Ray Pahl, friendship and the emergence of Discover Society magazine

By John Holmwood, University of Nottingham, President of the British Sociological Association and Managing Editor of Discover Society

Discover society logo

Earlier this month a new online magazine, Discover Society, was launched. The magazine features articles on social research, policy analysis and commentary, and is supported by the British Sociological Association, the Social Policy Association and Policy Press.

The seed of the project was planted when some of us who went on to set up Discover Society met with Ray Pahl, the eminent sociologist best known for his studies of social interaction, polarisation, work and friendship in suburban and post-industrial communities, shortly before he died in June 2011. We talked about a range of topics, including the fate of universities in the face of marketisation, the financial crisis, and the increasing hardship on the front-line of austerity Britain. We also talked about the future of social research – in truth, the future of sociology and the special character of the sociological imagination and its public relevance.

Ray researched and wrote about communities, but he also wrote for communities. As part of our visits to Ray, we also helped arrange his papers. In a dusty attic space, old copies of New Society were piled up and he pointed to them and said, “That’s what we need today. Without a magazine to disseminate sociology and social policy, there will be no real engagement.” Ray had written for New Society and, like many others – as the response to Mike Savage’s article on the magazine in our first issue shows – had felt its demise in 1988 keenly. He associated its closure with the changing tenor of the times and the claim that there was no such thing as society associated with the promotion of neo-liberal policies designed to make the claim a reality.

Ray’s comment was a challenge to remember that a common strand in the plural nature of social research is a commitment to engage in and engender public debate. It is no accident that Ray wrote about communities and about friendship. The North American political theorist and community advocate, Danielle Allen, has also argued that a reinvigorated public debate needs to cultivate the arts of friendship in order to develop new solidarities.

It is out of such solidarities that Discover Society has developed. In proposing it, the first question we were asked was about our business plan (given that New Society had folded, how might we succeed?). We decided that academic friendship – collegiality, if you will – could make it happen as a common commitment to show what the disciplines of sociology and social policy could contribute to public debate. Support from like-minded friends at Policy Press has followed.

Friendship entails commitment and, in the case of Discover Society, this is also commitment to a wider purpose. Our masthead contains the phrase, ‘measured – factual – critical’, and under this rubric our contributors will document the operations of power, inequality, and the unintended consequences of policy interventions as well as their often problematic basis in social fact. However, we will also document solidarities, limits to the development of solidarities, and the means of overcoming these limits. Public debate needs more argument, but it also requires the motivation to act across differences. To understand when making common cause is the most important thing.

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