The Pleasures, Pain and Promise of Sociological Work Outside the Academy

The following is adapted from a talk given at the British Sociological Association Sociologists Outside Academia Group’s 10th Anniversary Event. It was first published on The Sociological Imagination blog. Thanks to Mark Carrigan for permission to repost.

Being a sociologist working completely or (as in my case) partially outside academia is not an easy thing. For that reason, it is vital that mechanisms to support people like myself — such as the BSA’s Sociologists Outside Academia Group — exist and that they grow in the future. But it’s not just a question of providing support and increasingly the visibility of Sociologists Outside Academia (SOAs); as I will argue, a consideration of the position of sociology outside of academia raises important questions about the nature of the discipline itself.

A brief overview of my own career might help to illustrate some of the challenges that SOAs face. In particular, the idiosyncrasies of my career clearly illustrates how, if you do not take a conventional academic career path as a sociologist, there is simply no one generalizable model of how to be a SOA. I doubt anyone in the world would ever see me as a role model for anything, but if anyone was foolish enough to want to follow in my footsteps they simply couldn’t. And that is a major problem for an organization like the BSA’s SOAG group — how to support a disparate collection of people whose experiences are so very different from each other?

So who am I, professionally-speaking? Well, it was pretty simple until I was 29 years old. That was the year (2001) in which I received my PhD in sociology from Goldsmiths College (on the sociology of the global extreme metal scene), following on from my MA, also from Goldsmiths in sociology, and my BA in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge. Other than a couple of years spent working and travelling, it was all pretty standard stuff.

Post-PhD was where the fun began. Although I love scholarship, academia and teaching, I had, by the time I finished my doctorate, resolved to attempt something difficult — to pursue a career both within and without the academy, drawing on the strengths of both. The reasons were threefold: First of all, I was apprehensive about taking on the mental and physical demands of an academic lectureship. Since my second year as an undergraduate I had suffered from moderate but persistent Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and it was still with me by the end of my PhD. The second reason for my ambivalence towards full time academia was a revulsion at the ravages of managerialism and what was then the Research Assessment Exercise. I didn’t want to become a point-scoring journal article producing machine; I didn’t want to be discouraged from publishing things people would actually read in favour of things that ‘scored’ well. The third reason was that, having worked part time as a researcher in the UK Jewish community as a postgraduate, I wanted to contribute more to Jewish communal life in my work.

My vision, insofar as I had one, was to work towards a position where I would be employed half by some kind of Jewish organization and half by an academic institution — ideally combined into one post. So I started my ‘campaign’ post-PhD with a fellowship for Jewish educators, in which I would begin to re-train from a specialist in metal, to a specialist in Jews.

14 years later, where am I?

Some things haven’t changed: I still have moderate but persistent chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m still revolted by academic managerialism and the REF. I still try and contribute to Jewish communal life.

Some things have not been possible to achieve: I have no stable position that fulfills my 2001 vision.

Some things have surprised me: I thought I would gradually drift away from scholarship on metal, instead I have continued writing on the subject. I’ve also been surprised how my interests have broadened and my passion for work actually increased following the birth of my children in 2003 and 2006 — I had assumed that I would become more content with ploughing a single furrow by the time I hit middle age, instead I am more eclectic and enthused by the possibilities of sociology than I have ever been.

So what, exactly, is it that I do? A chronological list of things I’ve done would be tedious to recount. Instead, I’ll briefly summarise the categories of work I’ve done and continue to do:

I’ve worked as a part time lecturer at the Open University, Birkbeck College and Leo Baeck College.

I’ve held visiting and honorary positions and fellowships at universities in Australia, Israel, Sweden, Germany and Finland.

I privately tutor graduate and postgraduate students.

I’ve held research grants from the ESRC and from private foundations (and bid unsuccessfully for others).

I’ve worked as a research consultant for a number of Jewish organisations and organisations promoting interfaith dialogue.

I’ve published 4 books and edited several more.

I’ve written dozens of op ed pieces and features for newspapers and magazines.

I’ve done things that don’t fit into any easy category — like speaking at a TEDx event and acting as a trustee for various organisations.

In short, I’ve had a rich and rewarding career. I have a modest reputation in a few specialized areas. I have a great deal of freedom to follow my own interests. I have a family whom I love.

But I also have virtually no job security. I earn way less than someone with my experience should earn. My pension is ridiculously small. Almost everything I’ve achieved I have had to hustle for. I can never have a sabbatical and I may never be able to fully retire. My wife is under intense pressure in her job as she has to provide the lion’s share of our income. I sometimes need to resort to parental help to get through sticky months.

At the age of 43 I’m getting a bit tired of this. The freedom I have is becoming less and less compensation for the other stuff that goes along with it.

***

But enough about the pleasures and pains of being me. I have tried hard throughout my work to look beyond my own life and to use my vantage point on the various worlds I move through as a way of developing a sociological understanding of what a sociological career can consist of.

So here’s what I think I have learned:

There is a slowly emerging movement made up of people like us

While an organization for sociologists outside academia is still a rare thing, there is more and more attention being paid to the work and the problems of scholars who work outside academia. This stems in part from the increasing instability of academic careers and university’s reliance on part-time faculty: simply put, there are more and more people with PhDs who cannot find permanent and stable jobs within the academy. There is also a more positive reason for the attention being paid to scholarship outside academia: spurred on by increasing tuition fees, the intrusion of managerialist prerogatives into the universities and the expanding possibilities of new technology, people are beginning to explore alternative ways of learning outside the traditional university.

So some kind of movement is emerging, but it is very much at an early stage. To give a couple of examples: the Social Science Centre in Lincoln has been going for a few years now and is providing free social science university-type classes on a co-operative basis. The Para-Academic Handbook, published in 2014, attempted to sketch out a mode of scholarship that both leverages and critiques the situation of the precariously employed academic.

Whilst I do find it comforting and inspiring that people who share my interests and concerns are beginning to come together, there is — at this stage anyway — a major limitation. No one, to my knowledge, has yet been able to collate ideas and suggest a new and sustainable model for earning a living outside the academy. To go back to my two examples, they are as disappointing as they are inspiring: the Social Science Centre still relies on unpaid labour; the contributors to the para-academic handbook had interesting things to say about developing a non-academic scholarly identity, but there were few suggestions as to how to support oneself.

It may be that the best way to do scholarship outside the academy is either to work for a think tank or consultancy — which, as I will argue shortly, has certain limitations — or to get a full time ‘day job’ and be a scholar in one’s spare time. For those like me who cannot or don’t want to embrace either option, it’s possible that the way that I’ve managed to sort of make my career work for me is ‘at good as it gets.’ If so, that’s quite a depressing thought!

‘Sociologist’ remains a largely academic identity

Unlike psychology, for example, the sociological identity seems to be largely confined to the academy. Of course, sociological work has always been done outside of the academy. Social researchers and market researchers are sociologists, although their policy-orientation means they usually contribute little to sociological theory as such. Yet it is telling that social and market researchers have their own associations in the UK — the Social Research Association and the Market Research Society — rather than forming sections within the BSA. Their professional identities are largely ‘semi-detached’ from sociology.

So it is that, despite the efforts of the BSA SOA group, I see little evidence that the identity of sociologist is becoming disentangled from that of academic. This remains a source of sadness to me. I still call myself a sociologist and embrace this identity but I cannot help sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud in doing so.

3) Some scholarly activities remain very hard to do outside of academia

There is a range of scholarly activities that form an expected — and hence, implicitly, remunerated — part of the academic’s life, but are almost impossible to fund outside academia. Such activities include writing, refereeing and editing articles for scholarly journals, contributing to scholarly conferences and writing sociological theory. Most non-academic jobs that involve sociological work are more narrowly focused and more tied to specific funded pieces of work. While research from think tanks does make it into scholarly journals, the think tank or contract researcher may find it difficult to find the time and to convince managers of the need to referee articles or write ‘blue skies’ sociological theory. For most sociologists outside academia, a significant chunk of scholarly activity can only be done unfunded, perhaps subsidized by a well-paid job or project.

The problem is that without doing such activities, one inevitably becomes distanced from the mainstream of scholarly activity and important forms of networking. In my own case I have tried extremely hard to do these things, to referee articles, speak at conferences, write for journals and so on, but as my need for remunerated work has increased, my ability to keep going with such unpaid labour is gradually diminishing. There is, of course, some small comfort that regular academics also find their numerous duties difficult to balance! Once again, SOAs might be seen as the canary in the coalmine — advanced signs that the expectations of the scholarly life are becoming unmanageable.

Part-time and temporary academic work rarely ‘works’ in terms of status and remuneration

One of the most difficult things about not having a full time and permanent academic berth, has been witnessing one’s peers climbing the career ladder while I myself remain at the same level. I am not someone who is obsessed with titles and status, but the fact remains that the way one is seen by the world does depend in part on such things. Some of those who were contemporaries of mine while we were studying for PhDs are now readers and even professors. In contrast, I cannot encapsulate in a title what exactly it is that I do. It’s almost inevitable that some people who don’t know my work may think that I am a dilettante or someone who just isn’t good enough for a ‘proper’ position. The opposite problem can also occur: I have at times been assumed to be a professor and my part-time teaching gig at Birkbeck has been inflated into something more than it actually is — correcting such misapprehensions is embarrassing.

Aside from the status issue, part time and temporary academic posts often work out financially to be less than the sum of their parts. Part-time teaching invariably involves more hours than one is actually paid for. Temporary research contracts can be decently paid but they always end eventually, leaving researchers with an impossible choice — spend the last few months of the contract preparing a new application rather than actually doing research, or face a barren period between grants.

For those who are unable or unwilling to either accept the insecurity and low status of temporary and/or part time work, or to enter full time conventional academic employment, there are precious few options. Part-time, permanent academic posts that are on the track that can lead to a professorship are simply — as far as I can see — non-existent. Academia is still a ‘one size fits all’ profession.

Some of the time at least, being a SOA can have real advantages

To add to the mountain of other commitments that academics today have, they are supposed to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their work. In this respect, the REF is completely contradictory and absurd: REF submissions are judged, in the main, on ‘products’ of research that, by being published largely in the academic sphere, are by definition limited in their impact. So the REF has had to demand additional impact case studies that are based on activities that cannot be counted positively in the rest of the exercise.

Blessedly, SOAs do not have to perform such impossible contortions. Research can be communicated in any form that is appropriate. SOAs can, if they wish, do theoretical blue skies research that has no impact beyond specialists. They can also write books that communicate with the wider public — as I have done — without being pressured to salami-slice them into journal articles from which the pubic is excluded by paywall. They can do policy-oriented research that can be communicated to the public without having to jump through the hoops of the REF.

Potentially then, the freedom of being a SOA isn’t just personally liberating, it also allows us to do sociology we choose to do without at least some of the constrictions of contemporary neo-liberal academia. To an extent at least, the spirit of the academy can be retained outside the academy whilst our universities are ravaged by managerialism.

***

It’s become increasingly clear to me that the issues that being a SOA raises go beyond simply the exigencies of how to pursue a viable and sustainable career — vital those these issues are — and touch on more fundamental matters: what does it actually mean to be a sociologist? While, as I’ve said, I have stubbornly embraced this identity even though it seems for the most part a largely academic one, defining what a sociologist actually is remains difficult.

By ‘difficult’ I don’t mean that definitions of sociology are not widely available. Any sociological textbook will do this. The BSA’s ‘Discover Society’ pamphlet — that seeks to introduce sociology as an option for prospective students — offers the following:

Sociology seeks to understand all aspects of human social behaviour, including the social dynamics of small groups of people, large organisations, communities, institutions and even entire societies. Sociologists are typically motivated by their desire to better understand the fundamental principles of social life, believing that an understanding of these principles will help improve people’s lives through more enlightened and effective policies

Although one might quibble with some of the wording (‘enlightened’ for example), this seems to be as good a brief definition as might be achieved. It certainly describes much of what I’ve tried to do in my own career as a sociologist.

The difficulty for me lies in how to define being a sociologist when’s one’s relationship to academia is ambiguous or distant. The problem is that, given the overwhelming dominance of academic sociology, the core activity of most sociologists is contributing to the ever-expanding sociological canon. When academic sociologists publish, they are inserting their own work into a dense, multi-dimensional and self-referencing network of publications. When academic sociologists teach, they are inducting students into this network.

What happens, then, when a sociologist outside academia is unable or unwilling to embed themselves into this vast network of words? As I mentioned earlier, it can be extremely difficult to remain in touch with the ever-growing deluge of academic sociological writing. Can someone be outside of this network and still be able to call themselves as sociologist? Is there a sociological sensibility whose presence can make someone a sociologist without reference to what other sociologists write? Is there a bedrock on which sociology rests whose existence both underpins and transcends specific manifestations of sociological writing?

One might return to the BSA’s concise definition or other works such as C Wright Mills’Sociological Imagination, and say ‘yes, of course there is such a bedrock.’ Yet, for most practical purposes, the identity of sociologist is still confined largely to those who embed themselves in the network I have mentioned. With rare exceptions, it is not enough to simply be enthused with a sociological sensibility to be recognized by others as a sociologist, one has to demonstrate one’s familiarity with and ability to add to the work of other sociologists.

Now I want to make two things clear at this point: First, I am not suggesting that those who wish to identify as sociologist should not read the work of sociologists and reference them accordingly. Second, I am not suggesting that I myself do not do this!

What I am suggesting though, is that if sociology is to be more than an internal conversation, it does need to recognize and nurture the possibilities for doing sociology that are not reliant on a constantly-updated familiarity with the enormous academic sociological literature. This is where SOAs are potentially in the front line of sociology.

Of course, SOAs are doing this already. When sociologically-informed social researchers publish policy reports they are expanding sociology beyond academia. When sociologically-informed journalists and bloggers communicate to the public they are expanding sociology beyond academia. When those with a sociological training bring what they have learned to a whole range of professions they are expanding sociology beyond academia. What is missing — and what SOAs are not generally doing — is loudly and unapologetically claiming the identity of sociologist outside the academy.

It may be that many of the difficulties that I and many others have had developing a career outside academia are insoluble. We are, after all, living in an age of radical insecurity in employment and it would be odd if sociologists did not share in this insecurity too. However the identity issue is something we can do something about. And in doing so we can contribute not just to the dignity and status of those of us who work in whole or in part outside of academia, but to the expansion and deepening of sociology as a practice and a sensibility.

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