International Debate

Is Doctor Who a Sociologist?

August 11, 2014 3821

Doctor Who stamps

Besides his strong affiliation with sociological techniques and interests, Doctor Who has shown a predilection for the United Kingdom. The Royal Mail has repaid the favor.

The launch of a new season of Doctor Who with a further regeneration of the lead character prompts the thought: what is Doctor Who a doctor of? Interestingly, despite the concerted efforts of numerous fans in assembling an exhaustive collection of online resources, there is no definitive answer to this question.

There is a fair degree of consensus on two matters. The first is that the Doctor is definitely not an MD. Although he makes reference to medical studies in the past, these do not seem to have resulted in any formal qualification and he is never represented as having any special gifts in healing. When travelling with a companion who was a licensed medical practitioner, he jokes about the companion being ‘a doctor,’ while he is ‘the Doctor.’

The second, and this has been integral to the show from the very beginning, is that his choice of soubriquet is a deliberate ploy to conceal his real name. Nevertheless, it is a choice that reflects something about him. The arcana of the programme note that other Time Lords regarded it as a surprisingly modest and self-effacing choice compared with standard practice on Gallifrey. His arch-foe, Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, assumes the pseudonym of ‘The Master,’ which tells us all we need to know about his moral character. However, this does seem to be more in keeping with Time Lord custom, and they are often represented as a generally rather arrogant species. The Doctor’s choice of title is strongly suggestive of something that has been earned rather than assumed, part of what makes him different from other Time Lords. It would certainly be consistent with him having received a PhD, or intergalactic equivalent, at some point in his travels in time and space.

This raises the question of what this doctorate might have been awarded for. There is some speculation that he might be a lawyer, since he is clearly familiar with a variety of judicial processes and strongly committed to the rights of indigenous peoples and oppressed classes. Again, however, this is something that he does on occasion rather than being a core activity.

Perhaps the way to approach this issue is to ask what might motivate someone to wander in time and space as a matter of intellectual curiosity, picking up interesting hitch hikers and solving various practical problems from time to time. Of course, in the absence of peer-reviewed work on Gallifreyan psychology, it is difficult to engage with the question of motivation. On the other hand, the Doctor clearly has an affinity for humans, particularly those living in the United Kingdom, which suggests that his psychology cannot be too far removed from theirs.

As both symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists have observed, successful interactions require the assumption of a taken for granted mutual comprehension, which is not disconfirmed by the unfolding of the exchange. Erving Goffman called this ‘Felicity’s Condition.’ The Doctor does disconfirm expectations from time to time, but mostly is able to pass as a successful interaction partner for humans, or at least British ones. In this case, then, it may not be unreasonable to suppose that his motivations are not so very different from ours.

Who would, then, want to wander in time and space? This seems very much the sort of thing that some social scientists might want to do, given the opportunity. In particular, it points towards the qualitative social sciences. The Doctor is clearly not a fan of rational choice social sciences – the Daleks typically stand for the results of rationality triumphing over a concern for values but there are a number of other canonical examples of species blinded by logic to the human or other species-specific consequences of their actions. Wandering in time and space is exactly the sort of thing that an ethnographer might dream of doing. We can also quote from the extensive scholarship that has gone into the Wikipedia entry: ‘The Doctor has a deep sense of right and wrong, and a conviction that it is right to intervene when injustice occurs, which sets him apart from his own people, the Time Lords, and their strict ethic of non-intervention.’ Again, this sounds very much like a qualitative social scientist.

But what kind of social scientist? First, let us note that the Doctor travels in both time and space, which would seem to rule out both history and geography as candidates. While time travel would make history a very different kind of empirical discipline, resting on observation and interviewing instead of the interpretation of artefacts, its main focus would surely be temporal ordering and not random wandering. Human geographers have certainly incorporated more of a temporal dimension to their work – but it remains rooted in space rather than giving equal weight to time. This eclecticism points us much more towards sociology and anthropology.

Arguments can be made both ways. The Doctor’s various technical and practical accomplishments might be consistent with either. In both disciplines, field researchers need to pick up enough knowledge to understand the work of the group they are studying. As an ethnographer, I have acquired fragments of medical, legal and engineering knowledge over the last 40 years – not enough to do any of these things for real but enough to ask the right questions and to dabble from time to time. However, the Doctor never shows any particular interest in ritual and ceremony. Indeed he is often rather impatient with these. He is much more focussed on ‘what is going on here?’, which seems distinctively sociological.

If the Doctor’s is a professional vision derived from sociological studies, there is, of course, a final question about why he does not admit to this. The answer, surely, lies in his affection for the curious tribe of people who inhabit the United Kingdom and their generations of intellectual snobbery about sociology. Anthropologists have much less of a problem, since their place in elite education has been well-established for many years. Many of us indigenous British sociologists are familiar with the need to be rather vague about the precise character of our PhD in order to acquire some credibility with the people we are working with before coming out with our real discipline. The Doctor’s silence on his doctorate is in fact a mark of his cultural competence.


Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

View all posts by Robert Dingwall

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