Panel ONE: Practicing Sociology
The strange making of a critical social theorist
Dr Charles Masquelier (University of Surrey)
The task of a critical social theorist involves revealing and problematizing the power relations resulting from a historically contingent arrangement of social, economic, political and cultural forces. How, then, does an individual, immersed in privilege, become a critical social theorist? How does this configuration of forces and the social ills it engenders become visible to, and intolerable for, the individual in question? What kind of critical sociological perspective can arise from such an intellectual exercise, given the individual’s social, economic and cultural privilege? In this talk I shall seek to answer these questions by drawing on my personal experiences. More specifically, I shall discuss some of the challenges I faced in, along with the conditions and strategies facilitating, the reflexive exercise necessitated for critical sociological thinking. This, I hope, will provide some notable insights into the nature and strategies for the cultivation of the critical sociological habitus.
The craft of sociology: the necessity and impossibility of writing
Professor Claire Alexander (University of Manchester)
The act of writing is central to the craft of sociology, and to the idea of the sociological imagination. Nevertheless, writing as a process has been largely overlooked in the confrontation between sociological theory and method. More recently, ideas of impact and engagement have posed new challenges for sociologists and their imagined audiences, as well as for how sociologists write, or think about writing. In this presentation, I consider how the craft of writing is central to the sociological endeavour and reflect on some of the perils and pitfalls of the writing process.
(Is this) what a sociologist looks like?
Dr Michaela Benson (Goldsmiths)
‘Why do you keep saying you are a sociologist? You’re an anthropologist.’
The above and variations thereof have been repeated frequently to me in the years since I completed my PhD. Emblematic of the ascription by others of my (disciplinary) identity, it at times accompanies a sense that this ‘interdisciplinarity’ is something to be celebrated, at other times acting as evidence of why I do not have the ‘right’ knowledge. Since completing my PhD (Sociology and Social Anthropology), I have worked in numerous Sociology departments. Progressing through the precarious nature of early career employment has required the crafting and curating my sociological identity, and the unlearning of the tenets of how to define myself anthropologically. Learning to speak ‘sociology’, to navigate the terrain it covers was a critical element of my postdoctoral journey, as it is for the others who choose to enter the discipline from correlate fields.
This briefly stated biography, and my over-simplified rendering of disciplinary identities serves as an entry point into thinking about the requirements that a discipline might place on early career researchers. Job committee have implicit ideas about what a sociologist looks like; in most cases, you need these even to get a foot in the door. This is often a highly essentialised and at times problematic definitions of what it means to be a sociologist which might pit theory and empiricism against one another, privileging certain methodological frameworks over others. Despite claims for the need to be interdisciplinary, this early stage relies on proving ourselves within the boundaries of a discipline, and possessing the right knowledge of what this might look like. For some early career researchers, this is deeply habituated—they have never had any reason to doubt their sociological credentials—while for others, this remains an uneasy negotiation where they find themselves questioning ‘am I a sociologist’?
Panel TWO: Critiquing Sociology
Sociology and the (Loose) Canon
Professor William Outhwaite (Newcastle University)
I shall say something about the conditions under which ‘new’ sociologists, now or in the recent past, might feel the need or the impulse to engage with a loosely defined canon or multiple canons of existing work, or with one or more paradigms. ‘Saying something new’ may mean critique, or it may involve joining in the pursuit of what Kuhn called ‘normal science’ – or both.
William Outhwaite is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University and Honorary Professor at Sussex. After studying Philosophy, Politics and (briefly) Economics at Oxford (1968-1971), he completed an MA and DPhil at Sussex, where he taught from 1973 to 2007. His publications include: Understanding Social Life: The Method Called Verstehen, 1975; Concept Formation in Social Science, 1983; New Philosophies of Social Science: Realism, Hermeneutics and Critical Theory, 1987; Habermas. A Critical Introduction (1994, 2nd edn. 2009), The Future of Society (2006), European Society (2008), and Critical Theory and Contemporary Europe (2012). He has books forthcoming on Social Theory (Profile) and Europe since 1989 (Routledge).
The Problem of Anglocentrism in Contemporary Sociological Research
Dr Simon Susen (City University, London)
This paper aims to reflect on the problem of Anglocentrism in contemporary sociological research. Critical interrogations regarding the nature of sociology (‘What is sociology?’), the history of sociology (‘How has sociology evolved?’), and the study of sociology (‘How can or should we make sense of sociology?’) have always been, and will always continue to be, essential to the creation of conceptually informed, methodologically rigorous, and empirically substantiated research programmes in the social sciences. Over the past years, there have been numerous disputes and controversies concerning the future of sociology. Particularly important, in this respect, are recent and ongoing debates on the possibilities of developing a ‘global sociology’. Yet, a key issue that has been largely overlooked by contemporary sociological approaches – especially by those that have emerged in the English-speaking world, and including those that seek to break out of the straitjacket of ethnocentric behavioural, ideological, and institutional modes of functioning – is the problem of Anglocentrism. In epistemic terms, Anglocentrism can be conceived of as the tendency to reproduce patterns of knowledge production centred upon, and crucially shaped by, the hegemonic influence of the English language. This paper seeks to contribute to understanding the pitfalls, as well as the normative implications, of Anglocentrism in contemporary sociological research, offering some tentative remarks on how it can – and why it should – not only be taken seriously but also be challenged.
Don’t you see? Researching race, thinking sociologically and living with the consequences
Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa (University of Cambridge)
in this short talk I will reflect on the tensions and negotiations of the impacts of researching race and racism from specific bodies, and about specific bodies, while trying to develop a critical sociological imagination. I am particularly interested in how can we think about healing the wounds and hurts racism leave and re-open in our life as researchers, or as people that happen to do sociological research. How could taking such detour be actually a tool to then be able to think better, clearly and sharply and contribute both to academic debates and to social life, more broadly.
Scholarly Life and the University in Ruins
Professor Les Back (Goldsmiths)
Ros Gill has argued that the neo-liberal university, with its individualisation of performance and value, results in a peculiarly toxic environment that is suffered secretly and silently. “Neoliberalism found fertile ground in academics whose predispositions to ‘work hard’ and ‘do well’ meshed perfectly with its demands for autonomous, self- motivating, responsibilised subjects,” she comments. Here worthy characteristics like scholarly dedication and the ambition to do good work merge seamlessly with neo-liberal imperatives based on egotism and selfishness. The overwhelming experience of ‘fast academia’ is pressure, self-exploitation (which can mean putting off or sacrificing the personal fulfillment of having children, particularly for women), vituperative meanness and toxic shame. Our most deeply held values of engaged work, careful thought and creativity become cruel promises because the conditions to realise them are no longer possible. If the university is in ruins, as Bill Readings has suggested, how is it possible to carry on with an intellectual vocation? The quick pessimistic answer is to say it isn’t possible: the forms of auditing, professionalisation and managerialism have dealt the university a fatal blow. Apocalyptic portrayals of the demise of the university as a place to think are cold comfort – particularly for young scholars – for they offer few clues as to how one might act as an academic writer and teacher. In this talk I want to open up the question of how we might find ways to resist these shifts, loosen the grip of self-regulation and act differently. My initial premise is that we face these issues everyday on campus routinely in the decisions we make. In that spirit I will reflect on small incidents from academic life that bring these big issues to life.
Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He was previously the Dean of the Goldsmiths Graduate School and has written widely on scholarship, research craft and Higher Education. This lecture is based on his forthcoming book Academic Diary: Or why Higher Education still matters which is to be published later this year by The Goldsmiths Press.