A Child of Its Time: Hybridic Perspectives on Othering in Sociology

by Liz Stanley
University of Edinburgh

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 13 Jul 2005     Accepted: 2 Aug 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


Responding to John Scott's (2005) 'Sociology and its others', the idea of hybridic sociologies is developed, Mills' ideas about 'the sociological imagination' are discussed, Scott's proposal for a core curriculum countered with some suggestions for extended in-depth disciplinary debate about an intellectually expansionist programme for UK sociology, and responses to these suggestions as well as to the broad argument are welcomed.

Keywords: UK Sociology, Hybridic Sociologies; Sociological Imagination.

'This crisis cannot be resolved by retreating to traditional conceptions of a "pure" sociology'...' (Gouldner, 1970: 512)

The middle ground

1.1 Reading and then re-reading John Scott's (2005) interesting think-piece on the effects of specialisation and fragmentation and the related growth of inter/disciplinary "others" on UK sociology, I agree with some of its arguments and disagree with others. I'm curious about some of its suggestions, which I relate to other discussions of a "where is sociology going?" kind (including, for instance,British Journal of Sociology, 2000; Contemporary Sociology, 2000). Reading it also stimulated me to think about questions such as, who can make authoritative statements about what sociology is and should be, and what construction of the (present and future) shape of the discipline do they represent, with the key question being, "who owns sociology?"

1.2 It is the mark of a good argument that it provokes more questions than it directly raises and stimulates a range of responses and additional or alternative proposals. What follows takes off from Scott's think-piece to explore my somewhat different understanding of UK sociology and its "others";[1] I look forward to reading additional comments from other colleagues and John Scott's response to these, having found John Urry's (2005) initial response helpful in thinking through the issues. Such debates between colleagues are the life's blood of all academic disciplines, including sociology, and readers who persevere to the end of this essay will realise that its suggestions about "where is sociology going" and Scott's differ more in emphasis than substance, although there are some more significant differences. Inevitably, the focus will be more on points of divergence or disagreement, but there are also considerable areas of agreement which I want to start by acknowledging, because these common concerns are important and should be recognised.

1.3 First, I agree that sociology as a discipline is and should remain different from the other social sciences and humanities. For Scott, its definitional aspects are "the social" and "the sociological imagination". My view - as befits someone whose undergraduate and Master's degrees are both multi-disciplinary ones, who spent more than twenty years in a once joint anthropology and sociology department, and whose work is cross-disciplinary from a strong sociology base - is that the concern with "the social" in the terms he outlines (Scott, 2005: 2.1 - 2.3) is shared with other social sciences. And also I really do not much mind if "the social" is called "the cultural", so long as the substance has the theoretical, methodological and analytical fibre which good cultural studies, like good sociology, has. Second, I certainly agree with Scott on the importance of "the sociological imagination". However, he does not detail its requirements and ramifications, and so these are discussed later. And third, I also agree there need to be mechanisms to ensure that, whatever the distinctive "it" of sociology is, it lasts over time and is not lost sight of, no matter what flowers of specialisms bloom in the discipline and on its borders. But for me what these mechanisms are and how to put them into practice seem substantially different, as discussed later.

1.4 A recent addition to the British Sociological Association (BSA) website is a page where some UK sociologists engage in biographical reflection on what first attracted them to sociology. One of the things that comes through, across the differences, is the passion that working sociologists feel for the discipline. Sociology students as well as many younger colleagues today are often passionless, as I will suggest later partly because of structural changes in higher education, and partly because sociology in universities has become ridiculously bureaucratised. Too many teachers of the subject have lost their passion and cannot as a consequence convey either this or the accompanying energy and 'sense of purpose that goes with it to their students. Passion at its best is constructive as well as energising, and I hope my comments here are passionate in both these senses.

1.5 Different groups of people are differentially located regarding any putative core of sociology, including relative position in relation to or within the academic hierarchy, currently favoured theoretical and methodological approaches, and concerning particular national formations of the discipline. The high and low points, strengths and weaknesses and borders of sociology map differently, sometimes very differently, depending on such relational matters. My mixed response to Scott's think-piece derives I think mainly from such factors, including our different histories and locations in relation to sociology, different perceptions of core and "others", and consequently different views of borders.

1.6 One reading of similarities and differences between Scott's paper and my own is that his is a more pessimistic take on things seen optimistically here - for him the bottle is half-empty, while I see it as at least half-full. In this respect, it is helpful to think about Norbert Elias and John Scotson's (1965) 'The Established and the Outsiders', concerned with relations between insiders and outsiders and the way in which the insiders hold an ideal image of themselves 'modelled on the "minority of the best"' among them, while at the same time holding a much more negative image of outsiders, based on the "minority of the worst" among them. There is perhaps something of a similar process at work here, whereby negative judgements about relative newcomers to sociology are supported by reference to examples of poor sociological practice (poor theoretical practice, for example), while more positive judgements about what is seen as pioneering and innovative character of work will be made by these same relative newcomers by referring to the best examples. I deliberately suggest no means of reconciling these differences here, as I am resistant to supposedly common standards of judging what is "good" sociology and what is "bad," for these all too often collapse into hierarchy and relative position within the discipline; instead I prefer to fall back on a rougher but also readier notion of what "works" as sociological knowledge in terms of, for instance, student response, book sales, and evaluations about quality made by one's peers in the framework of journal refereeing and also, in the UK, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

1.7 A contrary tack to reconciliation between "insiders" (who says) and "outsiders" (who says), which also has a good deal going for it, and is to focus on precisely those areas of work (and types of sociologists doing it) that increase contemporaries' uneasiness, something in keeping with C. Wright Mills' desire to deepen the sense of crisis in 1960s sociology in order to help change it. In this regard, it is also worth noting that Mills, something of the hero of both Scott's discussion and my own, presented himself as not only more genuinely sociological than those of his contemporaries whom he criticised, but also saw himself as a relative outsider come to save the discipline from the twin threats of grand theory and abstracted empiricism, both in his view diverting sociology from its true potential. Some outsiders, then, adopt as their mission getting sociology back to its core purpose, while others seek to change it in new and different ways. However, the tack taken here is that both of these are more grandiose aims than my own, which is instead to emphasise that there is not and nor has there been any such thing as a totally unitary sociology and that the "hybridic sociologies" that characterise the contemporary situation in the UK should be cherished and enhanced.

1.8 Another plausible reading of John Scott's paper is that it forms a defence of a particular kind of "departmental sociology", emanating from someone located in a university base at Essex and where the sociology in question excels at research and also at graduate and undergraduate teaching as well. Much of my own sociological career has been spent in a similar "departmental sociology" at Manchester, so his argument has a considerable seduction for me. However, more recently I have been based for extended periods in very different sociological settings: at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, where sociology co-existed in a humanities super-faculty with "the studies" (both those known in the UK and some that are distinctively of New Zealand); at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, in a context in which sociology (and many other specialisms) really was under assault and in many South African universities has subsequently been effectively dismembered (though not, I am pleased to say, at Rhodes); and then at the University of Newcastle, in a mixed sociology, policy and anthropology context where "hybridic sociology" is the name of the game. Now I am based in a sociology department in the Scottish system, different in important aspects from that in England and Wales. From these places, the vision of "departmental sociology" looks and feels very different, for the material realities of everyday sociological life are demonstrably very different. It is from having inhabited these I suspect more typical sociological places, then, that my response is made.

1.9 It is also important to note that, at the same time as staking a claim for sociology and defending its integrity, both things I admire and fully support in John Scott's think-piece, he is using the ideas of sociology's 'parasitic' or scavenging relationship with "other" bodies of ideas so as to occupy a middle ground between the Comtean position and that of his main target, cultural studies. I endorse his overall aim here and also his occupation of the middle ground; but overall I conclude his argument strays too much towards the Comtean vision, so that I perceive (and certainly intend) my comments and suggestions as concerned with expanding this middle ground territory, so that it can engage a good many more sociologists. However, the middle ground it seems to me is not the "departmental" and "big sociology" one of Scott's paper, but rather an intellectual space in which sociology and its "others" coexist and hybridically operate in a variety of settings, of which universities are only one element.

Fragmentation for whom?

2.1 Scott's premise in discussing disciplinarity, specialisation and the social (Scott, 2005: 3.5 to 3.10) is that there is indeed fragmentation and something of a decline in sociology, or perhaps rather the future possibility of this, associated with a loss of confidence deriving from the 'underlying problem of the relationship between sociology and the other disciplines that comprise the social sciences and humanities' (1.1) as well as from disciplinary specialisation. One example mentioned (others are political issues, citizenship, human rights, migration) is that the study of gender brought about the growth of women's studies as an interdisciplinary area and 'it has drawn into itself many sociologists concerned with gender issues and could, in the long-term, reduce the significance of gender as a specialism within professional sociology' (3.8). However, against this view that "the studies" have grown at the expense of sociology, other sociologists have concluded instead that 'Sociology has often been the beneficiary of the "creative marginality" of such creative "in-migrants"...' (Urry, 2000b: 200, my emphasis). Relatedly, the draining away into "others" invoked in Scott's think-piece is actually countered by his example of women's studies, as I discuss later.

2.2 Moreover, as the 1970 quotation from Alvin Gouldner providing the epigraph for this discussion suggests, claims of crisis in sociology are by no means new, Indeed, C. Wright Mills in the 1950s also invoked an intellectual crisis, one he hoped his work would help increase so as to change the discipline. Cries of crisis recur and seem something of a periodic feature, linked perhaps to the changing relationship between outgoing and incoming generational cohorts in sociology. Consequently it is important to reflect on who cries crisis, concerning what kinds of concerns, whether such claims are actually bourne out by relevant evidence, and what alternative viewpoints on such matters there are. My own view accords with comments John Urry has made - '...sociology's discursive formation has often demonstrated a relative lack of hierarchy, a somewhat unpoliced character, an inability to resist intellectual invasions, an awareness that all human practice is socially organised, a potential to identify the social powers of objects and nature, and an increasing awareness of spatial and temporal processes...' (Urry, 2000b: 200) - to the effect that the character of sociology as a discipline is 'by art' if not ' by nature', plastic and subject to continual intellectual change. However, there are better worked out viewpoints on disciplinary change than this, so do these perceive fragmentations and (actual or potential) crises actually the most appropriate way of interpreting the changes occurring?

2.3 Discussion of the so-called dissolution of sociology has come largely from US sociologists, emphasises fragmentation and insists there is indeed crisis (e.g. Turner & Turner, 1990; Horowitz, 1993; Cole, 2001; Berger, 2002; Phillips, Kincaid & Scheff, 2002; Sociological Forum, 1994[2]). As Michael Burawoy comments, 'In each case, the argument is that sociology has suffered fragmentation, a loss of coherence, and ceased to be a cumulative science (if it ever was). The blame is placed on sociology's vulnerability to unmediated pressures from the external world, and specifically to the "political" invasion born of the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s' (Burawoy, 2004: 1612). Burawoy sees these arguments as looking back to supposedly halcyon days 'of the purported domination of sociology by a single overarching paradigm' (Burawoy, 2004: 1612). But what struck me about such claims is rather the discomfort (to put it no stronger) of some of these US sociologists with women, black people, lesbians and gay men, the left, working class oiks, coming into their discipline (Stanley, 2000: 57-60). Against their view, the arrival of "the repressed" is in my view to be welcomed; change does not necessarily mean dissolution; and all age-cohorts eventually give way to younger, and differently thinking, ones. These invading "others", formerly young Turks, are now well inside of sociology and the old guard's assumption of ownership is disputed or more strongly has been replaced - but largely because of related changes occurring in universities and organisational life generally, which have weakened, removed or replaced many lower-level hegemonic disciplinary controls and hierarchical divisions previously existing, rather than because of "invasion" as such.

2.4 There are also different interpretations of these changes. One well-known example has explored some interesting ideas concerning sociology 'beyond societies" and postdisciplinarity in the context of mobilities, networks and flows; and also the (seen as related) growth of hybridic forms of working 'beyond disciplines' (e.g.British Journal of Sociology, 2000; Castells, 2000a, 2000b; Esping-Andersen, 2000; Law and Urry, 2004; Sayer, 2000; Urry, 1981, 2000a, 2000b; Wallerstein, 1999). Its broad argument is that sociology, like all other disciplines, is experiencing a post/disciplinary reconfiguration because of wider developments in social structure and social organisation, which are impacting on and changing it and which need to be responded to more sociologically. Intellectual innovation does not result from loose ideas about interdisciplinarity but, the suggestion is, from those who work across the borders between one discipline and another, so that the positive opportunities provided by such hybridic developments should be grasped. Important beneficial changes have accrued to sociology from emancipatory social movements and their impact on civil society in opening up new discursive spaces which sociology has then been able to move into. And, tellingly, challenges to the divorce between the "two cultures" of theoretical and methodological schema are seen as coming, not from within sociology, but from the natural science engagement with complexity in the natural world, and from challenges to canonical knowledge from the humanities which have relativised ideas about culture, knowledge and its production.

2.5 Contributors to this latter debate perceive possibilities and opportunities where Scott perceives potential problems, largely because his laudable concern is with ensuring the integrity and persistence of a disciplinary formation of sociology. For him, the "cultural turn" is a consequential and potentially damaging development (Scott, 2005: 5.1 to 5.4), and that without a coherent unified institutional presence with a strong core, sociology's domain concern with "the social" will not be carried forward: 'It is only the consideration and articulation of the general conception of sociology by professional sociologists that can ensure the survival of the sociological imagination' (5.3). As well as intellectual factors, then, organisational matters concerning the guiding or controlling role of "professional sociologists" are a source of concern here; and implicitly, by multiple reference to Departments of Sociology (3-4-3.8, 4.4-4.5, 5.4), "professional sociologists" are seen as largely if not exclusively sociologists working in university settings.[3] Scott suggests the solution to the perceived problem 'is to be found in the organisation of the teaching curriculum in professional sociology...' (5.4) and specifically 'the sociology curriculum... It is within the core social theory courses and in courses on comparative and historical sociology that the general conception of sociology is sustained' (7.2).

2.6 Scott's suggestion of a core curriculum around social theory (interestingly, not sociological theory) and comparative and historical sociology is an unnecessarily defensive move, a sign of the retreatism and loss of confidence Scott invokes but which by no means all sociologists agree are warranted. It is also unconvincing as a strategy, because past experience has been that compulsory courses of this nature bore students to death and actively put them off sociology, and also because it ignores the wider intellectual and organisational changes that have produced the diversity of courses and knowledge-outcomes at degree level.[4] In addition, an attempt to construct a core curriculum is likely to raise the divisions that necessarily exist within a thinking and critical discipline such as sociology - there will be very different and almost certainly acrimonious responses to "why social theory, whose social theory, and what social theory" questions, because behind this are concerns about who owns and controls the intellectual apparatus of sociology.

2.7 There are other considerations to be taken into account as well. Given the wide variety of organisational locations that de facto as well as de jure sociologists presently research and publish from, the so-called "general" conception of sociology seems to me already beyond the control of the university-based profession. Relatedly, treating "the profession", and "sociology" as a domain of ideas, as coterminous - as Scott does by implication - seems problematic, not least because in the UK there are a greater number of sociologists doing sociology outside of university-level teaching posts than inside. In addition, while McLennan suggests that purported 'dramatic challenges to the viability of disciplinary sociology' in the shape of postdisciplinarity/sociology beyond societies arguments do not hold up under critical scrutiny (McLennan, 2003: 562), my view is that the challenge to "professional sociologists" by cultural studies does not hold up either.[5] But there are other developments that have consequentially affected sociology, for good and also for ill. Over the last thirty years or so, a variety of regulatory mechanisms, including those affecting curricula at GCSE and A/AS level as well as within the university system, have impacted on what is taught and how this is delivered at degree level. In addition, sociological research, ideas and theories have been importantly contributed to by those who are not "professional sociologists", at least in the university-based teachers of sociology sense invoked by Scott. For those of us who dislike a "guild and guild-masters" model of sociology, these latter developments pose little threat, while the former do, and the proposal for a core curriculum should be considered in this regulatory audit context.

2.8 Burawoy's discussion of different traditions - professional sociology, critical sociology, policy sociology and public sociology - within US sociology ends by proposing something similar to Scott's think-piece, albeit for different reasons. For Burawoy, 'Rather than looking backwards... I look forwards to a unity based on diversity - a unity that incorporates a plurality of perspectives. In this vision, professional sociology, in order to safeguard its own enlightened self-interest, must be prevented from colonizing critical and public sociologies. We have to institutionalize these subordinate sociologies within the academy, alongside a hegemonic sociology' (Burawoy, 2004: 1612). While Burawoy wants all four of these traditions to co-exist, differentiated along five dimensions,[6] "unity in diversity" cannot easily, if at all, be reconciled with one of them being hegemonic. Burawoy certainly acknowledges the issues involved, commenting that 'It is difficult to contain these antagonistic forms of knowledge in a relation of stable interdependence without establishing a hierarchy'; however, his wishful thinking, that 'there are hierarchies and hierarchies, intolerant despotisms and negotiated hegemonies. These hegemonies attempt to recognize the interests of all, if not in equal measure' (Burawoy, 2004, 1611-2), is really not convincing. Scott's suggestion that there should be a partial core curriculum around social theory that every sociology student should be inculcated in seems precisely such a hegemonic move on the part of "professional sociology", although doubtless not intended as such, and an extension of regulatory apparatus.

2.9 The results of the subject degree benchmarking largely imposed on the UK academic community by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education are not encouraging as an example of what regulation entails. For sociology, what resulted were benchmarks involving the prescription of a product in generalised and indeed grandiose terms, a very different and more worrying tack than that taken by, for instance, anthropology.[7] Any moves to self-impose another level of regulation on sociology in advance of any external requirement should be firmly resisted; such things should be complied with only in the last resort and when required because imposed externally, and then in the most minimal and least intrusive way possible.

Hybridic sociologies and 'othering' in sociology

3.1 What drew me and many others to sociology and has kept us within it was not "the social", nor social theory, nor historical or comparative sociology, not least because, contrary to Scott's view, some other disciplines, such as anthropology, (some aspects of) economics, human geography and moral philosophy, do centre "the social" and including "... all its dimensions and all its particular applications" (Scott, 2005: 2.1). It was rather that sociology supported critical questioning and analytical thinking about the world as presently constituted, provided intellectual "open space", inculcated a feeling of excitement and energy around ideas mattering because sociology's theoretical apparatus connected with its methodological considerations and its real-world analytical concerns, and - unlike other disciplines at the time - supported hybridic inter/disciplinary ways of thinking and working. These were matched by its potentially subversive qualities, because it enabled critical thinking about the social world, and also being able to apply this to the constitution, organisation and domain ideas of the discipline itself. This style of sociology is critical sociology in Burawoy's terms and reflexive sociology in Gouldner's; it rejects god's eye science; favours disciplinary reflexivity with a strong ethical base; and in a hybridic way draws on ideas from a range of inter/disciplinary sources.

3.2 These qualities of intellectual openness, hybridity, critical inquiry and auto-critique are ones that "fragmentation and dissolution" claims react against, as well as the more obvious features of "othering". Sociology is indeed, as Scott (2005: 3.1) notes, historically contingent and contextually specific. An important corollary of this is that, as commented earlier, differently located people experience sociology in different ways, as having rather different centres and peripheries, and also different domain ideas. With regard to cries of dissolution, there is definitely something here of a one generational cohort reacting against a younger one with a less hierarchical and authoritarian style and different intellectual, political and ethical agendas. However, such cries of crisis and dissolution are not based on empirical investigation and evidence concerning what sociology is actually like, how it is presently composed, configured and articulated in practice. In relation to at least some of sociology's purported fragmentations, these can be viewed very differently, as actually not outwith the discipline, but composed by people firmly inside sociology and concerned not with "splitting" but rather with remaking sociology.

3.3 While such splitting off does occur, what I am referring to here is very different and usefully contemplated in relation to women's studies. The UK sociology professoriat is positively replete with former and present Directors of women's studies, editors of women's studies journals, teachers of women's studies courses, authors of women's studies textbooks - and this has certainly not prevented the collective "us" from being highly active within sociology as well.[8] In addition, in the UK women's studies has been "returned" to a sub-set of the sociology panel for RAE purposes over a succession of Research Assessment Exercises; and probably the majority of women's studies Masters and PhD students will have been counted as part of sociology in a fair number of UK universities. Without the energy, people, publications and students of the sociological dimensions of women's studies, UK sociology would look a shabbier tiger. Women's studies, then, is not "other" but is actually in significant part within the borders of sociology, which in turn is in significant part within the borders of women's studies, to mutual benefit. Matters concerning sociology's borders and ideas about "within" and "outside" of the discipline are complex and need concrete exploration.

3.4 While I definitely see myself as a feminist sociologist, rather than "belonging" to women's studies or cultural politics, I'm happy to be associated with all three, for they have coexisted within my professional life. My career has been as both an "other" and as a sociologist, with these unified in what kind of sociologist I am, which has developed both within sociology and also on its borders with these "others". Thinking about sociology in a way which positions such hybridic sociologies as "other" to some supposed core does not reflect the intellectual complexities which in fact continue to characterise the careers of many "professional sociologists". Sociology should remain an open intellectual space in which sociology can develop in hybridic intellectual and political/ethical combinations, but which form a unity in diversity. This intellectual openness is and has been a defining characteristic for a lengthy period, including within the "classical" tradition itself, and has made sociology analytically, ethically and theoretically attractive to successive generations. This is not to say that people may not champion sometimes very different sociologies, but it is to emphasise that the coexistence of a variety of ways of being sociologists and doing sociology should continue and that a myth of "return" to a time when things were different should be resisted. Insofar as there ever was a core sociology in the UK (something I doubt), those days have gone,[9] while sociology's "othering" has been intellectually immensely productive for it.

3.5 Together with this, wider developments in intellectual and academic life (including through the changing organisational structures that many universities have adopted around multi-disciplinary schools) have also helped create fuzzy borders and encourage intellectual border-trafficking. Working the borders does not necessarily entail working outside sociology - unless, of course, sociology becomes more tightly reconfigured and erects impermeable borders. This really would be a defensive move, an admission of loss of confidence. It would also be counterproductive, because creating unnecessary separations and divisions.[10] "Othering" and hybridity, moreover, suits the way the mind works, has provided the basis for many people being attracted into sociology over a lengthy period, and also fits the intellectual times.

3.6 "Working the borders" continues to turn-on students at all levels because it enables them to build on a sociological base to draw in "other" ideas so as to craft hybridic tools for exploring and perhaps explaining aspects of social life they are excited, puzzled or appalled by. This allows people to develop analytical frameworks in which selves, a social habitus, a society and a world can be held together and articulated in a joined-up approach: to restate this around a well-known example, a Sony Walkman can be used as a basis for perceiving links across micro, meso and macro levels of social life. What sociology at its best provides is not a bundle of taught courses and inculcation in supposedly key theory or methods, but the possibility and excitement of joined-up thinking. "The studies" have grown and interfaced with sociology because they provide similar possibilities to sociology - an ebullience and intellectual confidence about the intellectual enterprise engaged in, of doing joined-up thinking by stitching together ideas sans frontiers, without inter/disciplinary or other frontiers to intellectual engagement and analytical purchase. Hybridic sociologies are an exciting result and should be both cherished and developed.

3.7 However, this should not be taken to indicate that I have no concerns or worries about the future development of the discipline. In the UK, there seems no present cause for concern regarding applications for university courses in sociology at undergraduate or postgraduate levels overall.[11] But some newcomers into teaching posts seem depressingly well-schooled in regulation and unwilling to take intellectual risks in case this might have negative consequences for their careers and "getting on". Also many of the "brightest and the best" eschew academic careers because of the state of the UK's university system and the ground-down depression of many of the academic staff who teach them. In addition, the obsession with producing textbooks in response to publishers wanting to turn a faster buck through volume sales long-term is likely to produce stultifying dullness spoon-fed to students. Moreover, the propensity of some sociologists to relish bureaucratic regulation and want to make a career out of this is alarming. And I am astounded as well as disappointed that so many degree-level courses have turned their faces away from theory, historical and comparative sociology, quantification, and do not recognise the existence of the rest of the world and of some very big issues concerning it apart from through the limited lens of globalisation theory.[12] But these are on gloomy Eeyore days - my more usual Tigger-ish self looks around the still many UK sociologists, relishes the productivity of colleagues and the high quality work they publish, admires the excellent courses they teach, and enjoys thinking about the large number of "others" present in the discipline, who most likely outnumber those who see themselves as part of "the" centre. At this point, I expand on feminist sociology as a key hybridic sociology.

Feminist sociology; or, having it all

4.1 Scott proposes that 'The most striking transformation of professional sociology has been in its relation with cultural studies' (Scott, 2005: 5.1). A better case can surely be made for the more fundamentally transformative impact of a combination of feminism, gender and women's studies, in a world-wide context and also in the UK, on the domain ideas and working practices of sociology and most other disciplines, together with the associated feminisation of both the staff composition of sociology and its student body, all helping produce a now marked gendering of the objects of sociological attention as part of 'normal science'. Interestingly, Scott's worry is not about the growth of "others" or even interdisciplinarity, but rather 'the migration of scholars from the related disciplines into truly interdisciplinary ventures with autonomy from each of their parental disciplines' (3.8).[13] However, while this has occurred for some, more striking is the extent to which there has been a collective refusal of "migration", with many of sociology's supposed "others" staying firmly within sociology, albeit concerned with mindfully remaking the discipline and not just "doing it" in a received unthinking way. Feminist sociology is an important example here, although it is important to remember that "staying" has by no means been confined to feminist sociologists - medical sociology is much in my mind concerning this point, as one of the most productive, important and effective of the UK's hybridic sociologies.

4.2 Dorothy Smith has provided perhaps the most coherent attempt to construct a systematic and fully articulated feminist sociology, as "a project" in the specific sense of the term.[14] But alongside the work of singular individuals, it is the collective feminist engagement with and within sociology, the refusal to "migrate" or to slide into something outside of it, which has significance here. That is, there has been a more general embrace of people positioning themselves as both feminist "others" and sociologists, with the collective project (using the word loosely) of feminist sociology since the later 1970s being to remake sociology from top to bottom, involving epistemology, sociological theory, methodology, ethics and method, and reworking them to produce a fully transformed discipline over the longer-term. The existence of feminist sociology is of course linked with the feminisation of the discipline in its staffing and student composition, for without this women would still be as few and far between in sociology as appears from, say, Gouldner's relentless emphasis on men with occasional in passing annoying references to their wives or "mistresses". But it has its own edge, its own dynamic, as by definition a critical interrogation of power relations and hierarchies including in the making of (what has passed for) knowledge. Given present concerns, this is not the place to detail feminist sociology and its variants,[15] but it is relevant to point to the differences as well as overlaps with the sociology of gender and with women's studies.

4.3 Feminist sociology is related to women's studies, not least because for many women and some men the "open intellectual space" for critical joined-up thinking that an earlier cohort found in sociology has been thereafter found in women's studies' own distinctive form of intellectual space. But, present within women's studies from the beginning although now much clearer, is that its domain concerns are not those of feminist politics, in wanting to change the entire world and remake the whole of knowledge, but rather to focus on themes around gender and sexual and other difference. Perfectly acceptable in its own right, still for those who see feminism as having a wider political, intellectual and analytical remit, and/or who have hybridic allegiances as feminist sociologists, feminist anthropologists, feminist philosophers and so on, women's studies can sometimes feel like feminism unnecessarily over-confined. This is not to say that women's studies needs to be thus confined. However, in practice and overall as it has shaped up over time, this is how (somewhat surprisingly) it has turned out. The sociology of gender is in some respects a broad church, ranging from a focus on gender as a variable in analysing datasets to macro-level theorising of social life, but in other respects seems closer to women's studies than feminist sociology because focusing around matters of gender rather than wider issues concerning power and its uses.

4.4 Feminist sociology, however, takes the whole of sociology and the entirety of social life as its concern. It does not inhabit a proscribed range of topics; nor does it recognise no-go areas; nor is it confined to gender in any senses of the term. Feminist sociology is a means of having it all, of being inside and helping remake what is its own, while hybridically drawing on "other" ideas as part of its armoury for doing so. It is possible to "do" feminist sociology on any and every sociological topic or concern, because it is constituted as a conceptual approach or an analytical framework, a broad methodology and epistemology, rather than the specification of topics or methods or a particular focus. To work as a feminist sociologist is absolutely not "other" in the sense of being separate, nor is it a migration or a slide into something outside sociology. Wanting to remake sociology in this way may be unacceptable to some, but of course remaking the social is precisely the task of feminism tout court. However, feminist sociology is not coterminous with feminism as such and has its own specific concerns, including sharing with critical sociology an interest in notions of reflexivity and accountability in the production of moral knowledge. At this point, I want to turn to ideas about the sociological imagination and contemplate some of the reverberations.

Grounding the sociological imagination

5.1 It has become fashionable to invoke C Wright Mills (1959) on the sociological imagination as a central device for sociology, as a relatively acceptable and unproblematic means of indicating areas of agreement about a unifying "it" of the discipline.[16] This is certainly something I share in, having been emphasising the importance of Mills' ideas on the sociological imagination and on sociological craft skills in teaching and supervision situations for a considerable period. In John Scott's think-piece, the sociological imagination is presented as fundamental to the sociological enterprise - but, because his main concerns lie elsewhere, he does not pin down exactly what he means by the term other than noting that social structure, history and biography are key elements, although it is clear he accords it considerable weight. Therefore, because positioning the sociological imagination as crucial to sociology is one of the overlaps between Scott's position and my own, it is useful to look more closely at what this might involve.

5.2 In fact, Mills' discussion of the sociological imagination is not fully worked out, which accounts in part for some of the persuasiveness of the term, that commentators can remake it in their own image. As John Brewer (2003) has commented, the more structural aspects of it in Mills' formulation are often omitted in present-day invocations, presenting it as a specific concern with the conjunction of biography and history, rather than as Mills has it, of how history and biography intersect within particular social structural contexts.[17] Beyond this, it is interesting to contemplate that "imagination" is something of a misnomer, given that many of Mills' comments about it are very grounded and concerned with specific craft practices.[18] Thus although Mills describes the sociological imagination as a quality of mind, in fact he writes about it at more length as a set of professional habits or practices through which the possessor can better understand 'the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals... Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought... No study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey' (Mills, 1959: 5-6). And Mills also relates this to the practice of sociology and the form this should take, via his ideas about reflexivity.[19]

5.3 Exploring the sociological imagination for Mills starts with three kinds of questions: the different social structures and their interrelationships which characterise a particular society; how this has changed over time, the mechanics bringing such change about and the particular defining features of the present historical moment; and what kinds of conduct, character and "human nature" characterise people in particular time-periods in a society. In addition, there is what Mills calls an 'essential tool of the sociological imagination' (Mills, 1959: 8), in exploring the interplay of "personal troubles" of a social milieu with "public issues" at a structural level. Mills repeatedly returns to the intersection of biography, history and social structure and asking sociological questions about this and, as Scott notes (2005: 3.2), nowhere sees possession of the sociological imagination as the property of sociology conceived narrowly. Indeed, the reverse: 'The sociological imagination is becoming, I believe, the major common denominator of our cultural life and its signal feature. This quality of mind is found in the social and psychological sciences, but it goes far beyond these studies as we now know them.' and that 'By use of it, I do not of course want to suggest merely the academic discipline of "sociology"' (Mills, 1959: 14, 19, fn 2).

5.4 There is a further dimension of the sociological imagination relevant here. For Mills, sociologists like other people can best understand themselves, their lives and those of others by locating themselves within the times (on which, see also Gouldner, 1970), and he specifically sees the sociological imagination as rooted in and growing out of this (Mills, 1959: 5-6). Relatedly, Mills also writes about the 'kinds of effort that lie behind the development of the sociological imagination' and its 'implications for political as well as for cultural life' (Mills, 1959: 18), tying this to the fact that 'Just now, among social scientists, there is a widespread uneasiness, both intellectual and moral, about the direction their chosen studies seem to be taking', stating that 'It is, quite frankly, my hope to increase this uneasiness, to define some of its sources, to help transform it into a specific urge to realize the promise of social science, to clear the ground for new beginnings' (Mills, 1959: 20). Feasting with panthers can be a risky business: Mills himself had little truck with barriers between the social sciences or with hegemonic sociologies, seeing the key thing as having a disciplined inquiring mind and using it with the sociological (also called political, anthropological...) imagination and other good intellectual tools, while still having a strong sense of himself as a sociologist. His three kinds of questions are also specific suggestions for the direction of sociological work and should not be viewed generally, as merely a way of 'advancing a distinctively sociological understanding of economic, political, educational, religious, familial, and other human activities' (Scott, 2005: 2.2). They are instead a precise call to analyse the intersections of biography, history and social structure. And in pinpointing various problems with sociology, including that it had not responded adequately to investigating and theorising the challenging times of the day, Mills sees actually using the sociological imagination in a thoroughgoing way as increasing awareness of such problems and a sense of crisis, thereby helping to challenge and change the discipline.

5.5 I am all for using the idea of the sociological imagination as a rallying call - so long as all the dimensions Mills ascribes to it are taken equally seriously. The foundational concern of the sociological imagination is with social structure and history and biography: none of these is dispensable and all three are equally necessary in Mills' formulation, in my view rightly so. Perhaps some colleagues who are interested in the auto/biographical have tended to forget the social structural aspect of Mills' work in referencing it in support of their own interests - but a far greater problem is that huge swathes of purportedly "core" sociology is conducted as though history and biography are optional extras. However, while few sociologists would actively deny that time and history are sociologically important, biography has been and remains an undeserved poor relation or more strongly invalid, because misconceived as a necessary slide into psychological reductionism (although hopefully the development of the so-called narrative turn together with a renewed sociological interest in social memory may bring about some changes in this respect). I have a price, then, for buying into the sociological imagination as a unifying device for sociology, which is that its three dimensions must be treated as co-equals. Nothing less will do.

In another voice:[20] middle ground possibilities for sociology

6.1 My view is that it is possible for sociology to be a vibrant discipline that has centres but is not unitary, which eschews hegemonic moves as a matter of principle, which is organised around "open intellectual space", and which has its "others" fully involved and within as hybridic sociologies; and the suggestions which follow are intended as a contribution to this. I have argued thus far in "another voice" that fragmentation is a loaded term for something that can be named more positively as hybridity; that hybridic sociologies are already present and firmly a part of UK sociology; that there are problematic and unacceptable consequences to the institutionalisation of a core curriculum; and that retreatism is never a good option and anyway is not necessary. Here I conclude by arguing for intellectual expansionism, sketching out some means of supporting a wide debate about what a continuing vibrant and engaging sociology in the UK might consist in. None are presented or intended as possible 'core curriculum', all could and should coexist, and the twin aims are to engage as many sociologists as possible in such debates and to further the intellectual development of sociology to ensure that it becomes and remains "a child of its time" (Gouldner, 1974: 1).

6.2 The first suggestion concerns the sociological imagination. It is that this should be taken absolutely seriously as a potential centralising device which could provide a very distinctive character for UK sociology, and do so while remaining open to variant perspectives on how the term might be operationalised. This has many appealing aspects, not least that it provides the possibility of tying together micro, meso and macro levels of analysis and breaching the theory/methodology division. Very little sociological work to date brings the analysis of biography, history and social structure together in a sustained, even-handed and evidence-rich way, and doing this around variant perspectives working in a variety of grounded contexts could provide UK sociology with a coherent framework for sustained inquiries on historical, comparative and contemporary topics. If this is a workable idea, in the sense of providing a good way of informing current sociological practice, then with a bit of a push it could take off and be widely utilised. The kind of push envisaged is that the elements of it merely sketched out by Mills should be developed at considerably greater length and by a number of sociologists working from different epistemological, conceptual and methodological positions. A special issue in one or more of the UK's general journals or an edited collection or a book series would be one way of doing this, preceded and/or followed by a conference or workshop series, so as to engage as many UK sociologists as possible. The BSA, and/or the UK's 'Heads and Professors of Sociology' (HoDS) group could perhaps take a lead in organising this, but if not then a consortium of the UK's general journals or a group of interested sociologists could make the running.

6.3 The second suggestion concerns the hybridic sociologies that actually characterise present-day UK sociology, which vastly exceeds its supposed university 'base' once these are taken fully into account. The hybridic sociologies, as I noted in relation to feminist sociology, cannot be reduced to 'the sociology of....' feminism, or culture, or medicine, or... They are rather means of 'having it all' in an intellectual sense - of re/conceiving and practicing the discipline in its entirety but through these different lenses. However, these developments have occurred, if not in a happenstance way, then still not in a planned way as sociologies - in a sense, the eyes of their protagonists have been mostly on the "other" element and only more recently has the gaze returned to sociology itself. The specific suggestion here is for both a concerted collective engagement in mapping these hybridities and variant positions within each, and also an attempt to conceive these as a whole, as a set of sociologies each entire in itself but also related to these other "others" as all part of the collective enterprise known as sociology.

6.4 To propose that this might become one of the potential centralising devices for UK sociology might be thought at odds with the idea of hybridity; but nonetheless the development of hybridic sociologies has already proved "good to think" for very many people and systematically mapping and debating these would provide an interesting and also a de-centred focal point for debate and grounded inquiry, one which has in-built a structural resistance to hegemony on the part of any one of these hybrid positions. In addition, what sociologists of all hybrities and none "do" is to try to make sense oft the changing social worlds we inhabit - and this is always going to be contested because there is always another sensible way of thinking and doing. In a very real sense, then, "professional sociologists" constantly debate among ourselves different versions and interpretations of "what's happening now" and how to understand this, so this suggestion formalises an already in-built propensity to debate different versions of sociology. Some starting ideas for encouraging a collective mapping and taking stock of the hybridic sociologies are again special issues in the UK's general journals with articles overviewing work in the main hybridic areas and discussion papers around each of these, or a similarly organised edited collection, preceded and/or followed by a conference - perhaps a BSA Annual Conference.

6.5 The third suggestion concerns one of the features built into Sociological Research Online as an electronic journal predicated upon technologies, fluidities and networks. It involves the possibility and perhaps also the responsibility of sociologists being able to act as 'public intellectuals' (see Furedi, 2004; Fuller, 2005; Stapleton, 2001) with something interesting and hopefully also insightful to say about many aspects of social life and social organisation, in which to engage as "children of our time". In relation to the journal he founded to do this, Gouldner joined up his thinking about perceptions of "crisis" with his ideas about how sociology should engage with the social and political changes occurring:

'Theory and Society has no choice but to be a child of its time. It comes at a moment when the institutional and departmental life of social theory and sociology seem exhausted and drifting. At a time when sociology sees the road back more clearly than the one forward. The old intellectual paradigms are losing their ability to convince, let alone enthuse...' (Gouldner, 1974: 1)

6.6 This is not to suggest that sociologists should act as advisors to any branch of government or any political party, or speak out on general issues as talking heads. Instead it means finding appropriate fora in which to act as sociologists, as sociologists speaking to our particular research knowledges and expertise. In the case of Sociological Research Online, its "Rapid Responses" has provided one such space and means for sociologists to act as public intellectuals around issues where their specific research competencies can be utilised, in part because of the very wide reading audience that this particular journal reaches. As this journal's founding editor, I commented that the rapid response possibilities of electronic publication coupled with a broad interested readership can:

'stimulate sociologists to act and to write as "public intellectuals", not as quasi-journalists or quasi-politicians... If we are to be "children of our time", then this surely means engaging with the present and re-crafting our sociology where necessary in order to enable us to do so. Electronic publishing and the "rapid response mode" enables sociologists working in the field both to engage with things happening at the point that they're happening and to publish and thus to "speak" about this as public intellectuals... I hope the "Rapid Responses" will... act as a means for sociologists to... engage with the world and to look for the road ahead rather than always backwards, and to develop new intellectual paradigms rather than endlessly pick over the entrails of the old.' (Stanley, 2000: 67-8)
What is needed is some concerted collective thinking about other such fora, and to an extent I perceive the fourth suggestion in these terms.

6.7 This fourth and last suggestion concerns the idea of moral knowledge and the persistent concern of sociologists with questions of ethics and ethical values related to the production of knowledge. While the idea of science and its concern with technical proficiency and so-called objectivity remains powerful for some, many more are cautious about such claims, sceptical about objectivity, and aware that scientific practices map only uneasily onto the more grandiose claims for "scientific method". Women's studies and other research on gender matters has been particularly engaged by such considerations over some twenty or so years; while, in part in response to the BSA's admirable long-standing concern with the parameters and requirements of a base-line for ethical research, in part because of the greater concern with ethical issues by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), there has been a wider sociological concern with such issues in recent years. However, for others, the interest has been more an analytical one, with a number of interesting strands of activity here: around engaging with questions of epistemology and methodology; concerning analytical reflexivity as central to sociological interpretation; regarding the ethnomethodological concern with analysing from retrievable data, and involving ideas about moral knowledge and making knowledge-claims in feminist sociology. Consequently I have two suggestions concerning the idea of moral knowledge.

6.8 One is that some emulation of Contemporary Sociology's way of marking the millennium, in asking contributors to consider utopian futures and 'the possibilities, constraints and institutional designs that may lead to a better world... mid-rage utopias that were sociologically feasible' (Risman et al, 2000: v), is called for as a longer-term strategy. That is, if UK sociologists really are seriously engaged by ethical issues, then a major collective and thoughtful sociological intervention or set of interventions around mid-rage social issues and social problems should be put into practice. This might look something like an ESRC Initiative, although having a more targeted remit than is usual for these, and could sensibly be engaged in with colleagues in medical sociology, criminology, social work and the remaining rump of social policy. But it should not stop at this and ought to be specifically policy-focused. The other suggestion is actually much more utopian than this, and it is that sociologists should produce fully accountable knowledge-claims in the form of sociological theorising that is fully research-based, and sociological research that is fully theory-informed. On this latter, I will not hold my breath; on the previous suggestion, I do.

6.9 All four of the above suggestions are intended as research-based rather than 'theory alone' enterprises. Thus far I have said very little about methods, mainly because I have been following John Scott's arguments, although the interface between method, methodology and epistemology has been my particular intellectual preoccupation over some thirty years now. Earlier I commented that in fact sociology shares "the social" with other inter/disciplines. However, sociology's commitment to 'open minded' (in the sense that in the UK at least it now recognises there is no one method which is inherently superior) empirical research does give it a distinct character compared with, for example, most anthropology (preoccupied with ethnography), economics (given the hegemony of econometrics), or even much political science (chasing objectivity and a science status). This concern with actually engaging with people and their lives is a mark of particular strength of UK sociology, and all four of my suggestions are for debate and research that can build on this, in which theory and empirical investigation will be mutually reinforcing and symbiotically related.

6.10 What is needed now is a range of responses from present readers to these suggestions - and of course to the sketch of sociology and its "others" which precedes them.

6.11 Finally, keen observers will realise that in making these suggestions I have re-worked Michael Burawoy's idea of the four sociologies, with the sociological imagination standing in for critical and reflexive sociology, hybridic sociologies for professional sociology, public intellectuals for public sociology, and moral knowledge in sociology for policy sociology plus. But there is no hegemonic role for so-called "professional sociology" here - it is no accident that I have invoked a style of professional sociology which is reflective, de-centred, inclusive and expansive and which permits of variant interpretations within the whole. Also these are absolutely not suggestions mapping onto or leading towards institutionalisation and regulation; they are not recommendations for outcomes, but rather proposals for a process, a process in which the massed ranks of UK sociology together with its "others" collectively engage in lively discussion and debate as to its present and future shape.


1 All comments about "sociology" refer specifically to UK sociology unless otherwise specified.

2 This latter continued with more self-destructive contributions in the Commentary section of Sociological Forum, 1995a, thankfully countered by the response from some feminist sociologists in Sociological Forum, 1995b.

3 Once sociologists working in medical, dental and nursing schools, in education, in business schools and media studies departments are reckoned with, as well as those who work in central and local government and all their various agencies, only a minority are located in sociology departments, which anyway house a minority of sociologists compared with those who are academics in other kinds of institution. Certainly the British Sociological Association fully recognises this 'shape' to contemporary sociology and is establishing means of broadening its reach and representativeness (BSA EC/05/53).

4 It is also important to note that the widespread existence of sociology at degree level is relatively recent in the UK and that a very high proportion of 'professional sociologists' and 'departmental sociologists' do not themselves have undergraduate degrees in the subject, which has not prevented them, us, from becoming 'core sociologists'.

5 See Hennessy, 2000; Keller, 2005; Rojeck, 2001; Wolff, 1999. As Wolff comments, US cultural studies shows very little signs of engagement with sociology, while there is actually quite an uneven relationship between British cultural studies and sociology, and anyway cultural studies itself has been rather fragmented from its inception to date (on this latter, see Johnson, 1983 and Maton, 2002, for example). A decade ago Silverstone (1994) reached the conclusion that the UK sociology of culture remains sociological and different from cultural studies - it would be interesting to have his thoughts on how this stands ten years on.

6 These are knowledge, legitimacy, accountability, pathology and politics; see Burawoy, 2004: 1606-13.

7 The QAA is a government-licensed bureaucratic body that defines different aspects of academic standards and quality and then carries out and publishes reviews against these standards. The Sociology benchmarks can be found at http://www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/benchmark/honours/sociology.asp. They can be usefully compared with considerably the greater openness of the Anthropology ones, at http://www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/benchmark/honours/anthropology.asp. It has been pointed out to me that a different regime at the QAA prevailed by the time that anthropology was benchmarked; still, I like to think that UK anthropology would have better resisted the earlier one.

8 Evidenced I hope by my brief biography, attached to this article, while many similar ones could stand beside it.

9 There was a brief period in the late 1960s and early 70s when the UK did experience, at one remove from the US, a kind of hegemonic putative core; but this was for a relatively brief period and was dispelled by intellectual developments happening through the 1970s.

10 UK sociology, having survived and recovered from a number of such 'wars', should most definitely avoid another, but, my argument runs, not by retreatism or appeasement but by intellectual expansionism.

11 This gets repeated drawing on the US experience. I am willing to be convinced that it affects UK sociology - but only when I see detailed up-to-date UK-wide figures with regard to applications and enrolments.

12 As the following argument makes clear, I do not see the institution of core teaching as "the answer" to this.

13 In this respect, the ESRC's (2005, 4th edition) 'Postgraduate Training Guidelines' unhelpfully specifies three sociologies: Sociology, Sociology: Cultural and Media Studies; and Sociology - Women [sic] and Gender Studies, which perhaps contributes to a feeling of dispersal.

14 Among others, see Smith, 1974, 1987, 1990a, 1990b, 1991, 2005.

15 But see for instance Abbott et al, 2005; Delamont, 2003; Jackson, 1999, 2000; Myers et al, 1998; Stanley, 1990; Stanley & Wise, 1993.

16 This is of course deeply ironic, given the division and dissention that it was greeted with when first published. In addition to Mills' own work, see also Aronowitz, 2004; Brewer, 2003, 2004; Eldridge, 1983; Mills, 2001.

17 See the excellent Brewer, 2004 on the biographical context of The Sociological Imagination and changes in its reception over time.

18 To the extent indeed that John Eldridge's (1983) overview of Mills' work focuses on these and otherwise does not discuss the sociological imagination as such.

19 For space considerations, Mill's ideas about reflexivity are not discussed here (but see Hollands and Stanley, forthcoming). However, reflexive sociology that takes full account of the intersections between history, biography and social structure needs an understanding of the history of sociological thought itself, that is, how sociology as a discipline developed in relation to the historical conditions of its production and the location of the individuals who produce(d) it. This may help to evaluate what is useful for thinking with in relation to the social in general and/or particular historical, local social conditions. Understanding how the discipline developed should be part of every sociological education - without this, useful ideas can and do simply vanish off the map, leaving beginning sociologists to constantly reinvent wheels.

20 Another Voice is an early feminist sociology collection (Millman and Kanter, 1975), in which its contributors name what sociology is and can become but in a different voice from that then-dominant in the US, thereby indicating the shared ownership of the discipline by feminist sociology alongside others. It is used here to indicate some possible ways forward for sociology from the perspective of hybridic sociologies.


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