Sociology – professional or pragmatic?

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

G H Mead (1863–1931)

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

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

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

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

Alvin Gouldner (1920 – 1980)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paths in the fog – Milan Kundera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Would C Wright Mills have kept a blog?

C Wright Mills on his BMW motorbike

I love this picture. I still have two motorbikes and ride them regularly

After a particularly inspiring session at the BSA Conference this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of C. Wright Mills’ death, I have started to read The Sociological Imagination again. It was a standard introductory book for sociology students and I first read it when I was studying for A Level sociology at an adult education centre as a mature student in 1977. I have used the famous quote about private problems and public issues on many occasions over the years as a teacher. In fact the opening lecture of a research methods course I taught for 22 years used this quotation alongside a passage from H G Wells’ History of Mr Polly that beautifully illustrates, in the context of the desperate fate the bewildered Mr Polly was experiencing in common with much of the Victorian petty bourgeoisie, the sociological imagination.

I re-read the opening chapter of the book, The Promise, and then turned to the appendix, On Intellectual Craftsmanship. I’m not sure I’d read it before as it didn’t ring any bells but to my surprise I found myself reading a strong rationale for and recommendation to keep a blog. It is essential, he claims, to not keep your scholarly work and your life separate. You must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work, to continually examine and interpret it. To this end you should keep a file. “The sociologist’s need for systematic reflection demands it”. It is worth reading the detailed account he gives on how the file should be used to achieve this. In almost every particular he is describing why and how I and others I know use a blog.

The file should contain as separate items records of personal experiences relevant to self and sociological reflection, ‘fringe’ thoughts, snatches of conversation, half formed ideas, notes on current and possible projects and plans, quotations from and reviews of books and articles, biographical items, all filed under various headings. Even in his time he identified the stultifying affects of putting together research plans to satisfy funders and how the planning is geared up to attracting money. In addition to this (necessary) pursuit the social scientist should find time to review ‘the state of my problems and plans’ and think in broader terms than the agenda as specified by the available funding opportunities. As projects take shape and firm up various items in the file can be re-ordered in terms of relevance for the projects. Items can be re-categorised and reordered as necessary. “The file will contain a growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished”. One key organising principle of the file is to pay attention to the stratified nature of society – history, structure and processes but also individual experience, understandings and problems, your own and others’. As your sociological imagination develops, so does your intellectual capacity. He recommends writing a reasonably substantial piece at least once a week. For students and early career sociologists the file is a way of developing a writing style, finding a voice and gaining confidence.

Many reading this will recognise the similarity of this account with discussions of why use a blog. It certainly coincides with my own practice. This blog is full of the items listed above. It also has over 40 draft and private entries that are work in progress or items waiting to become parts of a more polished post to share with readers. Some will never see the light of public day. The facility to categorise and tag posts makes a blog an ideal tool for flexibly re-ordering and associating different items. Obviously text can be cut and paste from posts at will. One advantage of using a blog that was not available to C. Wright Mills is the ability to have a public aspect to engage with a broad readership and exchange comments on items and pieces of writing, or for others to discover you via overlapping readerships and social networking, and to develop a digital presence and identity. I would guess that, if C. Wright Mills was alive today he would at least be encouraging his students to keep a blog and probably be keeping one of his own.

Reflections on #britsoc12

I enjoyed the BSA 2012 conference in Leeds that finished yesterday and came away re-enthused about sociology as a vocation and as a political project and mildly optimistic about its future. I have come away with my head buzzing with half formed ideas, fragments of talks and conversations, pages of barely legible notes and a dozen or more issues I want to follow up and projects I want to start or be involved in. It seemed to me that in the presentations I went to and in conversations I had a few interconnected themes kept recurring – the problem of sociology’s publics, the necessity for sociology to de-objectify society and social actors, and the practice of sociology as a normative and politically engaged vocation. While I can still remember them, these are a few initial notes and observations around these topics.

Zygmunt Bauman in his talk to the PG Forum on Tuesday and in his keynote on Wednesday acknowledged there is the perception of a crisis in sociology. This is usually construed as sociology losing touch with its public. For Zygmunt this is a due to the public that sociology emerged historically to serve – legislators, managers, bureaucrats, administrators, more generally those concerned with and responsible for social control, social order, making people and processes predictable – having changed so that it no longer requires the services of a sociology of order and control, or as Zygmunt termed it, a sociology of unfreedom. Without going into much detail, he puts this down to some key aspects of what he calls liquid modernity. This includes a growing awareness of the fact that change is the only constant and the only certainty is the permanence of uncertainty. This has had a profound effect on institutions and organisations, effects that can be evidenced and demonstrated in many ways. It has also had a profound effect on individuals. Organisations deal with uncertainty by developing new organisational forms and management techniques. These are based on strategies that externalise aspects of organisation, risk and responsibility coupled to what Zygmunt calls ‘the managerial revolution Mark II’ and new forms of social control and domination. The effect of outsourcing, contracting out, off shoring and subsidiarising shifts responsibility to often far flung complex chains made up of units of ever diminishing power and control. This was amply demonstrated by the last keynote where we were told how financialisation has led to virulent forms of profit seeking and has changed the way businesses are structured and organised and their relation to their employees. The shift indicated in this presentation from ‘managerial capitalism’ to ‘financial capitalism’ seems to map quite nicely onto Zygmunt’s claimed shift between the first wave of ‘scientific’ management to the less easily characterised managerial revolution Mark II. Somewhat flippantly, I tend to think of this as, let a thousand flowers bloom (to slightly misquote Mao Zedong) and we will find a way of making money out of all of them, passing as much risk as possible to suppliers, labour, governments and the public. It is evident that not everyone is equal in a world of uncertainty. Those closer to the sources of uncertainty have greater risks and more precarious lives. In the corporate and financial world this is signalled to some extent by a shifting emphasis from the ‘sustainability’ of business and operations to their ‘resilience’, a rather less inclusive term that implies processes of casting adrift and sacrificing in order to protect the ‘core’ business and key objectives – basically to extract profits and preserve shareholder value.

Business now is geared to an operational environment and a world of uncertainty that does not require explicit micromanagement of populations. Individuals, faced with uncertainty, with no guarantees of a final destination or happy ending, the withering of public goods like the welfare state, etc. relate to this new world as competitors seeking security as best they can. Social control is now largely exerted through a combination of fragmentation, individuation, debt and fear alongside forms of persuasion and the manufacture of desire. As Burawoy pointed out in his talk, many of the precariat and unemployed are seeking opportunities to be exploited. Trades Unions are fighting on behalf of their members to be exploited. Zizek, in a recent article, described this as being one of the main driving concerns of recent student protests. To a certain extent, historically, the middle classes have been incorporated and controlled by being given a reasonable share of the surplus and secure employment. Increasingly sections of this class have seen their job security diminished, their wages and conditions of work eroded and are, in short, becoming part of the precariat. Precariousness is not new. It’s just novel for a much larger section for the population who have not experienced it and don’t expect it. According to Zizek, student protest can be seen as a reaction to and a resistance against the attack on the sections of the occupational structure they assumed they were destined for and its, up to now, taken for granted privileges. In other words, an attack on their futures. I would say there is some evidence of this from my own experience and observations but personally I am much more hopeful of the sorts of politicised consciousnesses and concerns that I see in play. This, I think, points to the continuing and growing importance of encouraging the spread of a sociological imagination.

On the question of the public, John Holmwood made some interesting observations in one of the sessions drawing on, I think, the ideas of Dewey. Publics are not a given. They are in any case, intrinsically, or at least originally, passive, made as they are by forces external to individuals that create the conditions for them to form a public, recognise themselves as members of that public and therefore have the potential to become active citizens. (This sounds a bit like Marx’s ideas on the socialisation of an industrial proletariat and the development of class consciousness in the context of factory organisation and work, etc. A problem today is that with the shift to a society of individualised consumers and a fragmented competing precariat, the conditions for developing forms of solidarity are much harder to identify). Citizenship in this (Dewey’s?) view depends upon individuals coming to see themselves as members of a public with interests in common with other members. If this is the case sociology by itself cannot conjure up its putative public but must look for trends and circumstances where publics are being formed and hitch their wagon to these as partners. I guess this is tantamount to looking for processes of politicisation where individuals and groups, through force of circumstance, are developing a reflexive and reflective capacity to confront their problems and issues. Then the question is how to engage with these individuals, groups and processes.

Several things follow from this that are worth thinking about. Seeing yourself as a member of a public, the notion that your individual worries and problems are in common with others in a similar position and are linked to conditions you have in common and that your fate as an individual is tied up somehow with other members of that public is itself an act of sociological imagination. Everyone has the potential to be, in fact is to some extent, a sociologist in this sense. Taken further, a sociological imagination can be seen as a requirement of citizenship, in fact is a constitutive component of citizenship. This has implications for professional and institutionalised sociology and the teaching of sociology. Whatever else we do as teachers of sociology, we are sending tens of thousands of individuals each year into the world of work and, hopefully, active citizenship, whatever they end up doing for a job. Employability is important and it would be a dereliction of duty not to help students prepare for the world of work. But with the ever increasing colonisation of the public by the private, the uncoupling of power from politics that so many people spoke about at the conference, the hollowing out and destruction of our democratic institutions and processes, and the rapid destruction of spaces and forms of public discourse and/or their hijacking by the neoliberal agenda and ideology, active citizenship informed by sociological imagination is more important than ever. To end for the moment on a more optimistic note, according to Zygmunt Bauman, the decoupling of sociology from its old public of legislators, bureaucrats and managers, far from being a crisis is a great opportunity for sociology to rediscover its true vocation as a science of freedom. Rather than seeing sociology as in crisis he sees it as having a crucial role in relation to what he calls the current ‘crisis in agency’. He claims, and who am I to disagree, that in his over 60 years of being a sociologist, this is the most exciting and important time for sociology he can remember. I have been a sociologist for 34 years and the statement certainly rings true for me. Obviously there is a lot more that needs to be said about what sort of sociology he and/or we are talking about, its practice, its relation to the experience, the commonsense and knowledge of the public we wish to engage with and how that engagement can take place. For the moment I will be pursuing this personally through Zygmunt’s ideas on what sociology should be and its role today. He certainly sees sociology as a vocation and a way of being in the world. To repeat one of his favourite quotes from Jeffrey Alexander – “sociology’s future, at least its immediate future, lies in an effort to reincarnate and re-establish itself as a cultural politics in the service of human freedom”. But I would add to this, as Burawoy stated at the beginning of his talk, we need a theory of capitalism. To be of service in the cause of human freedom we need a pretty good understanding of the causes of unfreedom.

I would be very happy to learn of other blog posts reflecting or reporting on the conference. Please let me know, perhaps by leaving a comment here or tweeting using the #britsoc12 tag. The posts I am aware of so far are:

Sociology in distress? From austerity to a way forward by Paola Tubaro

The British Sociological Association Annual Conference by Mark Hawker

The trouble with being human these days – a review by Graham Stacey. This film was shown 3 times over the conference!

Becoming Sociological  by Sarah Burton

My reflections on my first conference by Jon Rainford

The inevitability of simplification?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk and uncertainty

Reading John Lanchester’s Whoops! about the crash of 2007  I came across a passage where he makes the distinction between risk (something that can be quantified, it is fondly imagined, and popped into a calculation of probabilities) and uncertainty; “the more profound unknowablilities of life and history”.

You can manage risk, in the sense that you can calculate probabilities and allow for them, but you can’t really manage uncertainty, not in that precise calculable way.  Confuse risk with uncertainty, and you have made a tank-trap for yourself (p42 paperback edition).

One important observation here is that, in principle, risk, because it can have a probability associated with it,  can be insured against even if the premium is more than you wish to pay, for instance young male recently qualified drivers and hot hatches. The problem arises when the risk is in reality an uncertainty and the probability calculation and the premium based on it are meaningless. Consider Credit Default Swaps (CDS). These are insurances against defaulting debtors, for instance a package of mortgage debts sold as an investment, often a complex mixture of high grade and sub-prime. These investment products can have default risks calculated and rated by Rating Agencies that act as a guide to what are safe investments and the likelihood of default. AAA is good, for instance: “An obligor has EXTREMELY STRONG capacity to meet its financial commitments”. How they calculate default probabilities and assign a rating is rather a dark art and, in practice, it looks as if they don’t really bother over much. However, investors in these packaged products assume that the ratings are arrived at on the basis of risk assessment and the willingness of others to issue insurances on them, at a premium, is also based upon risk assessment. In the case of AAA rated investment products based on mortgage debts (or even investment products that included CDSs!) the calculation of risks was blown out of the water by the consequences of uncertainties.

So, what if the calculation of risk is only achieved by ignoring uncertainties that cannot be quantified (especially if they are unknown in the Rumsfeldian sense of unknown unknowns)? Excluding unavoidable uncertaintie (in the real world at least)  does not exclude uncertainty from their calculation of risk; it merely disguises and misnames it. Risk is incalculable uncertainty constructed and named ‘risk’ on the basis of a theory that ignores the reality of uncertainty. This has led to things happening in the real world that economics theory says are impossible. And plenty of others it cannot explain.  Economic theory, demonstrably, does not solve the problem of uncertainty by defining aspects of it, theoretically, as risk in order to quantify it and factor it into their equations.

Of course, the study of non quantifiable uncertainties is pretty well what sociology is all about. And there are ways of dealing with it strategically. But not by constructing mathematised utopias of unisolatable aspects of complex social processes.

There is reference to the role of uncertainty and economics in an earlier post that has some relevant content to this issue:

Economics as capitalist science

On Monday 6th February I went to the first in a series of introductory lectures and discussions on economics, Crashing Through Capital: An Introduction to Economics, hosted by The Really Open University at the Space Project. The lecture was given by David Harvie, an economist at the University of Leicester. This post summarises some of the key points and issues as they struck me, so it will not be a detailed transcript of the lecture or the Q&As. A recording of the lecture was made and hopefully this will be made available on-line in due course. If so, I’ll link from here. David has given permission for his slides to be attached to this post – Economists and Commoners (slides).

David opened the lecture by questioning if it was necessary or useful for us, as lay people and activists, to learn about economics. He made it quite clear very early on that establishment economics, which he referred to as a capitalist science, is highly problematic and in some particulars simply wrong. None-the-less we need to know about it so as not to be deceived by it. As, metaphorically speaking, economics functions as a sort of handbook for capitalism, we need to study it in order to ‘know the enemy’.

He made a distinction between two approaches to economics as a discipline – the positive versus the normative. The positive view sees economics as a science that reports on the way the economy works. It claims to be a neutral account, just like any other science, that simply tells us the way it is with no value assumptions or axes to grind. Opposed to this is the view that economics should be normative. It should be based upon and express values. It should be concerned with value judgements about how economies should work, the way society should be. It is clear that the positive view and its assumption of value freedom are highly problematic. David drew our attention to this but did not elaborate. Sufficient to say that the claim that science is value free and simply produces objective models of reality has long been discredited. There is no such thing as a value free science and therefore no such thing as a value free economics. Positive economics that claims to be value free is in fact shaped by values whether its practitioners and advocates realise it or not. In practice these unacknowledged values are based on some underlying assumptions including that capitalist economies are in some way natural.

David introduces another perspective on economics that he favours. Economics is performative. Economics doesn’t just describe the world; it is the basis of policy and action and is instrumental in shaping society and producing aspects of its reality. This is why he is ambivalent about just claiming establishment economics is wrong. It is certainly demonstrably wrong in some of its assumptions about society, human nature and so on. But there is some sense in which it is correct simply because the world it describes has been partly produced according to its theories and models. It studies and describes phenomenon that to some extent have been produced and made real according to its dictates and templates. It is correct in much the same way that a plan (say of a road system) becomes a map once the plan has been carried out and there is a reality that corresponds to the plan. There is a long tradition for this sort of thinking. I immediately thought of W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), the American sociologists whose famous theorem was “if men (sic) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. Today readers may be more familiar with something like Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ perhaps.

We then had a brief tour of historically influential economists that still shape economics today, starting with Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his seminal work The Wealth of Nations. Smith is the founder of political economy, the forerunner of modern economics. Using a series of quotations David established three basic tenets of economics that still inform the discipline today – individuals are selfish, they have a natural propensity to truck and barter, and therefore markets are natural. In addition, when individuals seek their own advantage (as they do naturally due to their inherent selfishness) the cumulative consequence of this benefits the whole of society as if guided by an invisible hand. (Once someone mentions ‘unintended consequences’ my sociological antennae begin to quiver. One description of sociology is the study of the unintended consequences of human behaviour). These assumptions are still alive and well (or ill) in modern economic theory – markets are natural and are the most efficient allocator of goods, the trickledown effect, human beings are naturally rational economic actors (homo economicus), and so on. David appeals to a variety of writers and anthropological evidence to call these assumptions into question and asserts that in practice there is virtually no empirical, historical or anthropological evidence to support any of them. For instance there is virtually no evidence that markets in the truck and barter sense existed prior to capitalism. What economics assumes is natural about today’s economy is actually produced by capitalism and the capitalist state. David referred to the work of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. But despite some of his assumptions being incorrect, Smith’s account of the economy was not wrong in any simple way. He described what he saw and offered an explanation for it but in doing so helped to shape the processes he was describing. In this sense his economics was performative. His ideas helped create markets that had not existed earlier and in his own time were highly contested, for instance the food riots where people wanted to pay what they saw as the moral, fair, price rather than what the merchant could get by keeping the produce and taking it to market. The food was taken and sold at the fair price, the money taken being returned to the merchant. This account was taken from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and a later essay, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (1971).

One of the most original and influential insights Adam Smith had was the centrality of human labour to the production of wealth. Before him wealth was seen as arising from the land and agriculture (the Physiocrats) or from minerals like gold and silver (the Mercantilists). He recognised that wealth was produced by human labour but couldn’t explain how it was produced; where profit came from. The answer to this riddle was provided by Karl Marx. At this point David gave a brief explanation of Marx’s theory of value (value basically means profit). In summary, the labourer sells his capacity to work to the capitalist employer for a specified working day. The time it takes to produce the value that covers his wage is, say, four hours. This means that in a twelve hour day (not uncommon then), for the remaining eight hours the value of goods produced goes entirely to the owner. The owner can increase profits in a number of ways. One is to extend the length of the working day so the worker works more hours producing profit beyond his or her wages. Another method is to shorten the number of hours it takes for the worker to create the value of his wages. This latter strategy can be accomplished by either making the labourer work harder and faster or by making the worker more efficient, perhaps by reorganising the work or introducing new tools or technology. Of course both can happen – the lengthening of the working day and the improvement of the workers’ productivity. In practice, as the position of workers has become more powerful (for a number of reasons including collective organisation) the working day has tended to shorten but profits have been increased by increasing productivity – the intensification of labour. But it is the production of value over and above the wages paid that is the source of profit. Of course it is more complicated than this, for instance profit is increasingly made from rent rather than directly from human productive labour, for instance software licenses and other intellectual assets. But it is still the case that the majority of wealth is created ultimately by paying workers less than the value of their work. In this sense the the capitalist labour relation is essentially exploitative, however benignly you care to interpret that term.

Maynard Keynes partyingIn contrast to this we were then introduced to John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), quite a party animal according to David.  Keynes, although radical in his approach to economics with his analysis of the demand side of the economy and the economic role of the state, was by no means anti-capitalist. David illustrated Keynes position with a number of apposite quotations. Keynes was more realistic about how the economy works, recognising that to some extent markets have to be produced and enabled by supporting the conditions for consumer demand. There is no point in capitalist enterprise producing more and cheaper goods if they stay in the warehouses for want of buyers. In the early days of capitalist production the wages of the labouring classes were rarely much above subsistence, if that. Most manufactured goods were sold to relatively wealthy customers. But as production increased the working classes gradually became important as consumers as well as producers. The tendency had been to drive wages down to increase profits but once profits also depended on the purchasing power of the workers in expanding markets the capitalist was faced with something of a contradiction – two drivers of capitalist development that seemed to pull in opposite directions. To some extent the welfare state, inspired in part by Keynes’ argument that the State had a role in supporting the demand for goods, offered a solution to this dilemma by promoting consumption by state expenditure, effectively putting money into the economy and people’s pockets. The freeing and encouragement of debt has had a similar function in recent decades. So like the previous orthodox economics, Keynes’ theory was a theory of the capitalist economy but one that recognised how the modern economy worked in the early 20th century rather than based upon an idealised version of how it worked in the late 18th century. And like previous economics it was performative in that it shaped the reality it described via government policy. Economics is performative in the sense that it is prescriptive as well as descriptive.

However, despite Keynesian economics achieving near orthodoxy in the post WWII era of reconstruction and development, it was largely defeated in the 1970s with the return of something like the positive economics based on the ideas of Adam Smith. There are a number of complex reasons for this including a world recession, globalisation and so on but these were not covered in this lecture. The current performative economics is now represented by the neo-liberal and Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker whose acceptance speech was published as Human Capital (subtitled A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education). David suggested we might like to read this as a paradigmatic example of current neoliberal economic thinking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and found it thought provoking. It left me with a number of questions. David implied (although didn’t say) that the improving share of wealth the working class achieved over the best part of 300 years was due largely to their increasing power and resistance through organisation and collective action. Also, by implication, he suggested that the dramatic fall in that share since the mid 1970s is largely due to the weakening of working class power. Undoubtedly this is of central importance but the rise and fall of the fate of the working classes, including the managerial and administrative classes, is tied to a number of systemic features of a now global capitalist economy that I think we may be addressing in future meetings for this course. My other main reflection is that the lecture and presumably future lectures focus on and study economics as a performative discipline. However, what emerges from this first lecture is the notion that the concept ‘economy’ as used in economics is an abstraction from a social reality where ‘the economic’ does not exist as an isolated separate sphere of behaviour or social process. A critical stance towards economics as a discipline exposes its ideological and partial (and historically contingent) nature and therefore demonstrates the necessity to go beyond the bounds of orthodox economics to make sense of living and working in late modernity. I guess this is what a sociologist would say.

I have reconstructed this account from my near unreadable notes. I would be very happy if anyone else at the lecture wants to take issue with any of this or add anything I’ve missed. Please leave a comment.


For a more detailed account of the way capitalism accumulates value, its impact on the division of labour today and some of the political consequences, in his view, you might find Zizek’s recent article in the London Review of Books interesting . The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie is a short post here and a link to the original article.

I was very interested in what David had to say about the notion of a moral economy. I found the following article about E. P. Thompson’s ideas on this – Moral Economy as an historical social concept.

An interesting paper by Ben Fine (who David referred to as a Marxist economist and a critic of Gary Becker’s neoliberal fundamentalism)  that outlines Fine’s view of modern classical economics, its exclusion of society and even an understanding of its own history, its assumptions and narrow focus, etc. is Economics Imperialism and Intellectual Progress: The Present as History of Economic Thought?

Socialisation as reflexive engagement

Thanks to Mark Carrigan for bringing this to my attention As he notes, Margaret Archer’s presentation starts about 8 minutes into the video. Some quick initial notes:

Archer refers to the traditional theory of socialisation as the ‘blotting paper model’. She picks out Parsons for particular condemnation and Mead as the most sensitive to the problems with this model in that he at least recognises that the modern world of globalising capitalism has undercut some of the preconditions for the traditional model to be adequate. Her critique rests on the crucial question she claims realists ask as an opening gambit in all their enquiries – what are the necessary conditions for something to be the case – the transcendental argument. She adopts this approach in her critique of the traditional theory of socialisation. What are the necessary conditions for the theory to be correct? Having enumerated these and found them lacking, the theory can be exposed as inadequate.

Under current conditions of globalising capitalism the ‘reflexive imperative’ has intensified due to the increased pace of change, particularly since the 1980s. Due to changes in the family initially but the wider world which growing children and young people enter, the ‘communicative reflexive’ – the socialised individual assumed by the traditional theory – is now a minority. Two other types of ‘socialised’ individuals now predominate – the autonomous reflexive and the meta reflexive. The first of these is the entrepreneurial chancer on the lookout to exploit opportunities, individualistic, supporter of capitalism and by implication selfish and amoral.  The meta reflexive is critical of society and hopes for change and is constantly disappointed that it doesn’t happen.  Archer says that they tend to become volatile and wander from job to job.  These seem to me to be rather overdrawn, at least in the presentation.  There is a forthcoming book. Some characteristics of the meta reflexive can be seen, for instance, in radical academics and employees in the public sector. Perhaps it’s best to see Archers’ reflexive types as ideal types.  The fate of the old style communicative reflexive is uncertain as they are peculiarly unfit for this stage of modernity, their form of socialisation does not fit current conditions and therefore they potentially become ‘fractured reflexives’. This is a condition where they relinquish a large degree of autonomy. They become passive subjects at the mercy of circumstances that they do not actively engage with to achieve a degree, at least, of self determination.

I wonder how this maps onto Ulrich Beck’s classification of responses to risk society – active engagement, resigned acceptance and confused denial? Perhaps the different sorts of socialisation and forms of reflexive engagement Archer outlines may lead to differential propensities to fall into Beck’s categories later in life.

It might be interesting to revisit Dennis Wrong’s 1961 article ‘The Over-socialised Conception of Man in Modern Sociology’

Also worth a look may be the chapter of Sennett’s new book ‘Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation’ which appears to be about early years socialisation

There is a set of notes on another Margaret Archer video I posted earlier Margaret Archer on Reflexivity

Mark has also posted some reflections provoked by the ‘Socialisation as reflexive engagement’ video at

Stuart Hall on ideology

“…the link between ideology and class is forged, not because the former directly ‘expresses’ the latter, but by the way of a more complex process in which a specific disposition of class power is unconsciously transferred or displaced into the unstated premise of an argument, which then structures the whole of the logic apparently beyond the conscious awareness of the so-called ‘author’…”  (Hall 1986 p51)

Hall, S. Variants of Liberalism in Donald J and Hall S.1986

DONALD, J. and HALL, S. eds. 1986 Politics and Ideology. Milton Keynes, England. The Open University Press.

Also look up HALL, S. The Rediscovery of ‘Ideology’: Return of the Repressed in Media Studies in Gurevitch, M. et al (eds.) 1982.

GUREVITCH, M., BENNETT, T. CURRAN, J. & WOOLLACOTT,J.(Eds.) (1982) Culture Society and the Media Methuan Ltd., London

Note to self: Dig out my old materials for the OU course DE354 Ideology and Belief (long gone so will need to check the details) which had a useful categorisation of theories of ideology placed on a continuum from negative to positive conceptions of ideology.

Foucault and the role of the intellectual

The final section of the interview discussed in a previous post, Truth and Power, deals with the role of the intellectual. This is particularly of interest  to me because of current discussions of the public role of intellectuals and Bauman’s writings on the appropriate role of sociologists. Foucault talks specifically about Left intellectuals who had considered themselves to be offering universal truths based upon their analysis of the subject-object of universal history, the proletariat. The assumption had been that an obscured, collective form of this universal truth is embedded in the fate and experience of the proletariat. The intellectual is claimed to be the bearer of this universality in its conscious, elaborated form (page 126).  This pretension is exposed as unsustainable and its period is now gone, according to Foucault, and intellectuals need to find another basis upon which to forge the connection between ‘theory and practice’. We are no longer able to pronounce upon the universal, or a once and for all truth. As intellectuals we are now obliged to work, to theorise and ‘practice’ within the specific locations of our experience and knowledge – housing, education, the laboratory, family and sexual relations, and so on. Here we deal with problems that are specific to us and different from those of others. The forms of knowledge, explicit and tacit, formal and informal, and the types and degrees of reflectivity and ‘cognitive surplus’ vary. The problems that specific intellectuals confront are  not universal. They are not, for instance,  the terrain and experience of a putatively homogeneous, cohesive and collectively conscious class, either first hand or at a remove.

Having said that, Foucault believes none the less that intellectuals since the 1960s have been drawn closer to the proletariat (a term he still seems happy to use!) and the masses, for two reasons. Firstly there is a common context to their disparate real, material, everyday experiences and troubles. Secondly, and related to the first, they are often confronted (albeit in different forms) by the same adversaries – the multinational corporations, the judiciary and police apparatuses, the property speculators, and we could add to Foucault’s list the new and growing accretions of neoliberal managerialism, hedge fund managers, ’embedded’ Goldman Sachs alumni in undemocratic layers of State and government, interpenetrating networks of politicians, State executives and major corporation leaders – in fact the whole cancerous excrescence of corrupt and suppurating undemocratic forms and modes of corporatism.

In this sense Foucault sees that the age of delusional universal intellectuals has given way to a more realistic age of ‘specific’ intellectuals. There seems to be some, useful, overlap here between what Foucault is describing and Gramsci’s notion of ‘organic’ intellectuals. It also hints that intellectuality itself is situated and located in its material circumstances and in its forms of reflexivity. Universalism is now replaced by the over-arching system that all specific instances are part of and from which are constructed their specific problems, opportunities, and possibilities for understanding and action. This is not a relapse into universality since the ‘system’ is itself not universal or fixed. It is historically contingent and changeable. It is the exposure and demonstration of this fact that is crucial; the fact of historical contingency, the fact that what seems unalterably real today, what we are persuaded  is ‘just the way things are’, has in fact had a history, it could have been different and can be different. As a matter of fact, it will be different, one way or another.

In the circumstances Foucault describes, every individual’s activity is a basis for politicisation. Every corresponding  form of knowledge is capable of lateral connection, of the linking of one focus of politicisation to another.

Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists, have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicisation of intellectuals. (127)

To this list we could  add teachers, administrators, accountants, in fact any occupation to which the addition of the prefix ‘radical’ does not seem completely ludicrous or oxymoronic. And how about the fertile and fulminating hoards of trade unionists and the myriad and variegated ranks of Gramsci’s organic intellectuals?

Foucault singles out for particular significance the University and the academy. It is here, manifest in the feeling of crisis in the university sector, that the antennae of the educationally situated intellectuals feel the currents and reverberations of their specific experience, problems and struggles but also have the resources to see and forge the lateral connections with distant and other instances of struggle and politicisation and their situated ‘particular’ intellectuals.

However, Foucault points to obstacles and a danger. We have a disparate and dispersed collection of only potentially networked specific intellectuals. The danger identified is that of

… remaining at the level of conjectural struggles, pressing demands restricted to particular sectors. The risk of letting himself (sic) be manipulated by the political parties or trade unions apparatuses which control these local struggles. Above all, the risk of being unable to develop these struggles for lack of a global strategy or outside support: the risk too of not being followed, or by only very limited groups. (130)

So the focus of the specific intellectual is on his or her own particular experience, problems and issues and the attempt to understand and make sense of these in order to have some control, some exercise of autonomy, some say on how they perform their function. This does not necessarily and automatically link to others, their experience and problems, their specific location of potential politicisation. Foucault considers that each intellectual has a three-fold specificity. Firstly, class position (“whether as a petty-bourgeois in the service of capitalism or ‘organic’ intellectuality of the proletariat”); secondly, the conditions of their life and work linked to their intellectual field (professional practice, research or laboratory, etc.) but also the political and economic demands to which they must submit or rebel, in university, hospital, whatever their work location; and thirdly, “the specificity of the politics of truth” in our society. It is here, Foucault feels, that the specific, sectoral  intellectual can have wider effects and implications, beyond the narrow concern with their particular circumstances and problems. This is the ability, as a consequence of their more sectoral concerns and struggles, to challenge the ‘regime of truth’ that that is “so essential to the structure and functioning of our society”.  My way of understanding this, although it no doubt misses a lot of the subtlety and nuance of Foucault’s thought, is that in the act of critiquing his or her own disempowerment, alienation and dissatisfaction, the specific intellectual is calling into question some of the pervasive and powerful assumptions and procedures that bring the specific circumstance being critiqued into being – organises, regulates, legitimates and justifies, sets in motion myriad self-fulfilling and self-reproducing processes and routines, creates a whole ecology of attitudes and behaviours, and so on. But this ‘regime of truth’ and its strategies are not entirely specific to one sectoral set of problems, obstacles and site of resistance. Each act of critique and/or resistance has the potential to challenge and undermine these assumptions and the ‘reality’ they both produce and maintain. Perhaps the most valuable contribution intellectuals of all types and shades can make is, ultimately, to challenge the constitution of the reality they are fighting against and, if nothing else, expose its historicity and contingency and open up the possibility to common consciousness that things can be different and it is not counter to common-sense or Utopian to both hope for change and actively to strive to achieve change.

It seems to me there are some parallel strands here with Bauman’s ideas on the tendency for intellectuals to have shifted from being legislators of knowledge in the service of the State to being interpretors of knowledge in the service of the public domain with a distinct emancipatory intent. I’ll write a piece on the similarities and differences between Bauman and Foucault in due course focused specifically on the role of intellectuals and the nature of knowledge.

The last post and this are a commentary on chapter 6, Truth and Power, in the collection of interviews and lectures Michael Foucault; Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordan, Harvester 1980. I’d be happy for any help on clarifying Foucault’s ideas in this chapter and on what its contemporary significance might be for today’s crisis in education and intellectual life. The whole article is available for download at but for some reason the pages are in the wrong order, first to last. They can be printed in the correct order of course.