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 tenured academics.

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 commitments.

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' (1998: ¶2.2)? 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.


DEUTSCHER, I. (1998) 'Sociological Practice: The Politics of Identities and Futures', Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <http://www.socre>.

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>.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998