WHEN EVERYONE WANTED AN ‘OLOGY’
“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