politics of the hap

#Britsoc13 and Sociology’s problem of shortsightedness.
April 7, 2013, 1:34 pm
Filed under: Academe | Tags: , , , , ,

Two years ago in April it was a beautifully warm and sunny Spring. I was wearing sunglasses and sandals as I lazed in the sun on the grass in the LSE campus at my first attendance to the British Sociological conference. Back then I was on the verge of a crucial decision, 6 months or so into my Sociology PhD (the first time round) I was questioning my commitment to the discipline. I attended the conference, paying the extortionate fee out of my own pocket (around £210 for concessionary fees plus BSA membership joining fee of £50, non-members you are looking at £500 for the whole three days), but above all seeking inspiration from my fellow peers. I was expecting to mingle with like-minded thinkers, engage with forward-thinking and exciting alternatives. What I went away with was an overwhelming sense of ‘Sociology’s crisis’ a discourse which echoed throughout the conference. Two years ago it was the peak of student protest activity, Occupy and UKUncut were taking to the streets, and yet that sense of activism and exchange of ideas felt very distant from the stale powerpoint presentations and formal wine receptions of the conference. This week that same feeling of what can only be described as disappointment arose once again. It was shortly after the conference of 2011 that I applied to study yoga here and booked a one way ticket to India. Two years down the line and back nestled into academia, I am wiser and less naive on my return. Still though I registered for Britsoc13 with enthusiasm even if with a pinch of apprehension.

Housed within the Grand Connaught Rooms, what was underwhelming was the similarity of ideas, grumbles and criticism of two years ago. Now well immersed into the age of austerity, there was much talk of how Sociology’s challenge is ‘different’ now and we need to adapt new tools and ways of thinking. Yet these calls for change were largely muffled by the amount of formulaic presentations that rehearsed a conservative almost stereotypical form of Sociology I hadn’t been acquainted with since A-level. There was luckily some genuinely great speakers and talks to be found such as the Open stream which took place in the Derby suite and had an interesting array of psycho-social research and presentations. Namely one panel discussion which focused on the marginalisation of psychoanalysis in Sociology for me set the scene for the whole conference. George Cavalletto remarked rather poignantly how researchers get frustrated by Sociology’s inability to account for inner life and then turn to literature and cultural studies to find answers and adequate expression for their ideas. The marginalisation of psychoanalysis as a credible discipline in the social sciences and the further degradation of the psyche and the emotions as valid areas of study has led to Sociology becoming a discipline where emotions are only things that come from the outside-in thus reinforcing tired binaries between mind and body. Sociology becomes a matter of inequalities that can be seen or proved but not felt, its remit including only the newsworthy topics of race, gender and class, but articulated in a very truncated sense.

The discussion following Polly Toynbee’s plenary also threw up some interesting questions. The plenary was in some ways a how-to guide to getting your research in the mainstream media but the Q&A saw some audience members stand up to talk about their work as ‘activist scholar’s’ as they described themselves. A sociologist’s task is to not just relay information but actively educate their communities in which they work and research they argued. Further another response reminded us that a sociologist’s task is to be provocative and go against the norm. Sociologist’s are so busy toeing the line and filling in REF applications they forget about the importance of big ideas. Toynbee was calling for the need for big thinkers along with the researchers that produce the ‘facts’ as she called them. (The simplistic view of the journalist where objectivity exists as a possibility…). Yet  as she also acknowledged ‘big thinkers’ are dismissed if they lack the appropriate forms of validation. The sociologist’s hands are so tied that all that becomes possible are small-scale projects. Yet the problem lies not in the small scale of the research but the small scale of ideas and thinking. Big ideas can be attached to the small-scale, the embedded, and the everyday, but what is lacking is the ability and/or motivation to undertake this bridging. This was evident in the Happiness session where happiness was banded about like an unproblematic object. Research was presented that relayed people’s understanding of happiness as the truth of happiness rather than viewing them as a particular narrative of happiness that borrowed from the dominant understandings of happiness that imply certain ways to live a life and be a good citizen. Sara Ahmed’s work on happiness was demolished in the hands of Mark Cieslik who seemingly read a different book, and seemed to think that Ahmed was wanting to do away with happiness, where she was arguing for a form of happiness that did not ignore unhappiness as a possibility. Instead happiness was seen as a thing that existed outside of history, an innate feeling, and neglected to see how the form of happiness that was being advocated was remarkably similar with neo-liberal ways of living and being.

When emotions are a focus of sociological study they become hollowed out and instrumental, lacking theorisation from more sensory modes of study, such as psychoanalysis for example that could illuminate the way in which a person experiences happiness from their environment through affect and attuning to certain things. These ideas are active in disciplines such as cultural studies. It is no surprise that for my own research I have been reaching for Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant to provide an adequate reading of subjectivity and loss. And Nikolas Rose and Michel Foucault for a sociology where the body and psyche are actually present and acknowledged. Les Back led a great session on the use of the senses and sensory methodology in Sociology. Again the best sessions of Britsoc13 were the ones that basically said ‘You know what we are not really supposed to be here but we are going to try and challenge you for 90 minutes.’ My year at Goldsmiths acquainted me with Les Back’s great speaking style and passion for the rekindling of a form of forgotten Sociology. It was quite striking to hear from someone of Back’s stature and prominence about the difficulty he had in deciding to overcome the wariness he had concerning talking about his belief in the importance of the sensory in sociological research. It shared parallels with a similarly great session focused on reflexivity presented by Jon Dean and a presentation by Martyn Hammersley about the role of sociology in analyzing key events such as the UK riots. As Jon Dean spoke in his presentation about the problem of including personal reflections in academic work and the dilemma of what is too much (a problem I know well) a response from the audience after asked ‘What kind of discipline do we have if we cannot include such data in our work?’. It was a powerful statement. What kind of discipline do we have? Thinking of Les Back’s hesitation to focus on the sensory – perhaps out of fear of being discredited – I too started to think what discipline is this? And indeed do I want to be part of it? Les Back then spoke about an exhibition he visited as an example for the forms of presentation that should be on display at the BSA conference. Installations that engage the senses. Also in the session Alex Rhys-Taylor used sound recordings and gave a monologue of the sights and sounds of Ridley Road market in the East end of London that felt very close to the ‘scenic compositions’ Lynn Froggett spoke of back in the psycho-social sessions.

It is true some research lends itself better to interactive and creative presentations than others. The point is not to do away with statistics, graphs and powerpoint. But it is to suggest a form of Sociology that allows these sensory methods and modes of thinking as a valuable possibility. Embarrassment or shame are brought about when ideas fail to be recognised; when others refuse to listen. These few snapshots of marginal ideas at Britsoc13 felt like glimmers of hope in amongst the polite small talk, bad vegetarian lunch options and overpriced entrance fee. Yet these thinkers will continue to only throw their ideas against a brick wall if the sociology discipline fails to listen.

I owe much to Sociology, and will always be somewhat grounded, if only through educational socialisation, in a sociological view of the world. I always loved Sociology because it gave me the freedom that other disciplines didn’t. But now I feel constrained and frustrated by Sociology’s limits, where potential radical thought always has to be explained through conservative terms. Particularly as a novice researcher, barely broken in to my PhD, it can seem a dreary and frightening prospect. Luckily I have spent enough time outside academia as well as in to realise the game everyone plays is one you can opt in or out of. I might be old-fashioned in that I came into Sociology wanting to change things and not keep them the same because I saw problems that were being ignored and overlooked. This applies to the inner workings of the discipline too. Conferences that take place in opulent buildings filled with overwhelming numbers of white middle class male faces leave a bad taste in my mouth. John Holmwood in his plenary spoke of readjustment rather than constructing ideals of the future. Indeed a fixed ideal of the future is limiting, but perhaps a fixed desire to maintain the status quo is even more so. There is a paradox as Sociology continues to concern itself with engaging the public and ‘every day life’ we are getting further and further away from the object we are so hurriedly scrabbling toward.

It seems like Sociology needs to ask itself what it thinks makes a life worth living. I am not saying we should cohere on this vision but at least lets have better avenues for dialogue and not bristle so alarmingly at new approaches that delve into the arts and humanities for inspiration. Because in essence is this not the goal of sociological endeavour: to ask what makes a life worth living. A life with less inequality, less discrimination based on gender or colour of one’s skin or age or sexuality, a life that is not prescribed but active, aware and critically engaged. A life of learning, a life made meaningful through felt emotions, affect, attuning to the environment and sensory imaginations. To start thinking this way and asking these questions requires big thinking and being alive to experiences and encounters. Our lives as sociologists are not separate to our work but integral to it. Perhaps then hope lies in those who have yet to become institutionalized into the formal dance of sociology’s discipline requirements. In those still young enough or those outside academia that are able to think big and unashamedly.  Hope might also lie in those of us PhD students who risk to take up the challenge to make their PhD a piece of radical sociology, where radical is simply a challenge to normative obligations, that doesn’t seek career progression as the endpoint, that seeks to contribute to a life worth living. I’m prepared for the challenge, the question is, are you?

*This post was kindly reposted on The Sociological Imagination.


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[…] 2013 I attended the BSA conference and similarly felt this sense of short-sightedness. I felt frustrated at what felt like at the time the reduction of ideas through the conference […]

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