Dear British Sociological Association,
It’s your annual conference this week. Hope you’re having fun. I’ve only been once (2007). Honestly, the whole thing frustrated me a bit and, also because it’s so expensive, I’ve not been back. My main memory was a giant, embarrassing “eh” silence after Latour’s keynote, then sitting by the river with some other PhD students wondering why no one was writing a book about “chavs” and new demonisations of the working class. But I probably shouldn’t judge on one event, and I hear you’ve changed loads recently. This year’s theme is “engaging”. I probably should be there. If I had the budget.
Before I go any further, I want to say that I really, really like words. I especially like new words. I think words help us think. I think new words open new ways of seeing the world.
Moving on. Yesterday, I read that climate scientist James Hansen was retiring from NASA, planning to focus on political advocacy in his retirement. I wrote a piece about it for the Guardian which, countering some of the flack Hansen gets for his political activism, suggested the following dyspotian thought experiment:
If I wanted an army of scientific workers to do my bidding I’d train them to think politics smells bad and demonise people like Hansen. I might let them play with some light “philosophy”, certainly no sociology. A bit of the less juicy bits of Popper on a Thursday lunchtime maybe, with some workshops in business, PR and lobbying as a further “enrichment” programme. I’d probably try to enforce really hierarchical and competitive structures within science too, so the workers only talk up and down, rather than organise together. And I’d divide the curriculum up as much as possible, abstracting it all and dismantling anything that invited anyone to consider the work of scientists in any broader context.
Jon Butterworth (physics Prof at UCL and another Guardian writer) very wisely replied that in such a vision he’d also ensure sociologists spoke only to each other, in obscure jargon.
He’s totally right.
Moreover, I think this slightly mischievous vision might be one the sociological profession, of all areas of the academy, would both appreciate and worry about. So think on that when you next wring your hands over “dumbing down”: Who exactly are you serving with your current modes of communication?
None of that means you can’t offer us new words and the new ways of seeing that go with them. I honestly think that’s one of the best things you can give. But do it well. And do it with an eye on talking with (not just at) the public. I also think most of you know this already. But you do need to be a lot better. Because even people who know and love you aren’t getting it. And one of you should have already written that book about chavs back in 2007.
Maybe even see you next year in person,
Dr Alice R Bell