British Sociology and the Conservative Backlash: A Sociology of Sociology More Necessary than Ever

Business management image
The new face of the academic senate?

An acquaintance of mine teaches sociology at an ambitious new university somewhere in the UK. Recently, he told me about a staff away day his department had organised. In order to understand the nuances of contemporary academic life, away days are of considerable interest. They bring together managers and academics for a whole long working day, in a series of events that is meant to encourage productive labor practices, staff loyalty and the corporate ethos managers regard as desirable.

According to my acquaintance, during his away day popular psychology and business management intersected with the most telling results. Among other events, he attended talks that were meant to encourage collegiality and promote healthy workplace relationships. A consultant whom management had brought in at considerable expense encouraged academics to always think positively and not to turn into ‘mood-hoovers.’ A retired senior police officer praised unswerving loyalty towards one’s superiors and a no-questions-asked attitude towards their orders. And so forth. You know what I mean. You probably have sat through similar events fairly recently.

I decided to write this anecdote down because it has much to say about the values and labor practices that organize British universities today. As is well known, British universities understand themselves as businesses. They are structured accordingly, with a class of senior managers setting institutional priorities and directing the work of administrators and academics. Audits and performance management are key tools of higher education management. Academics thus spend considerable time compiling metrics that document their work and drawing on these metrics, from student satisfaction scores to impact factors and grant income, to justify their value to their employer.

Nehring Corporate bugAs all this may place a considerable emotional burden on academics, managers may respond through therapeutic interventions, through mindfulness workshops, counselling sessions, away days, and so on. In turn, managers respond to priorities defined by government and imposed on universities through policies on higher education funding, recruitment and so on, as well as through regular national audits of research and teaching. At the same time, they face considerable commercial pressures, attempting to prove their worth and outperform other universities in national and international league tables, do well in national and international student markets, and secure other sources of income through research, consultancy and so forth.

All this is fairly new. Even 15 years ago, British universities were not like this. They were not run by a distinctive class of corporate managers, the language of business was not the ubiquitous medium for thinking and speaking about academic life, students were primarily students and did not form part of a market in which commercial success could be pursued, and performance management did not have the iron hold on scholars’ work that it has today.

In the USA, the term ‘conservative backlash’ has been used for quite some time to characterize similar shifts in academic life. These developments in American higher education are much more overtly associated with the claims of the right to political, cultural and intellectual hegemony (1, 2, 3) than they are in the UK. Nonetheless, to speak of a conservative backlash might add clarity and political force to public debates about British education. Over the years, scholars have published numerous manifestos to challenge the outlined trends, often by highlighting their association with neoliberal political programs. Many of these critiques (1, 2) have been widely discussed, but they seem to have had little consequence for day-to-day academic labor, as the marketization and commodification of scholarship continue unabated.

As a result of these processes, academic sociology has found itself in a difficult position. In academic institutions that value hierarchies and compliance and seek to understand scholarship in terms of its economic value, there is little space for a discipline that aims to critically interrogate the intersections of structure and agency and the social production of inequalities. Neither the pursuit of intellectual concerns for their own sake nor social critique – public sociology – really still fall within the remit of contemporary academic life in Britain. Critically aware intellectuality is not what British universities in 2017 are about. Unfortunately, neither is British public life at large, as the disinformation and aggressive grandstanding surrounding Brexit have so vividly demonstrated (1, 2, 3, 4).

The voices of Britain’s few public sociologists run the risk of drowning in the clamor made by the country’s right-wing culture warriors. Fears about the decline of academic sociology, as evident in the heated debate about sociology’s performance in the last REF, are thus no wonder. British sociology has tended to respond to the rightward drift in British academia and in society at large by compromising and trying to somehow squeeze critical social enquiry into institutional agendas according to which scholarship is the means to the grant, the citations, the student satisfaction scores, the demonstrable impact, and so on. This does not work. Sociologists cannot be at once compliant workers in higher education plc and critically minded, intellectually independent scholars. Attempts to be both at once only blur the identity of our discipline and make it harder and harder to state with clarity what sociology might be.

In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills argued nearly six decades ago that the “sociological imagination is becoming […] the major common denominator of our cultural life and its signal feature” (p.14). The same can hardly be said of British sociology today. Therefore, a thorough conversation about sociology’s disciplinary identity, its institutional conditions and its place in society is urgent. Sociology largely limits its engagement with itself to discussions of theory, methodology and method, and the analysis of the conditions, patterns and consequences of sociological labour only occupy a minor place in curricula and published research.

At a time when sociology very much runs counter to the spirit of the times – narrowly conservative and given to emotion rather than empirical fact – it seems important to think of our discipline as of any other kind of work and to study it as an institutionally situated form of labor. To do so may allow us to identify with greater clarity the pressures that our discipline is facing at present, and to formulate an active response to these pressures, rather than simply giving way.

Daniel Nehring

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.

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