Sociology: dark and difficult work, but someone has to do it

"WE'RE not dead yet," says the sociologist at the bar, with his authenticating pint. "It's only a midlife crisis. We're not as sexy as we were in the Sixties. We're a bit greyer. We've had some catching up to do. But look round you: there's life in us yet."

I look round me, and he's right. There are 600 delegates at the 1995 British Sociological Association conference in Leicester, most of them, it seems, at the bar. The comedian Jeremy Hardy has just been entertaining them with jokes about themselves - their out-of-touchness, the tinny cars they drive, even (a cheek, given how they're whooping) their lack of humour.

But the state of the profession is no laughing matter. Once merely attacked, it's now, more woundingly, being marginalised. Despite its topical theme - cities, and the future of cities - there are no national newspapers (except this one) represented at the conference, whereas journalists flock to hear psychologists and even geographers. The media seem to have decided that, as an incisive piece in the Times Higher Education Supplement, by the BBC's urban affairs correspondent, David Walker, recently put it, today's sociologists "have nothing worth saying" about the issues of the age.

In the late-Sixties and early-Seventies, sociology had a very different image. As a relatively new subject associated with the new universities and with polytechnics, it promised, almost hubristically, to find answers to all our social problems. Its practitioners, most of them left-wing, were fted by the media. The work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Michael Young, Peter Wilmott and even Marshall McLuhan helped dignify the discipline, and opened up new lines of inquiry. Dons such as Laurie Taylor became household names. The weekly magazine New Society, founded in 1962, published some of the most incisive writing around.

What went wrong? Why is sociology no longer chic? Several of those I spoke to in Leicester blame Margaret Thatcher, whose declaration that "There is no such thing as society" implied that sociology, too, must be redundant. Some mention Keith Joseph and his onslaught on the Social Science Research Council, now the Social and Economic Research Council. Others say that the profession's failure to take root in the old universities, notably Oxford, kept it a poor cousin to PPE. Still others say the "image problem" began 20 years ago with Howard Kirk, Zapata-moustached hero of Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, charismatic, community-minded and a complete charlatan.

These days sociologists look distinctly un-Kirk-like. A random survey of delegates, conducted by a single researcher over an intensive 36-hour period, suggests that 85 per cent of male sociologists wear open collars, 37 per cent woolly jumpers, and 28 per cent carry over-the-shoulder canvas bags. Across both genders - and there are now many more female sociologists than there used to be - 72 per cent speak in regional accents, 95 per cent prefer beer to wine, 81 per cent exhibit Labour sympathies but have doubts about Tony Blair, 99 per cent use the word discourse, 37 per cent write learned articles with the word "space", as used by Henri Lefebvre, in the title (space that is variously contested, gendered and constructed), and 49 per cent, instead of taking notes while listening to conference papers, draw diagrams with loops, boxes and circles.

The image is dowdier than it used to be, but not as moribund as it is in the US, where several sociology departments have recently closed through lack of demand, as undergraduate numbers fell from 36,000 in 1973 to 14,000 in 1991. On display at the conference was a book called The Decomposition of Sociology. Its author, Irving Louis Horovitz, claims that different interest groups have hi-jacked and fragmented the profession, and that its core values have been lost.

Balkanisation and modularisation have also had an effect in Britain, with historical, founding-fathers sociology (Durkheim, Comte, Weber, etc) losing appeal, and the sociology of film, literature, gender, sport and leisure being annexed to Cultural Studies.

But the picture is far less bleak here than in the US. Figures from UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) show only a slight fall, in percentage terms, in student demand for places: in 1994, 1.4 per cent of all university entrants read sociology, compared with 2.3 per cent in 1974. And with the expansion in higher education, sociology is a much bigger profession in Britain than it was: in 1994, 75 higher education institutions offered courses, and 4,500 students were given places (compared with 1,500 in 1974).

"I regularly speak to audiences of 2,000 A-level students or more," says Laurie Taylor, formerly professor at York University, now doubling at the BBC and Birkbeck. "It's particularly popular with women. Some of the old potency has gone - the subject no longer frightens people - but the predictive side of sociology, the imaginative projection of alternatives, that's still there, and I have a lot of respect for it."

Taylor wishes there were "more popular plain-speakers" in British sociology. There is no famous gnomic guru either - no Umberto Eco or Jean Baudrillard, and no communitarian sage like Amitai Etzioni. The leading figure, everyone agrees, is Anthony Giddens, professor of sociology and fellow of King's College Cambridge, who last week coincidentally published a spirited defence of the discipline in the New Statesman.

Giddens recognises that sociology has had a bad press, and that people still satirise its jargon. (Sample joke: What do you get when you cross a sociologist with a member of the Mafia? An offer you can't understand.) But Giddens defends the profession for pioneering discussion of, for example, the post-industrial or information society, globalisation, gender, the changing nature of work and the family, the environment, the "underclass" and ethnicity.

Giddens says sociologists could and should focus more attention on practicalities and policy-making, and has himself lately become associated with Tony Blair. Michele Barrett, president of the BSA, agrees that sociologists have been too subdued of late: since the fall of Communism, especially, "the old categories of class, individual and nation-state no longer seem useful. We're having to develop a new vocabulary and set of concepts, and in a time of flux we've been silenced. Psychologists and economists have been much more willing to go public." But both defend the theoretical aspirations of sociology: mere empiricism and US-style number-crunching aren't enough.

This split between the empirical and the theoretical was the most glaring feature of the 1995 conference. I sat through one deconstructionist session unsure whether it wasn't just a spoof: a young theoretician called Joost Van Loon, in his paper on "Chronotypes of/in the televisualisation of the 1992 Los Angeles riots", declaimed, in a mere 20 minutes, on nomadology, geo-philosophy, the spatiality of discourse, the discursivity of space, redistantiatiation, performativity, responsivity and de-foundationalisation - but not on LA. A look round the books on display - and as the profession has grown, so has the number of texts being produced, even though print runs average a mere 400 for hardback and 2,000 for paperback - suggest a similar preponderance of the post-structuralist. There are titles such as Intimations of Postmodernity, Decentring Leisure and even Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production - more Tony Parsons than Talcott Parsons.

But old-style surveys continue, not least in newer areas such as gender studies. One session included an excellent paper, by Jayne Mooney, challenging Home Office statistics on violent crimes against men and women, and there was another provoking talk, by Sue Lees, on the high incidence of, and psychology behind, pair- and gang-rape. At this empirical end, the risk isn't loony extremism but nerdy obviousness: is the world much the wiser for the papers given lastweek on traffic calming, eating out in the North, live telephone sex calls (an ethnograpic survey), population trends in Cornwall, and the role of the toilet in the modern city?

But one fashionable area of research is surveillance, and surveillance is something which sociology, at best, can still do expertly, monitoring, interpreting, freezing the frame. The problem is translating this surveillance work into language the rest of us use, or can comprehend, or don't find rebarbative. At least the younger delegates at Leicester (many of them postgraduates kept under by an older generation of crusties) seemed to recognise that endless talk of post-Fordism, or definitions of the city as "a unique, ongoing time-space event", are selling the profession short.

The man at the bar had no doubt of his sociological usefulness. "John Major says this is a nation at ease with itself. We don't think it is, and that's our job: to be difficult, to show what kind of society this really is and will become. You'll see: our time is coming round again. Cheers."

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