A Sociological Autobiography: 48 – The 1990s Ledger

By | July 22, 2015

The 1990s was the last decade that I did not feel under undue institutional pressure to ‘perform’. If only I had known! Of course performing is a contested concept, although management seems since to have broken away and established a clear lead, maybe even lapping us workers. How did I fare in the last decade of the twentieth century? Well, I brought in next to no income, nor did I want to. What about publications?

The facts are as bald as I have been since my mid-30s. What about those books that only a confirmed loser in a medical school expends energy on? 1991 and 1997 witnessed two more editions of Sociology as Applied to Medicine, which I continued and continue to appraise as a more than worthy project. In 1993 Annette and I published Menstrual Disorders, a report of a study I engaged with as a pilot investigation and Annette took over, resurrected, polished and made worthwhile. In 1997 this same marital union delivered an edited volume called Rethinking Prostitution. I was later told by an ITV producer that a sex worker he spoke to regarded it as her ‘bible’, which I took as a high compliment. What I remain proud of is its respect for sex workers, advocacy of ‘decriminalization’ and its inclusionary philosophy. We invited the English Collective of Prostitutes to write a chapter (not that this leaves us in credit, just redresses prior imbalances a tad). It was exciting to talk to Niki Adams, and apparently innovative to include Nancy Lopez’ chapter. The other volume from the 1990s was Modernity, Health and Medicine, which I edited with Paul Higgs in 1998 and which contained a chapter our joint chapter on class that I have already remarked on.

So I was in credit with books, although medical schools regarded books then, and still regard them now, as optional extras of little more interest than hobbies like philately or collecting train numbers. I also provided 16 book chapters (plus a further seven in the two issues of our textbook). What about the raw meet of peer review papers? The figure comes out at 18, or nearly two annually. A couple in the Lancet and the British Medical Journal impressed my clinical colleagues but meant little to me. There were papers too in Sociology of Health and Illness and Social Science and Medicine. It is maybe two papers in Sociology, however, that in hindsight please me most. The first, in 1996, was on a Habermasian definition of what it is – and must be – to do sociology, and I have mentioned it before, It is an argument rarely cited (although George Ritzer references it now and again and it was included in a US collection on philosophy/theory/methods), but it is one I still hold to. Sociology (or Burawoy’s professional sociology at least) is – must be – a form of communicative action oriented to justice and solidarity. In other words its rationale and goal is – must be – lifeworld rationalization. I also suggested, if I may say so presciently, that there exists a growing tendency among academic sociologists to act strategically rather than communicatively, that is, to allow our agendas to be set for us, ultimately by vested interests. This is understandable, if less so for us baby boomers than for our pressurized successors; but it makes for a ‘taming’ of our disciplinary engagement. The second Sociology paper, co-authored with Paul Higgs, represented my first excursion into the health inequalities field. It paved the way for the greedy bastards hypothesis (GBH).

Reflecting back, what kind and quality of output can be attributed to me during the 1990s? Was I in credit or debit in 2000? In my defense I can claim that quantity has never struck me as a plausible route to a convincing criterion of achievement. It strikes me as self-evident that academics can attract heavy research funding and publish in high-impact journals and contribute next to nothing either to their parent discipline or to the public sphere: retire institutionally rewarded and celebrated, even acknowledged in Britain’s political honours system, and be forgotten a month later. I could name a few. It seems sad to me that on entering the 21st century ‘quantification’ has appealed so readily to those tempted or pushed into ‘measuring’ accomplishment. Metrics are all! I might add that there seem to be plenty of university managers who are content to be well paid to be strategic (‘someone’s got to do it’); these managers are complicit in the neo-liberalization of our universities and the taming of sociologists (and of course our colleagues from other disciplines). I was at least onto this in 1996.

What Paul Higgs and I argued in our Sociology paper in 1999 was that sociological research on health inequalities must be set in a macro-social context (epidemiologists can do what they want). Dialecticians, as I would now insist, would stress the relevance of ‘totalisation’. In other words sociologists cannot – must not – address the putative causal efficacy for health status and longevity of a spectrum of factors from income inequality on the one hand to risk behaviours like smoking on the other without embracing and taking account of the structural and cultural positions and contexts in which people find themselves and which constrain more than they enable their actions.

Back to the 1990s ledger. A book every three years, and knocking on two chapters and peer-review papers per annum. What! Decline to play the game. It’s irrelevant isn’t it? What matters is what this limited output amounted to, and this is not for me to judge.


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