Would C Wright Mills have kept a blog?

C Wright Mills on his BMW motorbike

I love this picture. I still have two motorbikes and ride them regularly

After a particularly inspiring session at the BSA Conference this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of C. Wright Mills’ death, I have started to read The Sociological Imagination again. It was a standard introductory book for sociology students and I first read it when I was studying for A Level sociology at an adult education centre as a mature student in 1977. I have used the famous quote about private problems and public issues on many occasions over the years as a teacher. In fact the opening lecture of a research methods course I taught for 22 years used this quotation alongside a passage from H G Wells’ History of Mr Polly that beautifully illustrates, in the context of the desperate fate the bewildered Mr Polly was experiencing in common with much of the Victorian petty bourgeoisie, the sociological imagination.

I re-read the opening chapter of the book, The Promise, and then turned to the appendix, On Intellectual Craftsmanship. I’m not sure I’d read it before as it didn’t ring any bells but to my surprise I found myself reading a strong rationale for and recommendation to keep a blog. It is essential, he claims, to not keep your scholarly work and your life separate. You must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work, to continually examine and interpret it. To this end you should keep a file. “The sociologist’s need for systematic reflection demands it”. It is worth reading the detailed account he gives on how the file should be used to achieve this. In almost every particular he is describing why and how I and others I know use a blog.

The file should contain as separate items records of personal experiences relevant to self and sociological reflection, ‘fringe’ thoughts, snatches of conversation, half formed ideas, notes on current and possible projects and plans, quotations from and reviews of books and articles, biographical items, all filed under various headings. Even in his time he identified the stultifying affects of putting together research plans to satisfy funders and how the planning is geared up to attracting money. In addition to this (necessary) pursuit the social scientist should find time to review ‘the state of my problems and plans’ and think in broader terms than the agenda as specified by the available funding opportunities. As projects take shape and firm up various items in the file can be re-ordered in terms of relevance for the projects. Items can be re-categorised and reordered as necessary. “The file will contain a growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished”. One key organising principle of the file is to pay attention to the stratified nature of society – history, structure and processes but also individual experience, understandings and problems, your own and others’. As your sociological imagination develops, so does your intellectual capacity. He recommends writing a reasonably substantial piece at least once a week. For students and early career sociologists the file is a way of developing a writing style, finding a voice and gaining confidence.

Many reading this will recognise the similarity of this account with discussions of why use a blog. It certainly coincides with my own practice. This blog is full of the items listed above. It also has over 40 draft and private entries that are work in progress or items waiting to become parts of a more polished post to share with readers. Some will never see the light of public day. The facility to categorise and tag posts makes a blog an ideal tool for flexibly re-ordering and associating different items. Obviously text can be cut and paste from posts at will. One advantage of using a blog that was not available to C. Wright Mills is the ability to have a public aspect to engage with a broad readership and exchange comments on items and pieces of writing, or for others to discover you via overlapping readerships and social networking, and to develop a digital presence and identity. I would guess that, if C. Wright Mills was alive today he would at least be encouraging his students to keep a blog and probably be keeping one of his own.

Reflections on #britsoc12

I enjoyed the BSA 2012 conference in Leeds that finished yesterday and came away re-enthused about sociology as a vocation and as a political project and mildly optimistic about its future. I have come away with my head buzzing with half formed ideas, fragments of talks and conversations, pages of barely legible notes and a dozen or more issues I want to follow up and projects I want to start or be involved in. It seemed to me that in the presentations I went to and in conversations I had a few interconnected themes kept recurring – the problem of sociology’s publics, the necessity for sociology to de-objectify society and social actors, and the practice of sociology as a normative and politically engaged vocation. While I can still remember them, these are a few initial notes and observations around these topics.

Zygmunt Bauman in his talk to the PG Forum on Tuesday and in his keynote on Wednesday acknowledged there is the perception of a crisis in sociology. This is usually construed as sociology losing touch with its public. For Zygmunt this is a due to the public that sociology emerged historically to serve – legislators, managers, bureaucrats, administrators, more generally those concerned with and responsible for social control, social order, making people and processes predictable – having changed so that it no longer requires the services of a sociology of order and control, or as Zygmunt termed it, a sociology of unfreedom. Without going into much detail, he puts this down to some key aspects of what he calls liquid modernity. This includes a growing awareness of the fact that change is the only constant and the only certainty is the permanence of uncertainty. This has had a profound effect on institutions and organisations, effects that can be evidenced and demonstrated in many ways. It has also had a profound effect on individuals. Organisations deal with uncertainty by developing new organisational forms and management techniques. These are based on strategies that externalise aspects of organisation, risk and responsibility coupled to what Zygmunt calls ‘the managerial revolution Mark II’ and new forms of social control and domination. The effect of outsourcing, contracting out, off shoring and subsidiarising shifts responsibility to often far flung complex chains made up of units of ever diminishing power and control. This was amply demonstrated by the last keynote where we were told how financialisation has led to virulent forms of profit seeking and has changed the way businesses are structured and organised and their relation to their employees. The shift indicated in this presentation from ‘managerial capitalism’ to ‘financial capitalism’ seems to map quite nicely onto Zygmunt’s claimed shift between the first wave of ‘scientific’ management to the less easily characterised managerial revolution Mark II. Somewhat flippantly, I tend to think of this as, let a thousand flowers bloom (to slightly misquote Mao Zedong) and we will find a way of making money out of all of them, passing as much risk as possible to suppliers, labour, governments and the public. It is evident that not everyone is equal in a world of uncertainty. Those closer to the sources of uncertainty have greater risks and more precarious lives. In the corporate and financial world this is signalled to some extent by a shifting emphasis from the ‘sustainability’ of business and operations to their ‘resilience’, a rather less inclusive term that implies processes of casting adrift and sacrificing in order to protect the ‘core’ business and key objectives – basically to extract profits and preserve shareholder value.

Business now is geared to an operational environment and a world of uncertainty that does not require explicit micromanagement of populations. Individuals, faced with uncertainty, with no guarantees of a final destination or happy ending, the withering of public goods like the welfare state, etc. relate to this new world as competitors seeking security as best they can. Social control is now largely exerted through a combination of fragmentation, individuation, debt and fear alongside forms of persuasion and the manufacture of desire. As Burawoy pointed out in his talk, many of the precariat and unemployed are seeking opportunities to be exploited. Trades Unions are fighting on behalf of their members to be exploited. Zizek, in a recent article, described this as being one of the main driving concerns of recent student protests. To a certain extent, historically, the middle classes have been incorporated and controlled by being given a reasonable share of the surplus and secure employment. Increasingly sections of this class have seen their job security diminished, their wages and conditions of work eroded and are, in short, becoming part of the precariat. Precariousness is not new. It’s just novel for a much larger section for the population who have not experienced it and don’t expect it. According to Zizek, student protest can be seen as a reaction to and a resistance against the attack on the sections of the occupational structure they assumed they were destined for and its, up to now, taken for granted privileges. In other words, an attack on their futures. I would say there is some evidence of this from my own experience and observations but personally I am much more hopeful of the sorts of politicised consciousnesses and concerns that I see in play. This, I think, points to the continuing and growing importance of encouraging the spread of a sociological imagination.

On the question of the public, John Holmwood made some interesting observations in one of the sessions drawing on, I think, the ideas of Dewey. Publics are not a given. They are in any case, intrinsically, or at least originally, passive, made as they are by forces external to individuals that create the conditions for them to form a public, recognise themselves as members of that public and therefore have the potential to become active citizens. (This sounds a bit like Marx’s ideas on the socialisation of an industrial proletariat and the development of class consciousness in the context of factory organisation and work, etc. A problem today is that with the shift to a society of individualised consumers and a fragmented competing precariat, the conditions for developing forms of solidarity are much harder to identify). Citizenship in this (Dewey’s?) view depends upon individuals coming to see themselves as members of a public with interests in common with other members. If this is the case sociology by itself cannot conjure up its putative public but must look for trends and circumstances where publics are being formed and hitch their wagon to these as partners. I guess this is tantamount to looking for processes of politicisation where individuals and groups, through force of circumstance, are developing a reflexive and reflective capacity to confront their problems and issues. Then the question is how to engage with these individuals, groups and processes.

Several things follow from this that are worth thinking about. Seeing yourself as a member of a public, the notion that your individual worries and problems are in common with others in a similar position and are linked to conditions you have in common and that your fate as an individual is tied up somehow with other members of that public is itself an act of sociological imagination. Everyone has the potential to be, in fact is to some extent, a sociologist in this sense. Taken further, a sociological imagination can be seen as a requirement of citizenship, in fact is a constitutive component of citizenship. This has implications for professional and institutionalised sociology and the teaching of sociology. Whatever else we do as teachers of sociology, we are sending tens of thousands of individuals each year into the world of work and, hopefully, active citizenship, whatever they end up doing for a job. Employability is important and it would be a dereliction of duty not to help students prepare for the world of work. But with the ever increasing colonisation of the public by the private, the uncoupling of power from politics that so many people spoke about at the conference, the hollowing out and destruction of our democratic institutions and processes, and the rapid destruction of spaces and forms of public discourse and/or their hijacking by the neoliberal agenda and ideology, active citizenship informed by sociological imagination is more important than ever. To end for the moment on a more optimistic note, according to Zygmunt Bauman, the decoupling of sociology from its old public of legislators, bureaucrats and managers, far from being a crisis is a great opportunity for sociology to rediscover its true vocation as a science of freedom. Rather than seeing sociology as in crisis he sees it as having a crucial role in relation to what he calls the current ‘crisis in agency’. He claims, and who am I to disagree, that in his over 60 years of being a sociologist, this is the most exciting and important time for sociology he can remember. I have been a sociologist for 34 years and the statement certainly rings true for me. Obviously there is a lot more that needs to be said about what sort of sociology he and/or we are talking about, its practice, its relation to the experience, the commonsense and knowledge of the public we wish to engage with and how that engagement can take place. For the moment I will be pursuing this personally through Zygmunt’s ideas on what sociology should be and its role today. He certainly sees sociology as a vocation and a way of being in the world. To repeat one of his favourite quotes from Jeffrey Alexander – “sociology’s future, at least its immediate future, lies in an effort to reincarnate and re-establish itself as a cultural politics in the service of human freedom”. But I would add to this, as Burawoy stated at the beginning of his talk, we need a theory of capitalism. To be of service in the cause of human freedom we need a pretty good understanding of the causes of unfreedom.

I would be very happy to learn of other blog posts reflecting or reporting on the conference. Please let me know, perhaps by leaving a comment here or tweeting using the #britsoc12 tag. The posts I am aware of so far are:

Sociology in distress? From austerity to a way forward by Paola Tubaro

The British Sociological Association Annual Conference by Mark Hawker

The trouble with being human these days – a review by Graham Stacey. This film was shown 3 times over the conference!

Becoming Sociological  by Sarah Burton

My reflections on my first conference by Jon Rainford

The inevitability of simplification?

Reading a recent exchange between Doug Belshaw and Dave Cormier on Doug’s blog post Gaining Some Perspective on Badges for Lifelong Learning prompted me to think about the role of simplicity and simplification in teaching and learning. You may wish to check the discussion yourself but I think Dave’s point is to claim simple solutions are possible for complex problems is tantamount to denying the underlying complexity itself. This is argued against Doug’s position that a possible approach to the problem of complexity is to try and provide simple solutions.

I’m with Dave in that I believe reality is ‘actually’ (ontologically) complex, uncertain, multilayered, emergent, and in important ways underdetermined and contingent. I am with Doug in that we have to simplify in order to understand and act. I say ‘have to’ because I don’t believe we have any choice in the matter. If this is correct the question is not whether we should simplify or not. The question is how to simplify without compromising our aims and objectives. This means that our simplifications must map onto actual features of the complex processes we wish to understand and intervene in and find ways to do this that minimise the influence of ideologically informed wishful thinking. I guess this is just another way of saying that some simplifications are better than others and so the debate is about how we can make these distinctions rather than do we simplify or not.

Simplification is what language does (and this includes the language of mathematics). We could not grasp the world or communicate without constructing concepts and categories. Language is profoundly metaphorical. It is a symbolic representation based on multiple forms of simplification – metaphor, similes, signifiers, concepts and categories. This is evident in our most developed forms of knowledge. In sociology we have Weber’s ideal types, Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity, anomie and alienation, competing models of class structure, the construction and selection of independent and dependent variables, and so on. It hardly needs emphasising that the crude mathematical simplifications constructed by mainstream economics are so far divorced from the complexity of the real world of ‘economic’ behaviour and the systemic features of human groups and societies that they are a significant part of the story of our recent woes. It is an interesting lesson that the increasing complexity of the economic ‘engineers’ mathematical models did not bring them one iota closer to predicting or even providing an explanation of the crash. Increasing complexity of the models did not lead to a better fit to the actual complexity of the processes being modelled. Complexification does not automatically equate to the improved ontological fit of the model

In the natural sciences it was Thomas Kuhn (developing the ideas of the scientist Ludvig Fleck) who first demonstrated that scientific theories are simplifications and, as such, develop increasing numbers of unexplainable (in the terms of the current theory) anomalies that scientists initially protect their theories from. Then, at some point, a competing theory is sufficiently developed to both explain what the old theory did and the anomalies. Although this pattern of scientific change is not without its critics and problems there are many historical examples of this sort of process. In physics, from the point of view of the theory of relativity Newtonian Mechanics is a simplification and incorrect in a number of demonstrable ways, despite being adequate for getting humans on the Moon. In geology, the simplification of geological processes according to the once dominant ‘fixist’ theory was shown to be fundamentally flawed with the discovery of the much more complex theory of plate tectonics (the mobilists).

History seems to suggest that simplification is inevitable and unavoidable but the simplifications improve in the face of their application in research and in practical application in the real world. Very often the theories and models become less simple, knowledge more esoteric, but they remain simplifications none-the-less.

As a teacher dealing with complex issues (for instance the relation between history, politics, culture, science, technology, economics, society, ecosystems, etc. in my Society and the Environment module) I am constantly simplifying in order to complexify later. This is, I think, my approach to my own learning as well as teaching. But I am the simplifier and as such make the decisions about what is central to understanding, what can be ignored for current purposes (who’s purpose? my purpose?) and what can be left in black boxes that can be opened later as part of the complexifying process. So simplicity always involves selection on the basis of some criteria, some explicit and known but others due to factors embedded in language, common-sense and taken for granted, unexamined, assumptions. This seems to me to be inevitable. But I have a particular world view and value orientation that leads me to select theorists, data, examples and arguments that emphasise the role and effects of globalising footloose capitalism and its neoliberal underpinnings. I think this is essential to understanding environmental issues. But it would be possible to construct an account of the environmental issues based entirely on a Whig history of science and technology for instance that takes for granted precisely what I want to bring a critical gaze to. My students know exactly what my position is and the assumptions and values that inform my approach to understanding and explanation. They know this because I tell them and then exemplify them in my approach. They are privy to the process of my knowledge construction. They know I am offering a particular view and they can see the nuts and bolts of my construction process. The discussion of the process is integral to the discussion of the knowledge claims. I would argue that exposure to this process is at least as important and maybe more so than the packaged simplifications I offer.

Gramsci said in his article about popular education (Avanti, 29 December 1916) that his most effective teachers where those that insisted students should know about the long, messy social history of the making of the current knowledge they were being asked to learn. This demonstrates an element of contingency in knowledge, at the very least the existence of two entwined strands in the history of knowledge, what Bachelard called lapsed and sanctioned histories. A key result of this approach is that students become aware that knowledge is a moment in a process of change, not a body of final truths and techniques. As students they are entering this process, not consuming its current manifestations as a product or outcome. I guess my approach to the inevitability of simplification is to embrace it but at the same time historicise and problematise it.

As a footnote to this post, I recently came across the video of Richard Sennett’s  Compass Annual Lecture 2012  entitled The Craft of Cooperation in which he expressed some interesting ideas on the pernicious use of simplification. The relevant section of the video is between 20 minutes 20 seconds and 23 minutes 35 seconds although I would recommend the whole lecture. Sennett makes a distinction between declarative speech and subjunctive speech. Declarative speech is basically this is what I think, take it or leave it. It forecloses on the possibility of ambiguity, discussion and negotiated meaning. When people say I want to be as clear as possible they usually simplify and try to be as precise as possible. But, in Sennett’s view, socially this forecloses the ability to have a discussion. He prefers the subjunctive mode of speech that includes maybes and perhapses. I’d be interested to know what others think of Sennetts ideas here. My feeling is that no doubt he is right some of the time but this by no means covers all of what I mean by simplification and its possible roles. There are modes of simplification in different contexts and they do not all foreclose on ambiguity and discussion. You can simplify in the subjunctive mode of speech as well as the declarative. I would like to think I teach and engage in discussion very much in the subjunctive mode. But perhaps not always.