THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

“Dear Mr Tay­lor, I have much plea­sure in writ­ing on be­half of the Uni­ver­sity to of­fer you the post of as­sis­tant lec­turer in So­ci­ol­ogy from 1st Oc­to­ber 1965. The salary of­fered is £1,050 pa with [pen­sion] and chil­dren’s al­lowance.”

That con­grat­u­la­tory let­ter from the reg­is­trar of the Uni­ver­sity of York was hardly a tes­ta­ment to my ex­per­tise in so­ci­ol­ogy. My first de­gree had been in psy­chol­ogy and only a hugely gen­er­ous grant from the Nuffield Foun­da­tion – a grant based on the foun­da­tion’s recog­ni­tion of the short­age of qual­i­fied so­cial sci­en­tists – al­lowed me to com­plete a one-year MA at the Uni­ver­sity of Le­ices­ter in the sub­ject that I was now re­quired to teach to un­der­grad­u­ates.

There were plenty wait­ing to be taught.

As the UK’s plate-glass uni­ver­si­ties came on stream in the early 1960s – East Anglia, Es­sex, Kent, Lan­caster, Sus­sex, War­wick and York – there was no sub­ject more in de­mand. So­ci­ol­ogy caught the spirit of the times.

As I quickly learned in my stut­ter­ing first sem­i­nars, many of these stu­dents re­garded so­ci­ol­ogy as in tune with the grow­ing rad­i­cal­ism of the age: the civil rights cam­paign in the US, the mount­ing op­po­si­tion to the war in Viet­nam, the emer­gence of fem­i­nism as an in­flu­en­tial ide­ol­ogy, the quest for new fash­ions and life­styles.

This was a con­fla­tion that ex­er­cised other aca­demics. I re­call a meet­ing at which a science pro­fes­sor claimed that the lead­ing role played by un­der­grad­u­ate so­ci­ol­o­gists in a re­cent oc­cu­pa­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tion block was fur­ther proof that the sub­ject was noth­ing other than an aca­demic ruse to smug­gle rad­i­cal so­cial­ism on to the cam­pus.

Many of the newly re­cruited so­ci­ol­ogy teach­ers shared their stu­dents’ rad­i­cal predilec­tions. Se­nior com­mon room ar­gu­ments were far less likely to be about the rel­a­tive so­ci­o­log­i­cal in­sights of We­ber and Durkheim and Sim­mel than the va­lid­ity of dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Marx­ism. Only later in the 1960s, when oc­cu­pa­tions and demon­stra­tions al­most as­sumed a place on the cur­ricu­lum at these plate-glass uni­ver­si­ties, did some of these aca­demics feel the need to stress that their in­ter­est in red-blooded revo­lu­tion was strictly the­o­ret­i­cal.

Other dis­ci­plines be­gan to re­sent the ev­er­in­creas­ing num­ber of so­ci­ol­ogy un­der­grad­u­ates, and the man­ner in which this al­lowed so­ci­ol­ogy de­part­ments to en­joy

more funds and reg­u­lar in­creases in staff. So­ci­ol­ogy was also a sub­ject that threat­ened other modes of study be­cause of its lack of clear-cut dis­ci­plinary bound­aries: there was a so­ci­ol­ogy of sport and leisure, so­ci­ol­ogy of art and mu­sic, of de­viance and con­trol, of re­li­gion and be­lief.

This meant that, at sev­eral plate-glass uni­ver­si­ties, dis­ci­plines such as pol­i­tics and eco­nomics and so­cial his­tory, which had orig­i­nally en­tered into teach­ing al­liances with so­ci­ol­ogy, grad­u­ally sought to dis­en­tan­gle them­selves and of­fer their own sin­gle-sub­ject de­grees. At York, the orig­i­nal five-term in­tro­duc­tion to so­cial science was grad­u­ally whit­tled down to four terms, and then to three, and fi­nally dis­ap­peared al­to­gether.

There was also a ped­a­gogic back­lash. Why was so­ci­ol­ogy so very pop­u­lar? It was an easy sub­ject, a Mickey Mouse sub­ject. Jokes about the toi­let roll dis­penser la­belled “So­ci­ol­ogy de­grees. Please take one” be­gan to cir­cu­late, even­tu­ally gain­ing a pub­lic au­di­ence in Mau­reen Lip­man’s fa­mous BT com­mer­cial in the late 1980s (pic­tured left) in which she praised her grand­son, who failed all his school ex­ams ex­cept for pot­tery and so­ci­ol­ogy, for at least ob­tain­ing an “ology”.

I re­mem­ber the mo­ment when my own ar­ro­gance about so­ci­ol­ogy’s place in the cur­ricu­lum was gen­tly un­der­mined. At a se­nior uni­ver­sity board meet­ing I’d of­fered a rather ten­den­tious de­fence of the claim by un­der­grad­u­ate so­ci­ol­ogy stu­dents that the cam­pus should free it­self from gov­ern­ment fund­ing and be­come an in­sti­tu­tion in in­tel­lec­tual op­po­si­tion to the sta­tus quo. Af­ter the meet­ing, a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy caught up with me as I strolled along­side York’s ar­ti­fi­cial lake. “Dr Tay­lor,” said the philoso­pher, grasp­ing me by the el­bow. “A small word of warn­ing. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Lau­rie Tay­lor is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of York. He presents BBC Ra­dio 4’s weekly so­cial science pro­gramme, Think­ing Al­lowed.

Lau­rie Tay­lor as a young aca­demic

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