Martyn Hammersley
The Open University
British Sociological Association Annual Conference,
April 2013
Public Engagement
• Proposals for public sociology, civic sociology,
the public university, etc: the obligation to
impact on public discussion of policy issues
(Burawoy 2005; Loader and Sparks 2010).
• Demands from policymakers and funding
bodies that social science demonstrate that it
provides a significant return on public
investment, by making an effective
contribution to policymaking and practice.
• The Campaign for Social Science, supported
by the BSA: resisting funding cuts by seeking
to demonstrate usefulness and ‘impact’.
• There has always been a question about how
sociologists can claim superior knowledge over
those with direct practical experience of the
phenomena they study.
• In recent years there has also been increasing
competition: from ‘think tanks’ of various kinds,
interest groups, commercial organisations,
consultancy firms and government quangos, all
often claiming to produce research findings.
• So what is sociology’s distinctive warrant, or
indeed that of social science more generally?
A Critic
‘How much authority should we give to [social
science] in our policy decisions? […] Media
reports often seem to assume that any result
presented as “scientific” has a claim to our
serious attention. But this is hardly a
reasonable view. […] The core natural sciences
[…] are so well established that we readily
accept their best-supported conclusions as
definitive. […] Even the best-developed social
sciences like economics have nothing like this
status. […] The [difference] lies in […] predictive
power […].’ (Gutting 2012)
The Case of the 2011 Riots
• Prediction? Were the riots predicted? Precise
statements that riots will occur at specific times
and places? No. Open-ended statements (‘We
predict a riot’). Yes, but by lay people as well as
by sociologists
• Explanation? There was much public
commentary on the riots, concerned with
explaining them, and allocating blame.
Sociologists contributed to this discussion,
sometimes seeking to highlight the distinctive
contribution of the discipline.
An Example
‘One of the first things that disappears when
considering disturbances such as these is
perspective. One loses sight of the fact that
nine out of 10 local residents aren't rioting, that
nine out of 10 who are rioting aren't local to
the area, and that nine out of 10 of these nonlocals aren't doing it to commit crime. […]
Crime is a motive, but crowd behaviour is a
more complex process, and it is sociology as a
discipline that best understands crowd
behaviour.’ (Brewer and Wollman 2011)
What warrant is there for the
superiority of sociological
• There was little or no discussion of this
in the explanations offered for the riots
by sociologists.
• There is, however, a residual appeal to
the significance of evidence, which
might imply a claim to scientific status.
Diverse Explanations
‘The riots were due to spending cuts, they were
due to educational policies, they were due to
rap music, black culture, single-parent families,
lack of respect, liberal education … and the list
goes on.’
‘How can one explain an event before we really
know what that event was? One might as well
suggest that the riots happened because of the
place of Mars in relation to Venus or because a
five-footed calf was born in June. Without
evidence, any opinion is equally good or bad.’
(Reicher and Stott 2011:Preface)
Challenging issues
• Are sociological accounts of
phenomena like riots superior to
commonsense ones, for practical or
political purposes?
• If so, what kind of science is sociology?
• What form does sociological expertise
• Can it be translated into effective
contributions in the public sphere?
What kind of science, if any?
• Positivism: dismissal of commonsense as
defective understanding.
• Marxism: dismissal of commonsense as
ideology, as systematically misleading.
These positions provide clear grounds for
sociologists to claim superior knowledge.
However, the epistemological positions that are
now most influential portray all knowledge as
reflecting particular presuppositions and
commitments. So, can there be any sociological
Modes of Sociological Contribution
• Specific research (of varying kinds) into the
riots, from informal to systematic.
• The ‘application’ of findings from studies of
other riots.
• The ‘application’ of theories previously
developed to explain this type of event.
• The ‘application’ of general theories (Marxism,
Rational Choice, Frustration/Aggression, etc).
While analytically distinct, these modes can be,
and are often, combined.
Specific Research on the 2011 Riots
• Three studies, all adopting ‘popularising’
forms: Reicher and Stott (2011) was produced
in 3 weeks and is aimed at a general
audience. Lewis and Newburn (2011) is highly
descriptive in both mode of presentation and
use of data, reflecting its link to The Guardian.
Morrell et al (2011) is a report produced by
NatCen for the Cabinet Office.
• There are competing non-academic empirical
studies: for example Lammy 2011 and the
Citizens’ Inquiry into the Tottenham Riots.
The Role of Evidence
• Most explanations for the riots that
sociologists provided did not seem to be
based directly on research into the riots,
instead the main source of empirical evidence
relied on seemed to be the media.
• There was not much explicit reference to this
evidence or to the sociological literature,
including to sociological theory.
An Influential Sociological Account
‘This was not a rebellion […] of famished and
impoverished people or an oppressed ethnic or
religious minority – but a mutiny of defective
and disqualified consumers, people offended
and humiliated by the display of riches to which
they had been denied access. We have been
all coerced and seduced to view shopping as
the recipe for the good life and the principal
solution of all life problems – but then a large
part of the population has been prevented from
using that recipe.’ (Bauman 2011a)
Sociological Expertise?
• Bauman’s explanation perhaps draws
on Merton’s theory of anomie, and on
more recent work about consumerism.
However, this is largely implicit, and
does it amount to strong evidential
• Furthermore, other sociologists offered
rather different, even conflicting,
accounts for the riots.
A Second Sociological Account
‘[…] Without wanting to say that Zygmunt
Bauman’s analysis is simplistic […], one of the
dangers of calling the riots consumer riots is
that we bring an individualised notion into this
discussion. […] Many social issues that existed
in the 1980s and 1990s have not disappeared –
unemployment, inequality, policing . [Let’s] not
fall into the trap of saying that the riots of today
are consumer riots and the riots of 1980s and
2001 were different in that kind of way. […]’
(Solomos 2011)
Prefiguration or Echo?
‘There was a culture of “wanting stuff”, said an
18-year-old man […] “It’s like, seen as if you’re
not wearing like, and you’re poor, no one don’t
want to be your friend”. Some interviewees
blamed corporations, advertising and the
media for fuelling this acquisitional
consumerism. [One said] “That night those
young people they had freedom, because
they’re pushed with certain things in their face
all day […] ‘Buy phones, clothes, cars,
jewellery’”’ (Lewis and Newburn 2011)
Lay Appeals to Inequality
‘If you’re black or coloured skin, basically, you’re
at the bottom sort of thing,’ said one interviewee
in the capital. ‘And then white people, they start
off in the middle and then can get to the top.
But black people always start from the bottom’.
Another interviewee […] directly linked those
who took to the streets to people’s concerns
about inequality. ‘If they give us, the black
people, the opportunities like they give the
white community, then that wouldn’t have
happened,’ he said (Lewis and Newburn 2011)
Politicians’ Tales: Cameron
‘It is all too clear that we have a big problem
with gangs in our country. […] [T]here are
pockets of our society that are not just broken
but frankly sick. […] It is a complete lack of
responsibility in parts of our society, people
allowed to feel the world owes them something,
that their rights outweigh their responsibilities
and their actions do not have consequences.
[…] We need to have a clearer code of
standards and values that we expect people to
live by and stronger penalties if they cross the
line.’ (Cameron 2011)
A Sociological Theory of
‘Control theories assume that delinquent acts
result when an individual’s bond to society is
weak or broken’ (Hirshi 2002:16)
‘The more weakened the groups to which [the
individual] belongs, the less he depends on
them, the more he consequently depends
only on himself and recognizes no other rules
of conduct than what are founded on his
private interests’ (Durkheim 1951:209;
quoted in Hirshi)
1. Sociologists have put forward quite
different explanations from one another (in
terms of crowd behaviour, frustrated
consumers, or inequality).
2. Riot participants’ and politicians’
explanations are often versions of ones
found in the sociological literature.
3. Even the explanation put forward by
Conservative politicians that many
sociologists have been keen to oppose has
a sociological pedigree.
Two possible explanations for the fact that there
is no clear evidence of sociological expertise:
1.This is lost in translation, as sociological
findings are turned into public discourse. If so,
is this inevitable or a reflection of the current
state of the public sphere?
2.There is no difference between sociological and
commonsense explanations; either in principle,
or given current sociological practice. Are there
just conflicting ideological accounts?
What does this mean for the public engagement
of sociology?
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