A passion for the contemporary

Article

50 years of Goldsmiths Sociology.

Anna Bull (PHD Sociology)

I've made three attempts to come to Goldsmiths to study sociology: as an undergraduate then as a Masters student, but it was for my PhD that the right combination of circumstances finally conspired to get me in the door.  Interviewing past and present members of the faculty (together with my fellow PhD student Sarah Burton) in honour of the 50th anniversary of Goldsmiths sociology has allowed me to reflect on what it was that drew me so strongly to this department. 

Vic Seidler summed up the ethos of the department, commenting that Goldsmiths sociology is 'always engaged with the contemporary' -even while retaining a sense of history.  This is what drew me to sociology in the first place – a passion to understand the contemporary social world, where even reading historical texts means a return to the here-and-now   The department’s engagement with the present is coupled with, as Les Back described it, 'a kind of institutionalised restlessness and yearning to do things differently'. 

This explains why, on coming to Goldsmiths, I suddenly felt that the boundaries of the discipline of sociology– what we were and weren't allowed to think and ask – were not where I thought they were.  Instead, I was allowed to ask the  questions that hadn't felt acceptable elsewhere.  This feeling was reflected in many of the 50th anniversary interviews; since a shake-up in the early 90s, the department has purposefully encouraged innovation, risk and working on the edge of the discipline – often led by feminist researchers questioning received wisdom.

The story that stuck in my mind most from all the interviews was Vic Seidler describing what happened when theory suddenly became practice in the late 70s.  Phenomenology was a popular theory at the time, which presented knowledge as democratic, the outcome of a community wherein  everyone was equal.  The undergraduate students at the time took this seriously, and as Vic describes it, they 'walked into the staff meeting and questioned the legitimation of us as staff being able to talk about the students without their being present'.  This led to the department being organised for about two years by an open forum of staff and students. 

To me this story sums up the spirit of Goldsmiths.  I doubt whether this would ever happen these days, but the idea of theory being always practically grounded, in the empirical, real-world questions that surround us in SE14, is something that has been emphasised time and time again by past and current members of the department.  This has led to courageous thinking among some of the sociologists I most admire, and it inspires me to be bolder in the questions I'm asking about the social world around me.