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Sociology and me: the battle with the little red pill

In the following essay, Mike Ward offers a very personal reflection on his early career as a sociologist. This autobiographical piece offers many thinking points for sociologists of education. 

Sociology and me: the battle with the little red pill

By Mike Ward, Cardiff University

At the end of the 1990s the science fiction film The Matrix was released. The film is set in a post-modern global city situated in a simulated world called the Matrix, which was created by computers and machines. In the Matrix, humans are controlled and live in an illusionary dream, unaware of the true oppressive reality of their lives. In the back of a dark taxicab, the lead character Neo is offered a choice that will change his understanding of the world around him. He is given a simple decision to make, to take a red pill and see the world in a different light and how it really exists, or to take a blue pill and to wake up the next morning none the wiser in the world as he had always known it. He chose the red pill.

After the BSA 60 annual conference at the LSE, I must confess I was feeling rather disillusioned with my own academic subject, sociology, and its future. I began to reflect on what the point of sociology was in the face of so many changes. I wondered why I was persevering with the discipline and an academic career. How can we as social scientists pursue others that the sociological imagination is valid and worth possessing? I thought of the red pill Neo had taken in The Matrix and which had awoken him from his illusionary existence; I wondered maybe it would have been better if I had taken the blue pill instead?

My own sociological journey began almost by accident, very much like David Mellor’s (who wrote about his own journey in a recent BSA blog). It was the autumn of 1999 and I was in my final year of my A levels in a comprehensive school in the South Wales valleys. I was searching for an interesting course to put onto my UCAS form as I knew I didn’t want to study something for another three years that I was doing at the time (English Literature, History and Geography). Neither of my parents or my stepparents had been to university, so they suggested above all else that I did something I would find interesting. So following their advice: I started to look for something else. I wasn’t doing particularly well in my subjects and I realised I was never going to get into Oxbridge or a ‘proper’ university, but knew I wanted to go and to do something which was to do with people.

I literally stumped onto the subject one day in the tiny sixth form library (a single filing cabinet!) while flicking through the prospectus for the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol. It seemed perfect. There was a course called sociology which appeared to be about how and why people behaved in certain ways and how they were shaped by the time and place they lived in. Autobiographically it seemed the right fit. Both my Grandfathers had been coal miners and active trade unionists. Politics and current events were always talked about around the dinner table with my mother. Sociology seemed very much about the underdog and looked like it fitted in with many of the conversations I’d been brought up with. The university was also away from South Wales which was one of my main requirements, but not too far if things got lonely. Contact time was low (eight hours a week), entry requirements were moderate (one C and two D’s) and if I deferred a year (as I planned to do some volunteering in a children’s home in America) the grades would be lowered to three D’s. The modules on offer also seemed interesting with courses ranging from the ‘Individual and Society’ to the more exotic ‘Anthropology, Magic and Wicca’. When my results came through that August and I received three D grades I checked to see if UWE would still have me the following year, I was told that they would and looking back now, paid it little further attention.

After a disastrous time in America and nine months woefully dealing with PAYE tax for the Inland Revenue, I arrived at the University of the West of England Frenchay campus in September 2001. I was unaware of it at the time, but it was here that I took my red pill and my outlook on the world began to change. I owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Bill Hill, Maeve Landman, Arthur Baxter, Steve Garner and Dave Green who were all at UWE at the time, for helping me through those early years. I failed my first ever essay on Marx and Weber, receiving a miserable 34%. In part I’m sure was due to me spelling Weber with two B’s throughout the essay. I was no over-night sociologist, but I kept at it, kept reading and writing, and after three years I received a 2.1 at the end of it.

After my degree, sociology slipped under the radar for a year or two and I worked for a while as a produce manager for a supermarket saving to travel and then backpacking around Asia, Australia and New Zealand. After I returned to the UK I realised I could not commit the rest of my life to the retail industry and returned to study; this time at Cardiff University, for a PGCE in further education specialising in sociology. At first I found it a struggle to get back into reading and writing again but over the first few months got back into the swing of things and developed confidence in my teaching skills before going out to my college placement to teach sociology AS, A2 and Access courses. Although it was extremely tiring planning and delivering lessons from scratch, I found it much more rewarding than managing a department in a supermarket. However, I still had some doubts about just spending my time teaching other sociologists theory, ideas and research. I wanted to do my own studies.

While applying for full time teaching posts in F.E. colleges across the country, I also had one eye on a +3 PhD studentship in Cardiff. Unfortunately I didn’t receive funding. In August of 2007 I had a choice to make. I was offered full time teaching position and a surprisingly high salary for a first post to teach sociology at an F.E. college in Cornwall. I pondered over the decision for a few days. I still wanted to do the PhD at Cardiff, but realised if I went to Cornwall this would realistically be the end of my research dream. I wanted to teach but I also wanted to make my own impact on the subject; finally, I decided to opt for a research methods course (which I self funded from money I’d saved from the bursary I’d received from the Welsh Assembly Government to do the PGCE) and hoped I would be awarded funding for the PhD the following year. My father in particular couldn’t quite believe I’d turned down a well paid job for yet more study. He’d left school at 16 and worked for the same company for 40 years, so it just didn’t make sense to him.

For the next year while studying full time for an MSc in research methods, I continued to teach sociology (and, bizarrely, home economics!) part-time at an F.E. college. Working closely with my supervisors at Cardiff, I submitted a PhD proposal in the spring, which sought to look at the lives of young men and their educational choices post-16 through carrying out an ethnographic study in a deprived community in South Wales. In the spring of 2008 while taking a home economics cookery lesson (possibly one of my greatest achievements in teaching to date!) I received a phone call offering me a +3 PhD studentship at Cardiff. Barely holding it together I excused myself from the classroom to listen to the rest of what I was being told and, holding back the tears, gratefully accepted the offer. Over the last two and a half years my PhD has been a roller coaster ride, from moments of great highs such as presenting my work at a conference in Sweden or taking one of the worlds greatest masculinity scholars, Raewyn Connell, for lunch and sightseeing around Cardiff; to lows that I never thought would happen when one of the young men from my study tragically died in a horrible car accident just weeks after his nineteenth birthday.

So has the red pill been worth taking? Of course it’s helped me look at the world in a different way and to challenge taken for granted assumptions. In my particular field of sociology, the sociology of education, I have seen through my empirical work how educational choices, achievement, opportunities and future life chances are directly linked to issues of social class, gender and ethnicity. Nonetheless, because of these insights I find myself angry a lot of the time. I find it hard to watch or listen to the news on the TV or radio or read a magazine without analysing it as I go through it. I shout comments at the TV whenever I hear a politician speak, and mutter to myself in the cinema at ridiculous plotlines and blatant product placement. I’ve watched The Wire and cried with utter frustration at the end of every series and found a new love for Bruce Springsteen and his song lyrics. I am also dearly thankful that I was at the Gender and Education conference during the royal wedding so I could avoid it all. My friends and family outside academia (there is another world out there!) call me cynical and tell me I think about things too much: that, I am sure, is certainly the case. But I have noticed that they do discuss the news and what’s going on in the world and the communities they live in. After all, people aren’t passive dupes. Even in The Matrix Neo did find his own way to that red pill.

After the hectic few days at the LSE I spent the weekend with friends I’d met while travelling and who now live in North London. It was nice to get away from sociologists for a while at least! However, as always I couldn’t quite switch off. Along with my two friends – one who works in I.T. for the Bank of England and the other as a town planner for Camden council – we talked about all manner of things. These included the Olympics, how expensive London seemed to be, and how they hated the Barclay cycle hire bikes (Boris bikes) currently creeping across the capital. As they saw it, instead of these bikes making the London transport system more effective, they were just a sticking plaster on the solution to the transport problems and a way to keep people living in the city thinking that innovated solutions were being thought out. Of course this is also one innovative solution which is sponsored by a national bank! They both told me how they’d got so fed up of living in London that they had applied for visas to work in Canada. It occurred to me later after we’d parted and I had returned from London and the post conference world that my two friends also have a sociological imagination, of sorts. They might not ‘officially’ have taken the red pill, but they do not passively accept the world as it is either.

As sociologists, we see the world in a particular way, which not all of us may agree on and which is often depressing, but highly exciting and illuminating. We should still be grateful that we embarked on this journey despite the odds stacked against us. Maybe our role as sociologists and educators, then, is not just to teach people about ways of thinking and theorising the world around us in academic environments, but also to be able to provide a platform that will enable the thinking to occur in the first place? Perhaps it’s time then for us all to pass those red pills around?

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