The Accidental Sociologist is feeling rather unsociological….

In these first few weeks of ‘transitioning’ the main thing I’ve noticed is the lack of anything spectacularly new. SPSS looks just like Excel, I did most of the qualitative methods course in my PGCE and social theory is basically what I learned in literary theory but without the addition of people like Roland Barthes and Donna Haraway, whom I wouldn’t be without.  I’m feeling surprisingly territorial of my position as an English Literature academic and have managed to forget that the disciplines have the potential to be so different; where once I could assume shared knowledge I can’t anymore. Instead of making me feel more like a sociologist, studying sociology (formally in any case) is thus far making me feel more like a literary critic. I keep wondering when I can reasonably berate classmates for such things as lacking a working knowledge of canonical literature or not recognizing quotes from Shakespeare. Truth be told I had a rather large wobble last week and had to be brought down from the cliff ledge by a combination of extensive talking with academic friends and,  er, wine. It doesn’t help that what I’m currently studying is not – how to phrase this? – the most intuitive of topics to a literature geek. Statistical inference (which currently makes up 90% of my sleep time and 100% of my awake time) is a discipline I’m unlikely to return to in a hurry and certainly not one that is coming naturally; the questions I asked during the last week’s class made the poor lecturer look like she wanted to run weeping from the room. Thankfully I’m not alone in this and it’s amazing how buoyed one can feel knowing that others are also struggling.

Having moaned thus, I have to admit that there are some distinct advantages to coming from an arts background. Though the study of English Literature may appear to be primarily concerned with examination of fictional characters and situations, it’s really far more about considering the human condition and how we relate to our environment, making the leap to thinking in terms of social theory and its construction relatively straightforward. Moreover, being concerned with language as a matter of course makes it easier to be a critical thinker – I’m finding so far that everything I learned in my literature degrees, both content and skills wise, is incredibly transferable in terms of both skills and knowledge.

The more I study the textual aspects of sociology, the more I question the boundaries that distinguish disciplines. Considering that my methodological approach is distinctly qualitative rather than quantitative, I’m now beginning to wonder what it is that marks out a qualitative theoretical (as opposed to field work loving) sociologist from an arts or humanities academic? We’re both concerned with people, with words, with thick description, with textual sources. Does it really matter if the characters we write about from source material were never alive to begin with?

Submit your questions….

One of the primary aims of this column (in addition to providing me with a public space to talk about myself…) is to create a sort of workshop style environment in which anyone doing postgraduate work in sociology – or indeed academia in general – can find the answers to any and all of those niggling questions that have been playing on their mind. These can be questions about substantive topics, theory, field work, methodology, constructing funding applications, finding CFPs, writing abstracts, conference papers and articles, getting published, networking, job applications, teaching and anything else that is relevant to postgraduate study of sociology. As part of this we’ll be fielding questions to leading academics as well as PhD students in the know.

We’ll regularly feature a workshop oriented column with a selection of pertinent and popular questions with a variety of responses. If you have a burning question that you want put to our panel of experts you can contact me via The Sociological Imagination or Twitter. In order to reach as wide an audience as possible we’ll be using a Twitter hashtag, #phdsoc. Stick this tag on to your tweets and we’ll pick them up and add them to our pile. Indeed this is probably the best way of getting in touch. We’re hoping for a post bag bigger than Santa’s! Please also share this hashtag widely so that sociologists far and wide can begin using it.

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