What is sociology worth

Following the Brown report on HE funding and Osborne’s announcement of cuts in the universities’ teaching budget it seems the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, including sociology, will have all government funding for teaching withdrawn. Currently the fees for a sociology degree are £7,237 per year made up of £3,947 from the government and a top-up fee of £3,290 paid by the student. Without the government contribution students will have to pay the full £7,237 per year just to maintain the existing level of funding. The current intelligence says that the government wants to limit fees to £6,000 but will allow up to £9,000 per year if a set of widening participation criteria are met, including reduced fees and bursaries for less well off applicants. So charging the current break-even fee, well over the £6,000 ‘penalty free’ limit, will incur significant extra costs. These additional costs can be calculated and recovered by increasing the fee, probably pushing the actual break-even fee beyond £8,000. As a result students will see their fees double or even treble, and will be even more inclined to see themselves as customers purchasing a commodity and a bundle of consumer rights. This, not unreasonably, will make them even more demanding of resources and services. Universities will need to increase fees by a further increment to cover the additional resources needed to satisfy this ever growing demand from students. Only each university’s calculation of demand will counterbalance the economic logic driving fees towards the top end of the range.

It is clear that the government is targeting their reduced funding at subjects and disciplines that in their view best serve the economy. The message, intentional or not, is that sociology is not worth investing in and serves no useful purpose to the economy or society generally. Or, if anyone thinks it does, then they will have to back their judgement by paying for it in full. An education in the arts, humanities and social sciences are seen as a self indulgent luxury to be paid for at the discretion of individuals. To help them come to a rational decision, universities are being asked to make available the facts and figures of their graduates’ career destinations and earnings. The assumption is that individuals will choose their subject on the basis of economic rationality. As it happens, sociology graduates tend to do very well as far as employment prospects and enhanced future earnings go. But is a free market based on consumer choices driven by self-interested economic calculation the best way to allocate resources to higher education?

In any case, is the government correct in its judgement of the lack of utility of social sciences in general and sociology in particular? This reminds me of when Keith Joseph, widely considered to be the ‘power behind the throne’ during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, complained that we needed fewer sociologists and more people entering engineering and wondering why this wasn’t happening. A sociologist could have told him. He went on to found a right wing neoliberal think tank to supply him with answers to policy questions based on privatisation, commoditisation and marketisation. Arguably this approach does include a modicum of implicit naive sociology. And this is, of course, the problem.

It seems that sociology is misunderstood, underrated and underused in some key areas of strategy development and in policy and decision making. Sociology generally has a marginal position, even non-existent, in many key policy issue discourses. For instance, Thomas Palley, a former chief economic advisor to the US government, attributed the failure to predict the economic crisis by the government’s and the banks’ economists to the inadequacy of the profession’s grasp of sociology. Their continuing inability to explain the crisis is “the economics profession’s complete inability to come to grips with its sociological failure which produced [a] massive intellectual failure with huge costs for society. This is a very serious social problem and we will all continue to pay the costs as long as it is unaddressed”. (http://www.thomaspalley.com/?p=148). Judging by the neoliberal policies currently favoured by the government to correct the financial ‘imbalances’, based as they are on the same unsociological models of the economy implicated in the crisis that Palley (and an increasing number of ‘respectable’ economists) are complaining about, no one is listening to him.

Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change at the UEA, advisor to the UK Government, the European Commission and the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), in his recent book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, identifies three areas of uncertainty in climate science and what the implications are for policy. The first two relate to the uncertainties of the science itself: the uncertainties due to our incomplete understanding of the physical systems involved (in principle these may be reduced or at least formally quantified) and due to the innate unpredictability of large, complex and chaotic systems. These combined mean we can never have the degree of certainty and predictability that politicians and the public seem to demand. The third source of uncertainty and unpredictability simply reinforces this.

A third category of uncertainty originates as a consequence of humans being part of the future being predicted. Individual and collective human choices five, twenty and fifty years into the future are not predictable in any scientific sense. Here the best that can be done is to work with a range of broad-scale scenarios, a range of possible futures.

He goes on to ask who identifies the experts needed to address climate change science and policy. Who determines the relevant research questions? Who evaluates the research results? In answering these questions Hulme observes that, in the selection of experts, “elite judgements are clearly made about inclusion and participation” and “social scientists in general are indeed poorly represented among the nominated experts”. Surely experts who work in the area of Hulme’s third category of uncertainty are absolutely crucial? If so the social sciences are not an optional extra to be serviced, if at all, by the self indulgent decisions of individuals shopping around for an interesting looking degree to take.

What is the nature of this ‘unpredictable future’ contingent upon “individual and collective choices” where all we can do is map out a “range of possible futures”. How do we theorise and model the complex social processes that terminate, briefly, in choices? What about the choices of omission? What about the de facto ‘choices’ that are embodied and enacted without recourse to anything that looks like a conscious or rational procedure? What about the constraints on the freedom of choice, both known and unknown to the chooser? And what about the unintended consequences of these choices, some immediate and local, some delayed and impacting in far flung locations and on future generations. All this is the core of sociology’s subject matter and the central focus of the sociological imagination. If, in the view of the present government, the study of sociology is merely a matter of individual indulgence and if the higher education system is being organised accordingly, then perhaps it’s time for sociology and sociologists to seek more energetically opportunities beyond the academy, within civil society and the public spaces where open discussion is possible.

M Hulme (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change Cambridge University Press
This post was first published on the 9th Novemebr 2010 at http://www.sociology.leeds.ac.uk/public/2010/11/09/what-is-sociology-worth/ to which I attached the following comment:

The Higher Education Policy Institute has just published its response to the government’s proposals for higher education funding. This summarises their conclusions and links to the full report. It seems to agree broadly with the logic of this post’s argument for why universities are likely to charge the full £9000. One conclusion of the report seems to me, at least, to be madness if it’s true.

“In particular, the broad philosophical and ideological thrust has been accepted – that the state should not – unless exceptionally – fund universities directly for providing teaching, but that the market, as manifested through student choice, should be the determining driver”.

One Response to What is sociology worth

  1. Pingback: Risk and uncertainty | Note Book

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