In a galaxy not so far from here some UK sociology departments will be spending the summer considering injunctions from their university managements to internationalize their curricula. This request has two drivers. One is the prospect of Brexit and the need to attract a wider range of fee-paying international students to compensate for the loss of EU students. The other is the employability of UK students in the buccaneering global trading nation promised by the Brexiteers. Naturally, being sociology departments, this issue has got tangled up with the rather different issue of decolonialization, the notion that established curricula need adjustment to reflect the experiences of various historically neglected or excluded groups.
Many UK sociology departments like nothing better than a round of navel-gazing. It is a great excuse for avoiding the difficult job of original thought or the graft of writing grant applications or publishable work. However, two issues rarely seem to trouble such reflections.
The first is the question of what makes sociology graduates employable. Traditionally, the degree has fed into a range of public sector jobs that have either disappeared or been contracted out to NGOs or private companies. There is something faintly distasteful about reasonably well-paid and secure academics focussing on the production of itinerant community activists or organizers. This is never going to be more than a niche market and will always be vulnerable to questions about why publicly-funded universities should be training agitators at taxpayers’ expense. This is quite different from the development of a moral sensibility that recognizes the complexities of delivering social justice. Private property and the Protestant Ethic also play their part in the orderliness of society. The lifestyle choices of socially disadvantaged groups are never beyond criticism.
The employability of sociology graduates lies in their ability to ally rigorous ethical thinking with skills in acquiring and handling information. Research methods lies at the heart of everything that we do. The asset for sociology graduates is the diversity of skills that this delivers. Methods is not just about dealing with information in quantitative forms, although that is essential. It is also about appreciating the social construction of that information and weighting it alongside other sources: observing people, asking questions, and analysing documents and images. Other social sciences may have greater strength in any one of these: sociology is unique in the way it brings them together. Developing these skills is the best service we can perform for any student, regardless of their background.
Research methods can, however, be learned anywhere. Why, then, should a student travel to the UK, or remain in the UK, to study sociology?
Here we come to a paradox. The one topic that most students never learn anything about is the UK’s own national tradition. If we really wanted to internationalize the curriculum, we would rely much less on teaching second or third hand versions of European or US (or Global South) scholars and give more attention to the UK’s contribution. If you really want to learn about Bourdieu, for example, why would you not go to France rather than England? (Incidentally, if you did, you would find that his influence and legacy were highly contested: the hot stuff in many French sociology departments for the last 20 years has been the Chicago School.)
Rather than trying to rescue the Marxist legacy from the failures of 1968, we might be better examining the sociological critique of utilitarian economics and laissez-faire that originated in the UK. There is a respectable argument that sociology is essentially the creation of the Scottish Enlightenment – the founders of the Chicago School certainly thought so. It is clear that the globally most influential sociologist before World War I was Herbert Spencer. He explored the amorality of capitalism and rejected grand historical narratives of progress on evolutionary grounds. Durkheim stole much of his work for the Division of Labour. Simmel wrote a PhD about Spencer, which was rejected on nationalistic grounds in advance of its defence. A whole generation of British and American sociologists struggled against Spencer’s legacy to find persuasive arguments for a social justice agenda – arguments not slogans.
If we want to have a scholarly product to attract international students, we might do well to consider how the UK gave capitalism to the world, produced its intellectual justifications, and then tried to find ways of resolving the problems that arose. If we invented market society, we also recognized how that society rested on non-market institutions. Markets could, and did, fail – and needed practical state interventions to manage those failures. Nevertheless, they were powerful means of raising everyone’s living standards and welfare.
An interest in markets might also lead us to consider an agenda for sustainable growth. The UK’s poor industrial productivity record has been neglected by sociologists. The idea that economic benefits will be realised by throwing money at STEM disciplines has been allowed to flourish – technological innovation is worthless without attention to the social context into which it will be delivered. Ironically, the arts have done better at making their pitch for incorporation. Why is ethnography by designers supplanting ethnography by sociologists? If STEM turns to STEAM, where are the social sciences left? Constructive engagement with the practical matter of generating the wealth to fund a more just society would also enhance the employability of our graduates.
These are challenging times for the material base of UK sociology. If we do not want it to become a luxury good for a handful of enthusiasts, we need to ask ourselves harder questions and come up with some better answers.