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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Why I write (my blog)

Recently people have been asking me why I write a blog and why I write it in the way I do. At one level the answer is simple: because I can. I've reached the stage in my career where I'm not particularly dependent on the patronage or good opinions of others. I have a good job, fine colleagues, excellent students and nowhere else I particularly want to go. In short there is not much I want from anybody. My destiny is, to a large degree, in my own hands.

My intellectual programme, though it contains goals that won't be easy to achieve, doesn't really require enormous amounts of externally funded resources. That's not to say that I won't be applying for research grants, just that if my applications are rejected it's no big deal because I would only be applying for money to do things that I would do  anyway, only more slowly. I'm immensely lucky. I get up every day, and do mostly what I want and enjoy. I'm privileged enough to be able to prioritize self-respect and the things that keep me awake at night have little to do with shabby intellectual compromises.

It wasn't always like that. Those that know me will probably testify that keeping my mouth shut and turning the other cheek have never featured particularly strongly in my behavioural repertoire. I've never been one for kissing ass or suffering fools gladly. On the other hand when I was younger I had enough sense to realize that keeping a certain amount of  my powder dry was a good thing if I wanted my contract renewed until retirement and that it was sometimes wise to ally myself with the lesser of the evils on offer. Sometimes survival means compromise. 

But now I don't have to turn a blind eye to things I don't like or states of affairs that I think are wrong and I don't have to dress up what I say in a lot of weasel words. And by God there is a lot in British sociology to fix. Actually, I'm far from being the only person to think that. There are quite a few who agree in private but, for understandable reasons, don't feel able to take a militant line in public. They don't have tenure, they are dependent on the next research grant, they are seeking promotion, hope to move to a more desirable institution, don't want to damage the REF position of their department. They know that their future might be in the hands of  fools and knaves so they don't reveal their hand. They also often have the noble, but I think misguided, view that airing the dirty linen in public is in some sense disloyal to the discipline.

This is a mistake. The truth is that there is no coherent discipline to feel  loyalty to. We work in a discipline where a poem, a dance based exploration of "performativity", a photography exhibition, an autobiography written by someone barely out of high school and a £15 million  panel survey are all considered to be equally worthy of our attention qua sociology.

Now don't get me wrong. I like poetry, photography and autobiographies. I've nothing against dance per se. I'm very happy for people to spend their time doing these things, thinking about them, writing about them. But we have to be clear that  they are  a very different way of apprehending the world - my old LSE colleague Max Steuer calls it 'social poetry' - from the kind of sociology I do. So different in fact that they are not complementary (this kind of 'compromise' is often the last resort of the wooly minded or the ploy of the scoundrel) but incommensurable. The conversations are so different that people might as well be speaking different languages.

This is not a qualitative versus quantitative thing. It really isn't, though I know there will be those who will nevertheless attempt to portray it in that way. It is a distinction between those of us who, broadly speaking, see our professional lives as operating within a set of rules of the game shared with the natural sciences and those of us who see ourselves as doing something that doesn't conform to those constraints. I don't want the social poets to do anything other than what they are doing now. Good luck to them. I just don't want to share the same institutional space (I can read poetry and go to the ballet in my spare time). I also don't want the social poets involved in decisions that affect my academic welfare or the academic welfare of younger colleagues who share my intellectual orientation and I don't want to be involved in a competition with them for the same pot of resources.

An anecdote to illustrate the radically different worlds we inhabit. A number of years ago I sat on an interview panel for a position in my department. All of the candidates were very well qualified on paper and came from respectable universities. Some already held quite senior positions. There was one candidate that nearly all the departmental representatives would not have short-listed, but an individual further up the feeding chain who had markedly different views about the nature of social science from the modal departmental view, insisted, so rather than have an unseemly fight at the short-listing stage, they were invited for interview. In the interview this candidate was asked a very straightforward question: "If you were going to test your theory, what observations would make you believe that your theory was wrong?" This question obviously threw them. All they could do was answer rather huffily: "In my department we don't ask ourselves that sort of question". What? There exist major British sociology departments where people routinely don't think about the evidence that would disprove what they believe? My intuition is that this is not an exception.

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