I have just come back home from the annual conference of the British Sociological Association in Leeds. Lots of participants, excellent organisation, and a surprisingly nice (though rainy and chilly!) town with a modern, functional, well-equipped campus.
Overall, however, a sense of unease prevailed. Perhaps it was the very theme of the conference: “Sociology in an age of austerity”. Though not too strictly applied to all sessions (fortunately, a variety of issues and topics found a place in the variousstreams), it gave the general tone to discussions. Participants repeatedly voiced concerns about the current government’s policies –privatizations, reforms of the University system and the NHS, reduced welfare benefits. Many raised the question of the role of sociologists in this context –all the more so as funders, regulators, and the government itself tend to increasingly make sociologists (and generally speaking, academics and intellectuals) accountable for the “impact” of their work. Is impact the right measure of the contribution of sociology to society –or should we rather think in terms of “value”, as John Brewer (outgoing president of BSA) suggested? Is the notion of “public sociology” of Michael Burawoy (a keynote speaker at the conference) still practicable, and how can it be adapted to today’s challenges?
It is indeed an important question. Yet I’m afraid there weren’t many answers around. (I was particularly happy of something that Burawoy said – we need a new theory of social movements – but it’s just because it’s one part of my research). By and large, nobody had a clue.
Still, there are some directions to explore. With the few who, like me, tweetedintensely during the conference, a sort of implicit consensus emerged that sociology should engage more with social media. To be part of an important development of today’s society, and most of all, to engage with wider publics than just academia, policymakers or business “clients” of sociological insight. The traditional press is no longer enough. Our bunch of tweets is a small step in this direction –we should now jump to a larger scale to make a difference.
Another direction for development is more openness to junior researchers. It was a bit sad that many delegates left the auditorium after the Burawoy-Bauman plenary, before the prize ceremony that was to reward two “newer generation” sociologists. More generally, there should be more to support junior participants, be they PhD students, post-docs, or freshly appointed lecturers. If we need novel ideas, it is only from them that we can expect them. The Burawoys and Baumans have already done their job, and outstandingly so –we can’t ask them more.
Finally, I’ll draw on Burawoy (again!) for an appeal to method:
“we desperately need methodology to keep us erect, while we navigate a terrain that moves and shifts even as we attempt to traverse it.”
The conference saw the usual quarrels between the qualitative and quantitative camps, but that’s not the point. Both methods have their legitimacy and usefulness, and so do all their variants and combinations (I’ll write more about this). What matters is that in all cases, methods should be applied seriously and rigorously: I regret to say, it was not always the case in Leeds. We need to be more careful about that. If we fail to stay erect, no notion of “impact”, “value” or “being public”, however innovative, can come to our rescue.
Originally posted on Paola’s blog