‘So­ci­o­log­i­cal voices are not be­ing heard in pub­lic de­bate about is­sues of pro­found im­por­tance’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Ni­cholas Hook­way is lec­turer in so­ci­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Tas­ma­nia.

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.

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