The Branded Sociologist: Can We Still Be On Anyone’s Side?

Sociology is a brand. To survive or even thrive in the academic marketplace, sociology needs to take care of its image. A good image is vital when it comes to competing with other disciplines for money and attention. You don’t want the sociology department to go the way of the philosophy department, do you?

Sociologists are brands. To survive or even thrive in the academic marketplace, sociologists need to take care of their image. The more research grants, star-studded publications, and other esteem indicators they can show, the better they will do when competing with other sociologists for jobs, more research grants, and more publication opportunities. As a friend of mine frequently tells me, this is just the way things are, and resistance is futile!

A long time ago, in a world that now seems far, far away, Howard S. Becker raised the question whose side sociologists are on. Becker’s paper and the debate of which it formed part addressed one of sociology’s core concerns, namely its preoccupation with public issues that are politically controversial. Becker stated the problem thus:

“To have values or not to have values: the question is always with us. When sociologists undertake to study problems that have relevance to the world we live in, they find themselves caught in a crossfire. Some urge them not to take sides, to be neutral and do research that is technically correct and value free. Others tell them their work is shallow and useless if it does not express a deep commitment to a value position.” 1

The issues of class, race, gender, sexuality and so forth that have motivated sociological enquiry since its inception are all entangled in broader struggles about politics and politically significant values. After Becker, many sociologists have convincingly argued that claims to the primacy “technically correct and value free” research are themselves deeply politically laden.

Today, the question whether to have values or not to have values (or which values to hold) does not seem to matter very much anymore. By default, the branded sociologist must not have values, or, to be more precise, the value of the brand must be protected at all costs, to the exclusion of other values. The value of a sociologist’s brand is coterminous with her or his image with employers, public and private organisations that might award prestigious and well-funded consultation projects, other sociologists, and so on. It can be measured in the total monetary value of research grants, the number of stars awarded to publications, and other indicators of professional achievement that directly determine a sociologist’s career prospects (as well as the extent to which sociologist will even have careers after the end of their PhDs). To take a stand on a politically controversial issue might mean to spoil one’s image, and a bad image might be fatal for one’s career. Opportunities might dry up, and employers might take exception at the unwanted attention created by a public controversy.

To be sure, there is still some space left for sociologists to be controversial, as, for example, recent debates about higher education policy in the UK have shown. However, this space seems to be narrowing considerably, and it might be accessible to fewer and fewer sociologists. As universities align themselves with the operational principles of the business world, they adopt its hierarchical structures and forms of communication. Top-down micro-management is increasingly the norm, and employees are more and more expected to be adhere to management’s views and opinions (or not to express an opinion at all). The Rod Thornton controversy at the University of Nottingham and the suspension of staff at Middlesex University for publicly voicing dissent at management decisions are high-profile examples of this trend.

Universities have for a long time been places in which ideas, opinions, and analyses of society’s state can be debated freely and in which scenarios for a different future can be envisioned. Today, these pursuits have taken a backseat to university’s role in training a skilled workforce, and many consider them unnecessary or undesirable altogether. Thus, sociologists who take sides may find themselves increasingly on the margins of academic life.

1 Becker, Howard S. (1967) ‘Whose Side Are We On?’, Social Problems, vol. 14, no.3, p.239.

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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