Posts Tagged 'bill jordan'

Hedgehogs, Foxes and Sociologists*

Dr. Katherine Smith                        Dr. Nasar Meer


Dr. Nasar Meer and Dr. Katherine Smith write:

The late Isaiah Berlin once distinguished between two types of political animal: the first was a prickly hedgehog (who views the world through the lens of a single defining idea), and the other a cunning fox (for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea).  Sociologists have traditionally aspired to be neither. Motivated less by ‘normative’ positions and arguments, it is with some bemusement that many of us have encountered Aditya Chakrabortty’s recent admonishments.

Like Bill Jordan (see previous blog post), we agree that the study of economics has been found wanting, and that Chakrabortty certainly catches something of a deeper conversation amongst academics, with the important proviso that Chakrabortty’s piece on occasion conflates those who study markets with those who feverishly endorse them. True, economics has in places been stripped of its critical and holist features, but there are political economists who continue, often persuasively, to take a more direct route (see for example David Harvey’s RSA lecture on the financial crisis). We do not wish to intrude on private grief however and so will leave economists to speak for themselves and focus instead on those who have disappointed Chakrabortty most.

A prevailing strand of sociological inquiry in Britain has long sought to make our social world more knowable through a methodology of verstehen; a term employed by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920).  While this can incorporate quantitative and comparative perspectives, Weber’s task was to ‘empathetically understand’ the ways in which the actions of people and groups in society are inscribed with ‘meaning’.  Through the study of this meaning, he maintained, we could observe intentional or unintentional social outcomes, as shown in his study of early capitalism in Northern Europe, and specifically the role of a Calvinist-Protestant work ethic in encouraging capital accumulation and investment.

Much has changed in sociology, and we have past many ‘post-’s, but these approaches remain familiar to students and teachers of the discipline whose research spans the seemingly banal to the most contested; the most intimate to the most innocuous topics. That is to say that there is perhaps a consensus that whatever else sociological inquiry resembles, it must necessarily be motivated by a concern with something greater than political debate. It is here that Chakrabortty’s lament that a ‘Focauladian lens’ or studying ‘the holistic massage industry’ is a distraction from what really matters comes up short; not least because he repeats the error he is critiquing by giving primacy to all that is seemingly ‘economic’. Another way of putting this is to say that economics is not the only sphere of the social world and, to reverse the problem, it is short-sighted to uncouple economics from the study of culture, gender, ethnicity, and so forth, and so miss the intersectionalities of social phenomena.

This means it is not for sociologists to ‘defeat’ economists but to engage in sociologically valid inquiry that incorporates more than economics.  This does not mean ignoring the economic crisis rather to take it in the round. Hence the core theme of the 2010 British Sociological Conference (BSA) was ‘Inequalities and Social Justice’, while ‘Sociology in the Age of Austerity’ was the core theme for our 2012 meeting. Each of these showcased important arguments that are yet to find their way into press, partly because the rigours of peer-review can entail a lag of around eighteen months between article submission and publication (we have elsewhere discussed what the implications of increased auditing of scholarship might entail)  Nonetheless, there is a diverse range of sociological scholarship on the economic crisis that offers more than the sum of its parts and so deals with the big questions too

In many ways Chakrabortty’s concern strikes at the heart of what has been debated widely – indeed on the pages of the journals he says ignore the economic crisis – as Public Sociology.  An important point here is that there is more than one ‘public’.  So when sociologists engage in the mass media, as is easily observed in the mediatised letters and campaigns against the NHS and Social Care Bill or the hike in tuition fees, Michael Gove’s ‘free’ schools, or the Government’s targeting of the most vulnerable, this is just one kind of public.  Sociologists also engage with other ‘publics’, many of which may be less visible to journalists such as local communities, prisons, virtual communities, and students (of various kinds, both inside and outside universities), as well as conventional academic publics. These too are sociological terrains of political economy.

It may be easy for Chakrabortty to dismiss a few (purposively selected) niche research topics as irrelevant but it is equally important to ensure that those with a public voice do not presume to know what is, and what is not, of interest to different kinds of publics. In the context of the economic crisis and its fall out, debates that take place between broadsheet commentators, academics and policymakers are just one kind of conversation (and, if we are honest, a rather elite and limited kind).

*Dr. Nasar Meer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Northumbria University, and author of The impact of European Equality Directives upon British Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Policy & Politics, 38(2). Dr. Katherine Smith is a Lecturer in the Global Public Health Unit at Edinburgh University

What about the role being played by service users in the economic crisis?

ImageBill Jordan, the much respected social scientist, launched a spirited and thoughtful response here to Aditya Chakrabortty’s criticism in The Guardian of his academic peers for failing to address the crisis and cuts created by neo-liberal politics. But it, like the other responses from social scientists, seems to have cut little ice with Aditya who has since energetically defended his position. Perhaps, however, both of them are looking in the wrong direction. The sad truth is that social scientists have often been more effective in defending the status quo, than in challenging it.

The severity of the attacks on the most powerless people in our society  under the UK’s current government, including old and disabled people, poor families, disadvantaged young people and asylum seekers without citizen rights, are unmatched in modern memory. The crudity and viciousness of its welfare reform policies echo the poor law. These developments have only been matched by the flight of former allies of poor people who once fought their corner. The parliamentary Labour Party has taken a line on welfare reform little different from the Coalition. Big charities have seemed more interested in gaining government contracts from workfare schemes and outsourcing than speaking up for the constituencies they are supposed to serve. We should not be surprised if the response from social scientists, and indeed social policy academics and their professional organisations seems muted.

But what is much more interesting is the part that marginalized groups are themselves now beginning to play. While think tanks hog the media microphones and academics appear non-plussed under the cosh of the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, disabled people, service users, their organisations and movements have stepped up to the plate to challenge the excesses of current capitalism. They have provided powerful first hand testimony of the excesses of current social policy and achieved U-turns at both an individual and policy level.

It was the Spartacus report on government welfare reform, put together by disabled people and their allies which first went viral and then stirred the House of Lords into action against welfare reform. It is the local user-led and disabled people’s organisations which have especially encouraged resistance and pioneered new forms of inclusive opposition, making use of social networking and social media. Service users have realized that we have to speak for ourselves because few others, it seems, will speak up on our behalf.

We can see the increasing impact of this action and engagement even in the lists of publishers like Policy Press, a not-for-profit publisher whose core mission is to make a positive difference to people’s lives, where the discourse is increasingly being influenced by service users, by calls for user involvement and by academic theory being recast and revitalized by the involvement of people with direct experience of the problems they talk about. The recent arrival of such ‘experiential knowledge’ into the policy arena, and the growing impact it has, represents a significant new force for change. That’s not to say there aren’t social scientists to be found among the growing band of service user activists. But perhaps we have been looking in the wrong places for them. They are more likely to be out there in the thick of it, rather than in academic associations and in the pages of unread peer review journals published by cutting edge capitalist companies.

Peter Beresford is co-author of Supporting people, published by The Policy Press, which demonstrates how change can be made now, and what strategic changes will be needed for person-centred support to have a sustainable future. It can be ordered here at 20% discount. Other books published for service users include Critical perspectives for user involvement by Marian Barnes & Phil Cotterell, which is also available at 20% discount.

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