An invitation to punk sociology

I seem to recall dreaming up the notion of punk sociology at some point during my PhD, I think it was around 10 years ago. When I think back I imagine, rather melodramatically, that it came to me whilst I was trying to write one of the middle chapters of my PhD thesis as I listened to The Clash playing ‘Clampdown’. I hadn’t intended to write anything explicitly about it. The punk sociology approach was simply something that I tried to tacitly develop in my work over that decade – I often asked myself, what would a punk do here? At the beginning of 2013 it suddenly seemed like the right moment to flesh-out the idea in a more direct and rigorous form. The conditions just seemed right. A number of things were coming together at this time – student fee structures and quotas had altered, research assessment was in full flow, key information sets were operational, league tables were circulating, research funding was eroding, the impact agenda was taking hold, the list goes on. The result was the book Punk Sociology.

One obvious starting point for the book was the discussion of a disciplinary crisis in sociology. Debates about a ‘coming crisis’ have been very prominent over the last 6 years or so, but they stretch throughout large parts of sociology’s history. I find the discussion of crises within sociology to be very productive and engaging, but only if handled carefully. The problem with talk of a crisis is that it can be inhibiting and potentially disenchanting for those in the early stages of their careers, when people first encounter sociology, or when we are trying to find a sense of purpose in their work. Crisis talk can actually perpetuate a sense of uncertainty unless it is used carefully. We shouldn’t hide from or try to conceal our problems, but I wanted to make a positive statement about the way I thought the discipline might be re-energised and how it might find a vibrant and sustainable future. I’m sure that lots of sociologists will disagree with my vision, but it seemed necessary to say something definite about the way we might protect and foster sociology in its current conditions.

Punk Sociology is intended as a response to any lack of confidence in the discipline. It suggests that we should tackle such uncertainty head-on. Punk sociology also taps into a number of debates about the future of sociology. There have been some excellent recent edited collections on Live Methods (edited by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar) and Inventive Methods (Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford), along with a range of other articles, that claim that sociologists need to be ‘inventive’, ‘crafty’, ‘lively’ and ‘imaginative’. Many of us would agree with this type of sentiment, but I was left wondering how we might achieve this imagined future for the discipline. It’s actually quite scary to think that we are faced with the responsibility of making-up a more imaginative sociology. So, although these edited collections and articles are excellent and inspiring, I still felt there was space for a model to emerge that might help us to be imaginative and creative in rethinking sociology. This is where I suggest that we turn outside of the discipline to use cultural resources to help us. I turn to punk, largely because I think it gives us the means to think creatively about sociology, as well as allowing us to consider what sociology might be and how it might be done. In other words, the punk ethos might give us inspiration for thinking about the challenge to be ‘inventive’, ‘lively’ and ‘creative’ sociologists. It might seem odd to look back nearly 40 years in order to inspire the future of our discipline, but it is in the sensibility of punk that we can find viable ways for ensuring sociology’s vitality.

Alongside this, sociology is, of course, performed and produced in a changing environment. The words ‘neoliberal’ and ‘audit’ are often imported to describe these conditions, and often with good reason. In the book I suggest that the risk is that the pressures placed on us in this environment are likely to push us towards playing it safe. If we follow the lead of these systems of measurement and the way that they place value in certain types of work then, I argue, we are likely to find that our efforts and focus are counterproductive. Playing it safe will lead us to slip into the background of the social world. Instead, we need to resist the temptation to play it safe. My suggestion is that we use the punk ethos to do this. We can use the punk ethos to find ways of re-imagining how sociology is done and to help us to navigate the disciplinary and structural pressures that we are faced with. Punk shows us how to be creative and resourceful. It also shows us the value of being bold and fearless in our work whilst embracing raw ideas and a DIY ethic. Overall though, Punk Sociology is a call to think about how sociology might respond to its changing environment. Punk Sociology is intended to be a call to people who might want to explore the promise of sociology away from the inhibiting pressures we face and the shackles of convention. Hey Ho Let’s Go!

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. His book Punk Sociology will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2013. You can read the introduction to the book open access here. He also blogs at  

Categories: Committing Sociology

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4 replies »

  1. Looks good Dave. I’m certainly feeling a lot of uncertainty right now! I’ll be sure to pick up the book and hope punk will throw me a line.

  2. Is there space for a rave sociology then ?

  3. It’s always great to have new and creative ways of doing sociology.

  4. Punk sociology- my dream come true. Nice link between punk and creativity/diy.

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