I went abroad to get a PhD and the right to call myself a “sociologist” – but it was at Maynooth University that my sociological imagination was fired..... Sociology, at its best, is about asking big questions, and challenging 'commonsense' ideas about how the world works – whether that's the commonsense of the pub, of the media, of politicians or of sundry 'experts'. Is there really a 'clash of civilizations'? Do the police always go after the bad guys? Do markets really work the way economists say they do? Why are poor people – and poor countries – poor? Irish sociology has tied our small island into these global debates.
Some important questions have been asked, but many remain to be answered. What kind of society do we live in? Is Ireland a 'normal' Western European country, or a scarred, divided, postcolonial periphery? Why, after 1922, did the victors of the 'Irish Revolution' build a clientelist state in the image of the Catholic church and the cattle ranchers, rather than drag their new Ireland into the twentieth century? Why do many self-respecting Irish people think that racism is 'bad' – but that it's socially acceptable to talk about Travellers and inner-city Dubs in terms reminiscent of 1930s Alabama or Apartheid South Africa? How can the Republic have among the highest rates of GDP per capita in Europe, but be effectively bankrupt at the same time? And when the government bankrupted the state by making private bank debts public, why did no-one do anything about it?
We are regularly told how well-educated the workforce of 'Ireland Inc.' is. But if we are so smart, why don't we ask these sorts of questions more often? Sociologists have not answered all of them. But important conversations have been started. Maynooth scholars have been central to this, and as a graduate of Maynooth University, I can testify that some of the best critical thinkers on Irish society can be found on campus. Donagh Davis PhD researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy (Department of Political and Social Sciences) Visiting researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, Fall 2011.