Recently, I spent the morning at a local south London further education college. The college provides a place of refuge and hope for what used to be called ‘non-traditional students’. It is not an easy educational environment to work in and opportunity and alternative futures are forged here often amid social damage and self-destruction. It’s an extraordinary place in which many lives are changed while other young people are broken and trapped within cycles of violence where the perpetrators are culturally and socially the mirror image of their victims. I come for an open discussion with students who are preparing to go onto higher education; I do this every year.
The rules of dialogue are always the same although the items on the agenda vary. The students, who are on a youth access to higher education programme, prepare a set of questions beforehand. The questions range from big ones about world politics to the sociological minutiae of a specific theory on the syllabus. Each student takes responsibility for asking one question. I get handed the list of questions just before we start.
We talk sometimes for two hours without a break. The sessions are always extraordinary: I learn something from them and I hope that they in turn learn something too. They always ask the biggest, most important and direct questions. They suffer no fools and if you are not interesting or genuine, then the loss of their attention is felt almost physically like someone letting go of your hand.
A young black person inquires. ‘You’re obviously a white man . . . but you write a lot about race. Was it through sociology that you developed an affinity with people of colour?’ I can see his candour makes his teacher uneasy. I try to be as honest as I can. I tell him it wasn’t just through education but through friendships in my youth with black people, largely the result of playing sport, that I shaped my own interests and commitments. It was also hearing racism in my own family. He seems to recognize the streets and places I talk about and maybe some of the kinds of people I describe. I say that sociology has provided a way to make sense of some of the things that I experienced as a young person that I couldn’t understand. Pausing, I say, ‘I don’t know if that makes any sense.’ He nods and takes his clenched fists and taps his chest just above his heart.
We talk about what young people fear and love about south London’s ‘grime’ and ‘endz’. I tell them that things seem so different now to me as a middle-aged person interested in what’s happening to young people. ‘Tell me if I am wrong but it seems to me that for some young people the world is shrinking and getting smaller – scared to take a bus ride because it takes them into the wrong postcode.’ Excited and intense argument ensues. A young woman says, ‘Yeah, I think you are right and the thing is it is we . . . we who is doing it to we.’ The students think aloud, expressing what’s on their minds within a group that recognizes the relevance of today’s syllabus all too well.
Next question: ‘Can sociology change society?’ No, society isn’t changed by sociology or thinking but perhaps we are changing ourselves. I try to offer them some examples where social research has influenced society positively but also examples where sociology has acted as racism’s accomplice. We are changed by ‘living in books’ and by entering into such conversations and thinking together but also by opening out to the social world and having our understandings challenged as a result. This is not the arrogant certainty that has the last word; nor the capacity to translate or transpose the world through sociological revelation or that which privileges sociological thought as the key to unlock common sense. It is close to what philosopher Romand Coles calls a dialogical ethics, or the give and take of a receptive generosity that both hears and speaks. Every year it’s alive in that room.