The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Sociologist #2

This is the letter by Stephen Mugford which prompted yesterday’s post. Reproduced with his permission:


I listen to TA as a podcast, so timing and order can be a bit scrambled. So it was that only recently I heard one on ‘intoxication’ from 2012.

I’m writing to you because it provoked in me a serious concern about sociology today which I raise with you below, I hope collegially. (I trust not in some curmudgeonly way).

Brief background: You and I are pretty well age and disciplinary peers—I did my London Sociology Hons in 1968 and then went to Bristol with Michael Banton, Theo Nichols, et al, finishing writing my PhD while teaching sociology in NZ. In late 1974 I went on to the ANU where I stayed until late ’96. In the period ’79-’96 I was fairly heavily involved in crime and deviance studies, authoring and co-authoring  a range of papers on drug use and policy and also some on restorative justice. This took me into the American Society of Criminology where I met, or re-met in some cases both UK sociologists (Ian Taylor, Jock Young, Mike Presdee*, etc.) as well as US ones (Bill Chambliss, Jack Katz, etc.) Great fun and good times. Pat O’Malley and I organised a ripper session at one ASC on crime, excitement and modernity with Mike Presdee, Jack Katz, ourselves, etc. which was packed to the rafters….

[*I say re-met because Mike and I not only met in Australia, we also, I discovered, went to school together in Gloucester. A sad loss is Mike.)

So if I say that the material in the program was pretty familiar, you won’t be surprised. And of course, if you did not know the area well, it would be a good episode because it covered a lot of ground effectively, the speakers were nicely integrated, etc. I’ve done a fair bit of media work (professional video work, etc.) and I know TA is a well created series.

But what DID worry me, which is implicit in my title, is that I learned almost nothing. It is 20+ years since, for example, I co-wrote papers like:

  • 1994      P.T. O’Malley and S.K Mugford   ‘Crime, excitement and modernity’ pp. 189-211 in Gregg Barak (ed) Varieties of Criminology,  Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
  • 1993      Social change and the control of psychotropic drugs—risk management, harm reduction and ‘postmodernity’, Drug and Alcohol Review,  12: 369-375
  • 1992      P. Dance and S.K. Mugford   ‘The St. Oswald’s Day celebrations: ‘carnival’ versus ‘sobriety’ in an Australian drug enthusiast group’,Journal of Drug Issues, 22(3):591-606
  • 1991      With P. T. O’Malley   ‘Heroin policy and the limits of Left Realism’,  Crime, Law and Social Change: An International Journal,  15: 19-36.
  • 1991      P. T. O’Malley and S.K. Mugford   ‘The demand for intoxicating commodities: implications for the ‘War on Drugs’  ’,  Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict and World Order, 18: 49-75.

My point is not that these folks did not cite, or seem to know, these works. Rather, these pieces were part of a much larger corpus written by people like Presdee and Katz and others, which explored all the conceptual and theoretical issues that were raised in much the same way but the corpus as a whole seems to be completely missed.

And so all the (to me) familiar themes came out. Yes, antidrug use campaigners miss the pleasurable side of drug use. Yes, Bakhtin and carnival are relevant ideas. Yes, drug abuse is best described as the “the use of drugs I don’t use by people I don’t like”. Yes, getting written off is an ambiguous thing—fun but dangerous. Et cetera.  And all presented as if somehow this was new or surprising, when it had all been said before (and very likely before I and my mates said it too—we may equally be guilty of exactly the same problem.)

I would hope that after 20 odd years out of the game, I would hear something new, something that made me think, “Oh, wow” and not “Uh, huh.”  In other fields of enquiry things are moving apace. Leave aside the natural sciences with myriad breakthroughs (from Homo Floriensis to the Higgs Boson), cognitive science and psychology and their cognates are all rocketing along. Every time I listen to a podcast in one of these fields (and in some of them I am quite well read so this is not just a naïve effect) I hear new and intriguing stuff.  And there is some new stuff in sociology, especially around network research, where I DO get the wow effect.

It worries me, however, to hear people rediscovering things for the nth time and solemnly discussing them as if they are new. And I think that maybe what we see here is a real warning about the discipline. What do you think?

Maybe I am just suffering from ‘nostalgia aint what it used to be”? But I don’t think so.

Collegially yours,




4 thoughts on “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Sociologist #2

  1. That’s the problem. Social science not cumulative. Easier to make a name by being a smartarse. Especially if one takes up a French ‘intellectual’.

  2. I’m cautious about seeing it as zero-sum – surely it’s a matter of the degree to which disciplinary inquiry both is and could be cumulative?

  3. Very few seem to be interested in cumulative knowledge, largely for career reasons one feels. The ‘shock’ of the new…

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