Sociology meets Theatre


guest blog post by Professor Esther Dermott, University of Bristol


When Tina and Kristina emailed me, saying that they had come across my sociological work on fatherhood, and was I interested in collaborating on a new theatre piece, I was excited. There was an element of feeling flattered (for sure) but mainly interest in the prospect of doing something new; this was a very different prospect to writing a journal article or designing a research project.

I was also nervous, mainly because I wondered what DadMan was going to say about fathers and fatherhood. My work argues that contemporary fatherhood has changed. Specifically, that the idea of intimacy captures the essence of what men are looking for in a relationship with their children and is central to parenting practices now being adopted by men. So initially I worried that the play might pander to tired clichés about male incompetence that I have tried to challenge. Once I spoke to Kristina and Tina that concern went away: they had a feminist sensibility and wanted to capture the tensions between different kinds of work and care in a nuanced way that made sense to me.

My other thought was about how my academic work could possibly inform the piece. In an early version of the show, one scene had text from my book on fatherhood read aloud from a lectern, intercut with a father crawling round the floor engaged in childcare and expressing his worries about being a dad. I could see what the scene was trying to do, for me, it highlighted the tension between the detail of the everyday and more general claims about male parenting. But it also highlighted the limits of academic writing as ‘drama’ – my words just sounded really boring. In revising that element, Tina and Kristina were able to be informed by my research without being bounded by it, and to use sociological terms in a way that is also entertaining.

‘Impact’ is the term used in academia for taking your research outside of the university. Basically, it means that someone who is not an academic is interested in your ideas. Having that happen, and being involved in helping to make a piece of theatre, has been great. It has made me think again about what sociology can and can’t communicate about families, how we as academics talk to publics and the role that the arts can play in that.

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