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.

History Versus Theory

Over the next couple of months I will be using this blog to make a few notes and try out a few ideas on a more substantial piece I am writing on the relationship between the academic discipline of sociology and political activism. This is the first note.

I am currently reading David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 2.  in the introduction but he makes a claim about the relation between Marx’s theory and his historical analysis. In particular there is a contrast between the historical analyses and the general framework of his political economy. His historical writings don’t seem to make much reference to his general theory and this in turn mostly ignores historical particularities. The generality of the theory is problematic when one attempts to apply it to concrete historical and political contexts and it is not clear how activist political programmes can be informed by it. However, according to Harvey, the exclusion of the historical details and contingencies allows Marx to develop a framework which transcends his own time and is applicable to the subsequent development of capitalism and today. Harvey refers to a more detailed account of this claim in his article  History versus Theory: On Marx’s Method in Capital. I have not so far managed to get hold of this but the summary in the introduction to his ‘Companion’ may be sufficient for my purpose which is to explore the tension between sociological ‘detachment’ and political engagement – the possibility of an activist sociology. Harvey concludes his introduction with a call to arms:

Confining himself so tightly within the level of generality permitted Marx to construct an understanding of capital that transcended the historical particulars of his own time. This is why we can still read him today – even Volume II – and make sense of so much of what he has to say. On the other hand, this framework makes for difficulties of any immediate application to actually existing circumstances. This is the work we are left to do.

Harvey’s approach implies that there is something more detached (more scientific?) about Marx’s general theory of capitalism as an economic system than is the case with his detailed historical and political writings.  His theoretical writings are about how things are, a relativity neutral account of how things work, whereas his political commentary is influenced by how he would like things to be and a programme to achieve this.  In my longer piece I will be questioning this distinction between the detached nature of  theory and the involved nature of politically orientated thought and action.  Rather than an opposition it might be seen as a fruitful, even unavoidable, alliance. It is here that Norbert Elias’s ideas on involvement and detachment and notions of ‘involved detachment’ and ‘detours via detachment’  can usefully be elaborated. I’m not aware of anyone reversing these terms before but there may be scope to explore the possibilities of ‘detached involvement’ and ‘detours via involvement’, especially the idea that there is a constructive dialectical relationship between theoretical accounts and politically informed projects. This would be particularly the case if an ‘objectively’ detached approach reveals the incomplete and contingent nature of history, politics and social reality and that it has always been ‘completed’ for the moment along with the ideological illusion of  finality (‘there is no alternative’ e.g.) by some group or others’ political project. If  ‘involvement’ in some fundamental social sense actually constitutes the objects of neutral detached ‘apolitical’ theoretical contemplation and theoretical construction, then the call for social sciences to be detached, objective and politically neutral is both forlorn and naive.

There is a video of a lecture Harvey gave in November 2011 with the same title as the later 2012 article History versus Theory: On Marx’s Method in Capital


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]


The inevitability of simplification?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Increasingly my reading and thinking about the current state of affairs – austerity policy, neoliberalism, the occupation movement, ‘there is no alternative’, discussions and projects about free and open universities, the critique of education, in fact criticality generally – has turned me back to a consideration of the nature of ideology. My preferred approach to ideology has always been as a process rather than this or that political ideology or system of thought or as any sort of more-or-less organised and coherent way of thinking, world view or totalising theory.

My starting point is that we necessarily live in a world of meaning made available to us through a series of symbolic systems pre-eminent amongst which is language although there important and powerful material and visual symbolic systems too. We make sense of the world and act in it within a multi-layered cultural universe. This determines both our unconscious and automatic habitual behaviours and our conscious actions, those that we recognise as motivated, purposeful and of which we can give an account in those terms. This dichotomy is rather crude as quite often our conscious behaviour is influenced by our unthinking common-sense behaviour – routine, embedded, taken for granted – and can be seen as, in some instance, sublimations, and in others post hoc rationalisations.

Language mediates our relations with the world and others, and structures and gives meaning to our experience. It is a part of culture which more generally gives us recipes for understanding and for behaviour. All our problems are constructed within and through culture and solved or accommodated within and through culture. There is no by-passing this fact. It is the human condition.

I will be digging through my old readings and notes to come to a clearer understanding of how I now think about ideology and its relevance for critical action and ’emancipation’. Emancipation as a concept needs a bit of work of course and I think Bauman’s ideas on freedom and unfreedom will be relevant. I will be reviewing Gramsci’s ideas on how ideological processes shape common-sense and colonise culture and Althusser’s on how ‘ideological apparatuses’ construct our identities and subjective experience through a process of interpellation. Stuart Hall’s writings on ideology also influenced me a great deal when writing my Ph.D. thesis. I think I will need to look at Elias’s work on the meaning-making process and ideology. Foucault will be hard to ignore too. I have always found his critique of the very idea of ideology to be compelling. His problem with ideology is that it implies there are ideas, beliefs, discourses, that are in some way non-ideological. The problem remains if we understand ideology as constructing a distorted or skewed account of reality as this implies the possibility of an undistorted account of reality – the ‘truth’. This view depends on the possibility of establishing the ontological and epistemological ground on which one must stand in-order to access the ‘truth’. The position I take on ideology as a process is that it doesn’t just produce ‘accounts’ of the world. It also produces to some extent the material and social reality of the world as a social and material construction. It doesn’t so much produce a distorted version of the world as a particular version of the world. Ideologies are ‘true’ to the world they produce, construct, and ‘realise’. Since it is a cultural, political (in the broadest sense) and material process ideology cannot be seen as just a set of ideas that claim to be true. Even if we see ideology in this way it is not clear how we could establish its distortions of existing reality since it has produced the reality we are trying to judge it against. The implication is that we can only critique ideology in terms of other possible realities that also would need to be constructed, realised, through a similar ideological process. And, given that we have to start from where we are, an alternative reality has to be a potentiality within the possibilities of the current reality. If nothing else this means building upon and reforming or revolutionising existing forms of knowledge and institutions. At this point ideology seems to be the common term, the denominator, of all aspects of the historical social process; it looks as if it can be removed without loss of conceptual and analytic clarity.  Maybe, but I would want to hang on to it as it makes it clear that different forms of power and their distribution are key to understanding how historically contingency is to some extent and temporarily foreclosed and one version of reality, one set of social relations and cultural forms, one world, is what we are living in and have to confront and critique rather than another. The objective of critique is to expose and demonstrate the process and how power operates within it to produce, sustain and legitimate a reality that seems to offer no alternative and in so doing make other possible worlds thinkable and offer some idea of what would be involves in bringing it about.

Language and culture, common-sense and intellectual ‘terms of engagement’ are indispensable but always the contingent outcome of historical processes shaped by relations of power and inequalities of symbolic and material resources. In this sense everything is an aspect of ideological process to some extent. It is the aspect of what Norbert Elias calls ‘the meaning making process’ that is most intimately connected to and influenced by ‘power’, its interests and its agents. The ideological process is power in action – the way it shapes lives and actions and recruits us to its version of reality, legitimates that reality and brings it about culturally and materially by shaping the social processes and relations that, reproduce and maintain it.

The ideological process, broadly conceived, works on many levels, has many modalities and operates in different time frames. It is a sedimentation of culture and practices from the past that still echo in the present. It is innovation captured, co-opted and seconded, neutralised or adapted. It operates via certain geographies and materialised discourses – the separate boys’s and girls’ entrances and play grounds at some schools, the gradations of status and influence inscribed in office geometries, décor and facilities, the reserved car parking spaces for senior management and executives, the different rationales invoked for paying some high wages and others low wages. It operates through the taken-for-granted framing of issues and policies – both in terms of concepts defined and the relations between them and in reductive and partial perspectives that we are persuaded describe and explain all we need to know to understand and act. It establishes what can and cannot be thought.

Bauman sees the role of sociology as tearing away the veils that hide and disguise the operations of power that naturalise the social relations and the world we live in. Today this is the marketised capitalistic world Mark Fisher (Capitalist Realism) and Zizek speak of. Bauman does not see sociology as having any legislative privilege in this for the very good reason it cannot offer any certainty or recipes for specific action. There is always a deficit that must be made good via politics of one sort or another. Sociology can however develop and offer a reading and understanding of social reality that helps make possible and contributes to a discussion of other possible worlds and how to achieve them. No particular worlds, good or bad, are guaranteed. The project is emancipatory with respect to current forms of exploitation, inequality, alienations and forms of wasted lives and, as Bauman calls it, collateral damage. But there will always be a trade-off between freedom and security and there will always be forms of power and constraint in various personal and institutionalised forms. So emancipatory and critical sociology exposes the ideological process by necessarily being within it and offers the possibility of intervening in the ideological process in order to produce alternative realities.

To be continued …


Education, social control, and subversion

Thinking about the role of the University today and our current project to develop a public sociology web site, I was reminded of a blog post I did about 3 years ago in March 2006 ( which I have reproduced below.

Recently there has been some very interesting  discussion about the  purposes of education on Harold Jarche’s blog  Education’s Three Conflicting Pillars and a related post by Christopher Sessum, Competing Paradigms and Educational Reform. This has got me thinking once more about the complex relationship between the State and the education system and the ambivalent position of the teacher.

Personally I tend to favour the term ‘discourse’ rather than paradigm. Discourses are processes. Discourses are not monolithic and coherent. They are made up of overlaying and intersecting ideas that are often in competition, and connect many different forms of knowledge and truth claims. There are usually different agendas in play promoted by competing power brokers and power seekers. They form the intersections of political, economic, ideological and ‘scientific’ interests and activities. Particular  ‘discursive formations’ have recognisable boundaries within which, for a while a least, they cohere.  Discourses only gain purchase on the real world and become effective through ‘practices’. Discourses feed into government policy. This leads, in the case of educational policy, to a number of practices that implement  the policy through laws and regulations and funding procedures.  And at the end of the day it is schools, colleges, universities and their staff and students that one way or another implement the discourse informed education policies.

An example of this is the development of the educational discourse that culminated in the Butler Education Act of 1944 in the UK.  A variety of interlocking and overlapping ideologies and ‘sciences’ informed this discourse based on a variety of different related interests and institutions including educational ideas of the time, the dominant political ideology of the time, Keynesian economic theories and policies, the interests of key sectors of the economy, the psychologist Cyril Burt’s theories on IQ, and a number of other moral and philanthropic ideas. The practical implementation of this educational discourse, via the enactment of the Butler Education Act, was the so-called tripartite secondary education system, selection by the 11+ exam with its IQ testing component, and the creation of three different types of schools that corresponded with three innately different sorts of pupils and the perceived needs of three different sectors of the post WWII labour market. How neat!!.  Each type of school had a different curriculum suited to the supposed different abilities of the students and for their destined location in the labour market. In some respects the different curricula produced, ‘constructed’, three different types of students as specified by the practical implementation of the educational discourse thus showing the discourse to be ‘correct’ – an example of that well known social phenomenon, the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

The above story follows from a more general feature of the link between state education, economic structure and labour market requirements.  In the UK the development of the state education system was intimately linked to the gradual extension of the vote to all working men and the needs of the developing labour market in a rapidly expanding capitalist industrial economy. State education served the needs of the economy not just in terms of the skills required but also the political system – to produce ‘docile bodies’ that accept the distribution of power, the status quo, as legitimate. Political socialisation and social control were key components of state education right from the start. The extension of education to the masses was viewed with deep suspicion by the ‘natural’  and traditional ruling class.  The controlling aspect was seem as crucial to those that begrudgingly conceded that they were having to ‘educate our masters’ – the Duke of Wellington I think. Education has always had the dual role of both enabling and controlling and has always been a double-edged sword. Teaching individuals how to read so they can read the Bible and employers’ instructions always risked the possibility that they would also read subversive pamphlets if available. Whatever the other contradictions and tensions in education today I think this fundamental one between the enabling agenda and the controlling agenda is still very much in evidence. And it makes its presence felt in every bit of curriculum development and in every lecture theatre, tutorial room and classroom.

It is this double edged and contradictory nature of education that gives teachers and educators some opportunities to subvert  the dominant educational discourse. We teach the content of our disciplines and we police students’ conformity to the structures, procedures and expectations of  the institution. But we also help develop the critical and metacognitive skills that can let the genie out of the bottle. Once learning skills have been mastered and students develop a critical awareness of the constructed and provisional nature of much knowledge, then the focus, objectives, content of the learning beyond the institution can be chosen by individuals and communities they are part of.

Radically inclined teachers have a difficult task. We want to help our students achieve in the context of the dominant paradigm as described by Chris, learn the content, pass the exams, reproduce what is required in their assessment essays. This is driven by our desire to help students perform well in assessment and achieve their goals. However, the critical and autonomous learning skills we help students obtain can begin to develop their capacity for personal effectiveness and becoming critical citizens. This is how teachers can both live in and with the dominant paradigm at the same time as subverting it. The paradox is there is no conspiracy here; teaching and learning within the dominant educational discourse, preparing students for the fast changing knowledge and networked society, nurtures in its bosom the seeds of its own critique and subversion.

Or is this a rationalisation of collaboration? 

Anthropology: On Becoming Modern

In today’ edition of Science there is a section on human social evolution with 2 articles both suggesting a link between human social evolution and cultural development which is relatively autonomous with respect to biological evolution. One of them, Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior, claims that growing population density can account for the first appearance of ‘modern’ behaviour without appealing to genetic changes or changes in cognitive capacities. In particular this can account for the emergence of specialist cultural areas. Frankly I thought this was an idea Adam Smith came up with in the 18th century and Durkheim in the late 19thcentury. I will need to read these articles to see if they add anything to our existing sociological understanding of these matters. The earlier historical context may well be interesting but I suspect it would be a fairly unproblematic and minor extension of existing sociological knowledge.

Anthropology: On Becoming Modern (Ruth Mace)

Unlike other animals, humans cooperate with nonrelatives in coordinated actions, decorate their bodies, build complex artefacts(useful or otherwise), talk, and divide themselves into linguistic groups. To understand the evolutionary basis of such behaviors, anthropologists must consider not only issues connected to social evolution in animals, but also the implications of the possible coevolutionof genes and culture. Two articles in this issue examine aspects of human social evolution: On page 1293, Bowles(1) investigates the origins of altruism toward one’s own social group, while on page 1298, Powell et al. (2) study the emergence of cultural complexity. Based on empirical evidence and modeling, both studies suggest that the demographic structure of our ancestral populations determined how social evolution proceeded.

Link to articles via Leeds Uni login

Friday 5th June ‘Science in Action’ on BBC World service [summary and ‘listen again’]
“We humans pride ourselves on our culture. Our tools, our ideas and innovations, and our art. They’re all passed on within our societies, and help shape who we are. These so called ‘modern human behaviours’ appeared suddenly around 90 thousand years ago, but at different times in different geographical areas. Something must have been happening to prompt the change – but exactly what has been a mystery. Jon Stewart meets researchers who think they have solved the problem”. [podcast]

Hijacking the future (and the past)

On the day that I read the first essay (Modernity and the Planes of Historicity) in Koselleck’s Futures Past, I also discovered a book by Susan George, published last year, Hijacking America. In Koselleck’s essay he makes the point that, during the emergence and consolidation of the new European Nation States and their governments, ‘ownership’ of the future was wrested by the State out of the hands of the religious authorities. The religious conception of the future was “the certainty that the Last Judgement would enforce a simple alternative between Good and Evil through the establishment of a single principle of behaviour”. From this time on the State and its rational prognostications calculate the possibilities of different futures and became responsible for the future. Part of this take-over consisted in the State repressing alternative religious and political predictions and claims about the future (rather as had the Roman Catholic Church previously – heresy was now delimited by the State rather than the Church). It is at this point, on the cusp of modernity, that the previous age could be seen as and labelled ‘medieval’. Grotius, in 1625, considered that the wish to fulfil predictions was one of the causes of unjust wars. According to Koselleck, “The facility with which anticipations of devout Christians, or predictions of all kinds, could be transformed into political action had disappeared by 1650”.

Which brings me to Susan George’s book. According to the publisher’s blurb  the “American secular and religious right has made its “long march through the institutions” and changed the way Americans think. […] A broad alliance of neo-liberals, neo-conservatives and the religious right successfully manufactured a new common sense, assaulted Enlightenment values and targeted the top of society where culture is created and legitimized”.

Perhaps a clue here is the reference to an assault on Enlightenment values. Perhaps under the conditions of late modernity, when, according to Zygmunt Bauman, State based politics and power have become decoupled, the State has lost its monopoly hold on the future, and this is manifesting itself in the USA as a new ‘medievalism’. The predictions of some Christians, accompanied by freeloaders, carpet baggers and opportunists, are again being transformed into political action, defining heresy, and constructing the grounds of, from a secular viewpoint, unjust wars. The Christian Right in America have gone a long way in reclaiming the past through the successful promotion of Creationism (in its recent guise as intelligent design) through the education and political systems. Perhaps it is now in the business of reclaiming the future for its apocalyptic prophesy.