On the Future Of the Sociology Profession in New Zealand

Response to Paul Spoonley’s Paper, SAANZ conference, 27 November 2005

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;

Let me begin by saying that while I welcome Paul’s paper, it suffers from a major deficiency when it claims that sociology should be a core social science discipline, but does not define the subject. When I was at the University of Sussex, the social sciences scrapped vigorously between themselves as to their importance and their relationships. Sociology was one, but even a subject led by Tom Bottomore had difficulties defining what was its core. My observation of New Zealand sociology – say characterised by the subject of papers at this conference – is that it would have considerable difficulties defining a core here too: defining the minimum that a graduate sociologist should know. I may be wrong, but to the outsider sociology often seems social studies, which is a subject, not a discipline.

Let me put the issue this way. Does sociology teaching think of itself like classics which prepares a mind to tackle a wide range of problems? Or does it think of itself like economics which is organized around the concern of how to deal with scarce resources, the response to which is useful for tackling a wide range of problems? If so what are those organising principles? Paul leaves the issue open, but unless it is addressed, the future of sociology cannot be.

Suppose it is. At this point some of the parallel experience of economics in New Zealand seem relevant. For academic economics, like sociology, has been shrinking, despite the expansion of business courses. As for sociology some of this shrinkage is misleading, for there are graduate economists teaching in other university departments – health, natural resources, business studies and so on – although much of that teaching is embarrassingly bad, by those who could not get a job in an economics department because they are not good enough, and go where standards are more easily compromised. There are exceptions: I first knew Peter Davis when he was in a sociology department, have watched with pleasure his progress through the sociology of health, and am delighted to see him back as a professor of sociology.

Economics has already penetrated into a number of occupations and institutions. It is – with accounting – at the core of Treasury, and central to other government departments in a way in which sociology is not, but Paul wants it to be. So desperate are the departments for economists they will hire mediocre ones.

Outside the public service there are opportunities for economists in consultancy, local government, in secondary school teaching, in so-called think tanks, and some industries such as banking. And, of course, some economics graduates leave the profession.

Is economics is more successful than sociology? One measure estimated only 167 economists in tertiary institutions while there were 248 sociologists together with those in social policy, social work and gender studies – not all of whom may be trained sociologists though.

Moreover, much of the work New Zealand economists do is of poor quality. We suffer from pop economics, just as we suffer from pop sociology. I am not willing to speculate on sociology, but the roots of poor quality economics start in the academy – in the university teaching.

Another area of poor quality work, endemic in the academy, is public policy. Having written four books on the topic, numerous reports, and having earned my much of my living in the area, I can say this with some confidence. Public policy is a separate discipline, although it makes use of other social sciences. It is not a matter of attaching the term ‘social policy’ or ‘public policy’ to your department, and getting a few hacks without practical experience to teach from the rather bad US and British textbooks. If sociology wants to move into social policy, it is going to have to think very carefully about what the discipline of sociology is, what the discipline of public policy is, and how they relate. Academics, in particular, are going to have to stop being dismissive about public policy and work hard to understand it.

The same is true for economics.