Department of Sociology

The Department of Sociology Blog

  • By Rachel Brooks

    In the literature on higher education, there is an increasing emphasis on the importance of virtual spaces in terms of both pedagogic practice and wider aspects of university life. It has also been argued that online spaces, and social media in particular, are playing a key role in facilitating the political engagement of students. In our research on contemporary students’ unions, however, much greater emphasis was placed by our respondents (students’ union officials and senior institutional managers) upon the physical spaces of the campus than on the virtual spaces available to students and/or students’ union officials for both academic and social activities. Indeed, the students’ union building itself was discussed, at great length, by many of the students’ union officials and senior managers who participated in our focus groups. Several respondents described how changes had recently been made to the buildings used by the students’ union, which, they claimed, had had a positive effect. For senior managers at one of our higher education institutions (HEIs), for example, a shift to a more central location on campus was thought to have had a significant influence on the visibility of the union, and the propensity of others to engage with it:

    It’s much more visible, the [students’ union] is just a much more open place, it’s more centrally located, it’s better connected with other parts of the university. It’s actually a place where people are wanting, not just the students, but people want to do things in it. And I think, so it’s more valued by the university than the temporary place that was there before. And I suppose that, the effect on the student unions it’s just to make its business, its existence much more public…..I think that’s made a big difference because the student union is far more visible, not just for students, but it’s also visible for staff as well.

    Similarly, union officials at another HEI claimed that the improvement in the union’s space – making it more open and welcoming – had had a direct impact on its use:

    We have had this fantastic space this year, so we have been able to even engage with people that don’t have problems, all they want to do is to find a nice place to sit … To chill out, yeah. … and to play Scrabble and to …. You know the glass front, when you first walked in, that used to be a brick wall with a little window, could knock on and speak to someone in reception in the corridor. So it wasn’t even nice sort of …It was awful.

    In these accounts, an emphasis on the materiality of the campus is clearly evident. In particular, the nature and location of the students’ union building is claimed to have a direct impact on the extent to which the wider student body engages (or does not engage) with the union.

    Although there is currently little academic research on the role of students’ unions in the UK, a notable exception is that carried by Andersson and colleagues, which analysed the role of the union as part of a broader project that examined ‘geographies of encounter’ between different social groups at a UK HEI. They argue that while, in theory, the students’ union can be seen as a key arena for bringing students from different backgrounds together to pursue a range of social, political and leisure activities, in practice, the increasingly commodified nature of union activity militates against social mixing. Here, they point to the impact of unions letting out space to private enterprises, which then often offer a range of highly-gendered commercial activities (such as beauty salons, hairdressers and nightclubs). The students’ union, in their analysis, is a space in which students from diverse backgrounds are ‘thrown together’ but which does not take the shape of a Habermasian, egalitarian ‘public sphere’; instead it is a space that is heavily mediated by commercial interests, and tends to reinforce some forms of inequality.

    Our data, however, suggest a more complex reading of the spaces of students’ union, and a more ambivalent relationship between unions and processes of commodification. Although commercial activities on campus were clearly important to senior managers and were valued by some students’ unions as means of preserving some independence (through having an income stream in addition to the block grant from their institution), in none of our ten case studies were they viewed (either by managers or union officers) as the key focus of the union’s activity. We suggest that market pressures on universities (such as competition with other institutions, and the emergence of various ranking systems) have caused unions to place less emphasis, rather than more, on their commercial activities, which, in turn, has implications for the physical spaces that students’ unions occupy. While HEIs are clearly concerned with revenue generation and ensuring financial sustainability in an increasingly competitive higher education market, the importance of measures of ‘student satisfaction’ in stimulating demand for courses has encouraged senior managers to work closely with their students’ union and, often, to value highly the contributions unions can make to improving the quality of ‘the student experience’ and ensuring ‘the student voice’ is represented effectively.

    Such pressures have encouraged unions to foreground their representative function, often at the expense of campaigning activities and also, in many cases, to the detriment of commercial ventures. This has, inevitably, had a direct impact on the use of physical space on campus, with a decline in the number of bars and clubs. The same pressures have also been an important driver of institutional investment in the physical infrastructure of students’ unions – particularly a desire to increase the visibility and use of the union by the wider student body. Indeed, union officers in our research believed they had been ‘rewarded’ by investment in their buildings for their support of university priorities. In some cases, respondents also linked this type of investment to the substantial increase in tuition fees for domestic students in England and Wales from 2012 onwards:

    And my view is that the university’s very much aware of the fact that the fees have gone up to £9,000 … and they’re very keen to invest in facilities for students and provide additional resource to support the student experience, and [the union is] very good at actually tailoring their message to sort of like address that particular lead. (Senior managers’ focus group)

    Nevertheless, our data indicate that while institutional investment in students’ unions buildings may have had a positive impact on both the use and visibility of union space, it was not always entirely unproblematic. Indeed, some of the factors that had motivated the investment were also those that created tensions. For example, one group of students’ union officers described a struggle over the extent to which the union should look similar to the rest of the university and an insistence by senior management that they should use the same colour schemes and branding. Such tensions provide support for those who have argued that university campuses are often ‘paradoxical spaces’ in which competing, and sometimes contradictory, discourses prevail – in this case, the marketization of higher education appears to have substantially limited students’ unions’ focus on commercial activity.


    A fuller account of this research is given in this article.



    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Graham Scambler

    Sociologists will be familiar with Michael Burawoy’s ‘four sociologies’, namely, professional, policy, critical and public. Professional sociology encompasses the bread-and-and butter tasks of the discipline, asking and endeavouring to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about social phenomena of interest. Policy sociology aspires to support the formulation and implementation of policy across such domains as education, jobs, welfare and health by constructing usable evidence bases. Critical sociology demonstrates a reflexive concern with the discipline’s modus vivendi. And public sociology, Burawoy’s favoured project, seeks to inform and stimulate engagement and discussion in civil society and the public sphere.

    I have previously suggested that professional sociology might be said to be represented by the scholar; policy sociology by the reformer; critical sociology by the radical; and public sociology by the democrat. Furthermore, each sociology/sociologist might be associated with a distinctive mode of discursive engagement. Thus, the scholar’s mode of engagement via professional sociology might be characterized as cumulative, the aim being to furnish an ever more comprehensive narrative of social order and social change. The reformer’s mode of engagement via policy sociology is cast here as utilitarian, the object in this case being to improve the way things are organized and accomplished with the interests of greatest number in mind. The radical’s mode of engagement via critical sociology is meta-theoretical, a form of sociology oriented to reflexivity and self-interrogation. The democrat’s mode of engagement via public sociology is communicative, the aim here being to insinuate sociology’s project and accounts into the public sphere to provoke rational discussion, debate and decision-making.

    It is the purpose of this short blog to introduce two further types of sociology to add to Burawoy’s four. There are ‘foresight sociology’ and ‘action sociology’. Foresight sociology is committed to exploring institutional and organizational alternatives. How might greener technologies be most effectively deployed? What is the best model for a fit-for-purpose housing programme? What might a better health service look like? Action sociology follows up on public sociology, contesting ideological opposition to evidence-based conclusions and recommendations. I have suggested that it is the visionary who pursues foresight sociology, deploying a communicative mode of engagement; and that it is the activist who fights sociology’s battles under the rubric of a strategic mode of engagement. These ideal types – and remember that this is what they are – are outlined in the Table.

    Table: The Six Sociologies

    Professional Scholar Cumulative
    Policy Reformer Utilitarian
    Critical Radical Meta-theoretical
    Public Democrat Communicative
    Foresight Visionary Speculative
    Action Activist Strategic

    I have offered an important qualification in addition to stressing the ideal typical status of these concepts. I am certainly not recommending that all sociologists contribute to each of these six sociologies. What I am arguing is that the sociological community as a whole should cover all six bases.

     In a published piece on the sociology of health inequalities I gave examples of key questions that might be posed of each type of sociology. Thus:

    1. Professional sociology/scholar: which social structures or mechanisms are causally critical for health and longevity through each phase of the lifecourse?
    2. Policy sociology/reformer: how might evidence-based research on health inequalities most effectively be translated into telling interventions?
    3. Critical sociology/radical: what obstacles indicative of relations of power contaminate/neutralize sociology’s comprehensive array of contributions to research on health inequalities and its dissemination and impact?
    4. Public sociology/democrat: what kind of routes and media offer the best prospects of participatory engagement via the protest sector of the public sphere in decision-making pertaining to health inequalities?
    5. Foresight sociology/visionary: how might different types of organizational and/or institutional change deliver a more equal distribution of health and longevity?
    6. Action sociology/activist: how might sociologists best resist being ‘rubbished’, ignored or side-lined on health inequalities by those with a vested interest in a status quo conducive to their widening or deepening?



    Burawoy,M (2005) For public sociology. American Sociological Review 70 4-28.

    Scambler,G (2015) Theorizing health inequalities: the untapped potential of dialectical critical realism. Social Theory and Health 3/4 340-354.



    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Graham Hieke

    In 2010, the coalition government’s spending review indicated that funding for the police service in England and Wales would be reduced in real terms by 20% between 2011 and 2015 (HMIC, 2014). Whilst savings were anticipated to be made through collaboration between forces, the public and private sectors, as well as increased back-office efficiency, austerity has also had an impact on police service strength. As a consequence, since 2010, the number of frontline police officers has fallen by nearly 20,000, a drop of -14% (Home Office, 2016).

    Determining the impact of austerity on policing is challenging. In 2014, HMIC identified concerns about the erosion of neighbourhood policing services and the possible adverse effects of increased workloads on the ability of the police service to prevent crime and protect the public (HMIC, 2014). In response, at the Police Federation conference (2015), the then Home Secretary Theresa May sought to offset many of these concerns, including those about reduced spending and the decline in frontline service strength, by highlighting the drop in crime as measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales (May, 2015).

    However, using recorded crime statistics as a means to understand the impact of austerity measures within the police service has the potential to mask other important issues. For instance, notwithstanding known limitations with crime survey data, these figures are unlikely to reflect the diverse range of work associated with frontline policing, the changing nature of crime, or the new challenges and pressures this presents officers with on a daily basis. The nature of frontline police work and the pressure it entails means that the risk of physical or psychological injury is estimated to be higher than compared to many other occupations (Health and Safety Executive, 2015). The online blogs of Constable Chaos[1], Mental Health Cop[2] and Nathan Constable[3] (to name but a few) provide compelling accounts of these pressures and are well worth a read.

    One issue that is receiving growing attention is the psychological impact of police work. Whilst rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are estimated to be higher within policing than compared to the general population (Green, 2004), a recent freedom of information (FOI) request submitted by the BBC (2016) revealed a 35% increase in the number of police officers taking long-term sick leave due to issues with mental health. Similarly, evidence has also been presented which suggests officers may be attending for duty at times when they feel they ought not to have done so due to concerns about their mental health or well-being (Police Federation, 2016).

    The notion of coming to work when unfit to do so, or presenteeism, is detrimental for a host of different reasons. From the perspective of officers, it may exacerbate existing medical conditions, lower quality of life, or give the impression of ineffectiveness due to declines in productivity (Jones, 2010). Clearly, reduced productivity may also have implications for both the police service and the communities they serve in terms of quality of service and demand reduction. However, perhaps problematically, presenteeism may also be viewed as an act of organisational citizenship (Jones, 2010) as officers experiencing physical or psychological injuries may decide not to report, downplay, or hide them to avoid letting their teams down by taking sick leave. Such concerns accord strongly with the notions of mission, solidarity, camaraderie and loyalty often associated with policing and highlight how any meaningful change will have to navigate not only budgetary constraints, which have seen forces scale-back or out-source occupational health services, but also overcome cultural attitudes towards ill-health and the stigma that may be attached to mental health issues.

    Therefore, if we are to ask the police service to do the same (or more) with less resource we must be prepared to invest in services to help support those officers in dealing with the challenging nature of frontline police work.







    BBC (2016) Police psychological sick leave up 35% in five years. Available at: (accessed 20 July 2016)

    Green, B. (2004) ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder in UK police officers’, Current Medical Research and Opinions. 20(1): 1-5.

    Health and Safety Executive (2015) Police Service – Statistics. Available at: (accessed 20 July 2016).

    HMIC (2014) Policing in Austerity Meeting the Challenge. Available at (accessed 24 July 2016).

    Home Office (2016) Police Workforce, England and Wales, 31 March 2015. Available at: (accessed 21 July 2016)

    Jones, G. (2010) ‘Presenteeism in the workplace: A review and research agenda’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31: 519-42.

    May, T. (2015) Home Secretary’s Police Federation 2015 Speech. London: Home Office. Available at: (accessed 20 July 2016)

    Police Federation (2016) Mental health affecting more and more officers. Available at: (accessed 19 July 2016).


    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

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