Not so long ago I was in the midst of completing my Master’s in English Literature. I was heavily into detective fiction, femmes fatales, and fin-de-siècle Gothic fiction. I was going to write a PhD on Agatha Christie. I instinctively work with a literary research methodology. The idea of field work positively appals me. I loved (still love!) literature and was set on researching and teaching it as a career. A few years later and I’m a qualified English teacher. I’ve been teaching literary criticism to bright young things for a few years and it’s been good fun. But when I decided to stop going to so many parties and concentrate on postgraduate study again I signed up with a sociology department. At first I thought I might use some literature in my PhD; this is now looking increasingly unlikely. I thought I would somehow stick to actually critiquing books. But that seems far-fetched now. So how come I’ve moved essentially lock, stock and barrel to sociology? At the moment I’m coming up with a plan to encourage more school-leavers to take up sociology degrees and I’ve been reading accounts of how various academics got into sociology. I also asked around at the British Sociological Association annual conference this year and one thing struck me about the majority of the accounts I’ve read or heard. People got into sociology by accident. Me too.
Looking back it all seems quite natural but to the outside eye changing disciplines can look quite bizarre. Surely they all do different things for a start? How can the interests – and moreover the methods – of one fit that of another? Well, the substantive basis of my research hasn’t changed. I wrote about the grotesque body in English Literature and I write about it now, in sociology. I’m interested in sexuality and gender. I take a feminist approach to analysis. I still lean to the close reading of texts as my methodology. I’m still not absolutely certain that I am a sociologist – unless of course I talk to people working in literary studies and then the difference in my concerns and theirs reveals itself. English Literature now – to me – seems closed. The concerns revolve around what goes on in books, poetry, plays, films and how these relate to various theories and intellectual positions. But they so rarely engage with what is going on in the world, and despite my abhorrence of field work (by which I mean going out and talking to/observing actual live subjects) I’m actually quite concerned by how what I do relates to society in real terms. Having read a decent amount of sociology-oriented texts during my Master’s and been encouraged via discussions with other postgrads to think outside the text I started to wonder where you could go with this. The idea of staying purely within one subject seemed rather mono to me. Increasingly I started to feel like I was missing something – both in terms of not seeing the full context of what I was writing, but also of not being able to write about the full context because it was outwith the scope of the study.
When I decided to look for a PhD supervisor this year I scouted around far more widely than previously. I considered what I was interested in: bodies, sex, sexuality, gothic, carnival, law, agency, separate sphere ideology, historical perspectives, regulation of society, and I considered that I was interested in these concepts in and of themselves. I wanted the freedom to study these as concepts rather than in relation to what they tell me about a piece of fiction. For some reason (and I can think of many arguments that English Literature is one of the freest disciplines going) I felt that the only discipline that allowed this liberty was sociology. This has to be in part because all the sociologists I’ve encountered thus far have been so flexible in their approach – the idea of using literature as a dataset has been positively encouraged and it all feels as though (with a feasible aim/methodology of course) that I can do basically whatever I like.
I think the ‘accidental’ stumbling upon sociology as a discipline I could happily work in is more about best fit than actually having an epiphany and making a directed, considered decision to shift focus. If I was to be grandiose I’d compare myself to John Donne and his swing from Roman Catholicism to becoming Dean of St Pauls, who maintained that he didn’t alter, rather it was the goalposts of faith that moved. I don’t think I can quite get away with that, though I certainly don’t feel that my approach or concerns have altered substantially from the end of undergraduate to now. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t get about sociology, or simply don’t care about. A bit like my position as an English literature student when it comes to things like Elizabethan poetry or drama, generally. But no one demands I care about the sociology of religion or regeneration of urban spaces.
I’m also proposing to study something I wasn’t even considering a couple of months ago. It encompasses historical perspective, law, sexuality, bodies and the gothic. It might even include literature – but I’m pretty certain there isn’t a Law School or English department in the land that would let me do it with them. Having heard so many accounts of ‘just ending up’ in sociology because someone somewhere along the way suggested that it would be possible to study ideas that were personal and intriguing, I’m left wondering if sociology is where people go when they simply want to delve into ideas that fascinate them…