Peter Beresford is Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University and Chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national user controlled organisation and network.
I never understood sociology until I read C. Wright Mills. Then sociology helped me gain a better understanding of myself and the world I live in. As Mills said, it makes it possible for us to make the connections between history and biography – between our lives and the forces that act on them. For me this insight into the intersections that exist between biography and history was a light-bulb moment. Since then teaching sociology to social work students as part of my role as a social policy academic, I’ve seen the same understanding I gained dawn on others. Sociology helps us to make new sense of our lives and the way they are shaped by and help shape the wider world.
I have always been privileged to work with a diverse range of students, with much life experience, with different sexualities, ethnic backgrounds and cultures and including some who have experienced serious discrimination, disadvantage and barriers. I can’t count how many times such students have talked about the way the sociological imagination they have acquired has lifted veils from their eyes and helped them understand themselves and others in different, positive and empowering ways.
I like watching television. TV seems to love science and nature programmes. It’s as though they can help us negotiate the big questions that face us in this life, like, Where do we come from and where are we going? Why are we here and why are there so many wars? Every time I see the announcements for these programmes, I want to shout at the television, where is the sociology? It’s as if it has nothing to offer. Pardon me? Why aren’t there sociology programmes on at peak time? I’ve got more insights and understanding from sociology than any other discipline or branch of science, but it seems to be marginalized by our media. Maybe that is because the same media aren’t part of a process of speaking truth to power, but certainly sociology can be and frequently is.
I spent 12 years of my life using mental health services as well as eight living on poverty level welfare benefits. The dominant model for making sense of ‘mental health problems’ is still a heavily medicalised one and ‘treatment’ responses still heavily medicalised with an undue reliance on medication, despite its evident limitations.
It is interesting in the light of this that mental health service users themselves place much more hope in social understandings of madness and distress and more social approaches to addressing them and minimizing their harmful effects. In that sense ‘psychiatric system survivors’ appear to be intuitive sociologists. Similarly, when disabled people from the late 1960s onwards sought to make sense of their situation and how they were treated in society, it was to a social understanding that they turned. This understanding which became known as the ‘social model of disability’ drew a distinction between the perceived impairment associated with the individual – whether physical, sensory or intellectual – and ‘disability’ which was defined as the discriminatory social response to people included in the category. Much of the developmental work around the social model of disability since has been concerned with exploring the relationship between the two. Thus we come back to Mills’s imaginative discussions about history and biography and their intersections.
The social movements of disabled people, mental health service users/survivors and others, however, have not only highlighted the social in their analyses and theory-building. They also emphasize the importance of academic understanding that is inclusive, draws on all knowledges and which challenges traditional positivist assumptions. A participatory approach to the social sciences, including sociology, the validation of subjectivity and the valuing of experiential as well as ‘expert’ knowledge have all distinguished service user thought and critiques and are perhaps their special and invaluable contribution.
Mainstream sociology is perhaps still at a relatively early stage in its learning curve of such academic and research approaches. But there is growing interest in and enthusiasm for them especially among newer academics and researchers. I hope and believe C.Wright Mills would have welcomed this development. Certainly it has liberatory potential both for the discipline of sociology as well as for our biographies and histories.
• Beresford, P. (2010), A Straight Talking Guide To Being A Mental Health Service User, Ross-on-Wye, PCCS Books.
• Beresford, P. (2003), It’s Our Lives: A short theory of knowledge, distance and experience, London, Citizen Press in association with Shaping Our Lives, downloadable free from Shaping Our Lives website.
Mills, C. W. (1959), The Sociological Imagination, Oxford, Oxford University Press.