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.


This blog has been somewhat dormant for a while and this is because, since fully retiring last July, a year ago today, I have not been regularly or consistently engaged in the study and teaching of sociology. In fact the emphasis has been rather more self-directed since my doctor advised me, about 2 years ago, I had a near 30% risk of suffering a heart attack in the next 10 years! So the prospects of an enjoyable (never mind useful) retirement of a reasonable length (say 20 years!) seemed unlikely. I won’t bore you with the details but in the ensuing 2 years I have shed 3 stone and reduced my cholesterol levels and blood pressure largely through a gradually increasing schedule of exercise coupled with a modest reduction in eating and drinking. I now tend to walk and cycle as a mode of transport (if the distances are reasonably short) as well as an occasional leisure activity. In addition I started playing racketball about a year ago. Although I hadn’t played for nearly 25 years I used to be a regular squash player. I consider starting again but have found that racketball is kinder to my reduced flexibility and speed, more fun and more sociable. Enough of this.

Much of what I’ve written in this blog has been connected to and inspired by my work as a sociologist. This is no longer the case. I’m not so intensively engaged with sociological literature, articles and research. I no longer spend part of nearly every day talking about and discussing sociology and sociological issues. However, I still tend to turn a sociological gaze and framework of understanding on the issues and problems of the day, particularly as they affect me and my friends and family. Inevitably this gives a rather more pragmatic and political caste to my thinking. Henceforth posts here will reflect this change in impetus and purpose. Close to my concerns at the moment are issues around ageing, health and well-being – no surprises there! But I have young relatives and friends who are struggling with the insecurities and uncertainties of the world of work, the housing market, the gradual (and not so gradual) withering of the public sector and welfare provision, the loss of faith in traditional political and democratic process, the degradation of the environment, and so it goes on. I’m hoping this blog will continue to be alive and interesting (to me at least – anything else can be seen as collateral benefit) rather than just an archive of an ex-sociology teacher.

Thinking about a sociological on-line course

After a few somewhat problematic and unsatisfactory experiences as a student on MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses; the problems largely relate to the massive and open components)  and an increasing involvement with the University of the Third Age (U3A) and its educational philosophy and practice I have been thinking about what sort of on-line sociology based or informed course I could imagine help setting up and participating in.  To help think about this and get some ideas and opinions from others I posted a message on Facebook:

This is a question for my FB friends with a background or interest in sociology but I’d also be interested in ideas and comments from all my other FB friends. If you were to take part in a consultation of some sort to look into the possibility of setting up or participating in a small group on-line sociology ‘course’, perhaps limited to 20 or 30 individuals but possibly even smaller, what topics or subjects would you be interested in? For instance, what’s happening with educational policy, or the NHS, or the issues around a so-called ageing society, or alternative life styles, or changes in the relations between men and women, or forms of inequality in an increasingly marketised and individualistic society, or what is the Big Society, etc. Or even taking a look at some key and influential social thinkers and what if anything they have to say about our current problems, how we understand them and what, if anything, we should be doing. The idea would be to explore a small number of topics, perhaps even just one if there is sufficient interest in it, within a course that is collectively specified and collaboratively researched and studied and therefore hopefully relevant to people’s lives, experience and problems. The emphasis would be on developing an engaged critical sociological perspective. Any thoughts about topics, sorts of content, what the collaborative learning process might consist of in practical terms, why people might be interested, or not, etc.?

The immediate response was both very interesting and very helpful. This post is an attempt to fill out the idea so far and hopefully involve others who are not on Facebook or at least not my Facebook friends.

Without here going into any detail about the problems I experienced with MOOCs what I have in mind is an on-line course that is restricted to a fairly small number of participants, maybe a dozen or so with 20 to 30 being ideal. Taken from the U3A model, but much discussed in many other educational circles, it would be a course that was collaboratively specified by the participants – its objectives, contents, procedures and processes. There would also be no, or at least minimal and provisional, distinction between teachers and students – the model is one of collaborative learners. However, it must be recognised that different individuals will bring different forms of knowledge and experience to the group. The group of learners would also, and this amounts to much the same thing, a group of collaborative researchers. One of the principles of the U3A is that study groups can be formed without necessarily having a subject specialist as a leader (although this is often the case in practice). Any U3A members with a shared interest or activity can form a group and undertake between them to share research tasks and collaboratively develop the knowledge of the group. There are many examples of this working very successfully.

Another aspect of my thinking about this potential course has been influenced by an increasing concern with the relevance of sociology and its relationship to public and personal problems – the shade of C Wright Mills may be sensed lurking in the background. I am a sociologist by inclination, temperament and profession but I do not envisage this as a sociology course per se. The idea is that the course will be relevant to and focussed on specific issues that impact on people’s lives and concern them. However, the approach to exploring and understanding these issues would be essentially sociological. Sociology is seen more as a tool, a framework of specifying and understanding specific issues, and to this end sociological perspectives and concepts are deployed strategically. Sociology is seen as a means of orientation rather than an academic subject. This would not preclude the relevance and use of other perspectives such as history, political economy, politics, even social psychology. But the approach none-the-less would stress the nature of all these as aspects of and embedded in social and cultural processes, certainly in terms of how they impact upon public issues and private problems. I think a very strong case can be made, given the probable aims and objectives of such a course (yet to be specified), to adopting a sociological approach that none-the-less can embrace and exploit the insights of other related disciplines and perspectives. A provisional specification of what I personally sees as a working sociological framework will be the topic of a yet to be written sister post to this one. I’m sure this will be something well worth discussing.

Which brings me to the subject of ‘ownership’. My hope is that if anything actually materialises from all this it will not be seen as owned by anyone other than the community of learner/researchers. My thoughts and ideas are only the starting point and everything is up for discussion. Clearly decisions will have to be made if anything is to come of this. Options taken will also will be options rejected. In the end, individuals (including myself) can vote with their feet and, if they are not interested in the outcome, do something different and explore other possibilities. The remainder of the post is a transcript of the discussion so far on my Facebook page. I would welcome any comments, ideas, thoughts, sharing of experience, etc. here. Please note the last comment reproduced below that raises the question of the platform.


Chris: This sounds great. Perhaps Big Data, debt, resistance movements, neoliberalism?

Clive: If there’s room around the table for a social policist, I’d be interested in examining the inter-dependency of moral panics and labelling theory.

Terry: Always room for you Clive. I think yours is a very good suggestion. It ties in with a whole range of issues around social control, manipulation of public opinion, prejudice and stereotyping, identity formation, etc. I am thinking more of a sociological course rather than a sociology course if that distinction makes sense. Do you have any particular issues in mind where a moral panic/labelling theory perspective would be useful, perhaps immigration, or the demonisation of the poor, or something else?

Terry: Thanks for sharing this post Chris. I’m not sure how FB works with friends of friends but they would be very welcome if they want to contribute. If they can’t comment on this thread then I’ll keep an eye on yours. As my comment above to Clive, what I have in mind is something that engages with specific real world issues of concern but through a sociological lens. The emphasis would be on sociology as a tool, as a means of orientation perhaps, rather than the focus of any discussion although the elaboration of sociological theories and concepts would inevitably be part of this. The sociological imagination in action? In the range of interesting areas you identify do you have any specific topics in mind?

Ali: I like theory. Bourdieu, Foucault et al float my boat, but I appreciate that they are a bit heavy. I suspect that Craig Calhoun (now President of the LSE) would be with me on this. Beyond this, I can’t help thinking that many of the examples of things that you think people might be interested in discussing aren’t simply sociology but also politics and political economy. You have the makings of a truly interdisciplinary course here.

Terry: I’m with you on Bourdieu and Foucault Ali Kocho-Williams, and a few others beside! And I’d be very keen on encouraging and developing an interdisciplinary approach. I think this is what I mean by adopting a sociological approach (rather than it being a traditional sociology course, although I don’t think ‘course’ is exactly what I mean) given that political and economic processes have in common the fact that they are both embedded in and dependant upon social processes. The notion of power in its various guises is central to everything as well. So I’m thinking of a broad sociological perspective as an organising principal perhaps but this would easily extend into linked frameworks of understanding, including history and maybe even social psychology. All of this could usefully be discussed by the putative group – the collective specification of the course would entail these considerations hopefully. I would be keen for whatever we might end up with to be inclusive and to be wary of being too abstract and esoteric, too narrowly professional and academic in its concerns and focus.

Terry: On a related matter, any ideas on what platform would be good to set up and conduct such a course? It would need as a minimum to have uploaded content of some sort (documents, videos and images…) and a means of structured discussion. My preference would be for something easily available such as a Google group, or perhaps even a FB group, but I’m sure there are options available I’m not aware of. Again, all suggestions and tales of experience with various approaches would be very welcome.

In addition to the above Sarah Amsler has reminded me of the Social Science Centre in Lincoln that has run a f2f course Social Science Imagination which anticipates many of the ideas and considerations above. It is based on a close reading of C. Wright Mills ‘The Sociological Imagination’ and is designed encourage an understanding of the connections between individuals’ problems and concerns with wider social developments.

Sociology and photography

Structure, agency and meaning in the sociological interpretation of photographs.  This is the provisional title of a project and a paper. What follows is based on a post I made to Facebook seeking ideas and suggestions:

After many years of a passing interest in photography as both a sociological resource, an object of sociological interest in its own right, and as a possible activity in retirement, I have just begun to immerse myself in the reading of texts that might help figure out what I’ll do, photographically, and to what purpose. For a kick off I have read Peter Berger’s ‘Uses of Photography’ and am reading Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ (to which Berger’s essay is a response) and have just ordered Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera Lucida’ (thanks to Max Farrar for this). For those interested the link below is to a Guardian review of the latter. I think Howard Becker also wrote something on the sociology of photography.

Berger’s essays on photography, ‘The Uses of Photography’ are on-line at:

Max is currently giving a lecture in the US entitled: “Working from the Heart: Photography and the Sociological Imagination” – He suggested in a comment to the above FB post also to look at Sontag’s  ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ (2000), “described somewhere as a retraction of ‘On Photography’ though I don’t see it as such, is also an excellent read. Maybe we should start a visual sociology lab in Leeds”?

I have approached colleagues at Leeds Uni to see if anyone is interested in inviting Max along to give his lecture at the Uni and explore the idea of a visual sociology lab or group of some sort. Zygmunt Bauman was a very keen photographer and I am looking for anything he wrote on the subject. Some of his photographs were displayed at the 2001 conference to launch the Bauman Institute –

There is another note in this blog that is relevant to the interpretation of photographs – The Realism of the Abstract: an encounter with Sekula. The relevant text is:

A key topic of debate was how to interpret photographic images from a critical realist perspective. We no longer assume that a photograph is an objective and neutral record of what simply ‘is’. We are aware of how the photographer’s point of view and selection of subject constructs a photo before the process of cropping and post production manipulation. And, in any case, as one of our speakers said, “pictures know more than their authors”. The content of a picture is not bent entirely to the photographer’s will or subconscious framing. It is a representation of a reality that is initially autonomous with respect to the representation’s author. In documentary photography the reality pre-exists the photographer’s interest and intent and was already there to be found. Critical realism 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 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. It is this that prompts the (re)turn to Marx.

Marxist ideas also talk about hidden processes that need to be excavated so that what is apparent and visible can be understood as the product of the underlying processes. This structure of argument is explicit in Marx’s notions of reification, ideology, abstract labour and so on. The implication is that the photographic image can be unpacked in terms of the labour relations under the conditions of global capitalism that constructed the surface reality depicted in the image. The underlying process is what Marx tries to get at with his concepts of the labour process, use value, exchange value, surplus value, commodification, the ‘dead’ labour embedded in commodities, commodities as ‘abstract reality’ –  abstract ‘reality’ because it is the product of social relations.

I am also thinking of how photographs and their initial and re- interpretation, based on the accumulation of contextual knowledge of various sorts as the research into family background, contexts and personalities are central to the narrative of the family history programme on the BBC ‘Who do you think you are’. Initially pictures of distant relatives could be anyone but develop layers of meaning as the history and context are uncovered.

Additional resources:

Towards a Sociology of Photography Pierre Bourdieu (Slideshare)
Towards a Sociology of Photography Pierre Bourdieu (Scribd)

Update 27/03/2014
Portrayal and betrayal: Bourdieu,photography and sociological life Les Back, 2009. Portrayal and betrayal: Bourdieu, photography and sociological life. The Sociological Review, 57(3), pp. 471-490.

Update 29/03/2014
Sensuous Sociology This is a post by Max Farrar on the lecture he gave mentioned at the beginning of this post ‘Working from the Heart: Photography and the Sociological Imagination’. It contains links to the video of an interview of Stuart Hall on photography ( I think the Les Back article mentioned is the one linked to above.

Photography: Making and Breaking Racialised Boundaries: an Essay in Reflexive, Radical, Visual Sociology Max Farrar Sociological Research Online Volume 10, Issue 1, 2005

Old sociologists as outsiders

I’m feeling a bit guilty as I haven’t posted here since November last year. My intention, on retirement, was to do the sort of sociological research and writing I had been unable to do in my role of Principal Teaching Fellow at Leeds University. To this end I was appointed as a visiting research fellow for a year, due to end this coming July. Now I have just received a letter extending the fellowship until July 2016. In practice since retirement last July I have been mostly concerned in losing weight, getting fit, walking, cycling, racketball and reading novels. All of this of course may not be unconnected to a continuing career as sociologist. As Zygmunt Bauman has shown, literature is, to some degree or another, a combination of sociology and sociological material. Reading literature can be a conscious sociological enterprise. And of course getting fitter and healthier extends my opportunity to still do some interesting and, perhaps, useful work in my later years.

baumanThere is the possibility that doing sociology in one’s twilight years, assuming reasonable retention of cognitive faculties and a continuing lively interest in the world and affairs, has some benefits for the nature and quality of the work. I am reading again David Frisby’s Fragments of Modernity in which he attempts to construct more explicitly the theories of modernity that are less systematically rendered or implicit in the writings of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin. At the end of his introduction Frisby says “all three, as outsiders, could experience modernity in a critical manner, they could all view their society as strangers”. The fact that many of the most original and productive sociologists have been outsiders to some extent, perhaps straddling two or more cultural borders, émigrés, exiles, is well known. One can think of Bauman, Elias, or Marx for instance. Other sociologist have detached perspectives on their society due to unconventional biographies of one sort or another. I think the ageing process can confer this state of outsiderness and stranger-hood on some sociologists too. In many respects we die alone, even if surrounded by loved ones. We can see the world through the eyes of someone with no axes to grind, no psychological investment in self delusion, with a degree of detached realism. Outsiders are more able to see the curtains that obscure the hidden mechanisms and processes of manifest reality and begin to pull them apart. We are able to reflect upon our own (witting and unwitting) complicity in maintaining the curtains and keeping them closed to others and to ourselves. In some respects ageing and a growing awareness of the imminence of death reintroduces a child like aspect to the experience of life. In an interview a few weeks before his death from pancreatic cancer, Dennis Potter attested to taking an intense delight in the ordinary and mundane aspects of life. Everything was intensified and imbued with a renewed sense of wonder describing, for instance, the spring blossom he sees from his study window as the most blossomest of blossom he had ever seen. Like a child, the dying can be keenly aware of and interested in the details and features of life that, by the involved and less reflective adult, are largely taken for granted or ignored. Like the child, the elderly in the shadow of the imminence of oblivion, can possess the highest degree  of interest and appreciation of their social and physical surroundings. To some extent old age potentially for some, is the recovery of childhood but with the adult capacity for reflection, expression and the power of analysis.

They say that mathematicians and similar scientists do their best work in their comparative youth. Perhaps, for some sociologists with the continuing interest and stamina, they may do their best work towards the end of their careers as their biographical trajectories propel them into the critical and creative role of detached outsider

Civilising offensives – what I learnt

I had a great day in Sheffield at the  The civilizing offensive (het burgerlijk beschavingsoffensief): prospects for future understanding, or an obsolete concept? symposium hosted by Sheffield Hallam University. I had prepared for this by reading an article by one of the organisers, Ryan Powell, and posted a summary – The Civilising Offensive –  and a few questions that I hoped would be illuminated during the presentations and discussion. This post is a reflection on the day and to what extent my questions were answered. I’ll start by outlining the major conclusion, as I saw it at least. This was clearly stated during the last session presented by Jason Hughes entitled ‘No smoke without fire’? Moral panics, civilising offensives and the long-term development of tobacco use. We must avoid posing the relationship between the long term blind and unintended processes of social change and development and the intended and deliberative steering processes in the here and now or any other delineated historical period as an either/or dichotomy. The plans and intentions of social groups and individuals interlock and interweave in a way that produces outcomes that were not intended by any of them. The overall process in this respect is blind and unintended by any particular agent or group. Presumably no 19th century Victorian industrialist anticipated or intend today’s problems of climate change or environmental degradation. However, this is not to say that this unintended process is understandable without reference to the intentional activities and projects in that, if these had been different, the unintended outcomes would have been different too. If the unintended outcomes would not have been different and the trajectory of development would have been the same anyway, then the overall process would not be blind or at least in any way contingent. Contingency would have been illusionary in the face of necessity. On the other hand the degree of success or otherwise of intentional projects could not be explained without reference to the unplanned aspects of the process that constraint, enable or otherwise impact on them. This also points to the the importance of political and cultural activity – both theoretically and in practice. As Jason said the concept of ‘civilising offensive’ and its focus on intentions and intentional projects is not opposed to or in contradiction to the concept of a blind and unintended process. They are both part of the same process; 2 sides of the same coin. This clearly has consequences for how we understand the micro-sociology of civilising offensives (and indeed any human interactions) and how we explain the broader and longer run ‘blind’ process of historical social development. In fact much of the day was spent directly or indirectly discussing the relationship between relatively short term intentional projects and behaviours and long term developmental processes. I was particularly taken by Jason’s distinction between ‘engines’ and ‘vehicles’.  In the context of the symposium I assume the engine is the long term ‘blind’ developmental process and the vehicles are the specific intentional civilising offensives. Clearly neither the engine of the vehicle get anywhere if not together.

I have been working in a fairly undisciplined and spasmodic way on the topic of how sociology and politics relate to one another. This clearly depends on how each is conceptualised. I want to understand politics (in various senses and at various levels) sociologically but I also want to understand how sociology can inform political programmes and activities. Obviously this depends on how one construes sociology as a form of systematic knowledge, as a ‘science’  (the inverted commas are intended to signify that this term also needs a great deal of thought and elucidation). This symposium has been extremely useful in reintroducing me to some of Elias’s ideas and offering a more structured and possibly fruitful way of thinking about these issues and making progress with some of them. It may even prompt the submission of a paper to next year’s majorElias conference at Leicester From the Past to the Present and Towards Possible Futures: The Collected Works of Norbert Elias. The mention of ‘possible futures’ indicates that different futures are possible and that the civilising process so far is not locked onto any particular future, thus not teleological. There is then the question of what sorts of futures are possible and to what extent sociological knowledge can inform the intra and intergenerational political projects and activities and influence what actually happens. If this is possible and sociology can fulfil this role then sociology itself becomes a political enterprise, even if at some remove from the sturm und drang of day-to-day political struggle, since is or could be political resource in the struggle over teh future. Only a sociologist who is indifferent to the sort of world he or she is bequeathing to their children, grandchildren and beyond can remain indifferent to the uncertain future or not have some view of what a better world could come into being if it were possible. The rest of this post is simply a set of notes on some of the key ideas that I jotted down in my notes. They are not systematic or necessarily attributed to any particular speaker of discussant. At times I have added my own observations, generally in brackets.


Bernard Kruithof: Civilising offensives are characterised as being deliberate attempts by powerful groups, e.g. the bourgeoisie, to change the behaviour and attitudes of a relativity powerless group, e.g the labouring classes so it is in line with the powerful group’s ideas of what is decent, moral, appropriate, rational, civilised behaviour. Typical examples and case studies of this look at periods of early industrialisation and nation building. Civilising offensives are similar to whet van Gent called ‘the forces of organised virtue’ and were often strongly paternalistic and aimed at uplifting the condition of the poor. But the poor were not a blank slate. They had (and have) their own culture. There was much resistance from groups that did not want to be ‘improved’. Often the Improving Societies’ mostly benefited their middle class members.

Ali de Regt: There is a tension between the unplanned civilising process and intentional projects. There is also a distinction between civilising offensives and the ‘disciplining’ and ‘policing’ of subordinate and worrisome groups (Donzelot, Foucault). The appropriate focus and use of the term civilising offensive is where the aim and result (if successful) aids the development of the self-control and self-management of the target groups. This is a key aspect of the civilising process whereby external social controls become internal self-controls. This tends to engage with what the working class, or some sections of it, want and is distinct to what is imposed by disciplinary techniques and policing.

The development of the concept of civilising offensive form sociological from the 1980s until, by the mid 90s (as it happens corresponding with the neo-liberal attack on welfare and the development of a neo-liberal moral individualism) when it began to be seen as a possible solution to moral decline and related social problems, i.e. politicians and the media calling out for civilising offensives against specific target groups and problems, for instance urinating in the streets, drunkenness, behaviour at football matches, rudeness and antisocial behaviour. However, there were left wing progressive calls for civilising offensives too (examples?). This was also in part an attack on the heritage of the 60s which coincided with a cultural turn in public debates on social problems (presumably as opposed to more structural understandings of social problems. This is also a period of increasing individualism and the personalisation of blame). Civilising offensive became a catch phrase that was emotionally charges and self evident. It is applicable to many social problems and gives a rational and recipe for action and policy. So in the 80s the concept had a critical connotation but now it is seen with approval.

Ali claims that the moral discourse that has hijacked the concept of civilising offensive makes it difficult if not impossible to use as a sociological concept. It needs to be save and used in an Eliasian way and civilising offensives can still be objects of study and analysis, but we cannot use the concept as an explanatory concept (so only as a descriptive concept?).  As someone said in discussion, can we be held responsible for the misuse of our sociological concepts, for instance as with the notion of ‘moral panics’  or ‘the law of unintended consequences’? (But this problem, of how sociology’s concepts and language is part of the social realm it studies and there is an inevitable inter-meshing of sociological and common sense, everyday language, is well and long known).

We need to be clear about the distinction between civilising offensives as a theoretical concept and as an historically and politically situated project. Richard Kilminster made the point that there may be an historical and semantic link between civilising offensives ans the so-called ‘charm offensives’ in the cold war period seen as a military strategy in that charm offensives at the level of diplomacy wee usually a front to more aggressive intentions. (There can of course be latent more aggressive functions in the background to improving and seemingly paternalistic civilising offensives as well). ‘Offensive’ has connotations of active policy and is part of its attraction in popular moral and political discourse.

Stephen Mennell: The useful distinction between the ’emic’ and the the ‘etic. Emic is form the perspective of the ehtnograpic group being studied – so their concepts, cultural recipes for action, understandings, etc., while etic is the social science perspective of the group and their world that has a broader sociological understanding that goes beyond that of the situated understandings of the group. ( I assume the point here is that civilising offensives can be understood at the emic level, that of the participants themselves, whereas the sociologist who sees any instance of civilising offensives as part of a longer run and unintentional process are adopting the etic perspectives. I was immediately reminded of the concept of dramatic irony where the characters in a play are unaware of aspects of their situation that the audience knows). Elias used the concept of civilisation’ in both its emic and etic senses and contexts and this has been a source of confusion in readings and critique. (Useful Wikipedia article on emic and etic). The civilising process is long term and unintended but civilising offensives are the product of intentional ‘native’ meanings leading to intended and unintended consequences. Civilising offensives can be seen in terms of an analysis of shifting balances of power within the civilising process.

Stephen raised the possibility that right wing economics (presumably their application in political projects and social policy) can be seen as a ‘de-civilising’ offensive.  Other examples may be the holocaust, Stalin’s programme for instance. The state holds the monopoly of violence and of taxation.  State reduction policies may diminish and undermine  both of these. The project to shrink and defunctionalise the state could have de-civilising results and the weakening of the links of interdependence between the people and the state (the development of which was a crucial aspect of the civilising process). (If the civilising process involves a growing reflexivity due to individuation and an increasing self-control presumable de-civilising process results in a lessening of self control and a lessening of the potential for detachment and a growing emotional involvement. I need to read more on decivilising processes!). I liked Stephen’s tee shirt slogan, ‘so many right wing Christians, so few lions’.  If civilising offensives are ostensibly to improve the behaviour of the ‘lower classes’ in order to integrate them into society and introduce elements of self control, are they still civilising offensives if they produce the opposite effects, i.e. increased marginalisation and exclusion coupled to an increase of ant-social and uncontrolled behaviour? Does the attribution of ‘civilising offensive’ depend upon the intentions of the ‘civilisers’ or the object outcomes of the offensive which may be bad regardless of any good intentions? Emic intentions versus etic outcomes? My contribution to the discussion here was to point out that arguably much policy and political ideological work was in fact objectifying the poor rather than trying to reorganise their subjective understanding and their behaviour, unless it is designed to persuade them of their blame and responsibility for their condition and justify their exclusion in highly policed and surveilled ghettos. The objectification and stigmatisation of the poor serves to legitimate the policies and recruit the middles classes to them.

Matt Clement: Notes will get a bit thinner now as I was running out of steam! Today there seems to be an orchestrated attack on the poor and euphemistically termed ‘troubled’ families. As others have pointed out sometimes ‘barbarism’ can be used in the name of ‘civilisation’. The Ridley Plan was specifically and overtly an attack on the organised working class and the Trade Unions. It was claimed that these had ‘held the country to ransom’ . Can this be seen as an attempt to de-civilise the working class? Can it be construed as a de-civilising offensive?

Rob van Ginkel: Whatever the stated intentions of civilising offensives since the late 19th century, at that time informed by cultural anxiety, moral concerns and nations building, in the 20th century civilising offensives, whatever their stated aims and justifications, have tended in practice to lead to and/or reinforce social exclusion – projects amount to disciplining missions to contain the marginal masses. Since the rise of right wing populist parties this has included ethnic minorities. These moralist actions frequently have negative social consequences – stigmatised, marginalised, banished and outcast second rate citizens. (This fits well with the points made earlier about the later 20th century shift to cultural and individualistic explanations of deviant behaviour. This is also the period of increasing mass incarceration under neoliberal policies).

Gabriel van den Brink: Agrees largely with previous paper. The nature (even the existence) of civilising offensives reflect the values of the society In Holland, starting from 1670 and on to the early 20th century these were often church initiated campaigns for improvement but were also accompanied by harsh policing, literacy education and the inculcation of a work ethic in the work places. Since about 1960 however peoples’ life style has become more assertive, there has been changes in the family with more emancipation and individualism alongside the development of the welfare state. This has led to higher levels of self-esteem and narcissism which can lead to aggression and anti-social behaviour. Since 1970 three has been 100% growth in violent crime (although the status of official statistics was rightly questioned from the floor). For 40 years things have been getting worse. Public opinion now seems to be against liberal and paternalistic civilising offensives aimed at social integration and improvement but in practice the authorities and social professions are still engaged in something like the old civilising offensives.

Stephen Vertigans: Focus on social services care workers and their relative lack of awareness of the broader processes and context that impact on the success or otherwise of their efforts to help their clients and client families. Children in care in the main go on to have highly problematic adult lives. They generally removed from criminal or destitute families. They therefore tend to develop weak social bonds in childhood and these are no longer provided by the world of work. However, they respond and adapt to their circumstances knowledgeably to attains some status and forms of solidarity. There is a willingness on the part of the middle-classes to allow or ignore this as it keeps them at a physical and symbolic distance. This seems to mirror in some respect the point made in the previous presentation that ‘respectable’ public opinion is not in favour of civilising offensives and is therefore, by default, in favour of separation and containment. At the same time the authorities do their best to remain engaged in civilising offensives.

Paddy Dolan: Maps the shift in attitudes and relations between adults and children in Ireland. Historically the emphasis has been upon a fairly rigid socialisation process akin in some respects to a civilising offensive. This has tended to reinforce the notion that children and adults are very different in nature and status. In recent decades however there has been a growing emphasis on similarities and children having rights and individuality.  Paddy explains this as a product of individualism more generally and a questioning of ‘second’ nature. This can be seen as emergence of a third nature perhaps. I need to look more into this notion of ‘second nature’ as conceptualised by Elias before I can say much about the possibility of a ‘third’ nature. It seems to refer to the development of a reflexive critique and questioning of second nature brought about by a heightened reflexive ‘moment’ as an aspect of a spurt of individuation in late modernity.

[24th November. Ran out of steam here a bit and it is now about a month since the event. The following notes have had to rely to some extent on memory!]

Robert van Krieken: There is a return or rebound effect on any group that conducts a civilising offensive on a subordinate group – it also effects the powerful group. This puts civilising offensives in the context of the longer run civilising process. For example aboriginal children taken and given to European families was seen as a good thing to do but in recent times it is now seen as bad and the government has apologised for the mistake. There has been a change in how we think about children etc.  Welfare and violence (including symbolic violence, discipline, etc.) are not mutually exclusive. Two sides of the same coin.

John Connolly: Evidence of a mutual group identification in the peleton worked to resist the ‘civilising offensive’ of anti-doping initiatives. But this began to break down in the 1980s

Jason Hughes: Need to steer between and avoid the dichotomy between blind unintended processes and intended steered processes. Makes a distinction between vertical and horizontal civilising offensives. Intentions of groups and individuals interlace to produce unintended blind processes. Civilising offensives and the civilising process are different aspects of the same thing. Smoking – originally medical and then an aspect of leisure and distinction. Became widespread to all classes and then produced civilising offensives against it. There was a counter blast to tobacco when King James condemned aristocratic and plebeian smoking. But the rise of distinctive smokers, smoking schools, smoking professors. So not eradication as King James wanted, more a civilising of smoking. A shift from smoking to snuffing a la French aristocrats- aristocratic behaviour that was actually disgusting! Smoking reduced in the upper and middle classes through changes of fashion and smoking became associated with the lower classes. Filters and holders for women and the genteel stopped strands of tobacco getting detached and spat out. But in due course social dangers were superseded by medical and health dangers. Moral concerns turned to health; badness became a concern with sickness. Cigarettes got milder, ‘cleaner’ – now the e-cigarette – a keep smoking device providing a chemically synthesised form of tobacco smoke. Mentioned moral panics, as others had before in their presentations but added the aspect of the theory that points to the amplification of deviance and making true what hadn’t been before. (Links to my concern that ‘performativity’ is a key link between the symbolic and the real, between intentional processes and unintended consequences ie. W I Thomas “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”).

Intentional and blind processes. We need to look at the ratio of intended and unintended consequences – actual outcomes versus success. Voluntarism versus blind agent-less change. The ‘vehicles’ of change versus the ‘engines’ of change. (In a tweet to Jason I asked ‘Engine=civilising process: vehicle=civilising offensives? Have I got that? Trying to writing a summary/reflection on the symposium”. He replied ‘sounds close enough’). The relationship between present focussed campaigns and the longer term process. Uses example of people on a plane that crashes – all had their own intentions, reasons to be on it, but none intended the outcome. Even if the plane didn’t crash, none of the passengers intended the flight as such. (Could refer to early industrialists and climate change of course – but in my view we cannot explain and understand the latter without understanding and explaining the agency and objectives of the former). ‘Fashions’ for change, shifting changes in behaviour, often unintended consequences. On mobile phones, stay at home geeks, the embodiment of homo clausus. (Amplified reflexivity, self consciousness and individuation in the development of complex industrial societies becomes the general experience that is normalised and naturalised in philosophical and sociological discourse as homo clausus, ironically at the time when webs of interdependence are at their greatest).

Final note of my own: Civilising process: the extent that external constraints become internal controls due to the changing density and extent of chains of interdependence. Within this process are found power struggles and shifting balances of power. Structural pressures are translated into reflective and reflexive responses (unconscious and self conscious) leading to stratagems and projects designed to produce intended and desire outcomes. These become part of the environment and the symbolic and behaviour context for other groups and individuals. Unconscious and self conscious behaviour and projects inter-mesh to produce outcomes that no groups specifically intended, for themselves, for others or for future generations. Question: what is it that drives the increasing density and extent of chains of interdependency, the process that is made manifest by agency and carried forward and shaped by local and shorter term programmes?

Conference Abstracts. This is a Google document.

Some of the papers from the conference have since been collected together as a special issue of Human Figurations

Special Issue of Human Figurations on Civilising Offensives
Volume 4, Issue 1: Civilising Offensives, January 2015

The Civilising Offensive

I am going to an international symposium at Sheffield Hallam University, October 24, 2013, The civilizing offensive (het burgerlijk beschavingsoffensief): prospects for future understanding, or an obsolete concept? I had not come across the notion of a civilising offensive before although, after a little research, it seems a variant of fairly well known idea and social phenomenon but placed in the context of Norbert Elias’s work on long run civilising and de-civilising processes. The title of the symposium questions the usefulness of the concept and raises the possibility that it is already obsolete. I am interested in this topic as I am currently writing an extended piece on the relation between sociology as an academic, scientific and professional discipline and politics as an ideological and practical activity. Civilising offensives are clearly political at several levels and the study of them sociologically undoubtedly has political implications.

To get an idea of how the concept of civilising offensive has emerged from Elias’s writing on the civilising process and has subsequently been deployed I have read an article by Ryan Powell The Theoretical Concept of the ‘Civilising Offensive’ (Beschavingsoffensief): Notes on its Origins and Uses published in Human Figurations: Long Term Perspectives on the Human Condition, Vol. 2, Issue 2, July 2013. Ryan Powell is one of the convenors of the symposium and I will take this paper as an authoritative introduction to the concept.  What follows are simply some observations on the paper and questions that arise no doubt some or all of which will be covered during the symposium.

The abstract lays out the scope and objectives of the paper. To some extent the application of the concept of civilising offensive over the last 30 years has lost contact with its theoretical origins in Elias’s work. The use of the concept has been mainly as a tool “for exposing the targeted and stigmatising projects of powerful groups”.  However, this focus on elite projects to ‘civilise’ less powerful groups is unnecessarily narrow and excludes the processes internal to the target group that drive behavioural and attitudinal changes in the same direction – via within group and peer socialisation for instance. The abstract points to the paper’s conclusion that “the theoretical concept of the civilising offensive offers much potential in understanding group conflict and the role of the state in contemporary neoliberal society, as well as historically”.

The introduction describes how the concept and its application arose in Holland in the 1980s where it was identified as het burgerlijkbeschavingsoffensief – the bourgeois civilising offensive. The term and its application have been taken up more recently in the UK but often in inconsistent ways that make a comparative approach difficult. The concept needs to be more systematically connected to its original theoretical context. This will help refine and further develop the concept in a way that would facilitate comparative analysis. The paper also promises to engage (albeit implicitly, which is a shame) with recent debates about the neglect of politics within figurational sociology.

The second section of the paper gives a succinct description of Norbert Elias’s work and the origins of civilising offensives as an aspect of the civilising process. The first studies using the term in Holland look at paternalistic and cultural projects in the late 19th  and early 20th centuries to improve the lot of the working classes, to improve their morals and promote a national identity. There was often a strong religious component in the projects that can be seen as attacks on what was deemed to be irrational, uncivilised, primitive, immoral and otherwise inappropriate behaviours.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given the early industrial context, one thing mentioned repeatedly in these accounts is ‘the lack of work ethic” of the lower classes.

The paper at this point identifies a possible criticism of Elias’s focus on blind, long term unplanned processes. He apparently pays little attention to the agency and intentions of elite groups and even less of that of the lower classes. Powell, in an attempt to be fair to Elias, concedes that historical episodes of civilising offensives may have had little impact on the overall dominant trend of long term development. He returns to this possibility in his conclusion. But, regardless of the relation between instances of civilising offensives and longer term processes (directions and interim outcomes), “such civilising missions do have clear consequences, particularly for those less powerful groups on the receiving end”.

The third section gives examples of some key Dutch studies. One study of a religiously inspired civilising offensive (Verrips) makes use of Elias’s work on established and outsider groups. In this case the ‘civilisers’’ project was as much to do with confirming and reinforcing their own behavioural norms as castigating and modifying those of the target group. The “not very cautious behaviour” of Protestant labourers harmed the Protestant group as a whole. This points to the need to look at relations within groups as well as between groups. In the event this particular civilising offensive was unsuccessful due to the strong class identification of the Protestant labourers and their comparatively weak identification with the Protestant religious authorities.  If anything they had stronger solidarity with their Catholic labourer peers. In this case identification with their socioeconomic location trumped the ‘civilisers’’ attempts to make them see the world and act in it differently. This points to the necessity to look beyond the relations between and within groups to understand why the civilising offensive comes about and its outcome, successful or otherwise. In what does the power of the powerful and the relative powerlessness of the powerless reside? How does this enable and constrain the tactics, strategies and mechanisms of the civilising project and resistance to it? What resources, material, cultural, psychological can be deployed on either side?

The second case study develops some of these questions, that of Van Grinkel. This is an account of a successful civilising offensive. This was because a) the civilising offensive was complemented by the threat of punishment, what he calls a disciplinary offensive; and b) the civilising offensive was not only performed from without, imposed externally by the elite group, but also from within, based upon status competition in the subordinate group in attempts to emulate the standards and behaviours of the dominant group. Clearly some subgroups or elements within the subordinate group, in some circumstances, can internalise an aversion to the standards of their own (objective) group and subjectively identify with the ‘oppressor’. The two case studies both demonstrate the necessity to expand the analysis beyond the narrow idea of powerful groups attempting to change the behaviour (and one might say, attitudes, world view, doxa) of less powerful groups. The powerful groups are also constructing their own identity, legitimation and modus operandi in the face of external uncertainties and perceived threats. It is an internal and reflexive project as well as one targeted on a particular problematic group. The target group itself can internalise the civilising offensive, ending up civilising themselves. So there are different sorts of internal campaigns rather than just a top down civilising offensive. And, although not addressed explicitly in this paper, there needs to be taken into account a wider context that conditions and enables the various opportunities, objectivess and strategies of these complex relations between external and internal civilising projects and resistances to them. In fact, what are the factors that can explain why some civilising offensives are successful and others not? Perhaps some simply go, unknowingly, with the grain of the longer term, blind and unintentional civilising process. Or perhaps the occasional reference to bourgeoisie, work ethic, class, lower classes, labour (and even at the beginning of this paper to neoliberal society) may give a clue to the political economic context that would undoubtedly be a part of a broader explanation and understanding of ‘modern’ and contemporary accounts of civilising offensives?

In answer to the question of why some civilising offensives work and others don’t, Powell suggests it is a matter of to what extent the target group comes to internalise the standards of behaviour that the elite group are trying to inculcate. In the case of Verrips’ study of Protestant labourers, they did not internalise the project’s goals and it failed. In the case of van Grinkel’s study the target group did internalise the goals and it succeeded. What Powell does not comment on with the successful case is that this is the one where the civilising offensive was complemented by a ‘disciplinary’ offensive which rather suggests that the elite group in this case had rather more and different resources available to it than did the religious elite in the unsuccessful case. This in turn suggests a rather more ‘strenuous’ material relationship between the civilising and target group in this case.

In the fourth section Powell turns to the use of the term in the UK. The Dutch development and use of the concept was in critique of the history of Dutch paternalism. The two case studies cited above refer to civilising offensives during an earlier period of industrial development, late 19th to early 20th century. The UK examples deal with contemporary issues the background to which is the ‘criminalising social policy’ of neoliberal governments. The dominant contemporary discourse claims the post-welfare settlement has failed resulting in a culture of worklessness, benefits and welfare dependency and a lack of work ethic in some sections of the community. The example case studies look at civilising offensives with respect to immigrants, gypsies, Scottish football sectarianism and climate change. Rodger (2012*), referring to the work of Wacquant, relates the criminalisation of those precariously on the margins of society to the damaging effects of neoliberal ideologically informed economic development and social policy. The development of specific civilising offensives in response to what Wacquant calls the ‘advanced marginality’ of surplus and excluded groups looks like a fruitful area of research. In addition, theoretical links have been made with processes of ‘moral panics’ in the work of Cohen which seem to share some of the key features of civilising offensives.

Powell concludes this section with the general observation that the UK studies demonstrate how an historical informed analysis of aspects of the civilising process, i.e. civilising offensives that are targeted on outsider and relatively powerless groups by powerful groups and governments, can be brought to bear on contemporary developments.  A general and historically recurring aspect of the civilising process can be analysed and understood in terms of specific contemporary manifestations of the process. This demonstrates the utility and the power of the engagement of figurational sociology with ‘the politics of the present’.

The paper concludes with a discussion of potential areas for inquiry. The first aims to address a perceived weakness in the UK use of the idea of civilising offensive. It tends to assume and critique a top down process expressed through government policy. The Dutch examples point to a more complex and nuanced account that looks at aspects of the process that develop within target groups, how standards are internalised and are passed on through parents, families and peers through processes of socialisation.  Secondly, there is more scope to develop the analyses in ways that facilitate international comparative studies. For example there seems to be a tendency across Europe to focus civilising offensives on immigrant groups rather than the indigenous population (although in political strategic terms stigmatising and controlling immigrant groups still has the indigenous population as a target at one remove, in terms of ideological incorporation for example). In all cases this is linked to reinforcing ‘imagined’ national identities. It would be informative to see what impact difference in national habitus and governmental techniques have on the similarly focussed civilising offensives with similar objectives.  (This could be useful in looking at different ‘local’ responses to more general global developments). The third area of possible development would be to look at the changing targets of the offensives over the centuries –who are the target groups, who are the ‘civilisers’, what is the source of the imbalance of power, what resources are available to each group, etc.? It does seem to be the case that target groups have become more narrowly defined. What can account for this?

Powell’s conclusion is quite clear and brief. The major finding is summarised as follows:

The evidence presented, however, implies the need for a widening of the conceptualisation of civilising offensives, from an overly simplistic notion of the relationship between state and religious authorities and popular mentalities, to one which acknowledges the different levels at which civilising offensives are mediated and enacted; and which accounts for the changing objectives of ‘civilisers’ alongside wider social processes. Central here is the importance of internal pressures and the role of peer and group socialisation in the internalisation (or not) of constraints on conduct, which are less apparent within accounts of UK civilising offensives. There is also significant scope for international comparative analyses within Western Europe and beyond, not only in terms of the behaviours and targets of civilising offensives over the long-term but also the spaces in which they are regulated, both public and private.

However, he finishes on a cautionary note about the ultimate significance of civilising offensives in the longer run process of historical development. He claims there is little evidence of the lasting impact of civilising offensives or that the civilising process can be steered intentionally. Where offensives appear to succeed it is likely that the target groups who modify their behaviour and attitudes are already predisposed to do so because of other developmental/structural factors. The implication is that whether civilising offensives succeed or not depends on whether the door they are pushing at is already being opened by aspects of the wider developmental process or not.

A few observations:

The political, economic and global context are crucial to prevent studies of civilising offensives becoming ‘just so’ stories or exercises in cultural anthropology. The wider context is also necessary if the specific content of the offensives are to be understood, for instance there are aspects of techno-managerialism, quantification and neoliberal moral individualism in current efforts to stigmatise and control marginal and excluded groups. A different set of assumptions and doxa would be in play at different historical periods.

General processes of ideological incorporation, group socialisation, cultural and material forms of social control, etc. are ongoing and ubiquitous. Presumably the mechanisms of civilising offensives are always operating in less overt and ‘offensive’ ways all the time. What is it that marks out an intensification of the process that makes it historically visible? Like moral panics they seem to be the symptoms of some specific acceleration in the pace and quality of change, a response to significant shifts in balances of power, or the emergence of new groups, challenges and contestations.  Civilising offensives may be the reflex of new conditions of uncertainty, disillusionment or alienation. In contemporary conditions the combination of looking for personalised causes of distress and a blame culture may be predisposing factors in the development of civilising offensives.

Finally, if specific instances of civilising offensives are merely illustrative or symptoms of a long run, blind and unintended developmental process, then understanding specific instances adds nothing of significance to our understanding of the overall process. They cease to have any theoretical contribution to make. Perhaps this is why the title of the symposium contains the question “prospects for future understanding, or an obsolete concept”? It may be that studying civilising offensives has only political significance rather than a continuing contribution to make to the development of core figurational sociology.  But how does this seeming disembodied and unintended view of the civilising process square with the hope that more object adequate sociological knowledge would in principle facilitate the solution of pressing problems to do with poverty, injustice, war etc. My, admittedly ‘engaged’ view is that politics, struggle and resistance, even education, can have an influence on which of many possible futures actually comes about.


* The Rodgers 2012 publication referred to above is a chapter in Rodger, J. J. Loic Wacquant and Norbert Elias: Advanced marginality and the theory of the de-civilising process in Squires, P. and Lea, J. (Eds) Criminalisation and Advanced Marginality: Critically Exploring the Work of Loïc Wacquant, pp.87-106. Bristol: Policy Press. This is of interest as it specifically relates the notion of civilising offensives to the Bourdieuian work of Wacquant, providing the neoliberal context. I cannot get hold of this book as it isn’t in the Leeds University library but most of the relevant chapter is available via Google books.

Sociology – professional or pragmatic?

Once again I came away from the BSA Conference with the message that sociology was in crisis but at the same time at a moment of great opportunity if only it could sort out precisely what it is and what it’s for. And once again I came away feeling cautiously optimistic. One source of this optimism was the presentation given by John Holmwood Sociology’s ‘moments’: Democracy, expertise and the market. A major contention of his paper, and one that has significant consequences for sociology, is that the dominance of neo-liberal public policy since the late 1970s has sought to replace ‘publics’ with ‘markets’.

G H Mead (1863–1931)

In elaborating on the problems this presents to sociology, not least because the discipline and its institutional home in Universities are also being subject to a process of marketization and financialization, John contrasted the Parsonian project to create a professional sociology immune to ideological distortion with the American Pragmatists that developed the notion of the social self in the process of a critique of liberalism (1). It was Mead at the turn of the 19th century that saw the increasing tendency for government to merge with business and the industrial world. Dewey maintained that government did not so much represent the public interest as those of corporations and markets. Then, as now, this has significant consequences for our notions of democracy and the political role of the public sphere. But, according to Mead, this presents opportunities to the ‘public’ that emerge from forms of resistance and moments of critique.

A conception of a different world comes to us always as the result of some specific problem which involves readjustment of the world as it is, not to meet a detailed ideal of a perfect universe, but to obviate the present difficulty ….  [The Working Hypothesis in Social Reform American Journal of Sociology, November 1899]

This has implications for the nature of sociology as a form of expertise and its role, according to John. It could be in the service of government and its partnership with the corporations and industry. Or it could serve the more public project of adjusting and coping with the effects and  consequences, intended and unintended, of neoliberal corporatist policies. This implies  a role for sociology in dialogue with  ‘publics’ as they try to organise around the effects, to paraphrase C Wright Mills, that public issues have on private lives and communities. This may not sound radical or ‘activist’  enough for some but it is worth serious investigation and consideration. John makes the point that this is not an ’emancipatory’ sociology. It is not a programme or project to bring into being ‘a detailed idea of a perfect universe’. However it does confront and critique the taken for granted assumptions of reality and the doxa that supports and reproduces it. It does expose the historicity and contingency of the taken for granted and demonstrates that other realities are imaginable. In serving the public rather than the dominant troika of government, industry and finance, sociology serves democracy in that it exposes and resists the multifarious processes and policies that combine to hollow out and neutralise democratic institutions. In a previous ‘radical moment’, in the 1960s and 70s, sociology could be seen as harnessed to a project of institutionalised reform and betterment operationalised by the welfare state and influenced by the new social movements focused on forms of equality and inclusive citizenship. But from that time on sociology has been squeezed between a neoliberal critique of the welfare state and citizenship rights and its denigration as a form of expertise in the service of a now derided and demonised programme of betterment and entitlement.  John concluded with the question, what is it to practice sociology in a profoundly undemocratic system where reform has been de-institutionalised and sociology has lost its institutional locus and legitimacy? One suggestion is that it should revivify itself in response to a new radical moment and in doing so can revisit and be informed by some of the lessons and messages of the American pragmatists of the early 20th century. Sociology can inform a defence of wider social values in the face of a declining democracy. It can do this by providing publics with new and alternative accounts of the present and possible futures. In the face of TINA (there is no alternative) it can be asserted there always were and still are. To this end sociology (and therefore sociologists and their practice) must occupy (with all its post financial crash connotations) public debate in the service of democracy (not markets) and make inequality matter.

A great deal of John’s paper seemed to chime in well with the rather modest and arguably realistic (pragmatic) claims Zygmunt Bauman makes for sociology. Like John in his paper, Zygmunt offers a  history of the development of sociology mapped onto key stages in the development of modernity and the state. In Zygmunt’s account this can be represented by his distinction between sociologists as legislators and, as this function is stripped away from them, as interpreters. He also offers a diagnosis of the current parlous state of democratic institutions based on a corporatist account of government and the separation of power from state politics as a result of economic aspects of globalisation. His conclusions for the contemporary role of sociological practice are similar too in that it should engage in dialogue with various publics in the service of wider social values, democracy and justice. I’m not claiming that John’s account and Zygmunt’s are reducible to one another. I’m sure there would be points of disagreement and differences in emphasis. I only draw attention to a similarity in their conclusions for the practice of sociology today.

Alvin Gouldner (1920 – 1980)

There are two points of interest that I’d like to pursue. The first one is the notion that sociology develops in confrontation with ‘radical moments’ that are precipitated by social developments external to its discourse and therefore changes in the environment with which it has symbiotic and what might be called co-evolutionary relationships. The second is the notion that sociology should concern itself with and service democracy and wider social values such as those that are concerned with inequality and justice. I will return to the second point in another post but in the spirit of John’s return to the early American pragmatists I thought I would revisit an influential reflection on sociology at another radical moment in its history, the 1950s and 60s, by Alvin Gouldner. This will draw on two of his writings. The first is Anti Minotaur: The Myth of a Value Free Sociology (Social Problems, Volume 8, Number 3, Winter 1962, pp. 199 ff.) first given as a Presidential Address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) in 1961. The second is The Sociologist as Partisan: Sociology and the Welfare State (The American Sociologist Vol. 3, No. 2, May, 1968, pp. 103-116). This was a critical reaction to the Presidential Address given by Howard Becker to the SSSP 6 years later entitled Whose Side Are We On (Social Problems, Vol. 14, No. 3, Winter 1967, pp. 239-247) where Becker advocated we should conduct our sociological practice from the point of view of the ‘underdog’. Both these articles are conveniently collected together as chapters 1 and 2 of Gouldner’s book For Sociology: Renewal and Critique in Sociology Today Allen Lane 1973. (I first looked at these readings in 1977 when I was doing A level sociology at an evening class and frankly hardly understood a word of it)!  This critique is quite damning and one wonders if Gouldner and Becker where friends! Gouldner’s critique of Becker’s attempt to side step the problem of values in sociology is instructive for thinking about the grounds upon which an engaged sociology should focus on social values concerned with inequality and justice as advocated by both John Holmwood and Zygmunt Bauman.

I’ll commence Gouldner’s discussion of the myth of a value free sociology with an extended quotation that mirrors very well some key concerns we, or some academics at least, still have today with respect to the role and practice of sociology.

 The problem of a value-free sociology has its most poignant implications for the social scientist in his (sic) role as educator. If sociologists ought not to express their personal values in the academic setting, how then are students to be safeguarded against the unwitting influence of these values which shape the sociologist’s selection of problems, his preferences for certain hypotheses or conceptual schemes, and his neglect of others? For these are unavoidable and, in this sense, there is and can be no value-free sociology. The only choice is between an expression of ones’ values, as open and honest as it can be […] and a vain ritual of moral neutrality which, because it invites men (sic) to ignore the vulnerability of reason  to bias, leaves it at the mercy of irrationality.

In Gouldner’s view a value free sociology is impossible due to the unavoidable necessity of making choices between subject matters, research hypotheses, concepts and explanatory frameworks. To mistakenly claim and offer value free knowledge, however sincerely, is to obscure the inevitability of this process, the values that inform it and its knowledge productions. If it is claimed that social values can only distort knowledge when in fact they are an indispensable condition of its production, then all knowledge is distorted. Distortion in the sense of partial, selective, contingent, is inevitable. But the term ‘distortion’ can be left out of this characterisation of knowledge as it implies the possibility of an undistorted knowledge that is impartial, complete(able), absolute and universal. This is the modernist utopian vision of knowledge that underpins the post-political world of techno-managerialism and expertise. For Gouldner, claims of value freedom translate into moral and value relativism. This leads to the claimed ‘value free’ sociology being at best politically irrelevant and at worse it surrenders authority, legitimacy and power to the dominant discourses of the status quo in which it becomes complicit. It is in danger of becoming the hand servant of and harnessed to the technologies of domination, legitimation and obfuscation. ‘Nudge theory’ springs to mind here along with behavioural economics and sociologically informed tools of post-political techno-management. A purported value free professional sociology can be used to help sell cigarettes as well as advise those who wish to reduce smoking. The domain of the value-free morally neutral sociology is that of the “spiritless technician who will be no less lacking in understanding than they are in passion, and who will be useful only because they can be used”. Gouldner warns us that however blunt and dull these sociologically informed tools are they are capable of building a social technology “powerful enough to cripple us”. In his day prisoners of war and GIs were being systematically brain washed and compulsive consumerism was being driven by advertising and scientific marketing. As he observed, the social science technologies of the future will “hardly be less powerful than today’s”.

Within the institutionalised forms of sociology this can be experienced by its students and practitioners as isolating and alienating. In the words of Gouldner,  “They feel impotent to contribute usefully to the solution of [society’s] deepening problems and, even when they can, they fear that the terms of such an involvement require them to submit to a commercial debasement or a narrow partisanship, rather than contributing to a truly public interest”. There are two strategies for psychological accommodation for the institutionalised sociologist. One is to embrace relativism, particularistic anthropology or the post-modern turn, solving the problem of value-freedom by promoting it to an intellectual principle.  The other is to become a sociologist of sociology and engage in a learned and scholarly critique of its competing paradigms and methods. Both are ways of sheltering from the real world of political action and passion, uncertainty and messy pragmatism.  “It evokes the soothing illusion, amongst some sociologists, that their exclusion from the larger society is a self-imposed duty rather than an externally imposed constraint”. It disguises the fact that to refrain from social criticism reflects the personal interests and insecurities of some sociologists rather than “reflecting a higher professional good”.

So two tendencies that Gouldner identified in the 50s and 60s are for some sociologists to either ‘sell out’ or ‘opt out’ neither of which sound particularly edifying as a job descriptions for young sociologists today. Arguably the  two tendencies are still alive and well but fortunately they don’t represent the only options available or for that matter already manifest. In his day Gouldner was not saying that the ‘critical posture’ is dead in American sociology, only that it was ‘badly sagging’. He cited several authors that were bucking the trend many of whom would be largely unknown today but C Wright Mills, Dennis Wrong, Lewis Coser, Bernard Rosenberg  and David Riesman may still stir the memory of some of us. Gouldner considered these to be intellectuals no less than sociologists, the larger tradition from which sociology evolved and which is itself founded on the assertion of the right to be critical of tradition. We have our own contemporary representatives of this contrary and troublesome breed.

For me, at least, a number of problems emerge from this. What is it to be critical? What is practically entailed in practising a sociology that engages in dialogues with various publics? On what basis do we choose the publics to engage with? What is the justification for adopting and focusing on values associated with inequality and justice? (2) Don’t financiers, bankers, the police,  torturers and hedge fund managers constitute publics and operate in their own universe of values? If we claim we should side with the victims, given a sociologist’s systemic sensibilities, are we not all victims one way or another? And in a world of unavoidable and irreducible uncertainty in which we have abandoned utopian visions and meta-narratives, political and scientific,  isn’t pragmatic adaptation and problem solving doomed to be absorbed and neutralised, even exploited, by the status quo to enhance its legitimacy and wealth and further secure its domination? As Zygmunt Bauman, John Holloway and Slavoj Žižek all say, in no particular order, there are no guarantees this will all end happily. Perhaps the best we can do is live in the limbo of a hopeful resignation. Perhaps it is, after all, quite rational to tend our own gardens, retreat behind the barricades of relativism and incestuous methodological flagellation? Or make alliances with the centres of unassailable power to minimise our own victim-hood?  I think there are positive, life enhancing and, yes, emancipatory answers to these questions. The next post will continue with Gouldner and examine his account of why we should side with the exploited and those that are subjected to an excess of suffering, given that to suffer to some extent is part of the human condition.

(1) In another session devoted to an exploration of the relationship between economics and sociology it was pointed out that Parsons claimed that sociology is concerned with the residual problems left over by economics.
(2) It is not clear that a sociology that is informed by a concern with inequality and justice and that exposes the complex and contingent mechanisms that work ‘behind the curtain’, as Bauman and Kundera would have it, and therefore debunk the assertions of TINA cannot and will not be used to inform the policies and strategies, both explicit and hidden, of the dominant classes to preserve something like the status quo. This would mean that a body of critical knowledge would not be enough to produce a society that embodied the preferred social values of equality and justice. The knowledge would have to be translated into countervailing political and cultural processes and activities – a call for an engaged activist sociology  perhaps using ‘action’ forms of research and engagement.

Of possible interest is the post I did last year reflecting on the BSA conference in 2012

Paths in the fog – Milan Kundera

Norbert Elias writes, I think in his book What is Sociology, that it is only with hindsight that we can see that A led to B to C and so on because the contingency and uncertainty of how myriad actions and consequences, intended and unintended, worked out to produce what actually happened are open to historical and sociological investigation. However, in the present, as we stand today, in conditions of endemic and permanent uncertainty (to paraphrase Zygmunt Bauman’s description of liquid modernity) we cannot know for certain how things will turn out. The best we can do is to map out possible more and less likely future scenarios and, as actors and citizens, be as informed as possible in what direction we as individuals and collectively strive for. Certainly a starting point for this would be the unmasking of the ideological myth that there is no alternative.

Milan KunderaOne of Bauman’s favourite authors is Milan Kundera. Bauman has a particular view on the relationship between literature and sociology, or more precisely a certain sort of literature as sociology, that I find very interesting and will post about later. Here is an extract from one of Kundera’s essays that expresses well what Elias was saying about retrospective certainty versus forecasting uncertainty. The list of intellectuals and literary figures he refers to in this quote are all individuals who have been put on trial by history for supporting the wrong side, fascist or communist and some for both at different times. His argument is that looking at the present and future from their position and perspective might produce a very different appraisal of their character and their work. We are looking back with the clarity of hindsight; they were looking forward through the fog. The references to Tolstoy all relate as far as I can tell to War and Peace.

Tolstoy looks back on the Napoleonic Wars from a distance of fifty years. In his case, the new perception of history not only affects the structure of the novel, which has become more and more capable of capturing (in dialogue, in  description) the historical nature of narrated events; but what interests him primarily is man’s relation to history (his ability to dominate it or to escape it, to be free or not in regard to it),and he takes up the problem directly, as the very theme of his novel, a theme he explores by every means, including novelistic reflection.

Tolstoy argues against the idea that history is made by the will and reason of great individuals. History makes itself, he says, obeying laws of its own, which remain obscure to man. Great individuals “all were the involuntary tools of history, carrying on a work that was concealed from them.” Later on: “Providence compelled all these men, each striving to attain personal aims, to combine in the accomplishment of a single stupendous result not one of them (neither Napoleon nor Alexander and still less anyone who did the actual fighting) in the least expected.” And again: “Man lives consciously for himself, but is unconsciously a tool in the attainment of the historic, general aims of mankind.” From which comes this tremendous conclusion: “History, that is, the unconscious, general herd-life of mankind …” (I emphasize the key phrases.)

With this conception of history, Tolstoy lays out the metaphysical space in which his characters move. Knowing neither the meaning nor the future course of history, knowing not even the objective meaning of their own actions (by which they “involuntarily” participate in events whose meaning is “concealed from them”), they proceed through their lives as one proceeds in the fog. I say fog, not darkness. In the darkness, we see nothing, we are blind, we are defenseless, we are not free. In the fog, we are free, but it is the freedom of a person in fog: he sees fifty yards ahead of him, he can clearly make out the features of his interlocutor, can take pleasure in the beauty of the trees that line the path, and can even observe what is happening close by and react.

Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog. And yet all of them–Heidegger, Mayakovsky, Aragon, Ezra Pound, Gorky, Gottfried Benn, St.-JohnPerse, Giono–all were walking in fog, and one might wonder: who is more blind? Mayakovsky, who as he wrote his poem on Lenin did not know where Leninism would lead? Or we, who judge him decades later and do not see the fog that enveloped him?

Mayakovsky’s blindness is part of the eternal human condition.

But for us not to see the fog on Mayakovsky’s path is to forget what man is, forget what we ourselves are.

Milan Kundera 1995 Testaments Betrayed: An Essay In Nine Parts. Extract from Part Eight, Paths in the Fog pages 237-238. [The book is available on-line at]