‘Sociological voices are not being heard in public debate about issues of profound importance’
Where are the sociologists? As profound social change rages around us – from the digital revolution to climate change – sociology is conspicuously absent from public debate and policy. Sociologists have become spectators rather than active shapers of the present and future.
There was a moment that summed it up for me this year. Australia’s popular ABC TV show Q&A featured an episode on class and inequality. These issues are the bread and butter of sociology but there was not one sociologist on the panel (or even on the Twitter backchannel).
This is an endemic problem. Sociological voices are not being heard in public debate about issues of profound social, cultural and economic importance. Sociologists are at risk of being irrelevant, content with abstract and esoteric debates that have little impact beyond the academy and little connection to the everyday lives with which they purport to concern themselves.
A dramatic example of this silence is the relative failure of sociologists to account for the digital and artificial
intelligence (AI) revolution. From intimate life and education to geopolitical struggles, AI and the internet are part of the biggest and most transformative changes in the world today. Yet sociology has had relatively little to say about how AI and digital innovations – from driverless cars to sexbots – are transforming democracy, work, community and personal life.
There has been very good work done on the internet and social media, but, as former London School of Economics director Anthony Giddens argues, the digital revolution is something more: the “integration of the internet, supercomputers and robotics”. While technology scholars will warn of “technological determinism”, there is a pressing need for sociologists to attend to the fears and worries that many have about how technology is changing society – from screen-addicted children and growing loneliness to the mass “confessing” of private information to big tech companies.
This failure to attend to the big issues – and the digital revolution is just one example – relates to the decline of the sociological generalist. I worry that we’re losing the big sociological storytellers. This is why someone like Zygmunt Bauman was so mesmerising: whatever his shortcomings, the professor of sociology at the University of Leeds was always provocative and engaging in his wide-scale analysis of what makes contemporary societies tick, whether it be in the realm of work, love, consumerism or politics. This versatility made for great sociology but also a sociology that translated and had impact beyond the academy.
Modern sociologists are rewarded by recruiters, line managers and grant panels for carving out expertise in increasingly microscopic areas of research, but the resulting tendency to play it safe within our own niche areas, rather than following our noses to track the big transformative issues, risks creating a fragmented discipline that can’t see the forest for the trees.
I still tell my first-year sociology students that sociology will change their lives. I still tell them that it may even make them better people, by enabling them to see to how human circumstances and decisions are the result not simply of individual choice but of complex social forces. But unless modern sociologists do more to make their voices heard – and to be worthy of being heard – then shows like Q&A will continue to ignore us.