It’s the holidays and I’m feeling nostalgic, thinking about this time 14 years ago when I was just finishing up my first semester at CSU, Chico. I was a 34-year old college junior and a first generation college student. Today I was looking for a beef stew recipe in the Joy of Cooking and I came across a relic of some old school notes for a final exam that first semester I was back in school. On the bottom of the page is a handwritten list of words from the book I had to write about. I was an older, working class student—I wasn’t worrying about fitting in but I knew I didn’t belong. Not because I didn’t have the right clothes and such but because I wasn’t well spoken and I had dodgy manners. The hard part for me was these words, so many unfamiliar, BIG words.
That first semester was tough because I’d been a part-time student off and on for about nine years before I (finally!) got my shit together and transferred. What strikes me most when I look at my list of words is that they mark the beginning of me studying sociology. Sociology is the thing that set me free and gave me agency, showed me who I am and my place in the world and how life worked; I got to peek behind the curtain. I love sociology and I say that with all of my heart. But I’m worried about my discipline; it feels stuffy and very specific, heavy on statistics and light on meaning.
Last week I read this piece by Les Back: “Are we seeing the closing of sociology’s mind?” You can read it at this link, but the main thing he’s talking about—the reason I’m blogging about it here—is because he highlights sociology’s narrowing vision in the age of the “audit culture” so popular in the U.S. and currently invading the U.K. In his essay, Back talks of sociology in crisis at the same time he makes a case for why sociology matters. There is no shortage of moral crises and Back says these events awaken sociology’s public mission. Moreover, troubled events are what sociology is and was made of, whom else but sociologists to make sense and meaning of broad events like war and conflicts over immigration.
Back goes on to discuss the influence of digital media in allowing for an inventive sociology, but the problem he says, is neoliberalism (of course!). Those sociologists interested in “theoretical work, inventive, or collaborative research” need not apply, the audit-centric university he says, want evidence and measurable outcomes. How does one measure an ethnographic video about a student’s search for her Hmong heritage? That is my kind of sociology but it’s the kind of thing that the university suits shrug at. Les Back says, “In simple terms it is easier to evidence a small claim.” So, instead of the big picture, sociology is good for answering small, easily solved problems, things that can be measured and proven, that is what make the suits happy.
I noticed this when I was teaching. My tenured colleagues would send out an email asking us what we had done of value (as sociologists) in the last year, they needed it for a report they were writing for the suits. They asked, had we given any conference presentations, published research, or participated in meaningful professional development activities—mind you, this was asked of a bunch of adjuncts at a community college. The report was thick and possibly meaningless except for the boxes its physical presence allowed to be checked off. Back talks about this, he refers to it as the “metrics of auditing and measuring intellectual value and worth.” Reminds me of another word I learned that first semester: legitimacy.
Can sociology seek institutional legitimacy and stay interesting? Can it be measurable without a “lessening of intellectual diversity within the discipline?” I get why Back is crying Cassandra, while some other disciplines are embracing interdisciplinary pursuits, sociology does seem to be “hardening” its disciplinary boundaries. But I can only wonder and reminisce about those early days when sociology was new to me and not in danger of suffocating itself. I like what Back says though, that sociology works best when it’s combined with other crafts such as computer science and photography, the blending of the theoretical and the applied, now there’s something interesting!