Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998
Bogusia Temple (1998) 'Whose
Future? Whose Sociology? A Response to Tam and Deutscher'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1,
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- I am a relatively recent convert to
sociology. One of its major attractions for me lies in the range of perspectives I find;
that is, in discussions about what 'it' is. Debates between and within perspectives about
what 'it' is or could become are both stimulating and challenging. My response to Tam's (1998) and Deutscher's
(1998) views about 'the future of sociology' centre around two concerns. The first
is an assumption made about 'sociologists': that they are equally situated in relation to
each other and to the outside world, or the 'industrial organisation' of sociology, to use
Tam's terminology, and Deutscher (1998) makes a similar assumption. The
second is related to the nature of the sociological task we are engaged in, in relation to
which again I have a somewhat different view from either Tam or Deutscher.
- There are different views regarding
both these areas of concern which make any rallying cry to organise around a particular
brand of sociology or a particular group of sociologists problematic. Therefore this
brief response to Tam's and to Deutscher's think-pieces about the future of sociology is
a plea to readers contemplating a future for sociology to remember that 'sociologists'
are a mixed bunch of people, in terms of both perspective and position within, and also
of course outside of, academic life; and that 'sociology' means different things from
different vantage points.
Just Who Are 'We'?
- Tam starts his discussion of the
future of sociology by arguing 'we' are institutionally shielded from the influences of
the profit motive (1998: ¶1.2).
In a similar way, Deutscher (1998: ¶5.6)
calls for a 'unified voice lobbying for the interests of all sociological practitioners'. If,
however, this 'we' is unravelled, to look at the different ways people work as
sociologists, the picture doesn't look quite the same for all of us, in fact is a
considerably diverse one.
- There are many different ways in
which it is possible to work as a sociologist: as a tenured academic; as a contract
researcher; as a freelance researcher; as a consultant to a project; and as an unfunded
practitioner, to name just some. I have been in all these positions, except the first, and
in all of them I have had to have an eye on my future prospects in terms of income for
myself and sometimes for the research unit I have been working in. In other words, I
have had to generate a 'surplus' both to keep myself in a job and to enable the unit to
grow: profit by any other name?
- Whatever you believe are the gains
and losses of using the range of outside funding opportunities available, and of the
advisability (not to mention the necessity in today's funding constraints) of using non-
tenured sociologists in research, it is difficult, I would say impossible, to sustain the
view that all sociologists are institutionally shielded from the profit motive. Tenured
academics may also have to raise their own research money, although their jobs may
not directly depend on this is quite the same way as for contract researchers and free-
lance researchers. It is not only 'publish or perish', as Tam proposes, but increasingly
also 'bring in money or perish'.
- Although I sometimes feel that my
'collective identity' is similar to that of other practising sociologists in the way that (Deutscher, 1998: ¶1.2)
proposes, this is not always automatically so. The nature of the 'we' posited by both
Tam and Deutscher needs considerably closer examination, rather than an assumption
of commonality and collectivity, something which I think characterises, in different
ways, both of their think-pieces. Sociologists may be very differently located in the
industrial organisation of sociology, and on occasions my interests may lie with other
'non-sociologist' contract researchers, indeed may be sometimes against those of
- I agree with Deutscher's view (1998: ¶3.2)
that neither whining nor taking a superior position in relation to other sociologists is a
productive stance for the future. However, I do think that we must be careful when we
say that others are whining. Using such pejorative terms to define someone's views, or
dismissing their concerns as unimportant, can be a way of silencing alternative and
opposing perspectives. Feminist research has taught me that we neglect the differences
in 'we' at our intellectual and political, not to mention organisational, cost. These
differences within the 'we' of sociologists are not just personal worries about security
in the future. They are at the same time political concerns, in that they can influence
how a sociologist experiences and writes about the social world, and in the freedom
they have to practice the kind of sociology they believe in.
What Are We Doing?
- Even if we are not all sociologists
employed under the same contractural and working conditions, are we still all agreed on
the nature of the sociology we want to carry out? Debates over the years in journals
such as Sociology and Sociological Research Online suggest not
(compare, for example, the views of Hammersley and
Gomm, 1997 with those of Romm, 1997). There are
important intellectual differences and disagreements which exist, and these also have
crucial political and organisational implications and ramifications.
- I started this piece by saying that
what had attracted me to sociology, and keeps me interested in it, is the diversity in
perspectives that exists. I doubt that all sociologists would want to adhere to any
particular model of sociology. Tam, however, has assumed that we are all committed to
a particular brand of sociology stemming from a view of science which sees activist
commitments and convictions as problems which get in the way of 'proper' sociology;
while Deutscher, while not writing directly on this, seems to think about intellectual
change and growth in the discipline as something which grows out of activist
- There are certainly many sociologists
who believe that removing one's commitments and values from one's research is
impossible. I am one of them. I do not believe that I can separate 'facts' from the
theories I produce. I do not see myself as an objective gatherer of 'facts', and I believe
that values, commitments, goals etc. do not 'get in the way' of scholarly analysis and
interpretation (Tam, 1998: ¶3.6).
They are part of all research, all intellectual activity, and spelling them out makes it
easier to discuss the grounds of differences of opinion. The point is that the practice of
sociology means different things to different people and that sociology itself means
different things to different people. I would not want to limit discussion in sociology to
one brand, even my own.
- I also think it is important to be wary
of setting up 'elite' journals, as Tam suggests should happen. Would not the attempt to
establish yet more 'elite' journals re-enforce the position Tam describes, where
'recognition and status is differentially distributed across scholarly styles and genres'
I prefer to read journals which publish a wide range of papers, short and long, which
are interesting and challenging - not those which are 'high status' regardless of these
other in my view much more important qualities. Moreover, sociologists' views on
which articles are D-type and suitable for the 'elite' journals and which are C-type (Tam, 1998: ¶2.4)
would be an interesting sociological project in its own right. Certainly to date some
sociological journals have had a higher status than others; however, over time such
reputations have shifted and changed along with intellectual developments in the
discipline and changes in editorships and editorial policies. The idea of 'elite journals'
attempts to set in tablets of stone what is considerably more fluid.
- I prefer the path to the future
described by Deutscher, in which influence and respect are central guides en route, to
that suggested by Tam, where the future is based on a view of sociology in which
hierarchies rule the day. In addition, when considering the future of sociology, we need
to know who the 'we' being discussed includes and excludes, what kinds of
'sociology' are to be included and excluded, and specifically what we are organising for
that existing professional organisations, such as the British Sociological Association in
the UK, or trade unions do not address.
Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998
DEUTSCHER, I. (1998) 'Sociological Practice: The
Politics of Identities and Futures', Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1,
HAMMERSLEY, M. and GOMM, R. (1997) 'Bias
in Social Research', Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <http://www.socre
ROMM, N. (1997) 'Becoming More Accountable: A
Comment on Hammersley and Gomm', Sociological Research Online, vol. 2,
no. 3, <http://www.socre
TAM, T. (1998) 'The Industrial Organization of Sociology',
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <http://www.socre