Since I completed my undergraduate degree in 2002 and embarked (straight) on a postgraduate route into Sociology at Essex, I able been able to experiment –and see experimented- different ways of using Sociology: from the most academic and purely theoretical effort of reflecting on an author’s concept or theory; to various ways of mixing empirical sociology and sociological theory to approach the widest array of social issues. The department of Sociology at Essex taught us postgraduate students how diverse Sociology might be, and what an extraordinary container the discipline is. I recall that one of the most popular comments of those postgraduate years was to stress how different our research topics and approaches were –without this preventing us to engage with discussions on each other ideas, maybe during one of those breaks when you feel stuck with your work. That was fun, and also held a therapeutic stand.
After I left Essex I started to work for an Italian university, and then for another university in the UK and then for an European institution, and then for an Italian University again, carrying on myself a similar weight of those I have been studying for a while now: early career workers and their attempts to make their own route in conditions of uncertainty, unpredictability and risk. And during this journey I have seen that sociological work might appear as loosing its specificities- especially in Italy, where the discipline is less institutionalised than in the UK, and the so called civil society confuses sociologists with journalists (because they also do interviews!) or psychologists, and the like.
But equally significantly, I have also experienced times at which I was called to help to make sense of things that were happening, and that raised the attention of those involved, who themselves resolved they needed the help of professionals who could handle the richness of what we would call ‘emerging findings’ which were left ‘out of the boxes’ in terms of previous conceptualisations and therefore needed new explanations. They called for new directions to be pointed out.
So in a way this is the role of Sociology which I envisage for the future: a way of navigating social inconsistencies and apparent dilemmas, a way of ‘imagining’, to recall C.W. Mills, which puts fragmented pieces together. Most importantly, this promises to convey the sense of troubles of people who are left at risk of marginalisation, disconnection, disengagement, but who nonetheless deserve respect for their aspirations, orientations and needs.
The global crisis which hit us in recent years has suggested those of us who were born in relative prosperity that material and social achievements are slippery, and that new challenges are always around the corner. Global transformations have put things in a way that we may not know personally our neighbour but we may establish solidarity bonds with members of an online community, for instance. And that rather than being freaked out by this we should reconstruct meanings, respect individuals efforts, and call for humanistic interactions. My hope for the development of the discipline in the future 50 years, is for a Sociology which succeeds in revealing human potential, interconnections, and space for action, concurrently being able to make pressure to institutions and governments to recognise, address and reduce inequalities and help establish a better society overall. More than the breath of the discipline, the possibilities for impact on institutional domains are there to call sociologists to action.