Thursday 6 March 2014

Festschrift and time shift

Yesterday afternoon, to the Old Refectory at UCL to attend a celebration of the work of Prof Graham Scambler, a long time colleague and friend. Five lectures on social theory and health, with an audience composed of fellow sociologists, former students, and his family and grandchildren.

The pleasures of academia come from discovery and influence: finding out new things; hearing from a student that they were inspired by a lecture or book; noting that a paper written long ago still has some impact; or that a new journal has finally established an academic niche. In academia such feedback is often much delayed, partly by publication processes which may run to a year and partly by the slow rate at which new publications find their way into student textbooks. At this particular celebration the former students who gave talks had achieved professorial rank, but still remembered their origins and their path to increased understanding. Although several joked about his vast library, only one speaker mentioned that Graham was primarily an intellectual,  but the dread word passed quickly without causing embarrassment to English sensibilities. In a sense all his students had been drawn in to his ambit by a single finding from his PhD thesis, which was that the social and personal impact of being diagnosed as epileptic was often greater than the medical severity of the condition.

Reflecting on the talks, Graham noted that he had somewhat marred the event by not yet being dead. He spoke about a central dilemma of sociology, which is the tension between investigating social forces and trying to change them. Psychology does not lack applied practitioners, but sociology is awkwardly poised between those who advise governments (at least one speaker was involved in health policy and grant allocation) and those, like Graham, who between publications want to man the barricades.

As a coda, as the speakers gave their accounts, 40 years of academic life flashed by: the realisation in the early 70’s that traditional medical education had many shortcomings from the patient point of view, leading eventually to the sudden recruiting of sociologists and psychologists to try to make a difference; all this sullenly accepted by medical schools who doubted that the experiment would work, and resented the reductions in their teaching hours. The students were almost uniformly male, and thought of medicine as a refined form of rugby. To defend themselves, the new entrants wrote text books and set exam questions based on them. Our group at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School (two psychologists, two sociologists) took the unusual step of collaborating on a book “The Experience of Illness” (1984) which brought together psychological and sociological perspective (to give you a flavour: “The interview is the one thing which distinguishes medicine from veterinary surgery”) and which in turn launched a dozen monographs. We won the initial battles, recruited students to our Intercalated BSc courses, marked exams, started research. And now, as the decades have passed, behavioural sciences courses have got shorter, the lecturers fewer, exam time far shorter and now vacant posts are often not replaced. The wave has passed.

Then drinks in the Haldane room and the inevitable halting ramble through city streets of a small gaggle of academics trying to find their way to an Indian restaurant which was just round the corner, somewhere.  In all, a very English celebration: low key, friendly and irreverent, and no evasion of differences amidst wry, amused reflection.

In the words of the 1968 Mary Hopkin song: “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end”, the days of hope and very earnest lectures which were going to change the face of medicine.


  1. that's nice of the department to do all that, btw. sounds bittersweet - comrades who've been through the wars together. i wonder what his reflections are on the future of social sciences - which seemed to offer more promise 50 years ago - to have an independent viable future (e.g., possibilities of useful discovery separate from biology). but, now (or soon) studying or working with living organisms (humans!) probably benefits from a more evolutionary-biological approach (i.e., psychology should be a specialization within biology)... but don't listen to me - sometimes i think instead of tenure, academia might benefit from "term limits." :)