Sep 28 2015

Brain Waste: The Deskilling of London’s Migrant Professionals

Leave a comment

by Riad Azar, Doctoral researcher in the LSE’s Department of Sociology

“I still feel like a nurse, man.” Hugo heaved out a long sigh through his nose. We had been sitting in the kitchen of my flat for an hour. The tea he requested when the interview began had chilled; his back curved forward, resting his elbows on his knees to make a nest for his head in his hands. After discussing at length Hugo’s childhood, his dreams and desires, anecdotes of his father, his journey to London and the life he lives as a trained and experienced ICU nurse pouring beer at a pub in King’s Cross, I moved the interview forward by presenting him with a hypothetical:

I: Have you ever had to use your skills, as, say someone falling down on a bus?

H: Not yet, actually…[sigh] I would maybe not be the best, because that’s one year and a half   I haven’t  been practising…No, I’m losing my skills man, [pause, to himself] I’m losing them definitely…

 Hugo is a character that has become common in the cafés, fast food restaurants, taxi cabs and hotels of Great Britain: the deskilled migrant professional. London is swallowing immigrants as it grows to take its place in the hierarchy of global cities, strategically positioned as the European Union’s largest metropolis and with a colonial history that has carved avenues across the globe. A deciding factor in this position is the ease with which new immigrants have been able to find work, with employment levels now higher among new migrants than British born whites (Demireva, 2011). Considering these numbers, the scholarly literature has begun to focus around how many of these jobs are being taken by migrants who possess a higher skill set and who are undertaking significant downward mobility (Anderson, 2006), some going so far as to claim the dawn of a new “migrant division of labour” (May et al., 2007). Recent research has begun to probe how this downward mobility has taken its toll on migrants’ identities, subjectivities, and aspirations for the future. My research seeks to continue this discussion by asking the question: How do downwardly mobile migrant professionals experience deskilling.

To answer this question, I interviewed nine deskilled migrant professionals between April and July of 2014. My interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on the participant. As the interviews were in-depth, qualitatively rich and steeped in ‘thick’ descriptions, the sample size reflects my preoccupation with depth rather than breadth in seeking an answer to my research question. My research finds its place at the conjunction of the sociology of labour and the sociology of migration, interpreted through the lens of symbolic interactionism.

Work and Labour

Classical research in the field focused around industrial relations and management. Proponents of Marxist conceptions of working life stressed alienation and class conflict between labour and capital, while contrarian positions regarding the proper organisation of work for the smooth operation of an organisation divided themselves into Fordist and Taylorist camps. What is at stake in this debate is how workers can be embedded into the modern economy. Marxist interpretations see this in light of the contest of power surrounding capital as a social relation, while the Fordist and Taylorist positions are contrasted as methods of good management. Within this debate, we see the emergence of a literature regarding the conciousness of the worker, both in regards to the skills that a worker can or cannot utilise in relation to the drive towards automation and work as a socialising space for modern individuals. Harry Braverman’s (1975) research into his own experience as a worker on a factory floor ties the two to create a synthesis between a working life and an individual identity. Skills, a symbol that distinguished man from machine, influenced the individual and how she saw herself within the larger organisation. Work began to be viewed as a deeply personal experience, one which held a certain pride and status leading to a growth in demands for representation to management, (Freeman and Rogers, 1999) and also shaped the individuals’ dispositions towards feelings of self and others (Lane, 1959; Sennett and Cobb, 1972).

I began by asking the respondents to describe how they came to their working lives and their specialised fields of knowledge. Ali, who spent the better part of a decade as a Farsi language journalist in Afghanistan, traced his motivation from youth:

You know [pause] from my childhood, I really loved news. Every night, every night, we, all families together we listened to BBC radio station. Because the BBC at that time was the only news station [pause] trusted news station for Afghan people, that we could have Afghanistan news from Afghanistan, from BBC. And I think I grew up with, with news, news. Hmm, that’s why I learned very quick how to  [laughs] work as a journalist.

My respondents not only took personal gratification from their working life, it also influenced the way they carried themselves as social actors. As they came into their roles, they expressed to me images of their selves that were deeply ingrained in the personality of their working life. When speaking about gaining confidence Frederic, an ABD PhD student, said:

You will see, in a class you will see five hundred students in front of you, so if you can speak in front of five hundred people, and then you go to another, you see two hundred people, a hundred people you see, OK, I’m used to it, so that gave me confidence, and then it gave me just a love for this job.


The scholarly literature on the sociology of work and labour was viewed alongside theoretical typologies regarding the migration of professionals. However, these typologies all fail where my research begins, that is, within the cracks. They assume that the job those professionals were intending to occupy (or one of equal stature) will actually be occupied by them. While deskilling has become a known concept within the context of technological change in the sociology of work, literature on migration has come up short in analyses of this phenomenon. I therefore continued my interviews by asking my respondents how they became migrants. Due to a deterioration in civil society in Iraq, Salma, a professor and researcher in astrological physics, described to me her decision to flee:

You can spend the whole day doing nothing, doing nothing, and come back and just make, they make your life terrible, and just going there [to the university] itself was very dangerous, and then I started [pause] to receive some threat in my university so I just said no way I have to leave, and then I left.

The very institutions that are tasked with regulating new entries into the field failed, leaving a majority of the respondents with an acute sense of alienation and despair. Hugo spoke at length about his frustrations with the Nursing and Midwifery Council who he claims had extended his period of being unable to find suitable work for failing to explain to him what sorts of documents were necessary to receive a PIN number:

…so I came with these three papers and I was like ‘yea, look that’s my background can you give me some help’, and she was like, ‘yea, you have to first do this form and then send this, and this’, and I said ‘yea but can you give me some help, and can you try to call the French reference’, and everything, and she was like ‘no’, and but, ‘can’t you help me more?’, and she was like ‘what are you expecting’, and that this sentence is something I really always remember, ‘what are you expecting’, with this [laughs] with this moody face or whatever, and I was like ‘some help!’, and I just took this newspaper I in my, in my, just grabbed this newspaper I had in the tube, and I show her and the first page in this standard, evening standard shit newspaper, ‘look!, more than 95% going in the ANE they wait more than four hours because there is not enough nurses’, and I told her like, ‘I’m a nurse, qualified, I come here in London, I’m, maybe I’m not the best English speaker, but I’m, I want to work with you, and you need some nurses, so why don’t you help me more!’ she said, ‘we can’t do nothing for you’…I lost my motivation.

Fixed Skills and Mobile Symbols

As the CV becomes the way to document and display skills, it is a vital symbol in the struggle of the deskilled migrant professional to get back on their feet. The question becomes, who will look over the CV and how will they interpret the types of credentials migrant professionals possess? Research in the field of how societies assign positions and allocate value has shown that employers have the final say, even when the skills they desire are not qualitatively related to the occupation (Jackson, 2007). Hugo demonstrates what happens to those who are able to get face-to-face with a potential employer; others, because of language barriers, do not make it past the Job Centre, and the CV becomes a testament of a past life of accomplishments met with an uncertain future. Frederic’s experience at the Job Centre was one of stagnation:

 For people in the Job Centre, because they asked me, normally you would go to there OK, and they’ll say to you, ‘OK you can do a cleaning job, you can do this, whatever happens.’ But when I hand them, all my, my CV, what I’ve been doing, they didn’t know from where to start because first of my English they couldn’t say go and look for some teaching jobs, at the same time it was really embarrassing for the person, who I was dealing with, who was dealing with my case to ask me to be a cleaner…He was feeling embarrassed, I could feel it, even though it became like, Oh I’m just going in and signing, signing every time. At one point he asked me just to do my best, to learn more English, and to restart my career by going to University

Taking the fall from a successful professional life to becoming a benefit recipient took its toll on the respondents. Salma describes in detail:

S: Yes, the problem here is not just with the job, the job and the benefit here, while you are on benefit you feel yourself, like an, I don’t know how shall I say [pause] insect? I can’t tell that, so you don’t feel yourself normal.

I: What does that mean to feel like an insect?

S: You don’t feel you are a normal human, you are like, because this benefit is especially for poor people who are not able to work, not able to do anything, are you understand me, so me with all these skills,      even my husband, and then sitting down and taking the benefit, it’s just, really a horrible feeling. And unfortunately that’s something we will never ever get rid of it, unless a miracle happened.

 A sense of insecurity plagues those who I spoke to in the context of this research. Being unable to guarantee themselves a respectable position in their work, most feel themselves drifting. While some have been lucky in going through the motions proscribed by the bureaucracies they have been assigned to, others encounter a much less promising future. Salma describes the feeling:

I don’t know, I just don’t know, have you ever walked and you don’t feel you are walking on the [pause] floor? Do you have something like that? Could you feel something like that? The same thing…

Sociological inquiry focuses on action, but at the heart of what the respondents related to me was the antithesis. Waiting compromised a majority of their time; whether it was waiting for bureaucracies to receive PIN numbers and certifications as in the case of Hugo, waiting to learn the language such as in the cases of Salma, Sofia and Mahdi, and/or waiting to receive the beneficial status of residency that would confer the privileges of cheaper tuition rates for those seeking to further their education like Frederic. It was in this slice of time that most of my respondents felt that their skills began to decay, that they became unfamiliar with what once was their profession. Javier Auyero (2012) describes this process as becoming a patient of the state – being socialised into a role not as citizen, but one as patient whilst the waiting process takes a toll on expectations.

The literature on the formation of professional identities is clear in detailing the iterative nature of senses of self as defined in an interaction with others. As my findings have shown, professional identity formation is a process that while basing itself in initial education and personal motivation (Ibarra, 1999), is further calibrated through the experience (or lack of experience) of working in the field (Sims, 2011). With this interactionist viewpoint in mind Salma’s experience is definitive of the majority of my respondents, who felt that the non-recognition of their credentials which were so close to their professional identities and senses of self was an act of symbolic violence, one strong enough to affect them socially and psychologically.

In contrasting the oral histories and lifeworlds of my respondents with some of the major themes of the sociology of work and migration, my research illuminates where the scholarly literature falls short and from where a new framework to view this unique typology can be drawn from. In particular the sociology of work and labour, itself a product of the creation of the modern workplace, casts a light on the creation of skills and later the relative valuing of those skills based on categories of class, gender, and race. Respondents’ oral histories give credence to the idea of skill as a socially constructed and contested category that engenders differing valorisations between socio-cultural contexts. Through this trajectory of locating skills as a socially constructed category, the literature has also shown that working life is a socialising experience, and if skills are seen as aspects of an identity, then the removal or non-recognition of those skills is a personal, traumatic experience.


Anderson, B. (2006). Fair enough? Central and East European migrants in low-wage employment in the UK. [York, England]: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Auyero, J. (2012). Patients of the state: The politics of waiting in Argentina. Durham: Duke University Press.

Braverman, H. (1975). Labor and monopoly capital: a Degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Demireva, N. (2011). New migrants in the UK: employment patterns and occupational attainment. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 37(4), pp.637–655.

Freeman, R. and Rogers, J. (1999). What workers want. Ithaca: ILR Press.

Ibarra, H. (1999). Provisional selves: Experimenting with image and identity in professional adaptation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(4), pp.764–791.

Jackson, M. (2007). How far merit selection? Social stratification and the labour market1. The British journal of sociology, 58(3), pp.367–390.

Lane, R. (1959). The Fear of Equality. American Political Science Review, 53(01), pp.35–51.

May, J., Wills, J., Datta, K., Evans, Y., Herbert, J. and McIlwaine, C. (2007). Keeping London working: global cities, the British state and London’s new migrant division of labour. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 32(2), pp.151–167.

Sennett, R. and Cobb, J. (1972). The Hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage Books.

Sims, D. (2011). Reconstructing professional identity for professional and interprofessional practice: A mixed methods study of joint training programmes in learning disability nursing and social work. Journal of interprofessional care, 25(4), pp.265–271.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin Tagged with: , ,

Sep 23 2015

The Problem With Writing

Leave a comment

Read Katie Beswick’s post on the difficulty of writing and the limitation of words.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Sep 22 2015

The Personal Pull of Sociology

Leave a comment

by Carli Ria Rowell, Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University.

What is Sociology? What does a Sociologist do and why do you want to be one? These are just some of the questions I am met with when seeking to explain to family and peers what exactly is it that I do on a day-to-day basis. My response? A complex one…

My discovery of sociology was both accidental and somewhat the result of calculated decision-making. Prior to sixth form I hadn’t heard of the subject and was totally oblivious as to what its subject matter might be; however, it was in 2008 when choosing my AS levels that my 11-month younger sister recommended that I study sociology. This recommendation was based on two things; the first was the fact that she thought I would ‘really enjoy it’ because it was a subject that was ‘real’, and the second was based upon the quality of teaching offered. The course’s teacher, Mrs Plowman, had a reputation for bringing alive the subject, teaching it in a way that was understandable and for leading successive cohorts of students whom would always excel. Given my status at the Grammar school as a visiting student from the local failing ‘special measures’ comprehensive ‘down the road’, I did not want to take a gamble on my education by choosing subjects that sounded like they ran the risk of boring me, or where the content and teaching would not be what I was used to.

Looking back, my decision to initially study sociology was a strategic one. I knew that it was important to enjoy a subject if I had any chance of getting a good grade; and I needed good grades in order to get into a ‘good’ university, so I went for it. Some eight years on from that initial encounter, I remain in education and I remain studying sociology; and most are intrigued as to why…

Like most working-class, first generation students, the purpose of attending university was, for me, a prerequisite for success within the paid economy. I regarded a degree as providing me with the platform from which I would then be able to secure myself a comparatively well-paid job and thus secure financial independence. This is why I initially choose to embark on a university education in BSc Economics under the fallacy that it would bring financial gains where Sociology would not, despite my love of the subject. However, just one week into my degree, I was bored by the numbers and feeling the pull of Sociology upon my intellectual strings, leading to my transferal to read BSc Sociology (though admittedly, it was not the plan to still be in the university library some 5 years after initial enrolment on my undergraduate degree). So what then happened along the way to drastically alter my perspective of education and career ideal? Why is it that I find myself unable to leave Sociology? I think because, in short, like so many others, my relationship to sociology is a deeply personal one.


Source: Shutterstock

Throughout my sociological readings I have so often found the experiences of myself and those around me within the text. I was introduced to the concept of institutional racism a few months after watching my ethnic-minority peers stand in the dock and get handed custodial sentences for affray when their white, equally guilty counter parts walked away. Reading the McPherson report of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry as part of the A Level Sociology syllabus was a chilling experience as it dawned on me that I had often walked down the same streets and waited at the same bus stop where the attack had occurred and sparked, now seminal, race relations legislation. I discovered Paul Willis learning to labour when my male peers, despite their potential, had rejected education as a route for upward mobility and instead were moving into manual trades, operating within the low-level drugs market or dropping out of the paid economy altogether. I discovered Marxist perspectives on the role of education when my comprehensive school peers were persuaded to study for GNVQ’s in childcare, home economics and sent to college two days a week to learn a trade when our grammar school counterparts at the school adjacent were encouraged to study for exams in Economics, Engineering and Classics and were taken to University exhibitions. Upon reading Bourdieu’s Distinction I finally understood why, at primary school, as a child on free school meals living in a council flat in the local ‘sink estate’, my friends parents were reluctant to allow them to attend afterschool tea or weekend sleepovers at my house (or rather, flat). Today, I read of the gentrification of working-class neighbourhoods in London and further afield and cannot help but relate it back to my parents and grandparents experiences of growing up and moving out of South East London. London is losing its heritage and communities, and a sociological perspective helps us understand why. I not only debated the motivations behind the London 2011 ‘riots’ as a university student but witnessed friends partake. It was my close proximity spatially and personally to various sociological issues of the day that pulled me to sociology. Now, I do not wish to romanticize or play upon my past because I am already so removed from it, I cannot feel that my steps towards perusing sociology has moved me further away from the reasons and situations as to why I wished to pursue it.

As I sit comfortably at my desk I cannot help feel a grave sense of fortune, luck and guilt as I constantly question how I came to be in the position that I am in when so many of those I grew up with are left living out the social ills of our times. Food poverty, the lack of affordable housing, shrinking jobs market, the rise in zero hour contracts, the proliferation of low paid work, the privatization of the National Health Service and our education system are just some of the issues that overwhelmingly affect the lives of the working classes and the lives of my peers. Sociology affords me with the platform from which to fight social injustices, challenge pervasive stereotypes and turn on their head the social myths of our times. As Diane Reay has written, working-class female academics “have the potential of subverting dominant discourses” and “highlight the intricate psycho-social process of class experienced by the still working-class” (Reay1997 p26). I feel compelled to pursue sociology because it was the very subject that enabled me to academically excel where I had previously stagnated, whilst at the same time highlighted the historical disadvantage of the social group to which I belong. At a time when working-class consciousness is near non-existent, their voices drowned out and distorted by a government and media vilifying them through austerity, ideologically driven, purposefully divisive policies and ‘poverty porn’ television, I remain compelled to pursue sociology out of a sense of service to others and my desire to challenge class inequality. At a time of heightening working-class hardship, the growing gulf between the rich and the poor and a future of increasing class oppression and injustice there is perhaps no better reason for pursuing sociology.


Reay, D. (1997) The Double-Bind of The `Working-Class’ Feminist Academic: The Failure of Success or The Success of Failure?. In P. Mahony and C. Zmroczek (Ed.), Class Matters: Working Class Women’s perspectives on Social Class (pp. 18-29). London: Taylor & Francis.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Sep 16 2015

What Money Can’t Buy

Leave a comment

by Leon Wansleben, Assistant Professor, LSE Sociology

Last week, a curious incidence occupied my time more than I would have wanted or expected. I received an email from a German sociologist, who addressed me with a strange request: He wanted me to conduct 15 interviews for him on some specific question; the data would then be sent to Germany to be evaluated there; my remuneration would be 1500 euros.

I roughly estimated the hourly pay (including searching and recruitment of interviewees) but it was soon obvious that this offer was not attractive. I thus simply wrote that “given these conditions, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find anybody willing to do this”.

Perhaps it would have been wiser not to reply. For a few days after my answer, I received another email: The German sociologist acknowledged that, when making his request, he had had no idea about the costs of recruiting an interviewer in the UK; could I please help with better estimating a realistic fee.

At that point, I felt that the flaw in his whole thing justified some attention. So I answered again, saying that, “this is not just a question of money: For any academic, even a recent graduate, it would be unwise to spend time in collecting data for others instead of dedicating that same effort into his/her own projects. The reward for any cooperating participant in a project should also be some gain of knowledge, not just money.”

 Why money shouldn’t buy data

Indeed, while the researcher’s original plan to buy 15 interviews for 1500 euros seems, at best, naïve, there are many areas in the social sciences where buying data is common practice: For instance, Bloomberg, Stockmaster, and other financial data providers sell price information to researchers in financial economics; doing research on the Greek debt crisis, I once myself requested a couple of analyst reports from Thompson Reuters; I was simply unable to pay the price (the overall sample would have cost more than 20.000 US dollars, some single reports 3.500 USD). Google, Twitter, and the likes also increasingly use their big data as a valuable asset, to be sold to academics, who are craving for data sets; the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Financial Times and other publishing houses have entered the same market.

What is wrong about all this? Why should we not allow for more professionalization and delegate the cumbersome work of data collection to specialized interviewers and paid participant observers? One can make an interesting case against buying data by drawing on Michael Sandel’s What money can’t buy. In this book, Sandel argues that money can negatively influence or even destroy our relationships with other humans and things through the mechanisms of exploitation and corruption. Exploitation takes place whenever an exchange of money against some good or service, while legitimized as being based on the free choice of both parties, actually draws on and reinforces inequalities between them. Sandel’s most striking example is surrogate motherhood, the exchange of money against the ‘service’ of bearing a child. This exchange is based on a voluntary contract between those with a child wish and a surrogate mother (in jurisdictions, where such contracts are permitted); but for Sandel, this ‘business’ is exploitative: Agencies choose surrogate mothers, who do not have many alternative possibilities for monetary income; and they offer a chance for the wealthy to expand the range of ‘goods’ that they can access with their money. Translated to the context discussed here, exploitation would occur if academics from Western universities hired academics in developing countries or simply chose those with failed careers to conduct research for them. It is also evident that economists usually have more resources for buying data or hiring teams of ‘data crunchers’ than researchers from other social sciences. This arguably reflects inter-disciplinary inequalities, but also reinforces them.

Sandel’s second concern is that monetary purchases can corrupt our relationships with the purchased ‘goods’. Here, Sandel’s prime example is the wedding speech, purchased online, which makes us appear as elegant and humorous speakers, but fails to symbolise any actual familial or amicable relationship; Sandel also cites studies that show how monetary rewards destroy, rather than support our original motivations for altruistic acts (blood donations etc.). Again, we can use this idea to think about the possible effects of widespread data purchase: It would certainly change the substance of data if some kind of ‘service researchers’ primarily acted out of financial motives rather than an interest in the respective study. While less obvious, even more standardised data may be corrupted by commercialization: As long discussed among researchers, financial rewards for participants in studies create sample biases and impact the participants’ behaviour and responses. It also seems clear that Twitter data cannot serve as a representation of public discourse, but partly reflects the corporation’s intentions in the design of this platform. (It goes without saying that the argument cannot be turned around: Non-purchased is not necessarily unbiased and uncorrupted.)

Following Sandel, one must conclude that there is something wrong with buying data – more commercialisation of data acquisition will likely reinforce inequalities and corrupt the very motivational foundations of research.

The limited accessibility of data is a sociological phenomenon!

But there is, to my mind, an even more compelling argument against data purchase: Our world simply is no big repertoire of data. The problems of making this world empirically accessible are one of the most relevant aspects of any research; they should thus be taken as sociologically relevant and meaningful.

Indeed, we learn more from our problems of acquiring data than we usually recognise. For instance, as I later realised, my own difficulties in getting access to banks in the context of my PhD were essential experiences in better understanding what banks are about: As I came to see, banks’ natural resistance to being researched reveals a fundamental aspect of their possibilities of existence. If the banks’ balance sheets were public and understood, the financial system would probably implode. Moreover, were it plain how banks fabricated the interest rates that they charge, it would be hard to keep the fundamental conflict of interest with their debtors in check. Lastly, if wealth could not be turned into confidential and impersonal bank account data, banks would probably be unable to protect so much of it with so little effort. Thus, banks, like many other social actors, can only sustain themselves through obscurity.

Any sociological research requires a critical engagement with actors’ resistance of being researched – much sociological insight can emerge from that engagement. Therefore, my hunch is that, without coming to the UK and encountering the difficulties of conducting his interviews, my German colleague will simply fail to realise what his ‘UK case study’ can teach him. And if he purchases the interviews, he will end up with data, but without meaning.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Sep 15 2015

Why I am proud to have an Ology!

Leave a comment

Heather Griffiths, a doctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University, on how she is proud to be a Sociologist.

Jewish mum

“An Ology?!” chorused my family, when I told them I was giving up work to study Sociology. No, I didn’t know what they were talking about either, but it turns out that the credibility of my chosen discipline had been irreparably tarnished by an advert from the 1980s for BT. In a vain attempt to rectify this I have spent the last four years trying to explain to my family and friends what Sociology actually is. No, it is different to psychology and I am not going to be a psychiatrist or social worker. What I am doing is looking at your world and trying to make it just a little bit better. Not your entire world, that would be madness, but that piece of your world where you feel something is not quite fair.

Sociology is the kind of stuff we talk about all the time, over Sunday lunch, during boozy nights in the pub and by sharing countless media articles on Facebook. This is what drew me to Sociology in the first place – the fact that everybody is already talking about it, just most of the time they don’t realise it.

I see Sociology everywhere; to me it is simply exploring the world around us with a critical eye and an open heart. There are lots of disciplines that study the world and the people in it, but they often don’t allow us to stop and examine our lives in the way Sociology does. It allows us to question things we take for granted, and is where ‘normal’ becomes a ‘phenomenon’.

My specialist subject is Gender, something which has made my feminist mother very proud. The Sociological study of Gender has allowed me to turn our kitchen table conversations into coherent and structured arguments, supported by decades of theoretical debate and based upon empirical evidence. I still get a buzz when I think that I spend my days reading about the things my mum has been telling me for years (N.B. mum is always right), and with this knowledge I have just a little bit more power to fight gender inequality, and earn a living at the same time.

I am no radical or extrovert; I cannot shout into a loudspeaker and fire-up a crowd. I am studious and considered, but Sociology allows me to shout about things that bother me with words and carefully structured paragraphs. Studying Sociology has given me confidence to question the status quo, put my head above the parapet and say ‘this doesn’t seem right to me’. There are of course many people who do this without Sociology, and I applaud and envy them, but for those of us who have a heart but who are a little less sure about wearing it on our sleeve, Sociology offers the tools to enter the debate armed with empirical evidence and carefully selected social theories.

So my ‘why Sociology?’ is the ability to acquire knowledge that extends our everyday conversations into academic and political debate. It is the freedom to critically examine the world around us and explore just about anything as long as the end goal is to make things a tiny bit better. It is having the confidence to challenge existing ways of thinking and being armed with the tools to do so. And if that is what an Ology is, then I am proud to say I have one.


Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Sep 8 2015

Sociology as a martial art

Leave a comment

MSc student, Jalal Movaghary-Pour

While recent contributions to this blog have answered the question ‘why sociology?’ by saying that it is kind, or that it encourages ‘T shaped’ expertise, in the following I would like to offer a different response by emphasising a another dimension of the subject; one which initially endeared me to it and has motivated my interest ever since. To borrow from Bourdieu, I study sociology because it is a martial art.

karate_silhouetteStudents of most martial arts are taught both techniques and sensibilities needed to counter or neutralise a threat. They do not use these skills to actively seek out confrontation, but are capable of defending themselves if under attack. Slightly differently, the value of sociology as a martial art is not necessarily to provide a means of self-defence. Rather, it is the vulnerable, marginalised, powerless, discriminated, and defenceless members of society that sociology often seeks to protect from attack. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of battles to which sociologists may wish to lend support. In our current climate of austerity attacks are mobilised – both discursively and financially – against the poor, the disabled, and the young (to take only three examples) on an almost daily basis. Against these, and perhaps more than most other academic disciplines, sociology seeks to speak out.

Sociology as a martial art equips you to be guarded against claims of ‘common sense’. This critical vigilance is especially needed when such perceptions are utilised by politicians to inform and shape policy. Indeed, with a nod to the tradition of critical theory, I believe sociology is often at its best when it attempts to expose the gap between purported reality and things as they really are. Notwithstanding, this is not to say that sociologists always know better. Rather, it is the task of sociology to cut through the unsubstantiated or hyperbolic assertions found in popular and political discourse with carefully researched empirical data.

For example, when Iain Duncan Smith justifies his draconian, regressive and destructive welfare regime by claiming that there are “three generations of families where no one has ever worked”, it was sociologists who stepped in to dispel this “culture of worklessness” myth; finding that families with even two generations of complete worklessness are extremely rare, and that long-term worklessness is not something passed down over generations but the result of the impact of complex, multiple problems associated with living in deep poverty. Likewise in our purportedly meritocratic society, where allegedly all you need to succeed is hard work and effort, and where it is said that “middle-class parents are middle class because they have learned what it takes to succeed”, it is sociologists (and other social scientists) who have shown that patterns of privilege are reproduced through mechanisms such as the ‘class ceiling’ and the ‘glass floor’.

Although some see it as a weakness, I also think the multi-faceted nature of sociology is one of its greatest strengths. Under the banner of sociology there is a vastly diverse set of interests and topics of exploration and engagement, ranging from global issues to highly localised matters. On the one hand, we can find articulations of the lived experience of ‘getting by’ on a deprived council estate in St. Ann’s, Nottingham. While on the other hand, and looking at the other end of the social spectrum, we have recently seen the emergence of a novel research agenda – championed by the new International Inequalities Institute here at the LSE – that wants to explore the sociology of elites; looking not so much at how the other half but at how the 1% lives.

While I am not suggesting that sociology has all the answers to the difficult questions facing the contemporary world, the point I am making is that I believe it should at least be part of the conversation; more so than it is now. In my view, the current hegemonic worldview espoused by economics is infinitely impoverished without sociology. Undoubtedly, sociological insights can make an invaluable contribution towards understanding and addressing current affairs. As exemplified most acutely in the recent situation with Greece, it can often be forgotten that behind the abstract and detached world of GDP, deficit reduction, and debt restructuring, lies tangible people, biographies, and relationships. And so perhaps it is the role of sociology to remind the world of this.

So, why sociology? Because it is often sociologists who are the ones capturing and articulating the harsh realities faced by those suffering from excessive welfare cuts, or those for whom ‘labour market flexibility’ means living a both financially and temporally precarious existence. It is sociologists who attempt to provide a platform for marginalised people, to give a voice to the normally voiceless. It is sociologists who are documenting and challenging the fact that children from poorer and particular ethnic minority backgrounds consistently do less well throughout the whole education system. It is sociologists who demonstrate that the effects and victims of ‘natural’ disasters are not arbitrary but follow particular patterns of vulnerability. To use the famous phrase from C. Wright Mills, sociologists translate private troubles into public issues. And by doing so, they challenge us to think of ways in which biographies can be altered and improved.

Yet it should also be recognised that sociology does not, and cannot, offer conclusive solutions to the situations described above; its task is never fully complete. Nonetheless, to borrow from Derrida, I strongly believe that sociology as a martial art can play an indispensable role in the perpetual pursuit of “justice to come”. This is exactly why I study, and am passionate about, sociology.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Sep 1 2015

A Love Letter to Bourdieu

Leave a comment

First year doctoral student, Nell Beecham, describes how her love of Pierre Bourdieu’s work is why she chose to study sociology.



At 16 I fell in love. I hung on his every word, I wanted to move to Paris, to learn French, to stay up all night long talking about theory. He was magical, an intellectual, four and a half times my age, and sadly dead.

It was 2007 and I had just moved into a selective sixth form in the leafy suburbs of North London. Today I will tell you that joining that school was the best thing that ever happened to me, but five weeks into the first term I cried into my father’s arms and tried to figure out if there was any way I could move back to my old school. I had no friends and lagged behind in all my classes. I had hated my old school but at least I knew the rules: what to wear, what music to listen to, who to talk to and crucially who not to talk to. I was a square peg in a round hole there, but the safety of being governed by a set of codes that made sense to me seemed preferable to perpetual confusion and getting things wrong. It is a lot easier to accept being a loser if you understand why you are one.

Half term arrived, and I spent the week discussing the findings of my new school with friends from home: I told them of the long school days, the expectation to complete homework, and the weird clothes the people there wore- Jack Wills (which I incorrectly reported as Jack Willis), Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister; why would you spend £70 on a plain hoodie when a pair of Nikes were the same price.

The next 6 weeks came and left in a flash, I found my group and made up my grades. There were lots of kids like me; it was a melting pot of social groups, students had moved from both private and state school to join the sixth form. But something stuck. We all got on well in lessons, but when the bell rang for lunch we all dispersed into our own social groups a la Mean Girls. But these groups could be near matched to postcodes, ethnicity or type of school previously attended.

Then, just after Christmas, along came Bourdieu.

There had been a few before him, I had engaged in brief affairs with Marx and Weber and whilst we never truly parted ways, Bourdieu’s entry into my life changed everything.

To a purist we took things slow, just looking at theories of capital accrual. But my 16 year old mind was blown, he had explained every feeling I had experienced using social theory and we hadn’t even got to habitus clivé. I bought my first copy of Distinction in 2007: didn’t understand a word of it, so bought a companion reader.

What I loved about Bourdieu was that he described a model of class in which power is socially and symbolically created, behaviours could be mapped onto bigger historical sets of knowledge and practices. I had been let in on one of life’s biggest secrets: that there were rules to the game, and that knowing these rules makes it easier to play.

Bourdieu threw my assumptions about what was ‘good’ or ‘deserved’ in the balance.  I was forced to acknowledge that resources were not fairly distributed, and that the resources required to ‘get on’ were not always easily identifiable. They stretched beyond purely economic factors, and into knowledge of cultural articles, such as art, theatre, and politics. Moreover, that it was not simply enough to ‘know’, you had to have the right language to talk about these things in the ‘correct’ way.

Some might say, he simply appealed to that teenage side of me that could finally find justice in saying ‘it’s not fair’. But Bourdieu allowed me to follow up with ‘here is why’.

With Bourdieu by my side I learnt to decode how people made subtle distinctions and how cultural knowledge was deployed in conversation to assert authority or make connections. My sixth form became the perfect site of study, a microcosm in which people from different backgrounds met. I realised that it was the ability to read class through the lens of capitals that enabled the students there to decipher between those who had capitals that ‘fit’ within their social space, and those who do not. Finally there was an explanation as to why certain groups in my school hung around together! My eyes were opened and my world became an ethnography.

Reading Bourdieu I learnt to hear the unsaid. He gave me a language with which to give my feelings a name and a place. Although, it wasn’t until many years later that I learnt to give these a sense of injustice, Bourdieu gave me a set of questions I desired answers to. Questions about how class is formed, lived, and reproduced, and why some identities and behaviours are valued and others are not. My path into sociology was carved.

No doubt I reflect on those days with rose tinted glasses, certainly Bourdieu and I had communication problems early on, and I’ll admit I wronged him a few times by reading his work as a ‘how to’ guide for gaining cultural capital (sorry). My family weren’t too keen on him at first, no one likes a man that points the ills of society and makes it personal (or maybe that was me, sorry again). But they’ve come to accept him over the years as a part of me.

Eight years on Bourdieu and I remain tight, I met others along the way that developed my critical eye and some that asked me to turn that eye back on my first love. I fell in love with feminists, rationalists, even the odd psychologist. But always it came back to Bourdieu: the man who left me with as many questions as he gave me answers.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Aug 25 2015

Sociology is discomforting

Leave a comment

Sociology undergraduate, Harry Crumless on his sociological journey so far…

A little over three years ago, I went to an open day at Goldsmiths.  At a taster session with one of the department heads, sociology was described as the art of “questioning everything”.  I didn’t end up at Goldsmiths; instead I chose LSE, but this description of the discipline has stuck with me.


In my final year at school, I took criminology, as anything to do with the social sciences just clicked with my way of thinking.  My teacher was fantastic and really encouraged me to dig deeper and understand the way that society operates.  One of the key ways to do this was to reconsider everything that I’d ever thought I knew about crime.  In fact, even the term ‘crime’ had to be put in scare quotes and problematised in order to open it up and explore what it actually means.  That final year of school acted as a taster for what was to come at LSE.

I didn’t really have any idea of what I might be taught or introduced to at LSE.  In the first week we had a lunch with the academics from the department.  To say I was terrified would be hyperbolic, but I just didn’t know what to say to any of them, as I was a newbie, very much aware of the fact that this was my first day of school, so to speak.  I spoke to one academic and asked him what he taught, his response was along the lines of ‘cities and urbanisation.’  I didn’t quite know how to respond to this.  The idea that you could study cities was very new to me.  Hindsight is 50/50 vision, but I can now see that this is a fascinating area of study, and one of the ways that sociology can help us ‘question everything’.  If I remember correctly, at that time I made my excuses and meandered closer to the sandwiches.

Very quickly, we were forced to battle through a selection of works by Durkheim, Weber and Marx.  An arduous task that I have now pushed to the back of my mind.  The whole point of this was to consider the concepts and ideas that they had written about a hundred years ago, and try and apply them to society today.  At that time, we were two years into austerity-ridden Britain, and the Occupy protests had ended a only few months before, so Marx’ theory of alienation and class strife were hardly difficult to contextualise.

There’s a certain level of discomfort that sociology evokes in you –  or imposes on you, depending on the way you want to see it.  Suddenly you have to go from ‘I’m Harry, I’m an individual and choose the way I live my life’, to, ‘I’m Harry, I’m part of a class-ridden society, have gender-norms imposed on me on a daily basis, and don’t quite know how to solve this.’  Suki Ali’s first lecture on gender debunked just about every myth that I had taken as fact.  Similarly, a lecture by Fran Tonkiss highlighted the ludicrous idiosyncrasies of the British class system, that are so deeply engrained in our every action.

By about January of Lent term I felt that we lived in an impossible world, where you couldn’t even get a coffee without considering the exploitation and alienation that had gone into that Americano – or if the company you were buying the coffee from was paying any tax, but I digress.

The purpose of this blog-post is to consider ‘why sociology?’, so I will get a bit more to the point with that.  Sociology has not only afforded me a different perspective on society, it has allowed me to forge my own way of thinking, and my own sociological approach.  Over the past two years I have been able to carry out research on a vast range of topics.  I’ll start with the slightly more conventional ones.  As a group, we looked into student employment and wellbeing at LSE.  This Easter I carried out a comparative study of two gay couples after the legalisation of same-sex marriage.  Now, to the less conventional ones.  In second year, I spent a large chunk of Michaelmas term researching public toilets in London.  And, finally, my dissertation, titled ‘The Symbolic Nature of the Curtain’ explored the way in which the notion of class is constructed within British Airways.  Safe to say, I will never board a flight again without first considering which ‘class’ I have been labelled.

Excuse the cliché, but without the tools that Sociology equips you with, there’s a whole side to the world we live in that is shut off.  After three years of studying at LSE, I would definitely opt to do it all again.  Yes, there are times where I would like to walk into a coffee shop without any of the politics; or use a public toilet without considering the way in which the space has been constructed so we self-regulate our behaviour.  But, it certainly makes conversation more interesting.

From the people I’ve met who study sociology, it is a discipline that suits those who always want to reject the first answer they’re given.  If everyone in the world spent a year studying sociology, we’d be in a much better shape.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Aug 24 2015

BSA Bourdieu Study Group: Capital in all its forms

Leave a comment

On Tuesday 30th June 2015, the BSA Bourdieu Study Group held a workshop exploring Pierre Bourdieu’s extension of the traditional sociological concept of capital.

It featured presentations from Professor Mike Savage and Dr Lisa Mackenzie from the LSE Department of Sociology.

Read a full report from the event here.


Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin Tagged with: , , ,

Aug 18 2015

Sociology opens your eyes

Leave a comment

Sociology undergraduate, Ronda Daniel, on her reasons for studying sociology.

Sociology is so very often confused with psychology. Whilst the two are closely linked, they are very different. Sociology is a very difficult thing to define; whilst with psychology, one can simply say ‘it is the study of the mind and behaviour’, sociology is certainly ‘the bigger picture’. It comprises of relationships, between individuals, groups and institutions; how society survives, and whether this is for the greater good or the benefit of a few.

Sociology is one of the most eye-opening disciplines, much like philosophy. It helped me understand why society, and its economic bases and governments and institutions have perpetuated and maintained each other. Whilst it helped me understand the positive and cohesive aspects, sociology also made me more aware of politics; studying this in London for a year, the political epicentre of the United Kingdom, certainly had an impact, seeing strikes and protests on a regular basis. Especially being at an age where I grew up with a very mediated childhood, I realised once I saw true statistics and relatable sociological theories that there were biases, and we weren’t being shown the full picture.

For example, I remember discussions on the news and social media during the 2011 London Riots after Mark Duggan, a young black male was shot, much of them calling the riots ‘glorified looting’, and ‘opportunistic burglaries’. Whilst this was true for a lot of areas further away from Tottenham, sociologists noted that the political motives were incredibly overlooked. It made me realise that news companies had a bias towards the police and government, and very few networks were willing to portray the fact that people were angry at racism within the police force.

Ronda 1

A 100-year-old family furniture shop on fire during the 2011 London Riots.

This focus on the media has since lead me to look to social class, an issue very close to my heart, coming from a very impoverished background, and from an ‘underclass’ that is so very often looked down upon and blamed in society, and the media. Again, studying sociology opened my eyes: I read a study conducted by Ipsos MORI, where it compared statistics based on representation in media stories and people’s subsequent estimations of them, against the true statistics. For example, benefit fraud was estimated at 30% by members of the public and the media, the true statistic, however, was 0.07%; teenage pregnancy was estimated at 15% but was in fact, 0.6%. It made me realise how oblivious the media can make people, and its vital role in control and distortion of reality even though its job is to inform. Finding this not only made me more interested in theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault, but it furthered my interest in social class, which it is very often argued is an outdated division in British society, as well as race and ethnicity; and families, on a human level, and how they are affected by the other societal institutions and their implementations on the family such as policy.

Following this, it made me want to not only go to a top university, but also to study a subject that would enable me to change people’s perceptions. Upon beginning the module ‘Key Issues in Contemporary Societies’, I was introduced to ‘standpoint theory’. Primarily regarded as a feminist theory, this means to take up the perspectives, and empathise with groups that are marginalised. This interested me in sociology further, in that it represents everyone and not just the theorists or the people within the powerful institutions. This, and Weber’s Verstehen, the principle that a sociologist or researcher should empathise with and understand subjects of study, also interested me in methodology.

Ronda 2However, this is not to say that I haven’t shied away from studying statistics, and how to work with numerical data myself. As someone that was used to writing essays, studying sociology as a science has been challenging- but interesting. My statistics teacher recommended a text called ‘The Impact of the Social Sciences’ (Dunleavy and Tinkler), linking all of the reasons I was interested in sociology, such as the aforementioned, to how methods has helped uncover all of these truths, and develop and support the theories I was interested in. Dunleavy and Tinkler discuss the usefulness of quantification and methodology for businesses, education and charities, which was particularly interesting; how charities assess the extent of an issue before making targets for their cause and determining ways to go about them.

To summarise, the 3 main reasons I chose to study sociology, and love to study sociology, are:

  1. It’s practicality, and application to every aspect of society, and social life.
  2. Sociology impacts everyone, and it gives everyone a voice- not just the intellectuals that theorise.
  3. The different paths sociology can take you on- it’s not all about the theory!

(And although I was hesitant at first, I am seeing the relevance and significance of methodology, and I am growing to like it!)

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin