I joined the University of Essex in 1998 to study for a multidisciplinary Masters in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights. When it came to the end of year dissertation, my appointed supervisor was Jane Hindley from the Department of Sociology. Our meetings together were the first sustained exposure I had to a ‘sociological imagination’. It was an introduction to a way of thinking that has stayed with me ever since. In moving on to doctoral study in the same department, I sought to combine sociological method with my newly acquired knowledge of human rights. At the time there was very little academic literature available in this area on which to draw. The dearth of sociological engagement with human rights at the time was reflected by a regular slot for my work in the ‘Open Stream’ at the annual British Sociological Association (BSA) conference. After a few years of presenting to an audience of between one and three people in these Open Streams, a few colleagues and I, including Michele Lamb from Essex Sociology, decided to convene a new BSA study group on the ‘sociology of rights’. From these humble beginnings in the world of frustrated PhD studies, the study group membership quickly swelled and once doctoral studies were behind us we began editing journal Special Issues and books in the sub-field and now have a designated stream in the BSA annual conference. Our group has done much to further the engagement of sociological research with the broad field of human rights study, but despite the breadth of our collections’ coverage there are still many important areas that lack the consistent coverage afforded by other disciplines. Indeed, the topics of minority rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, genocide studies, anti-colonialism, activist human rights scholarship and climate change and human rights are particular areas in need of more consistent sociological engagement.
I would hope that in the future sociology can mirror anthropology and have a debate about activist scholarship and the role of sociologists in both research on human rights and research for human rights. I also hope that sociology openly engages with the implications of climate science and makes telling contributions to discussions about the ‘limits to growth’ and the ‘de-growth’ movement, the threat to our environmental human rights and the rights of local communities in the face of the growth of ‘extreme energy’ processes such as ‘fracking’ for shale gas, and Alberta’s Tar Sands in Canada. The latter two topics have occupied me for the last few years, but while so far I have worked primarily with anthropologists and scientists I always draw on the ‘sociological imagination’ I developed at the University of Essex’s Department of Sociology.
This is an entry from the book: Imaginations- 50 Years of Essex Sociology.