Journeys Through Sociology: Jennifer Platt

welcome to journeys through sociology a series of interviews with the executive committee of the International sociological association I'm the libel hongyun and our guest today is professor Jennifer Platt who is joining us from Brighton England professor Platt is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Sussex where she taught for over for almost 40 years among her numerous research projects she's particularly focused on the history of sociology the history of its institutions and methodological approaches professor Platt is not only highly active in a number of sociological associations but she's also undertaken the task of writing their institutional histories so not only as she served as the president of the British sociological association but she also wrote it's official history her many publications also include a history of the ISA and she served as the president of its research committee on the history of sociology as well as serving as the chair of the American Sociological Association section on the history of sociology thank you so much for joining us today professor Platt thank you so a professor Platt we'd like to start today just by having you perhaps give us a little bit of a sense of some of the work that you're currently doing so what would you say what aspect of your work are you currently most excited about right now well I was a very nice stage in one area of work I'm avoiding calling it project because it isn't as formed as a project i'm at the wonderful stage when you see a lot of possibilities opening out in front of you and you haven't yet gone through the dirty work of actually implementing them what this actually consists of is because i was writing a paper on defining the boundaries of sociology what one had to write about if one was writing its history that i took as an example of an interesting somewhat marginal career the late great michael young who name you may or may not be familiar with it doesn't matter but he was quite an interesting borderline character in relation to sociology and I took all the acknowledgments of his first sociological book and I track down where those contacts were and I found I could plot where those contacts that come from in terms of his history and thinking about that I realized I could define his sociological world and I could define other people's too and I could look where they overlapped and also that I could look into the history of the publisher that published his works which was a very important sociological publisher that mysteriously nobody else has yet looked at so I see all these lovely enticing paths leading away into the middle distance and quite soon I shall go down at least one of them ok so this all began out of a paper that you were writing on defining the boundaries where you where you looked at at these cat the you know context and the knowledge mignons work and but what do you plan for the world know the boundaries women to be about the question of defining where sociology stops and other things start that you might not wish to look at if you're going to do the history of sociology I mean on the whole I believe in going wide although I've gone wide varying degrees and different projects right so this is a way of really thinking about the boundaries of sociology by thinking of those kind of those areas that's what it started out but now I'm thinking of the social structure of sociology we're different people in it occupy worlds of different shapes which partly overlap and partly don't and thinking of how to plot that so it provides not only by looking sorry I'm sorry go on not only by certainly not only by looking at acknowledgments there's a lot of other things one could look at like you know co-author ships membership associations all sorts of things one could look at but to fit into that general idea of defining what the sociological world was that they occupied and therefore what the total pattern is eventually so I'm hoping that in this interview we get to hear more about about the different kind of projects that you've done over the years but can we start by first getting a little bit of a sense of your own history as a sociologist one of the main questions that we've posed to the various is a members in these interviews has been the issue of what actually drew them to sociology and you know through these conversations we've been getting a sense of what sociology means to different scholars the kind of potential that they see in it so in your own case what would you say are some of the main reasons that you chose to become a sociologist I don't know that I chose to become a sociologist it sort of happened I mean my first degree was in English at Cambridge University and i know i was quite involved in that and so on but i always somehow wanted data about things in a way that wasn't quite the way english degrees were usually structured and at that time there was a lot of emphasis on life as I was making quotation marks which you maybe can't see on the screen life as a criterion for relating to literature and I realized I'd had a very sheltered life and I didn't know what there was in life and I sort of wanted more data about that then another thing was I was as an undergraduate I was involved in the university Liberal Club liberal in the British sense not the American sense not meaning very left-wing but this club used to you actually I'm sorry professor I so could you for our viewers could you explain what liberal and the British sense does mean it doesn't matter fourth i'm going to say I mean there's a Liberal Party which has generally historically been regarded as a centre party between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party and that's a bit misleading but nevermind anyway it was a very minority party at the time but the point I can we do is that they used to run canvassing to us in the vacation when a group of you would go around and go around knocking on doors and talking to people about the Liberal Party and I saw the way a lot of other people lived who had very different lives from me well that was quite a significant experience for me of sort of wanting something more well I'm sociology was very much in the air at the time the first paper American paperback sir I remember response the lonely crowd had been published and reached England and those were sort of exciting but anyway I went on after I graduated to do a Social Work course I didn't know what social work was but it sort of seemed like something that was quite a good idea in that Social Work course i had a compulsory sociology course in the sociology course i discovered that counter to popular tabloid myths about working class people going out and wasting National Health Service money by getting two sets of false teeth because they didn't have to pay for them stories like that there was empirical research which had demonstrated that in fact middle-class people were getting more financial value out of their use of National Health Service and that was so striking to me and I thought right that's it I want data so at that point I started applying to American universities to go to to do an MA in sociology which was a very common way of getting sociology in those days so it was in a sense I mean it was your you're interested in getting data as you say and kind of empirical information about the world that the jury to sociology can you tell us a bit about some of the early research projects that you engaged in as you first began to work in a sociologist well I can tell you about my ma thesis that was about perceptions of class structure and I did this in Chicago which is where i took my MA course and I had a sample of people whom I asked various questions about their perception the class structure and I was very gratified when I found that I could in fact construct a chart which showed that where people drew the class boundaries down an Occupational hierarchy varied with their own position in it so that lots of people could call themselves middle class but they meant different things by it which you could define by asking them to do an occupational ranking task of a kind that was very conventional at the time so you know that was my very first own project professor about the other issue that we've been posing to is a members is aside from what drew them to sociology which has given us the sense of kind of the potential they see in it so in your case you know being drawn to data but we've also been asking them to speak about the challenges that they face a sociologist and and I'd be particularly interested in hearing your insights on this given that you know you're not only a sociologist but a sociologist who spent many years reflecting on the field of sociology and and its institutions and the ways that it works its methods so in your own case though what would you say have been some of the major challenges you faced as a sociologist well this one to be perfectly honest I don't think fits your question very well but nonetheless I'm going to tell you about it I'm not sure now that I realized at the time what is what a challenge it could be seen as being but it was when I was doing my Chicago MA thesis and I was out in the back of the yards area quite a long way from the university buildings and i was getting i had a quota sample so it's just people i could find who fitted my quota that i was interviewing not people specified in advance nobody knew that i was out back of the yards that day or where i was going to land up ah one of the interviews I did that afternoon was with an elderly man who was going to leave his apartment the following day the interview took place in a basement area so people from the outside couldn't see in we sat at his kitchen table and he SAT between me and the door playing with a large kitchen knife I got out safely no the more the more I realized what I did that then we'll horrific it seems but anyway clearly I met that challenge successively thank god yes yes anyway something a bit more conventional I hope that you haven't continued to face those kinds of situations no I've never had anything like that again happens as it which is very lucky yeah well moving forward considerably in time I'd say one of my major challenges came around 1968 when I was a very young member of faculty at Sussex and the great period of student unrest came and how to deal with that pattern of behavior there for a member of faculty was very difficult indeed to do it posed very considerable challenges when I'm not I'm not sentimental about what happened in 1968 I don't identify with I'm not sweat on Twitter I don't identify with the movement and you'll see why when I tell you some things things that happened to me included things like an occasion when I had a visiting lecturer reach reaching the lecture theatre and finding someone who written on the board lecture cancelled I taught a method course that was entirely a critical one about published work talking about how convincing the conclusions were that people have reached on the basis of the material that they had and in the feedback session at the end student said you're just trying to make bureaucratic technicians of us all aren't you telling us at how to meet the needs of the state what it was it wasn't exactly the opposite kind of course and I can tell you a really nasty story a lot of posters are stuck up by students about the place there was one with a picture it was an organo gram of the committee structure of the hierarchy committees in the university and graphically depicted each layer I was defecating on the layer below as an expression of attitudes towards committees rather than having general assemblies to decide everything however just underneath this was a poster which demanded representation on all committees hmm I looked at this and I decided rational discussion was appropriate I drew a small arrow from one to the other and I wrote is this consistent after which one of the leading students said publicly and members of faculty are even defacing student posters at Murray Yoda who you may know as a very distinguished social psychologist who had been left Austria to get away from the Nazis after a spell in detention there said that some of these things reminded her of what the Nazis did in Vienna well even though there were a lot of more attractive features but trying to deal with those things and actually carry on teaching and when people were disrupting exams as well you know it was not easy so that would be so you know that would be a second challenge the first being the situation of having a knife pulled by an interviewee I'm almost scared to say what what is our challenge is a nice cozy one it's my current role as vice president for publications with the ISA other is a house right and because there is this tension between the purely commercial aspects of what we asked for from our publications make an important contribution to our finances and what one might wish for on purely intellectual grounds you know for instance one can see in a commercial argument for a more elitist approach but an intellectual argument for quite the reverse and being very open to bringing a new work that isn't necessarily the best but is interesting and represents different spheres and so on and I find continually in policy terms trying to think how to work it out ideally so you can have your cake and eat it and and so I would imagine that this tension that you that you're struggling with within the publications within is a is an issue that faces publications of sociology research more generally yes oh yes I mean if you're just just how can I say that if you are an individual sociologist doing your work takes slightly different forms you know like should you try to write something that will maximize your citations rather than either write it the way you would prefer it to be just for its own sake as a problem that sort of issue certainly arises for most if not all individuals and as we speak about this issue and one of the things I'd be really interested to hearing about professor platters you know you're you have a long history of research on the field of sociology and its institutions etc and what was it that drew you in the first place to you know taking sociology as your own subject of research I don't know I mean I the first thing I did what was the first thing i did at one of the first things I did was hmm no I'm sorry I'm just remembering several different things simultaneously which is stupid I think to be perfectly honest the first thing I did was because I was annoyed with the way other people made statements I didn't think were well-founded and so I about about the history of sociology no no not necessarily sometimes that or maybe but it was just about something else that they had studied but I didn't think was necessarily done in the most appropriate way so the question how come they thought about it like that how come they did it that way and the stage when I was starting to do this was the stage when there were a lot of publications that in the interests of reflexivity were solicited accounts of how people had carried out their own research and so I was sort of moving with the crowd in the sense by in being concerned about that except that I wasn't just commissioning other people to write stuff I was writing it after interviewing them studying their work and so on so and also you you've written a history of the ISA and and given that this is a series of interviews with I asain members it would be wonderful if maybe you could just share a few of the insights that came out of the work that you did in researching the history of the ISA itself well I asked was are one of the insights if I don't think it's as much of an insight because I think it's pretty obvious actually but never mind that you can see how the external circumstances have changed very considerably over time and so that what started as something that was very much contained within the UNESCO framework because it was UNESCO the united nations educational social and cultural organization that set up not just the ISA but the equivalent in politics and anthropology and so on at the same time attempting to create a representative structure in which all these things would be brought together to do research that would promote the general welfare and so on so from being very much contained within the UNESCO setting and frankly trying to bring together the world sociologists a lot of the world didn't have any assoc ologist sin and so the were slightly bizarre discussions of how to find the somebody who could be deemed to represent the country where there weren't any real sociologists yet but rapidly sociologists started to expand then that became can no longer relevant at all there may still be different have been different conceptions of precisely what constituted being like a sociologist but almost everywhere had some so that kind of aspect died away completely and sociology expanded so much I mean if you look at the first journal that the is I had which was current sociology initially it tried to publish each year a list of all the new sociological publications and it wasn't very fat you know rapidly that died away because it became self-evidently impossible so you can see this sort of circular process of feedback in effect of the changing situation calling for changes in the way in which is a had to structure its activities so a professor of art there's one final question that I'd like to ask you that we've been asking everyone kind of for fun in a sense you know if if you had not pursued sociology is there something else that you think that you would have been interested in doing I've got two answers to that okay one's a fantasy answer I would really like to have been a musician in fact when I thought about it I would like to be in Geordie so far who is tremendously charismatic and plays the vile which is a nice quiet subtle sophisticated instrument with in groups and me for George's haha but being realistic as since I I can't sing I'm not musically competent in any way except being a very frequent concert goer but I think I would have done well as a civil servant preferably in the kind of department where there was some to some extent the research orientation and I would probably have been quite happy there well professor plaid I want to thank you so much for being with us today it's been a really fascinating conversation has been wonderful to actually learn a bit more about the ISA and we really thank you for taking the time to be with us I've enjoyed to alter your questions thank you this has been another journey through sociology with professor Jennifer Platt we look forward to next time when we'll be joined by dr. robert van creakin from Sydney Australia

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