‘The discipline risks degenerating into grievance studies’
Sociology in the UK ought to be in a healthy state given the vast range of skills it promises to confer on its graduates. Ideally, sociology graduates are well equipped to handle all contemporary forms of information. While they are comfortable with quantitative data, they also know how to deal with information from observing people, from asking them questions and from critically reading the documents those people produce about themselves.
Other disciplines may specialise in each of these skills but sociology is not a monoculture. Its graduates ought to know that fancy modelling based on flaky data is garbage out from garbage in, and that what people say and do can rarely be taken at face value since all actions are interactions: performances designed to establish the moral and rational character of their producer to their intended audience.
Sociology involves analysing how social interactions add up to social systems – understanding the worlds of top dogs, underdogs and lapdogs. Understanding how our society comes to work in the way that it does also encourages thought about whether there are better ways of organising it. Could we use our resources – human and natural – more efficiently and effectively? Could we treat each other more humanely and civilly?
Sociology fills the space between innovation and society, or between organisations and their publics. It can improve major institutions by examining the experiences of employees and users as services or products are developed, delivered and redesigned. People with this combination of skills, understanding and judgement are highly employable. Within the academy alone, they are demanded by fields like healthcare, computer science, engineering and environmental studies.
However, it is difficult to see how these qualities are developed by some UK sociology courses. The discipline risks degenerating into grievance studies, a place for any minority group that feels disadvantaged to complain about its place in society. Courses focus on social activism rather than societal understanding. Experiential learning, for example, is limited to placements with a coterie of approved public or third sector organisations.
Other courses have responded to the employability agenda with a narrow scientism. Credulous quantophrenia is touted as the way forward. But cloning economics is not a profitable strategy. The comparative advantage for sociology lies precisely in its graduates’ scepticism about numbers. How were the data created in the first place? What does this mean for the conclusions drawn from them?
Key topics have migrated to other locations. Quasisociologies have been invented elsewhere. Work, organisations and professions, for example, used to be core curriculum. Now they mostly belong to business schools. Studies of science and technology are being rebranded as “innovation studies” and going the same way. Ergonomics has been reinvented as “human factors” in engineering. “User experience” has become central to computer science and design studies. Both have incorporated large chunks of sociology in the process.
These movements do not exclude the moral
vision of sociology: user experience studies, for example, have promoted inclusive understandings of product and service design. They do, however, represent a quite different vision of engagement with society.
There will always be a niche market for grievance studies. Is there a bigger space for a discipline that seeks to diminish the imperfections of the world rather than to overturn them? Should sociologists learn to appreciate the benefits of markets – could they be better managed rather than abolished? Can sociology be more respectful of the sentiments that give rise to cultural conservatism?
Maybe it is time for a hard look at where sociology stands on the road to Utopia. What would make it more than the glum study of a world where glasses are always half empty?