece here last week about the fortunes of Sociology in the UK’s research assessment exercise. Many of the complaints that have followed the REF concern the peer review process itself and the nature of the standards applied in enacting it. Mills offers a very plausible case that the intellectual promiscuity of sociology (my phrase) leaves assessments of quality as little more than contingent expressions of personal preference because there aren’t generally agreed upon standards of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sociology:

“Successful” disciplines – in the social sciences the paradigm case is probably economics – define relatively tightly what kind of thing is inside and outside of the tent. Standards about what is and is not an acceptable question or solution to a question are shared and there is a consensus about the suite of acceptable research strategies – though not necessarily agreement about the applicability of a particular tool in each case. All this is not to say that people agree all the time about all the questions and the ways to answer them, but people do agree about the sort of thing they are doing  to the extent that they can meaningfully talk to each other. The Economic Journal does not publish poems.

Paradoxically a “discipline” in which “anything goes”, is, of course, not literally a discipline in which everything goes. It is simply a discipline in which quite arbitrary decisions about academic value  get made that depend on whoever has grabbed or promoted themselves to positions of power and influence. Sometimes these decisions coincide with what is reasonable, sometimes they are absurd. How they look will very much depend on what flavour of “sociology” the observer happens to prefer.


When I’ve read about graduate education in the US and compared it to my own experience in the UK, I’ve been struck by the disparity. I feel like I’ve thrived intellectually in the conceptually anomic environment of British Sociology but this is a statement about personal experience rather than anything else. I find it hard to see how anyone could contend that more professionalisation in graduate education wouldn’t contribute to raising intellectual standards – unless one perhaps were to argue that any attempt to this end would inevitably be done rather badly under current conditions.

Mills goes on to argue that personal interests have led many to aquisce to a fragmentation of the discipline that they privately bemoan:

The real criminals, in my view, are the people that have led and been influential in running the major British sociological institutions. The BSA Presidents, the editors of the journals, the Professors in the major departments, in short the people who could have led but instead sat back and let a hundred flowers bloom  while saying things in private like: “I know that what x says is correct but I can’t be seen to endorse that because it will upset y and lead to z and then w won’t like me and therefore I won’t be invited to v.”


I have no idea if this is an accurate picture. Though I’m again struck by the disjuncture between my subjective satisfaction (I quite like an environment in which a “thousand flowers bloom”) and my reflective agreement with the spirit of what he’s saying, even if I dislike the way he says it. I enjoy this slightly anarchic atmosphere but if we think the discipline of Sociology is an intellectual project with value then it seems obvious to me that the former is in tension with the latter. I find invocations of ‘hobbyist sociology’ obnoxious and yet I do see what they’re getting at: perhaps my discomfort with reaching these conclusions goes some way to explaining why I find the terminology so irritating.

I’m reminded of what Christian Smith says in the Sacred Project of American Sociology about the ‘peace treaty’ within the discipline: “everyone should mostly think and do whatever he or she wishes in terms of methods, theory, and intent and not suggest that what anyone else is doing might be a problem” (pg. 142). The result isn’t really pluralism in any meaningful sense, in so far as that people aren’t within the same argumentative space (as Doug Porpora would put it) but are rather simply doing their own thing within more or less shared institutions. Though I’ve been told that what I do isn’t sociology enough times at this nascent stage of my career that perhaps a revocation of the ‘peace treaty’ would mean I get kicked out and I’d have to go a philosophy department and perhaps change the name of this blog. Hmm.

Categories: Committing Sociology

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