I am sure I am not alone in being asked quite often what it is that sociologists do. One way of answering this question is to refer to the work of particular sociologists, and I find myself doing this more often since I started looking systematically at obituaries. These may be only brief, but even a condensed account of a life can be informative, engaging and instructive. Among the 256 obituaries featured in The Times Higher in the five years from January 2015 (mostly written by Matthew Reisz) there are at least six identified as sociologists (Ulrich Beck, Michael Feige, Andy Furlong, John Urry, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Peter Wright), along with several more of people whose work contained strong sociological elements (such as Benedict Anderson, Agnes Heller and Doreen Massey).

Even from this small number of brief lives it is immediately apparent that sociologists do many things. Sociologists investigate troubling issues in the public domain such as the risks associated with climate change, the challenges to the peace process in the Middle East, the fractured transition from education to employment, the restructuring of place, the interplay of politics and economics in recent world history, and the historical roots of modern science. Sociologists also provide us with tools to think with, for example the conceptual framework of world systems theory and the ideas of risk society and of individualization. In addition to shaping intellectual agendas, sociologists also communicate these ideas to diverse audiences, from students in the lecture hall to wider publics in various fora, both institutional and activist. Peter Wright’s obituary recalls his arrest at a protest over racial segregation in a 1960s Leicester pub, and Michael Feige’s death in a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv brought to a premature end a life dedicated to the peace process. These obituaries tell stories of lives of research, ideas and engagement. In addition, they are accounts of lives lived that also contain glimpses of people whose professionalism was combined with a range of very human personal qualities: kindness, courtesy, humility, imagination, commitment to reason, and commitment to social justice.

Two decades ago Barbara Tizard and Charlie Owen’s survey of retired academics in the UK found a similarly diverse pattern of career trajectories. At that time, however, fixed retirement ages had forced an ending which has now become more optional, and,as some of the obituaries considered here show, some sociologists continue with their work well beyond the age at which they could retire. In the UK, at least, changed pension arrangements are another variation from the fixed points of earlier generations’ calculations about when and how to retire from a fulfilling academic career. This limits the extent to which iconic members of earlier generations can provide to-day’s academics with realistic role models. For these and other reasons, including the feminisation of the workforce and the precariousness of much employment in universities, the time is ripe for a new study of academics’ later careers and retirement. The Leverhulme Trust are funding me to undertake this, and data are being collected through two surveys of UK-based academics, one for current staff contemplating retirement and another for those already retired. You are invited to find out more about the research and to participate by visiting the project website.

Professor Graham Crow AcSS is Professor of Sociology and Methodology at the University of Edinburgh.