June 11, 2020

Research note 4: The condensed lives of sociologists

Research note

I am sure I am not alone in being asked quite often what it is that sociologists do. One way of answering this question is to refer to the work of particular sociologists, and I find myself doing this more often since I started looking systematically at obituaries. These may be only brief, but even a condensed account of a life can be informative, engaging and instructive. Among the 256 obituaries featured in The Times Higher in the five years from January 2015 (mostly written by Matthew Reisz) there are at least six identified as sociologists (Ulrich Beck, Michael Feige, Andy Furlong, John Urry, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Peter Wright), along with several more of people whose work contained strong sociological elements (such as Benedict Anderson, Agnes Heller and Doreen Massey).
Even from this small number of brief lives it is immediately apparent that sociologists do many things. Sociologists investigate troubling issues in the public domain such as the risks associated with climate change, the challenges to the peace process in the Middle East, the fractured transition from education to employment, the restructuring of place, the interplay of politics and economics in recent world history, and the historical roots of modern science. Sociologists also provide us with tools to think with, for example the conceptual framework of world systems theory and the ideas of risk society and of individualization. In addition to shaping intellectual agendas, sociologists also communicate these ideas to diverse audiences, from students in the lecture hall to wider publics in various fora, both institutional and activist. Peter Wright’s obituary recalls his arrest at a protest over racial segregation in a 1960s Leicester pub, and Michael Feige’s death in a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv brought to a premature end a life dedicated to the peace process. These obituaries tell stories of lives of research, ideas and engagement. In addition, they are accounts of lives lived that also contain glimpses of people whose professionalism was combined with a range of very human personal qualities: kindness, courtesy, humility, imagination, commitment to reason, and commitment to social justice.
This note was first published in Everyday Society on 11 May 2020 and permission to reproduce it here is gratefully acknowledged.

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