My old work: Sociology

Though I feel remote now from academic sociology, and have no desire to go back, this was my discipline. Stop laughing at the back: it IS a discipline, or should be. I still in a sense practise sociology, and on a good day am proud to profess it. Mixed feelings.

Easier to say how I got into it. At school I specialized in classics, but the modern world and social issues came to interest me more. Staying on at school, I took economics A-level, then went to Africa. Returning to go to university, classics no longer appealed. I considered Chinese, but the Oxford syllabus was resolutely ancient. For social science it had to be PPE, (philosophy, politics and economics: in those days you took all three). Seeking to link it all, I did sociology too; and was a Marxist, another quest for holism.

I’m really glad I did PPE. No one should study a single social science on its own. The real human world is a seamless if tangled web, whose knots no one of these artificially segmented disciplines alone can ever unravel. My field of Third World development inevitably took in history, geography, politics, economics and culture. Sociology to me is the name for the whole thing: the big picture, the master subject. (Imperialist, moi?)

But here as often I’m against the trend of the times, which is subject specialization and fragmentation. Ever fewer people know ever more about ever less; few talk across the divides. This doesn’t help us understand anything that matters, much less change it. I also deplore the abuse of sociology’s open house and welcoming hearth by creeds with other agendas, like Marxism in the 1970s and feminism currently. I support feminism; but this is entryism, like Militant in the Labour Party of yore. They should go and do it somewhere else, or we’ll never get a value-free sociology; only “attitude and platitude”, in Gary Runciman’s fine phrase. Here too, no doubt, I’m hopelessly against the grain. But look at the state of sociology now. Doesn’t it need a break? or refounding, even?

Dear me, what a tendentious rant. I meant this page to be factual, about what I used to do in sociology. Right then. First, all three universities where I worked initially made me teach research methods: which was a bit mean, especially on the students, since no one had ever taught methods to me. Somehow I got by. Otherwise I mainly taught on <a href=”third_world_development.html“>Third World Development</a>; both in general, and (inevitably) theory, but also on social problems, and needless to say Korea. Relatedly, a first year course on social trends and movements let me cover key -isms: capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, nationalism (on which I devised a course in Santa Cruz in 1985), fascism, socialism, communism.

Once I even taught comparative historical sociology, then a core course (imagine!). In an era of a la carte modules and mix ‘n’ match, I still hanker for the old table d’hote. I dabbled in contemporary theory – loved Habermas and hermeneutics, loathed Althusser, iffy on Foucault – but got out before it all went to pot and postmodernism, thankfully. And I’m glad now, as not always at the time, that the Leeds tutorial system forced all us tutors to keep our hands in across the board: from classical theory to modern Britain.

Ah, but it was all so long ago and far away. What do I know? Yet even now, writing far from academe on Korea for business, though it’s more journalism than scholarship (yay, no footnotes!), I still see myself as a practising social scientist. The PPE training is invaluable: economics and politics are central, and inextricably intertwined. Call it political economy – but not forgetting culture: I now fly the flag for Weber, not Marx.

One thing is clear. The world’s a mess, and gets no better. We need social science, to analyze what the hell is going on and what we can do. “Savouir pour prevoir, prevoir pour pouvoir”: the old positivist credo still resonates. Not doing great so far, are we?