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The Profcast: Professor Graham Scambler

  • Apr 08 / 2015
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The Profcast: Professor Graham Scambler

In our latest Profcast IHAWKES speaks to Professor Graham Scambler. Emeritus Professor of Sociology at UCL.

Why did you become an academic?

It was unplanned drift, but it suited my temperament. Here was an opportunity to read, think, teach and write, a job moreover that – then – offered security, a decent income and substantial autonomy in relation to work practice.

If you were not an academic what would you be?

That’s a tricky question since I would probably opt to do it all over again, despite the changed ecology of academia. Does freelance author count? I’ve never appreciated being ‘directed’ or ‘managed’. A UCL colleague once told me I had ‘oppositional-defiance disorder’, and she might have had a point. Otherwise it’s a toss up between social worker and full-time activist, both tough briefs amounting these days to sociology-in-practice.

When was the first time you felt accomplished as an academic?

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt ‘accomplished’. There have been transitions of course, institutional and intellectual. I vividly recall my first (half-time) lectureship at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School in 1972, a major lift. My Ph.D took me eleven years and its completion in 1983 was something of an anti-climax. ‘Sociology as Applied to Medicine’, first edition of which was published in 1982, was a worthwhile and satisfying venture, though since it was a genuinely cooperative effort little credit accrues to me. My analysis of (‘felt’ and ‘enacted’) stigma saw the light of day in 1986, and ‘Sociological Theory and Medical Sociology’ in 1987, from which point my work began to be cited. I suppose I felt settled into the role by this time. I suspect it is a typical characteristic of academics to feel that they as well as their research are ‘works-in-progress’. Perhaps, as Sartre would have said, ‘beings-for-self’ are ever in the process of becoming accomplished!

What are the best and worst reviewer’s comments you’ve ever received?

If ‘worst’ here means negative about my work, then some social epidemiologists continue to see (me and) my ‘meta-constructive’ contributions to the study of health inequalities as a complete waste of space. If ‘worst’ refers to the refereeing process itself, then I recall that one referee for the Journal of the Royal College of GPs obviously hadn’t understood any of my straightforward empirical findings at all. This really irritates. In terms of ‘best’ comments, I’ve had some generous comments over the years that have been much appreciated. Some referees are impressively conscientious and helpful I have to say (for which we editors have cause to be grateful).

If you could do one thing to improve population health in the UK what would it be?

In my work on health inequalities I have developed a notion of ‘asset flows’ that are conducive to health and longevity (biological, psychological, social, cultural, spatial, symbolic and, above all, material). Forced into a general statement, I would say that it is the task of public health to strengthen more of these asset flows via its interventions than it weakens. But there is a qualification: the flow of material assets should never be weakened via public health interventions. Wealth and income inequality are key for health inequalities. It is the wealthy and powerful – or sociologically, the social structures and relations that sustain them – that undermine the health and life expectancy of the poor and powerless (for Engels, a form of homicide).

How do you achieve a work life balance?

I retired in 2013, so find myself in a new situation. The downside of the autonomy an academic enjoys is the lack of any clear demarcation between work and play. It is too easy, especially in today’s more exploitative environment, to work for too long. I found that when I briefly came under pressure to deliver high-impact papers towards the end of my career I could find myself on a roller-coaster: finish one paper and immediately start another (two or three). This can be bad. I also know several people with great productivity records whose work amounts to nothing very much. Quality of work and life is the overriding issue. I would counsel younger colleagues: (a) to devise strategies to protect life outside work; and (b) to work collectively to resist institutional pressures to over-commit (line-managers are more likely to be making their careers on the backs of those they manage these days than was the case a generation ago).

How has academia changed since you started?

The academic world has changed a lot. Although I sometimes forget how hard I worked in my 20s and 30s, the pressure was far less then. Now, in our ever-accelerating, neo-liberal universities, obsessed with chasing revenue, rankings and world tables, academics are more like pawns in the games of others. Sennett puts it wonderfully well when he says that workers in general must now be proactive in an era of unprecedented uncertainty: you have to guess, but guess right. Worse, an academic can do everything that is demanded of her or him and then face redundancy because goalposts have moved as a result of a random decision by a vice-chancellor (like when a world-class department is closed down ‘for strategic reasons).

But remember, I would probably do it again.

 What makes you happiest?

Now I’m retired I have redefined working as writing. In this context I am rarely happier than when sitting on my own in a café or bar with my laptop, tweeting, blogging or drafting a book, chapter or another paper. I can’t imagine stopping doing this. Outside of work/writing, there are the usual things: time with family (especially in bookshops); and watching England win the rugby world cup in 2015.

What is your favourite book?

When I was at school I survived on a diet of Jennings. The book that most influenced me post-school was probably Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’, which converted me to socialism although I didn’t know it at the time. Intellectually, Bhaskar’s ‘Realist Theory of Science’ and Habermas’ ‘Theory of Communicative Action’ have influenced me most. I still read the classics and lap up James Lee Burke’s novels (not thrillers).

Where is your favourite place in the world?

The village of Mickleham and nearby Dorking aside, and allowing for a continuing day-a-week city fix in London, jazz-mad New Orleans springs to mind. But then there are so many places for so many different reasons, from numerous Greek island hideouts, to Venice and Florence, to Cortona, one of our favourite haunts in Tuscany, to individual cafes and bars spread throughout the globe.

If you could go back in time and do one thing differently what would it be?

I’m not sure it pays to think like this. I studiously avoided ‘running things’, so never found out if I had any aptitude for it. I also had a celebratory drink when I failed to land a research grant, not wanting to be diverted from my kind of scholarship (‘metaconstruction’). The downside of this was that over time I became more or less unfundable. Looking back, I would have liked to have done more hands-on research – what I did early on I enjoyed – but it would have had to have been on my own terms (a rare luxury these days).

Who has helped you most in your career?

George Brown, my Ph.D supervisor, was distracted but supportive, and Margot Jefferys remained a continuous source of encouragement. I have been lucky with my close colleagues: David Blane, Ray Fitzpatrick, Paul Higgs and Fiona Stevenson. Otherwise, all those hundreds I have consulted and read (Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’: every time you enter dialogue or read your perspective shifts a little). Above all, Annette and my four daughters provided the compass.

What part of your job do you find most challenging?

‘Challenge 1’ I will understand intellectually; ‘challenge 2’ denotes mind-numbing bureaucratic and micro-political nonsense. Challenge 1 continues into retirement: I have always wanted to deepen and extend my analysis of how things are and why. It is a very personal project, for good or bad. I have ever been a solitary worker/writer, so in a sense mine has been a self-education, albeit while feeding hungrily from the writings of others. Eccentrically, perhaps, I have felt positive about books, chapters and papers that moved my understanding on a bit, while what other people think of it all has been a secondary concern. As far as challenge 2 goes, one example will suffice: my one-time head of department – of medicine – at UCL instructed me to bring in a small grant of, ‘say, £1m’, and to publish in ‘Nature’. Clever people can be extraordinarily stupid, getting in the way of genuine scholarship.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Doubtless there have been many I’ve absorbed and forgotten. But I do remember George Brown advising me not to try to get my philosophy and theory sorted/out of the way before engaging with substantive research; rather, he suggested, start the research and discover how much of what philosophy and theory you need as you go. Wise words.

A number of these issues are discussed in blogs at: www.grahamscambler.com.

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