The Sociologist, the Consultant, the University and the Real World
A new common sense has taken root in academic life and public debates about academic life in the UK. Over the past decade, conversations in schools, universities, politics and the press have concentrated on the economic benefits of scholarship, to the extent that alternative narratives are now difficult to articulate and easily dismissed. Teaching is meant to equip students with the skills employers demand, and research is meant to have a measurable economic impact in the ‘real world’. These developments are underpinned by the institution of academic Newspeak (see my previous posts on terms such as ‘line manager’, ‘teaching and learning’ and ‘excellence’), which makes it increasingly difficult to imagine that academia could be any different from what it is like now.
The growing prominence of consultancy in academic labour is one particularly noteworthy aspect of this trend. In a time in which universities are run by profit-minded managers, often with a background of prior work in business, academic departments do well to demonstrate their usefulness by selling their services to public bodies, NGOs and commercial organisations. Likewise, hunting for jobs in an exhausted labour market, individual academics must demonstrate their ability to procure consulting commissions and substantial income from such commissions in order to become desirable for prospective employers. Great success may follow for those who brand themselves as successful consultants. One sociologist I know quite well has built a high-flying career exclusively on regular commissions from a certain public body. The research reports, academic papers and grants that result from these commissions have been enough to sustain regular promotions and build an international reputation. This academic explicitly views himself as an entrepreneur and not a scholar. He claims to have no particular interest in or knowledge of theoretical debates in his field, and his aim is to deliver methodologically sound empirical research to whoever commissions him. He likewise has no interest at all in research that is not funded with a substantial grant. His views and practices today might still seem extreme, but I am under the impression that a growing number of academics do share them at least to some extent.
To be sure, engagement with all sorts of business enterprises and governmental and non-governmental organisations has a very long history in sociology. There are numerous examples of classic works of sociological research that developed on the basis of commissions by non-academic organisations. However, the relationship between sociology and such organisations seems to be undergoing profound changes. Sociological research is sociological in so far as it is grounded in the sociological imagination and in so far as it explores and question common sense through the sociological imagination. Precisely because sociology is committed to epistemological standpoints that run counter to what is taken for granted in everyday life, it has been able to uncover and challenge major forms of social inequality, exploitation and oppression throughout its history as an academic discipline. Arguably, its unique perspective on social life and its challenge to social inequalities make sociology worthwhile and distinctive as an academic discipline. In the context of consulting projects, however, there may be very little room for the sociological imagination, the questioning of common sense, and, least of all, challenges to the status quo. The recent emergence of ‘consultancy’ as a term used to describe sociology’s engagement with non-academic organisations highlights these limitations. Sociologists are invited into an organisation to provide expert advice as desired by the managers of that organisation. They are not meant to offer insights and criticism beyond the remit of their commission. In a time in which sociologists and sociology departments are increasingly dependent on commissions and funding from non-academic organisations, they might moreover feel disinclined to publish critical analyses of these organisations. The academic I mentioned in the preceding paragraph is constantly worried about losing his privileged access to a certain public body, and he forcefully agrees with everything that public body does, in spite of frequent scandals and copious criticism it has had to deal with in recent years. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!
As far as I can tell, the trend I have just outlined only describes the work of a minority of sociologists in the UK. There is enough critical scholarship committed to the sociological imagination to sustain this argument. At the same time, policy makers and academic managers are exerting considerable pressure on sociology to align itself with the economic interests of the ‘real world’. The rise of consultancy in the vocabulary of everyday sociological labour is a response to this pressure and an attempt to justify the role of sociology within the corporate university. However, research that merely puts its methods and tools at the disposal of whoever has the money to pay for their use has little to do with sociology proper. Consulting projects do not necessarily have to be like this, but many are like this. In this sense, there is a real risk that the rise of the sociological consultant may result in an identity crisis for sociology and produce a generation of sociologists whose work differs little from what is being done over at the business school or the offices of professional business consultants.