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

Civilising offensives – what I learnt

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Abstracts. This is a commentable Google document.