Sociology at Goldsmiths


A rough guide to the history of the department. Sociology at Goldsmiths has a rich, creative – and sometimes difficult – history.

It has been shaped not only by competing intellectual currents but also by material structures of the department and its productive relationship with its south-east London location. In this short piece we let Goldsmiths scholars past and present narrate the journey of the department. Their accounts bring forth the spontaneity, playfulness and commitment to sociology as a verb that still characterizes the department.

Dramatis personae

Emeritus Professor Vic Seidler joined Goldsmiths sociology in 1971.

Professor Les Back did a PhD in anthropology at Goldsmiths in the 80s and joined the sociology department in 1993.

Professor Heidi Mirza did her Phd in the early 1980s in the social science  and administration department (linked with sociology) and has recently re-joined the department in 2013 as Professor of Race, Faith and Culture.

Professor Nikolas Rose joined Goldsmiths as Head of Department in 1991. He went on to be Dean of School of Social and Mathematical Sciences and Pro-Warden for Research. Nikolas left Goldsmiths in 2002. He’s currently Head of the Department of Social Science Health and Medicine at Kings College, London.

Dr Beckie Coleman came to Goldsmiths for her MA in Cultural Studies in 2000. She then joined the Sociology department for her PhD in 2001 supervised by Celia Lury and Mariam Fraser. She re-joined the department in 2013 as Senior Lecturer.

Professor Priscilla Alderson took her PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths in the mid 1980s and is now Emerita Professor at the Institute of Education University of London.

Formation of the department

VS: ‘I had just come back from the States and someone called me up and said would I like to teach social philosophy at Goldsmiths?  The only condition was I had to turn up the following morning.  So I turned up the following morning and taught my course, and I had some 3rd year students I was supervising were interested in different ways of knowing, so they asked, in the spirit of the time, if we could do the course in relation to yoga, and think about the way knowledge was related to the body and bodily practices.  That was early 1971’ 

Priscilla Alderson  attended lectures by David Silverman, Gerry Stimpson and Vic Seidler’s lectures on Marx and his critical theory group which she remembers as based in the end terrace house opposite Goldsmiths’ entrance: ‘it was very tatty and gloomy, and I thought it was rather wonderfully atmospheric – this dingy, dark room where we talked about Marx and all these sorts of things that I had never really understood before’ as my first degree was in English..

Heidi Mirza remembers ‘a rabbit warren of a building over in Lewisham way, it was an old tumbledown Georgian house, just as you cross the crossing where the restaurants are.  I remember rickety stairs and creaking rooms and all the postgraduate students were in a damp basement downstairs and there was a rat that used to run along the floor!’

The creaking rooms and occasional rat were emblematic of some of the problems faced by the department in its early days….

VS: ‘Goldsmiths as a department [in the late 70s and 80s] was very male dominated.  There were real issues of sexual harassment that became public issues in the university, and some people in sociology... it was not necessarily a comfortable department to be in and there were a lot of challenges and questions that emerged through feminism around gender, sexual violence, sexual harassment which became raised in the university, and I think sociology along with other disciplines was obliged to rethink its whole nature of gender politics’

HM: ‘When you're a PhD student you're not really involved in the politics of all the academics, you live in your own little bubble.  I remember it just being dominated by very striking white men, I remember feeling very intimidated by that, and not putting myself forward to go to any lectures or seminars, not feeling comfortable at all with that environment.  Yet on the other hand there were a lot of women like Caroline Ramazanoglu and Pat Thane and we even had a woman head of department, Evelyn Caulcott although I think she was just acting head, and I remember taking solace in that.  We formed a little group, particularly around Caroline, who had started up like a woman's group that was quite active in protecting the women from the quite rampant, machismo and... many of the women students felt quite intimidated by that culture and some of the harassment that was going on at the time’

Priscilla Alderson also notes the work of Caroline Ramazanoglu who ‘dedicated her time to supporting and helping students…she was so generous, in particular because it was her sabbatical – her precious sabbatical which she had worked ages for – but she said she would take me on’

Yet despite these issues a strong notion of rebellion and change pervaded the department and both the College and the department (especially the students) sought to underpin their demands for change with sociological theory:

HM: ‘I think my biggest challenge was that my daughter was two at the time, and she was one of the first children to be in the nursery here.  You've got to remember this is just post 70s, the idea that you had any rights as a woman was quite new, and that women needed creches for their kids so they can have a career, was new.  So without that creche, I don't think I could've been able to stay, because it was subsidised, it was on campus, right where the front entrance is, so I could drop her off, sit down, work like a demon, go home – you didn't even have to pay for parking in those days - and all that was really important, just the logistics of getting in and out getting through the day was really important’

VS: ‘Phenomenology tended to critique a positivist understanding of sociological knowledge, and present knowledge as the outcome of a community in which everyone was equal and equally members, so in the early 70s it was a democratic form of social thinking.  The students took that to heart, and the students who were in themselves very committed either as phenomenology students or as in some way Left Marxist students, and our third year course was a kind of dialogue, a conversation across these different sociological traditions.  I think either in the late 70s or early 80s, the students walked into the staff meeting and questioned the legitimation of us as staff being able to talk about the students without their being present, because they felt that they should be present and part of the process.  The staff split, and some staff members walked out of the staff meeting.  And phenomenology after that responded and became a much more elitist practice where some people had insight but most people didn't.  So you could see it as a dramatic moment in the development of British phenomenology.  And the sociology department became organised through an open forum of staff and students, most staff and students would meet for an hour or two hours on a Thursday afternoon, and that was the constitution of the department’

This marriage of the theoretical and practical is repeatedly linked to the situatedness of Goldsmiths. Its locality and productive relationship with the SE14 community is an ongoing strength of the sociology department:

BC: ‘One of the things I really liked about Goldsmiths is how it’s rooted in its locality. It’s not a campus university, there are no clear lines. I found that energizing in lots of ways….There’s definitely something distinctive about being in this part of London and the kinds of work that then goes on here’

NR: 'When I was there we established the centre for urban and community research.  We thought it was important for Goldsmiths, based where it is in Deptford, to have some kind of substantive relationship with its local community but that was a quite fraught issue – you put an HE institution in the middle of a deprived community, what's the relationship it's going to have?  So we set up this centre to work in and through the local community […] the work of Les Back for example'

HM: 'I remember [Goldsmiths] as quite elitist and theoretical and removed from the outside race uprisings and anti fascist demonstrations and grinding poverty [...] we certainly did not have any black staff or students even from the locale.....  However I do think sociology in 80-90s opened up a moment to explore the difficult question of racism and British identity which gave some of us the space to 'pioneer' our postcolonial subaltern stories- and at Goldsmiths a few of us like Tariq Modood, Paul Gilroy and myself as early career graduates were given the freedom and space to do just that.'

NR: 'A lot of the people who came in were early career researchers, they were engaged in what was going on in the world outside them […] so people came and brought their enthusiasms there, and I think that's one of the characteristics of Goldsmiths, highly conceptual, engaged with contemporary theory, always willing to take theoretical risks but always trying to link that to empirical research on contemporary issues that made a difference – issues or problems or questions in the world in which we live today.  If you're at Goldsmiths, in Deptford, you're right smack bang in some of those contemporary issues.  You can't get away from those old fashioned but still contemporary issues about inequality, about poverty, about social justice, about racism, about social exclusion, because they're around you all the time, as are the downsides of those, addiction, crime, etc etc.'

The synergies present between the empirical and conceptual elements of sociology, and the particular peculiarities of Goldsmiths’ locality were built upon in the 1990s under Nikolas Rose.

NR: 'We took an explicit decision to make Goldsmiths work on the edges at the intersections of other currents in social theory, in the intersections between sociology and feminist theory, cultural studies, aesthetics, and a bit later on, the intersections between sociology and the life sciences'.

BC: ‘that’s one of the things that I really liked about Goldsmiths, and the sociology department – that kind of interdisciplinarity and connections across departments’

NR: 'In a sense, Goldsmiths sociology took the view that the most lively parts for the development of sociology were around the edges, around the margins, around what was happening between sociology and other disciplines'

BC: ‘I really appreciated how interdisciplinary sociology was then and is now…it was quite refreshing and helpful to think about “Well what is sociology and what does it mean to do sociological work?”’

LB: ‘At the time it was a complete revelation to me to be in a space where you were encouraged to think empirically about an engagement with the world, but equally committed to a theoretical project.  I remember Nikolas Rose saying that his vision was to combine the Frankfurt school with the Chicago school, and I thought, that sounds good to me!  So a theoretical engagement and a theoretical commitment, alongside an engagement which was critical, reflective, not a kind of naïve realism by any means, with the ebb and flow of social and culture life, which we are completely surrounded by in SE14!’

NR: 'Although now Goldsmiths is now probably the leading sociology department in the country, it wasn't then, and it was probably quite a risk for people to come from highly respected to departments to come and build this department which has always been a bit vulnerable, it's not the wealthiest of institutions, […]  It turned out to be, for us and the people who came there, that Goldsmiths College was a pretty amazing place to work in, because of the intensity and density of very smart and committed people who were there, because the only reason you came there was because you wanted to come and work on these kinds of questions'.

LB: 'There is a kind of institutionalised restlessness and yearning to do things differently – that's difficult but it produces energy and it produces interesting work from interesting people'

The future

VS: ‘one of the joys of celebrating 50 years is that certain conversations that might be blocked for a while, open up, and people are interested now not just in poststructuralist stuff but also in the early 70s and early 80s, feminist movements, gay liberation, movements about black consciousness, that were all part of the rich discussions, they come back into focus now, people begin to see their relevance, people begin to see the relevance of structural factors, the way that capitalism has transformed itself, and neoliberalism has shaped a particular kind of culture, and we need the insights of these different generations to shape a different kind of ethics, and also a different kind of political experience which values people's experience and ways of knowing’

NR: 'I would like to think that the sort of Goldsmiths brand, if you like, of sociology, had made a certain kind of rigorous, conceptually informed, qualitatative methods influential in British sociology.  There are many cohorts of students who have been trained up and are now making their mark in British sociology'

LB: ‘One of the things we haven't been as good at as maybe we should have been, is taking the creativity and dynamism of the intellectual culture here and linking it to a conversation with British sociology as a whole.   I've always thought it's been a bit of a mistake for us, collectively as a unit, not to have more of a presence at BSA conferences, or more of a presence in some of the prominent mainstream journals.  I think probably we're having more of an impact through students who've studied here and now are making their own sociological futures in places around the country.  The thing that I will say that I think is true, is that going around the country people have a tremendous fondness for the kind of sociology we do’

BC: ‘I guess there may be productive frictions [between BSA and Goldsmiths] but lots of staff [at Goldsmiths] are members of BSA groups on things like race and ethnicity. One of the things this department does well, so the BSA group on Digital Sociology for instance, lots of members of the department have been instrumental in establishing digital sociology as a sub-field of sociology’

NR: 'But certainly, just in terms of the sort of dispersion of British sociology departments, what's been incredibly pleasing to me, and those others of us who were with us in that crunch period in the early 1990s, that Goldsmiths is now recognised as one of the leading, if not the leading sociology department in the country, which cannot fail to affect how people see the project of sociology in the 21st century'

BC: ‘But this is an international department as well, not just in terms of where staff come from but also in the theories that are drawn on, the research that is done. The traffic isn’t just bounded by the UK’

LB: ‘The other thing that I think is characteristic of the work we do is a yearning for a sort of public engagement, and engagement beyond the structures of the academy itself, and trying to find ways to find sociology more sociable.  I think there are many of us who are committed to that kind of project while at the same time holding on to the importance of a difficult theoretical project itself.  Thinking about society is hard, it's not straightforward, and the idea - the pretence that people themselves are knowing about their social life – a story that I've told many times – the idea that people are experts in their own lives and therefore we should be just encountering them in a democratic spirit – of course people aren't experts in their own lives, any more than I am.  And that difficult project of trying to make sense of one's own situation and then by extension the encounters we have with others, and how those people are living out profound historic transformations in their everyday lives, in their most intimate social environments, that's a profoundly difficult challenge, it's a difficult project, so there should be no pretence that it's going to be easy, because it isn't.  So that sort of restless, inventive, and serious engagement with the problems and questions of the 21st century, that's the kind of things I think that – when I look around the department and look at my colleagues, I think that's what they're doing, in their very different ways, and great that they are’

BC: ‘one of the other things about Goldsmiths is that it’s quite small really, it’s the “creative subjects”, so how there are cross-overs between those disciplines [is important]. Even the concept of “creative” and what it means to do “creative work” is interrogated, it’s not taken for granted and it refracts differently across different people’s work’

VS: ‘The pressures under neoliberalism for sociology mean that the pressures go right across in terms of a certain kind of performative culture.  And that performative culture means that everybody is rushing, everybody of whatever level feels insecure about the quality of their own work, whether they're professors or whether they're first year PhD students.  And they feel insecure because they're being encouraged always to compare their work with other people's work.  So if the future of Goldsmiths or the future of sociology is in encouraging collective work, there needs to be thinking about the different structures of support going across undergraduate, postgraduate, teaching, and structures of support which give people the time, the reflective time, that means that people can be supported but also acknowledge the difficult personal issues, the ways that life intrudes in people's writing up of their projects in order to develop ideas that are new and creative’

Curated by

Sarah Burton - Sarah joined Goldsmiths in 2013 as an ESRC-funded PhD student. Her research investigates processes and practices of writing in sociological knowledge formation. She also does lots of 'fringe' academia and is part of the collective working on the Woman Theory project.

Anna Bull - Anna is in the third year of her PhD at Goldsmiths as an ESRC-funded student.  Her research examines class, affect, and the body through studying youth classical music ensembles.  Her previous career was as a pianist and cellist.