Christopher Smith rattles off an A level in Sociology


Regular readers will know that I am not a great football fan, preferring a day in the sun with one eye on a cricket match and the other eye on a picnic, but I am not ‘opposed’ to football. I even go to a match occasionally, and I rather enjoyed living near Selhurst Park when I was in South London, in the days before Crystal Palace’s promotion to the Premiership – tickets were cheaper then.

But in the light of a recent news story, I wonder just how many people go to football matches to watch the football, and how many go to watch the people around them. A sixth-form college in Brighton has recently caused a bit of a storm by organizing a trip for some students to see Millwall FC play, and so undertake the kind of the kind of manwatching we used to associate with Desmond Morris. Varndean College is on the north side of Brighton, and takes its name from an old farm. It is a mere ten minutes’ drive from the home of Brighton and Hove Albion, the great rivals of Crystal Palace. But neither the Seagulls nor the Eagles are of interest to Varndean College, for this trip was being organized by their Sociology department, and the objects of their desires were the Lions of Millwall.

Up went the poster, and, of course, details of the excursion didn’t take long to find their way into the national press. And lo, all my prejudices about sociology and sociologists are confirmed. Millwall, of course, do have a rather difficult record when it comes to their fans’ behaviour, and perhaps it was this that led to the tantalizing promise of the chance for budding sociologists to observe ‘working class culture and habits’, and to see ‘hyper masculinity’ as well as ‘hegemonic masculinity’ being practised by the natives. Like train spotters looking for the Flying Scotsman, the students would hope to see ‘new lads’ through their binoculars, and possibly even a glimpse of ‘issues around sexuality, race and ethnicity’. The things some people will do for an A level! If they were exceptionally lucky, they might have seen some ‘women challenging gender norms’. Welcome to the Church of England, where, of course, we have now given up on hegemonic masculinity altogether.

So come and be a sociologist – you might ‘even talk to’ some fans, and have a meat pie and some warm Bovril at half time. Could it conceivably be any more patronizing?

Before I started training for the priesthood, some chump in the hierarchy thought I ought to read a book about sociology. It was a textbook with eighteen chapters, of which the last (and shortest) was entitled ‘Religion’, although religion did also get a mention in chapter two, ‘Social Control’. I still have this wretched book, thanks to my inability to dispose of anything from my library, and the chapter on religion is divided into sections called ‘religion and society’, ‘religion and social order’, ‘religion – the opium of the people’ and ‘secularisation’. Religion, we learn, strengthens social norms and values, and ‘contributes to order and stability in society’. Its ceremonies produce social solidarity. Its practitioners experience a sense of belonging, and feel part of something bigger than themselves. Who’d have thought it? Maybe this sociology lark isn’t so difficult.

Four pages in, though, the chapter has left behind any positives that religion might have to offer, and is discussing its function as the opium of the people: ‘it provides an illusion of happiness and offers an imaginary escape from problems.’ To the sociologist’s relief, however, secularization is moving in fast. And this mid-Eighties book ends with a quotation from another, from the mid-Seventies: ‘it would probably be a mistake to conclude that religion is doomed. There is, and probably always will be, a deeply committed minority of religious people. However, for the vast majority, religion is becoming simply an optional extra.’

It would be interesting to know whether the author had the Church of England specifically in mind when he wrote those sentences. Usual Sunday attendance has more than halved in my lifetime, and I’m forty-seven, since you ask. On the worst-attended Sunday in 2013, fewer than 640,000 people went to church in an Anglican church in England, with the average Sunday attendance being 775,000, of whom 662,000 were adults. That’s a 5% drop in five years, and 29% of us are now over 70. Meanwhile, fewer than a hundred people were confirmed in the diocese of Truro in 2013, and thirteen dioceses confirmed fewer than a hundred males (plus the diocese of Sodor and Man, but the island only has a population of 86,000), with another seven only just getting over a hundred. That’s twenty dioceses out of forty-two. Twenty-seven of those dioceses put on fewer than fifty confirmation services, which does make one wonder what on earth all those suffragan bishops do with their time.

Now many a sociologist probably looks with glee on these statistics. The people no longer have their opiate, but have become accustomed to the harsh reality of the Godless universe. We Christians can take precious little comfort from them, although we might shake our heads and wonder where the ceaseless innovating of the Church of England has actually got us. And one wonders what the sociologists, as the years have gone by, have made of the new opiates, as the amount of religious observance outside the Church steadily rises, and the numbers at the mosque go up and up. Christianity has the oldest age profile of any religion in England now, and Islam the youngest. Perhaps the new bishops of 2015 will help us compete again.