A Sociological Autobiography: 19 – Getting Published!

By | October 7, 2013

I have alluded to a publication or two issuing from the epilepsy research. Neither of these was my first, and therein lies a tale or two. Anthony Hopkins was keen that we give a joint talk to the neurology section of the Royal Society of Medicine. We had no results, but hey! They were his peers not mine, so while he rehearsed his 20-minute delivery, and in the event gabbled his way to a premature conclusion, I remained relaxed. The product was my first time in print in the ‘proceedings’, published in 1976. I confess to having been a touch sanctimonious around this time: I refused to attend overseas conferences until we had some results to convey. The next publication was part of a no less intriguing narrative. Anthony wrote and submitted a short joint piece to the Lancet, addressing ‘how doctors deal with epilepsy’. On being asked to reduce its length, he re-submitted exactly the same text, but this time in one-and-a-half rather than double spacing; it was accepted. Another lesson learnt. Of course being published in the Lancet – in 1977 – meant nothing to me. This was Anthony’s audience not mine; moreover this was in an era before impact factors were telling.

I forget the year, but I gave my neophyte address at the BSA’s Medical Sociology Conference in the mid-1970s in the Viking Hotel in York. What a venue that was. The chair for my talk was Mike Wadsworth. I had typed out on my portable a decent, comprehensive and overly long script, which I started reading to attendees. When Mike informed me that there were five minutes remaining, I tried reading really, really fast; then skipping paragraphs; then somehow improvising a conclusion. Mike was benign and patient, but it was another lesson learned. Confronted by my own peers I had done what Anthony had done at the RSM.

It was not until the 1980s that I was to publish on my own account. Getting the epilepsy study into print raised another issue, that of authorship. Anthony had been first author on our initial excursions into print, not unreasonably. But we were increasingly drawing on my drafting of my Ph.D data and nothing looked like changing. I was by now beyond consulting or relying on George, so simply grew assertive. I wrote and submitted pieces, running stuff by Anthony after the event. It was in this context that our joint 1980s papers and my first sole-authored book, Epilepsy, saw the light of day (1989).

In the meantime another book found its way onto the syllabi of medical students in 1982. Tuckett’s wordy book aside, there was little help for medical students, most of whom had been squeezed into three or four science A-levels, now suddenly confronted by a quite different mode of thought and understanding. The collectivity that constituted SACSAM decided to do something about this, or rather Donald Patrick at St Thomas’s did. Margot Jefferys was as supportive as ever. Donald and I explored publishing options, then we reported back to the group. David Armstrong withdrew from the enterprise as he was writing his own text, but the rest were ‘in’: David Blane, Ray Fitzpatrick, David Locker, Sheila Hillier, Ellie Scrivens and Myfanwy Morgan, as well as Donald and I. There was an awkward moment when David Locker expressed an interest in being Donald’s co-editor, but I hung in there and it passed. And so was born the first edition of Sociology as Applied to Medicine, published by Bailliere Tindall in 1982 and with a preface by Margot.

The availability of a textbook written with medical, and or more broadly health, students in mind had two consequences. The first was that the standard of students’ essays and exams went up more than a notch or two. The second was an unanticipated downside of precisely this improvement. Ignorant or prejudicial offerings, though sometimes also eccentric and hilarious, were replaced by far more predictable, standardized (‘McDonaldized’?) fare. This could touch the absurd. I gave one student ‘0%’ for an essay on stigma. ‘Why’, he protested when he came to see me. ‘It’s excellent’, I had to tell him, ‘but I wrote it’! He had simply copied out whole paragraphs from my own chapter in the textbook. ‘But I couldn’t think of a better way of putting it’, he protested. There was no doubting the self-confidence of some of our students. David Blane, our external examiner, asked one pass/fail viva candidate: ‘Can you tell me about the link between social class and health?’ ‘No’, was the reply, ‘but I’m willing to talk about stigma’. Another came to me before his pass/fail viva to enquire int o the proficiency of our external: ‘This Myfanwy Morgan, knows her stuff does she?’

We published a slightly longer and improved second edition of the textbook in 1986, not without a major hiccup. I picked up a copy in the basement of ‘Dillons’ only to discover that the publishers had re-issued the first edition in the covers of the second! Three other books saw the light of day in this decade. In 1984 the four Middlesex ‘behavioural scientists’ combined with John Hinton to launch The Experience of Illness, which was intended as a complement to more basic sociology and psychology textbooks for health students; it found its way into a Spanish edition.

In 1987 I edited Sociological Theory and Medical Sociology. This was an explicit attempt to affirm our sociological competence against those who dismissed us as ‘applied’ practitioners because of our medical school bases. I am still proud of the decision to mobilize friends and colleagues and of the result: in the event everybody delivered. I contributed a chapter on Jurgen Habermas and the colonizing properties of medical expertise in relation to pregnancy and childbirth. For me as I think for others it was a first venture into domains of theory. With hindsight, my own effort was to set the parameters for my future engagement. There has been a certain continuity to my papers and publications since this preliminary excursus on Frankfurt critical theory. Two years later the fruit of my Ph.D labours, Epilepsy, was published as part of a series on chronic illness edited by Ray and Stan: if I am allowed to say so, I think it not at all bad!

It may seem that the 1980s was a decent decade for my career, but there is, or would now be, a qualification. What price books (plus a few chapters)? In those same years I only published seven peer-reviewed papers. Was I – am I – bothered? No. But my line manager would be if I were at the time of writing 25 instead of 65. Re-assessing my output now I am satisfied that I did ok during this period: some at least of my work has endured. What would I say to a 25 year old? Obviously I would commend watching like hawks smooth or less-than-smooth vice-chancellors and line managers more interested in self-survival or self-promotion than they are in you. Paraphrasing Richard Sennett, there is a need now to be proactive in an era of profound uncertainty! So constructing a CV must be a reflexive commitment. To whom might one want to appeal to in the near future, and how might these ‘CV-interpreters’ best be addressed? With honourable exceptions, life-, medical science and clinical academics define books as an unwise diversion from serious scientific endeavour, a hobby. But American sociologists, as was revealed by friends at Emory University in the USA, rate books highly. So, which constituency? For sociologists who find themselves bracing for multiple future habitats, I would say: maintain an ‘all-rounder’s’ CV. Keep options open; but, above all, if you bare even the faintest resemblance to me, resist sacrificing your sociological credentials just to satisfy arrogant pillocks who have neither self-doubt nor any idea what you are doing or why.

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