Viewpoint: Venturing Beyond Critique to Practice and Back Again

Viewpoint: Venturing Beyond Critique to Practice and Back Again

Victoria Armstrong, Laura Fenton, Katy McEwan, Robert MacDonald, Kirsty Morrin, and Jon Rainford

“Thinking means venturing beyond” (Bloch, 1986: 4)

What is the role of an academic? What does it mean to be a sociologist? What is sociology? These were all questions posed by Lisa McKenzie at a workshop on ‘Re-appropriating Values in Higher Education’ held at the University of Manchester in June this year.

Amidst calls “For Public Sociology” (Burawoy, 2005) and with the introduction of the REF (Research Excellence Framework) “impact” agenda affecting the social sciences more generally, exploring questions like those raised by McKenzie permits conversations which allow us, as academics, to consider how we can (or ‘ought’ to) perform in our roles not only as critical thinkers, but in further adapting pragmatic and alternative methods of practice within the walls of the academy and beyond. This article brings together some of the emerging themes from the workshop in order to extend the politically engaged debate of the day and also to speak to wider ongoing debates in the academy and beyond.

Public Sociology
The current and ongoing debate surrounding ‘public sociology’ constitutes a backdrop to both the discussion at the workshop and this piece. Although it is acknowledged that there are many approaches to ‘public sociology’ (see 15 eminent debates here), we adopt Michael Burawoy’s suggestions that it should be an engagement with ongoing dialogue about values, with diverse publics that reach beyond the university. That said, awareness of epistemological conflicts between theory and praxis, means we also adopt John Holmwood’s working definition which suggests critical and public sociology as dialogic, with a “strongly reflexive dimension” (page 47). In doing so we highlight that our ‘public sociology’ involves applying criticality and reflexivity to both societal injustice, our own positions within society, and recognising that we, as sociologists, also can act pragmatically. 

The REF Impact Agenda
Introduced as part of the REF in 2011 to measure the “reach” and “significance” of academic output, the “impact” measure as it is more commonly known, accounts for 20% of overall quality profile of any given UK Higher Education institution. The REF defines “impact generally as the: “activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding… of an audience, beneficiary….community, constituency, organisation or individuals… in any geographic location (and/or)…prevention of harm, risk, cost or other negative effects” (page 48).

There are, of course, a wide range of critiques of the REF, however to avoid going over this debate again, we want to reimagine its uses, and do so through employing the ‘utopian’ lens utilized by both Ernst Bloch and Ruth Levitas.

Venturing Beyond
In his work on the Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch (1986) employs the notion of “utopia” to consider how the social sciences might ‘venture beyond’ explanation, or criticism in some way. This has been considered more recently by Ruth Levitas. With futurity at the foundations of this theory, we employ the notion of ‘venturing beyond’ to mean two things: First, to acknowledge the importance of critical theory and empiricism of social injustice to argue for an alternative future. Both criticality and radical thought looking towards alterity are the first steps in our thinking here.

The second move is pragmatic. This is not for all sociologists (or social scientists). It does not define them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All are necessary as part of these processes. As a collective, however, we wanted to situate this piece by offering examples of some of the ways in which we have tried to ‘practice beyond’, by applying our research, in practical and meaningful ways. The remainder of this piece considers the many ways in which we, as a collective, imagine, practice, and counter, some of the injustices we experience in the academy and beyond.

Listening to Stories and Getting Them ‘Out There’
There is value in the theories we construct and the research we do. Using empirical research to assemble people’s stories about their everyday experiences of inequalities and injustices, then sharing these stories, with the consent of research participants, can be a means of having an emotional impact. That is as a means of changing how readers or viewers feel about, and understand, social reality. In the spirit of Martin Nicolaus’s attack on “fat-cat sociology” (1968). Robert MacDonald has spoken to a number of audiences about the pressure and possibilities of “real world research impact”. In his presentations on “Fat Cat Sociology Revisited”, MacDonald outlines his work with colleagues, such as Tracy Shildrick, which challenges the notion of ‘cultures of worklessness’ on platforms beyond the academy.

MacDondald and colleagues were able to do this via knowledge exchange projects, high media exposure and extensive public speaking to diverse audiences; the researchers strived to make their research widely known and widely used. Further, for this work a high score was awarded on the REF Impact Case Study, showing how we can work both with and against agendas we critique and find prohibitive. Additionally, the advantages of using social media has been documented by Teesside University researchers, Katy McEwan and Stephanie Mulrine who have used YouTube to try and counter “common sense” (and typically empirically unfounded) assumptions, recorded in the right wing press, about marginalised groups. While sociologists must remain realistic about the real extent of the impact of their research they should still explore maximising possibilities for social and political engagement.

Informing Practice
In a piece written for Discover Society, Kevin Gillian stated that if we are to be moving towards an ethic of public sociology, “it must be time to invite the public into these debates”. Within the group discussion around how our research could inform our practice, one member of this collective, Victoria Armstrong, identified the emergence of Mad Studies as a field of study inside the academy whilst emphasising its strong links to ‘’Mad’ activism’ beyond academic institutions.  In her own work she is currently involved in the organising and ‘doing’ of Mad Studies in the North East of England. This collaboration sees the coming together of those who study, and/or have experienced mental health related issues and/or identify as ‘Mad’, as well as those who work within mental health or other sectors. A focus of Mad Studies is on the discrimination against people who experience madness and distress in everyday life.  Many other marginalised groups experience similar discrimination and so this kind of collaboration, sharing, discussion and activism, is essential for social change.

Institutional Matters
As well as looking to challenge the injustice faced by less powerful groups in society, this final section reflects on our role in the institution itself, specifically our rights to employment. The example we give here is of a successful intervention, although we understand this kind of success is not reflected in the ongoing hard work of many academics. The recent controversy at the University of Warwick around outsourcing agency, TeachHigher saw groups such as No to casualization Warwick  engage in protest which ‘disbanded the outsourcing agency. Warwick based researcher, Ruth Pearce, part of this collective and integral to this successful campaign, explains that having representation at formal meetings (even the monotonous or ‘boring’ ones) is key. To understand the policy-making process, she reminds us, is to be able to influence and change policy. As academics, we are in the relatively unique position of having access to the inner workings of policy-making in institutions such as universities, professional organisations and in some cases government departments. We need to use this position to make interventions.

Acknowledging that these sorts of interventions are never entirely finished, campaigner Matthew Jackson writes, “our responsibility now is to make sure that our departments…honour this agreement, and we do this by adopting the same strategy with which we have defeated TeachHigher”. It is vital however, for us to share these stories and our expertise, whether they are considered relative successes or failures, to challenge potentially damaging university politics.

Considering again the question what is the role of academic? We suggest that ‘venturing beyond’ through thinking beyond, and practicing beyond, is necessary in the hope that we move beyond current unjust models of sociality.

Coming together at the Manchester workshop was intended to create space to ‘venture beyond’ in the ways discussed in this piece. Moreover, in order to acknowledge the differential powers afforded to individuals within the academy, it is concluded that collaboration is necessary if these interventions are to have ‘impact’. Ruth Levitas reminds is of the need for continued dialogue, as she highlights here the tensions and gaps between utopian theory and practice, but, we suggest, an underpinning ‘principle of hope’ itself can remain. It is in the spirit of hope and dialogue that this piece, as an outcome of the Manchester workshop, can make a small step beyond the university towards social justice.

Bloch, E. (1986) Principle of Hope (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought), Vol 1, translated by Plaice, N. Plaice, S. and Knight, P. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Levitas, R. (2013) Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstruction of Society, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillian


The Collaborators’ are a collective of academics who came together at the British Sociological Association funded, ‘Re-appropriating Values in Higher Education’ conference at the University of Manchester, June 2015. The day saw the academics come together to discuss their research interests on ‘values’ and discuss their political interests in social justice. This piece was written to speak to some of the themes that arose during the day and was put together collaboratively as a purposefully political endeavour. 


Image: A ‘Post-it’ note written by a participant in the Workshop