Focus: Sociology as ‘progress’ and passion – a debate

Focus: Sociology as ‘progress’ and passion – a debate

Robert Moore with a response by Hannah Jones

In this issue of Discover Society a number of authors address issues of the nature of sociology and its critical possibilities to inspire hope and activism. This month’s Focus reflects on different formative moments of sociology in the UK. Robert Moore reflects on sociology’s past and its lessons for the future, while Hannah Jones takes the perspective of an early-career sociologist to ask what it means to be a sociologist in the twenty-first century.

The expansion of sociology in the UK was both a feature of and a contribution to a progressive era. 1945 to 1960 was a period of reconstruction which saw the emerg­ence of a (highly gendered) social settlement, the ‘post-war consensus’. Thus it was not only Clement Atlee who advanced the welfare state, but a future Conservative Prime Minister, when in 1951 Harold Macmillan promised and delivered 300,000 new houses. Wartime solidarities were, it seemed, to be continued into the era of the Cold War.

Men born in the immediate pre-war years had an especially good war because they were at school during the hostilities and then became beneficiaries of the post-war expansion of the state. We enjoyed the benefits of the extension of secondary education and the expansion of employment in the public sector. We found careers in central and local government, health, education, communic­ations and newly national­ised industries. Occupational changes were making upward social mobility possible for men, and especially for well-educated men. Women fared less well; they were expected to return to the domestic sphere and were actively excluded from some occupations, while those who did stay in work were held to be neglecting their duties and contributing thereby to the rise of ‘juvenile delinquency’.

At university we were taught by a generation of sociologists who hoped that society could not only be understood but changed. That the state was capable of making a better life for everyone appeared to be at the core of the consensus. Conspicuous contributions from sociologists in this period included the work of Halsey et al on education, Joan Woodward on industrial organ­is­ation, David Glass and his collaborators on social mobility. Sociologists were not just reporters, they ex­plored below the surfaces of an expanding education system, full employ­ment and social mobility; they asked how the benefits of social transformations were being distributed. Poverty was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s by Peter Townsend and his colleagues whilst Fabian pamphlets written by social scientists and rooted in the belief that greater equality and social justice were realisable, provided a running critique of welfare policy.

The post-war era was not as progressive as it seemed however, we were fighting colonial wars and later public and official attitudes to ‘race’ at home were a set-back to progressive ideas. A trickle of equality measures emerged sufficient to keep progressive hopes alive among white male academics. The very slow progress of women and minorities in our own profession was something that male academics did not dwell upon.

Our teaching was premised on the knowledge that studying hard and getting a good degree was the route to a career in which one might enjoy incremental salary increases, promotions and an index-linked pension which would itself open up new opportunities in retirement. Our graduates could expect to own a house. So in the period up until the 1980s, the young could be optimistic. Furthermore many of our students whilst aspiring to careers in the public service, or in the service of the public also supported radical politics and good causes at home and overseas.

Theoretical positions make a difference to policy expectations and personal aspirations and the latter amplified the ferocity of debates about the former. Arguments about and with the founding fathers, about ethnomethodology, grounded theory, functional­ism, feminist theories, quantitative methods and theorisation – the intellectual questions really mattered. Our arguments were about intellectual issues, but they were seldom that alone.

Within the profession there was general but not detailed agreement about the appropriate curriculum for the formation of sociology graduates. Some combination of ‘Modern Britain’, research methods, classical and contemporary theory featured in most degree courses with options in industrial sociology, urban sociology, family and kinship, deviance and political sociology. These foundations were not parochial, comparative sociology or the sociology of development featured in many degree courses and engaged with Latin American and other work on the development of underdevelopment. Our students were to be equipped to address world issues. It is noteworthy that in the sociology of development we discussed globalisation before the term was coined

There is no need to rehearse the extent of the social, economic and cultural changes since the period described. The careers that the more academically successful men envisaged for themselves were largely realised and we are now enjoying our relatively generous pensions. No similar future awaits today’s students; they face uncertain employment prospects, with regular changes of employment probably punctuated by unemployment. A few may make fortunes in the City of London or beyond. The great majority will be burdened with years of debt for tuition and loans, with house ownership becoming increasingly unrealisable. Many will not accumulate the resources to generate adequate pensions. Working hard and getting a good degree is no longer a route to life-long security. Insecurity defines the future for the present generation. If in response any of our students express “a desire for political and moral change” or harbour “feelings of grievance and injustice” they will become persons of interest under the Prevent strategy.

Vital elements of the welfare state have now become economic opportunities for international business. The public sector is increasingly a cash stream for the corporate sector and the state is defined as a problem, not the means to a better life for all. Public service is devalued and working in the public sector (including university teaching) has been made less attractive whilst the enrichment of the few in the private sector is celebrated. Popular culture meanwhile promotes division rather than solidarity. It has become more acceptable to deride and abuse poor, marginalised or vulnerable people. The labour and trade union movements appear to be largely defeated. Deregulation and tax reforms have created conditions in which income and wealth has been redistributed upwards. Globalisation of economic activity and off-shoring to hide wealth and avoid taxation conceal the full range of inequalities. Elites live encapsulated lives detached from and indifferent to the nation where they may be located. A secondary welfare state has emerged to protect their financial interests from their failures even as protection from the consequences of these failures has been removed from the less privileged.

I doubt whether many of our students aim to become seriously wealthy but, if Piketty and others are correct, their prospects will, as always, but increasingly, depend on acquiring capital through inheritance (or marriage) rather than accumulation through earning. Some of our students will inherit wealth, or enough wealth to offset their debts and the cost of launching a career with unpaid internships. At gatherings of more affluent acquaintances I hear how people have sold their London homes and moved to their place in the country in order to set their children up with a first home. But more commonly we hear of graduates returning to the parental home.

Will these bleak personal prospects lead our graduates to forsake good causes? Some become engaged with environmental and world development issues or work with NGOs or the local voluntary sector in addressing poverty, health and political issues. But employment prospects in the third sector are declining while the capacity for working voluntarily is reduced by the need to earn a living and pay off debts. This generation has however found new forms of political activism and mobilisation through the use of social media – as evidenced by European-wide opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. They have also rediscovered direct action through ‘Occupy’ and similar movements.

How do these circumstances, which have changed radically since the most active years of the older generation of sociologists, impact on teaching? Does the bleak future necessarily impinge on the content and purpose of a sociology degree: business as usual perhaps, but with today’s teachers and students feeling more miserable than their predecessors?

There is no reason why sociology should change to address current circumstances, but it would be very strange if it did not. Even a cursory examination of university sociology curricula indicates that the ‘big’ issues are being addressed. Is there any danger that our students will fall into Wright Mills’ ‘trap’ of feeling that they cannot cope with the larger world and ‘remain altogether private men(sic)’ ?As private men and women might they come to concentrate solely on issues of private life and identity, issues rather neglected in earlier years, or will they be able to relate the inner issues to the wider society and then engage with both?

If the issue of the 1950s was how to create a better society then one key question for the 2010s is why when all nations face the same world economic circumstances only two are experiencing spectacular increases in inequality with the equally spectacular rise of what Stiglitz calls ‘the one percent’ at the expense of the majority?

What of the outcomes of teaching? Our graduates have been eminently employable. We have never needed governments to instruct us on the importance of graduate employability. But we are primarily concerned with developing the intellectual equipment, the knowledge and the critical minds necessary to understand the world and to become effective citizens. Given the rate and global scale of change we cannot know in detail the world out students will inhabit, so it is especially important that they are equipped intellectually to deal with circumstances as yet unknown.

Sociologists are of course contributing to the exploration of our students’ futures in work ranging from globalisation, through migration and modern slavery to domestic labour and intimate relations. Social inequality was traditionally the almost exclusive field of sociologists – and we were pilloried as ‘left wing’ for this ‘obsession’. But it is now the World Bank, the IMF and the ECB – even the Bank of England – that have warned of the detrimental economic impact of rising inequality.

Whilst we may not have abandoned our interest in the field of inequality, the current literature on economic change, equality, power and globalisation includes work by geographers, health economists, social policy academics, journalists and a novelist, whilst much empirical work and commentary has been published by NGOs. Most notably the work of two economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty, has been dominant in more recent public discussion.

That other disciplines are now engaged in the analysis of the conditions that are shaping our students’ futures is a challenge; what unique contribution does sociology have to make – what is the special leverage we bring to bear on public issues? This is also an opportunity, to engage more closely with colleagues from sister disciplines and to share our work through our teaching.

The mid-20th century development of the discipline in the UK may have been a reflection of a progressive era but it also sustained a critique of that era. Critique has been sustained into the anti-progressive circumstances of the early 21st century but not by sociology alone. Optimism need not be replaced by gloom or despair – maybe a bit more anger and a bit less optimism but always with passion.


On Being a Twenty First Century Sociologist, a response to Robert Moore (Hannah Jones)

On the night of the 2010 general election, I was sitting in a pub in south-east London with other early-career-sociologist friends, feeling a little despondent. It seemed pretty certain that the newly-elected government would shortly continue the work of dismantling all the institutions of social welfare, health and education and increasing brutal inequalities. What could we do as highly-educated sociologists who knew they were wrong? ‘Never mind,’ I (half-)joked, ‘in about five years’ time we’ll publish the shit out of them!’

This has been something that and continues to prey on my mind. I used to work in local government and I wrote my PhD and first book on the ways that, even as ‘neutral bureaucrats’, with some relative power but within a wider system, people seek and find ways in which to negotiate and ameliorate their work in ways that try to balance their political, ethical, professional and personal commitments and responsibilities. As critical sociologists, we, many of my colleagues and friends and I, research, write and think about social inequalities, their consequences and the processes that produce and reproduce them, but it is less common to engage with the questions of how our own work relates to and is embedded in these processes. In some cases it can be seen as a distraction from a focused research question; in others, such questioning may not be seen as fitting the format of academic journal articles or requirements of REF.

Even in work which argues for the value of engaged sociology, there is often a fall-back on a claim that a central virtue of academic sociology is the long timescales needed for reflection and analysis in order to provide valuable theoretical insights, and that attempts to respond and engage more directly and actively with social issues constitute part of the marketization of the university and are inherently informed by neoliberal values (and therefore wrong).

However, I would argue that we live in neoliberal times and work in neoliberal universities whether or not we like it. Insisting on slow sociology is no less a part of this dynamic; by resisting engagement in immediate and ongoing social struggles, through an insistence on the importance of slow and removed reflection, sociologists risk a retreat to the ivory tower, a move which is no less oppressive or constitutive of inequality and privilege than is an engagement (and subversion) of market logics. I am not suggesting that there is no place for longer reflection and a slower pace of theoretical development – but I am insisting that this cannot be at the expense of using our expertise, knowledge, skills and privilege as critical sociologists to engage with current social struggles, if we wish to be worthy of the title of critical thinkers.

Some of the ‘challenges and opportunities’ of ethically and politically engaged sociological practice are illustrated by a collaborative project I have been leading, with an amazing group of interdisciplinary sociologist colleagues. This began in July 2013, when the UK Home Office commissioned an advertising van to drive around areas of London with large immigrant and ethnic minority populations. The van carried a billboard stating: ‘In the UK illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’. It was accompanied by a close up of a border guard holding handcuffs, a number to call, and a claim that there were ’106 arrests last week in your area’. This led to consternation among a wide range of commentators, noting the direct referencing of the racist National Front slogan (‘go home’) more commonly heard in 1970s Britain, now plastered over a ‘tax-payer funded’ advertising campaign to taunt and terrify local people while demonstrating to potential UKIP voters that the government was being ‘tough on immigration’.

I was among those outraged, and digitally expressing this outrage. I also began thinking that this kind of reaction among the ‘liberal middle class metropolitan elite’ was in a sense part of what the campaign was meant to instigate, and actually amplified its reach. While discussing this with friends and colleagues on Twitter, I remembered an email that had been circulated that morning about a new call for ‘urgent’ research projects, an ESRC grant programme aimed at doing responsive sociology on ‘urgent or unplanned events’. Why not, I suggested, do something other than moaning on Twitter, and try to organise a research project examining the damage such tactics might cause? I linked up the Twitter sociologists with people who had been at a workshop a few weeks previously at UEL, organised by Gargi Bhattcharyya and others, on race critical public scholarship, involving both academics and activists. This led both to a very quickly assembled street survey about immediate reactions to the vans, and a longer-term ESRC funded research project looking at the wider effects of Home Office communications about migration on people’s lives and public debate. We did manage to carry out our politically engaged research in a detailed and substantive way, by combining our sociologically directed anger – and our institutionalised entrepreneurialism in making our case for research funding.

The work on the ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy’ project demonstrates at least three contradictions of current politically-engaged academic sociology. First, the research was designed and carried out by a collaborative group of eight academic researchers in different institutions, cooperating with civil society organisations which were clear about their need for robust social scientific evidence about the effects of government rhetoric on migration. The value of academic sociologists working with practitioner organisations in this way is not just to provide an evidence base for service planning or campaigning.  Our particular position in the Academy means we have the space and time to provide reflection on the wider ramifications of such evidence which people at the sharp end rarely have. The contradiction here, of course, is how well such a model fits with the ‘impact agenda’ of current university and funding regimes, which ask academics to demonstrate the value of their research in terms of its ‘use’ beyond the university. Thus our engagement can also be seen as less radical, and could be imagined instead as a cynical act in developing our own career profiles.

I am proud of having worked in such a successful collaborative team with a group of excellent, critical, imaginative sociologists and of the fact that through a combination of shared enthusiasms, joint goals, patience, mutual support and professionalism we are continuing to enjoy writing together and imagining future joint projects. Working with this team has been a pleasure, but again, collaborative work has a contradictory status in the university of 2015. We are encouraged to collaborate with other academics in order to increase the chance of securing large grant funding; but when we produce writing together (such as the forthcoming eight-authored book from this project), we are told it will not hold value in the audit culture of REF which, it is said, favours heroic single-authored works. If we wish to advance our careers, we must get grants together, but publish alone.

Finally, there are the ironies of researching the impact of immigration control and rhetoric whilst based in universities, which increasingly rely on international students as a core income stream and yet require us to monitor their attendance and participation on behalf of the Home Office.

All of these contradictions are emblematic of the life of a 21st century academic in the UK, but particularly so for sociologists, and even more so for sociologists who wish to intervene in questions of social justice through their work. The answer cannot simply be to reject the career advancement and audit route, for two reasons. One reason is that we are increasingly caught in academic career paths in which in order to keep a job, there must be some engagement with the requirements of academic audit; most of us need a job to put food on the table, and we are also doing this particular job because we think that critical sociological research, teaching and writing is important. The second reason that those logics cannot be dismissed, is that if we want our (or any) critical sociological voices to be heard in the academy and beyond, we need to not only stay employed but claim the recognition which less critical colleagues might take for granted without recognising or working through these ethical contradictions in the practice of their sociology.

I’m arguing, then, that the twenty-first century critically engaged sociologist lives what Celia Lury has described as ‘amphibious sociology’. Amphibious sociologists – like frogs crossing between water and land – adapt to more than one environment: both analysing their data and forming part of that data; critiquing structures of power whilst also recognising how their work might benefit from and even reinforce some of those structures. We want to ‘publish the shit out of’ structures of power which are having immediate effects in our lives and society – but we recognise that this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Not only is a peer-reviewed journal article likely to come too slowly and too quietly to publish the shit out of anyone; but we also have to recognise that the type of responsive, mobile, opportunistic and yes, if you like, entrepreneurial sociology I am advocating is also worryingly resonant in some of those characteristics with ideal neoliberal behaviours. However, I would argue, this doesn’t mean that doing engaged and opportunistic research is inherently neoliberal, oppressive, individualistic or reinforcing of dominant norms; subverting arguments and practices can mean engaging in them, working the spaces of power in and against these contradictions, rather than withdrawing – or claiming to withdraw while continuing to play the audit game.


Hannah Jones is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. She is author of Negotiating Cohesion, Inequality and Change: Uncomfortable Positions in Local Government (Policy Press, 2013), winner of the 2014 Philip Abrams Memorial Prize, and co-editor with Emma Jackson of Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Emotion and Location (Routledge, 2014). She is co-authoring book on the Mapping Immigration Controversy project with Yasmin Gunaratnam, Gargi Bhattacharyya, William Davies, Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Kirsten Forkert, Emma Jackson and Roiyah Saltus, which will be published by Manchester University Press in 2017.

Robert Moore is Professor Emeritus at the University of Liverpool. His first career was in the Royal Navy. The navy’s forthcoming acquisition of nuclear weapons and the impact of some influential sociology books, combined with the encouragement of friends, saw him as a student of Peter Worsley in the University of Hull. He then worked with John Rex on Race, Community and Conflict and joined him in the new department of Social Theory and Institutions in Durham. His book Pitmen, Preachers and Politics followed from research in the West Durham coalfield. He moved to Aberdeen, where he became a professor and undertook research on the oil industry leading to publications on labour migration and on immigration policy. His final academic post was as Eleanor Rathbone professor of Sociology in the University of Liverpool, where he returned to work in the race field and published on discrimination and the implementation of equal opportunities policies. He retired in 2001.