A Personal View of Diversity in the Sociological World

By Julie Cappleman-Morgan and Annika Coughlin [1]

The world of sociology and sociological research is changing.  The increasing demand for policy-related and evidence-based’ research within public services and private business, in addition to a progressively marketising higher education system, has led to a rapid reduction in the availability of largely secure university lectureship tenures and research positions and an increase in fixed-term and part-time research contracts both inside  and outside of  academia. These changes have resulted in mixed fortunes for British sociologists.

New graduates now experience only limited opportunities to develop an academic, theoretically-focused career while, conversely, the world of ‘applied sociology’ has opened up with increasing numbers of research and evaluation positions available. That these latter positions can impact directly (and relatively speedily) on social and economic policy developments is very tempting to many of us, particularly when higher education institutions are experiencing so many upheavals. However, the positive aspects of sociology’s ‘cultural shift’ are accompanied by negative consequences that need to be addressed for the benefit of all of us. The emergent diversity within the sociological community appears, unfortunately, to have produced a kind of ‘class system’ in terms of the status afforded to practitioners of sociology, of the work they do (and how it is used) and of the support given to undertake it.

From our experiences at least, it appears that those working outside academia in the UK are some times considered by those within it as the ‘poor relations’: that is, those who are not doing ‘real’, quality sociology. It is quite ironic that some sociologists (often quick to uncover and critique  the causes of societies’ inequalities) may be among those resorting to ‘victim blaming’ and reinforcing inequalities in their own field, when in fact external factors are impacting on the location and quality of sociological and social research undertaken. This state of affairs is neither good for sociologists, sociology nor, ultimately, for society.

Those within and outside academia have much to continue learning from and teaching each other. Both make vital contributions to our understanding of society and the comm unities that com prise them. From our perspectives, a symbiotic relationship between those practising within and outside academia is highly desirable if sociology and society at large are to benefit. Indeed, what value is academic and theoretical work if it is not accessible to a wider audience?  Similarly, what use to a  fairer society is policy-related research without an understanding and critical view of the theoretical models underpinning the social and economic policies upon which our societies are built? In our view, sociologists of all shapes and sizes need to be valued and supported equally and mutually to secure both the future of sociology as an academic discipline and of high standard ‘applied’ sociological and social research within and outside academia.

Sociologists of all shapes and sizes need to be valued and supported equally and mutually to secure both the future of sociology as an academic discipline and of high standard ‘applied’ sociological and social research within and outside academia
Applied sociologists need to be valued

Considering ourselves to be a part of this emerging, diverse sociological community we were attracted to joining the British Sociological Association (BSA) due to its recognition of the evolving roles of sociologists. Although the organisation has been very supportive, it appears that a cultural change among the more traditional institutions has been slow to follow.  Conferences are a particular case in point. Registration forms invariably ask for the name of your ‘institution’ for identification on the delegate list, despite the growing number of delegates working outside academia. Additionally, bursaries and reduced fees are rarely offered to those on low incomes who are not also students. Further, if one is to be taken seriously at conferences it is still more desirable to have had one’s work published in an academic journal rather than reported more widely in (dare I say it) less prestigious ‘public’ formats. We have yet to attend a postgraduate conference that offers workshops on how to disseminate one’s work in the non-academic ‘public sphere’!

Photo: catulle via Flickr
Photo: catulle via Flickr

Conversely, organisations outside academia often do not recognise the importance of the theoretical underpinnings of the work we do and the necessity for rigour and transparency in the research process. They often want quick answers, arrived at as cheaply as possible. Many organisations fail to recognise the need to fund research employees’ professional development despite government concerns to promote ‘lifelong learning’ and encourage ‘transferable skills’ in our ‘knowledge-based’ economy. Further, access to research tools (e.g. analytical software), academic journals and other resources considered vital to ‘legitimate’ academic research are rarely available to sociologists outside academia since most non-academic organisations (e.g public services), small enterprises and independent ‘freelance’ researchers find the licensing costs prohibitively expensive.

These difficulties serve to further reinforce the sociological ‘class system’, with the road to social research outside of academia becoming a ‘one-way-street’. While academic researchers are generally equipped with up-to-date skills and theoretical knowledge enabling them to find research positions outside the university, the reverse route becomes more difficult to negotiate for those who have worked for some time outside academia unless they have maintained links with universities and possess the financial me ans to fund their own professional skills and knowledge development.

Those on the margins of academia and beyond, in addition to those without permanent affiliations to universities, find themselves experiencing many of the issues outlined above. Indeed, after several BSA members’ letters were published in the organisation’s newsletter ‘Network’ expressing such concerns, a group of us decided to get together to do some thing about it. Consequently the ‘Sociologists Outside Academia’ group (SOAg) was launched in 2005 with the full support of the BSA, who generously created a SOAg representative position on the BSA Council in recognition of this distinct section of the sociological community. The groups aims and objectives are to:

  • strengthen the idea that we are first and foremost sociologists regardless of our circumstances
  • raise the profile and value of sociologists working largely outside of the academy
  • raise the status of sociological work undertaken beyond an academic context
  • raise awareness of the need to support new and ‘budding’ sociologists and others not working directly within the discipline but whose work sociology informs
  • provide a forum through which our interests, views and concerns can be related to the BSA so that appropriate support and recognition is afforded to all.
Researchers meeting about communities
Photo: Ed Schipul via Flickr

Since its inception, the group has developed both a networking and campaigning focus. Networking opportunities are offered through our web-forum, periodic informal gatherings, our new Google Group and at the BSA’s annual conference where we host a promotional stall/ meeting point. This year we teamed up with the BSA’s Postgraduate Forum (with whom we share many issues in common) to co-host a stall during conference hours and a ‘pub quiz’ in the evening which enabled postgraduate delegates and those without full institutional affiliations to get together and have some fun! We also have our own web -page on the BSA web site and produce our own newsletter ‘Sociology for All?’ in which we invite all SOAg members of any background and level of experience to share their news, achievements, views and profiles.

Campaigning elements of the group provide more of a challenge, particularly with regard to accessing academic knowledge. Many universities, increasingly concerned about the legal implications of copyright and database licensing etc., are restricting public access to electronic journals and resources even among their alumni members (now considered no longer ‘appropriate’ users). We have begun to look deeper into the implications of this for public access rights and have made contacts with other groups like the Research Information Network to progress the issue further.

Photo: COD Newsroom via Flickr
Photo: COD Newsroom via Flickr

We have also made some progress regarding funding, with the BSA now considering our proposals for membership tariffs and conference fees to reflect more realistically the needs of those on low incomes and without institutional support. Additionally, following a consultation with SOAg members, the Medical Sociology group has now extended bursary applications to include sociologists outside academia. In terms of status and identification, the editors of BSA journals such as ‘Sociology’ and the newsletter ‘Network’ are now actively encouraging article submissions from sociologists outside academia and have enabled contributors to state their own professional designations rather than asking for their ‘Institution’. These are small achievements which are nevertheless having a real impact. More recently SOAg has taken forward members’ various proposals for BSA Council consideration, including the setting up of a mentoring service and a freelance researcher’s registration database on the website.

We are thrilled at SOAg’s development and growing international recognition, which in the long-run, we hope, will benefit both the future of sociology and sociologists working outside academia, wherever they are!


Bio at the time of first publication (2008):

Julie Cappleman-Morgan and Annika Coughlin are co-convenors of The Sociologists Outside Academia group (BSA).

Visit: Sociologists Outside Academia


SAW logo[1] This article was first published by Nexus in June 2008. Original Citation for this article: Cappleman-Morgan, J. and A. Coughlin (2008), ‘A Personal View of Diversity in the Sociological World,’ Nexus June 20(2): 16-17.

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