How Does Sociology Feel?

Salvatore Vuono

How does sociology feel? What does it feel like to be a sociologist today? How are these feelings differentiated by one’s status within the profession? How do they shape sociologists’ professional practice and contribute to the changes the discipline is undergoing at the moment? I think that these are important questions which have not been considered enough. The sociology of emotions has made it obvious that feelings play a significant role in professional life and constitute a significant object of enquiry. There is now a range of interesting studies that explore the emotional side of academia. (Take a look, for instance, at this impressive autoethnography.) Within the social sciences, scholars have devoted considerable attention to the ways in which emotions may play a part in the research process and shape methodological practices. And so forth – so much research over the last few decades has demonstrated that sociologists and other social researchers take emotions seriously. And yet, emotions do not feature strongly in current conversations about the crisis and transformation of sociology.

I think that there is a strong case to be made in favour of the pursuit of questions such as the ones I listed above. A reflexive analysis of the role which emotions play in our everyday professional practice might help us to better understand where our discipline is headed and how some of its more serious problems might need to be addressed. For instance, this applies quite clearly to the jobs crisis in academic sociology and the precarisation of sociological labour, a topic on which I have written much over the last few months. It’s not that the topic did not receive any public attention. The jobs crisis in British academia at large does figure in the news with some regularity. On February 4th, for instance, The Guardian pointed out that academic labour is still undergoing a process of relentless casualisation. The article begins with several case studies of young academics who fell from their PhDs straight into the purgatory of short-term, part-time, flexible, casual, not-meant-to-last employment on the margins of academia. It also hints at the personal consequences which such a downfall may have:

“When Vicky Blake embarked on her PhD at Durham University eight years ago, she believed it was the beginning of an exciting research career. Now, as part of the silently growing army of teaching staff paid by the hour in British universities, she is beginning to wonder at what stage she should walk away. ‘I feel I owe it to myself to try, because I’ve invested so much in this. But I am 30 years old and I can’t keep existing on a month-to-month basis,” she says. ‘I have to put a time limit on how long I can hold out for a proper research job, and I think that’s really sad.’ Blake may spend her life juggling, with no ability to plan ahead, let alone apply for a mortgage, but in some respects she is one of the fortunate ones. When she came to the end of an eight-month, part-time research assistant post at Leeds University last year, instead of letting her fall off the academic cliff, it put her on a special redeployment register. This led her to a part-time, one-year assistant post on an academic journal at the university. She has a second part-time clerical post at Leeds, a commitment-free, “zero-hours” clerical job at Durham, and an hourly paid teaching job at Leeds, for which she has to secure a new contract each term.”

After an outline of the grim landscape which young scholars face post-viva, the article concludes with an obligatory piece of advice from an expert careers consultant:

“Prof Janet Metcalfe, chair of Vitae, a career development organisation, says researchers can improve their chances of success. ‘People naturally get passionate about a particular research area, but the message is: the more flexible you are, the more employable you are,’ she says.”
To be fair, this statement is not as dire as that of another careers consultant I quoted in another post a few months ago. (That consultant suggested that unemployed junior scholars might consider moving into academic administration and taking jobs like vice chancellor.) Nonetheless, it illustrates the fundamental problem in public debates about the precarisation of academic labour: While it is to some extent, somehow, somewhere, sometimes acknowledged that the nature of the problem is structural (i.e. due to universities being unwilling or unable to employ the people they equip with PhDs), suggestions for its solution still place the burden entirely on the individuals who suffer from it (by suggesting that, if you can’t find a job, you are perhaps too inflexible and not open enough to employers’ wants). Apart from a host of other errors, conversations about flexibility ignore what it feels like to be a young scholar living between unemployment and precarious employment. As the graduate quoted by The Guardian points out, it’s really sad. Students are recruited into PhD programmes and socialised into a specific academic culture with the implicit or explicit hope of a long-term career in their field. Being suddenly discarded at the end of the PhD then easily leads to anxiety, depression, as well as personal and intellectual isolation. (Don’t take my word for it. Ask around among the unemployed graduates you know.) Without stable employment, it is very difficult or impossible to make plans for the future and build lasting personal relationships. Working on the margins of academia, as a part-time research assistant, teacher, etc., one does not really form part of one’s academic field anymore, and the resulting intellectual isolation may make it very difficult to remain truly creative and produce scholarship of the kind that gets you hired into a permanent post. Flexibility is the problem, not the solution.

Just as it is insufficiently recognised in public debates, the emotional side of forced flexibility in academic labour does not appear to be a major topic of conversation among established sociologists. The emotional and personal consequences of being a sociologist who is unemployed, under-employed, or employed in three jobs at the same time, but only until the end of the current academic year, simply do not receive much attention. One reason for this might lie in the great emotional disconnect that exists between the world of establishment sociology and the realm of precarious sociological labour. Having a settled job as a lecturer, senior lecturer, or professor simply feels very different, and it entails concerns – about publications, conferences, grants, workload, teaching, etc. – that differ considerably from those of sociologists who don’t know where they will be and what they will do two months down the road. Imagining and understanding the world of the precarious sociologist may just become very difficult. Responding to the current crisis and re-making of British academia, established sociologists have had to re-brand their discipline and demonstrate, with confidence and optimism, their discipline’s usefulness to economy and society. Within this narrative about sociology’s usefulness, there does not seem to be much space for a genuine conversation about the troubles of sociologists in precarious employment. Precisely such a conversation, however, might play an important part in overcoming the disconnect I have described and make the most of the talent and creativity of the graduates which sociology departments produce every year. It thus makes sense to pay more attention to how sociology feels.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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