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‘Big A, little a, bouncing b….the system might have got you, but it won’t get me!’ is the inspirational opening line from Crass’s ‘Big A, Little A’. The sneering delivery from Steve Ignorant emerging from a playground ‘alphabet learning’ chant, breaking out from the conformity and programmed flavour of the nursery rhyme singing is to behold. The message is short and simple – we need to distrust the given order and not defer to such traditions and power-holders.

The Punk Sociologist will challenge authority. This isn’t a call to arms to engage in classroom disruption and such disorder, it is about challenging the authority of given ideas. Too often we find students in a rut (and yes they’ve gotta get out of it) and over-rely on the sociology textbook. No disrespect to any authors, but one publishing house a number of years ago even marketed their leading text as ‘The Blue Bible’. This is a great text by the way and a leading light in bringing sociological discourse to students for decades – without works like this, our job would be much more difficult. However, many students have depended upon these too much..to the point where they imprison their thinking in an ‘iron cage’, losing their humanity and creativity in some kind of academic regime. Weber knew the score here! The written word is not all…and we are not high priests, whose authority should go unchallenged.

This is the point. The authority of the textbook and the collusion of the awarding bodies and the teaching fraternity is some kind of unholy trinity. I am not aiming to undermine ‘the system’ here – merely the problem of students wanting to be spoonfed and us having developed recipe cards and cures to take them to a state of predictability. In some cases, it’s almost like learning song lyrics with an intro, verse,chorus structure….but where is the free styling..the innovation…the variation of the middle 8th? That’s what we need to be thinking about…that bloody middle 8th that gives flavour and individuality to structure. You know what I am talking about…how soul-destroying is it when you are marking the 25th script and its the same paragraph on Albert Cohen with the same two criticisms in the last sentence! We all do it…and it can yield much success…but the students who are less conformist..being aware of traditions, but being able to step to the side and throwing an intellectual molatov cocktail into the mix, give us something more.

Sociology reached a point in the seventies, where Berger (I think) described sociology as having a ‘war of religions’. It had become a place where sociology seemed to have separated into two warring camps where dogma and ideology dictated thinking. This is one of the reasons why ‘neo’ perspectives and ‘realist’ approaches have an appeal…a kind of grounded theory with elements of eclecticism. I fondly remember my first lecture at Leicester Uni back in 1986, and if I recall, it was ‘Understanding Societies’ with Nick Jewson. In introducing sociology, he gave us a stark reminder of how the A level game worked when he took a copy of the key text of the day, raising it like a manic street preacher with a holy tome. He punched the sky, and then dropping this scripture he warned us that our discipline is not as clear cut as we are led to believe..that the debates are simplified to make it do-able at that level…that sociology is full of grey areas and it’s more than ‘Marxism good…Functionalism bad!’. And he was absolutely right – eclecticism and challenging authority is needed…is vital…is liberating.

So where does this take us with our punk sociologists. We need to find ways to encourage that individuality and confidence to challenge. We need students to resist the lazy path of ‘cut and paste’ writing and an attitude where they turn up each lesson like some Oliveresque urchin pleading, ‘Sir! Can I have some more?’. Nothing wrong with a bit of eager, but this needs to be fused with creativity and independence. Our role is to scaffold and give them a workable structure, but we need to plan for some freeplay too and make this more and more the case over the duration of a course. Flipped learning has a role to play here, along with employing solo taxonomy in This is exactly where we need to be – ‘ a sociological imagination’ where students appreciate tradition, but do not defer to it…where they can employ structure, but able to freestyle…where they take on board our guidance, but DO IT for themselves also. Ultimately, when we get this right, students are syntheising, applying creatively and evaluating….which dare I say it, traps higher marks. It’s a win-win!

Structure versus agency? Don’t get me started on that one!.

All the best,

Chris