Complicity, Seriousness, and Social Science
People who work in social science are implicated in the social issues and social problems that they - that we – study, and this observation can be added to existing calls for the defense, promotion, and moral case for social science. I can think of some examples of this implicated-ness in Sociology, but these are not meant to be exclusive or definitive:
- Teaching sociology, for instance, involves asking students to think critically about things like social class, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, disability; phenomena that constitute identity, personhood, life chances and trajectories, and that ‘we’ negotiate in daily life.
- Sociologies of education, nations and national identity, families, globalization and migration, digital culture, bodies, cities, emotions, financial markets, violence (the list goes on) all turn attention to interactions, relationships, and institutions that ‘we’ are involved in.
- A great deal of social science takes place in universities. Higher education institutions in the UK are bound up with entrenched patterns of stratification and exploitation. The ways that patriarchy, colonialism and imperialism, global capitalism, environmental destruction, and neoliberalism are constitutive of higher education vary through time and from place to place, and are enacted, reproduced, and resisted in different ways.
Because of this, the work of teaching and research in social science involves thinking carefully and critically about phenomena and processes that cannot be understood as separate from our outside of ‘us’. I think it is important to recognize this aspect of complicity in social science, and attend to the conditions and effects of teaching and research practice; to hold ourselves accountable and to think about the possibilities this opens up.
I started thinking about being implicated, and about complicity, when I was doing ‘insider’ research for Seriousness and Women’s Roller Derby, and was very clearly implicated the phenomena I was studying, and very clearly held responsible for producing a representation of it. The research is about getting taken seriously in women’s roller derby; how skaters pursue recognition for roller derby as a ‘real, serious, sport’ while at the same time refuting and reworking the gendered terms of such a recognition. The book is also about seriousness in a broader sense, and the final chapter gives an account of how doing, and accounting for, early career sociological research, is also – partly – a question of trying to be taken seriously. Becoming a professional social scientist, working in higher education, means seeking recognition, validation, and accreditation for your teaching and research work; getting a job, getting published, getting funding, getting REF-ready. Increasingly this means pursuing recognition according to a set of values characterized by neoliberalism and entrepreneurialism; individual competition and economic value, instrumental means and metric ends. So in some cases, it means seeking recognition whilst also looking for ways to challenge and change the institutionalized values upon which this recognition is based, and the practices by which it is measured and conferred.
When social scientists campaign for social science, and try to show how and why it matters, to me this sounds very similar to asking to be taken seriously; asking for social science to be recognized as important, legitimate, and necessary. But what exactly does it mean to ask for social science to be taken seriously? Asking to be taken seriously has to go hand in hand with making a critical contribution to understanding, and challenging, the power relations and value hierarchies that define seriousness, that construct legitimacy, value and use. Social science is uniquely placed to provide the critical tools for reflecting on the conditions and effects of academic work, and how ‘we’ are differently implicated in the phenomena we study, and I think this is a crucial component for making the case for social science.
- Maddie Breeze, author of Seriousness and Women's Roller Derby and joint recipient of the 2016 BSA Philip Abrams Memorial Prize