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?

The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie – Slavoj Žižek

The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie – Slavoj Žižek, London Review of Books, 26 January 2012.

Interesting take on Marx’s notion of the ‘general  intellect’ – “by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical know-how”.

He claims there is a shift from the selling of commodities that derive  their exchange value from the human labour used in production to the renting of resources including knowledge – rent appropriated though the privatisation knowledge and resources.

Any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply.

In a passage redolent of Bauman’s wasted lives as the collateral damage of global capitalism Žižek writes

In the ongoing process of capitalist globalisation, the category of the unemployed is no longer confined to Marx’s ‘reserve army of labour’; it also includes, as Jameson notes, ‘those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, “dropped out of history”, who have been deliberately excluded from the modernising projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases’..

The general thrust of the argument seems to be that a paid proletariat involved in production is much less central to capitalism than it used to be and increasingly surplus to requirements. Rents produce massive profits part of which are paid in salaries to a bourgeoisie that manages corporations but it is ‘surplus’ salary in the sense that its allocation is less to do with merit or competence and more to do with ideological and political objectives. In this sense they are being paid more than they are worth by any normal economic criteria. Most middle class and student protest is to do with maintaining their salaried position in the system rather than overthrowing it.

These are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians. Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job is itself a privilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but those privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police). This also accounts for the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life.

One thing that is not covered in the article is the role of those that rent and consume. There is still a great deal of production of material goods that require effective demand and a market. In addition many of the salaried bourgeoisie get their wages from administrating one way or another the poor and excluded and, in the process of which, legitimate the inequality and ideologically disguise the role of the poor in maintaining the system. Is this the commodification of the poor or their constitution as a resource for rentiers?

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

Institutionalised racism

Yesterday 2 men where found guilty of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago, April 1993, in Eltham, south east London. Although several people were arrested the evidence was found to be inconclusive and the cases dropped. For a variety of reasons including an inquest that returned a verdict of unlawful killing “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five youths” and the evidence that the police had not investigated the murder properly, the MacPherson Report was commissioned. The report, published in 1999, identified ‘institutionalised racism’ in the Metropolitan Police as a fundamental factor in the bodged investigation. For a full time line of the story see the BBC website

On the radio this morning, BBC 4 Today, the concept of institutional racism was explained by asking the question; did the police give the murder the time, resources and serious consideration it warranted? The answer was no. Was this because the victim was black? The answer was yes. The police always have to make decisions and judgements about how to allocate scarce resources and if they routinely take the colour of victims into account when making these decisions, this is institutionalised racism. It is a matter of a pervasive culture that provides the background to individual choices on procedural matters. If we take this as the meaning of institutionalised racism, then it still boils down to racist attitudes and decisions by policemen, police staff and police managers and leaders. The institutional culture provides the recipes for thinking and acting, and also for relatively unthinking routine engrained behaviour, language, attitudes and so on.  The thinking and unthinking acting reproduces and reinforces the culture. It is institutional racism as it permeates the whole institution and provides it with its taken-for-granted common-sense view of the world. In an interesting piece today in the Independent  (The killing of Stephen Lawrence ended Britain’s denial about racism), particularly on the initial coverage of the murder of Stephen Lawrence by the media, Brian Cathcart defines institutional racism using a quote from Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, on the day the Macpherson report was published:

“The very process of the inquiry has opened all our eyes to what it is to be black or Asian in Britain today… and the inquiry process has revealed some fundamental truths about the nature of our society, about our relationships, one with the other. Some truths are uncomfortable, but we have to confront them.”  Chief among these truths was the existence of institutional racism, and Straw was clear that it went beyond the police: “Any long-established, white-dominated organisation is liable to have procedures, practices and a culture which disadvantage non-white people.”

However, there are other aspects of institutionalised racism that the discussion on the radio did not bring out. An example of another dimension to institutionalised racism is the 1981 British Nationality act. This act created a number of different bands of citizenship and importantly removed the ‘right of abode’ in the UK  from many commonwealth citizens who previously had it. The new Act defined a category of full UK citizenship with the right of abode that systematically excluded the majority of ‘new’ commonwealth citizens – predominately black –  but retained it for the majority of individuals in the ‘old’ commonwealth countries, for instance Australia and Canada. To have full British citizenship with the right of abode it was now necessary to have had a UK domiciled relative who was a British citizen prior to 1949.  The Act therefore had a disproportionate effect on black and Asian commonwealth citizens – not by accident including, for instance, Hong Kong. Once this law is in operation and applied by border controls, it matters not whether the individual immigration officers are personally racist of not. They may not have a racist fibre in their bodies. The application of the racist law produces racist effects independently of the individuals applying the law equally to all who present themselves at the border control, or issue passports at the passport offices in commonwealth countries.

In the case of the institutionalised racism of the Metropolitan Police we have an example of  colour-blind criminal law being distorted by the discretionary decisions and practices of racist personnel. In the case of the British Nationality Act we have the example of institutionalised racism of a different sort where racism is embedded in the structure of the law and is equally consequential whether its operatives and officers are personally racist or not. This latter type of institutionalised racism does not depend on personal racism. One implication of this is that institutionalised racism cannot be solved simply(!) by race awareness training and tackling the cultural issues. Colour-blindness must be built into the process of making laws, rules and regulations as well as in there subsequent application and enforcement.

This was cross-posted to the Leeds University Public Sociology blog

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.

Truth and Power

Foucault outlines his ideas on truth, power, ideology and the possibilities of political action quite clearly in an interview he took part in in 1977, reproduced a chapter 6, Truth and Power, in the collection of interviews and lectures Michael Foucault; Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordan, Harvester 1980.

In the last post where I outlined a few provisional thoughts on ideology I noted Foucault’s critique of ideology, that it implies there are ideas, beliefs, discourses, that are in some way non-ideological. If ideology is defined as distortion or mystification, then this implies that it is possible to have undistorted or un-mystified forms of knowledge – truth. This is Foucault’s objection. Eagleton (Ideology: an introduction Verso 1991 page xii) denies this is fatal for the concept of ideology by pointing out that we can brand Pol Pot a Stalinist bigot without having to appeal to some metaphysical certitude about what not being a Stalinist bigot would involve. I’m not sure this entirely refutes Foucault’s position on ideology and in any case he uses the term in his writing occasionally without it seems any qualification or provisos. It would be interesting to examine these examples of the concept in use by Foucault and see if they accord with any of the 16 definitions listed on pages 1 and 2 by Eagleton. Perhaps another post. In the meantime it is useful to identify the main points Foucault makes in the ‘Truth and Power’ interview and any interesting implications and consequences.

Early in the interview Foucault is asked about the relationship between structuralism and the events of history. Structuralist analysis downgrades the actual messiness of historical events or,  in perhaps in the more familiar language of structure and agency, leaves out agency. For instance, one criticism of Althuser is that his theory reduces individual actors to simply ‘bearers of structure’, programmed cultural dopes. Foucault asserts he is an anti-structuralist in this sense but warns against prioritising historical events and ignoring structure.  History, as a chronology of events, has no meaning of itself but is intelligible and susceptible to analysis ‘down to the smallest detail’. But the intelligibility must be sought in the struggles, strategies and tactics evidenced in historical events. Against certain forms of structuralism that look for coherence in systems of meaning, the structure of communication or even the logic of contradictions, he claims these cannot account for conflict.

Here I believe one’s point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history that bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power rather than relations of meaning. (p 114)

This introduces the centrality of power to his thinking. At the time he was wrestling with the notion of power the French left saw it as located within State apparatuses and the Right saw it in constitutional and legal terms and questions of sovereignty. For the Right the ‘other’ was Soviet socialist power denounced as totalitarianism. For the Left the power of Western capitalism was denounced as class domination. This is about as far as an analysis of power got at that time. The detailed mechanics of power, at the level of events and history was not addressed. 1968 changed all that for Foucault when the concrete nature of power became visible  as revealed in the daily struggles at grass roots level  engaged as they were in the fine meshes of the web of power. This moved the analysis of power out of the realms of traditional political analysis in to the realm of civil society and private life.

It is on page 118 that Foucault addresses the issue of ideology specifically where he identifies three drawbacks:

1) It always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth. I disagree with this but concede it depend on how you define ideology in the first place.

2) The concept of ideology necessarily refers to something of the order of a subject. I’m not entirely sure what this means in detail but if it means that individuals are implicated in ideology, as its target in some sense and as its effectively (the effects it produces) then I see no problem.

3) Finally he claims that ideology always relates to some sort of more fundamental determinant such as the economy. Here he seems to be invoking what I now consider to be an outdated old Marxist base-superstructure model.

He does not see these three problems with the concept reason to abandon it but says that it should not be used without circumspection and, as mentioned earlier, he continued to use the concept himself. He seemed to have had a certain traditional Marxist concept of ideology in mind, a conception that derives from a range of other Marxist assumptions he takes issue with. But there are more developed conceptualisations of ideology that avoid these but, in preserving the centrality of the nature and operations of power, would not be incompatible with Foucault’s analysis of power.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued …