politics of the hap

a sociology of loss
February 22, 2019, 3:28 pm
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Recently I read with great interest this blog by Dan Hirschman, describing research that had focused on a ‘sociology of loss’. On the blog Hirschman wondered if these articles were part of a pattern, whether sociologists might begin centring loss as an empirical phenomenon and a starting point for social theorising.

Its a proposition that interests me greatly, and in many ways I have always centred loss as the starting point within my research. Its what, I feel, makes death, dying and bereavement such a rich area to explore theoretically. When analysing and trying to make sense of phenomenon that have no means of resolution (sociology cannot defeat death!), it forces one to move beyond the lenses of ‘progress and optimism’, to understand how people live with deterioration, where loss is not ‘overcome’ but a fundamental part of human existence and a reality of social life.

Rebecca Elliot’s paper describes the most significant loss we all currently face: climate change, and explores what climate change can contribute to sociology, specifically how climate change can help develop a sociology of loss. I like the way the paper captures the ways in which loss is an ambivalent outcome, in contrast to the normative vision of sustainability that aims at harmony and trying to keep things in their current state.

Researching grief, I too found that the outcome of loss was often ambivalence. Loss through bereavement could bring great despair and distress; it could also bring freedoms. It could also bring nothing at all in terms of transformation, or what is described as psychological ‘growth’. The concept of ‘non-recovery’ I developed as a means of pointing towards those many experiences of loss that fall outside the limited normative vision of recovery. Loss can be both a individual feeling or response (a perception of an event) and an undeniable fact (it has a quantitative and qualitative character as Elliot points out). Its effects are not simply/only negative but transformative – a transformation that can be received, interpreted, inhabited in different ways.

As Elliot describes, referring to sustainability, a sociology of loss focuses analysis on what does, will or must disappear rather than what can or should be sustained. Again, I read here many parallels with grief research and theory. Psychological grief models and theories have historically framed grief as an experience that is linear and demarcated with stages and phases. The end point is recovery or reconciliation or acceptance; the goal is making the self complete once again. Grief theories view the self and world as whole and complete and bereavement as the disruption that needs to be managed, worked through and resolved. A sociology of loss instead acknowledges loss as an inevitable everyday experience. A sense of self that is experienced relationally, in connection with other people, the environment.

Thinking about a sociology of loss also reminded me of some thoughts I posted on this blog over six and a half years ago. At the time I was starting to grapple with ideas on recovery and turning them into a PhD research proposal. Reading it now – while it could be better articulated in parts – I am struck by my tendency to view the social world through the lens of loss. These excerpts capture my line of thinking:

 I have always believed it better to start from the fact of death. What life is worth living is constructed around the recognition of death. Perhaps those who grow up within the landscape of death are more forcibly aware of this. With death as our centre we can begin to construct the things that matter. With positivity as the centre, outward appearance holds precedence; we believe in self-improvement…

But with death as our centre, there is everything to be lost. And we keep losing all the time…When traumatic events occur we seek to cover things over in the guise of recovery. To re-cover things to make them appear as they once were… what might happen if we didn’t strive to overcome traumatic events, what if we attend to bad feelings in order to understand how we are affected by those things that come near.

Nowadays my research life remains concerned with health and illness but much more focused on technological advancements in health care, and thinking about health policy and systems. I wonder how a sociology of loss could be used to analyse the effects of digital technologies in healthcare. Technologies, like artificial intelligence are commonly framed as a progression, an enhancement or positive transformation of the ways in which, for example, health services are delivered, or conditions are diagnosed and treated. Much research has analysed the ‘promissory’ discourses around such technological advancements, projecting great hopes and fears into our future. Often such discourses divide technologies into a positive or negative category depending on their proposed impact (saving time=good; replacing doctors=bad).

Perhaps a sociology of loss could provide some much needed nuance to this discussion, and highlight the ways in which responses to AI technology tend rather to be more ambivalent. There are some things we might lose easily, happily; other losses that provoke fear; and yet more we can’t quite comprehend. Focusing on loss sharpens into focus contradictions: how things are lost so that others can be sustained. It also directs us back to the present, shifting our gaze to losses, disappearances and transformations that are already happening and unfolding in each area of social life.





January 14, 2018, 2:03 pm
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I have recently started a new job as a Research Associate in Social Science in the School of Population Health and Environmental Sciences at King’s College London. In the role I am encountering, reading and working on new literature and research projects. Currently I am reading about big data and learning health systems in health care; epigenetics and ancestry markers; personalised medicine; and patient and citizen engagement in health care research. At the moment I am in a state of learning and absorbing the ideas across these fascinating cutting edge topics affecting the present and future of public health care and social science. My intellectual life for the past 3-4 years has been preoccupied with grief and bereavement, inhabiting spaces of death and dying studies or the sociology of the emotions. This new role is taking me into new areas and making me feel like a novice all over again. (though watch this space for *fingers crossed* a future book on my PhD research on grief, bereavement and recovery). As I continue to digest these new ideas I hope to share some of them here, drawing connections with previous work and trying to develop some central lines of enquiry in this rather fluid postdoctoral phase.

I’m still getting my head around what the postdoctoral phase is and how best to use it, and I hope to share some of those reflections here too. My role allows for a fair amount of flexibility which is at once wonderful but then somewhat pressurising (a pressure imposed on my self) as I feel weighted with making the most of this precious opportunity. It’s a strange feeling. From my experience in academia you’re either in or you’re out; either you’re desperately scrabbling for the job, a published paper, acquiring some CV enhancing responsibility in order to ‘get in’ or else you arrive and suddenly the previously closed doors swing open. On the one hand my arrival feels mysterious or unwarranted (imposter syndrome returns) and on the other I recognise its the culmination of years of hard work, low pay and many failed attempts.

A lot of change has occurred in the past six years or so since starting this blog. I have been in and out and in and out of academia. That was the background story. At the forefront was a thinking through of ideas about living otherwise, a life worth living; about resistance, attachment to the wrong things, and loss. How this blog will evolve now with the new fields I am exploring I am not sure, but the spaces that are opening up right now seem hopeful, and exciting.

September 18, 2017, 7:55 pm
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When it feels safe to, I confess. I say that I’m not sure I want to be an academic. The expression of surprise that follows reveals how convincingly I’ve been playing this persona. It’s not an unrealistic assumption; I mean after completing a PhD what else are you going to do?

At some point during the doctoral process I too began to think I wanted an academic career. Yet now that I’ve climbed the top of the ladder, I feel instead that I’ve gone full circle. And not only because there are too many PhDs and too few jobs – though it is true I am languishing in unemployment and I have already created a spreadsheet to catalogue my rejections. Rather its a realisation I’m not sure I ever really wanted to be an academic, but I could write a good essay, and somehow that allowed me to sail through one, two degrees and then a PhD. Studying Sociology was like a placeholder while I figured out what type of writer I was.

In my mind I was always a writer that ended up doing a PhD. And that statement ‘always a writer’ is not a description of a career or a job history or something that has provided me with accolades or achievements for the CV, but a description of an occupation, of something I have always done. From pages of stories I wrote as a child and kept under my bed to a depressive poet phase in the late teens to decades of diaries and journal entries to blogs to academic articles and a doctoral thesis.

This is the sense of full circle: a sense of, what now?

I keep having the same conversation. Its funny that the absence of work somehow makes you all the more defined by what you do (or don’t). I’ve spent most of the last two weeks in academic circles feeling like a disruption, an embodiment of others fears, or figure of pity. My level of self-absorption has become such that I cannot tell anymore whether it is my projection on to them reflecting back or whether I am reading the right signs, notes of discomfort and silence.

There are phrases, quotes that define different periods of my life. ‘When something you desire is an obstacle to flourishing’; Lauren Berlant’s concept of cruel optimism shaped the PhD years. In this post-doctoral liminal phase I am not sure of what I desire but it is becoming clear that flourishing in academia is the exception rather than the norm. What remains are only a series of obstacles; of which one’s ability to tackle are often dependent on happenstance, or being well served by traditional structures. It’s a conversation that ends in finding a job and being cushioned back into structure, into a category that defines your edges. You have a place of belonging again, no longer unsettling and out of place.

Marx taught me that the gulf between what you do and what you get paid to do and seeing it steadily expand is alienation. It’s not without note, I feel, that when a new copy of Sociology journal arrives through my door I will skim its pages before it gets put on my shelf to gather dust. Yet when Granta arrives I fawn over it with excitement and I will read its pages cover to cover, curled in bed with a cat and a cup of tea; a scene of pure pleasure. Or perhaps it is without note, maybe most sociologists would prefer to read Granta rather than Sociology. I get the sense though that to admit as such would be unwise. After all, Sociology has a 1.9 impact factor.


Certain women.
March 23, 2017, 2:06 pm
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Birthday gifts to myself.

Recently I have been finding immense comfort in the stories of women. I am drawn to reading only books written by women. Essays written by women. Films about women. Films directed by women. Talks by women. Even stories about men written by women. It’s as though the difference is so palpable to me at the moment.

Maggie Nelson, Rachel Cusk, Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Lang, Katherine Angel join chorus with my staple favourites: Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler and Sara Ahmed. Perhaps it is simply needing a refuge, when macho patriarchy looms so large in the socio-political landscape. I remember on the Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration, I felt emboldened and inspired. I felt that often over-used word: solidarity.


Some of my favourite women.

Recently I went to see Kelly Reichardt’s film ‘Certain Women’. There are some subtle and well crafted scenes. Among other things the film shows the female characters not being heard by the male characters. Lawyer Laura’s male client only finally accepts advice when it comes from a male lawyer – the same advice she had been repeatedly telling him. In another scene, Michelle William’s character Gina, tries to address a male acquaintance, but he only looks at her husband when he responds or simply ignores what she says.

It’s done in such a way that feels so recognisable. It’s subtle and sometimes silent. Not directly ‘mansplaining’, but an undercurrent of not being taken seriously that gets reinforced in strategic silencing.

I’m not sure what it is at the moment that draws me so much to women’s writing and women’s stories. It’s a sort of comfort in the unspoken – we get it – feeling. A comfort in proximity, and distance at the same time.

On the need for better stories.
February 2, 2017, 2:36 pm
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The last time I wrote on this blog was over a year and a half ago. I had written about not having a story. I had become increasingly fatigued over the proliferation of stories, and specifically the use of stories as a means of liberation. In effect that was my last story for a while too and this blog – and by extension me – had become consumed by silence, or at least I had run out of stories to tell.

More accurately I had become consumed by the bigger story of my PhD and in telling that story I had no time for any others. But also in the process of telling one story, all other stories become relevant and related in some way. It as though the more your story expands and becomes all encompassing the more one-pointed your focus becomes and you end up seeing and listening to very little that is new. That is the persuasive power of narrative.

Now in post-doctoral life I am revising that same story again and again in slightly different formats so that hopefully one day I can start thinking about new stories again.

My feeling then – and now – was that stories were not enough. Telling one’s account is not in itself liberating. A story shouldn’t be used in place of lasting social change. Giving someone a ‘voice’ can be lazy quick fix remedy to avoid shifting social structures, changing laws and bringing justice. Giving everyone a platform might be the beginning of equality but it certainly is not the end of it. I felt that stories were pointless when what we should be really thinking about is building spaces people can inhabit without hate or prejudice.

In a way that was the sociologist in me responding to arguments that had forgotten the emotional is always social, and political. The personal account is not more true than other knowledge because it is emotional. Truth is not measured in tears. We remain trapped in a different version of the same story if, for example, we view the personal experience of an illness as more significant than the clinical diagnosis and description of what is happening in a body. The point is: both matter.

Anyhow I had been reconsidering the importance of stories as I have been wondering about the role of sociology in the contemporary world. As I dip in and out of various social media it’s a question that is apparent if not explicitly posed. I decided that the role of sociology was to tell better stories. To provide a narrative to events. To put events, ideas and people into context. Inevitably this might be a long and complex story. How to tell stories of the present to an audience accustomed to 140 characters?

Personal stories are often assumed as true. But it seems nowadays any story that is published in black and white can be assumed as truth. The response to “fake news” signals that popular culture has yet to even reach the postmodern phase, as all social constructionist know that it is not about ‘truth’ being ‘fake’ but rather truth is always a social construct.

For Foucault things don’t just exist ‘out there’ but emerge as identifiable objects through various social structures – including language. The task is to examine how things come to be seen as truth; to critically engage with all claims to truth. In other words, we need to all do our homework.

This becomes increasingly hard when wading through partisan news agendas. Journalists I am sure wouldn’t be keen on referring to themselves as ‘story tellers’, even as the news is fed to us in ‘news stories’. Journalism has to believe in an objective truth and fight to convey that as best as possible. But media often presents a point of view, and too little diversity in points of view and we start to accept opinion as truth.

Often in academia we bend over backwards to ensure our work is untainted by bias and opinion. We engage in reflexivity, acknowledge our sources, cite references, and undergo peer review. Perhaps because of our rigour we are better placed to provide better stories. In which case the whole structure of academic publishing needs to change dramatically.

Not having a story can mean you get consumed in the dominant narrative, whether you like it or not. Like not voting, the choice is made for you. The problem with dominant narratives is that the story expands and becomes all encompassing. It becomes harder to listen and see and critique. Depending on the vision the narrative provides we might join and work towards that, or reject it and argue that its not working. In such a climate of destructive narratives, an alternative vision is needed, which could begin with telling sociological stories. But there has to be the offer of a future. Foucault never made any claims on how society should be run, but he did provide the gift of critiquing repressive structures. Once that repression is visible, the question remains: what makes a life worth living?


On not having a story.
June 15, 2015, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Academe, Recovery, Resistance | Tags: , ,

Everyone wants to tell their story. What use is a story? Who is telling the story and why should we listen?

These are some thoughts I am left with following the Emotional Geographies conference last week. Stories were everywhere: the telling, the encouragement to tell, the strategies to extract them.

What’s my story, I think. Do I need a story?

Through my research I have learnt that telling one’s personal story is the key to recovery. Telling a story is healing and restorative. Its empowering, enlightening, liberating. Telling stories is the answer to everything it seems.

It isn’t social change we need or meaningful work or better health care or a living wage, we just need to construct our story and then we will be free.

Telling stories is about finding the truth. Stories are true if you tell them. That’s your truth, it can’t be denied. But sometimes some stories are deemed less true than others. What are the parameters on truth? How does truth get revealed, concealed and distorted in the telling of stories?

At the conference emotional stories were the most truthful. Two of the keynote speakers told personal stories of illness. They were accounts narrated emotively, they wanted to tell us about their feelings. The personal was awarded more status than scientific or medical knowledge. This was ‘writing against the grain’.

At the conference and in my research I have been struck by the question as to whether stories can ever be non-conventional. In a culture where stories proliferate, and lives are lived via the online advertising reels of Facebook and Instagram, and public displays of emotions are sensationalised (and induced) in ‘Britain’s got Baking on Ice’; there’s an overcrowding of stories and confessions and tears. There’s so many stories but less connection to them.

To really go against the grain it might be better to say nothing at all. How would it feel to not have a story?

Stories cannot avoid being conventional because they rely on an assumption of truth. It has to appear true to whoever is listening. Stories interpret events so that they have meaning and stories demand an ending of some form.

Imagine if these dimensions of telling a story were not adhered to. People diagnosed with psychosis are often accused of telling false stories. Their accounts do not align with dominant assumed truths that structure society. The interpretation might not make sense either. The story might not end. It might be circular.

These are not considered stories; this is stuckness. People who are grieving might tell stories about how their dead husband speaks to them. They might take this to mean that their spouse is still here. They might tell this same story for 17 years.

Stuckness is just a stopping place on the way to finding a story. But without a story you are undoubtedly stuck. And ‘wrong’ stories might take you to the wrong places.

Stories might be told as though they are definitive and final: the memoir is the exemplar – this is my one true story of me. Of course this is not accurate, a memoir is not truth but an edited identity, like an instagram photo, capturing one reality and omitting a whole load of others.

Stories are always in flux. Or rather individuals, people, are always in flux. Telling a story gives respite from the flux – and it might feel like catharsis. Constructing a story might be a way of containing the unbearable. Sometimes though there just isn’t a story to capture a feeling or an event. And perhaps the feeling or event doesn’t need containing. Perhaps not having a story is a way to think about the inadequacy of storytelling and to think of, not better stories, but better realities that will allow space for flourishing. Stories can become a quick-fix remedy when what is needed is not a podium, but lasting spaces in which to inhabit; where meaning can be found in the liminal and a life worth living can be discovered in the suspension of conclusions that is not nothingness.

March 3, 2015, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Grief, PhD chat, Subjectivities, Yoga | Tags: , , , , , ,

Sometimes my fear of losing overrides my ability to listen. This is a lesson I should have learnt already. As I undertake the mind-numbing labour that is interview transcription, I note how as I went from one interview to the next my contribution became less and less. When my input appears it is more measured, concise, to the point.

I’ve always felt how I express myself is at odds with what I mean. This is no doubt true. And I am no doubt not alone in this. One always speaks as the stereotype of the person they think they areDelving into the stories people tell about themselves and their losses, I’ve been struck by how we rarely say things in concrete terms. We’re always skirting, dancing in vagueness – like, sort of, kind of, thing. It’s as though words, language, is constantly failing us. Or else we’re scared that in the act of capturing we enact violence to the ‘thing’ (experiential, sensory realm) itself. And yet we understand each other, make sense of each other through these mumbles, incoherences, gestures. We talk in codes, metaphors, sounds, utterances, signs and silences – those most important silences. How we ever manage to find a space to commune and feel known by another amazes me. I often would walk away from an interview encounter carrying one impression but in the process of typing speech into words on a blank page it impresses upon me in a totally different way. Sometimes when I hear myself ask the questions that occurred to me at the time, I cannot even recognise my own thought process. The stories we tell through language are already not our own, but then they become mine as listener and researcher and in turn they become owned by the page or screen. It feels as though something seeps away in each step of this process, that messy something that’s better to edit out.

So too must we be transparent with ourselves about how we go about understanding. First of all – there is no neutral place. We’re always giving something, even in silence – perhaps especially so. Spending time in the mysore practice room taught me this. As well as the theorists before that. India has taught me this too, aggressively so at times. And again my adopted Indian family before that. I think spending a lot of time being the only white face in a room/house/temple full of brown bodies, all speaking in a language once foreign to me is an experience instructive as all the post-colonial theory I can get my hands on. Because what happens is you stop seeing difference. I started to understand a different language through listening alone. When, after some time becoming part of, I got mistaken for Indian, I don’t think it had anything to do with not seeing my white skin – that much was obvious – but a reaction to the way I had consciously and unconsciously developed a disposition, a bodily disposition that went beyond appropriate clothing or eating with the right hand. This wasn’t merely a performance – it was as though ‘India’ had tapped into something vital in me – but the process through which I on occasion managed to ‘pass’ is still elusive to me.

In the research encounter my identity became more performative as I had not yet cultivated an academic demeanour I could rely on. I was concerned people would not take me seriously but on reflection the only person who struggled to take me seriously was me. Becoming serious would mean becoming present. And never being neutral can feel like a heavy burden to bear. More so when its due to things you can’t control like being female or feeling complicit in the neo-colonial benevolence of the new empire.

Down the other end of the Skype line in another time zone my PhD supervisors tell me once again “You need to clarify your position. It’s still not clear where you stand.”

Most of the time I view myself as an outsider in the academic world, in the ashtanga world, in rooms of white middle-class people. When positioned as the one with power whether that’s when I’m using academic discourse to get people to talk to me or paying for chai and chocolate cake at the Green Hotel in Mysore with 1000rs note, it disturbs me and I seek to displace myself. And sometimes power displaces me. I’ve been thinking perhaps that’s part of what going on with sexual harassment in India. My body symbolises power but it can still be violated by your body. I can always become silenced (again).

Knowing from where we speak is the most important lesson for the critical researcher. I’d say its pretty important for a yoga practitioner too. And I will have to establish my position for my thesis as much as I loathe fixity. My supervisors tell me too that the position I will take is only a performance. But I wonder if there’s more to be said about why I understand emotionally and you understand logically and if we can describe this without resorting to gender roles.

Positioning oneself is all about becoming part of a structure that is recognised. The habitus cannot exist without the field (Bourdieu). That’s why the entrance fee is through learning the language (and that’s not just about words). We reach our limit in structures that reject us on things that either we cannot or choose not to change. Its here we fall back into the space between the idea of ourselves that finds room to move through performing and passing and what stands still, caught up against weighty structures. That’s why I always start with stuckness. Why don’t people recover from loss? What happens when you’re deemed as failing to capture the dream of the ‘good life’? Why can’t they/we speak? Trauma is often considered to be a result of not having a story. But the voices in the stuckness have always been speaking clearly its just that the world is poorly equipped to translate. What if we all developed the capacity to listen to each other even in the midst of prejudice. Might then we find relief in the stuckness and find space for flourishing to exist in and alongside the messiness.