Defining and Implementing a Critical Pedagogy

This is a draft article that started life as a collaboration between myself and a number of postgraduate students after the conference mentioned at the beginning of the article. The article was posted in June 2010 using a now defunct WordPress blog using the Digresit theme that allowed paragraph by paragraph commenting. The comments made by collaborators are included at the end of this post.

The Critical Theory and Education Conference last March, organised to launch the student led critical theory journal Roundhouse, was the most enjoyable and stimulating conference I have been to for many years. The topics and discussion were given an added poignancy by the then threat of a lecturers’ strike in response to feared Faculty closures and redundancies. In fact one of the presentations was accompanied by the background noise of a student rally in support of the lecturers’ proposed action. The unrest and conflict at the University of Leeds due to economic cuts and organisational restructuring proposals were seen as symptomatic of many of the changes in University education, its marketisation, the commodification of knowledge, the development of instrumentalism and the general malaise resulting from the adoption of a neoliberal ‘business ontology’. These developments have a number of implications for the role of academics and the experience of students. Some of the contradictions and tensions engendered by these changes can be seen in the confusion about how students are understood: are they ‘customers’ or ‘products’ of the Higher Education system for instance?

A number of common themes and issues emerged from the excellent presentations and discussions. Two I particularly noted were the necessity of developing a critical pedagogy and the difficulty of implementing it in practice within the physical and cultural confines of the University. What do we mean by ‘critical pedagogy’ and how in practice can it inform the process and content of our teaching and learning?

Pedagogy is usually taken to mean the art or science of teaching. A pedagogy will dictate to some extent both the style and the process of teaching. Potentially no doubt there are a number of different critical pedagogies but the general usage is that derived from the sense of ‘critical’ developed by the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School based on the work of Marx. Broadly speaking, Critical Theory has the task of unmasking the reality of capitalist interests and exploitative social relations hidden behind the illusions and obfuscations of the dominant ideology, a dominant ideology that ‘naturalises’, legitimates and secures the conditions necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist system and the social relations it depends upon. Our understanding of the nature of capitalism and ideological processes has moved on a lot since the days of the original Frankfurt critical theorists. Nevertheless critical pedagogy based on critical theory aims to enable students to question and challenge the forms of domination that lead to exploitation, injustice, poverty, and social and environmental degradation. There is a reflexive element in this for both students and teachers. According to the critical educator Paulo Freire, students need to develop the ability to think critically about their education. In particular they should be able to “recognise connections between their individual problems and experiences and the social contexts they are embedded in”. This will sound very familiar to students of sociology who know C. Wright Mills’ work The Sociological Imagination where he says it is the political task of the social scientist – as of any liberal educator – continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. This reflexivity is equally important for teachers and students. A key aspect of critical pedagogy is to question and reconstitute the relationship between teachers and students, so the development of a reflexive critical consciousness is a promising collaborative enterprise in the co-production of a form of knowledge.

But what is this critical consciousness? What is it that we are being asked to be critically conscious of? With earlier theories of ideology this seemed relatively straightforward. The orthodox theory of ideology went something like this. The dominant ideology is the system of ideas and beliefs that reflects the interests, self understanding and world view of the dominant social class. In a capitalist society the dominant class is that which owns and controls the means of production and the disposal of its products. The dominant ideology in various ways colonises and shapes the understandings and world view of the subordinate and exploited classes and so legitimatises the capitalist system and ensures the acquiescence of the population and the conditions for the reproduction of the status quo. Ideology naturalises a state of affairs that is in fact contingent and constructed. Things could be other than they are. Critical theory’s task is to tear away the veil of misinformation, expose the falsity of the consciousness of the ideologically incorporated masses, and reveal the truth of the dominant class interests and the exploitative social relations that serve those interests. Once the exploited class becomes conscious of their exploited position their acquiescence will give way to forms of resistance and revolution. Job done.

There have been two areas of modification to this rather crude conceptualisation of ideology. The emphasis has moved from analysing the content of ideology to expose its distortions and untruths (this epistemological critique of ideology is fraught with all sorts of problems, for instance what would be an undistorted account, what is the ‘truth’?) to a concern with ideology as a process. Examples of this would be Althusser’s work on how ideological processes ‘interpellate’ individuals by ‘addressing’ them and constructing self-identities and self-understandings with which they recognise themselves and understand the world and their place in it, as parents, as workers, as students, as citizens, as captains of industry and so on. This is achieved through the workings of what Alhusser called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) amongst which he identified the family, the media, religious organisations and, most importantly, the education system. Gramsci shows how ideological processes, operating within and shaping the cultural sphere, colonise people’s common sense and shapes beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Both Althusser’s and Gramsci’s work focuses on how forms of ideological domination penetrate and shape individual’s subjective experience, their conscious articulations of their world and life, and, rather more sinister, even the unconscious, unexamined and taken for granted aspects of their selves, their lives and their world. These social psychological and psychoanalytic aspects of ideological processes have been taken up subsequently and developed by many writers and theorists and incorporated into second and third generation critical theory.

The main point to be taken from this though is that it is no longer possible to see ideology simply as a distorted version of reality and all that is needed is to find a way of removing the distorting lens of ideology to see what is ‘really’ going on. This is because ideological processes simultaneously both represent and construct reality. Ideology constructs social relations, shapes mental conceptions, and provides people with repertoires of understanding, action and behaviour. If society is materially and structurally the sum of the outcomes of the agency of social actors, then ideology constructs reality rather than hides a pre-existing reality. It is not simply a contingently constructed representation hiding an underlying ‘actual’ reality. Since reality is partly a construction of ideological processes and representations, reality cannot be appealed to in any simple way to provide an independent falsification of the ideological representation of itself. More accurately, reality can be seen as the result of a process of co-construction, even co-evolution, involving both material and social processes. Reality is itself contingent in that it is a material and social construction actualised by the contingent ideological representations and processes that shape and constrain actors’ mental conceptions and behaviours.

With Gramsci and Althusser, then, we no longer see ideology as just the construction of a psychological illusion. We see ideology more as a process that constructs and is constructing reality, as a social and material reality. This makes a strategy that somehow exposes a non-ideological reality to be placed in opposition to a distorted ideological representation of reality unavailable. However, what can be done is the exposure of the processes by which powerful interests are converted into particular contingent social, cultural, political economic and material realities. This opens the way for different sorts of societies and social arrangements to be envisioned by ‘denaturalising’ the taken for granted ‘realism’ of the status quo. Clearly the ‘real’ has a number of different senses here. If a critical pedagogy aims to expose some aspects of what is ‘really’ going on, then it is important to clarify what we mean by the ‘real’. What is the nature of this ‘real’ and how can it best be understood, investigated and represented in knowledge?

This is where the perspective of Critical Realism may be useful. This is usually traced back to the philosophical and epistemological work of Roy Bhaskar and developed more sociologically by writers such as Margaret Archer and William Outhwaite amongst others. Broadly speaking, Critical Realists assert that reality is multidimensional and stratified. The social and material world we observe is the visible and contingent product of underlying generative mechanisms and processes. The reality we observe is partly contingent on the way human society, symbolically and materially, interacts with these underlying generative processes. This suggests the reality we observe has been and could again be different. I say that reality is partly contingent and shaped by the way we interact with the underlying processes because to some extent these are aspects of ‘intransitive’ reality, i.e. that which is independent of human knowing and human knowledge. One way of thinking about this is to see intransitive reality evidenced in the ways that nature hits back and escapes our techniques of control and intentions, or in the way that the dynamics of social processes produce unintended consequences that confound our social and political strategies and policies. Some processes evidently work beyond our understanding and intentions.

There seem to be clear affinities between Critical Theory and Critical Realism. What we see is the ‘surface of things’. The reality presented to us as observers of the everyday, or even as scientists, is in fact contingent effects, traces, of underlying mechanisms (natural, social, economic). The reality we see and directly experience is symptomatic of deeper invisible processes and the key to understanding the reality we see is to somehow read from these down to the underlying processes that, intermeshing and impacting on one another, produce the surface reality as their emergent and contingent product. The implication is that the self-same processes are capable and could have produced the observable reality differently. The produced reality could be other than it is and part of the explanation of why reality is as it is, contingently, is the exercise within society of economic and cultural power. This emphasis on the contingency of reality associate with the exercise of power is a key point of connection between Critical Theory and Critical Realism. This is why it is ‘critical’ realism. This also has the consequence of generalising some features of ideology, as a representational system and as a meaning-making process, to all forms of knowledge including science. It extends the critique of social forms of knowledge, their embeddedness in social relations and networks of power, to the sciences as well.

Another take on what is real is offered by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism. By capitalist realism he means “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable and political system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine an coherent alternative to it”. (p 2 author’s emphasis). Fisher claims we are now living in a post-ideological age, certainly in the sense of the classical concept of ideology. Capitalism no longer needs to dissemble via ideology. We live in and collude with capitalism with a degree of bad faith and cynicism largely because of a sense of its inevitability and because it is seen as the least bad system. This is a ‘realistic’ acceptance of the capitalist system as “the only act in town”. Symptomatic of this is the prevailing mood that the best we can do is ameliorate its most destructive and unjust consequences. Ameliorate global injustice by buying Fairtrade products. Ameliorate global warming and climate change by trading carbon and the right to pollute. According to Fisher most events in the name of anti-capitalism concede too much to this capitalist realism and, in practice, limit themselves to the ambition to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism rather than replace it. They don’t expect too much. Capitalism can comfortably incorporate anti-capitalism and even exploit it. In his view most anti-capitalist protests create “a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism and […] share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005’s Live 8” (p 14). So capitalist realism is “like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought an action” (author’s emphasis p 16). When politicians repeatedly use the phrase “the reality is that …. “ when prefacing an argument about cutting public expenditure, increasing taxes, privatising some aspect of public services or increasing student fees the reality they invoke is that naturalised by capitalist realism.

Fisher invokes with approval a Lacanian distinction between the ‘Real’ and the ‘real’ that Žižek has recently revived. The Real can be seen as the realm of possibility that a naturalised contingent reality must suppress. The ‘real’ is the contingent reality that has succeeded in naturalising itself by suppressing, by blocking off from consciousness and knowledge, the underlying processes that the maintenance of the contingent reality relies on. The task is to reveal the current reality as contingent and therefore potentially other than it is. To do this we must look for and exploit fissures and tears in reality that provide glimpses of these processes. The connection with Critical Realism’s notion of ‘intransitive reality’ can be seen here. Fisher identifies a number of rents in the fabric of capitalist realism revealed by developments in the environment, in education and in the role of the State. Each of these developments expose contradictions that have the potential to ‘denaturalise’ and give the lie to capitalist realism and the impression that there is no alternative.

There is an application of critical realism that may illuminate what a critical pedagogy might be in practical terms. This can be illustrated by the writings and work of photographer and documentary film maker Allan Sekula. Much of his work is a commentary on and critique of the workings and consequences of global capitalism. Representations of reality recorded in photographs and film cannot be seen as objective and neutral records. We are aware of how a photographer’s point of view and selection of subject matter constructs a photograph and we are aware of the postproduction processes such as cropping. But the content is not bent entirely to the photographer’s will or subconscious framings. There is a sense in which the photograph ‘knows’ more than its author. It is a representation of a reality that is initially autonomous with respect to its author. In a documentary photograph the reality represented pre-exists the photographer’s interest and intent and was already there to be found. Critical realism in this aesthetic modality is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms and the product of a history that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens. From a critical realist perspective the underlying processes and mechanisms are fundamentally those of the workings and logic of the globalising capitalist economy. These processes create and present the visible surface of things to the camera and the photographer and can be revealed so that the image can be understood as the product of these processes. In Sekula’s work these underlying processes are understood in Marxian conceptions of the circulation of value to acquire growth, capitalist labour relations, processes of commodification, commodities as the product of exploitative social relations, commodities as the embodiment of ‘dead’ labour.

Typical of his recent work is the 2006 film Lottery of the Sea (the title is taken from Adam Smith’s observation that the prospects of work and success in capitalism is like a lottery) which is a densely woven and moving documentary on globalization and its political and ecological discontents. Amongst many other events and scenes in the Lottery of the Sea, there are depictions of life working on deregulated container ships sailing under flags of convenience, the dispossession of marginal and powerless communities to make way for container ship dockyard developments and tourist accommodation and facilities, and the local inhabitants’ attempts to clean up the oil spilt on the beaches from The Prestige, an oil tanker that sank in controversial circumstances in 2002 off the Spanish Galician coast polluting thousands of kilometres of Spanish and French coastline and disastrous damage to the environment and the local economies based on the fishing industry. The images and film sequences can be unpacked in terms of the labour relations under the conditions of global capitalism that constructed the reality depicted in the images.

So what does all this imply for a critical pedagogy, for practical styles and methods of teaching and the relationship between teachers and students and their collective relationship with the learning process? What is the critical consciousness that critical pedagogy should try to develop with students? How is this achievable within formal higher education institutions that have been culturally colonised and structured by the ‘business ontology’ naturalised by the neoliberal hegemony and, in Fisher’s sense, capitalist realism?

In the spirit of critical theory and a putative critical pedagogy, this would perhaps best be discussed and formulated as an exercise in the collaborative co-construction of critical knowledge by students and teachers with interests in conceptions of the public good and social and environmental justice. Several of the speakers at the conference paved the way for this discussion. For example, Monica Mclean suggested that we should become activists in our own places of work and, in order to face the distorting colonisations in the university environment, we need to be critical and “agree what is right”. Ricardo Blaug, on the other hand, seemed to suggest that little was now possible to foster this sort of critique within the structures and strictures of the University. His suggestion was that we should explore the possibility of following and enacting the principle of ‘parallelism’ adopted by activists in the Prague Spring of 1968. Students and academic staff should look for ways that the critical aspects of education and political critique and engagement in danger of being neglected by our marketised and commodified education system can be pursued alongside the existing educational institutions. Personally, as a teacher of sociology, and bearing in mind C. Wright Mills’ characterisation of the ‘sociological imagination’ referred to above, I see critical pedagogy as fully compatible with an engaged and politically relevant sociology. This is the case with many of the social sciences, arts and humanities. It is not inevitable that these disciplines will lose their reflexive and critical edge in today’s political and educational climate. But what are the practical implications of critical pedagogy for mathematics, for modern languages, for engineering and for the natural sciences? The answers to these questions are specific to the disciplines but also general to the purposes and functions of higher education in the production of informed and engaged citizens who will have to solve not only their own problems but to some extent consider what they hand on to future generations, possibly beyond the era of capitalist realism and the neoliberal hegemony. This urgent discussion is still needed and hopefully Roundhouse, initiatives like the Really Open University, and the critical ethos that still exists within the Academy will carry this forward in imaginative and effective ways.

References and Resource
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
k-punk Mark Fisher’s blog
Critical Pedagogy definition

Terry Wassall 11th June 2010 3312 words.


Terry says
I had originally intended that this article would draw some conclusions about what a critical pedagogy would be in practice, given the analysis of the various sorts of realisms etc. But it is already over 3000 words and perhaps this could come out in some discussion, especially if I make the concluding paragraph of 2 more of an obvious invitation discuss it. The last 3 paragraphs begin the discussion after a fashion. Or perhaps a follow up article that I could put on my own blog and link to from the Roundhouse blog.

Leon says
But I would argue that there is a distinction between reality and any constructed ideas about it [Sayer (2000) has a good account of this position], (mis)perceptions of which could be ideological in that they do distort it. For instance, would you not want to argue that your picture of the construction of reality presented here is a more accurate picture of reality than mine?

Terry says
You’d have to tell me what yours is first! The relationship between a symbolic representation and that which it represents can vary of course. A map of a mythical island can presumably be shown to be false if the referent, the island, cannot be found or empirically demosntrated in any way. Or a unicorn perhaps. But a map of the London Underground does have a least a schematic relationship to the network of railways and stations and this can be demonstrated empirically and in practice. This is hardly surprising as the ‘actual’ underground system and the schematic map that now represents it are both constructed from the original plans that built the empirical railway network. To what extent is the underground map either true or false? This is why I think your claim “there is a distinction between reality and any constructed ideas about it” is problematic, or at least the ‘any’ is. Some realities are not distinct from the constructed ideas about them because the constructed ideas have constructed the reality, socially or materially. This is what Bachelard was trying to get at in another context with his claim that scientific apparatus should be understood as ‘reified theory’ and his notions of ‘surrealism’. And perhaps Murphy with his ideas about ‘recombinant’ nature.

Leon says
On ‘fissures’ and ‘tears in reality’ John Holloway’s new book is insightful:

Terry says
Great. Thanks Leon. I’ll have a look. Going back to our discussion in paragraph 7. These ‘tears’ are perhaps evidenced, made visible, by a mismatch between the reality posited by a discourse (say neoliberalism’s account of the operation of free markets) and what reality actually comes up with, empirically and demonstrably.

Leon says
‘Critical realism in this aesthetic modality is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms and the product of a history that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens.’ Perhaps a little hard to decipher the meaning here.

Terry says
Thanks. If the article get to go-ahead I will be attending to some of the more obscure forms of words. This sentence is, verbatim, a note I made while listening to a presentation about Sekula after a screening of ‘The Lottery of the Sea’. It is rather condensed an enigmatic.

Terry says
Looks like a discussion of another piece may leak into this one! Never mind. I am here playing the Devil’s advocate

“ creating social relations on a different basis, on the basis of love, friendship, solidarity, collaboration, fun”.

A problem with this is that it is not necessarily anti-capitalist and doesn’t necessarily threaten capitalism. As Fisher says, capitalism can colonise counter currents and relationship, exploit them, commodify them, marketise them, legitimate itself with them, demonstrae its inevitability with them, etc.

“Either we take the highway of subordination to the logic of capital, in the clear knowledge now that this leads directly to the self-annihilation of humanity; or else we take the hazardous paths of inventing different worlds, here and now and through the cracks we create in capitalist domination”.

The cracks mentioned here “we create” are due to the volition of actors and may not be cracks at all. Some of them will be accommodations and adaptations to the capitalist reality. I think the tears and fissures Fisher talks about are due to structural contradictions that create the opportunities to see beyond the ‘naturalised, capitalist realism and do not depend on deliberate human agency for their existence although agency (informed presumably by a critical consciousness looking for the cracks) would be necessary to expose them and articulate them in a genuine anti-capitalist discourse and project.

Or though (thinking aloud!) ‘we’ might create the cracks in the sense that the contradictions Fisher refers to as being inherent in the capitalist system may well have an impact on our behaviour and experience and force the sort of reflexivity that Giddens and Archer refer to. Then it is a matter of how we translate that reflexivity into adaptation and a strategy of accommodation or a critical consciousness and a genuine anti-capitalist discourse and project. Another increment of self-annihilation as in the quote above or a step on the hazardous path to inventing a different life.

Speaking truth to power

Today’s brief post is about my growing irritation with the frequent cries that we should ‘speak truth to power’.  Of course we should but this is not the real problem. The people who have and manipulate power in the various political and corporate institutions and organisations know full well, generally speaking, that they are not dealing in truths. They’re not usually stupid. They know for instance that immigration is not the cause of most people’s problems, that many aspects of austerity policies are not necessary, that free markets are in fact inefficient and cause a great deal of poverty, insecurity and stress. They do not make the policies they make and say the things they say through ignorance so that if we could just put them right they would become good guys. They know the world could be different and that the world we live in and that advantages them so much is largely constructed through an ideological narrative and the policies, actions and manipulations of powerful people and institutions that make it real. They don’t want change and will resist and denigrate any other narrative that, should if ever be implemented politically, economically and culturally, would destroy their world. So they are not suffering from a knowledge deficit and consequently addressing this supposed knowledge deficit is not a sufficient strategy to change the world we live in for the better.

Arguably the real problem is that their narrative has been normalised and largely accepted by the people who keep them in power. The power we are encouraged to speak to is exercised through various political, economic and cultural processes and institutions to produce a more-or-less compliant and often complacent public who in the majority of cases have been schooled to accept the narrative of the powerful and see the world in their terms, accept that this is the natural order of things, there is no alternative and that individuals must sink or swim according to their own faculties and abilities and, whatever the outcome, it is their individual and personal responsibility. This is the underpinning of the belief that virtue is commensurate with income, wealth and material possessions. Rich equals virtuous, poor equals degenerate and all those in the middle are doing the best they can with whatever talents god gave them. It is a notion of the just society built on the assumption of just desserts.

Our compromised and hollowed out democratic process is just one of the ways that the powerful exercise their power. The people have spoken, so it is the democratic will of the people. But what if the people have been ventriloquised by the powerful’s narrative? After the 19th century Reform Acts that progressively gave voting rights to, initially, working men and the legitimacy of government moved from being based on the monarch and god to ‘the people from below’, the subsequent education reforms to extend education to workers (prompted in part by the perception the British economy was beginning to lose out to other nations with better educated work forces) were seen as problematic politically. Somewhat cynically it was said at the time that it would be necessary to ‘educate our masters’ and a form of elementary schooling was introduced which would socialise the poor into subservience.

Louis Althusser, a french sociologist and philosopher, studied the ways that individuals were induced to see the taken-for-granted world and their ascribed place in it as legitimate and inevitable. Key to understanding how this essentially ideological process takes place, he said, is to see it as the role and outcome of what he called ‘ideological state apparatuses’; in particular the education, religions and the mass media. There are serious problems with much of Althusser’s thought but the ideological incorporation and recruitment of the population into particular narratives is undoubtedly of enormous political significance in today’s world. So as well as speaking truth to power it seems that those that want to promote change to a more fair, just and equal world must tackle the fact that the dominant power is exercised through a variety of cultural and political institutions that must either be bypassed or transformed in some ways. Religion, the mass media of communication and the education system become important sites of resistance and the promotion and promulgation of an alternative narrative, different ways of thinking that tear away the ideologically constructed veil behind which power hides and legitimates itself, and different ways of conducting our lives and relations with others. And this is happening.

Back from fishing

A recent comment, from Victoria, asked if I had gone fishing. Not quite. I’ve made a few posts here since last September when she commented but the last couple of years with accidents, surgery and so on I’ve not been as active on here as I had expected. Having said that, I have been a fairly regular poster to Facebook and occasionally get involved in minor spats on political issues. Given the eclectic nature of my followers and friends there this is not perhaps surprising. I’ve decided to have another go at using this blog for issues and posts that might lead to some discussion. Then if anyone wants to take me to task or help develop the ideas here they can do so without it being inflicted on everyone else.

Blaming the ‘baby boomers’

For a number of reasons it suits our government and their powerful backers and clients to find as many scapegoats as possible to divert us from any knowledge or understanding about our masters’ complicity in our social and personal decline. Immigration is perhaps the trump scapegoat but other stigmatised groups are the poor and the elderly. As far as the elderly are concerned, the whinge is that Baby Boomers are the real ‘me’ generation and are apparently being advantaged to the detriment of the younger generation. Their selfishness is one of the main causes of our social ills. May I say, as politely as possible, this is a load of bollocks.

A recent report on housing shows that the Bank of Mum and Dad (not to mention Grandad and Grandma) are the fourth biggest source of money for the younger generation to get on to the housing ladder. In fact grand parents are increasingly skipping a generation and passing on money to help their grand children (house deposits, university fees, etc.) rather than their children. This is certainly the case with many of my older friends.

More generally, services provided by retired parents and grandparents to their children are also a massive contribution not only directly to their kids but also the economy. Free child care, collecting and looking after school children while their parent are at work, help with holidays and unexpected household bills, and many other services make a significant contribution to their children’s quality of life and working prospects. It constitutes a massive contribution to the local community and economy. And this is before you factor in any voluntary work many retired people undertake at their own expense.

Many retired people plough back into their families and communities much more than their state pension, still one of the lowest in Europe and the Western world. In most cases they can only afford to do this because they have contributed for much of their working lives not only National Insurance contributions but towards occupational and private pensions too. In the meantime their income tax has paid for the welfare state that their own parents and grandparents have benefited from as they have got older. Arguably it’s their turn now.

It is a fallacy to see the State pension as a hand out or a benefit. It has been paid for through a working life time (in my case 51 years) of National Insurance and taxes. Something I haven’t seen mentioned in the claims of the culpability and greed of pensioners is that much of their working lives was under regimes of wage control. The argument then was this was a form of deferred wages and by agreeing to wage restraint we were, in addition to NI, funding our old age pensions.

In short, the older generation to a large extent is rescuing the younger generations from the consequences of neoliberal privatisation and marketisation policies, the flat lining of real income levels for over 30 years and their absolute decline for at least 10 years. Many ‘baby boomer’ parents and grandparents are recycling their hard earned pensions into the debt based privatised Keynesianism that, one way or another, is keeping us all going despite the self interested incompetence of successive governments.

I know some pensioners are smug self-congratulatory selfish bastards. So are many politicians, plumbers, teachers, highway engineers, cyclists, car drivers, pheasant pluckers, doctors, in fact human beings generally. But most are not. Beware lazy generalisations, a key weapon in the government and media ideological tool kit. Don’t fall for it. The aim is to stop you thinking.

Nothing in the corridors of power for his kind of sociology

This is a quote from Madeleine Bunting’s profile of Zygmunt Bauman’s Guardian profile in April 2003.

He says he “sees nothing in the corridors of power” for his kind of sociology; the audience he has in mind for his work are ordinary people “struggling to be human”. What preoccupies him is how social conventions obstruct the possibility of human liberation and it makes him a stern critic of the status quo, particularly in his growing focus on how an individualistic society finds common cause, and how the public realm can be renewed and sustained.

This reminds me of something that BSA Presidential Event, held on 8 February 2010 at the British Library London, on ‘How to put “Society” into Climate Change’ that was said by Malcolm Wicks MP in his opening address ‘Climate Change: What is the Question?’. He made it quite clear that he was only interested in what social science had to say about climate change to the extent it was inline with government climate change policy. All the rest is ideology.

Nothing but the truth?

On the BBC radio the first in a new series called The New World and entitled Nothing But The Truth? was broadcast this morning and makes a nice companion piece for my post yesterday Democracy and its Discontents. I recommend listening to it (about 40 minutes) as, to me at least, it was interesting and informative and implies the progressive left and liberal political project has to go beyond seeing their problems being due to deficits in education or information. I made a few notes while listening.

The question the programme addresses is “are we living in a post truth age”? The answer arrived at is no, but with qualifications. The programmes is divided into five chapters: 1. Organs of mass deception; 2. Truthiness; 3. Narcissus and Echo; 4. Inside Job and 5.  Tall Tales.

Facts rarely change people’s minds even when they contradict their beliefs. Ideological investment trumps facts. Indeed counter facts will often reinforce the believed ideological narrative rather than challenge it. As becomes clear later in the programme, this seems to be about who you trust (predominately on tribal grounds) and the perceived ‘truthiness’ of the narrative. What we think of as an account based on rationality is more often in practice a process of rationalisation, a retrospective justification of the preferred narrative that accommodates or nullifies any apparently contradictory facts. In this process feelings come first and the facts are made to fit. As one of the interviewees said, we waterboard the facts until they tell us what we want to hear. Rationalisation involves selective filtering of data and the reinterpretation or denial of facts.  (Incidentally, according to Thomas Kuhn’s account of science and how it develops, this is exactly what scientist do as well until reality catches up with their conceptual gymnastics and they have to give up on their old theories).

A piece of research that demonstrates this is involves some fairly complex numerical data that (depending on what you were told it was about) measured the efficacy of a cream to reduce skin rashes or the efficacy of gun control laws to reduce crime. The data needed a reasonable knowledge of arithmetic to understand and draw a conclusion from, for instance the difference between raw numbers, proportions and ratios. Two groups were selected to be equivalent in terms of the mix of numeracy and political leanings in each group. One was given the data and told it is the result of research to see how effective or otherwise a skin cream is. The identical data was given to the other group who were told it was the result of research to see if gun controls were effective or otherwise in reducing gun crime. It is important to note that both research projects were fictitious and therefor so was the data. In each group the less numerate were not able to judge what the conclusion of the research was. In the skin care group those who did have the skills all concluded that the application of the cream significantly improved skin condition. In the gun control group, likewise the less numerate couldn’t make a judgement, or at least one that they could illustrate and back up with the data. Of the numerate the more liberal and left leaning subjects came to the conclusion that gun control did reduce crime (the correct answer given the data) and the more right leaning and conservative found that the data didn’t show any reduction. Their ideologically invested narrative about the ineffectiveness of gun control to reduce crime trumped the figures, the facts as they were presented.

Fact and truth are not the same thing. Facts do not necessarily undermine the ‘truthiness’, a term coined by another interviewee, of the preferred narrative. This explains why ‘fact checking’ has had little if any effect in undermining the obvious lies and obfuscations of politicians. It’s reasonable to say now that the £350 million paid to the EU weekly (both Boris Johnson and Gove explicitly and unambiguously asserted in the face of a multitude of fact checkers’ contradictions) was a lie but it had no apparent effect on changing significant numbers of votes. People are usually unfazed by contradictory facts. The perceived truthfulness of the narrative nullifies the odd contradictory or false fact.

At this point in the programme I was amazed to hear that two thirds of all US citizens get their news mainly from social media. And within the world of social media most of us (as indeed in many other aspects of our lives) reside in an echo chamber. We look deeply into the pool of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere and see reflected back to us the immaculate purity of our own thoughts, ideas and attitudes. Life in the echo chamber is spent mostly by just nodding along in approval and recognition. It occurred to me listening to this that the owners and managers of social media platforms reinforce this as part of their business model. Algorithms are working invisibly in the background offering you more of the same – people like you bought….., other groups you might join that you would find interesting are …., recommended individuals to follow or befriend, and so on. All in the name of advertising and monetised clicks. Corral your prospective consumers into a like minded silo and get them to unwittingly collaborate in guiding and reinforcing their purchasing behaviours whether into goods, life styles or political world views. Social media is a significant phase shift in the creation and exploitation of echo chambers. We even tend to sort ourselves into silos geographically. (This section of the programme has some dodgy psychology in it but the general point was well made). We move (those of us that can afford to) to nice areas with good schools. We are unlikely to chat to anyone especially challenging politically at the school gate. Others tend to be trapped into communities of similar life chances and experiences which they deal with practically and psychologically with a largely shared outlook on life, the same pubs, the same newspapers, the same TV programmes. We generally don’t seek out, we try to avoid discussion with, people we don’t agree with. This is obviously a challenge to the notion that an informed citizenship and electorate depends upon open public debate. Public debate only works when people are open minded and in principle are prepared to change their minds. We are either not prepared to do this or, more often perhaps, rarely find ourselves in a position in our daily lives where there is an opportunity to do so. I must say this is where an academic life has some advantages, especially as a student.

The section of the programme entitled Inside Job was quite telling. A republican senator who scored just about 100% on all conservative measures (gun lobby, creationism, pro-life, free marketeer, and so on) had absolutely no truck with the climate change lobby. The messages were coming from atheist scientists, left wing democrats (Al Gore for God’s sake) and so it had to be wrong, even a conspiracy. So his attitude to climate change arguments was almost completely based upon the ideological origins, as he saw it, of the claims and proposed policies.  Then his son said to him one day all this republican stuff is fine dad but if you want me to vote for you you’ve got to revisit your attitude towards climate change. He did and his account of how and why is interesting. It took time but he was finally convinced by a visit to inspect ice core samples (evidence, facts!!) but the clincher is he when he began to see it as his christian duty. So after 12 years in the Senate at the next election he added a putative climate change policy to his manifesto and was promptly thrown out with a record breaking low vote. He came to the conclusion, after the opportunity to spend more time with his family in quiet contemplation and reflection (and possibly prayer), that the problem was not an information deficit. He would not have won the argument with more facts. He would have needed to speak to his voters in ‘republican’ language rather than in the liberal and scientific language of the climate change movement and lobby. He went as far as to say that it counted against him that “he sounded too informed”. (God help us).  He said if the problem of climate change and the forecast consequences of global warming had been raised by the military in terms of national security, immigration, challenges to US economic supremacy, etc. then debates today in the US would be about solutions and policies, not on whether it was happening or not (or, if you listen to Trump, that the whole thing is a Chinese conspiracy and digging coal will make America Great Again). So, as far as he is concerned people tend to decide upon what is true or not on the basis of who they trust, whose tribe it is, and not on any facts that seem to contradict that truth.

So it’s not the facts that count, true or false, asserted or retracted. What counts is the ideological ‘truthiness’ of the narrative in your view. It is how true it seems at the ideological ‘gut’ level that counts, that informs voters’ decisions. It’s how it feels as a way of understanding and dealing with your own life’s experience and disappointments. Does it make you feel good about yourself? Facts are never enough. But our republican convert offers a ray of hope. Ideologically informed narrative trumps facts, but not in the longer run (something Kuhn says about the development of science too). When the narratives that explain the world to us and make us feel comfortable about ourselves and guide our decisions eventually come up against reality, this can lead to disappointment, disillusionment, anger, despair. It is an assault on our beliefs but also on our self-identity. We’ve been betrayed, made fools of, vulnerable to new narratives of blame and targets for hatred.  It’s not a good place to be individually or collectively. As our republican man says, there could be dark days of reckoning. Some one should put Johnson, Gove, Davis, etc. in touch with him perhaps.

So what can we do? One recommendation I am going to try is that we should trust ourselves less and recognise the echo chamber we live in – all of us, not just liberal metropolitans. We need to listen to voices beyond the wall of our echo chambers and silos. Jo Fidgen, our presenter and guide, finishes by encouraging us to ask the opinion of someone we disagree and listen without interrupting them. And without assuming they’re stupid. Don’t assume that just because you like a story it’s true (it may be of course but you shouldn’t simply assume it is). Your story is just as much a rationalisation as is theirs. But they are not necessarily equivalent, of equal merit. As another interviewee said, politics should be disciplined, moderated, conditioned, by expert knowledge and facts, not replaced by them.

Democracy and its discontents

A Facebook friend posted this quote from Asimov and it prompted me to return to some thoughts I have had on democracy since the democratic votes that won the referendum on EU membership for the leavers campaign and Trump won the USA presidential election. Asimov was writing about America but there has been a similar anti-intellectualism in the UK for generations, particularly in England. This has been manifest in a number of ways in the past – the preference for the amateur over the professional (for instance as portrayed in Chariots of Fire), the privileging of commonsense over abstract theory and most recently in Michael Gove’s claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He’s rowed back on this recently and now says he was referring to economists in particular. He said that he wanted people to trust their own judgement rather than listen to experts. But on what are people’s judgements made? Is it on the basis of their own research, their own examination of the evidence, or perhaps just on the evident facts? I think for most of us the first two are unlikely. So we are probably most swayed on the basis of facts as they are presented to us in the media and by politicians and self appointed opinion leaders, amongst them Gove himself of course. At the same time he is encouraging people to trust their own judgement he is of course trying to influence that judgement by encouraging them to ignore experts. One fact offered in the brexit referendum campaign was that we sent the EU £350 million a week and, post brexit, this was pledged to be spent on the NHS. The first is a rather selective fact as it is a gross figure and takes no account of the money that comes back from the EU. In fact the rebate is deducted before anything is sent so in practice only about £55 million goes out. And this takes no account of the significant financial income we get via business, trade, grants etc. by virtue of our membership. As is now becoming increasingly clear in the aftermath of the vote as these less visible returns to us become evident, we get a positive return on our ‘expenditure’ to the EU. As for spending an additional £350 million a week on the NHS, it’s a promise for the future. That the pledge was made is a fact. The promised expenditure, if it happens, lies somewhere in the future.

The Asimov quote claims that the anti-intellectualism rests on the false notion that one individual’s ignorance is as good as another’s knowledge. If this is so, and in theory it is since every vote is equal and has the same influence on the resulting decision, than policy driven by the numerical count of votes alone could be based upon the aggregate ignorance of the people or the aggregate wisdom. Who knows? Obviously I think that my decision to vote to remain was based upon knowledge and, being in possession of that knowledge, I can’t understand why anyone would vote for leaving other than supposing they must lack my knowledge. Why they lack the knowledge is an open question. Lack of reliable information or being exposed to false information? Lack of a general knowledge about what the EU is, how it works and, despite its flaws and problems, how it has and would continue to benefit our economy and security? I think we ‘the people’ have made the wrong choice. But I don’t know for sure. Time may prove that is me and others like me who voted to remain made the wrong choice. The point is that in reality neither the leavers or the remainers know if they have made the right choice. If that is all there is to it, that ‘the people have spoken’ (in fact 37% of the eligible vote which didn’t but arguably should have included 16 and 17 year olds since it is their future we were gambling with) then the executive and legislative wings of our parliamentary system should just implement the policy diktat of the 37%. However, I would have thought the problem with letting the unmediated decisions of multiple ‘men on the Clapham omnibus‘ drive final policy decisions is obvious given the complexity of the law and governance and its necessary dependence on intricate and detailed knowledge. This is what the role of parliament is, not the role of the people. We vote for the people we want to make decisions on our behalf, based on the best knowledge and evidence available, weighing up all the pros and cons and coming to a measured assessment of the nation’s best interest and how best to secure it through legislation and policy. Yes, I know it doesn’t work this way either, but at least we can reverse our electoral decisions periodically and can seek to influence how our masters specify pros and cons and the nation’s best interest. This is why I think parliament should be involved in the over sight and conduct of the brexit negotiations and, through the opportunity of debating and voting on it, be responsible for the final decision.

One very reasonable argument against policy dictated and designed purely by experts and technocrats is that it makes our democratic institutions and processes redundant. They know best so let them get on with it. Rather than elections we should have exams and peer selection. The reason this is a bad idea is that technical expertise on achieving given ends very often has nothing to say about what the ends should be. This discussion requires not just instrumental knowledge but a morally engaged wisdom. In any decision there will be unintended consequences, winners and losers, collateral damages of various sorts, medium and long term consequences that may make implementing today’s good idea into a massive shot in the foot. But if this is a flaw and danger in technocratic rule then equally is it a flaw and danger of populist rule. If all we need to do is implement unquestioningly the decisions of ‘the people’ as expressed in referendums, why would we need parliament in its current form and the democratic process as we currently understand it? Democratic procedure would be reduced to mere opinion polls and politics to the unquestioning and unmediated implementation of opinions thus expressed. On the one hand we have the dictatorship of the technocrats and on the other hand the dictatorship of the masses as orchestrated by undemocratic opinion leaders and demagogues.  It is negotiating a course through these two extremes that is the essential role of parliament and our democratic system however imperfect. Heaven knows, there are serious problems with our party political and parliamentary system and what passes for democracy but collectively these are still immeasurably better than either a dictatorship of the technocrats or of the the masses as ventiloquised by mass media and political demagogues.


Understanding Trumpageddon

It’s over two years since I posted on this blog. This has been partly, but not exclusively, because of health problems, a serious mountain bike accident last year and a diagnosis of prostate cancer and surgery this year. Actually this has given me quite a lot of time to read and write but this would also have needed a frame of mind I just didn’t have. Anyway, all is pretty good at the moment and it looks as if I have a life expectancy now of between 5 and 15 years, probably as good as most 70 year olds! So I hope to get this blog going again. If nothing else it will serve as a diary and notebook of sorts for me. At best it may make a contribution to the development of ideas and debate.

The two big events this year that have served to both deepen my depression but also to kick me out of my complacency are Brexit, the referendum held June 23rd 2016 where ‘the British people’ (actually 51.9% of those who voted from a turnout of 72.2%, so about 37% of the elegible electorate) voted to leave the EU and on Tuesday 8th Novemebr 2016 when the US electorate voted for Donald Trump for the next President. In both cases the widely held assumption of who the winners would be, the remainers for the Brexit vote and Hilary Clinton for the Presidency, were confounded. Immediately links were being made between the two startling results. Trump, before he won, said his victory would be Brexit plus plus plus. There does seem to be some underlying similarities – the hidden masses disaffected from politics and excluded by the forces of global developments of economies, the perception of being ignored by a wealthy business and political class and its administration, the extension of the precariat into previously privileged middle classes, and so on.

These results are also heralded as the end of the liberal (in the wider sense of the term) project but whether it is also a threat to the neoliberal project remains to be seen. There is much in Trumps rhetoric that suggests that his presidency will try to roll back some of the effects of magnetisation and globalisation but this may offer his voters false hope if his proposed cabinet is anything to go by.


Brexit vote explained: poverty, low skills and lack of opportunities JRF Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath, 31st August 2016.

Good enough sociology

I remember my first encounter with academic sociology doing A level sociology part time in one year at an adult education centre at the age of 31. My only exposure to sociology up to that point (although I didn’t realise it at the time) was in the two years I worked as a bus driver in Leeds, from 1976 to 1978, when my conductor, who was our TU shop steward, spent many hours explaining the state of public transport (and just about everything else) in terms of a Marxist analysis of the public sector and its crucial role in support of the capitalist economic system. Studying for the A level I understood that there were several different sociological perspectives – structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism and conflict theory are but three that spring to mind but there are more. I also learned that there was something called ‘the sociological imagination’ but I was never clear what the relationship of this was with the various competing perspectives. Soon after I discovered that there were a number of perennial problems in reconciling the tension between structure and agency, objectivity and subjectivity, determinacy and contingency, science and meaning, and so it went on. One of the first questions you are asked to address as a beginning student is ‘what is is sociology?’ Now, 36 years later after a BA and PhD in sociology and having taught the subject at Leeds University for 27 years, I still find this a hard question to answer outside of one of the usual formulaic and rather abstract definitions. This has been complicated for me in the last few years as I have got embroiled in discussions about the relationship between sociology, politics and activism. This has tended to focus on issues like the government’s neoliberal austerity programme, the attack on the public sector and the welfare state, and developments in the education system and national health service. I thought it would be useful to try and construct a sociological framework that could be used and applied pragmatically to these and other everyday issues and problems with a view to understanding them and, perhaps, as a guide to possible strategies and actions for individuals and groups who want to make a difference and have some influence on events and processes.

My starting point is pretty much what you get from C Wright Mills and his characterisation of the sociological imagination – to quote; “It is the task of the social scientist continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is the sociologist’s task to display in their work this kind of sociological imagination”. So the sociological imagination is one that is able to link the exigencies of individual and group life to the broader historical and structural processes and changes that are often not obvious or known to actors with their noses pressed hard against the coal face of life, so to speak. So the question arises what are these broader historical and structural processes and how exactly do they impact on our lives – both in what we do and what we believe, our understanding of our social environment and of our selves. The personal and political value of this can be illustrated by a short extract from H G Well’s ‘The History of Mr Polly’.

I come back to Mr. Polly sitting upon his gate and swearing in the east wind, and I have a sense of floating across unbridged abysses between the General and the Particular. There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding, seeing clearly the big process that dooms millions of lives to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstance […] and, on the other hand, Mr. Polly sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned, confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it were, nettled in greyness and discomfort [..]. (H G Wells. The History of Mr Polly 1910 Chapter 7 Part III).

In the novel the ‘man of understanding’ is a member of the Climax club with a broad detached knowledge of the economic and structural, not to say historical, understanding of Mr. Polly’s situation and those of a large class of people and their families at the time. On the other hand Mr Polly sitting on the gate, in despair, with his head in his hands feels powerless in the face of unknown forces against which he has no defence other than to run away and throw his hand in with what ever fate brings, which he does. What if the two perspectives could be brought together, Mr. Polly’s experience and predicament with the broader sociological understanding of the why and the how? Perhaps nothing other than a deepening of the conviction of powerlessness. Or perhaps the beginning of the development of individual and communal proactive responses.

Mr Polly’s predicament (and many of the petty bourgeoisie of the time) has been brought about by a range of political, economic and demographic processes of which he is only, if at all, dimly aware. These processes are mainly known to him in terms of their immediate impact on his experience and the exigencies, the intractabilities, of his everyday life – in this case a life of poverty, fracturing relationships, petty animosities, hopelessness and desperation. At one point he is brought to the contemplation of suicide. What Mr Polly doesn’t know is that he is one of thousands of petty bourgeois shop keepers and small business people in the same boat in Victorian England in the end of the 19th century, a period of economic decline after a period of comparative high growth. There was a great deal of unemployment and poverty due to changes in the economy explainable in terms of the cyclical downturns in the capitalist economy and continuing globalisation of production. But alongside the labouring  unemployed and the unemployable but less visible were a great proportion of what Wells referred to as the lower middle classes many of whom were among the increasing class of small shop keepers. They were in much the same position as the unemployed but were able to eke out an existence for some years at least because they had some savings or perhaps a small inheritance (as was the case for Mr Polly) accumulated during the comparative good times. Many of the new small shop keepers had lost there jobs as the labour market restructured around technological and organisation changes. Many had been, again like Mr Polly, sales assistants in larger shops that were laying off staff. Setting up their own shops was a way of continuing to make a living but typically they only made between 60% and 70% of their costs and living expenses. The shortfall was therefore drawn from an ever decreasing capital. To quote from Wells again:

Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic process of consecutive small losses which may end if the individual is exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned. The secular development of transit and communications has made the organisation of distributing businesses upon large and economical lines, inevitable [….] The day when a man might earn an independent living by unskilled or practically unskilled retailing has gone for ever. Yet every year sees the melancholy procession towards petty bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt go on […] Every issue of every trade journal has its four or five columns of abridged bankruptcy proceedings, nearly every item in which means the final collapse of another struggling family upon the resources of the community ….

So the idea is to outline a ‘good enough’ sociological perspective that can be applied pragmatically to any issue, from public to personal, and help an understanding that contextualises the issue, looks behind the surface of events (tears away the veil, so to speak) and, possibly, helps answer questions of what could be done, if anything. What I thought would be a fairly quick and easy thing to do has turned out to be far more complicated than I thought. So rather than specify such a sociological framework in advance I feel the best approach will be  to attempt to exemplify such an applied perspective through reflections and commentary on various issues and events as the mood takes me . This is the current plan – a sort of piecemeal specification of a practical sociological perspective via examples from which, perhaps, a more coherent specification might be cobbled together in due course. 

Mindfulness: old wine in new bottles?

While on holiday earlier this month I read the introduction to a book about mindfulness. I had been aware of the concept becoming much discussed in the media but hadn’t up to now taken much notice. I had a quick look at it a year or so ago and decided, perhaps unfairly, that it sounded a bit like the transcendental meditation (TM) that was so popular in the 1960s and 70s – so just a case of old wine in new bottles. Like mindfulness TM does not have to have a religious basis, despite its origins in India and Buddhism. It is promoted as a method for relaxation, stress reduction and self-development, it begat an industry of practitioners, teachers and (paid for) courses, and it was adopted by corporations, government departments and other institutions. TM explicitly had mindfulness at its core, along with focussed attention “in the moment” and on the mind-body connection. There is an interesting study to be done (in fact it probably has been done) on the psycho-social and cultural background that generated the perceived need and market for TM in the 60s and 70s. There may well be parallels now in the emergence of ‘mindfulness’ in conditions of late or liquid modernity. I think a comparison of the two forms of mediation and their co-option by corporate interests and their respective conjunctures of origin and elaboration would be very interesting.  Both claim to reduce stress and anxiety and promote more inner peace, creativity, health, success and happiness. There may well have been somewhat different sources of stress and anxiety in the 60s and 70s as compared with now but the emphasis on individual solutions to problems, solutions that can be found by looking inwards rather than outwards to the underlying causes of the circumstances of our insecurities and anxieties, is common to both and points to the growing individualism of our culture and ideology. One possible criticism of mindfulness (and TM) is that it promotes a way of adapting to an increasingly selfish, monetised, individualised, amoral marketised (mindless?) society in which the burgeoning neo-liberal moral individualism exhorts us to take personal responsibility for our ills and problems and, like good entrepreneurs, seek individual rationalistic solutions in the market place. The fact that so many businesses see it as a useful adjunct to staff development and so many publications and articles about mindfulness equate it with enhanced performance at work rather suggests it is often seen as less about personal development and more about career and business development. This recent article in the Guardian touches on some of these issues.