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

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Steve Fuller on sociology and the REF

Over at The Sociological Imagination Steve Fuller has an interesting piece on sociology and the REF. I could quibble about a few minor things, but I'm in broad agreement with the general message and in particular his final paragraph which I'll quote here:

The specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such.

"Successful" disciplines - in the social sciences the paradigm case is probably economics - define relatively tightly what kind of thing is inside and outside of the tent. Standards about what is and is not an acceptable question or solution to a question are shared and there is a consensus about the suite of acceptable research strategies - though not necessarily agreement about the applicability of a particular tool in each case. All this is not to say that people agree all the time about all the questions and the ways to answer them, but people do agree about the sort of thing they are doing  to the extent that they can meaningfully talk to each other. The Economic Journal does not publish poems.

Paradoxically a "discipline" in which "anything goes", is, of course, not literally a discipline in which everything goes. It is simply a discipline in which quite arbitrary decisions about academic value  get made that depend on whoever has grabbed or promoted themselves to positions of power and influence. Sometimes these decisions coincide with what is reasonable, sometimes they are absurd. How they look will very much depend on what flavour of "sociology" the observer happens to prefer. Personally I prefer p. values to poetry (as sociology) but nobody was asking me.

The President of the BSA Lynn Jamieson has posted a message on the BSA website  which contains the following sentences:

But whatever it looks like from where you stand, I hope we could agree that it is crucial that we, as sociologists, present a collaborative and positive front and continue to value each other’s research regardless of institutional affiliation. Division is not in the interests of the future of our discipline.

The sentiment, in the context, is understandable but is this what we really should be doing? Agreeing to disagree without making a serious effort to identify the sources of the difference is really not healthy for a discipline. What it means is that one thing gets said in public and another in private where the important decisions are really taken. It will be painful but in the long run better to cut out the hypocrisy and for everyone to say openly whatever they think is true about their own and other people's research. If you think that what I do is no good, muddle-headed or simply wrong, then I want to hear about it. Maybe you are right and if, by your arguments you persuade me, I'll change my mind. Or maybe you are talking out of your arse and then I want to be able to explain to you why I think that is the case. I can see no intellectual good coming out of pretending to value  research  I believe to be nonsense in order to protect a discipline that is so fragmented that it is merely a flag of convenience.

There are too many bunkers and dark hiding places in sociology where people just hang out with their mates and massage each other's egos. Most so called "debates" are nothing of the sort. In fact the last thing that many seem to want is genuine debate in the sense of extended argument and evidence being brought to bear on their beliefs. Witness the British Social Class Debate in the pages of Sociology: where exactly was the debate? How many of the contributions actually said anything of substance about the original article? How many of the arguments that were raised were actually addressed satisfactorily in the rejoinder?

And who are the guilty men and women? Well, not obviously the REF panel. Like Jamieson I think we have to believe that they were doing the best they could given the (absurd) rules of a game that probably a significant fraction of them didn't believe in. The real criminals, in my view, are the people that have led and been influential in running the major British sociological institutions. The BSA Presidents, the editors of the journals, the Professors in the major departments, in short the people who could have led but instead sat back and let a hundred flowers bloom  while saying things in private like: "I know that what x says is correct but I can't be seen to endorse that because it will upset y and lead to z and then w won't like me and therefore I won't be invited to v."



The specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such. - See more at: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/16661#sthash.aBP3OfNJ.dpuf
he specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such. - See more at: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/16661#sthash.aBP3OfNJ.dpuf
The specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such. - See more at: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/16661#sthash.aBP3OfNJ.dpuf

1 comment:

Mel Bartley said...

Well said. I have been worrying about this kind of thing for ages.