Ellen Annandale recently attended the National Council of Associations in Paris, organised by the European Sociological Association (ESA). Representatives of 20 national associations attended to share and debate concerns about Teaching and Research in Europe.
In her opening remarks, ESA President Carmen Leccardi highlighted the need to keep continuities with the classics. Quoting Whitehead that, ‘a science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost’, she raised concerns that sociological practice risks being reduced to ‘big data sets’. Drawing on the Italian situation she bemoaned that much social research has moved from the academy to market research and private companies. Horizon 2020 points to the devaluing of the social sciences and humanities, the outcome of the neoliberal technocratic reasoning that has constructed a hierarchy of the sciences. She highlighted the ‘presentification’ of academic work as work overload and administrative challenges make it hard for us to look to the horizon as we instead are pushed to deal with everyday problems.
Michel Wieviorka, President of Fondation Maison des Sciences d’Homme, questioned sociology’s future in an increasingly interdisciplinary climate, remarking that if you visit some US university bookshops the sociology section is “dusty”, while next to it new areas like cultural studies flourish. The new generation of scholars, he remarked, he much better trained, but much more niche in their outlook. As sociology becomes more specialised it is less and less able to engage in wider intellectual debates.
In his Keynote address, Craig Calhoun, President of the LSE and of the International Institute of Sociology cautioned his peers that ‘memories of when we were students will be very poor guides” for the present. Globalisation involving the movement of people, interconnectedness of publications, and particularly the spread of new models of ‘best practice’ and international ranking are having major effects, “some good, many of them bad”. League tables are problematic because they assume that all universities are doing the same thing. Unification benefits the dominant and world rankings devalue universities in most countries in the eyes of their own nations which can lead to loss of respect which then impacts on their funding. It may be better to see universities less as a hierarchy and more as an ecology. He emphasised that social science will “commit suicide” if it does not reach out to the public, but in a way that is combined with a level of academic judgement i.e peer critique and correction. Social science, he opined, has lost its erstwhile connections with social movements, remarking, for example, that gender sociology was much better when it involved the women’s movement. Echoing Wieviorka’s concerns he maintained that we should speak of ‘social science’ not ‘social sciences’, and stop fighting over boundaries as this is a wasted fight over diminishing pools of money. Finally highlighted that social science needs to better value synthesis remarking that currently we lack a system for this (except in textbooks) and that consequently high level theory regrettably appears to be in decline.
Ellen was attending as a Vice President of ESA and member of its Committee on National Associations