‘The dis­ci­pline risks de­gen­er­at­ing into griev­ance stud­ies’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Robert Ding­wall is a con­sult­ing so­ci­ol­o­gist and part-time pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Not­ting­ham Trent Uni­ver­sity. His most re­cent work is a trans­la­tion of Howard Becker: So­ci­ol­ogy and Mu­sic in the Chicago School by Jean Pen­eff.

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?

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