Who’s not punking their sociology?

After eventually getting round to reading Dave Beer’s Punk Sociology (like Lisa McKenzie’s Getting By, one of those books everyone’s been talking about) I’m feeling pleased and annoyed. Pleased because I agree with so much of Beer’s analysis, annoyed because, as is probable with any Palgrave Pivot title, I wanted more.

It’s a great read, and at only 70 pages it only took a few hours. Written with warmth (like a human!) and straightforwardly, it’s an argument for a better, less stilted and strangled, more creative, less plodding, quicker sociology. It touches on so many topics (however briefly) that it’ll be one of those things that’ll keep popping up in whatever I write over the next few years. It’s endlessly quotable as well – this on punk could be the epigraph for my work on confessional reflexive methods:

“The musicians [of punk] were not afraid to put their limitations on display” (p.46)

Yet for me, there just wasn’t enough punk in it. I wanted lyrics and stories and anecdotes and dramas, relating the experience of punk to the current state of sociology. Instead what we get are some quickly established (simplified?) facets of what punk was, which became an all-purpose, applicable ‘ethos’ which Beer argues we should apply to sociology. Dave O’Brien in his review felt that the book simplified punk a bit too much and while I don’t know the ins and outs, I also needed more context and complexity. I don’t remember punk – I needed a more detailed explanation of what it was and what it meant. So while I desperately agree with the content, the punk framing was just a bit thin.

Perhaps more interestingly Beer rightly highlights the lack of ‘how’ we improve in critiques of sociology:

“How do we reimagine the craft and promise of sociology? How do we find ways of being creative, inventive, and lively? How can we deploy the sociological imagination in inventive ways? How can we resist the restrictions of uncertainty, crisis, and measurement?” (p.12)

He lists the ways in which sociology is under attack or threatened (p.5) and questions why more isn’t done to explain how we start to counter these. That’s great, I’ve long felt the same, but in the conclusion (p.68) he writes of the book:

“It is not a ‘how to’ guide for the punk sociologist. Rather this book is an attempt to respond to calls for a re-imagined and re-invigorated sociology that faces up to contemporary challenges.”

Well, that feels a little bit like a cop out. I wouldn’t expect a set of rules carved in stone, but some examples that Dave Beer feels live up to what he wants (and I want). Everyone has their own examples and things they love (the random book that fills you with joy at it’s sheer aura) and I want to know what Beer’s are.

Because it seems to me lots of people are doing things about the perceived current lack of punk (unpunk?) sociology. Discover Society was launched in order to directly put sociology right in front of anyone and seems to be working. The Mapping Immigration Controversy project has swiftly begun to track the inhumanity of the Home Office. Sociological Research Online has asked for quick-fire responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The Sociological Review’s recent re-imagining of its purpose and manifesto is beautiful and exciting. Two years ago at the BSA I met someone who was doing a PhD about animal testing through the medium of a graphic novel. There are tons of PhD opportunities to work on interesting research projects available (with the caveat that there aren’t the academic jobs to go into after). Quantitative methods are being taken seriously through Q-Step. This is similar to Emma Jackson’s point in her review: wasn’t the feminist approach to research punk sociology? Aren’t we (to some extent/ to a great extent) doing this already?

As someone who teaches in both sociology and politics, the civil society organisations and community around sociology seem much more thoughtful, imaginative and keyed in to the future than those in political science. (Even though politics has it easy because it’s such a concrete thing). Sociology feels like a discipline with a bit of flair despite its current maligned status documented by Beer.

What I suppose I want is the opposite of what Beer shies away from in his postscript. He states that he doesn’t want to and never, when requested, identifies punk sociologists, leaving it to the reader to decide (p.70). But what I want are a list of all the people/ departments/ research groups who are extensively not punking their sociology. I’m guessing they include (off the top of my head):

  • The journal editors who dismisses anything without 80 references and not in the third person.
  • The reviewer who says articles are ‘too conversational’.
  • The Head of Department who (and I have seen this) says he’d rather his academics produced four good journal articles than three amazing monographs for the purposes of the REF.
  • The person who doesn’t tweet and blog or push or even present their research to their colleagues, or the newspapers or press, and is happy for it to gather dust somewhere.
  • The sociologist who rejects a new method because it’s new.
  • The theorist who writes impenetrable prose about the nature of reality (it’s a table, get over it and yourself) that has no bearing on people’s lives, or won’t benefit the next generation of scholars who try to apply it, and couldn’t explain what they mean in a week.
  • People who nick their postgraduate students’ work, or have no interest in using their status to offer someone in a worse position a leg up.
  • The lecturer who hasn’t changed their teaching slides in 20 years.

These offenders (and I would struggle to name three, but I don’t know many people and am too nice) seem to mostly be in management positions, or running the Campaign for Social Science. As John Holmwood’s review today of the vilely titled The Business of People report of the CfSS makes clear, sociology and our ilk have to be vibrant and rebellious against this tortuous management, market-led bull. But I would love for examples of research that should not (according to the punk sociology ethos) exist.

I think Dave Beer has written what everyone is thinking, and are still worried about. But similarly to how McKenzie’s work argues that working-class people and communities should be valued for who they are and what they do, not held to some alien and elitist middle-class gold standard, we have to value what we have already and make sure there is access to it and the effort is rewarded and protected.

Hopefully while everyone I respect is doing new, interesting, valuable stuff, those people listed above will wither and fall by the wayside. As Jackson’s review points out, Beer’s vision of punk sociology sounds exhausting: but I’ve heard it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

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