Reflections on a career in Sociology

I retired in 2010 as Head of Social Sciences after working for over 30 years as a lecturer in Sociology.

My interest in sociology as a subject stems from my sociology degree started as a supposedly mature student in 1971 in what was then called North London Poly. I needed just 2 A-Levels (acquired by part-time study) and headed off for an interview with a panel that included Howard Wolpe who was then in exile from apartheid in South Africa. They seemed pleased that I was tackling Kate Millet’s book Sexual Politics even if I was finding it a bit of a struggle, and they let me in.

Anti-apartheid became a continuing theme when we occupied the Poly premises following their appointment of a VC with a rather different background to my interviewer. Other student occupations followed and I was caught up in the waves of industrial unrest and now forgotten, but successful, miners’ strikes. This engagement may seem like the distant past now but it had a longer term impact on me as a teacher both in choosing my subject area and in my strong views about sociology as a discipline that engages with the world around us. More than that, it is a discipline that challenges us as individuals and asks us to act to change our world.

Feminism was at the heart of much of the teaching in the Department in its formative years and, I believe, it should remain an important underpinning in a new context As important has been making sure that sociology is located in its global context and i took a number of opportunities to go back and forth to Sierra Leone where we were instrumental in setting up the first Trade Union studies programme at the University  in Freetown. There seem to be very different issues for sociology to deal with today, and there are, but the roots of inequality and its causes remain central. The relevance of this today could not be clearer and, in my particular area of interest in work and employment, we are finding increasingly precarious and target-driven jobs. Once again, sociologists are not just required to interpret the world but to change it too (or did somebody else once say that?).

John Stirling, Head of Social Sciences, Northumbria University 2005 – 2010