Life long learning, information literacy and the ‘expert patient’

I’ve extracted this from an archive of a learning and teaching blog I kept from June 2005 ’til August 2010. This post was dated August 2006. I’ve reposted it as I think the issue of open and public access to research reports and data is as relevant and important today as it ever was in the in these days of fake and ‘alternative; facts, false news and the denigration of expertise. I can’t find the audio files referred to in the post so far but these aren’t important for the main points. This topic overlaps with discussions om Gramsci’s notion of organic intellectual and Collin’s ideas on ‘interactional expertise’ A contemporary example of the use of Gramsc’s ideas is The Role of Organic Intellectuals In The Era of a Trump Presidency. Zygmunt Bauman’s distinction between sociologists as either legislators or interpreters can be seen to map loosely onto Gramsci’s traditional and organic intellectuals, at least in terms of their focus and allegiance.

Life long learning, information literacy and the ‘expert patient’ (August 31st, 2006)

A little while ago I suffered from a complaint called plantar fasciitis. I didn’t know it was called that to begin with, I just had a tremendous pain in my right heel when I got up in the morning and could hardly walk. It seemed to come from nowhere. It was so bad I went to the doctor a couple of days later who said I must have bruised it badly somehow despite there being no visible bruising and I could not recall any event that might have caused it. I looked the symptoms up on the web, found an exact description of the symptoms and context, followed the advice and, as predicted, about 10 days later all was well.

A very good friend of mine lost his father and brother to cancer of the oesophagus. Like them, he suffers from recurrent heartburn, or acid reflux. In researching this he found that about 10% of heartburn sufferers have Barrett’s oesophagus, a precancerous condition, and that these are between 30 and 125 times more likely to die of oesophageal cancer than the 90% that don’t have Barrett’s oesophagus. Neither his father nor brother were diagnosed with Barrett’s O. My friend arranged to have the appropriate test, which his doctor had never heard of, and sure enough he has it. The good news is that there is a great deal that can be done to reduce the likelihood of BO becoming full blown cancer – diet, weight loss, etc. – so my friend is quite upbeat about it and feels he has a measure of control.

Another close friend suffers from Torticollis, or wry neck. This developed very quickly and had the effect of forcing his head round over his left shoulder. Apart from being very embarrassing, it stopped him driving and at meetings he had to make sure he was sitting at the side of the conference table where he could look at and address the Chair. His doctor advised surgery to cut the contracting neck muscles was the only solution and he would have to wear a neck brace to stop his head lolling around. Research on the web found that increasingly the condition is being treated with regular injections of botulinum toxin. This partially paralyses the contracting muscles and relaxes them thus allowing the muscles on the other side of the neck to stabilise and control head movement. His doctor had not heard of this and took up the research. As a result my friend receives the botox treatment and leads a normal life, looking to the future rather than where he has just been, and his doctor has had a free episode of professional continuing education.

Several messages could be gleaned from these last two stories. One might be that, if you are a friend of mine, you are probably ill and definitely dying.

Another, more positive, message is the one that John Wilinsky describes so eloquently and entertainingly in his keynote presentation to the UBC Okanagan’s 2nd Annual Learning Conference ‘Learning Free of Boundaries’: A newly Open and Public Quality to Learning. This is an mp3 audio file about 62 minutes and 50 Mbytes. The whole presentation is a very rewarding listen when you have the time. The bit of the presentation relevant to this post topic starts at the 21st minute. However, I have taken the liberty of extracting the 11 minutes or so where John is talking about the internet, literacy and reading ability, and how people are increasingly using the internet to research their medical and health issues and how this is changing their relationship with doctors and the medical profession. This is gradually developing into a process of “shared decision making”. Of particular interest is John’s account of the process whereby individuals develop from not even understanding the title of some research papers to gradually developing the context that enables them get a handle on it and talk productively to their doctors about it. He draws some important and interesting general conclusions about the nature independent learning, developing critical thinking skills but in the context of a vastly expanded access to knowledge.

Sociology as a crime

In 2013 after two men were arrested in Canada for conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack the then Canadian Prime Minister when questioned about what their motives might have been in a news conference said ‘now is not the time to commit sociology‘.  When a conservative MP Pierre Poilievre was asked to elaborate on Harper’s comments and what is wrong with trying to understand why people turn to terror he replied unhelpfully “The root causes of terrorism is terrorists”.  As The Toronto Star said in 2014 in a reference to Harper’s 2103 statement but on another topic, until the prime minister recognizes the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women is a ‘sociological phenomenon,’ no solution is possible.

The notion that sociology is something that is ‘committed’ in the same sense that crimes are committed is not surprising from the establishment’s point of view. As a sociologist I take great comfort from the fact that it has been condemned at various times by both left wing and right wing governments.  By condemning sociology politicians are condemning the ability to understand the way societies work, how different forms of power operate to structure and reproduce society, how it attempts to colonise and shape peoples’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. It is an attack on informed critical thinking, an attack on the demonstration that existing forms of societies, their structures, cultures, distributions of power, influence and reward, are historically and contingently formed and could be other than they are. It demonstrates that the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) is an ideological illusion that benefits certain groups in society and keeps others in a position of more-or-less despairing acquiescence.

I for one am happy to commit sociology; a sociology committed to the project, as described by Zygmunt Bauman and many others, to tearing away the veil behind which power in all its forms operates, demonstrating that the society we live in could be other, and better, than the one we live in, and that gives a voice to all those groups that have been rendered inaudible by the marginalisation and denigration of their experience and circumstances. This is not without serious difficulties but is surely better than rolling on to our backs to be either violated or having our tummies tickled.


Speaking truth to power

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

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

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

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

Nothing in the corridors of power for his kind of sociology

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

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

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

Understanding Trumpageddon

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

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

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


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

Good enough sociology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness: old wine in new bottles?

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


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.

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