Shared Sociology

by Les Back

We all know we are struggling within the institutions in the academy where metrics and audit culture is tied to the hierarches of a value.  Even if you did well in REF 2014, success is followed quickly by an impending sense of falling and failing. ‘Pay wall sociology’ is hostage to the prestige of journals that count, status, measured and accumulated quantitatively and individually. More often than not, the ‘impact agenda’ put us on the side of the powerful.

Does the crisis of the academy mean that the sociological imagination has been dealt a fatal blow?  Absolutely not!  Does creativity endure? Of course it does. There is so much brilliant work being done that can be celebrated and read with a sense of wonder.  At the risk of you all laughing at me – and it’s good for intellectuals to be laughed at I think as George Orwell once commented – how about building a sociological future out of foregrounding our best scholarly virtues… of sharing hunches, passing on leads and suggesting ideas.  “You really have to read this book… you would love it.” This will sound weak I am sure but I think one way to survive the current academic conjuncture is to cultivate a kind of intellectual generosity.

I can imagine a few of you might be thinking well that all right for you to say?  On some can afford to be generous.   I would argue against this position for I agree with Ros Gill when she argued that institutionalised self-interest is toxic and licenses cruel judgments.  Equally you might think: shouldn’t the first principle of generosity be a willingness to reciprocate it?  Maybe so.

Two dimensions come to mind.  Firstly, to argued for a broadened sense of the space of sociology.  John Holmwood (2010) captured something important when he called sociology an “exporter discipline”.  Equally, I would say in my mischievous moments, that we have imported things worth celebrating. We have imported Franz Fanon, the most anti-methodological thinker of the 20th century.  We have imported Judith Butler and Angela Davies and Paul Gilroy, and of course W.E.B. Du Bois who was in and beyond sociology from the very beginning.  I often use John Scott’s book of biographical portraits of contemporary social theorists as an example of what I would like to call a shared sociology.

The second point I want to make is about the possibilities sharing and passing on the immaterial things of sociology.  There are more opportunities for circulating in sociology through social media and online magazine and publications than ever before. There can be some unpleasant dimensions including the dark arts of academic impression management too but I would still argue the possibilities are there.  It draws into the conversation the non-specialistic, school teachers, GCSE  students and sometimes people who are just plain curious (ofte in more ways than one).  It isn’t always comfortable but I think it is often vital.

Today, by contrast, the atmosphere on university campuses rewards and encourages competitive self-interest.  Like many of you I am an avid listener to Laurie Taylor’s Radio 4 programme Thinking Allowed.   Laurie’s great gift is his capacity to bring the very best out of his guests.  He has cost me a fortune in buying books from a wide variety of fields that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about.  I am thinking of books like Marek Korczynski’s brilliant ethnography Songs of the Factory (2014) or Rachel Hurdley’s wickedly seditious study of the homing strategies of university office workers (Hurdley 2015).

After listening to the programme I often feel compelled to Google the email addresses of the featured sociologists.  I email them just to say how amazing their work is, or sometimes to beg a few .pdfs from esoteric journals not available in the Goldsmiths library.  I think authors recognize sincere appreciation that isn’t a ‘networking opportunity’.  They almost always reply favorably more often than not with emails loaded with bountiful attachments. It shows a small aspect of what I mean by a shared sociology, or living by the best values of scholarship.


Gill, R. (2010) ‘Secrets, Silences and Toxic Shame in the Neoliberal University’ in Ryan-Flood, Róisín and Rosalind, Gill. eds. Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process Feminist Reflections London: Routledge pp. 228-245.

Holmwood J (2010) Sociology’s misfortune: disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and the impact of audit culture The British Journal of Sociology 61(4), 639-658.

Hurdley R (2015) Pretty pants and office pants: making home, identity and belonging in a workplace. In: Casey E and Taylor Y (eds) Intimacies, Critical Consumption and Diverse Economies.  Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 173-196.

Korczynski M (2014) Songs of the Factory: Pop  Music, Culture, & Resistance. Ithaca & London: ILR Press.

Scott J (2007) Fifty Key Sociologists: The Contemporary Theorists. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He is the author of Academic Diary: Why Higher Education Still Matters (2016) published by The Goldsmiths Press.  The paper was presented at the British Sociological Association conference held at Aston, Birmingham. A longer version of this article will appear in a forthcoming issues of the BSA journal Sociology.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education

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