A Proposal for a Public Understanding of Sociology Chair

This morning Mark Carrigan opined on twitter that it would be great to have at least one chair in Public Understanding of Sociology, given how such chairs have benefited not only the natural sciences, where they began around 1990, but also philosophy, where it is now used to great effect by its first holder, Angie Hobbs.

In case it’s not obvious to the reader why there might be a need for such a chair, Mark outlines the reasons here. In addition, one might add a particular ‘crisis’ of sociology that is exhibited in the last quarter-century of research assessment in the UK — namely, that ever fewer ‘units of assessment’ self-identify as ‘sociology’.  While research assessment is obviously a game of strategy, it’s striking just how easily the baggage of ‘sociology’ is dropped to gain strategic advantage. So if there’s something at stake in having a distinctively ‘sociological’ perspective, then this is the time to make it publicly visible.

So here is my proposal for how the Chair in Public Understanding of Sociology should be selected and financed.

1. You have an open competition in which universities wishing to house the chair would bid with a candidate in mind, for whom they would be already committed to providing the basic salary.

2. However, this person may be either someone already hired or someone the university would be willing to hire, were that person to get the chair – but perhaps not otherwise. This condition is important to incentivize departments to think in terms of the value they might provide to the discipline as a whole rather than simply their own place in a league table.

3. This candidate would be worthy of a chair in Public Understanding of Sociology but not necessarily worthy of a chair simply based on research achievements. This means that in principle someone who is young but is very knowledgeable and articulate in public settings in sociology could get the chair. There might even be a preference for appointing such a person.

4. The application process would be initially about certifying a sufficiently high level of sociological competence by more conventional means (e.g. degrees, publications, letters). But at the shortlist stage, it boils down to who can write and speak in many media. Once candidates are shortlisted, they may be required in advance of the interview to send e.g a 750-word newspaper column on one of four possible assigned topics that represent the broad remit of the discipline. The ‘interview’ phase may require speaking to camera for 2-3 minutes on, again, one of four topics, from which they are allowed a free choice.

5. Those involved in vetting and deciding who gets the chair would provide a top-up to the successful candidate’s salary that would relieve them of most if not all of their teaching and administrative burdens. Since the British Sociological Association and the Academy of Social Sciences claim to speak on behalf of sociology, I would prima facie expect them to be strongly involved in both the vetting of candidates and financing the top-up. Yes, as far as the professional societies are concerned, there is a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ aspect to this proposal.

6. But the chair in public understanding of sociology would be a fixed-term deal (say, three years), at the end of which all parties concerned may refuse to renew the association. In the meanwhile the BSA and the Academy of Social Sciences would endeavour to raise capital to keep the chair alive as an ongoing concern.

7. However, the first chosen chair will not be required to be involved in this fund-raising process – other than by setting an example in their practice as a public intellectual who inspires others to think that such a chair might be worth funding indefinitely. (Of course, in the meanwhile, if some university or even private donor, wishes to provide an indefinite endowment, then that would be need to be taken seriously.)

Now if it turns out that a chair cannot be appointed under something like the above conditions, then it speaks against sociology’s long-term prognosis as a discipline.


Postscript (8 February 2015):  A couple of days later, in response to e-mail traffic, I posted my response here to most frequently asked questions about this proposal.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Rethinking The World, Sociologists of Crisis

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4 replies »

  1. I understand the need to generate ‘public understanding’ in the context of perhaps, enhancing the standing of the discipline amongst a range of audiences including the ‘public’. Is that what your are aiming to achieve here? The title, however, has connotations of the old deficit model of public engagement, aimed at securing a license to practise, and little else. Perhaps this is what you want but is that not rather limiting? The term, ‘public understanding’, also implies a one-way communication with our audiences including the public, ignoring a need to genuinely understand, on our part, what the role of the discipline is in society today. It would be better if the role of this chair, and the title, clearly demonstrated that we, as a discipline, are seeking to build a constructive, two-way relationship with our audiences. That we are willing and able to listen to our audiences, to consider other perspectives and to have a dialogue about any aspect of the discipline.

  2. You’re just describing what many sociologists already do. But the idea here is that there really needs one or more people dedicated to putting across a distinctly ‘sociological’ perspective on matters in public forums. At the moment, the discipline’s identity is rather invisible, either because sociologists are removed from the public altogether or they just dissolve into it, which your comment comes close to endorsing.

  3. I understand what you are saying about the need for visibility but would argue that there is a distinction between dissolution and dialogue.

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