What Counts as “Real Sociology”?

In the course of a recent visit to Mainland Europe, I got talking to a young sociologist with a particular interest in fashion. Her work was clearly valued by the leading fashion degree programme where she taught but she was unhappy about her prospects of ever getting a job in a sociology department. Whenever opportunities came up, her interests were defined as ‘trivial’ and not ‘real sociology’.

I seem to have had quite a few conversations like this over the years. A young colleague was struggling to convince his department of the REF-ability of work on home energy consumption and the impact of apps tracking usage on relationships within families and households. Back in the days when I was a department chair, I had great difficulty in persuading colleagues to take seriously a job application from someone interested in railway work and organization. “We don’t want any trainspotters here” was the cry – “trainspotter” is roughly equivalent to “nerd” or “geek” in North American parlance.

In fact, if one looks around a typical campus, it is striking how much sociology has abandoned to other fields. The consequence is that those fields have invented their own social sciences to compensate. Engineering has human factors, computer science has user experience, transport planning looks almost exclusively to behavioural economics. Students have the message that sociology is about nothing but race, class and gender. Indeed, I had a recent Twitter exchange with an MD/PhD student enthused by medical sociology to demand that “Med schools should be required to teach history and sociology of medicine focusing on racial, gender and economic inequity so we can stop debating portraits of old white men in lecture halls.” As I responded: “There is rather more to medical sociology than race, class and gender. Organisation, system, work and interactions for example. And a lot of those dead white men were minorities in their own time – gay, Jewish, immigrant, freethinker.”

This is not to say that dimensions of social inequality and social justice are irrelevant to the study of work, organizations and interaction. One of the things that sociologists, and anthropologists, have brought to computer science, for example, is a recognition of how much software design excludes any user who is not twenty-something and living in the San Francisco area, dealing with the very specific everyday life problems that are presented there. But it is to say that there is potentially more to sociology – and that if we do not value it, then we shall lose it and this may not be good for our material interests. Sociology only survives because other people are willing to pay for it and there is a limited market for a limited discipline.

Take the three examples I gave earlier. Fashion and transport are major institutions in contemporary societies. They employ large numbers of people in chains of relationships that span the globe. As such they have constantly driven forward new forms of legal relationship and divisions of labour. The railway industry invented the institutional forms of modern capitalism. As John Urry saw, mobility is a defining feature of social organization – but we once had a conversation about the remarkable neglect of loco-mobility. Both industries have been the sites for struggles between innovation and conservatism in their relationships with science and technology. The transport industries have long been leaders in the development of techniques for the management of risk and for monitoring the health and safety of their workers and users. The fashion industry has extraordinarily tight feedback loops with its consumers. If they don’t buy the goods, the whole supply chain can go out of business, with a global impact.

The arrival of the Internet of Things, is a major challenge to deep assumptions about the privacy of the home and about the relationships between its occupiers. If the home hub contract is signed with one person, who acquires administrator rights over all the other users, what does this say to the struggles over domestic equality? If the hub’s manufacturer can monitor the interactions in the home, what does this mean for diversity – and for interventions to protect less powerful members? How long before the calls to prevent children from accessing online pornography morph into calls for permanent surveillance of domestic life for potential physical or emotional abuse or neglect? Are we really content to follow the Chinese state down the route of assigning credit for prosocial acts and excluding those with poor credit from access to social resources?

There is something ironic about a discipline that preaches so much against social exclusion – and practices so much of it. Back in the day, Chicago sociology studied the Slum and the Gold Coast, rich and poor alike. Frances Donovan’s study of sales assistants in smart department stores sits alongside Paul Cressey’s work on low-level prostitution in the taxi-dance halls. Max Weber wrote about art and music as comfortably as he wrote about class, status and power. Georg Simmel treated fashion and money with equal seriousness.

Erving Goffman once wrote about the touching tendency of sociologists to keep a corner of their personal lives exempt from sociological analysis. We should not apply that principle to the discipline as a whole.

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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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