As you’re doubtless aware, the BSA has been experiencing significant difficulties due to COVID-19, much in line with what’s been happening in most organisations and charities across the country. Aside from the financial implications of our adherence to social distancing and lockdown, the loss of our Annual Conference and other key events has left many of us feeling a profound sense of sadness in not being able to get together with colleagues and, indeed, friends as usual at this time of year. Evidently, of course, this must be placed in context, given the immensely more serious impact on those on the front lines of the NHS, social care and, much more acutely, who have very sadly lost loved ones to this dreadful illness.
The pandemic, however, aside from its immediate and tragic effects and organisational impact, has also brought to the fore some other important issues for us as a discipline, both in terms of the implications for our subject matter and the standing of the discipline within our institutions. With respect to the latter, for some time many of us have felt that sociology has been undervalued and underappreciated by UK governments, in light of their tendency to favour STEM and business disciplines over the social sciences, arts and humanities. This appears to be informed by a rather impoverished view of what universities are for, i.e. reducing their wider social, scientific and cultural purpose to a narrow instrumental economic function, as advanced vocational training and research and development centres. However, we would argue that this perspective is behind the curve of a range of changes that are affecting contemporary societies, which have significant implications for sociology and HE generally. Of course, STEM and business subjects will continue to be important, but certainly no more crucial to the future, including in terms of employment prospects, than sociology and other social sciences. The reason for suggesting this is that a package of significant social and economic changes, as many commentators have argued, are already taking place due to new technology, and these trends are liable to accelerate due to the impact of the virus.
While there are a range of arguments as to the likely impact of new technologies on society and, as we know, one view that is widely held is that many occupations are becoming increasingly vulnerable to automation and other impacts of the digital economy. This doesn’t only apply to what we normally view as routine work; the retailing that is now more abruptly moving online, increasingly automated call centres and so on. Many professional jobs in non-IT STEM, business and legal professions that government has tended to privilege may also become more vulnerable to job displacement, particularly where these occupations involve a significant routine element. From auditing to aspects of medical diagnosis many professional functions may go, or at least opportunities in these areas may significantly diminish.
By contrast, the critical and analytical skills associated with sociology will not be replicated by machines in the foreseeable future, if ever. Moreover, both in response to the immediate conditions generated by the pandemic, and the longer-term transition to a ‘new normal’ and all that it may entail, it is highly likely that there will be a much greater need for both professional sociologists and sociology graduates with the knowledge and skills to advise and help manage the changes and other issues affecting society, the economy and a variety of organisations at all levels. As such, it is crucial that we continue to vigorously fight our corner in terms of HE policy, nationally and within our institutions, particularly at a time when budgets will be stretched and, critically, where government have hinted at differential support for subject areas. The BSA will continue to do this wherever the opportunity presents itself.
However, this is also an important time for sociology more broadly, to promote our values of tolerance, fairness and social justice in addition to our knowledge base, skills and utility, in terms of ‘remaking the future’. On that point, it is clear that COVID-19 has created a potentially important juncture from which competing visions of the ‘new normal’ will emerge. Without a significant change of direction, it may very well be the case that the combination of factors described above will further reduce the capacity for many to sustain a decent and secure standard of living, raising the potential for further widening of existing inequalities. As was the case in 2008, however, there will be a debate between those who want to restore the status quo – the current model of capitalism with all of its attendant ills – and those who would advocate for something better, and sociology and the BSA should be at the centre of these debates.
Finally, returning closer to home, the BSA staff have been very active in attempting to sustain activities for members in lieu of our annual conference, with the events last week, culminating with the COVID-19 symposium being highly successful by all accounts. While the BSA will continue to operate as usual, as far as is possible, we are entering a quieter phase in our activities now. As a means of supporting our staff and the Association’s finances, so that we are able to carry on the good work of the BSA, we are furloughing staff for the month of May. Furloughing will be staggered in a way to minimise any disruption to service and members can be assured that this hiatus will be used wisely, to identify and explore every means by which we can support and further accomplish the aims of the Association and the discipline as we emerge from the current crisis into whatever conditions its aftermath presents us with.
Keep safe and best wishes to all,
John Bone (Chair) and Judith Mudd (CEO)