“Punk Sociology Book Review” by Nuné Nikoghosyan
“Punk Sociology Book Review” by Nuné Nikoghosyan
© Nuné Nikoghosyan and Figure/Ground. September 22nd, 2014
How to re-imagine sociology in the midst of crisis and uncertainty in the discipline due to changing social, cultural and economic conditions? In his latest work, Punk Sociology (2014), the sociologist David Beer strives to spark debate around the issue, by suggesting that for sociology to be more vibrant, creative and lively, sociologists need to turn to alternative ways of knowledge and working methods. For this, the author turns to cultural resources for inspiration and suggests bringing some punk ethos into sociology. Senior lecturer in sociology at the University of York, David Beer works mainly in the areas of culture and media in the everyday context, social and cultural theory, and methods and empiricism in social and cultural research.
Since the very beginnings of the discipline, sociologists have not ceased debating about the methods and approaches that sociology should direct itself towards. By leaning on works such as Charles Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (1959), Steve Fuller’s The New Sociological Imagination (2006), and Howard S Becker’s Telling About Society (2007), David Beer’s contribution to the debate is the introduction of the notion of “punk sociology”. According to the author, in the midst of crisis and uncertainty, especially given the neoliberal trend in modern universities, sociologists have a tendency to want to “play it safe”: according to the rules and generally accepted norms and guidelines, less inclined to take risks. But Beer sees this approach dangerous, arguing that it will limit the scope of sociology and eventually lead it into a dead end. For new and engaging ideas to emerge, Beer’s “punk sociology” looks for alternatives, claiming to be “imaginative in re-imagining the craft of sociology”, having in mind Charles Wright Mills’ vision of sociology as a craft.
By describing the punk music ethos and then relating it to “punk sociology”, the author suggests that being a sociologist need not be complicated, as learning to play punk music is generally not: “This is a concept, this is another, this is a third, now be a sociologist.” (p.20) As a do-it-yourself movement, encouraging participants to create their own work, punk music attempted to break down barriers and hierarchies, defying categories and adopting a “deliberate unlearning” (p.25) in making music and communicating.
Often “raw, stripped-back and fearless”, the punk musician can be “bold and inventive”, following little or no cultural restrictions (p.28). “It is about the drive of the individual to make a contribution and to sometimes look to subvert restrictive or oppressive social categories, norms or conventions. This in turn leads punk to be open and eclectic. It is outward looking.” (p.28) Self-publication and alternative means of communication became common ground for punk music, and punks were more often than not unconventional, refusing “to be restricted by the limitations of access and funding.” (p.28). David Beer calls for a similar approach in sociology.
In three concise chapters, the author introduces the most prominent features of the punk ethos and how “punk sociology” may adopt and benefit from each. The chapters are “short, explicit and suggestive”, similar to “a 2- or 3-minute song” (p.18). The first of these concerns sociological knowledge itself, calling for it to be “relativistic, open and eclectic” (p.35). “For the punk, there is value to be found in the types of culture that are often belittled or underestimated” (p.36), recalls Beer. A punk sociologist, then, would embrace a broad range of different types of knowledge, claiming no authority over a social world or knowledge of it. What follows, first, is the need to “not be too nervous about accepting that we, as sociologists, are not the only people with something analytical to say about the social world” and, second, that as sociologists we should “coach ourselves to see sociology in sources where we may not be expecting to see it.” (p.38) As the notion of “public sociology” already implies, then, punk sociologists would break down barriers between the researcher, the researched and the audience, working “with” rather than “on” participants.
The next feature to be discussed is communication in sociology, to be more “raw, stripped back and fearless” (p.43), according to Beer. The author notices a trend of what he calls “progressive sociology”, as in “progressive rock”, that tends to put forward the technical skills and virtuosity of the researcher, making it difficult for the audience and other researchers to engage in an exchange of ideas. Punk sociology, on the contrary, strives to be more direct in its communication, fearless about the forms it takes and the legitimacy of these. This is already happening, as more and more “raw and stripped-back blog posts are circulating to significant and varied audiences in a way that more polished journal articles are unable to achieve.” (p.47) This also implies that sociologists have to be prepared for their “research taking on a life of its own” (p.49), although Beer does not see this type of communication completely replacing the current academic bedrock that are peer-reviewed journal articles and books.
The last feature of punk sociology refers to the sociological terrain, to be “bold and inventive” and following the “do-it-yourself ethic” (p.53). Certainly one of David Beer’s most daring suggestions in this book is that “the punk sociologist refuses to be held back by austerity, although of course in reality this might be hard, particularly if jobs are under threat. The punk sociologist uses the limitations of austerity to find creativity, to motivate their nothing-to-lose attitude, and to embed resistance and edginess in their outlook.” (p.57)
In conclusion, the author reminds his readers that for sociology not to be conservative, it must be made “as engaging, invigorating, and lively as possible” (p.62). And it is exactly punk sociology that “requires an active and lively sociologist who finds ways of making the most of the opportunities provided by the context and environment in which they are working.” (p.63) There are, however, some pitfalls to avoid in bringing the punk ethos into sociology. Beer’s answer to punk music’s self-destructive drive and short-lived outburst of triumph, for example, is that sociology should re-imagine itself constantly, perhaps moving on to look for inspiration in other musical genres and cultural resources, or perhaps resulting in post-punk sociology, new-wave sociology, etc. Beer also sees a need to protect “long-term, careful and meticulous work” such as editing, translation, longitudinal studies, reviews, etc. and warns that the “objective of punk sociology is not to undermine sociology itself, or to erode its legitimacy or credibility.” (p.67) Nevertheless, it may not be as clear to the reader as to how such erosion of credibility may be avoided. In this, we may even reproach the author for the lack of concrete examples in the arguments he presents.
According to David Beer, his main aim in this book is to be provocative and spark a debate about where sociology is going and how it can re-invent itself to avoid dead ends. Provocative as they are, some of the arguments can easily be interpreted as going over the edge, or may strike chords that go deeper than an intellectual debate about the future of a scientific discipline. An interesting read, but, ironically, in trying to save the discipline from its uncertainty at a time of crisis, some of Beer’s arguments may even lead sociologists, especially the younger ones, into more uncertainty: choosing to be an eclectic “punk sociologist” with a “nothing-to-lose attitude” rather than playing it safe at times of widespread social and economic crisis and employment insecurity may come to be a more profound dilemma than it first seems.
It appears that the punk sociologist will, overall, have more difficulties in working than the punk musician: embracing a punk ethos, being unconventional, breaking down barriers etc., but at the same time keeping up certain accepted norms and conventions in contemporary academia and research (the “meticulous” work, the need for funding, etc.), thus being only partially punk, or half-punk and half-classical.
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Nikoghosyan, N. (2014). “Punk Sociology Book Review,” Figure/Ground. September 22nd.
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