Last week I attended the “Changing Society” conference in Leeds, organized by the British Sociological Association. There have been conferences that I left with hazy or more pronounced feelings of depression, but this wasn’t one of them. This one had an atmosphere of vague soul searching with some outbursts in passionate and powerful argumentations about what sociology was once good for and can be again: activism for a better society. People who know me, know that this makes my heart beat faster. My own paper, ‘Swarm research in service of researching publics’ was about nothing less than that.
The title of the conference can be interpreted in two ways. It can be the descriptive observation that societies are changing. The presentations I attended were mostly in this reading. Of course recent important developments had not gone unnoticed by the sociologists present in Leeds. Several presentations were about these developments (work, family, health, education, …) and the new possibilities to investigate (big data and participatory research) and report them in an intuitively understandable way (interactive visualization). All very interesting, but sociology as a discipline gains significance the more it dares to take a leading role. This is the second interpretation of the conference title, the prescriptive stance that sociology should be a catalyst of changes in society.
What is distinctively sociological and makes the discipline worth keeping up in the air? This was the topic of the key note address of Steve Fuller, professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. The founding fathers of sociology, he said, were concerned with macro-level policy to steer humanity. They had a vision of humanity and a sense of future direction that were empirically grounded. Their ambition was to organize all data and come up with a utopia. Fuller appealed to a hunger to revitalize that spirit. This could well be beyond our generation, so the focus is on what we do between is and ought. Sociology maps the difference and enables existing forces to run free. And so as humanity is at the core of sociological concern, the question is, why is humanity so special? Here Fuller introduced two perspectives. The first was that the problems in the world today are caused by ‘too much human’. In this post-human perspective the importance of humanity is downscaled. Solutions are to be found in the dehumanization of the world. The second perspective was that the problems are caused by ‘not enough human’. In this trans-human perspective, the one of Fuller’s preference, we humans haven’t yet lived up to our hype and need to humanize, reach our full potential. Nature doesn’t win, because we’ve beaten natural selection. We have second-order knowledge and don’t obey to evolution. We know about it and can act upon it. What distinguishes us from other animals is that we can and do take responsibility. Sociologists’ task is to work with multiple competing utopias and take on social experimentation as a new empirical focus, underpinned with critical awareness. The essence of a relevant sociology is that it builds constructive and creative visions for the future. In a sense, it picks up the role Humboldian philosophy dropped and serves as a unifying principle for science. Now, I’m not sure if I can agree with this last conclusion, but I did find Fuller’s speech quite enthusing. I sometimes wonder what my social contribution with sociology is. Having heard Fuller, I feel strengthened that my sociological activism is of use indeed. My focus has been more on the past of present problems. Now I look forward to start with utopias.
Three of the presentations I visited stood out for me. First, Dave Elder-Vass questioned Marxist concepts on their relevance anno now. If we want to re-theorize the mode of production in diverse economies, these concepts can become an obstacle. We tend to treat capitalism as the only significant economic form and accept it as a monolith that we seek to replace with yet another monolith. This obscures alternative practices such as the gift economy, self-employment, family businesses, the state sector, charity and so on. Capitalism may be discursively dominant, but in fact it’s a minority model and there’s much more under the sun. Therefore, Elder-Vass argued for another unit of analysis, the Complex of Appropriated Practice or CAP, beyond the traditional civil society/market/state divides. Economic space can be occupied by multiple CAPs. I found this a refreshing start for rethinking economic activity as it invites us to open our eyes and minds for realities in which boundaries are blurred, diversity appears in hybrid forms and more options for economy become available.
Second, Richard Courtney argued that public sociology is the best devised tool to achieve public engagement with research. Public engagement for social science means democratization of knowledge. According to Courtney, public sociology requires exploratory ‘ethnographies’ of complex democracy. It entails methodological variety, the uncovering of new and altered conceptual formations, and the going beyond the boundaries of the ‘known’ social world. This resonated highly with me, as knowledge democracy is the founding principle of Campus Orleon, the network for research in society I initiated in 2008 and have been active in ever since.
Third, Hannah Jones made a case for quick and dirty research as a form of social action. She presented an example of how she and her colleagues responded to a government campaign addressing illegal immigrants. The campaign was meant to urge illegal immigrants to come forward and let government help them leave the UK. For this goal, vans with posters drove around urban areas. Jones and colleagues quickly designed a questionnaire for street interviews and sought the media with their findings and conclusions. At the same time, the opportunity for a grand proposal came along, which enabled them to successfully apply for funding for further research. I thought this was a brilliant example of embedding ad hoc sociological activism in more long-term, structural research.
At times, I feel that sociology is government’s maiden, and at times even too much so. That’s a terrible bias, I know. It’s born out of my personal experience with university life, careerism and obedience to grant funders. Then I remind myself of Tim Minchin’s quote, ‘Science is simply the word we use to describe a method of organizing our curiosity’. ‘University’ as institution is just one of those methods, and history teaches that it wasn’t even the dominant one for the most part of its existence. If we find a way to give voice to all those other methods, sociology can reflect social diversity and complexity, create empirically grounded utopias and act to help realize them. Sociology isn’t perfect and has many flaws, but it’s not a monolith either and has a lot of potential as well. The BSA Conference reminded me that it’s a better idea to start with that. And so, to conclude, Sociologists Are Go!! It’s time for some energizing optimism again.
Of course I couldn't attend all presentations. Here are some more reflections by Chris Till.