The night of the Tottenham riots I was leaving to catch a plane. On holiday, I texted friends and worried about what was going on. As well as the concerns for people in my adopted home city, there was also a nagging feeling that I was missing something. This doesn't paint me in a favourable light, I know. But researching and writing about cities is what I do, in fact researching and writing about London is what I do. What was happening? And what was everyone saying? I read one-day old international editions of the Guardian to try and get to grips with it. But people who were here (London) also described feeling like they weren't really there. Localised and spectacular events were repeated on rolling news channels; my friend, sat at home, could see his house in Hackney filmed from a helicopter. The camera jumped between this aerial view and something on fire on Mare Street. Meanwhile his partner returned home from work without having seen any trouble on her journey.
At home and from abroad, the terms of the debate seemed predictably predictable. But I noticed politicians were - for the first time in a long time - talking about sociology. Only to dismiss it, mind. While David Cameron pronounced society 'sick', he didn't see any need to look into the causes and Boris Johnson was keen to dismiss 'sociological explanations'. Looking for reasons or causes was tantamount to looking for excuses. This shouldn't be a surprise. The Conservative Party aren't known for being big fans of sociology. Broadly speaking, sociology in the UK has a rather radical history. And if there's 'no such thing as society' then why should we bother studying bits of it?
Sociologists took their time in responding, partly because that's what we do. We carry out research over a long period of time and think and then write it up. There is then another time delay as it gets turned into books or peer reviewed articles in journals. Having the time to carry out research and to be rigorously put through your paces by your peers is a precious thing, research takes time and no one wants to go on the news and talk a load of ill informed waffle. But I think we could learn to operate in different time frames and move between registers in our writing. Yes, our main job is the long drawn out stuff but sometimes interventions in public debate need to be made quickly too.
The sociologists are in full effect now. I'm sure post-riot research proposals are being written all over the land. This can be understood in a variety of ways. Firstly, now is a good time to make the case for sociology. C Wright Mills defined 'the sociological imagination' as being able to make the link from private troubles to public issues. That means contextualising individual acts that seem to have baffled people, someone looting bottled water for example, in a bigger picture. In addition, sociologists are under more and more pressure to prove their usefulness to society. After the order from institutions to 'publish publish publish' (in high-ranking journals) comes 'impact impact impact', that is, being seen to make an impression somewhere other than the high-ranking journals (not by teaching mind you, apparently that doesn't count). Social Sciences are being sidelined and teaching budgets eradicated. Sociologists can now shout 'here we are and we've been studying this stuff for years! Can we have some money please in order to do this properly?' In the calls for listening to communities and studying neighbourhoods (not from the Government, I might add), we can rightly make the case that this is what some of us are trained for and do for a job. Sociologists never stopped researching the dynamics of cities, or issues around housing and social inequality, but the riots provide a backdrop where new claims can be made about the usefulness of this research. Even though it always has been useful. In a strange and uneasy way the riots provide opportunities for sociology.