A review of Punk Sociology

ShowJacketSociology in the Anglophone world has been in the doldrums for some time. Since the heady days of poststructuralism and postmodernism, until very recently few advances had been made in theory or method. British sociology, however, is seeing a renewed impetus and vigour, with several sociologists beginning to talk about a move from ‘zombie sociology’ to ‘live sociology’ (Back, 2012) or ‘inventive methods’ (Lury and Wakeford, 2012), in which creative approaches and different ways of communicating are suggested to move the discipline out of its doldrums.

Punk Sociology, by British sociologist Dave Beer, is a welcome contribution to this new and exciting approach. As its title suggests, Beer attempts in this short book (part of the Palgrave Pivot series, itself an innovative approach to academic publishing) to show how sociology might be shaken up and re-energised. Punk sociology looks outward, is subversive and willing to try new approaches and also ready to engage with alternative forms of knowledge outside sociology. It means investigating forms of research and representations of social life that are beyond the textual, such as audio-visual material, and, as Beer puts it, ‘to coach ourselves to see sociology in sources where we may not be expecting to see it’ (p. 38). It also includes working with, rather than on, participants in sociological research, and experimenting with different approaches to writing about one’s work: blogging, podcasts, YouTube videos and tweets, for example. Beer encourages sociologists to take courage in conveying ideas that may still be raw and engaging with others’ responses to them, a practice that social media avenues encourage.

I am no fan of punk rock, but I very much like the concept of punk sociology. The term itself denotes a fresher approach to the sociological canon and accepted assumptions of what sociology is and should be. I would have loved to have read a book like this as an undergraduate in first-year sociology in the early 1980s, when unfortunately I found myself bored rigid by the dry and dull way in which the discipline was taught. I suspect that undergraduates and even postgraduates in sociology today would also welcome Beer’s thoughts on enlivening sociology.

Exponents of critical sociology have always been a little bit punk in their reflexivity and their efforts to challenge the status quo and identify hidden power relations. Beer talks about the vibrancy and energy of the punk ethos That, for me, is what sociology can contribute at its best, and what has impelled me in my own sociological writing and research (including this blog). I am always interested in new ideas and approaches in my discipline and making new connections (including with other disciplines) and investigating where I can take them.
Sociology is inherently fascinating to many: it is about our own lives and times. Sociologists are able to offer many important insights into social life and selfhood, and it is it downright negligent for us not to be able to convey these insights to others. To render sociology dull is a great disservice to what it can promise.

Beer has chosen to represent the punk ethos in positive terms in this book, largely ignoring its sometimes nihilistic, violent and often overly confronting tendencies. I don’t think he wants to argue that sociology should go down this road. Punk at its most extreme was gritty and hardcore, and my reading of Beer’s argument is that he is espousing a somewhat gentler and optimistic version.

I would have liked to have seen some more concrete examples of punk sociology practice in the book. Beer makes suggestions for how to go about being a punk sociologist, but they tend to be general. Some specific cases of how sociologists might employ new ways of practising the craft in the ways suggested by Beer and how they have gone about it would have been helpful and interesting.

I agree with Beer that there is no point in wallowing in dismay about what some see as an apparent crisis in sociology. The discipline needs to be reactive, energetic and nimble — and yes, even confronting like the original punk musicians were — in response to the social changes that are continually occurring and new forms of social research that are emerging (particularly those related to digital media and digital data).

Beer suggests a punk music playlist to listen to as part of his call to arms for punk sociology. Join him in cranking the music up loud and getting to work on a sociology that is new, imaginative, in the moment and ever-so slightly anarchic!

References
Back, L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review, 60: 18-39.
Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: the Happening of the Social. New York: Routledge.

Why should sociologists study digital media?

Why should sociologists be interested in the new digital media technologies? This is a question I have been thinking and writing about recently in developing my next book project on digital sociology (to be published by Routledge next year). Here are some of the reasons that have emerged in the literature:

  • Social life is increasingly being configured through and with digital media.
  • What counts as ‘the social’ is increasingly framed via digital media.
  • Digital media use and practice is structured through gender, social class, geographical location, education, race/ethnicity and age, all social categories with which sociologists have traditionally been interested.
  • Digital media are integral parts of contemporary social networks and social institutions such as the family, the workplace, the education system, the healthcare system, the mass media and the economy, again phenomena that have long been foci for sociological research and theorising.
  • Digital media configure concepts of selfhood, social relationships, embodiment, human/nonhuman relations, space and time – all relevant to sociological inquiry.
  • Digital media have instituted new forms of power relations.
  • Digital media have become central to issues of measure and value.
  • Digital media offer alternative ways of practising sociology: of researching, teaching and disseminating research.
  • Digital media are important both to ‘public sociology’ (engaging with people outside of academia) and ‘private sociology’ (personal identities and practices as sociologists) (see here for my previous post on this).
  • Digital media challenge sociologists’ role as pre-eminent social researchers: sociologists need to address this.
  • Digital media technologies can contribute to ‘live sociology’ and ‘inventive methods’, or new, creative ways of practising sociology.

As this list implies, digital sociology goes well beyond simply a focus on ‘the digital’. It raises major questions about what should be the focus and methods of contemporary sociological research and theorising. As such, sociologists writing about digital media are important contributors to debates about the future of sociology and how the discipline can remain vibrant, creative and responsive to new developments and social change.