Instead, young people are flocking to criminology, which some describe as “sociology with a job”. Philip Williams, marketing director of Keele University, which this year has 641 criminology majors, compared with 281 taking sociology, says: “Crime seems to attract student interest and there is a lot of interest in forensic science, too. There is a joke going around that if we offered forensic Italian or forensic philosophy, we would attract more students.”
Unlike the furore which follows news that chemistry and engineering are struggling to keep their end up in an era of student choice, opinions are divided over the importance of a slippage in sociology.
“In North America, sociology is taught differently,” says Dr Robert Wright, professor of economics at Strathclyde University. “There is much more emphasis on handling and compiling data and analysing it. There is a huge demand for those skills, and people who have them get snapped up by business and government. But there are a lot of institutions in Britain who are not giving their students enough of that.
“In the past, some of the courses were dominated by guys who thought they were in training for a revolution. There was a lot of Marxism. There is not so much of that now, but there is still a resistance to switching the emphasis to quantative work. One big problem is that there has been a slippage in the teaching of maths in school. There is a future for sociology, but it has to be much more quantative.”
Not everyone agrees with Wright’s solution. Outhwaite still has a good word for Marx: “It is still an approach that is worth studying.” And Beth Cross, who teaches sociology at the Open University, says: “Our experience at the OU is that there is a falling off in demand for sociology and social policy. I am alarmed by that. Sociology is about asking questions, about questioning the question and not just answering it. But anybody who teaches students will tell you all they seem to want to know is what’s going to be in the exam and how they can pass it. They are not thinking about education for education’s sake.
“Education has got very competitive, and I think that has something to do with the emphasis on attainment at school. We are seeing a generation of students who feel they have to scramble for a professional job. But if we give up asking questions like: does it have to be like that? Do we need all these professional jobs? Are we happy with the way things are? Are we happy with the growing gap between rich and poor? Is this the best we can do?, then we are disempowering ourselves as a society.”
It is difficult to obtain statistics on the relative popularity of criminology and sociology, as the Higher Education Statistics Agency still lumps both together under sociology. However, that is changing, with Ucas now listing 134 straight criminology degrees at UK institutions and 902 combined courses.
Nick Currie, a criminology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), says he and his colleagues can confirm a shift in applications towards criminology. “Crime informs every aspect of public policy. There isn’t a car park or a housing estate designed now without taking account of criminal behaviour,” he explains.
“I think the growth of sociology was fuelled by the first wave of working-class people who started coming into universities and polytechnics in the 60s and 70s. Sociology was their subject; it was about them. That has changed. I don’t think students now are even thinking about what they really want to study; it is much more [about] what will make me employable.”
Barry Godfrey, of the criminology department at Keele, puts the shift, in part, down to “the glamorisation of forensic criminology on television, and because crime and policing still feature on news broadcasts, chat shows and documentaries on a nightly basis”. The heightened terrorism threat since 9/11 has added to the interest; indeed, terrorism studies is beginning to feature on syllabuses.
Despite being head of Oxford University’s centre for criminology, Dr Ian Loder is not in favour of the shift. “I started to think, when I worked at Keele, that criminology is replacing sociology as a core undergraduate subject,” he says. “But I don’t think criminology is a discipline. It is a field of study, but it is better for someone to come to it as a graduate, not for a first degree. But you try telling that to vice-chancellors. Universities are getting much more entrepreneurial, and crime attracts students.”
Bridget Hutter, editor of the British Journal of Sociology, argues that the sons of sociology – cultural, development and media studies, and criminology – are not distractions, but help to spread the word. “The relevance of sociology is becoming more and more apparent, and you find sociologists in many university departments, but the fact they have moved into other areas does not detract from the basic core,” she says.
Loder disagrees. “Society is obsessed with crime,” he says. “If you were an intelligent, worldly-wise, thoughtful 18-year-old in the late 60s or 70s who wanted to study the world around you, you would have been thinking in terms of housing, welfare, citizenship, education – and you would have studied sociology. The same person now thinks in terms of crime, punishment, justice. I think it is a shame that we understand the world around us so much in terms of crime and punishment and we don’t think about it in other ways.”
20th February 2007