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Sociology Outside Academia

October 19, 2013 1067
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How will current threats to academic freedom shape the future of British sociology? That there are serious threats to academic freedom seems hard to deny, unless one’s understanding of academic labour is skewed in peculiar ways. I recently came across one such peculiar approach to scholarship. In a recent piece in The Guardian, George Monbiot highlighted serious threats to academic freedom for scientists working in the UK. Monbiot argues that considerable political pressure is being put on British scientists to conform and not voice opinions that might threaten corporate interests. In this context, he cites an article by Ian Boyd, Professor in Biology at the University of St. Andrews and Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I would characterise Professor Boyd’s article as a seminal representation of a mentality that is increasingly pervasive in both British academia and internationally. Professor Boyd makes his case as follows:

“Before becoming a Chief Scientific Adviser in UK government I was a full-time professor at the University of St Andrews, and I probably had a fairly typical scientist’s view of policy. Experience within my discipline allowed me to speak with some authority on whether policy was generally consistent with current scientific knowledge, and whether the information being used was robust. I also had some specialist knowledge that allowed me to provide direct advice about some specific policy decisions. I often held a view of whether policy was taking a right or wrong direction when the subject was within my own self-appointed area of knowledge but I chose to be agnostic when it was not.”

As I now realise there are two difficulties with this position that require careful management. The first is the issue of where authoritative comment stops and political point of view starts; and the second is that any position taken by a scientist is usually a low-dimensional view of a multi-dimensional (or complex) problem. Together, these have a tendency to create a gap between the aspirational views of what policy outcomes should look like, often promoted by the idealised views of scientists, and what these outcomes really look like once they have been through the mangle of policy development.

Professor Boyd’s comments here seem to reflect the widespread understanding of science as an objective process that can only lead to authoritative knowledge in so far as it remains divorced from political points of view. Ironically, the mentioned piece by George Monbiot documents how deeply Professor Boyd’s appears to be entangled in politics. That science cannot be divorced from politics and political values is old news, though. What is truly startling is Professor Boyd’s claim that scientists usually hold “a low-dimensional view of a multi-dimensional (or complex) problem”. Is it not one of the key aims of scholarly debates to make systematic sense of complex problems? Is this not what, to a large extent, scholarship is all about? His argument, both in the quoted paragraphs and in the remainder of his article, highlights scientists’ inadequate understanding of policy processes and the problems they therefore encounter when communicating with policy makers. Elsewhere, Professor Boyd also points to the latters’ great openness and their willingness to listen to scientists’ arguments. He concludes that scientists should be “the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

So what’s wrong with all this? To begin with, there is the text’s one-dimensional and out-dated understanding of the epistemology and politics of science. It’s too simple and too convenient to render science as a process that should be divorced from political views. From there, it’s only a small step to the conclusion, made by Professor Boyd, that scientists should not engage in dissent at all. His argument promotes a faux de-politicisation of science which, in the end, amounts to scientists silently and uncritically supporting the politics of the powers that be. This is a deeply authoritarian standpoint.

Professor Boyd is a natural scientist, but even the natural sciences are not free of the political entanglements whose existence he seemingly wishes to deny. Moreover, the natural sciences still shape popular understandings of scholarship in general. Therefore, arguments such as Professor Boyd’s promote mistrust against academic disciplines whose core consists of critical debate and dissent. Views such as Professor Boyd’s being increasingly widespread, it is not surprising to read, for example, that a special advisor to the education secretary would claim that too many students engage in social science work of questionable value, in areas such as sociology.

To illustrate the danger which these views pose to sociology as an academic discipline, it is perhaps useful to draw up an entirely random list of sociological works that would fall foul of the standards that are being set by Professor Boyd and other senior political figures:

 

  1. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man
  2. Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry
  3. Pierre Bourdieu, The Weight of the World
  4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
  5. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity
  6. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
  7. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite
  8. Jock Young, The Vertigo of Late Modernity
  9. Frank Furedi, Politics of Fear
  10. Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack

 

And so on. If one took Professor Boyd’s exhortation to avoid dissent as a yardstick for the assessment of academic labour, not much would be left in the way of a body of distinguishably sociological research. This is so because sociology has always engaged deeply with critical questions about social inequalities and social justice. For this reason, sociology has a long history of dissent and critical commentary, throughout which it has made significant contributions to public debates.

Views such as Professor Boyd’s are powerful in British academia today. Due to the growing importance of these views, universities might end up turning into an unfriendly environment for the sociological imagination. This may force sociology into a marginal role, with sociology departments gradually disappearing or merging into other disciplines. Moreover, it may alter the character of sociology beyond recognition, with analytically sophisticated and politically committed scholarship becoming the prerogative of a small minority of elite academics.

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.

View all posts by Daniel Nehring

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