A Sociological Autobiography: 61 – Starting a Journal

By | May 9, 2016

The second half of 2003 also saw the first two issues of Social Theory and Health, a journal with Paul Higgs and I at UCL as the principal active editors and old friend Dick Levinson as our third and less active American editor (in truth he was doing us a favour by squeezing us into his over-crowded administrative life at Emory University). I think it is fair to say that we had correctly lit upon a niche in a rapidly expanding journal market. Although Sociology of Health and Illness, Social Science and Medicine and Health had won their spurs as repositories of medical sociological scholarship, and American journals like the journal of Health and Social Behaviour lapped up its more positivistic exemplars, few outlets existed for those explicitly oriented to the building of bridges between what too often seemed discrete discourses – social theory on the one hand and empirical studies on the other. Our mission would be to make good this deficit. By ‘social theory’ we hoped to attract submissions from outsider as well as insider authors: we judged limiting the journal to strictly sociological contributors would be artificially restrictive. To annotate a longish process of appraisal and decision-making, we found a sympathetic ear at Palgrave (Macmillan).

Stan Newman wondered out loud why anyone would start a new journal, or indeed edit one, although he was seemed to be adept at publishing in them. I readily confess my overriding personal aspiration was to establish an outlet for bridge-building papers, especially those offering innovation and edge. In our inaugural editorial Paul, Dick and I wrote:

‘it is the lively interplay of theory and research that lends point and credence to any attempt to grasp the nature of both social and natural phenomena. Theory unchallenged – or worse, unchallengeable – by rigorous empirical investigation is likely to degenerate into mere speculation. Research undertaken for its own sake, detached from the refinement or revision of theory, can be little more than suggestive. Biological, behavioural and social curiosity an enquiry in the health domain is unexceptional here. Theory, logically, should inform research, which in turn should inform theory. Systematic or scientific attempts to describe, understand and explain should, again logically, fall somewhere between the American sociologist C. Wright Mills’ ‘grand theory’ on the one hand and his ‘abstracted empiricism’ on the other. Or that, at least, is the perspective that underpins ‘Social Theory and Health’’.

And a little later:

‘’Social Theory and Health’ has been conceived as a vehicle for at least three related tasks: to support, stimulate and foster the dialectic between theory and research in the field of health and health care; to encourage and disseminate innovative contributions leading to the advancement of social theory in this same substantive area; and to throw new light on global, national and social structures and processes through the lens of health.’

We hoped also to accommodate authors from developing as well as developed societies, from beyond the Occident, from ‘southern sociology’, from feminist and post-colonial theorists.

I was I think a troublesome or alarming presence for Palgrave Macmillan’s ever supportive and dedicated personnel once – after multiple referees’ assessments and form filling – they had agreed to sign us up. My interest in the journal’s content far exceeded my interest in its presentation and, especially, its marketing. Jane Torr, our publisher’s patient and conscientious overseer of the production process, guided we editors as if we were wayward children from the beginnings in 2002/3 to 2015. She was the journal’s rock even as Palgrave managers came and went with the tides. As I happen to be in the ‘King William IV’ up Byttom Hill (in Mickleham, Surrey) as I write this, I am in the happy position of being able to raise an appreciative glass to Jane.

I will I’m sure return to our journal in fragments to come, but what of that very first issue? It contained papers by a distinguished quartet. Bryan Turner offered a critical assessment of theories of social capital and of their potential as explanations of health inequalities. Emphasising their roots in Durkheimian sociology, he concluded that the potential is real but will likely only bear fruit if a series of outstanding theoretical issues are satisfactorily addressed. David Fidler considered the changing role of public health in the context of international relations. He ranged widely through theories of realism, institutionalism, liberalism and social constructivism. Simon Williams promoted critical realist approaches to health and illness, using illustrative examples from the study of chronic illness, racism in relation to professionalism and health inequalities. And Ian Greener drew on the economic sociology of Michel Callon to dissect the neoliberal policy focus within the NHS on extending ‘patient choice’. How, he presciently asked, are patients to make realistic choices about doctors, treatment options, GPs, clinics and so on? It is a question that has gained in pertinence since, witness the growing salience of rationing based on ‘behavioural conditionality’.

I was very pleased with these manuscripts. There are two obvious challenges for editors of a new journal: (a) getting off to a running start, and (b) not running out of stamina. In 2003 we satisfied (a). At the time of writing, spring 2016, I am confident we are still going strong in relation to (b). We were given a boost early on by German sociologist Johannes Seigrist, who suggested and secured an affiliation between our journal and the European Society for Health and Medical Sociology (ESHMS). The biannual ESHMS conference was to prove a delightful gathering in subsequent years. It was through this connection too that I met Italian colleague Guido Giarelli, who invited me to give the keynote address to the inaugural meeting of the Italian Medical Sociology Group (and who took Annette and I to one of the best meals we have ever had, though Guido didn’t seem particularly impressed). As the years went by we invited two further editors to join us, Ruth Graham from Newcastle University and Guido Giarelli from the University of Magna Grecia in Calabria, Italy.

It is an ongoing story and one to revisit in future contributions.


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