It might seem wrongheaded to ask whether sociology still matters. The discipline’s intellectual wealth is easily demonstrated by the plethora of significant academic publications that British sociologists achieve year by year. The discipline’s standing in academia is highlighted by the size and achievements of the sociology departments at Britain’s most prestigious universities. Every year, sociologists at British universities inspire scores of students, produce prestigious publications, and win sizeable research grants from a variety of sources. And yet there many reasons to be concerned about sociology’s significance and future.
To begin with, sociology seems to have lost much of its public standing. A few notable examples might serve to illustrate this point. To some sociologists, the surprise professed by journalists, politicians and other public figures in response to the recent publication of the Panama Papers might have seemed peculiar. After all, the problem of offshore finance had already been exposed two years ago in John Urry’s trenchant Offshoring.
Others might have wondered about the growing presence of neurobiological explanations of social life in media and public debates. To sociologists, for instance, Adam Perkins’s recent The Welfare Trait might seem like old news. The Welfare Trait presents a sociobiological explanation of poverty and so-called welfare dependency of the sort that was debunked by sociologists decades ago. Yet The Welfare Trait has managed to attract public attention to a degree that eludes most sociological texts today.
And then there is, of course, the Brexit debate. While the ‘leave’ campaign seeks to drive Britain from the European Union with isolationist myths and anti-immigrant rhetoric, the ‘remain’ campaign has so far only offered narrowly economic arguments. Across the political spectrum, there seems to be no willingness to voice a robust defence of immigration, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. The wealth of complex sociological arguments about these topics seems to have fallen by the wayside. So where have all the public sociologists gone?
Within academia, if one looks past the achievements of sociologists at Britain’s leading universities, the status of the discipline seems likewise problematic. Britain’s new corporate universities are characterised by an easily visible divide of organisational cultures, between academics and managers. This divide finds expression in institutional hierarchies and the contrast between the scholarly language in which sociologists think and write and the marketing-driven management speak that universities now use to represent themselves. Universities today speak to students as customers interested in ‘value for money’ and vocationally relevant skills. Scholarship is repurposed in marketing campaigns about ‘excellence’ and instrumentalized in audits such as the REF. At the same time, universities have come to be managed in sharply hierarchical ways, and top-down chains of command are increasingly superseding the collegiate structures of old. These changes are in obvious ways antithetic to the ethos of the sociological imagination. So how can sociologists still influence the organizational cultures of the corporate universities in which they work?
Sociological labor itself seems to be organised in more and more hierarchical ways, in an academic system that emphasizes the instrumentalization of scholarship in the pursuit of competitive success. Most glaringly, there is the widening gulf between those few of us who still are in full-time permanent positions and those many who have to make do with casual employment. Beyond this, there is the equally growing hierarchy between those who work in research-intensive institutions and those who are employed at ‘other’ universities, with larger classes, fewer opportunities to publish, notably reduced access to financial support for their scholarship, and so forth.
Just like other academics, sociologists are now urged to capitalize on their standing in these hierarchies, through strategic self-promotion in conferences and academic events, in social media, through ‘networking’ activities, and so forth. To be sure, these hierarchies are not new. However, they seem to be worsening in worrying ways. So how can the sociological imagination still matter, if competition is becoming the abiding concern of scholarly labor?
In recent years, British universities have been subject to a conservative backlash that has remodelled higher education policies, refashioned universities’ organisational structures, and reshaped scholarship according to a set of narrowly economic objectives. Critique, dissent and open-ended thinking seem less and less welcome in the corporate universities that have resulted from this transformation. New generations of sociologists now receive their academic socialisation at universities that think of themselves as businesses and emphasize market-based competition, self-promotion and financial achievement as principles of scholarly labour. The way in which the pursuit of large research grants has become a mandatory and unquestioned element of the way in which sociologists now work is just one notable example of this.
Where leading sociologists in previous generations shaped the discipline through the strength of their ideas alone, young scholars today may increasingly take it for granted that their employment contracts will be tied to annual grant income targets. Today, there is thus a fundamental contradiction between, on the one hand, the critically engaged scholarship on social inequalities and power structures that British sociologists still produce and, on the other hand, the thoroughly financialized, individualistic, and highly competitive organisational logics of the universities in which they work.
If sociology is to survive and avoid being marginalised, alongside much of the humanities and social sciences, this contradiction will need to be debated and challenged much more explicitly than it has been so far. The government of Japan recently ordered universities to close down social science and humanities faculties, in order to focus on economically more relevant disciplines (1, 2). The British government so far has not devised similarly draconian measures. However, the writing is on the wall.