Ann Oakley’s lessons for social scientists

Four lessons offered by Ann Oakley in her Father and Daughter: Patriarchy, Gender and Social ScienceThis is a wonderful, thought-provoking and deeply human series of essays on the unfolding of her life in relationship to her father Richard Titmuss, the social science he advocated and web of relations which connected them all:

The first is the lesson about how lateral thinking is much more productive than stubborn disciplinary allegiances. It matters not at all (or only in an ‘academic’ sense) whether what we’re doing counts as social policy or social administration or sociology, whether it belongs in the field of education or health or welfare or in the more amorphous land of public policy. The questions override territorial enclosures. Richard Titmuss specialised in seeing that. Secondly, I understood that what I would later encounter as ‘the crisis in epistemology’ of Western culture –the suspension of belief in any kind of stable objective reality –is simply a trick of the mind invented by theorists who’ve got nothing better to do. Reality does exist, and so does the real stress and pain that derive from a completely non-random (unfair) distribution of life-chances. Thirdly, I learnt that one way to make a difference is to argue on the basis of evidence rather than opinion about the need for change (which is not to say that evidence plus opinion, in the kind of clever networking Richard Titmuss and his disciples were so good at on ‘their Holborn stage’, 73 isn’t the most effective option of all). Lastly, you don’t need to hold all this in your head so long as you know where to find it. Back in the 1950s we really did have door-to-door salesmen who tried to offload copies of the 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica on us. I was a sucker for their sales technique, but my financially prudent social accounting father was not. He told me to get on a bus and go to the library. Richard Titmuss would have loved the democratic epistemology of the internet (although his wife would probably have needed to operate the computer for him).

Categories: Committing Sociology

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