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Special Section on Future Sociologies

Since attending the Future Sociologies event in Leeds on 1 July, I have been mulling over two points. The first point is biographical, concerned with my status as a doctoral candidate to whom a future in academic sociology appeals greatly, as well as the institutional constraints that limit PhD students’ capacity to engage in the “craft” of sociology advocated at the event. The second concerns the role of history. 

To be a PhD student is to occupy a liminal position; in but not quite of the university. As such, my responses to events like these tend to be shot through with ambivalence. In some respects, they inspire hope. They feel like genuine moments of collectiveness, as if the somewhat reified idea of a single, coherent “sociology” might well exist as a sort of movement to belong to. Moreover, there is a wide acknowledgement that concepts like “future sociologies” depend largely on those entering the discipline as students.

The atmosphere on this particular day was genial and generous (despite the stifling heat of the hottest July day on record) and the presentations inspiring and important. Above all, speakers lamented the impact on the “craft” of sociology of the transformation of higher education into a field of competition. Perhaps paradoxically for a discussion on the future, a sense of loss, or of the possibility of loss, pervades these discussions. We are faced with the task of salvaging the best of academic sociology, which might disintegrate if these new, marketised conditions are not resisted.

This argument is compelling – but conversely, I often leave these same events with a nagging imperative to play the very game they so thoroughly deconstruct. To “stand out from the crowd”, we are told, we must publish in journals (I’ve heard varying reports on how much, ranging from “one quality publication” to “three is not enough”); we must regularly present at conferences, at which we should also “network” with the right people; we must leave a discernible “digital footprint”. A strong teaching portfolio is also essential. These are valuable, enjoyable, and ultimately privileged endeavours and none (except web presence) are new requirements. That said, evidence suggests that contemporary conditions are not only rendering their realisation harder to achieve, but also making them less likely to enable the sorts of intellectual craft celebrated at the event. These conditions, constitutive of Richard Hall and Joss Winn’s model of the neoliberal university as an ‘anxiety producing machine’, have increasingly produced poor mental health, isolation and poor work-life balance

This anxiety feels well founded. I am often struck by how clearly advice received in “training” can appear to pull us in different directions. In one breath, we’re informed of the merits of fostering a congenial, communicative “PhD culture”. In the next, we’re warned about forthcoming institutional mechanisms designed to ensure that we finish within three years. Cynically, the question that follows is: why should we take time out to meet and share ideas with those who are essentially our competitors in the “entrepreneurial university”?

At Leeds, in order to think through these tensions, a few of us PhD students have formed Higher Education for Dummies, which aims to situate our biographical experiences of doing a PhD under present conditions in the broader context of historical transformations of higher education. In the sense invoked by C. Wright Mills, it is an attempt to locate personal troubles in public issues.

The figure of Mills offers a bridge into the second point I took from the event. It seemed significant that The Sociological Imagination, published in 1959, remains an important touchstone, even at events purportedly concerned with the future of the discipline. This is both testament to the strength of Mills’ vision of what sociology could achieve and an implicit acknowledgement of the importance of historical figures to contemporary debates.

A few weeks prior to Future Sociologies, at the International Social Theory Consortium conference, I watched two of the day’s speakers – Gurminder Bhambra and Les Back – present an impassioned, compelling argument for the importance of W.E.B. Du Bois and the necessity of affording him a more central place in the discipline. Particularly moving was Bhambra’s opening address, following the massacre in Charleston the morning before, which evaluated Du Bois’ significance in thinking about contemporary US race relations. Similarly, Austin Harrington here at Leeds argues in a forthcoming book for the transhistorical value of social theory from interwar Weimar Germany, and its capacity to speak to central debates around the role of the West in global social change.

Both examples show that many debates cast as “contemporary”, including those concerning the value and limits of sociology itself, have neglected historical precedents that emerged in particular places and times before being submerged in the wake of canon formation.  This, I think, ought to be borne in mind when considering the afternoon’s critiques of “impact case studies”. I mentioned my thoughts to Les Back during the break. He pointed out another figure whose writings were initially neglected: Primo Levi. Paradoxically, this was because Levi’s testimony of his internment at Auschwitz was too impactful. As he states, If This is a Man ‘fell into oblivion for many years’ because ‘those were difficult times of mourning and reconstruction and the public did not want to return in memory to the painful years of the war’.   

Returning to the Future Sociologies event, Bev Skeggs warned that excessive focus on the future might lead us to “take our eyes off the present”. It also diverts our attention from the past. If a key function of sociology is to demonstrate that the present condition is not inevitable, then it is surely important to seriously consider those historical points at which different decisions might have been made, different consequences might have resulted, and different voices might have been given proper hearing. This requires looking not just to the future, but also to the past.

Jack Palmer is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. Find out more about his research here