How can I not read this book with a title like this?
The central theme of is pretty simple:
- Sociology is in crisis and in need of renewal.
- The punk ethos is a good approach to provide such renewal.
- Punk sociology.
And that’s about it. In and of itself, that’s not a problem. The book is rather short (99 pages of pages) and reads more like a pamphlet more than a full-fledged sociological treatise on the subject of sociological crisis and renewal.
Let me get through the main points before offering my views on all this.
So, the starting point of the book is that sociology is in crisis for a variety of reasons: it is a fragmented discipline (which is why people often ask what sociology actually is and what sociologists do). As a result, the discipline faces uncertainty and identity crisis and the response has been to play it safe, which, according to Beer, is not what we should be doing. He also reviews some of the literature on the subject of the future of the discipline, from Howard Becker’s live sociology, to the advocacy for more openness and inventiveness when it comes to methods.
From this diagnosis, the questions are as such:
“How do we re-imagine the craft and promise of sociology? How do we find ways of being creative, inventive, and lively? How can we deploy the sociological imagination in creative ways? How can we resist the restrictions of uncertainty, crisis, and measurement?” (Loc. 344)
Beer comes back over and over to the promise of sociology as outlined by C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination and wants his book to be considered a contribution to the discussion of where we should take the concept at this point in the history of the discipline.
Beer also positions his book in the current academic context and the changes happening in universities, that we are all familiar with: universities as businesses, students as consumers, etc., all under the broad umbrella of neo-liberalization.
“It is obvious that we are not going to reverse the apparent marketization and neoliberalization of higher education. Instead, we need to think about how we should respond. The best response, that is to say the best form of protection, is to shape a discipline that is attractive, lively, and exciting. A discipline that draws people in.
It will also make it far more likely that value is seen to reside in the sociological project. This does not mean that we are ‘selling out’, it is not to go with the flow and to simply adopt the spirit of market-based competition into our lives. Rather it is to work towards a version of sociology that thrives under these conditions by offering an alternative voice and an engaging tone. Sociology will then thrive, because it will draw people into its debates, into its ideas, and into its findings, all of which are likely to provide alternative visions of the social world. This is a version of sociology that plays the game to its advantage. It is a version of sociology that succeeds by its own rules. This is a version of sociology that operates in the contemporary, if you will forgive the expression, knowledge economy, whilst providing a space for thought and provocation. My suggestion is that the best way to achieve all of this is to work on producing a discipline that fires people’s imaginations.” (Loc. 406)
What is that supposed to look like?
“what I am suggesting with punk sociology, is that we attempt to play along with the demands placed on us, but that at the same time we try to preserve a creative space. This will be a space in which sociology is not entirely bounded and shaped by the directions that are intended for it (by systems of government, measurement, and the rhetoric of impact). In other words, it uses an engagement with a creative cultural form to help direct it away from the obvious and to give it space to react and respond to the challenges it faces. The punk ethos, as one example, gives us the type of creative space and imaginative framework that might allow us to continue to thrive in a changing academic and social context, whilst also enabling us to be bold and confident, and to think in ways that escape from orthodoxy and conservatism.” (Loc. 418)
But is the punk ethos exactly? As defined by Beer, it involves a certain number of characteristics:
The idea then is that sociology should embrace these ideas (“punk sociology”) as the basis for renewal in the discipline:
“A punk sociologist is likely to want to think with and draw upon alternative and outside forms of knowledge – such as film, literature, TV, social media, and the like, as well as materials from across the scientific, computational, political, and journalistic fields – but this is not restricted to the outputs that might be labelled as punk. Rather this is about using punk as a resource for reflecting upon our very craft and the way we go about being sociologists. In this instance, punk is an approach rather than an object of study.” (Loc. 686)
A punk sociologist would questioning hierarchical and normative judgment on cultural products, would question the very existence of hierarchies, and would accept as equally valid high versus marginalized cultures. The punk sociologist would not treat her version of the social as privileged or superior or more valid and would value other sources of knowledge on the social without being threatened by them. Other accounts of the social (be they literary, visual, sonic, etc.) would be embraced by the punk sociologist. All knowledge is seen as subjective.
The punk sociologist would also be open to interdisciplinarity but also to breaking barriers and boundaries between researcher and researched, author and audience. This is where the deliberate unlearning comes in: we might want to reconsider our disciplinary training and conceptual / theoretical apparatus.
In addition, just like punk rock, punk sociology should aim for contributions that are “raw, stripped back, and fearless“:
“One of the key defining features of punk was its stance against forms of progressive or ‘prog’ rock. Similarly, if we are looking to provide points of comparison, then punk sociology might be understood to exist in counter-distinction to ‘prog’ sociology. This distinction provides a helpful starting place for thinking about the communication of sociological work. Prog sociology, as the academic adaptation of prog rock, could be understood to be sociology that is indulgent, maybe even self-indulgent, and self-congratulatory. This is sociology that is wrapped up in its own sense of self-importance. As with the prog rocker’s foregrounding of virtuosity, the prog sociologist is someone who uses their research to show off their virtuosity in research – the sociological equivalent, we might imagine, of a 10-minute guitar, keyboard, or drum solo. ‘Prog’ sociology uses research as a vehicle for demonstrating the abilities of the researcher.” (Loc. 861)
Instead, a punchier sociological style might help us keep up with the deluge of materials and news that circulate everyday and trigger debates that sociologists should be part of.
The punk sociologist should engage with the variety of media through which content circulates and, just like punk rocks had fanzines as opposed to glossy magazines, punk sociology should have alternative publications to the academic journal (blogs, for instance).
And the punk sociologist should be inventive in two ways: (1) in topics, questions, and research methods, and (2) in the way we deal with the neoliberal university. In both cases, the punk sociologist should refuse to play it safe. What does this mean?
“The punk sociologist uses the limitations of austerity to find creativity, to motivate their nothing-to-lose attitude, and to embed resistance and edginess in their outlook. They bounce off the restrictions and respond with creative means.” (Loc. 1089)
Now, if all this looks like very general statements of principle, with not much concrete substance, that is because that is exactly how the book is written. The reader will find very few examples in the book overall. The most sourced section is the lit review on the crisis in sociology.
Beyond that, I have several major issues with this book:
1. I understand that Pivot is an imprint that is based on quick turnover and publishing, but this book needed some serious editing. The writing is very repetitive. The same phrases are used over and over again.
2. Isn’t sociology always in crisis? Or when has sociology not been in crisis? When Talcott Parsons ruled US sociology? I see the “permanent crisis” state as a reflection of the well-known fact that sociology is obviously not a dominant discipline in the field of social sciences (political science, economics, and psychology get more respect, dammit). And one of the consequences of being in dominated status is a constant search for a relevance that is always in question in the academic context (and yes, especially now, with the whole idea that education = job training).
3. Looking back at the description of the punk ethos, couldn’t pretty much every new musical genre be described that way? At least partially? Doesn’t every new musical genre either borrow and absorb other genres, or clearly demarcate itself from others? Same deal for the questioning of hierarchy?
4. As for punk sociology itself, the way it is described, it seems to me that, precisely because the discipline is so diverse, we are already doing all of that: crossing boundaries, finding new types of data and types of sociological questions, looking at new trends in media and other fields. Sociologists blog, tweet, etc. and generally engage with the topics of the day in formal (through traditional academic publications) and informal (through blog posts, tweets, FB posts, etc.) ways. And this has led to a proliferation of sociological voices, not just the usual academic stars.
It is also weird to see punk sociology described as one that does not rank cultural products… Bourdie’s Distinction, anyone?
5. As for taking risks, that is all well and good, but in the context of tightening academic labor markets, limitation of tenure protections, etc., that seem a tall (and very vague) order. I am not sure what this specifically involves, and creativity and inventiveness are always good, but Beer needed to be clearer as to what this implies and how to deal with being tossed out of academia as a result.
In the end, Beer asks, what else are we going to do?
I don’t have an answer (or maybe I’m just a prog sociologist) but one thing is certain: I teach at a community college so, my workload is all teaching (5/5! That ain’t for the faint of heart) and this is where one gets to be more safely creative (although I wouldn’t put my tenure on the line. Call me a sellout) because we are not constrained by the requirements of research and publication. I really do think that cc faculty should be doing a lot more public sociology.
But the bottom line is that I don’t think there is much that is new here (and it is very possible that I missed the point entirely… wouldn’t be the first time). From where I stand, punk sociology already exists in a multitude of places, practiced by a lot of sociologists, functioning within their own national, institutional, and organizational constraints, I don’t think the punk framing brings a lot to the table here.