Response to Nehring: What’s the Point of British Sociology?

Herbert Spencer
Has once eminent British sociologist Herbert Spencer been as “comprehensively unpersonned as any of Big Brother’s opponents”?

Daniel Nehring’s recent post (“Does Sociology Still Matter in Britain?”) exemplifies the reasons why contemporary British sociology struggles. It has become a discipline that does not much understand or like its host society – and then wonders why that society is reluctant to give it a hearing or pay for its existence.

Nehring begins with some sweeping generalizations about how wonderful British sociology is. Where is his ‘plethora of significant academic publications’? There is no UK authored paper in the top 10 cited papers 2010-14 and only one (by Giddens) in the top 20 from 2008-12 . I can only identify one (by John Child in 1972) in the top 10 citations from each decade since the 1950s. What are the ‘size and achievements of sociology departments at Britain’s most prestigious universities’? Between 2008 and 2014, the number of sociologists returned to the REF panel fell from 927 to 704, with the top 5 departments in the THE ranking contracting from 177 to 160. If we take Oxford, Cambridge and LSE as a proxy for ‘most prestigious’, their combined total fell from 78 to 74. Many sociology departments have been merged since 2008. Degree programmes at major universities like Belfast are under threat and Birmingham and UCL seem to be quite happy to operate without a sociology department at all. All of these metrics are imperfect but they do not exactly sustain Nehring’s claims about the robust health of the discipline.

Nehring also claims that British sociology has lost ‘much of its public standing’? When did it ever have a public standing? Who was the last British sociologist to be considered as a major public or policy intellectual, as well as a significant international influence on the discipline? In his recent book, David Walker suggests a possible historical moment of the late 1950s and 1960s, which led to the foundation of what became ESRC. However, people like Richard Titmuss and Peter Townsend came out of the distinctively British empiricist tradition of social policy. Changes in the British state since the 1980s have marginalized their kind of technocratic welfarism. Anthony Giddens had a very brief moment in the sun of early New Labour. We do not even rate British contributions in our own degree programmes. The classic theorists we teach are mostly Europeans, as are the fashionable contemporary theorists like Foucault, Bourdieu and the various French post-modernists.

When I was recently asked to comment on the internationalization of an undergraduate sociology curriculum, I observed that this would probably involve including some reference to British sociology. Arguably, there has not been a significant British sociologist since Herbert Spencer, who died in 1903, and who has been as comprehensively unpersonned as any of Big Brother’s opponents in Orwell’s 1984. When Perry Anderson wrote his celebrated essay on Components of the National Culture in 1968, he simply declared that Britain had never produced a classic sociology. In fact Spencer’s impact on Durkheim, Simmel and pretty much every US sociologist until the 1930s is not difficult to identify, whether they were borrowing or opposing his ideas.

This is not a call to restore Spencer to the undergraduate curriculum but to recognize what he stood for – an approach to sociology that was grounded in his own society. Britain had its own Enlightenment, which British sociology has failed to nurture. That failure has allowed economics, for example, to appropriate Scottish political economy and impose a narrow reading of the work of Adam Smith and his contemporaries. Historically, Britain developed a more individualistic culture than most of its European neighbours and modernized through the action of markets as much as of states. A sociology that looks exclusively to European models misses this.

Two consequences are evident in Nehring’s blog. One is the self-righteousness. British sociologists are forever lecturing the nation about its moral failings – ‘a robust defence of immigration, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism’. We may or may not subscribe to their desirability as personal standpoints. However, it betrays a distinct lack of empathy on our part if we fail to understand the genuinely felt anxieties of many ordinary people about these phenomena. Sociology is not a vehicle for expressing disappointment with the politics of the left but a means of informing a society about itself – and that means starting from where members are, not from where we would like them to be.

The second consequence is the failure to understand and articulate what makes market societies work, and why the kind of planned world that many sociologists have dreamed about since Comte generally fails. Yes there are class interests in the rise of neo-liberalism – but this is not what Hayek, for example, got his Nobel Prize for. The ordered world that sociologists might like, preferably with themselves (rather than Shelley’s poets) as its ‘unacknowledged legislators’ demands feats of knowledge that are beyond human or artificial computation. The paradox of the contemporary British university, for example, is its shift towards command and control models, whose inadequacy is easily demonstrable in neo-liberal terms – and in the practice of successful entrepreneurial and innovative organizations in other sectors. Unfortunately, British sociology is not well-equipped to analyse this because so many sociologists of work, occupations and organizations have taken flight into business schools.

This is, perhaps, worth making as a final point. The result of British sociology’s obsession with imported critique is the gradual hollowing out of those sub-fields that might actually contribute to solving problems rather than complaining about them. Science and technology studies are becoming rebranded as innovation studies and following work and organizations out of sociology departments. Human/computer interaction has more or less departed for computer science. Very little medical sociology has ever gone on in sociology departments.

Sociology does have a good story to tell about itself, even in the age of austerity. It is just unfortunate that so many self-appointed public sociologists seem incapable of telling it.

Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is 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.

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