A response to the REF consultation on the draft Sociology criteria

Read Martyn Hammersley’s feedback below.  What do you think? Email judith.mudd@britsoc.org.uk by 18 September.

Given the amorphous character of the discipline, statements about the nature of sociology are contentious: they will almost always betray sins of omission and/or commission, at least from some point of view. This is perhaps even more true today than it was in the past. The REF 2021 sub-panel have been forced to enter this minefield for a quite specific and highly bureaucratic purpose. And, in terms of this purpose, it seems to me that they have provided an account that is, overall, accurate and inclusive. However, I agree with Graham Crow that there is one part of their statement that is problematic. The second sentence of the ‘descriptor’ states that sociology ‘is a critical discipline which focusses on and is concerned with issues of social inequality, division and justice’. While this captures the orientation and focus of much sociological work today, it appears to exclude quite a lot that nevertheless belongs to the discipline. Graham rightly objects to the implication of an exclusive emphasis on the study of division, inequalities, and conflict, apparently leaving out work that focuses on, and is concerned about, social order and solidarity. But, for me, there is an additional problem: the description of the discipline as ‘critical’. Not all sociology is critical in the sense presumably intended here (indicating a negative attitude towards the phenomena being investigated). In this context, the point is not whether sociology should be ‘critical’ in this manner, it is simply a fact that not all of it fits this description. Indeed, there are approaches that specifically turn their face against such an orientation: ethnomethodology is perhaps the clearest example, but there is much other work that does not claim to know how the world ought, or ought not, to be on sociological grounds. The offending sentence appears to imply that such work is not sociological, and therefore would not be eligible. I suggest it be deleted.

Martyn Hammersley, Emeritus Professor of Educational and Social Research, The Open University