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


2 Responses to Reflections on #britsoc12

  1. Pingback: Sociology – professional or pragmatic? | Note Book

  2. Pingback: » Sociology – professional or pragmatic? The Sociological Imagination

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