Sociologists are, especially now, quite often trying their hand at some other trade – albeit, photography, literature, art or something more akin to film and theatre. C Wright Mills (1959) famously remarked how he, in the 1950s, found the sociological imagination more alive in novels and journalism than in the very discipline of sociology in North America or Europe. The process of what specialists from these fields might refer to as sociologists dabbling in the world of theatre, exhibitions or literature, has taken on a different life course in the light of directives on research impact in the academy. At times this is of juggernaut proportions. Indeed, as somebody who has dabbled way beyond strictly defined boundaries of my discipline, sociology, I have thought long and hard about what I am doing in a pond I was not strictly trained in. Over time, I have acquired a set of working reflections.
1 A Roaming Sociological Imagination
The good sociological imagination certainly does roam, as pointed out by CW Mills. Finding references to a subject which has grabbed our attention everywhere, from science to drama and drawing. This, for me, is one of the joys of being a sociologist. I don’t have to keep mining the same old interlocutors. I can find new places of observation and inspiration whether this is in an art installation, a poem or a piece of music. Hands up to being an incessant roamer. I refuse to be policed by the bounded walls of disciplines. Not least of all because disciplines are themselves forged through leaky cross-discipline influences. Besides, bookshelves in libraries and bookshops orient one to roam. You might start off in a Sociology section, yet end up sitting down with a book in your hand from the Art section. Or, a novel. Recently I picked up the novel Convenience Store Woman (2018) by Sayaka Murata. This book does much to slow our sociological eyes and ears down. The first page starts with:
“A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network… I hear the faint rattle of new plastic bottle rolling into place as a customer takes one out of the refrigerator, and look up instantly. A cold drink is often the last item customers take before coming to the checkout till, and my body responds automatically to the sound.”
2 Re-enchantment with the Value of Sociology
While we do wander off from our sociology bookshelves and find much inspiration elsewhere, this does not mean we don’t value what sociology has to contribute. In fact, each time we wander off, we are probably likely to be re-enchanted by our own discipline. There are particular affordances provided by the discipline which are not easily found elsewhere. Avtar Brah has referred in Cartographies of a Diaspora (1996) to home as a “mythic place of desire” and “the lived experience of a locality.” Stuart Hall (1997) refers to belonging as entailing movement and change, as well as “moorings” and anchors. So even as I venture out to other shores, this does not lead me to abandon the discipline I get my moorings from. Rather, the movement of going off and coming back to the spaces of sociology, in all their heterodoxy, lead me to re-inhabit the home discipline anew. Finding delight elsewhere, in music or literature, for instance, does not mean I run off to some romantic notion of other disciplines. Instead, by hanging around elsewhere, I am led to hang in with my sociology books differently. In fact, often it is in the collaborative exchanges with people from other trades, artists, musicians or architects, for instance, when I am reminded of what sociology has to offer in collaborative exchanges.
3 Social Mutation in Collaboration
Collaboration, like impact, is much touted. This is especially the case in the current climate of large grants. More often than not, collaboration is a rocky journey. Social mutation can be one of the finest features of collaboration. Other reading lists as well as practices of making and putting things together are likely to mutate even the most bounded of sociologists. When I accidently collaborated with Frances Silkstone, the composer, on Post-colonial War Requiem (2008) I learned of how he measured space, from the point of view of sound and music, in very different ways to how I approached the production of space. Clapping as a way to gauge the acoustic properties of a space has stayed with me, especially if I step into a cathedral. When Silkstone plans for a live music performance, he tries to work in the future, pre-empting what could possibly go wrong. I now too find myself also doing this with events and exhibitions.
4 Shaping Objects Together in Tension
Social mutation does not mean sociologists have to become musicians, writers of plays or artists, for instance. More often than not, this results in awful theatre or pieces of work. Or, it entails years of training and practice to become accomplished. This is where the fruits of collaboration come in. There can be a magic in exchanging conversations, aesthetics and practices, as sociologists, with artists and play writers for example. Together you can make fine work which does not only involve making academic books or articles. In the fusion of sociology with other disciplinary practices and practitioners we together shape objects, which enable us to grasp, contemplate and get close to the topics which capture our imaginations in different ways. There is much to be said for the art of collaboration. How do we sit side by side. In I’ll get my coat (2005) Sukdev Sandhu and Usman Saeed have produced a beautiful small book from undertaking walks together in London. With Sandhu’s writings sitting next to Saeed’s drawings. Learning to work through tensions of collaboration is no easy order. When editing the classic film Chronicle of A Summer (1961) Jean Rouch, the surrealist film maker and Edgar Morin, the sociologist, often had contrasting approaches to how the film ought to be pieced together. During the course of the project Noise of the Past, Sanjay Sharma and myself (2012) developed a call-and-response methodology. To enable both autonomy and exchange in the making of a collaborative object. In our case the film Unravelling (2008, written and directed by Kuldip Powar) with a musical score by Nitin Sawhney, were there to be delivered to mixed and wide audiences. My scholarly learning of race, ethnicities and nation making had reached a point where it was looking for something with potential interaction beyond the academy. Seeking to stretch the very walls of the academy.
5 Public Engagement: between drill and moral high ground
The notion of public engagement sits on a wide spectrum. On one end, public engagement is a close cousin of social impact. A governmental directive. As something academics must do; engage with audiences beyond the academy. This particular stylisation of public engagement is proliferating poor practices – practices which often are contrary to ethical concerns and methodologies we have studied. There can be an unashamed scramble to grab and find a way of doing public engagement and social impact, as it becomes a university measure and enterprise. Thus bad practices of public engagement multiply fast. On the other end of the spectrum sits the high moral ground of needing to engage non-academics. Of giving more importance to the non-academic. Sometimes this can amount to scenarios where the public enter platforms with us. This however needs to be conducted carefully, so that we don’t make the so called ‘authentic’ figure and voice into what Rey Chow (1993) refers to as an ‘anthropological specimen’. Thus worthy exercises of inclusion also come with risks and traps. In a reverse move away from academia being the knowledge keeper, this position shifts the authority to the non-academic. To an extent, we are all experts of our lives. If there is value in a sociological perspective, sociology does not need to be jettisoned or disavowed. Rather, sociology can be put into critical conversation with other points of view and ways of formulating knowledge. With critique moving in both directions. And each side re-thinking their categories. No doubt this can very easily be an unequal exchange. Institutional hierarchies can’t be undone in one move. They remain as sites of tension, even as we reach across the walls of the academy.
6 Unfinished Live Relations
Building relations across the walls can take years; too long for a quick swoop for the impact agenda. And you can of course be caught short in the tracks of life. One of my close collaborations had his life cut short by a fall from a ladder whilst cleaning his windows. Raj Malhotra had been a leading member of the Indian Workers Association in the UK, as well as a co-founder of Youth Against Racism, a key participant of Rock Against Racism and the first Asian councillor in Coventry. He first caught my attention through his story of migrating to Coventry from India with a close friend on a bicycle, whilst making and selling models of bicycles made from a single wire en route. He had picked up this art from a street trader in India http://www.bbc.co.uk/coventry/features/stories/2004/04/bike-ride-from-india.shtml.
Raj also kept a vast cine collection of films he had made, as an amateur, chronicling political and social life in the UK. He had sent footage of some of the intimate family events home, back to India. With the films operating rather like the cine-letters edited in the film I For india (1996, dir: Sandhya Suri). We had shared hours of conversation together while he played the films to me in his home. The texture of political demonstrations, his own role in political organising and musical movements are recorded in Raj’s collection. One of the shortest and most touching films consists of Raj filming his wife leaving home in the early hours of the day to go to work in the local hospital. His narration and film shots are a cine-literature. They speak to the duration of the day through the light of the seasons and a long working day. When I will eventually return to work with Raj’s cine archive, my imagination will be much the poorer without his factual and fictional accounts, relayed across the whirring of the cine projector. In between the richest research relations so much is often left unfinished. This we have to learn to accept. As my colleague Yasmin Gunaratnam has been teaching us through her work on Death and the Migrant (2013).
Brah, Avtar (1996) Cartographies of a Diaspora, Routledge.
Chow, Rey (1993) Writing Diaspora, Columbia University.
Gunaratnam, Yasmin (2013) Death and the Migrant, Bloomsbury Academic.
Hall, Stuart (Nov, 1997) Interviewed in Radical Philosophy.
Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press.
Sandhu, Sukdev & Saeed Usman (2005) I’ll get my coat
Murata, Sayaka (2018) Convenience Store Woman, Portobello Books
Puwar, Nirmal & Sharma, Sanjay (2012) ‘Curating Sociology’, Sociological Review, Vol. 60, Issue. 1, pp. 40-63.
Nirmal Puwar is Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and Co-Director of the Methods Lab. She has numerous publications including Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out Of Place and has co-edited 17 collections including Live Methods.