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1968 And All That: The Tale Of A Jobbing Sociologist

June 23, 2009

Sociology as a discipline in the UK was shaping up during the 1960s; but there was still an air of mystery about the whole thing when I chose to study it. There was then no clear role model on which to base expectations. The discipline has however served me well ever since. For most of my working life I’ve been what might be called a Jobbing Sociologist. I wrote this account of my experiences for the BSA ‘Sociologists Outside Academia’ newsletter.

1968 remains an iconic year for many. For some it represents a time of dramatic change preceding one’s own individual history, for others it was the start of a new way for us all to see the world.

But for me, 1968 was the point where the personal really hit the political-professional – the year I finished being a teenager and abandoned plans to be a natural scientist or a coloratura soprano (I’d tried both), and the year I got married and then enrolled for a degree in the most daring and mysterious subject I could think of: Sociology.

Realities
Needless to say, people opined that it would never last; but truth to tell my heart has stayed on both counts where I put it so long ago, and on many levels the two have interwoven over and over again as time marches on. Allies older and new will confirm that I’ve never been less than a fully paid-up feminist, but hard realities can sometimes get in the way of the more seductive theories of autonomy and self-determination.

My personal journey from undergraduate social science in the Nissen huts of the then North East London Polytechnic, to a freelance career as a writer and regeneration / sustainable communities consultant, via research and teaching Sociology and Social Policy in various institutions of Further and Higher Education and a decade of temporary ill-health ‘retirement’ when community activism was the only way to mitigate the tedium of physical immobility, has been part-moulded by my life as a spouse, mother, daughter, citizen and wage-earner. And I regret not a minute of it.

Following careers
I started my career in Sociology in London, because the Royal Academy of Music is where putative violinists such as my other half studied; we moved to Liverpool when he was appointed a member – as he still is – of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; I undertook my Master’s (Sociology of Science and Technology, 1973; the first serious piece of research on women scientists in the UK) at Salford, because by a miracle the (then very unusual) exact course I wanted was accessible from our new home city; my PGCE was at Liverpool, so every morning before lectures I could take our baby daughter to nursery.

Having been forced (just pre-1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act) to leave my original FE teaching post when I started a family, I taught the new Open University distance courses at home whilst also sewing in pre-school name tapes, and then returned to teach ‘O’ and ‘A’-levels to many engaging young and older college students alongside checking juvenile homework. Later, I wrote the first-ever Sociology Access-to-HE modules, and academic papers and book chapters on aspects of Sociology. For some years I was (unpaid) commissioning editor for the journal Social Science Teacher, working from my prototype Amstrad computer.

Getting involved
I was also an active member of the British Sociological Association (BSA) Executive Committee, instigating the organisation, FACTASS (Forum of Academic and Teaching Associations in the Social Sciences), which eventually saw off the Margaret Thatcher-Keith Joseph proposal effectively to remove any notions of personal, health, social and civic education (PHSCE) from the school curriculum: ‘History finishes at 1945’ …. Oh no, it doesn’t, not if you’re teaching a decent school curriculum.

And as we all debated in those difficult times, I was learning for real how the prism of Sociology can offer a focus and analysis which rarely fails to stimulate or challenge.

Work experience
Early on, I was a social worker in Liverpool’s dire council estates, and briefly a youth worker; later I was Research Associate in teenage pregnancy at Liverpool Medical School, and then Head of Health and Social Care at a Merseyside FE college. And in the 1980s and ‘90s I had to take several years out of employment with severe arthritis; so I learnt first hand to cope with illness and disability (which much illuminated my later work as an NHS Trust Non-Executive Director and as a Lay Partner of the Health Professions Council) alongside how, as a volunteer and political activist, to lobby for arts and community organisations, so finding my way into the local and regional centres of decision-making.

Eventually from that arose the initiative to regenerate the area in Liverpool I designated as Hope Street Quarter – and thereby my re-involvement in the whole sustainable development agenda, on a very different basis from when my 1970s membership of Friends of the Earth and Scientists Against Nuclear Arms had been seen as almost subversive. Being Vice-Chair of the North West (region of England) Sustainable Development Group, and a Non-Executive Director and Equality and Diversity Champion of BURA, the British Urban Regeneration Association, are pretty respectable activities.

Widening the portfolio
And in the meantime I have undertaken independent consultancies on Sure Start and local authority Youth Services, helping to realign public service provision; I’m working with Muslim colleagues on a mosque project to engage disaffected young people, and to establish a Foundation for the inspiring black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. I’ve spent three fascinating years as Lay Member of the Defra Science Advisory Council (actually working in the corridors of power of which C.P. Snow wrote so compellingly, not long before I went to Salford all those years ago).

I’m currently teaching practitioners about sustainable communities online for the Homes and Communities Agency Academy; I’ve addressed conferences on my take on regional science and the new knowledge economy (‘Knowledge is like water – it flows where it can…’). I write and am a referee for regeneration journals; I have a very active website; plus I suspect I’m about to become the author of a book on communicating to achieve grounded sustainability.

The personal and the professional
So many hours on trains with the laptop, so much still to do; and now delightful Grandma duties too. My personal life trajectory has always and indelibly framed the professional one, but how else could it have been?

Free-lancing as a social scientist isn’t an easy way to earn a living, but I don’t think that’s the point. Knowledge may be like water, but sociological analysis is pure crystal. It sharpens perceptions and illuminates the social world. That’s invaluable in innumerable ways, not least as a consultant-practitioner and enabler of progressive social change.

This article was first published on 23 June 2009 in the British Sociological Association‘s newsletter for its Sociologists Outside Academia group: Sociology for All, Issue No. 7 (Summer 2009).

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 15, 2009 14:29

    Very interesting to read how one makes ones way in sociology – my history is not dissimilar and I thank my instruction in social theory as giving me skills in youth and community work, as well as an understanding of the “big picture” re globalisation. There is always more to learn everyday and my BA was never an invitation to put up a shingle and rest in comfort ..No regrets. Richard O’Brien

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