Reading Amartya Sen (1)

Sen seems to be popping up everywhere these days. He was mentioned by a couple of speakers at the recent Roundhouse Critical Theory conference and his latest book The Idea of Justice will be the discussion topic at the BSA Theory study group at the forthcoming BSA conference in April. So I had a quick look at his 1987 book On Ethics and Economics.  This is a detailed critique of the narrow impoverishment of modern economics focused as it is on producing logistic and predictive models of markets based upon the notion of a purely self interested rational actor. “… there is nevertheless something quite extraordinary in the fact that economics has in fact evolved in this way, characterizing human motivation in such spectacularly narrow terms”.  Sen claims in its origins modern economics had both a practical ‘engineering’  aspect and  one concerned with human behaviour in the round and ethical considerations of what a good life should be. Both these aspects are fully present in Adam Smith for instance, but modern economics has expunged the ethical, normative aspects to produce a distorted orthodox “Smithian” view. To the extent Smith was at all sociological, this has been erased.

While looking for information about Sen on the web I coincidently found a blog entitled Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (by-line “In 2009, we again saw why Adam Smith’s invisible hand often appeared invisible: it is not there.” Professor Joseph Stiglitz, 31 December 2009. The blog post I found was Amartya Sen’s Two Brilliant Essays on the Relevance of Adam Smith Today. I shall be looking at these soon. Thanks to Gavin Kennedy for bringing my attention to these, albeit via the beneficence of Google.

How to put ‘society’ into climate change

On the 8th February 2010 the British Sociological Association hosted the first of a series of Presidential Event at the British Library Conference Centre – How to put ‘Society’ into Climate Change. A number of leading sociologists specialising in environmental issues gave presentations on their understanding of how sociology can make a contribution to policy debates on environmental issues. Videos of all the presentationsand discussions are available on line and audio only files for listening or downloading can be accessed from the BSA’s Postgraduate Forum blog PG Focus. The presentations give some important insights into the current controversies in climate science (so-called Climategate) and the rather impoverished understanding of the social and behavioural aspects of climate change that informs (or misinforms) much climate change policy.

Several of the speakers referred to the uncertainty of the climate sciences and our unrealistic expectations and demands for certainty and exactitude in climate change predictions. John Urry refers to the complexity and multi-disciplinarity of climate change science and, importantly, its relative newness. Couple this with the enormous public scrutiny it is subjected to it is hardly surprising that it will be found wanting. Brian Wynne claims that the big question asked in the 1980s – is a reliable predictive science of climate change possible – has never been explicitly and conclusively answered. Back in those days the limit of long term weather forecasting was 15 days. Today even this seems overly optimistic with the UK Met Office stating only forecasts up to 5 days can be considered reasonably reliable. Over the last 20 years or so a vast amount of money and resources have been poured into climate change science and massive advances have been made in the technologies and data collection techniques. The big question therefore seems to have been answered by default rather explicitly and scientifically.

This is not to say that human-made climate change is a myth. In fact the evidence for this is an entirely separate matter to the accuracy of climate change predictions, according to Wynne. In any case the uncertainty of prediction seems more likely to underestimate the temperature increases than overestimate them. Apparently 16 feedback processes relevant to climate change were identified by climate scientists but left out of the original IPCC report on climate change. 13 of these are likely to be positive feedback loops, i.e. would lead to more rapid and higher global temperature rise. One of these, for example, concerns the way that methane is being released from thawing tundra (any soil and rock that is frozen 12 months in the year). The question arises, why were these left out of the report? The answer seems to be that the scientists produced the report in line with with what they perceived the policy makers could realistically cope with. In this respect Wynne claims that the science is ‘co-producing’ itself with an assumed world of policy and its policy needs and capacities.

Another aspect of climate change science that Wynne is critical of is the way that the science is allowed to set the agenda for climate change policy. As well as giving us information about climate change the science also seems to set the meaning of the policy debates. For example, the science shows the relation between a ton of carbon dioxide emissions and a specific rise in the global temperature. A ton of CO2 saved anywhere is equally effective in those terms. But this makes no distinction between a ton of emissions created by thousands of subsistence farmers growing barely enough to feed their families and a ton of CO2 coming from waste disposed of in a landfill site in an affluent Western society.

In similar vein Wynne also takes issue with the narrow scientistic approach to risk assessment and how this dictates and limits the meaning of the policy debates. As an example he cites the risk assessment of genetically modified crops. The scientists have done the laboratory tests and risk assessments in terms of crop trials and so on and claim there is no risk to human beings and no justification for resisting the introduction and further development of GM crops. But a legitimate public issue may be the concern that half a dozen of so corporations could come to control the global food chain. This is a risk of another sort not addresses by the scientific definition and evaluation of risk.

So one major contribution to climate change policy debates can be made by the sociological understanding of science, the scientific community and the knowledge production process and how this is itself thoroughly social and not something outside of social, economic and political processes. As Wynne puts it, ‘society’ is already in the science. Sociology’s job is to identify and problematise the implicit assumptions about society that are embedded in the science, often by default and omission. This “highly normative sociological practice” is a primary responsibility of sociology with respect to climate change science.

All the presenters identified gaps and inadequacies in current policy debates about climate change and identifed ways that sociology could fill the gaps and contribute. One clear area is the problem of human behaviour since there is now general agreement that the move to more sustainable societies will require significant changes in individuals’ behaviours. The individualistic and rational action theories that underpin much policy debate are inadequate. One common variant of this is the so-called ‘deficit’ model of behaviour. The idea is that individuals behave in ways that are detrimental to the environment because they lack the environmental knowledge and awareness that, if they had it, would lead them to act differently. Little if any evidence has been produced to support this theory. We require a much more sociological and structural understanding of why the majority of individuals behave the way they do whether they have the environmental knowledge or not. This needs to recognise the habitual nature of behaviours that are embedded in social practices and are not the result of conscious and ‘rational’ calculation. Sociology has a great deal to offer in exposing and understanding these processes that are both structural and cultural.

A final theme I will pick out from the presentations is that of the necessity of a normative sociology. Mention has already been made above to Wynne’s claim that what is needed is a ‘highly normative sociology” of climate change science. It is difficult, when looking at the possible futures outlined by Urry that are implied by the decline in fossil fuels, water and food shortages, population growth and increase environmental migration, and so on, not to get involved in normative considerations of what sort of sustainable society we should be working towards. For instance, one possibility is that corporatist authoritarian and militaristic surveillance societies will come to dominate with a loss of democratic forms of government, civil rights and even perhaps a redefinition of human rights. It would be difficult for a social science that identifies the process that could lead to this scenario to remain indifferent to the fate of future generations and humankind.

Tim Jackson acknowledges the discomfort many sociologists would feel at taking an overtly normative stance. His cultural and structural analysis of the roots of the behaviours that lead to environmental degradation and the current unsustainability of societies points ultimately to the influence of growth based capitalist economies. He claims social structures based on capitalism and growth have lead to rapacious exploitation and degradation of both environmental resources and forms of cultural capital. He goes on to ask, what if we have evolved and developed a set of social institutions and social structures that produce exactly the opposite of what is needed for a sustainable society and ways of living? We need a re-engagement of a critical sociology with these social structures and the nature of capitalism and growth in order to make sense of sustainability. To do this we will have to engage with the moral dimension. This puts us in danger of crossing the line between being scientists and being polemicists. Jackson warns that if this happens we may find ourselves as being ‘no further use to policy’. But we may just find we are of some use to humanity.

The Social Model of Disability

I had the great pleasure of attending this year’s Faculty of Education, Social Science and Law Postgraduate Conference recently at Leeds University. The programme was organised into 2 parallel streams and just by chance the first and last presentations I went to both made reference to the Social Model of Disability (SMD). The social model is explicitly contrasted with the dominant medical model of disability. The medical model focuses on individuals’ impairments (for instance deafness) as the cause of their disability. The ‘solution’ is therefore a combination of attempting to improve the ‘disabling’ condition as far as possible and if necessary limiting activities to those that can be carried out reasonably satisfactorily. In contrast, the social model, while acknowledging the fact of bodily impairment, locates the causes of disability within the physical and social environments in which the impaired person lives. The causes of disability are therefore located in the disabling environment rather than the impairments of the disabled person. This is a very important and increasingly influential perspective on disability. Many aspects of law and regulation concerning the treatment and accommodation of people with impairments, for instance with regard to employment and accessibility, are based on the social model of disability. Even more, variants of the social model of disability are now being applied to our understanding of a range of social issues such as educational disadvantage, social exclusion, and meeting a variety of welfare needs relating to different stages of the life cycle, for instance aging.

However, it is still the case that most people’s ideas about disability and the disabled have more in common with the medical model. Something like the medical model seems to underlie the prevailing common sense understanding of disability. The first of the two presentations I went to at the Postgraduate Conference reported on a study of the way ‘socioscientific’ issues are represented and discussed in the 14 to 16 GCSE science curriculum (The Representation of Socioscientific Issues in a School Science Curriculum paper by Helen Morris, School of Education). The science curriculum now includes practical examples of how science impacts on society. The analysis of the textbooks showed that discussions of disability were couched in terms of the medical model whether discussing treatment of impairment or the ethical issues. The social model did not get a look in. This is a pity. It is a wasted opportunity to get young people to think more broadly and critically about social issues and the relationship between scientific, technological and social approaches to understanding. The approach in the text books continues to foster the belief that all problems have, in principle, a solution available on the basis of science and technology.

The last presentation I went to demonstrated that the basic assumptions of the medical model of disability seem to be the common sense perspective of young children. (Understanding Children’s Attitudes Towards Disabled People: Making a Case for Interdisciplinary Research paper by Angharad Becket, School of Sociology and Social Policy, based on the findings of the Disability Equality in English Primary Schools (DEEPS) project). In this study non-disabled children aged 6/7 years and 10/11 years took part in focus groups to discuss disability and their knowledge/understanding of the lives of disabled people. Although some were concerned that disabled people are not always treated fairly (an encouraging response), common views expressed were that their lives were very sad and probably not worth living, that they would not be able to get a job, have girl or boy friends and raise families, and that the cause of all this was their physical impairments. The common image of the disabled person was someone in a wheelchair. It seems to me that if this is the general attitude towards the disabled at that age, the text books these children will go on to use in secondary education will offer nothing to challenge these views or encourage a more balanced approach to the disabling material and social environments that are such a large part of the production and experience of disability.

BBC Disability Confidence Course
BBC Disability Confidence Course

As an interesting example of how major institutions are basing their approach to disability on the social model, the BBC have produced a short on-line course on Working with disable people for their School of Journalism. The opening video is an excellent demonstration of what the social model of disability is all about. Other sections give examples of how the BBC enables staff with impairments to do their jobs. To start the opening video click on the Next button in the bottom right-hand corner of the welcome screen.

Among the many organisations and institutions using the social model of disability to inform their policies, the British Red Cross and Manchester City Council both have descriptions of the model on their websites. The School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds has the internationally acclaimed Centre for Disability Studies that hosts the UK Disabilty Archive. There are many articles and papers on disability issues freely available there including an early paper by Mike Oliver, one of the original proponents of the social model, The Individual and Social Models of Disability. Searching the Archive for ‘social model’ lists over 70 relevant articles.

The social history of natural disasters

Recent floods in Cumbria (UK) have been caused by record breaking rainfall (Cumbria deluge breaks historic rainfall record) due in part to unusually high temperatures, 4 degrees above the seasonal average. In one 24 hour period the rainfall has been 10% higher than what is normal for the whole month of November. The man-made built environment and infrastructures have simply not been able to cope. But the extreme weather and ensuing floods cannot be seen as a purely ‘natural’ disaster. Like many others in recent years, this disaster has had a long history in the making.

Over many hundreds of years the landscape of the Lake District has been changed by deforestation and the grazing of sheep. The Cistercian abbeys of Furness and Byland, followed by land enclosures in the 16th and 17thcenturies, exploited the area for wool production. The process of deforestation was accelerated by iron ore smelting and later by the extraction of lead and copper. The resulting transformation of the land over several centuries, particularly the removal of the original scrubland vegetation and trees, produced the Lakeland landscape as it is known and loved today. But this dramatically altered the hydrology of the land and its ability to slow down and absorb surface water. This is also part of the story of the flooding of Boscastle in Cornwall in the August 2004 which similarly suffered unusually high rainfall in the space of a few hours. Long run changes in farming practices in the area, particularly land usage and the reduction of trees and hedges were seen as contributory factors.

Coincidently, just as the flooding of Workington and Cockermouth were dominating the newspapers in the UK, the flooding of parts of New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is in the news again. A court hearing has ruled that Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flooding was not an act of God (Hurricane Katrina: It was not an act of God). The testimony of expert witnesses claimed that the danger of such a flood was acknowledged at least 17 years earlier and the responsibility for the devastation rested with policy failure and incompetent engineering and was as such avoidable. As for the hurricane itself it was not a 1 in a 100 year or even a 1 in 40 year storm and had not even been a direct hit.

In fact the history of flooding of New Orleans goes back to it founding in 1718 on swampland with a large proportion of the city below sea level and vulnerable to both sea surges and the flooding of the Mississippi basin. Since the growth of the city and the continual development of the Mississippi as a transport system with the rerouting of meanders and the cutting of channels for oil and gas installations the river has over the years lost the ability to deposit sediments and build up land around its mouth. It is estimated that over 2,300 square miles of the barrier islands and wetlands, the natural defence against storm surges and flooding, have already been lost. (Unnatural disaster Financial Times November 6 2009).

One way or another, adaptation to the environment has always been necessary aspect of human settlement. However, we seem to be entering a period of dramatic environmental change in which previous adaptations are becoming increasingly inadequate.

Expert knowledge and public policy

In May 2008 the then Home Secretary Jaqui Smith, against the recommendations of her own scientific advisers, reversed the government’s 2004 decision to downgrade cannabis to a class C drug, returning it to its previous status of class B. The reclassification came into effect January 2009. This reclassification caused controversy at the time but this has recently re-emerged with the publication of a paper by Professor Nutt who, until he was sacked last Friday, was chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In the paper Nutt criticised the reclassification of cannabis and the government’s use of the precautionary principle to justify so doing. He claimed that by invoking the precautionary principle politicians had distorted and devalued the research evidence. In a recent appearance on BBC’s Question Time (Thursday 29th October) where Nutt’s paper was raised Smith again supported the use of the precautionary principle on the grounds that psychiatrists’ reports and police views on the development of new stronger types of cannabis indicate greater mental health risks. In the government’s judgement the trends in the increasing strength of cannabis and these reports indicate the possibility of health risks they are not prepared to take. The government’s responsibility is to make decisions and be accountable for them. Advisors are required only give to advice.

A number of interesting issues arise from this fracas. One key issue is the relationship between expert and scientific knowledge and the making of law and public policy. In his latest book, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, Zizek tells the story of how in 2007 in the Czech Republic a public debate raged about the proposed installation of US Army radars on Czech territory. Despite about 70% of the population not wanting this the government refused the demand for a referendum and allowed the installation of the radars to go ahead on the grounds that important decisions are not matters that can be decided by voting and that they should be left to the experts, in this case military experts on matters of National security. As Zizek observes, if this logic is carried to its conclusion what is there left to vote for? Should not economic decisions, for instance, be left to economic experts?

A related issue is that the nature of scientific knowledge is nearly always provisional. As most scientists would tell us, it is the best we have at the moment and is rarely certain. In addition, scientific knowledge is always partial in that it tends to focus on artificially separated and therefore ‘decontextualised’ aspects of the reality scientists are seeking to describe and understand. It is precisely because of this that the application of scientific and expert knowledge to social policy cannot be seen as some automatic translation of science into policy. The policy decision-making process has to allow for the provisional nature of scientific and expert knowledge and address the connecting and wider aspects of the policy making context that the scientific evidence does not address. This can be further complicated where there are competing accounts of the science within the scientific community, for instance apparent contradictions between laboratory findings and observations in the field.

As it happens, on the balance of the evidence and arguments as I understand them, I do not agree with the reclassification of cannabis and I do agree with the thrust of Nutt’s criticism of the current drug classification system and drug policy. However, the basis of his complaint that the scientific evidence has been distorted and devalued is problematic as this implies that without the alleged distortion the policy following on from the science would be self-evident. I think the government could have constructed discussable grounds for reclassifying cannabis and at the same time been perfectly respectful of the scientific evidence. The insistence that government has to take into account a range of other issues and considerations beyond the scientific evidence is correct.

On the other hand, I think Nutt’s sacking by the current Home Secretary ill advised and counter productive. Professor Nutt’s opinions and comments are valuable contributions to public understanding and debate, a debate the government should engage in intelligently and constructively. It would have been far better to engage in a public discussion of the various factors and other forms of evidence and opinion that went into the decision to reclassify cannabis. This would include the psychiatrist’s and police opinions and experience Smith alluded to in Question Time and a measured consideration of the views of social and health welfare professionals and those working in the front line of drug use and abuse. However, why this approach was not adopted by the government may have something to do with Lembit Opik’s charge made in the same Question Time discussion, that it the reclassification smacked of vote catching policy making intended to appeal to the readership of  the red tops. The history of government’s exercise of the precautionary principle demonstrates a somewhat cynical and selective attitude to its deployment. On what grounds was it not deployed by the Conservative government during the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis in the 80s and 90s? At the time the government made strenuous efforts to dismiss public fears and the views of experts on the possibility that BSE could be transmitted to humans. In 1995 John Major, Prime Minister at the time, based the government’s attitude and policy on the view that: “There is currently no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans or that eating beef causes CJD in humans. That issue is not in question”. This was in the face of a great deal of evidence from scientists that this could not be discounted and was in fact probable. It is undoubtedly true that a variety of other forms of evidence, opinion and experience needs to provide a broader context to how scientific evidence is used in policy making. There are factors and issues that have to be considered that individual pieces of scientific knowledge do not, and by themselves cannot, address. However, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the reactions of target voters and possible economic consequences will figure high in a government’s priorities. In fact it would be naïve to suppose otherwise.

The battle for social mobility

Today sees the publication of Alan Milburn’s Panel on Fair Access to the Professions final report. The following are two of the earliest responses in the media with a few observations of my own.

The battle for social mobility
Lee Elliot Major,, Monday 20 July 2009
“The failure to turn around the UK’s dismal level of social mobility may haunt Labour even more than Iraq or Afghanistan”

Interesting report that locates the solution to the lack of social mobility in the UK in the education system. The last time social mobility was at a high level in the UK was with the enormous increase in white collar and managerial work created by the expansion of the public sector and a rapidly growing corporate sector after the 2nd World War, all supported by a consensus around Keynesian economic policy. While the labour market is shrinking, as it is now, even a successful policy to increase social mobility will only rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic or (for those that haven’t seen the film) shuffle the pack. Every move up from the bottom10% means a someone else will take the place. There will always be a bottom 10% of course.

Professions ‘reserved for rich’
BBC News Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Some rather mixed messages from this report so I guess I’ll have to get around to reading it! On the one hand it wants pupils from schools in underprivileged areas to be able to compete with the children of educated middle-class and professional families. This will entail finding a way to find surrogate forms of some aspects of the social capital they lack. One strategy offered is to create some State provided ‘pushy parent’ equivalent. However, it’s not evident how a surrogate network of informal contacts, well placed relatives, the ability to provide resources and engage with children’s learning (i.e. ‘discussing’ assessment work) will be provided or the money for foreign visits and cultural events, let alone the mindset that says “the world is mine and I deserve it”. All this is pre-university entrance. On the other hand there is an implication that HE institutions should provide the support required by less well prepared students to close any deficit gap.  I suspect that many Universities would say this is not our job and admissions based purely on merit would not require this anyway. The other issue that warrants attention is that a perception that large numbers of perfectly well qualified children of middle-class and professional families are being excluded due to positive discrimination for the children of the less educated and wealthy could lead to an intensification of exclusionary tactics and a reinforcement of private education and the growth of private universities. The networks of power operate outside of the education system just as effectively as within. The proposed policy seems based on the idea that education is the key. It is important but there are many other powerful process that determine access to the plum jobs in addition to educational achievement. A cursory inspection of history and sociology demonstrates that the powerful are past masters at preserving their advantage in the face of historical and legislative change.

Education, social control, and subversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is this a rationalisation of collaboration? 

Public sociology

I am about to try and persuade some of my colleagues to contribute to a blog devoted to public sociology. This is intended to be a response to a growing tendency for individuals and groups to develop specialist expertise in areas of concern or interest to them. A good example of this is where environmental movements wish to challenge the use of some forms of technology and even some of the scientific assumptions underlying them. This often takes the form of invoking the cautionary principle on the basis of the incompleteness or partiality of the science. Other examples are movements involved in public health and medical issues that want to challenge policy or the scientific models underpinning the policy, for example the ‘medical model’ of disability or the imposition of ‘professional’ perspectives that ignore or marginalise the views and experience of users, clients or customers. I have also noticed that friends and family members are increasingly going to their doctors and consultants armed with the results of research they have done in order to understand what the Doctor is saying and engage in an informed discussion about their condition and possible strategies. This is also true of interactions with financial advisers and the tax authorities. In fact there is an official drive in this direction with the government providing web based services like ‘the Expert Patient’ and other information sites and an increasing exhortation to all to be proactive in taking responsibility for our own lives.

It seems to me that it could be of significant benefit for individuals and groups to have a source of reliable knowledge about how societies work and the social processes that form the context of their experiences and problems and have, often pretty invisible, impacts upon their lives. It is a commonplace in sociology that the unintended consequences of intended actions often have a far greater  impact on outcomes than those intended and hoped for. These unintended consequences are often due to the way individual and group actions and behaviours connect with, reverberate through and rebound from much broader social contexts and processes. C. Wright Mills claimed that sociology is the study of the ways individual lives are linked to the historical development of social structures. To quote from his book The Sociological Imagination (1959):

It is the political task of the social scientist — as of any liberal educator — continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work — and, as an educator, in his life as well — this kind of sociological imagination.

Something if this is hinted at in H G Well’s commentary on Mr Polly’s predicament (and many of the petty bourgeoisie of the time):

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

The man of understanding, who can provide the ‘General’ contex to Mr Polly’s ‘Particular’ circumstances in Well’s story is a social scientist of some sort.

The public sociology blog would hopefully have a number of contributors with different areas of research expertise.  The intention would be to write informative posts aimed at what might be called ‘the intelligent lay person’ and would be of interest to other sociologists and inquisitive members of the general public. Posts would be a mixture of short reports and observations on current research, opinion pieces and short commentaries on current news and issues where a more sociological perspective might add to understanding. Hopefully contributions will be made by research students as well as established academics and scholars. As a blog of course it will be possible for readers to post comments and hopefully this will be a good way for practicing sociologists to engage with and discuss issues in a public and relevant way.

Another impetus behind this idea is a recent edition of the Times Higher Education Supplement that had a couple of articles on the diminishing role of public academics and intellectuals and their increasing irrelevance. The vacuum they are leaving is rapidly being filled by populist journalism and celebrity opinion makers. The edition in question is that of May 28th 2009.

In a leader article, Go public to prevent extinction by Ann Mroz, she claims that “knockabout popular debate appeals to few scholars, but if intellectuals disappear from the public eye, academia may suffer”. Another article in the same edition is a commentary on a talk given by Professor Harris of Oxford University at a seminar marking International Academic Freedom Day,  Freedom fighters ‘when it suits’, where he  argued that the current challenges to academic freedom were threats in which the academic community was complicit. Academics protect their work from external criticism, he said, and specialisation is used as a barrier behind which academics and their colleagues can hide. The full text of his address is available online.

Levels of explanation

One of the interesting aspects of Elias’s work is the way he characterises the various sciences collectively as a ‘model of models’ that map on to the  ‘great evolution’ and what this means for sociology as an autonomous discipline, in fact one of the sciences within the model of models, and what it says about the nature of sociological knowledge and implies for sociological research methods. By the ‘great evolution’ we are referring to the way that different material  levels of integration emerge over planetary time such that each new level is dependent on the preconditions of the earlier level but, due to characteristics of the emergent level, each new level cannot be understood or explained purely in the terms of the level from which it emerged. So for example, the level of integration we call ‘life’ was necessarily preceded by the the physical and chemical levels but, once life emerged on earth, it cannot be explained (modelled scientifically) purely in terms of the features of physics and chemistry. What is more, once a new level has emerged it reacts back upon and alters the nature of its ‘host’ levels. Examples of this are the oxygenation of the atmosphere and the development of the pedosphere (basically the soil that the later forms of life depend upon), both of which are the results of the emergence of life. Another example is that of climatic change due to the emergence of life (the biosphere) long before the emergence of humankind and the resulting anthroposphere (that part, in fact most, of the biosphere that has been affected by the emergence and development of human groups and societies). What this implies is that, to some extent at least, a full understanding and explanation of an earlier level of integration requires some reference to the effects produced by the subsequent levels of emergence that have both changed the dynamics of and processes within that level. An example of this is the way that practically every aspect of the biosphere is now affected by and has been changed by its incorporation  within the anthroposphere. This has had the effect of changing the context of the processes of evolution that the emergence of humankind was predated by and was dependent upon. Another example would be the changes in human biology and psychological functioning that have come about as the result of what Elias called ‘symbol emancipation’ and the development of culture. What is of crucial importance here is the fact that culture as a symbolic system becomes to a certain extent decoupled from material reality and takes on autonomous characteristics and possibilities and that it is external with respect to individuals. Cultural maps of the external environment and the ‘recipes’ for behaviour are very different to the internal ‘maps’ of the external environment that inform the somatic and instinctual behaviours that are internally constituted through blind evolutionary processes of adaptation. It is argued that at the very least an understanding of phenomenon at any one level of integration would need to take into the account of  the two bracketing levels, those above and below the level of the phenomenon. Of course the number of levels of emergence and integration, what our scientific demarcation rules for establishing boundaries and how we label these is a significant problem. I understand that a living cell has within it about 20 levels. A human individual is biological, chemical and physical as well as social and cultural. As a sociologist the levels that need accounting for will depend upon the specific level in question. Much sociology does this already, at least implicitly, for instance C Wright Mills distinction between personal troubles and public issues and his claim that individual experience has to be related to both social institutions and their location in historical processes. This is also sometimes quite explicit in the methodological claims that society and social processes cannot be explained purely in terms of individuals’ conscious motivations and experience or their own understanding of their actions as the historical process and structural level of society are as much the product of unknown and unanticipated consequences of behaviour with a scope in time and place far beyond the subjective experience of actors. On the other hand the emergence, reproduction and development of society, social institutions and structures, cannot be explained without reference to the grounds of individuals’ behaviours and understandings.

One thing is made quite clear however, by the ‘three levels ‘approach to sociological understanding. A sociologist does not have to study physics in order to do sociology. Equally, a scientific understanding of society cannot be based upon or extrapolated from a knowledge of the physical and chemical levels of integration. In addition, different levels of integration will have different scientific theories and models. Mechanistic and mathematized models are inadequate for studying and representing society and social processes  because of the nature of the reality being dealt with.  The limits of quantitative and statistical models of society are not due to inadequate mathematical and statistical knowledge but because there is a mismatch between the representational and modeling capacity of mathematics and the ontology of the exponentially more  complex levels of integration that are the the psychological and social. It seems that what we might call the representational or theoretical language in which a level of integration is described and modelled  must be adequate to that level of integration. Even if it makes sense to say that mathematics is the appropriate language of the physical levels it doesn’t follow that it is for other levels. No doubt mathematization and quantification have a methodological part to play in sociology, but this is within limits and is only approprate for phenomneon that are amenable to mathmatical description. For instance some structural and patterned aspects of social processes can be represented to some extent mathematically, albeit only descriptively. But in the end we are reliant on words (as indeed are, in the final analysis, physicists).

Value free science

Over the last few days while I have been snatching odd moments to reacquaint myself with my earlier PhD work and that of Norbert Elias (in the midst of marking MA essays), I have been reminded about what it was about sociology that gripped my back then, what I found important and exciting, and what it is I thought sociology is and can do. What sort of enterprise is it? What sort of knowledge does it provide us with? What does it mean for sociology to be empirical, for instance? Elias’s work must be one of the best places to start.

These questions are imply many others. For instance, is sociology a science? (My answer then and now is yes but we need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of what science is to argue the case). Does it make sense to make the old distinction between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ with the role of science (and therefore of a scientific sociology) ‘simply’ to tell us how things are (however uncomfortable or disappointing this turns out to be) and the separate role of ‘politics’ and civil society to make value judgments about what sort of society we should ideally strive for? If so then presumably it would be a contradiction to speak of the possibility of an emancipatory or critical science. If science’s role is to describe the natural and social world as it is and explain the processes and mechanisms that account for the way it ‘is’ and then hand this knowledge over to government and industry to make of it what they will and use it in any way that it, potentially, can be, then science is available for emancipatory or repressive programmes alike. If this is what they believe then this is something that scientists must consciously accept or repress in some way. There would be an interesting sociological project to investigate the personal and institutional ways that this conclusion is justified and/or repressed – science washing its hand of responsibility. This conclusion is the one of course that underpins the old use/abuse model of science.

The above argument about the separation of the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ and the possibility of science institutions, processes and knowledge being confined and limited to the realm of the ‘is’ falls apart as soon as it is conceded that the sort of value freedom this depends upon is not possible and that the ‘ought’ is not applied to scientific knowledge externally and after the event, but internally and constitutive of scientific knowledge itself. The distinction breaksdown when it is shown that values have an internal constitutive function in the development of scientific knowledge. These values are in turn partially constitutive of the reality that the knowledge constitutes practically on the basis of theory. Scientific knowledge constitutes reality materially through the application of theoretically informed material interventions. This entails the radical conclusion that heteronomous valuations to some extent construct the material reality partly constituted through scientised technological interventions in non-human nature. This is why I think it does make sense to talk about the possibility of an emancipatory or critical science. Different values internal to science would produce different sorts of science. This goes for the natural and social sciences both.