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Do you really want to tear down those bars?

Dr. Helen Johnson

28 Apr 2022

One year I was attending a conference and my PhD supervisor couldn’t go so he tasked me to create ...

One year I was attending a conference and my PhD supervisor couldn’t go so he tasked me to create a presentation. Now, my PhD supervisor loved to call people out on their BS (this is why we got along eh) and he had a very specific topic in mind on this day. The presentation was an attack on a particular kind of research. The kind that likes to put a magnifying glass to things – and to essentially serve the curiosity of the researcher and their audience – but ultimately has no interest in the actual liberation of the ‘objects’ (read: actual human beings with real life problems) of the research. The theory underpinning this is called ‘Zookeeper Sociology’, an idea introduced by Alvin Gouldner in the 60s.

His argument was basically: you guys like to romanticise and explore and display your ‘specimens’. You like to ‘protect’ them by putting them in lovely cages where they can be safe and fed. BUT YOU HAVE NO ACTUAL INTEREST IN TEARING DOWN THOSE BARS. And that makes you a douche (I don’t think he actually said that part).

An example: a sociologist who spends his life documenting ‘edgy’ subcultures such as the drugs economy, or even graffiti artists, but has no interest in dismantling the disadvantages that keeps people at a level where they are vulnerable to being arrested – because, hey, to an outsider it all seems exciting, forget about the fact that it’s no way to actually live and that new opportunities might pave the way for an easier lifestyle away from police attention… The researcher might argue that the police should leave them alone but a deeper analysis of social marginalisation is not on the agenda – because reform is one thing but RADICAL CHANGE? Nope no thanks. You’d be surprised how many researchers are mainly descriptive with no real agenda for change beyond the most palatable recommendations.

So here’s what I find myself wondering.

Are you putting yourself in a nice, safe cage?

Are you refusing to tear down your own bars?

What would TRUE liberation be?

Because yes, you can play a game and claw some wins for yourself in life, but are you actually letting your spirit be truly free?

What would radical change look like for you?

Don’t be a bloody zookeeper, ok?!

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