Updates from August, 2013 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 4:04 pm on August 31, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    Spring Breakers, Late Capitalism and Nihilism 

    My friend Marta just posted an analysis of Spring Breakers which we saw together a few months ago. I wanted to write something about this but found myself struggling to articulate anything despite being captivated by the film. I really like this section of the article in particular:

    “Look at all my shit. I’ve got shorts, every fucking color. I’ve got designer t-shirts. I’ve got gold bullets for motherfucking vampires. Scarface on repeat. Constant, y’all. Got Escape, Calvin Klein Escape, mix that shit up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice, I smell nice. This ain’t a bed, this is a motherfucking art piece. My motherfucking spaceship. USS Enterprise, I go to different planets on this motherfucker. Me and my fucking Frankins’ here we take off! Look at my shit.”

    If Alien is Spring Breakers’ image of the self-made man then it is not difficult to see why critics would see Korine’s representation of the American Dream as ironic. Franco’s characterization is nothing short of bizarre. With his cornrows, his gold capped teeth and a dollar sign tattooed on his neck (and many more seemingly incoherent designs decorating his chest and arms), he is much closer to Franco’s usual bumbling con-man persona (see this year’s Oz, the Great and Powerful, for instance) than the gangster image he is trying to convey. Yet there is an honesty and tenderness to Franco’s performance which counterbalances the parodic elements of his characterisation. Alien is something of a holy fool: a self professed “gangster with a heart of gold,” he takes real, innocent pleasure from having things. As he shows off his possessions he is like a child in a toy shop, gleeful and overexcited. He is equally pleased by his dark tanning oil as he is by machine guns, but above all he is delighted at being able to show it all off to the girls whom he adores.

    If Alien is living the American Dream then that dream is composed of both stuff and stories about stuff. Possessing is only half of the success; the other half is flaunting those possessions. As Alien enumerates all he can think of, Candy and Brit sit on the bed covered with money squealing with glee. Although they are not particularly active or verbal in the scene their presence is key: they are the audience that Alien needs in order to live out his dream. As his monologue comes to a close, he pauses and asks with a hint of uncertainty, “You like my shit?” and then repeats with conviction, “You fucking love it, don’t you.” His treatment of the girls as an audience is similar to the way in which Faith casts her friends in her fantasy of “the time of their lives.” In her monologues she never refers solely to her own experience but speaks for all the girls. During the pool scene, Faith muses on the possibility of endless togetherness: “I wish we’d be able to buy a house here together… We could freeze life… Freeze it and say: this is how it’s gonna be forever.” Even though, from the very start, the girls are shown to be seeking quite different “thrills,” Faith refuses to recognize the very real differences between her friends’ desires.


    What fascinated me about the film was its portrayal of the culturally inscribed hedonism of ‘spring break’ as a social institution. This demarcated time for celebration and ‘going wild’ affects a carnivalesque stance when in reality it seems little more than a reductio ad absurdum of expressive individualism – an institution grounded in a promise of personal meaningfulness, ‘finding yourself’ amidst hedonism, in fact stands as a culmination of the meaninglessness incipient in the circumscribed pleasures late capitalism allows. The private catharsis of drinks, drugs and sex is made public during ‘spring break’ and the film portrays the nihilistic collapse into a perpetual present which ensues when these are pursued as ends in themselves. The subjective well-being which late capitalism presents as happiness – attained through having shit, being able to flaunt it and narcotising the interaction to a sufficient degree to avoid confrontation with its hollow core – cannot actually sustain the experienced meaningfulness of one’s existence when it is lived rather than simply believed. What makes Alien such an astonishing character is the sense in which he does live this but only through a continual reaffirmation of the underlying logic: the film gets weirder and weirder as Candy and Brit join him on his collapse into the perpetual present. He moves ever more wholeheartedly into the reality of his own life but this in turn renders his existence ever more dreamlike, vacillating between outright fantasy and childlike indulgence of whim. In short I read the film as a parable about hedonism in late capitalism. I might watch it again and try to write something a little more extended about it. With the potential exception of Place Beyond the Pines this was certainly my favourite film of 2013.

  • Mark 8:25 am on August 31, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    Being Human and What Matters To Us 

    In my last few posts on Being Human I’ve looked at Archer’s account of emotionality. Integral to this is the internal dialogue through which first-order emotionality (natural, practical and social affectivity) gives rise to what Archer calls second-order emotionality. She represents this process  in terms of stages of discernment, deliberation and dedication. I initially found her thinking on this difficult to grasp but my understand of it, which she’s read and not disagreed with, is that this is intended schematically: the actual biographical movement through these ‘stages’ is messy and particularistic but it is nonetheless possible to analytically delineate distinct steps.

    What renders this ‘internal dialogue’ necessary is the fact that our first-order emotions are commentaries “upon something independent from emotionality itself”. It is a “dialectic between our human concerns and our emotional commentaries upon them” in which “both elements will undergo modification because of the interplay between them” (Archer 2000: 23). This takes place through a conversation which is “passionate and cognitive through and through” in which “logos poses questions and pathos gives it commentary” but “both the present and the future self make use of each of them”. It incorporates a significant counter-factual element involving “interior examination of future scenarios to discover if and how the two can fit together and live together in alignment, were certain concerns to become designated as a person’s ultimate ones” (Archer 2000: 231). The notion of ‘internal dialogue’ here, refined over her next three books, should not be construed in a reductively linguistic or rationalistic way:

    Procedurally too, just because the conversations takes place using words (the private use of the public linguistic medium), care must be taken not to stock the cards in favour of logos. Firstly, words themselves can be infuse with passion; they do not condemn us internally, any more than in our interpersonal exchanges, to being dispassionate conversationalists. Secondly, words themselves depend upon the non-verbal images they summon-up and often need supplementing with pictures of future reality. So too, part of the conversation will be wordless, as the various parts of the self jointly contemplate their past, present and future emotional reactions by reviewing, reliving or imagining the quality of their feelings. The ‘agenda’ of the ‘I’ and the ‘You’ is to produce a joint articulation of their ultimate concerns, as ones to which the self can be wholeheartedly attached: but since this is about caring, which entails an external ‘object’ and a subjective commitment, the outcome itself will be a blend of logos and pathos. (Archer 2000: 231)

    Discernment is a process in which “the subject and object, the ‘I’ and the ‘You’, work together to review the projects in which they might invest their caring” (Archer 2000: 232). Emotionality leaves us with a (fallible) understanding of that to which we are drawn. But “however strongly we are drawn to a particular project, there are other concerns which have to command our attention, such as the state of our health, the need to earn a living and other people’s views of our relationships, actual and potential” (Archer 2000: 232). These do not constitute a ‘reality principle’ to which potential projects that matter to us are counterposed because these concerns also matter to us. Emotions provide the ‘shoving power’ which moves us to action (though what they move us to is not therefore moral, as Archer takes issue with Taylor’s account) but they do not prescribe what action should be or how the various projects (i.e. agential doings in the broadest sense)  which might emerge from our concerns can be made to cohere. Discernment involves a “preliminary review of those projects we have reason to deem worthwhile” (Archer 2000: 233). It involves a integrative evaluation of “the things we are doing, the things we have done and the things we could do” which aims to orientate us towards what would be satisfying and sustainable for us to do now.  There’s a lovely Zygmunt Bauman quotes which captures something of this: “In what we do we hardly ever start from a clean slate. The site on which we build is always cluttered: the past lingers in the same ‘present’ in which the future tries to take root“. Our past actions, choices and evaluations are sedimented in the present moment in a way which constrains and enables how we are able to orientate ourselves towards our futures:

    The “i” is constantly engaged in a review of its current concerns, though this is rarely how people think of it themselves, but it becomes more recognisable if we put it in terms of the constant stream of internal awareness about our satisfactions and discontents – which are our emotional commentaries upon our present position. When living in any particular house, we continuously register its inconveniences and attractions which crystallise into decisions about home improvements or ceteris paribus into a decision to move. (Archer 2000: 234)

    While I don’t that example has quite the universality she imagines, it nicely captures the continual and in motion nature of discernment. We recognise aspects of our present circumstances as significant and contemplate potential projects arising from these concerns, through appeals, aspirations, reproaches and challenges which we make to ourselves.

    Deliberation involves the evaluation of the concerns and potential courses of action which we have discerned. It is a “matter of question and answer, of re-questioning and following-up, of amended questions and modified responses” (Archer 2000: 236). It can involve concerns being discarded as we interrogate ourselves about whether “I really care enough to keep doing this?” or “does X matter to me given Y and Z”, observable in our lives when “a skill falls into disuse, a practice is continued, a friendship lapses or a commitment is transformed” (Archer 2000: 236). These deliberations involve “a very provisional ranking of the concerns with which the self can live” as a process in which “concerns have been progressively compared and clarified and the relative worth of various projects has emerged” (Archer 2000: 236). It involves us considering how costly these various commitments might be and how they can be integrated into the overall fabric of our lives and made to live with our other concerns.

    Dedication is the “emergent moment to which the previous two moments of dialogical interaction have been leading intra-personally. It entails an accommodation of concerns, as well as the courses of action to which they orientate the subject, which is satisfying and sustainable. It involves judgements of worth and determination of projects. The claim here is not that “subjects themselves will see their internal conversations in terms of a debate about objective worth” but rather that these are experienced in a much more particularistic way as considerations about what to do and who to be (within condition not of our choosing which impinge upon our deliberations in all manner of ways, some of which recognised but others not). It entails the establishment of a modus vivendi: “the prioritisation of the three orders, via an evaluation of concerns pertaining to them, and an accommodation of the concerns belonging to the other two orders, in such a manner that the subject believes this to be a working balance – one with which he or she can live with as their individual modus vivendi” (Archer 2000: 238). The most explicitly such a modus vivendi enters into a subject’s deliberations is in existentially orientated questions concerning “what am I going to do with my life?”. More often, this over-arching perspective is subsumed under the particular concerns at stake and the particular questions their prioritisation and accommodation pose within the context of the lived life.

  • Mark 1:03 pm on August 30, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    Why academic podcasts are much more valuable than people realise 

    There’s a great post on Savage Minds here which discusses a new anthropology podcast series. It makes some important points about the potential value of academic podcasts:

    Its fascinating to listen to the interview version of an article (in fact, its much more convenient than reading the article!) but its even more fascinating to have a chance to get to know the authors behind the articles. This, to me, is the real value of the podcast: it gets you to the backstage of elite anthropology, to see what the people at the center of the discipline are like. Its an incredibly important experience denied to the vast majority of anthropologists who didn’t go to Top Schools, and the SCA’s willingness to share this with us is really fantastic.

    Michael Fisch, for instance, is one of the many new hires that have recently been made at Chicago, where I earned my Ph.D. So, you know, my question was: now that he’s someone is he good enough for Chicago? The written work was less important to me than the character and the quality and vitality of the responses he made in his interview. For me, the most interesting part of the podcast came as he discussed his broader theoretical interest, and particularly the importance of moving past Latour to the thinkers that influenced him in order to dig out the genealogy (and thus possible future) of a realist, network-based ontology to ground future research. As someone who studies mining and petroleum, Fisch’s frustration that we hadn’t completed the seemingly effortless task of developing cheap sources of infinitely renewable energy was, maybe, not so insightful. But whatever — it was a great interview with a young and successful scholar. Surely other young scholars will want to see what success sounds like, eh?

    The Handler interview was very different. Handler is a senior scholar (I mean that in a nice way) talking mostly about the kind of issues that comes at the height of one’s career, rather than at the beginning. It deals with administrative matters and big-picture issues in the organization of our discipline (and others). I’ve not always been interested in the topics that Handler studies (except Quebec, which I ❤ ) but I’ve always been blown away by his tremendous analytic ability. Its remarkable to me to have the opportunity to listen to someone who has spent a lifetime in the academy tell us what he has figured out about the professionalization of the discipline and how it related to the intellectual endeavors that it scaffolds. There’s a certain clarity that only experience can provide. Its valuable for anyone thinking about being involved in anthropology long-term.


    This powerfully captures what I’ve always seen as the promise of academic podcasting. However I’ve recently felt  that I’m in a bit of a rut with my podcasting. Having seen the difference which quality editing makes to the finished product while working at the LSE I’m finding it difficult to be satisfied with what could be politely described as my ‘minimalistic’ approach to editing. I’m wondering if I should begin to approach the podcasts in a much more planned and episodic way, structured around particular themes and edited properly rather than simply topped and tailed in Audacity before being thrown online. It’s so much work though. But I think the promise of academic podcasts, as described so well in the extract above, can’t be realised without it. The direction in which Cheryl Brumley is taking the LSE’s podcasts is also a great guide to how this can be done:

    Audio is important to the LSE Public Policy Group. Our blogs, funded by HEIF 5 – an innovation fund focusing on knowledge exchange – have continued to push the boundaries of academic dissemination. One of our highest aims is to bring academia online, and in turn, broaden access to the social sciences. Audio is integral to this process. By giving narrative to the full breadth of academic research, we hope to stretch the understanding and impact of research beyond the confines of universities. You can find all four of our podcasts series across these online platforms: LSE’s podcast channelSoundcloud, iTunes and iTunes U. 

    Not only is the diversification of online output important for us, but the quality of output is integral to what we do. We want to challenge the idea that an academic podcast is merely a speaker at a microphone. We experiment with different podcasts formats and take many lessons from the tried and tested world of radio storytelling. 

    I blog about issues related to sound and how it can be used to enhance social science dissemination. You can read my Simple Guide to Academic Podcast series, for practical and technical advice on how to begin your own project. If you have any audio-related questions, you can also find me at c.k.brumley@lse.ac.uk and on Twitter @cherylbrumley


    My initial scepticism when confronted by Cheryl’s attention to detail (and the weird fear provoked in me by using microphones and headphones when interviewing) pretty quickly subsided once I heard how good podcasts sound when someone who knows what they’re doing works on them properly. Here are the podcasts I did with Cheryl when I was managing the LSE Politics Blog:

    1. 2 January 2013: A conversation with Tim Newburn: Combining journalism with academia: How to read a riot
    2. LSE British Politicast Episode 1: Reflecting On The Riots
    3. The ‘jobs for generals’ scandal highlighted important issues about UK defence procurement

    I’m unlikely to produce anything quite this good on my own (I lack the skill, time and motivation) but I definitely want to start a podcast series which is much closer to this than the stuff I’ve done previously. I own the domain http://www.outflankingplatitudes.com which at present simply hosts a Rebel Mouse site. I’m not sure how to integrate the podcasts into the Rebelmouse page or if starting the former would mean abandoning the latter. But an idea is definitely taking shape in my mind about how the podcasts themselves could work.

    I’d particularly like to do more social theory podcasts – these are probably the ones I’ve enjoyed most from the individual interviews that I’ve done but they’ve always been limited by being with one person on one topic. Instead I could choose a particular theme (e.g. relational sociology) and interview people who take contrasting approaches to it. I suppose it would also be possible to gradually incorporate some of the existing interviews that I’ve done (there’s about 60 or so) into thematic episodes. I definitely intend to use Soundcloud in future, as the habit I fell into of just uploading the MP3s to WordPress is quite limiting. Not least of all because it’s not possible to get stats on how many people actually listen to the podcasts.

  • Mark 10:39 pm on August 29, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , goal streaks, , , , , self-organisation,   

    Not scheduling my academic life at all – reply to @raulpacheco 

    I really enjoyed Raul Pacheco-Vega’s post yesterday on how he schedules his work life ‘to the very minute’ so I thought I’d offer my own reflections. I’m intellectually fascinated by how people organise their everyday lives for both personal and academic reasons. I used to have massive difficulties with procrastination and focus. I still do really but in a different way. It’s hard to convey how much I identified with Raul’s description of his experience: “I learned early in my life that I had a really broad range of interests, and that if I didn’t rein in my own impulses, I would be scattered and disorientated before long”. He seems to have learned this a lot earlier than I did though.

    I rely on two pieces of software: Goal Streaks on my iPad and OmniFocus on my iPad, iPhone, desktop and laptop. The former keeps track of things that are important to me but not urgent (stuff like going to the gym, blogging, meditating etc) which otherwise get squeezed out by the exigencies and distractions of everyday life. It’s based on the so-called ‘Seinfeld Method’ of instilling habits by marking the daily completion of associated tasks on a calendar by crossing out that day. Thus you measure ‘streaks’ and compete with yourself to surpass your ‘best streak’. The psychological assumption underlying this is that you’re much less likely to avoid the task in question (“I don’t want to go the gym today, I’m tired and it’s raining outside” or “I don’t want to write 1000 words today, I’m travelling for four hours and the seats on London Midland trains are really uncomfortable to type in”) if you have a visual representation of your past completion of the task for X number of days. I have no idea if this is universally true but it certainly works for me. Habits you seek to form are what Charles Taylor would call second-order desires i.e. “I want to want to go to the gym”. Goal Streaks gives added weight to the second-order desire by visually embedding it in a representation of progress over time. In doing so it avoids the familiar (akratic) situation of the first-order and second-order desire being in direct conflict e.g. I don’t want to go to the gym but I want to to want to go to the gym.

    OmniFocus has the steepest learning curve of any software I’ve ever used. It took me well over a year to learn to use it properly but I now couldn’t imagine living without it. It’s based around the principles of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system which in essence amount to: (1) write everything down (2) regularly process what you’re written down (3) either discard what you’ve written down, file it for future reference or turn it into an actionable task. The software allows any idea to be immediately captured wherever you are. I find this is often on my phone and, given my continued inability to type accurately on an iPhone, it’s usually in garbled short hand. The point is to distinguish having the idea from evaluating it and working out how to put it into practice. It’s easy to distinguish these as cognitive tasks but, in practice, they often run together – OmniFocus allows you to file fringe thoughts (as C Wright Mills might say) and stray ideas in a reliable inbox, accessible from anywhere, which can be revisited later to evaluate the ideas and draw out their practical implications. It can sound very sterile when written about in the abstract but my experience of the process is one which can facilitate an intensely creative orientation towards ideas. In an important sense GTD is what I’d call a ‘reflexive technology’ (i.e. an ideational construct which serves to augment our capacity for reflexive deliberation) and OmniFocus is the technical means through which this is accomplished on a practical day-to-day level. I used to do much the same thing with a notebook but it was pretty messy and ineffective compared to using OmniFocus.

    My point is not to sing the praises of OmniFocus and GTD (though I do like doing that with both) but rather to try and illustrate how I seem to have an equal but opposite approach to Raul. I’ve tried scheduling everything down to the minute in the way he does and it just doesn’t work for me – I rapidly become preoccupied by whether or not I’m doing the thing I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing at a given moment (usually I’m not) and the constructed order soon starts tumbling down around me. What I love about OF + GTD is the flexibility it affords – it incorporates a similar degree of organisation but it decomposes the rigidity of a intricately planned schedule into concrete tasks. So for each day OF produces a to do list based on the tasks, projects and start/end dates I’ve entered into the software (building from the inbox where the ideas go). Some tasks are recurring (e.g. updating the various websites and twitter feeds I manage), some are one off but many are sequential aspects of an overarching project §. The software lets you plan a project in terms of detailed step-by-step tasks and then only shows you one task at a time. The database might contain thousands of discrete tasks but it only shows you a small number at any given time – I rarely have more than 6 or 7 items on my to do list for a given day. What makes the software so hard to get to grips with is the challenge of making sure the small number of tasks it shows you at a given moment in time are the right tasks. The software simply offers tools for registering, organising and representing what you want and might want to do. It doesn’t answer the attendant questions for you but it does force you to think them through in a way which you are otherwise unlikely do.

    • Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD 12:28 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      Dear Mark,

      I am glad that you have something that works for you. I am also fascinated with academics’ workflows. I will fully admit that scheduling my life to the very minute is something that I did since I was a child. My Dad was a child of a military physician so I learned to live a very regimented (and integrated) life.

      I will have to check OmniFocus 🙂

      Thanks for the linkage and the great post!

    • Michelle Kelly-Irving 7:38 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      I had no idea about these new ways of organising the lives of hyperactive people! Thanks for the tips…

    • Tracey Yeadon-Lee (@theterriergirl) 10:05 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      Some good tips here – I use notes on my iphone a lot but I agree it gets messy after a while.I’ll try this software, thanks 🙂

    • Mark 10:28 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      It’s worth persisting with even if it’s tricky to get the hang of initially!

    • Mark 10:30 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      Oh that’s interesting – intriguing to think of biographical reasons for workflow preferences. Yep I think OmniFocus could work for you even with a different system – it can be integrated with iCal in extremely clever ways!

  • Mark 10:19 pm on August 28, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    “For the women of the world, kill terrorists” 

    They love their children less than we do so they are less than equal
    They abuse women so we kill them cos they are bloody villains
    That’s right, we are the feminists
    For the women of the world, kill terrorists
    Liberate them from their burqas
    They feel more free with their children murdered

  • Mark 5:40 pm on August 28, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    Austerity Chic and Class Politics 

    The revival of austerity regalia is linked to another revival: that of the idea of empire. In the same tacky gift shops in which one finds the “Keep Calm and Carry On” dinner plates, one also finds the “British Empire Was Built on Cups of Tea” trays. This melancholic sense of loss is associated with the idea that today’s poor have lost their way. They’re not like the poor in the good old days; they are seen as feral, mindlessly self-indulgent, and stupid. In this purview, virtue can only be restored by a return to traditional families using traditional cooking and traditional husbandry.

    • Richard Seymour


    • Roy Wilson 6:22 pm on August 28, 2013 Permalink

      I wonder what time period is involved. Haven’t the poor always been mainly seen as described? Perhaps the verbalizations have been less critical. In the US, there has always been a strong antipathy for the poor, partially neutralized in the period from 1932 to, say, 1980.

  • Mark 1:08 pm on August 28, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    CfP: Hard Times – Austerity and Popular Culture 

    Although the British Prime Minister David Cameron popularised the renowned axiom ‘the age of  austerity’ in a speech of 2009, political discourse has long given shape to popular rhetoric on  the subject. The sentiments of ‘make do and mend’ and ‘boom and bust’ offers two such  examples that have filtered into popular and national conscious. Indeed, there have been  memorable occasions when political parties have sought to appropriate the vehicle of popular  culture to articulate their agendas; who can forget Tony Blair’s use of the D:Ream dance  anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ as part of the Labour Party’s Manifesto in the 1996
    General Election, for example?

    However, political idiom is not the sole medium to express the effects of austerity, recession  and the global economic crisis in contemporary society. From Jarvis Cocker’s glamorisation of  the sexual tension between the ‘haves’ and have nots’ in Pulp’s ‘Common People’, to Morrissey’s cynical yet dulcet tones espousing what today’s Government might describe as  the scourge of benefit culture in The Smith’s ‘Still Ill’, popular culture has sought continually  to explore and engage with the social and cultural manifestations of recession and austerity. John Self, the protagonist of Martin Amis’s Money learned hard lessons about ‘maxed out’  credit cards in the Thatcherite Yuppie culture of the 1980s, but the summer of 2013 will see  Kirstie Allsopp share her austerity-inspired know-how with prime-time audiences in the  Channel 4 television series Fill Your House For Free.

    Our edited book collection, Hard Times: Austerity and Popular Culture seeks to map the diverse ways in which austerity is—and has been—reflected in and by popular culture. We  solicit submissions on any aspect of austerity in popular culture that can offer new and innovative insights into its representation and ideologies.
    In what ways have literature, film and television, and music (amongst other cultural modes) given expression to austerity? How are its effects conveyed? What commentaries does popular culture offer on, about or towards the age of austerity? How has the expression of austerity in  popular culture changed over time, and what lessons about representations of austerity in  popular culture from the past can be learnt in the present? Can popular culture have a  significant influence in shifting our attitudes towards political discourses of austerity? In soliciting submissions from across the arts and humanities, the editors welcome submissions
    that could consider the following themes:

    • Representing recession
    • Credit and spending culture
    • Boom and bust – individual and cultural
    • The Gendering of austerity
    • Thrift chic
    • Self-sufficiency vs. spending cuts
    • The austere family
    • Race, disability, and/or class and austerity
    • Benefits culture(s)
    • Nostalgia and austerity
    • Representing contemporary austerity through the past
    • Unemployment and/or poverty
    • Youth and austerity
    • Revolution, revolt and protest  against austere times

    Please submit abstracts of 600 words and a short biographical note to both editors, Dr Helen Davies  (Helen.Davies@tees.ac.uk) and Dr Claire O’Callaghan (cfo3@le.ac.uk) by 31st January 2014. If  accepted, completed chapters of 6000 words will be expected by 1st September 2014. A proposal  will be submitted to I.B. Tauris from whom we have a received an expression of interest.

  • Mark 7:44 am on August 28, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , secularism, ,   

    Normativity, Social Science and Secularism: Reply to @rightscholar 

    (see here for context)

    Thanks for the thoughtful response and apologies for what seems to have been a slightly shrill note to my comments in retrospect. I wasn’t consciously commenting with a sociological hat on (so to speak) but I take the point nonetheless – the implication of MacIntyre’s work for sociology is, I would argue at least, an attentiveness to the normative dimension of everyday life, as opposed to the material and/or the meanings. That is the sense in which things matter to individuals in an non-reductive way, as well as the cultural and structural properties of the world (things like dominant conceptions of social science, esoteric political philosophy, online publishing platforms and organisations which employ people with particular views) which constitute the environment within which moral subjects find themselves and are faced with the challenge of making sense of circumstances they did not choose but are nonetheless capable of making choices within. It’s in this sense that i think i did slip into talking sociologically when I accused you of simplifying a complex amalgamation of circumstances. So I guess I was saying two things really and i stand by both of them:

    1. I was questioning the empirical basis for your claims in a straight forward lay sense. I just don’t think what you’re saying is true. You slip into making empirical claims in your second to last paragraph and I think they’re straight forwardly inaccurate on an empirical level – if you look at sociology, economics, political science, geography and anthropology in an anglo-american context the degree of truth or falsity is different. Foucault’s work (and that of his adherents) doesn’t represent a ‘radical deviation’ from the norm – he’s been cited almost 400,000 times.  He’s practically institutionalised in some parts of the academy. The Foucauldian whose work I’m most familiar with, Nik Rose, has been cited over 30,000 times and is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the most highly cited British sociologists currently writing. What you believe to be the dominant conception of the social sciences does not, as far as I’m aware, exist outside of political science, economics and certain aspects of US sociology: in each case it is something very different despite the superficial commonality. There’s simply too much heterogeneity for the Straussian analysis to look like anything other than an (extremely interesting) anachronism orientated towards a post-war confluence of circumstances which hasn’t existed in the US for decades.
    2. Which brings me to the sociological point about simplification. To be frank I think you have a much stronger case when talking about the cultural politics of academia than you do when invoking the “implied politics of much of the research being conducted”. I also assumed this was what you were talking about in the first place i.e. the “why are professors liberal?” paradigm. My objection to what I took you to be arguing and the basis of my ‘narcissism’ comment was the sense in which it might be that they seem left-wing to you because of your own oppositional orientation to them i.e. they seem homogenous because of your own intense experience of heterogeneity within the academy. My frustration with what I took to be your simplification stemmed from the degree to which, as someone happily on the non-aligned far left for much of my life, it’s obvious to me that there’s a whole range of views which often get subsumed under the portmanteau term ‘leftism’. I realise now this wasn’t what you were actually arguing but I thought it would be helpful to explain where I was coming from. The other aspect to my frustration, which certainly is relevant, stems from what seems (to me at least) to be areas of near hegemonic social attitudes within the academy[*] concerning things like religion and secularism – spoken as a life long atheist whose most significant intellectual influences have nonetheless all been catholic philosophers. I’m sure there are others which I don’t notice, probably because I unthinkingly reproduce them. I would have assumed, looking at this from a sociological perspective, that these were the sorts of cultural tendencies which had provoked your ire. So when I accused you of simplification, it was on the (mistaken?) assumption that you were, in part at least, reacting to convergences of viewpoint which I accept exist but nonetheless over generalising from the existence to posit an ‘open conspiracy’ –  which I do accept as a possibility, in the sense of networks operating towards certain shared purposes without explicit organisation, but not in the sense you’re advocating, which suggested an unwillingness to accept the reasoned disagreement of others.

    *It occurs when writing a statement like “within the academy” that I’m speaking generally and experientially, without any empirical basis that I can easily point to for substantiation, in precisely the way I was criticising you for doing. I remain entirely open to being persuaded otherwise though and the truncated empiricism I’d endorse is one which sees empirical data as adjudicating rather than prohibiting propositions which are not immediately substantiated.

  • Mark 1:01 pm on August 27, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    17 reasons why you should blog about your research 

    1. It helps you become more clear about your ideas.
    2. It gives you practice at presenting your ideas for a non-specialist audience.
    3. It increases your visibility within academia.
    4. It increases your visibility outside academia and makes it much easier for journalists, campaigners and practitioners to find you.
    5. It increases your visibility more than a static site and allows people who find you to get an overall sense of your academic interests.
    6. It’s a great way of making connections & finding potential collaborators.
    7. It can provide an archive of your thoughts, ideas and reactions which can later be incorporated into more formal work.
    8. It makes it easier for people to find your published work and increases the likelihood they will and cite it.
    9. Its informality and immediate accessibility can help make writing part of your everyday life rather than being a source of stress and anxiety.
    10. Its a great way to promote events and call for papers. Particularly if you blog regularly and your blog is connected to Twitter.
    11. It helps ensure you can continue to develop strands of thought which, for now, don’t have any practical implications but might at some point in the future.
    12. It encourages you to reflexively interrogate and organise your work, drawing out emergent themes and placing isolated snippets of commentary into shared categories.
    13. It allows you to procrastinate for a further 10 to 20 minutes before going back to NVivo in a useful(ish) way.
    14. It helps you build a community around your ideas and interests – Kath McNiff
    15. It allows you to start a conversation that other researchers can join using comments – Kath McNiff
    16. It’s a tremendous way to access additional relevant information/sources through the connections you make – @drdjwalker
    17. It can also be a great way to increase your sample size by crowd sourcing contributions and through public scrutiny help prepare you for the peer review process when the time comes to publish your work – @drdjwalker

    Any suggestions for more reasons? Put them in the comments box and I’ll add them to the list & note who they came from. If you’re on Twitter please include your twitter handle.

    There’s a more up to date version of this post online here –> http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/13910

    • Todd Schoepflin 1:14 pm on August 27, 2013 Permalink

      Good list, Mark! I think #9 might be my favorite, such a good point. Glad you put this list together.

    • unsolicitedtidbits 4:23 pm on August 27, 2013 Permalink

      This is a great list. I completely agree. I think #1, #2, and #7 are spot on!

    • Beyondgraduation 6:10 pm on August 27, 2013 Permalink

      Great list!! I was just about to write a blog post about this very subject so if you don;t mind I’ll include a link to your post. One of the reasons that overlap into what you have already put for reasons 3 and 4 is that it allows your whole thesis as bitesize chunks. I am thinking of doing exactly that once I have completed my writing up stage (I am sending over a complete draft at the end of this week).. Teresa

    • Klara 6:32 pm on August 27, 2013 Permalink

      Thanks for this list, sounds convincing, maybe I really should start doing this.

      I’m not blogging about my research currently, because somehow my field doesn’t seem ready for it. I’m afraid I will get too many negative reactions, as I’m getting already because of Twitter & Facebook… Mostly comments about wasting time, no use etc. But yeah, maybe I should just try to start making a change…

    • Kath McNiff 11:51 pm on August 27, 2013 Permalink

      Love this list. I would add “Helps you build a community around your ideas and interests” or “It allows you to start a conversation that other researchers can join using comments”.

    • Mark 8:13 am on August 28, 2013 Permalink

      Klara – yes definitely. If that’s likely to be a recurring problem in your field then a blog could allow you to make contact with those who are ready (there may be more than you think!) and perhaps influence some of those who are not 🙂

    • Mark 8:13 am on August 28, 2013 Permalink

      thanks kath – added to the list!

    • Mark 8:13 am on August 28, 2013 Permalink

      Could this eventually become 100 reasons….?

    • David Walker 9:17 am on August 28, 2013 Permalink

      Great list Mark. It’s a tremendous way to access additional relevant information/sources through the connections you make. It can also be a great way to increase your sample size by crowd sourcing contributions and through public scrutiny help prepare you for the peer review process when the time comes to publish your work. @drdjwalker

    • Michelle Kelly-Irving 1:29 pm on August 28, 2013 Permalink

      Thanks for this post – it is further encouragement for me to continue on this new blogging venture. I wrote a post including a 5 point list on why I think blogging is a good idea for researchers – hope it turns out to be true!

    • Christina Hendricks 5:52 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      Great list! here’s one that’s worked for me. If you record in your blog your thoughts on articles others have written, this can provide a record of who said what in which article, which can be useful for those “wait, who was it that said that, and where?”moments. And it can be a useful starting point for writing a lit review and response for a later article of yours! @clhendricksbc

    • danjwoolley7 8:47 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      This is a great list and has lead me to start blogging about my research again *Watch this space.* Point 1 is exactly why I think blogging one’s research is so important. Formalising your arguments at an early stage and having them on show for criticism forces you to be sharp and on point. Great post

    • Tracey Yeadon-Lee (@theterriergirl) 12:08 pm on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      This is a great list, thanks. I particularly liked points 7, 9 and 14. I’ve tended to put stuff in my iphone notes and Onenote, but could do this instead!

    • Heather Mendick 6:07 pm on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      Thanks for doing this Mark…
      A couple mpre:
      – It allows you to publish ideas immediately without waiting two years while things go through peer review and more peer review and wait in a publishing queue
      – It’s fun

    • alexanderjluscombe (@ajlusc) 11:09 pm on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      It’s a faster way to get your research findings out. Journal/book publishing and the peer-review/editing process can take FOREVER.

      Because C Wright Mills would have probably been a blogger. If not, he would at the very least have been a fan.

    • Jim Turner (ljmu) 7:53 am on September 2, 2013 Permalink

      great list – but it depends what you research involves. I wouldn’t want PHD students getting trolled because of a particular aspect of their research process or emmerging findings. We need to think about how we prepare students to discuss research ‘openly’, how would an institution support a student in this position.

    • Mark 8:18 am on September 2, 2013 Permalink

      completely take your point but given how grossly inadequate this preparation is in pretty much every university in the country, is there a risk this caution could amount to simply curtailing the activity of PhD students ‘in their own bests interests’? i’m sceptical that most graduate schools, academic departments or phd supervisors are in position to gauge those interests in a rapidly changing environment.

    • Mark 8:20 am on September 2, 2013 Permalink

      but yes i basically agree, just sounding a note of caution.

      “how would an institution support a student in this position”

      i don’t think it’s construed outside in these terms but the LSE blogs certainly serve this function. with sufficient investment in infrastructure, it offers a safe and effective way for PhD students to begin engaging online – the editors work to develop posts, help edit them, promote them and the whole thing has the safety of a corporate brand.

    • Lucy Bodenham 4:33 pm on November 21, 2013 Permalink

      No need to study in isolation if you are a distance learning student, blogging is one way to network, share ideas and your studies with fellow students around the world.

  • Mark 11:56 am on August 27, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    The strange passions of ex-leftists 

    There is a breed of ex-leftists who can’t stand the left more than anyone. They have the zealousness of the convert and the bitterness of ex-lovers. Cohen is one; another is Bloodworth, who he describes as a “genuine leftist rather than a poseur”, who has gone from being a member of the Trotskyist Alliance of Workers Liberty to writing pieces attacking “the left” as though it’s a homogenous bloc, and in support of grammar schools, privatisation and anti-immigration rhetoric in less than a year. Along with the likes of Dan Hodges, they delight the right, because they apparently confirm all the worst things they say about the left – but with more credibility because it’s “the left” saying it about their own.

    • Owen Jones


  • Mark 9:36 am on August 27, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    EduWiki Conference 2013 – Call for proposals 

    EduWiki Conference 2013 – Call for proposals

    Wikimedia UK’s second annual EduWiki conference will take place in Cardiff on 1 and 2 November 2013.

    A recent white paper from TurnItIn, the online plagiarism-prevention service used widely across higher education in the UK, claims that “Wikipedia has an outsized presence as a content source for student writing”. [1] This study is based on an analysis of over 112 million content matches from 28 million student papers submitted to TurnItIn between July 2011 and June 2012. 11% of these content matches are from Wikipedia.  However, the same report is quick to explain that Wikipedia has academic merit in terms of educational value. TurnItIn’s recommendation is to “educate students that the true value of Wikipedia is to provide a curated summary on a topic, and that they should follow the sources and citations at the bottom of Wikipedia entries to verify the accuracy of the information and to uncover primary source material” [2].

    Wikmedia UK is now inviting proposals for papers, presentation, provocations and/or posters, especially ones addressing the Wikipedia problem highlighted by the TurnItIn white paper. Proposal for panels and roundtable discussions from groups of three or four participants are also welcome.

    Indicative topics include, but are not limited to:

    • Wikipedia belongs in Education, including Higher Education
    • Wikipedia’s academic merit and educational value
    • Examples of using Wikipedia in the high school, college or university classroom
    • Ways to deter university students from plagiarizing Wikipedia
    • Going beyond Wikipedia by engaging with any of the other major Wikimedia projects: Wikibooks, Wikispecies, Wikiquote, Wikinews, Wikisource, Wikiversity, Wikidata, and Wikimedia Commons, among others.

    Email your proposal (including an abstract of up to 200 words) toeducation@wikimedia.org.uk by Monday 26 August 2013. All proposals should also include a brief bio (around 50 words).

    Queries about the conference or any other aspect of Wikimedia UK’s Education activities can be sent directly to WMUK’s Education Organiser toni.sant@wikimedia.org.uk

    [1] TurnItIn White Paper. ‘The Sources in Student Writing – Higher Education’, p.10
    [2] ibid. p.11

  • Mark 9:34 am on August 27, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    Being Human and Transvaluation (part 1) 

    In the previous few posts on Being Human, part of a broader project to blog thematic overviews of all Margaret Archer’s major books, I’ve been looking at her account of the emotions. This is absolutely integral to her understanding of reflexivity, it’s covered in less depth in the reflexivity books and, unless it’s understood, it’s easy to get the impression that she has a rationalistic view of human agency. Whereas in actuality she has a rather subtle understanding of deliberation as being underwritten by (and also responding to) a complex  structure of affectivity which arises from the emergent relations between our own constitution (bodily, cognitively, socially) and the constitution of the world (natural, practical and social). The previous posts have looked at her understanding of emotions as commentaries on human concerns, the different forms of affectivity and their embedding within everyday life. In this post I’ll discuss the notion of transvaluation and Archer’s account of personal identity as arising through the reflexive transmutation of first-order emotionality into second-order emotionality.

    So far, three clusters of emotions have been discussed as emergent commentaries, relating to our physical well-being, performative achievement and self-worth in the natural, practical and discursive orders respectively. Matters do not end there with a series of immutable first-order emotions, ranked as it were, simply by their relative intensity. They do not because of our human powers of reflexivity; our capacity to reflect upon our emotionality itself, to transform it and consequentially to re-order priorities without our emotional sets. That there is some second-ordering process involved commands broad agreement. (Archer 2000: 222)

    As is often the case with her style of argument, Archer chooses two contrasting perspectives on an underlying question which she critiques and uses to develop her own account. The first view is one which sees second-order emotionality “as a matter of cognitive reflection in which reason is brought to bear upon the beliefs underpinning first-order emotions, whose revision then leads to emotional re-direction (second-order)” (Archer 2000: 222). On this account reason is the arbiter of emotion, reflecting on our first-order reactions and ‘weeding out’ those which have insufficient basis to justify survival into the second-order. The second view is one of evaluative reflection in which the “subject asks, if emotions are affective commentaries upon our situations, which of these have the greatest import for our greatest concerns?”. Instead of “trying to rationalise our first-order emotions, we evaluate them as guides to the life we wish to lead, and thus end up embracing some and subordinating others” in a process which is not the “rational optimisation in which the desired life is selected according to reason and then emotions are assessed for their goodness of fit” but rather one in which “pathos and logos work hand in hand at the second-order level” (Archer 2000: 233). The second view is that adopted by Charles Taylor and, by way of a sympathetic critique, Archer adopts his terminology of ‘transvaluation’ while nonetheless distancing her own account from his:

    There is much that can usefully be gleaned from Taylor’s discussion of transvaluation per se to contribute towards an account of the emergence of second-order emotionality. (This is particularly the cause because transvaluation paradoxically dwells upon our emotional fallibility rather than upon the intuitive acuity of emotions.) Tranvaluation entails progressive articulations of our first-order emotions,. To begin with many initial feelings may remain fairly inarticulate, such as a diffuse feeling of guilt about our relations with an elderly parent. In such cases we may seek further understanding, by interrogation of self and of circumstances, and through this the feeling may be transformed one way or another. It might dissipate upon further inspection; it may intensify as we appreciate the significance of neglect; or it could diminish if we find that to do more would be to the detriment of other duties: ‘hence we can see that our feelings incorporate a certain articulation of our situation, that is, they presuppose that we characterise our situation in certain terms. But at the same time they admit of – and very often we feel that they call for – further articulation, the elaboration of finer terms permitting more penetrating characterisation. And this further articulation can in turn transform the feeling.‘ (Archer 2000: 226) [italics are Archer quoting Taylor’s Human Agency and Language pp. 63-4).

    What I find so compelling about this view is its nuanced relationship to language. On this account “the movement from first-order to second-order emotionality entails a shift from the inarticulate to the articulate, from the less adequate to the more adequate characterisation and from initial evaluation to transvaluation” (Archer 2000: 227). It’s something I’ve used to make sense of the experience of people who identify as asexual who, prior to coming to encounter the notion of asexuality, are struggling to articulate something about themselves and finding that the articulatory repertoires currently available to them are entirely inadequate. It’s this sense of what someone is trying to say which is, I think, a profound aspect of the human condition. Both because of its ineffable core of first-person experience (that exceeds what we are able to say to ourselves in inner speech, let alone to external others through external speech) but also because the attempt itself frequently changes us: 

    The very act of offering oneself a second-order articulation serves to ‘open up the question whether this characterisation is adequate, whether it is not incomplete or distortive. And so from the very fact of their being articulate, the question cannot but arise whether we have properly articulated our feelings, that is whether we have properly explicated what the feeling gives us a sense of.’ Second-order revision can thus be indefinitely elaborated as we analyse further our understanding of imports and discard previous interpretations, both of which are transformative movements in this process. From feeling rejected by our teenage children’s obvious preference for the company of their peers, we can reflect upon the restrictiveness of our own dependence and then take pleasure in their new independence, new things to talk about and new social skills. (Archer 2000: 227)

    For those familiar with the notion of a morphogenetic sequence: first-order emotionality is the T1, internal conversation is the T2-T3 and second-order emotionality is the T4. These cycles are seen to be a continual and overlapping feature of our embodied human being-in-the-world but ones which can, nonetheless, be analysed through isolation their prior conditions, interaction and ensuing elaboration. It’s just that unlike the other morphogenetic sequences Archer has been concerned with, these are intra-personal (with the partial exception of communicative reflexivity).  In part 2 of this post I’ll explore the intra-personal interaction in more detail and then move onto transvaluation (in a substantive sense) and Archer’s account of personal identity.

  • Mark 9:31 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    The books I’m currently reading (#1) 

    It occurred to me recently how much I like the ‘books received’ feature on Stuart Elden’s blog and that I might like to do something similar. Unfortunately he seems to get lots of books sent to him, whereas I get comparatively few.  In retrospect I really didn’t take advantage of working in the same office as the LSE Review of Books for six months. So instead I’m planning to do a short post once a month or so about the books I’m currently reading

    I’ve been ‘currently reading’ The Constitution of Society and Modernity and Self-Identity for a couple of months now. The first chapter of my PhD thesis is an extended critique of Giddens and the latent structurationism which lurk beneath the surface of his late modernity books. In essence I argue that he ties himself in knots partly because the deficiencies of structurationist theory become much more pronounced when an attempt is made to conceptualise reflexive responses to social change – too much of agency is incorporated into structure and it leaves Giddens vacillating wildly between depth psychology and a view of subjectivity (at ‘fateful moments’) which comes weirdly close to rational choice theory in its view of risk calculation and life-planning. I’ve read Modernity and Self-Identity twice before and I’ve engaged quite a lot with the Constitution of Society but had never read it cover to cover. Having become rather infuriated with Will Atkinson’s facile and lazy reading of Margaret Archer in his last book I suddenly found myself wondering if I might have inadvertently done the same thing with Giddens. I’m fairly confident I haven’t but still feel I must finish the two books before I submit my thesis. Plus perhaps finish off Central Problems in Social Theory which I was actually quite enjoying but keep giving up on simply because it’s simultaneously much less relevant and much more difficult a read.

    I’m reading The Formation of Critical Realism out of sheer curiosity about Roy Bhaskar as a person.  It’s a book of interviews conducted by Mervyn Hertwig (editor of the Journal for Critical Realism) and it’s definitely worth looking at for anyone interested in critical realism. I’m finding it hard not to draw connections between the ‘spiritual turn’, ageing and his theosophist parents but whatever you think about his later work (I am, putting it mildly, sceptical) it’s hard to deny his stature as a thinker if you’ve engaged even marginally with his work. He’s also one of those writers who seems to have become progressively less lucid over time so this book can provide an accessible introduction to his ideas, given that he’s able to speak about them with a refreshing clarity. There’s much more to dialectical critical realism than I’d realised but also, I’m finding it difficult to avoid concluding, much less to the spiritual turn (written as somehow who was far from complementary at the outset).

    Using Social Media in the Classroom is a book I’m reading as a spur to a proposal I’m currently in the process of putting together. It’s very good! But I don’t feel able to explain how and why I think this is the case without inadvertently talking about my planned book.

    Approaches to the Individual is an extremely interesting book written by a former PhD student of Margaret Archer which explores the interface between internal conversation and external speech. It’s framed in terms of ‘approaches to the individual’ within sociological theory but I’ve seen much less of this in any substantive sense than I expected given the book’s title. I disagree with large aspects of her approach (Tom Brock and I are in the process of writing a paper critiquing its application to the empirical analysis of political resistance) but it’s certainly worth reading for anyone with an interest in internal conversation. I’ve found the sections on Goffman particularly illuminating and they point to an aspect of his work which I had no idea existed.

    Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is the book attached to the current Tate exhibition. I was bought it as a birthday present but I’m going to avoid reading it until I go to the Tate show next week. I saw the exhibition of unseen work at the Lowry Centre in Manchester last week and I can’t wait for the Tate. I’ve got some other stuff on Lowry which I’ve yet to fully read (including a really fascinating biography). I’ve had the idea rattling around in my head for ages that it’s possible to identify a sophisticated sociological sensibility incipient within Lowry’s work which (usefully) seems to be periodised – thus allowing its emergence in his work to be framed by his biography (and its historical context). After I’ve been to the Tate I’m going to start trying to write this up as a paper or perhaps a series of blog posts if I don’t think there’s enough to the idea once I started trying to develop it.

    Militant Modernism is the Zero Book I was astonished to realise recently that I’ve had on my shelf for years and haven’t read. I love Owen Hatherley – I’ve read his other books, much of what he’s written online and I’m bemused that it’s taken me this long to get round to reading his first book. He’s transformed my experience of the built environment, helped me articulate what had felt like a weird and irrational fascination with brutalist architecture which emerged while I lived near the Brunswick Centre (before they ruined it) and has amongst my favourite prose styles of any living writer. The other person who’s transformed my experience of the built environment is David Harvey whose Rebel Cities is, unsurprisingly, fantastic. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him discuss the contents of the first two chapters on a number of occasions but it doesn’t really bother me. Typically lucid, insightful and provocative – casually and softly polemic in the most enticing way possible, with an unerring capacity to make radical judgements sound like common sense reactions to the social world.

    • John Green 9:48 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      More like this please! 🙂

      I’ve been dipping my toe into CR for years. When I first started reading Radical Philosophy in the early 80s it seemed to be all about Bhaskar and I was stumped by much of the terminology. I found the Andrew Collier introductory text too daunting, but Formation of Critical Realism helped me get a handle on it even if there isn’t a great deal of theory. The spiritual turn comes as a bit of a let-down, obviously, and one can’t help but think there was a bit of wishful thinking behind it, but the book does help narrow down for neophytes the arguments that are worth taking seriously.

      Giddens’s Modernity and self-Identity keeps staring me out from the bookshelf in my living room. I’ve flicked through it a few times but always felt the need to read around it first. May now drum up the courage to attempt it given you’e already managed it twice and aren’t dissuaded from a third go.

      Thanks for this blog post. As an enthusiastic layperson, I find such advice invaluable.

    • Mark 11:03 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      It was fun to write! Will definitely do this again – I’m really sceptical about the Spiritual turn. I used to read a lot of Krishnamurti when I was younger and Bhaskar seems to be essentially regurgitating K’s ideas (there’s an indirect family connection which is interesting) in the language of a not particularly clear philosopher.

      Do read M&SI – it’s a very flawed but very interesting book!

  • Mark 4:36 pm on August 25, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    What’s the point of ontology? Outline of an approach to the sociology of social theory 

    Ontology itself, or what we might more accurately describe as the practice of ontological reasoning within sociology, remains contested. As Wan (2012: 20) observes “the (mostly legitimate) distrust in ontology has led researchers to abstain from ontological commitments and interrogations”. The degree of convergence which does exist in the conceptual vocabulary of sociology (‘structures’, ‘institutions’, ‘networks’, ‘agents’ can partially obscure the sheer extent of the substantive disagreement exhibited in how these terms are conceptualised. As Tsilipakos (2012) adroitly observes in a scathing critique of ontological reasoning, it is a mistake to infer a uniform referential use from a concept without looking at what is being said with them. This is something which should be borne in mind when following Elder-Vass’s otherwise persuasive line of argument about the importance of social ontology. Identifying a pervasive resistance to understanding social structure as the causal powers of social entities he writes,

    seems to me perverse, particularly amongst realists. When we discuss non-social causal powers we refer to the entities that possess them—we would not discuss physics without attributing the causal powers concerned particular particles, or chemistry without molecules, or biochemistry without cells or psychology without people. Why, then, is it assumed that we can discuss “social structure” as a genus of causal powers while ignoring the entities that such talk implicitly depends upon?” (Elder-Vass 2007: 4)

    The point cannot be stressed enough that social researchers do not ‘ignore’ the entities invoked in their explanations using terms like ‘structure’. Recognising that research and ontology cannot be decoupled, such that we cannot study X without implicitly and explicitly committing ourselves to at least some understanding of X’s composition, does not necessitate any particular substantive implications as to how the social ontology expressly affirmed by specific researchers serves to constrain and enable the practice of research. We can accept that “all scientific research has to proceed by dint of some ontological hypotheses” and that “ontology can both facilitate and hinder interesting research questions and designs” (Wan 2012: 22) while equally resisting a view of sociological practice which construes ontological reasoning as underwriting or founding the epistemic viability of its substantive outputs. For instance if successful empirical research was anything other than weakly dependent on ontological reasoning as a practice, it stands to reason that the profound confusion Elder-Vass (2007, 2008, 2010) correctly identifies in invocations of ‘structure’ as a concept would have precluded any meaningful sociological enterprise. Practitioners know what they are talking about when they use terms, even if those terms are simultaneously characterised by a referential inadequacy, the amelioration of which might contribute to the success of their practice. In his defence, he seems to at least tacitly recognise this point,

    Any empirical fact that the emergentist interprets as evidence of causal power of a social entity can be re-interpreted by the individualist as evidence of the causal power of the particular individuals involved in the events concerned. Thus, for example, when the emergentist say that a bank has the causal power to make a loan to a person, the individualist can respond that it is really the individuals that make up the bank that have this causal power.” (Elder-Vass 2007: 9)

    But this nonetheless raises the question: if social ontology cannot, practically, legislate on interpretation then how should we understand its role? Others take this ‘elasticity’ of ontological concepts, such that any data can be read into them, as evidence of a degree of generality which makes them unsuitable for substantive use in empirical research (Cruickshank 2008: 579). In Elder-Vass’s work there is an over-estimation of the value of social ontology in itself, as opposed to how it can be used and developed by both practitioners and theorists. At times he seems to suppose that without an adequate ontology, social inquiry is impossible. His naturalist impulse, driving his (commendable) desire for ontological specificity in the social sciences to match that of the natural sciences leaves a chasm between what he sees as an “abstract, generalised or meta-physical ontology” (emergentist) and the practical application of this “to the needs of particular disciplines or groups of disciplines in combination with the specific empirical knowledge of those disciplines” in order to generate “domain-specific ontologies” (method for social ontology) (Elder-Vass 2010: 68). He has an overly truncated account of the former and excessively ambitious aims for the latter. Given the lack of anything which mediates between abstract statement of emergentist ontology and formulations of domain specific entities and structures, his more specific proposals, interesting though they are, take on a curiously taxonomic character. In his own words, with emphasis added,

    “We must identify the entities that possess emergent causal powers, the mechanisms responsible for those powers and the parts and the relations between those parts that are characteristic of the type of entity concerned and necessary to the mechanisms underlying its powers” (Elder-Vass 2010: 86)

    Porpora (2007) is understandably uneasy about how ubiquitous emergence becomes when the world is seen in this light. Though this is not a reason, in itself, to reject the emergentist ontology Elder-Vass develops, it does sit uneasily with the intriguingly static picture of the social world which emerges from it. On the one hand emergence is seen as quotidian, such that any individual confronts and co-constitutes all manner of emergent collectivities. On the other hand emergence is understood in terms of “specific types of social entity with identifiable human members and characteristics types of relations between them” (Elder-Vass 2007). Surely the complexity of the former precludes the clarity of the latter? If we take emergence seriously, does this not entail that the social world must be fundamentally messy? The idea that a taxonomic approach to social ontology is both possible and useful, even with the caveat that it should be generated iteratively and that the results are always provisional, conceptually presupposes certain limitations on the quantity of mechanisms we take to be at work in the social world. But if we consistently draw out the consequences both of an emergentist understanding of social structure and the reflexivity of individuals then it becomes difficult to see how the ontology of social entities (with the ‘parts’, including the material, as well as the relations between them producing the distinctive causal powers of emergent wholes) could be treated taxonomically at the level of abstraction at which Elder-Vass wishes to do so: our shared ontological commitments entail a complexity to the social world which cannot, in turn, be legitimately cashed out in an abstract taxonomy of social entities. All the more so when we recall the interweaving of such entities, at the level of both the ‘parts’ and the ‘whole’, within a fundamentally open system (Bhaskar 2008, Elder-Vass 2007b, Elder-Vass 2010). My point is not that a taxonomy of social structure is impossible, far from it, but simply that elaborating it in the way that Elder-Vass attempts to, even when the method for doing so is spelt out explicitly, leaves the resulting work open to the attack of being an overly-regulative ontology.

    While disagreeing with some of the stronger claims made by Kemp (2012) and Holmwood and Kemp (2003) attacking the role of social ontology in regulating empirical research, they nonetheless raise a crucial issue about the relationship between the two within critical realist thought, highlighting what Kemp (2012: 176) identifies as the overlooked “dependency of ontological argument on pre-existing scientific research, both to supply the initial premises for transcendental deduction, and to supply valid theories from which valid ontological claims can be derived”. Cruickshank (2010) makes a similar point. Given this, it becomes necessary to clarify the relationship between social ontology and empirical research within realist social theory. Kemp (2012) recognises the commitment of Archer (1995) to ontology being reciprocally regulated by what is empirically discovered, though suggests this is not enacted in practice within her work and that, furthermore, priority is given to the elaboration of ontological argument and that this is pursued as a separate activity to research. He goes on to claim that even if “there is something ontologically distinctive about the social world, however, this does not entail that abstract philosophical argument can establish what it is prior to empirical research”.  Interestingly though, he conflates this with a somewhat different claim: “the idea that there is something very special about the subject matter of the social sciences leads realists to believe that ontological clarification must lay the groundwork for empirical research” (Kemp 2012: 181). The sense of the first depends on what ‘establish’ is taken to mean. If Kemp is saying that the distinctiveness of the social does not justify the elaboration of incorrigible first principles about the nature of that distinctiveness then he is undoubtedly correct. If, on the other hand, he is saying that no meaningful ontological arguments can be made delineating the dimensions of that distinctiveness then he is on shakier ground. My suspicion is that Kemp intends the former and this makes his claim unproblematic. However he seems to equate this first claim about ontology with a second claim about explanatory methodology. Yet we can accept that ‘abstract philosophical argument’ does not definitively establish what is ‘ontologically distinctive’ about the social while still claiming that what we do take to be the case ontologically about the social (open, emergent, relational, reflexive) entails the practical need for ‘abstract philosophical argument’ about what we are studying and how we should study it i.e. we can accept limitations on what ontological reasoning is taken to establish while still arguing that these are useful conversations to have as a support to empirical research.

    Perhaps Kemp’s objection relates to an imperialistic approach to the ‘what’ rather than a practical approach to the ‘how’? In practice the two should not be disconnected, though frequently they are, because ontological reasoning disconnected from explanatory impulse will always tend towards being sterilely legislative, in the sense of being disconnected from the practical context in which ontological questions are confronted by the practitioner. When “many sociologists ‘prefer’ to remain to observe the ‘ever changing nature of the social’ without being limited by pre-defined set of categories” (Bortolini 2007) it is far from surprising if there is a pervasive scepticism in contemporary sociology towards the relationship of ontological concepts to the research process. The specific arguments made by Kemp and Holmwood concerns the truth claims made through the referential dimension of ontological concepts and how these should both follow from and be subject to the scrutiny of empirical research:

    1. Natural science has frequently involved successful research without the regulation of ontological concepts. Therefore their necessity to social scientific research is questionable.
    2. Ontological concepts can often ‘shut down’ what might be otherwise potent lines of inquiry by foreclosing the substantive questions which researchers address. Even when grounded in past empirically successful theories they must be open to revision on both empirical and theoretical grounds.
    3. Even if we accept that all theories contact some ontological presuppositions, it does not follow that prior examination of these is necessary to empirical research.
    4. Our ontological claims about structures “must be tested by finding situations in which the properties of the structural influence in question are apparent in spontaneously occurring or analytically derived regularities” because otherwise these “are, at best, speculative, and certainly cannot be used to rule out competing possibilities” (Holmwood and Kemp 2003: 18)
    5. “As the key supporting evidence in favour of an ontology is its derivation from an empirical theory that is widely held to be successful, until such theories are generated in social science there is little to be gained from engaging in ontological argument” (Kemp 2012: 182)

    To those who maintain the value of social ontology, this last claim in particular holds out a deeply worrying prospect of methodological strictures tying social inquiry in an inescapable gordian knot. Even if the broader point of this section’s argument is conceded in a minimal form, namely that the specific characteristics of the social as have been provisionally characterised entail social science has a greater need for ontological clarity than the natural sciences, then it is difficult to see how Kemp’s demand could be met: without some underlying agreement on matters of ontology, no matter what form that takes, then it is unlikely that a theory could be “widely held to be successful” in the manner which Kemp takes to be necessary for licensing ontological argument. Such an emergent consensus would presuppose some shared evaluative frame of reference and, it is argued, this cannot emerge with confronting ontological questions. Much as Elder-Vass over-estimates the importance of ontology to research, Holmwood and Kemp systematically underestimate it, as a result of over generalising from specific pathologies which afflict ontological debates. This leaves them with an account of ontological concepts as exhausted by reference, with no account of how ontological concepts are used in spite of whatever referential inadequacy is taken to inhere in them.

    It is not an objection to quantitative methods as such to question how broadly useful Holmwood and Kemp’s (2001) proposal to test structural concepts using statistical methods would be, particularly given their acceptance of the realist claim that, though this is valid, further inquiry is necessary to establish causation (Sayer 1992, Elder-Vass 2010). If we accept Smith’s (2010: 289-290) argument that “variables do not make things happen in the social world” then, as much utility as we may see in the capacity of statistical methods to identify regularities, this unavoidably demands further inquiry into what actual processes are producing the empirical regularity. If we take multiple determination seriously, as Holmwood and Kemp (2001) seem to, this subsequent investigation must proceed on an understanding  that “each of the component micro-social events” underlying the empirically observed regularity is “multiply determined by many intersecting causal powers, including individual agency and indeed biological and psychological causal factors, as well as the powers of social structures” (Elder-Vass 2010: 190). If this is denied then theory is subjugated to variables sociology in a manner which, particularly given the pragmatist concerns which motivate their critique, would leave Holmwood and Kemp (2001) offering us something startlingly reminiscent of positivism at its worst (Holmwood 2011b). A similar difficulty can be seen in Kivinen and Piiroinen’s (2006) anti-foundationalist pragmatism which attacks the ‘metaphysical language game of ontology’ while affirming a ‘problem-centred’ view of social inquiry. It is an appealing vision of social inquiry shifting from intractable theoretical disputes to practical methodological work but it presupposes a unanimity as to how problems and the criteria of their proposed resolution which simply does not exist nor, crucially, could exist without at least some recourse to the discussions of truth independent of inquiry which have been declared verboten.

    Though Holmwood and Kemp (2001, 2012) seem to retain some sympathy to the realist project, as well as being entirely correct that theory should be scrutinised empirically, admitting ontological concepts only when their referential accuracy can be empirically confirmed has profound ramifications which the authors fail to fully unpack. Smith (2010: 213) offers a reformulation of Sayer’s concept of truth as ’practical adequacy’ which is useful for understanding where Homwood and Kemp (2012) have left us, suggesting that, contra Sayer (1992, 2004) “truth is truth not because of practical adequacy, but rather because practical adequacy is one criterion for coming to truth”. The point can be made without invoking realist terminology, as simply a matter of the difference between what a concept refers to and how it is used,

    “There is evidently room in our language and our social life for phrases such as “changing the economic system”, “abolishing capitalism” etc. The reason these phrases can cause trouble is because it is easily forgotten (especially when theorising) that we need to pay attention to what is being said with them. Instead of paying attention to what contrast, for instance, is marked by the insistence on changing social structures (e.g. that it is not only individual cases we need to change or, to use a relatively recent example, that it is not enough that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down) the assumption is all too easily made that unless an expression names some kind of thing which is material (or occupying another ontological status—what are the options really?), it is otherwise merely rhetorical (or metaphorical), i.e. ontologically invalid.”  (Tsilipakos 2012) 212)

    Though much more cautious about rhetorical and metaphorical language, this is instructive for the present argument. The use and reference of ontological concepts, which is variable on a conceptual level in an entirely empirical manner, represents something which is practically negotiated by researchers in specific settings. This is why it is has been possible for research to be conducted into social structure in spite of the profound lack of unanimity regarding the question of what ‘structures’ are (Elder-Vass 2007, 2008, 2010). Conversely though, Cruickshank’s (2010) fallibilism obscures the complexity of how ontological concepts are used in empirical research and how this usage relates to the real structures of the social which they characterise with varying degrees of accuracy. If concepts are found, as an emergent characteristic of their use for explanatory purposes, to exhibit some degree of practical adequacy, this leads to the obvious question: what it is about the world which explains this adequacy? The referential linkage is not lost but nor can it be used to straightforwardly adjudicate between competing ontological claims. Contra Cruickshank (2010) the lay knowledge drawn upon in ontological reasoning can be that of those engaged in the practice of social research and, I wish to maintain, this is the case much more frequently than tends to be recognised. But it it should always be open to revision because, as Holmwood (1995: 417) puts it “any such ‘disorder’ attributed to the ‘real’ will be an artefact of our theoretical confusion, not a feature of the world adequately expressed in a disorderly theory”.

    There is a practical embedding of ontological claims which Reed and Alexander (2009:30) overlook in their claim that the “referential realities of sociological explanations, then, are meanings”: it does not follow from accepting there is “no isomorphism between language and reality” that language is therefore detached from the extra-discursive world (Sayer 2000: 35-39) because human beings, even social theorists, are ineluctably thrown into the natural and the practical order, as well as the social (Archer 2000). There are fundamental dimensions to the social which, regardless of how they are construed theoretically, ineluctably confront those undertaking empirical research into any aspect of it:

    in the human and behavioural sciences, the analytical connection or co-relation between individual and social processes, between cognitive (mental) and social (group) structures, or between ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ … is often understood and elaborated as the big problem of bridging the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ levels” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 68).

    The apparent diversity with which this ‘gap’ is characterised within social theory points to the intractability of the underlying issue (Willmott 2000: 67). Archer (1995) calls this the ‘vexatious fact of society’: how do we make sense of the relationship between the individual actors we see around us and the wider social order which appears to shape but also be shaped by their actions? The dualisms which proliferate within social theory do so, in part, as a result of a failure to resolve this underlying question. There is nothing in this claim which entails accepting one particular way of characterising it and the often insufficiently examined assumption that this is otherwise has too frequently conflated the distinguishable questions of the dimensionality of the social (which researchers attempt to cope with practically through their explicit and implicit use of more or less general concepts) and the precise way in which this dimensionality is characterised ontologically in referential terms, as well as the explanatory schema entailed more or less directly by the ensuing ontology. The proposal being made here is two fold. Firstly that, qua empirical claim, the distinction drawn by among others, Bunge, between ‘general’ and ‘regional’ ontologies (Wan 2012: 22) does not map onto the practice of ontological reasoning within sociology. Secondly that, qua normative claim, this entails certain prescriptive consequences for the orientation of ontology as a practice. The difficulty lies in the tendency for practically orientated discussion about agreement in relation to the former to be crowded out by arguments stemming from disagreement in relation to the latter. Disputes at this second level, as well as inter and intra paradigmatic elaboration of positions taken, occlude the agreements which do exist at the first level and work to preclude the “epistemologically healthy capacity for meta-theory – that is, for a sincere, uninterrupted and open-ended dialogue between opposing worldviews and paradigms” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 71). The claim being made here about ‘Generalities II’ (conceptual frameworks) and ‘Generalities III’ (substantive theory) in Althusser’s sense (Mouzellis 1995: 1) is not a conceptual one but rather a sociological one about their cultural production: how disagreement with regards to the latter work to preclude agreement about practical criteria which might govern the development, evaluation and refinement of the former. The critique being made of the detraditionalization literature can be framed in such terms: as Turner (2010: 32) observes it proceeds at the level of Generalities III with, at most, only an implicit grounding in Generalities II, yet I have argued that this literature is frequently used as if it were an instance of Generalities II i.e. as a “set of conceptual tools for looking at social phenomena in such a way that interesting questions are generated and methodologically proper linkages established between different levels of analysis” (Mouzellis 1995: 3). It could be suggested that this is reflective of an underlying need for formal theory, particularly given the intellectual orientation of contemporary micro-sociology (Mouzellis 2008), which is compounded by disciplinary fragmentation i.e. substantive areas of inquiry will tend to only offer and produce substantive theory (Holmwood 2011a, 2011b, Turner 2010) and a paucity of approaches which combine formal and substantive theory in a way which keeps the link between theory and empirical research in good health.

    These trends have contributed to the state of affairs which Scott (2005a) describes: the nature of the ‘social’ rarely being defined with any precision, despite its centrality to sociology as a discipline. When agreements at this level do exist, they tend to emerge as conflictual consensuses (the obvious example being the structure/agency debate) such that their holistic reconstruction qua agreement tends to be restricted to theorists elaborating accounts within them (driving their spiralling complexity and, over time, eroding the practical utility of the emergent consensus) or their simplified reconstruction for pedagogical purposes. What gets systematically squeezed out is dialogue about the explanatory implications of the broader agreement (rather than just a particular party to it) and, with it, the development of explanatory tools which can help bridge the gap between social ontology and practical research. This is something which has consequences beyond sociology in and of itself, as disciplines like criminology and other, more or less integrated, areas of inquiry that sociology has fed take concepts and problematics from the ‘parent’ discipline (Rosenfeld 2010). This disciplinary dynamic tends towards the further detachment of ontological debate from empirical research. Yet, as Reed and Alexander (2009: 22) observe of the renewed vigour of empirical research which has emerged in this context, “the return to the empirical in our sociological practice has also had the effect of obscuring our understanding of just what the empirical is”.

    The point being made is not that explanatory tools, when they are elaborated, must somehow transcend second level disagreement in order to consolidate first level agreement but simply that the ontological basis upon which they are forged at level 2 should be translatable into shared terms of reference at level 1. Unlike the concepts we draw upon in everyday life, examined knowledge seeks to maximise practical adequacy (Sayer 1992: 151). Yet it is only with shared terms of reference that this maximisation can progress in a theoretical register. Cruickshank (2010) is correct in his observation that Archer’s (2000b) invocation of the causal criterion (i.e. establishing reality through its causal efficacy) to ground the reality of social structure does not in itself justify her substantive ontological claims because there are other ways in which the recognition (individuals confront social circumstances which exercise causal powers even if they fail to recognise these, mischaracterise them or wish them away) could be characterised ontologically. But the causal criterion can establish the dimensionality of the social world and, if the underlying principle is accepted, constitutes an explanatory gain over an ontology which fails to recognise this dualism. Similarly, contra Kemp (2012), theoretical knowledge can (and sometimes does) progress through practical reason i.e. by seeking to establish some claim X on the basis of logical argument preceding from shared premises rather than on some evidence Y which incontrovertibility establishes its truth (MacIntyre 1981, Taylor 1995). Al-Amoudi and Willmott (2011) suggest that ontological reasoning in this mode, arguing from shared assumptions rather than foundational claims, has been an important trend within critical realist thought, albeit an under recognised and under theorised one. Unlike the moral issues which have been the primary focus of neo-Aristotelian account, ontological disagreements within a context of broader consensus will tend to generate empirical questions which cannot be settled in theoretical terms. If and when research addresses such issues which have emerged theoretically these then become directly pertinent for the theoretical programme from which they ensued.

    Turner’s (2010: 28) pessimist appraisal that “there is not and never will be a means of overcoming the apparent arbitrariness of sociological reasoning and the vagueness of its concepts” because “in the social sciences observation has a less disciplining effect on the sociologist because his or her theorising is less subject to the discipline of an agreed theoretical apparatus or experimental procedure” rests on an occlusion of the emergent linkages between theoretical research and empirical research which, partly as a result of such pessimism, are too rarely acted upon. Broader disciplinary issues discussed in the previous chapter play a role as well, with an increasing tendency for an (often interdisciplinary) specialised focus on “individual substantive problem areas” each of which “develop its attendant body of localised theory” (Turner 2010: 28) working to preclude the possibility of an “intellectual base that involves a firm and clear awareness of the distinctive point of view that sociologists can offer” (Scott 2005b) which in turn fuels the spiral into fragmented inquiry into substantive problem areas. We have, as Savage (2010: 663) puts it, “a stand-off between more empirical forms of sociology and more speculative theoretical concerns, which finds it difficult to offer more sustained methodological elaboration or advance”. However Holmwood (2010a) cautions presciently against responding to this situation by calling for a new ‘theoretical core’ to reunify sociological inquiry,

    “Sociology seems to produce a number of co-existing and mutually exclusive (semi) paradigms which continually split and re-form in different combinations. Those who are committed to the idea of the necessity of a ‘theoretical core’ frequently argue that such a situation represents a moment of synthesis, a moment that requires the development of a unified frame of reference representing structure and agency as presuppositional categories (as argued, for example, by Parsons,Alexander Habermas, Giddens,Archer, Scott, etc.). The fact that an accepted synthesis never comes and that each new attempt gives rise to further critique suggests that ‘synthesis’ is one of the moves that gives rise to new splits and forms and is not, therefore, a resolution (Holmwood 2010a)

    Such moves do, it seems, fuel fragmentation rather than resolving it. One particular risk is that “synthesis appears to be achieved only by increased abstraction from more immediate issues of explanation” (Homwood 2009: 53). Yet as Cruickshank (2010: 599) observes, “knowledge grows as substantive, empirical research problems are encountered with theoretical and methodological ‘tools’ being adapted to meet the research problem”. This is to some extent the position I wish to take in this thesis. The point of contention is Cruickshank’s implication that this is in some way hostile to ontological reasoning. I am arguing that the practical reasoning he implicitly invokes here, as with Kemp (2012), necessitates some shared evaluative frame of reference before it becomes possible to build ‘tools’, apply them in research, integrate the findings of that research into the tool-building process and adapt these tools to specific research problems. We all, as it were, need to be in the same workshop for broadly similar reasons before the eminently practical approach to theory these authors advocate becomes possible. Unfortunately these broadly similar motivations, such as characterise the structure/agency debate and King’s (2010) ‘new relational consensus’, too often descend into internal arguments about specific differences.

    Such arguments are valuable, indeed necessary, however their resolution requires empirical elaboration via the building of ‘tools’, research conducted using them and their subsequent refinement and analysis of the implications stemming from the research that has been carried out with them. Without this, abstract debates fuels internal differentiation of positions leading to the splitting (and subsequent reformation) which Holmwood (2010a) identifies. Yet in this thesis it is being assumed that we all wish to repudiate such an “evident fragmentation of social theory into a series of mutually inconsistent, partial accounts” (Holmwood 1995: 414). The issue at stake is not some mystical ‘theoretical core’ which will forever ideationally bind an emergent cultural agent together but rather that such a ‘binding’, in so far as it is possible, can only come from an empirical refinement of the underlying theoretical agreements for as long as its constitutive cultural actors are able to sustain a research agenda which they find both professionally productive and intellectually satisfying. Without adequate regulation ‘from outside’, such as to involve cultural actors either directly or indirectly in refining their particular commitments empirically, the elaboration of a theoretical research programme will tend towards ever growing ideational density, as cultural elaboration comes to revolve around the articulation of abstract convergences/divergences which have no logical end point. Given that, as Archer (1988: 177) puts it, “the more complex the internal structure becomes, the more difficult it is to assimilate new items without major disruption of the delicately articulated interconnections”, there is an tendency for the internal density of a meta-theoretical consensus to be inversely proportional to its potential for empirical elaboration and refinement.

    In other words: empirical refinements of theories, when indeed they are refinements (and they often will not be, in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons), will reduce the internal complexity of a theoretical conspectus. Such an ‘outward’ orientation is conducive towards theoretical openness and ‘bridge-building’ rather than pre-emptive closure (Mouzellis 2008: 221-224). Or as Reed and Alexander (2009: 25) phrase it, in their description of the “meaning-world of contemporary theory”, I am arguing that an absence of empirical regulation leads to intellectual traditions which are “massively theoreticized, so deleteriously disconnected from the disciplined pursuit of the empirical through sociological research”. This section began as a critique of Elder-Vass’s approach to ontology which, I argued, over estimated the importance of ontological reasoning to empirical research. I wish to argue that the direction of concern here should be reversed: rather than worrying about the lack of ontological regulation of empirical research, we should instead be concerned with the empirical regulation of ontological research because it is only on this basis that practically orientated explanatory frameworks grounded in a community of practice become sustainable (though I am suggesting that this is a necessary, rather than sufficient, condition).

    I have outlined what I take to be the generative mechanism underlying the fragmentation in social theory, which I referred to at the start of this section as a tendency for ontological reasoning disconnected from explanatory impulse towards being sterilely legislative. The explanatory impulse, the framing of ontological reasoning by an understanding that it is important to build ‘tools’ and empirically regulate theories, helps abate the tendency for theoretical agreement to spiral into unproductive abstraction. However the sociological fact of  theoretical agreement is of course not only a matter of logical argument; power and context also play an obvious role in its emergence (Fuller 2000), particularly in establishing the status of ‘iconic’ scholars (Bartmanski 2012). But it is precisely this kind of cultural system / socio-cultural dynamic which I take myself to have established in the brief sketch above.

    To anyone who got this far, thoughts are much appreciated. This was a chapter of my PhD which I had to remove because it had little to no relation to anything else in my thesis. I’ve kept it on my desktop for ages but it occurred earlier today when I stumbled across it that I’m very unlikely to ever turn into a paper or chapter. There’s the basis of a book I one day hope to write (The Sociology of Intellectual Faddishness) in this chapter but the ideas are too messy for me to do anything with it directly. I feel a weird mix of pride and embarrassment when confronted with this chapter – it’s such an intensely ambivalent reaction that I figure the most interesting thing to do is throw the chapter out into the world to see what, if anything, other people make of it. 

    • John Green 4:45 pm on August 25, 2013 Permalink

      It looks really really interesting. Can I be cheeky and ask if there’s any chance of you posting the bibliography?

    • Mark 4:46 pm on August 25, 2013 Permalink

      sorry, it’s mixed in with my PhD bibliography and it would take hours to manually untangle them!

    • Chris Yuill 8:55 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      On a very quick read-through I pretty much agree. One reason I am drifting away from critical realism is that it demands such a purity that you travel headlong into a scepticism that prevents one from undertaking any real-life empirical research or being able to say anything from it.

    • Mark 9:13 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      The chapter isn’t a critique of critical realism, it’s a critique of critiques of critical realism!

    • Mark 9:17 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      well not *all* critiques of it – it’s a critique of the kind of sociological theory done by elder-vass but also of the neo-pragmatist rejection of ontology. i’m trying to argue that both (on either side so to speak) fail to grasp how ontological reasoning works in practice and that the empirical regulation of ontology (and vice versa) only works given a certain degree of consensus on underlying philosophical issues.

    • Chris Yuill 8:36 pm on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      I agree with you there. My personal hobby is the alienation material from teh 1960s and 1970s. It split into two distinct camps: one very theoretical and one very empirical. And never did the twain did speak to each other, except to denounce various percieved weaknesses. The end result being to reduce the effectiveness of each. It’s a recurrent theme in sociology and one that I don’t think we will ever really work beyond. But yes, you are quite correct on the consensus of philosophical issues.

    • Mark 9:03 am on August 27, 2013 Permalink

      “It’s a recurrent theme in sociology and one that I don’t think we will ever really work beyond”

      Perhaps not! It’s becoming a weird obsession of mine though – I’m aware it would be possible to spend a lifetime picking at concrete examples of this problem and never really get anywhere useful though…

    • Richard 5:47 pm on October 20, 2014 Permalink

      I was getting some awesome stuff from this but then no bibliography. That’s a real heartbreak.

    • Mark 5:57 pm on October 20, 2014 Permalink

      sorry, it’s a discarded chapter that i never actually compiled a bibliography for. if you ask about specific references, i can probably point them out.

    • rock3tmn 10:01 am on October 23, 2015 Permalink

      Who is this author: Wan (2012: 20)?

    • Mark 3:34 pm on October 23, 2015 Permalink

      Sorry I lost the references to that article. This is the book in question: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409411529

  • Mark 9:03 am on August 25, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , INTP, , ,   

    “Oh ‘INTP’. So that’s what I am”: Identity and Alterity in a Digital Age 

    A couple of years ago I did a conference presentation called “The Difficulty of Working Out Who You are: Sexual Culture, Sexual Categories and Asexuality”. Or at least I gave a presentation this title. In reality it didn’t actually do what it said on the tin because I’d rather jumped the gun and given a  definitive title to something which was then (and still is really) a loose amalgamation of thoughts in the progress. I started working on asexuality around 5 years ago now and my immediate interest was in asexuality as something approximating a sexual orientation (sparked largely by how extraordinarily overlooked the conceptual possibility, let alone the emirical reality, had been in the academic sexualities literature I’d engaged with for the MA I’d just completed). Two further interests emerged from this as I got more into it:

    1. The fascinatingly idiosyncratic frame of reference which asexuality (and asexuality studies) offers for engaging with well rehearsed questions about contemporary sexual culture and its history of emergence
    2. The broader issues of identity and alterity in late modernity which manifest themselves in the emergence of the asexual community (as well as the question of in what sense, if any, it’s meaningful to use the term ‘community’ here).

    It’s the second question which has been on my mind recently. I’m talking about this at the Royal Geographical Society conference next week as part of a panel on the politics of anti-normativity and at a conference in Nottingham the following week on ‘normality in an uncertain world’. I like the second event theme in particular because it nicely captures the aspects of Archer’s account of late modernity which she’s only begun to draw out in her final book on reflexivity. This involves a situation where, as Archer (2012: 302-3) puts it, “the differences characterising each agent so overwhelm communalities with others that they increasingly engage in transactions with the system ‘as a whole’ (meaning raiding it for the detection of ‘contingent complemantarities’ and exploiting these novelties)”. What she’s suggesting is that increasingly atomised individuals, confronted with little to no socio-demographic possibilities for collective identification, look towards the cultural system for resources to help make sense of self and circumstances, which might furnish them with an ideal (which later provides a basis for value orientated collective action) but more immediately serves to increase the heterogeneity of their environment. What I think Archer misses is both how the cultural system can provide an immediate basis for social (re)integration and how socio-cultural relations can be digitally mediated. So the individual whose experience of not experiencing sexual attraction has been rendered problematic within their local environment, comes to recognise their commonality with (distant) others through direct and indirect accounts of experience which are encountered online. This in turn leads to an experienced difference (“I’m so weird! Everyone else is so interested in sex”) being transvaluated into commonality (“oh there are other people just like me!”) and provides a starting point through which many, though by no means all, come to pursue ‘offline’ relations on the basis of ‘online’ connections.

    However I don’t think people who don’t experience sexual attraction are the only ones who follow this sort of biographical arc. To be clear: I’m talking about homologies at the level of individual biography and suggesting the existence of analogous structural and cultural factor which condition, though do not determine, the shape of that biography. I’m not subsuming a whole range of disparate phenomenon under one notion of biography (e.g. the existentially crisis prone individual in late modernity) though it occurred recently I sometimes talk as if this is what I’m doing. My point is to draw out a typological connection between disparate phenomenon which because of their particularity often have their connections overlooked (or are even ignored in and of themselves altogether). In terms of Archer’s approach, I’m gesturing towards a few things: a cultural account of contextual incongruity to supplement her structural account, a theory of how cultural systemic properties can provide an immediate basis for social re(integration) and a contribution to her thinking on reflexivity and collective action. After years of doing ‘my asexuality research’ and my PhD side-by-side, it’s really satisfying to have actually incorporated them into the same frame of reference at last… but I digress. What prompted me to write this post, which I’m stunned to realise is now close to 1000 words long without me having yet got to my main point, is the Myers-Briggs typology as another example of the weirdly specific cultural bases for social (re)integration which I’m convinced have come to circulate all around us without us having grasped their full implications yet. To those who don’t know, the Myers-Briggs is a taxonomic theory of ‘personality type’ designed for psychometric testing. It was ‘extrapolated’ from the work of Jung by two people with no psychological credentials or training (note: I’m not being a snob here, only stressing the important point that there the MB has, as far as I’m aware, zero empirical basis and little or no credentialised authority for its putative conceptual roots in Jung’s work). In effect it divides people up into 16 personality types through psychometric testing and there’s a massive industry attached to the development, promotion and application of the MB. I first did it long ago (I love this stuff in spite of my chronic cynicism) and have tended to be ‘scored’ as an INTP. This is the attached personality profile from the Wikipedia page:

    Architects are introspective, pragmatic, informative, and attentive. The scientific systemization of all knowledge, or Architectonics, is highly developed in Architects, who are intensely curious and see the world as something to be understood. Their primary interest is to determine how things are structured, built, or configured. Architects are designers of theoretical systems and new technologies. Rearranging the environment to fit their design is a distant goal of Architects.

    Architects are logically and verbally precise. In casual conversations, they may be tempted to point out errors the other speaker makes, with the simple goal of maintaining clarity within the exchange. In serious discussions, Architects’ abilities to detect distinctions, inconsistencies, contradictions, and frame arguments gives them an enormous advantage. In debates, Architects can be devastating, even to the point of alienation from the group with detailed logical arguments, which may be characterized as “hair-splitting” or “logic-chopping“.

    Architects tend to analyze the world in depth. They prefer to quietly work alone and they may shut other people out if they are focused on analysis. This, coupled with the fact that Architects are often quiet, makes it difficult for other individuals to get to know them. In social exchanges, Architects’ interest in informing others about what they have learned is greater than their interest in directing the actions of others.

    Credentials or other forms of traditional authority do not impress Architects. Instead, logically coherent statements are the only things that seem to persuade them. Architects value intelligence highly and are often impatient with people with less ability than they have. An architect often perceives himself as being one of the few individuals capable of defining the ends a society must achieve and will often strive to find the most efficient means to accomplish their ends. This perspective can make Architects seem arrogant to others.


    According to Rational Role Variants, by David Keirsey:

    “Architects take their mating relationship seriously and are faithful and devoted – albeit preoccupied at times, and somewhat forgetful of appointments, anniversaries, and other common social rituals. They are not likely to welcome much social activity at home, nor will they arrange it, content to leave scheduling of social interactions to their mate. If left to their own devices, INTPs will retreat into the world of books and emerge only when physical needs become imperative. Architects are, however, even-tempered, compliant, and easy to live with – that is, until one of their principles are violated, in which case their adaptability ceases altogether. They prefer to keep their desires and emotions to themselves, and may seem insensitive to the desires and emotions of others, an insensitivity that can puzzle and frustrate their mates. But if what their mates are feeling is a mystery to them, Architects are keenly aware of what their mates actually say and do, and will often ask their mates to give a rationale for their statements and actions.” The INTP’s long-term mate is the ENFJ.


    I find it hard not to recognise myself in this. Turns out others have the same experience: this is why websites, web forums and twitter feeds seem to have begun to to emerge for those whose response to this subjective recognition has been to seek interlocutors who share this commonality: see here, here and here. What’s going on here seems to be very similar to some of the relational dynamics driving the biographical trajectories of people who identify as asexual. However unlike asexuality, where my outsider status a social researcher imposes certain constraints, something important seems obvious to me when focusing on the INTP: it’s an identity based on an exclusion. The experience of identification depends upon the accentuation of certain points which in turn distract from others. The INTP profiles seem so unerringly to capture certain aspects of my character (“They prefer to quietly work alone and they may shut other people out if they are focused on analysis. This, coupled with the fact that Architects are often quiet, makes it difficult for other individuals to get to know them”) that it distracts from those which aren’t incorporated within it descriptively or even run contrary to it (e.g. it’s hard to see a basis for political activism or shared engagement with live music in the NTP profile – both of which have been integral parts of my life since I was a teenager). In other words: the transvaluation of difference into commonality rests on confirmation bias. This is a strong and hypothetical suggestion about something which is ultimately an empirical question but it’s an important point: to what extent do the emergence of these ‘new commonalities’ presupposes the individual actively seeking them? What implications does this have for the putative social (re)integration I’m arguing emerges from these new collective identifications? This is why the asexual community fascinates me: the commonality becomes a basis for the emergence of new differences as dialogue unfolds i.e. behind the ‘umbrella term’ (asexuality as someone who does not experience sexual attraction) a diverse terminology for recognising and expressing (a)sexual difference emergences. I wonder if this is true elsewhere?

    • Cousin It 12:03 pm on January 29, 2014 Permalink

      Mark, two things:
      firstly, I know this is an elderly post now, but it is by far the most interesting thing that comes up when you put ‘asexual INTP’ into Google. So thank you.

      Secondly, I can’t resist giving an answer to your rhetorical question.
      Of all the places where those searching for a ‘tribe’ online might congregate, I think the M-B forums are among the least likely to have new, divergent labels/identities arise from the interaction.

      This is simply because the M-B typology is a top-down theoretical system. (Fundamentally flawed, as you point out, but not without its attractions, especially to literate, self-analytical introverts.) Its whole rationale rests on the idea that cognitive functions can be sorted into discrete, binary categories (which is pretty absurd, really). Those categories are everything, and are worked out and described in fine detail. So, while there’s plenty of stuff online that uses the categories to riff on (which Star Trek character is which Type, for example), there’s very little scope there for divergence, beyond routine (and inconclusive) comparisons of which of the preferences one is strongest and weakest in.

      AVEN is an identity pick-and-mix by comparison. Though, of course, for most of us, nature and/or nurture did the fundamental picking, we’re just mixing the labels.

      (PS – yes, I am: INTP and asexual.)

    • Mark 7:25 pm on January 31, 2014 Permalink

      I see where you’re coming from but I disagree. I think the categories have been produced in different ways (and this is really interesting in its own right – my sociological interest in asexuality is as much to do with when/why/how asexual discourse emerged and circulated as it with the experience of being asexual) but that people still relate to categories in fundamentally similar ways. I’m fascinated by quite how widely M-B categories have spread – I agree that they’re fundamentally absurd but, with my sociological hat on, I want to explain this capacity to identify with categories that are part of a “top-down theoretical system”. I suspect it’s how all-encompassing they are which makes them plausible, at least for some people, despite making them social scientifically silly – everyone fits into the schema and everyone is potentailly able to locate themselves, as well as what they experience as different about themselves (which i think is the motivation for this kind of identification) in terms of the traits of other people.

  • Mark 11:58 am on August 24, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , emotion, ,   

    Being Human, Emotionality and Everyday Life 

    My last few posts on Being Human have looked at Archer’s account of the emotions. She argues that affectivity should be understood as relational, emerging as commentaries on human concerns (understood generically as bodily well-being, performative competence and social self-worth) rooted in nature, practice and sociality. In each case affectivity arises as part of our engagement in different relations: body/environment, subject/object and subject/subect. In short: our environment gives us feedback and that feedback matters to us.

    However once affectivity is analytically delineated in terms of the natural, practical and social orders then an immediate questions ensues as to the emergent relations between different forms of affect. Archer argues that we “have to live and attempt to thrive in the three orders simultaneously” and that this entails we “must necessarily in some way and to some degree attend to all three clusters of commentaries” (Archer 2000: 220). However nothing guarantees that the commentaries cohere and conflict frequently arises between them:

    Nothing guarantees that the three sets of first-order emotions dovetail harmoniously, and therefore it follows that the concerns to which they relate cannot all be promoted without conflict arising between them. Hence, an evasive response to the promptings of physical fear can threaten social self-worth by producing cowardly acts; cessation of an activity in response to boredom in the practical domain can threaten physical well-being; and withdrawal as a response to social shaming may entail a loss of livelihood. In other words, momentary attention to pressing commentaries may literally produce instant gratification of concerns in one order, but it is a recipe for disaster since have no alternative but to inhabit the three orders simultaneously, and none of their concerns can be bracketed-away for long. It is only on rather rare occasions that a particular commentary has semi-automatic priority – escaping a fire, undertaking a test or getting married. Most of the time, each person has to work out their own modus vivendi within the three orders. (Archer 2000: 220)

    Archer’s point is not that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ but rather that it is unliveable. On this view to remain at the level of first-order affectivity is a pathological state, such as arises from addiction or trauma. This can sound like an excessively strong claim but it’s important to realise how deeply mundane the process of ‘striking a balance’ between natural, practical and social affectivity is on her view:

    What it entails is striking a liveable balance within our trinity of inescapable concerns. This modus vivendi can prioritise one of the three orders of reality, as with someone who is said to ‘live for their art’, but what it cannot do is entirely to neglect the other order. Thus it is significant that enclosed congregations of religious, who are said to have renounced the world’, all had Constitutions which minutely proscribed bodily relations (food, sleep, clothing, bathing, walking, custody of the eyes etc.) and closely regulated social relations (recreation, friendships, family contact, visiting etc.). Most of us have to work it out for ourselves, and the difficulties we experience probably account for public curiosity about how prominent personalities have done it – how long does the Prime Minister sleep, how hard does the Princess work-out, or even how does the President care for his dog? We know what questions to ask because, as fellow human beings, we know the problems that have to be resolved. (Archer 2000: 221)

    To this we might add the fascination with the daily routines of writers, thinkers and artists. I find sites like Daily Routines so interesting because of what they reveal about the person who has produced the work we encounter – they shed light on how the mundanities of everyday life are organised, rather than addressing authors through the often nebulous frames of history or personality. We all organise our everyday lives in a way which is so continual and quotidian that we often fail to notice it and even less frequently discuss it in any sustained way. It most frequently arises in discursive consciousness when we begin to live with others, particularly when our investments in the different orders clash e.g. arguments about keeping shared spaces clean.

    However this still leaves the question of what ‘striking a balance’ entails. Archer’s answer to this distinguishes between first-order emotionality and second-order emotionality. This is something I’ll address more comprehensively in my next post about the book. More briefly though, the important notion invoked here is transvaluation. Archer’s account of second-order emotionality is heavily influenced by Charles Taylor, with the crucial caveat that she criticises his view of emotionality as a ‘moral direction finder’ in its conflation of human concerns and emotional commentaries upon them. While she accepts that “emotions are undoubtedly of moral significance because they provide the shoving power to achieve any ends at all, their goals (intensional objects) may be completely unethical” and she challenges Taylor’s ethical intuitionism (Archer 2000: 225).

    There is much that can usefully be gleaned from Taylor’s discussion of transvaluation per se to contribute towards an account of the emergence of second-order emotionality. (This is particularly the cause because transvaluation paradoxically dwells upon our emotional fallibility rather than upon the intuitive acuity of emotions.) Tranvaluation entails progressive articulations of our first-order emotions,. To begin with many initial feelings may remain fairly inarticulate, such as a diffuse feeling of guilt about our relations with an elderly parent. In such cases we may seek further understanding, by interrogation of self and of circumstances, and through this the feeling may be transformed one way or another. It might dissipate upon further inspection; it may intensify as we appreciate the significance of neglect; or it could diminish if we find that to do more would be to the detriment of other duties: ‘hence we can see that our feelings incorporate a certain articulation of our situation, that is, they presuppose that we characterise our situation in certain terms. But at the same time they admit of – and very often we feel that they call for – further articulation, the elaboration of finer terms permitting more penetrating characterisation. And this further articulation can in turn transform the feeling.‘ (Archer 2000: 226) [italics are Archer quoting Taylor’s Human Agency and Language pp. 63-4).

  • Mark 11:01 am on August 23, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    The Last Outing project 

    The research study “The Last Outing: Exploring end of life experiences and care needs in the lives of older LGBT people” has been funded by the Marie Curie Cancer Care Research Programme, and is led by Dr Kathryn Almack at the University of Nottingham. The project is funded under a call for research to explore ‘variations in end of life care’. While ‘end of life care’ is generally understood to be about care delivered to people in the last year of life, the project is also encompassing later life experiences and thinking about mortality – issues that may become more relevant as people age. The overall aim is to inform and influence policy to ensure that health and social care services adequately meet a diversity of needs and preferences.

    The first phase of the project (the survey) is now well underway, but we are still looking to extend our contacts with both LGBT groups and non-specific LGBT groups across the UK, to publicise the survey to potential participants as widely as possible. We would again be very grateful if you could help in any way with getting information out about the project.

    In the study itself we are capturing people’s experiences in two ways:

    •   A survey of LGBT older people’s thoughts and experiences around end of life care (from not wanting to think about it through to planning one’s own end of life care and/or caring for some-one at the end of life) This is running throughout 2013.
    •   In-depth interviews with a sub-sample of the survey respondents to explore issues coming out of the survey in greater depth.

    We are still looking for participants who meet the following criteria and so who:

    •   Currently live in the UK
    •   Identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or trans
    •   Are aged 60 or over (or are aged under 60 but have a partner or a person for whom they care who identifies as LGB and/or T who is aged 60 or over)

    More information about the study and the research team can be found at:http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/nmpresearch/lastouting<http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/nmpresearch/lastouting>

    This website contains a link to the online version of the survey or we are more than happy to provide a hard copy of the survey for anyone wishing to participate but who does not have access to computer or who would prefer to work with a paper copy.

    We still have postcards available, aimed at publicising the study to potential participants, so please let us know if there are places where you could distribute postcards and we can arrange to send these to you.  We wonder if you might also consider including something in any regular mailings you may send out.  Please email us at thelastouting@nottingham.ac.uk<mailto:thelastouting@nottingham.ac.uk>  if we can provide any more information.

  • Mark 10:12 am on August 23, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Youth Researcher Development Workshop 

    FINAL CALL FOR PRESENTERS (Please circulate widely)

    British Sociological Association Youth Study Group

    Researcher Development Workshop for Research Students and Early Career Researchers

    BSA Seminar Room, Imperial Wharf, London, Thursday 7th November 2013

    The BSA Youth Study Group invites research students and early career researchers working on or with an interest any aspect of youth research to attend a research development workshop.

    Building on similar previous events, the purpose of the day is to provide a platform for researchers to present their work in a supportive, constructive and intellectually stimulating environment. Researchers with work at any stage of the research process are welcome to present their ideas, findings or concerns of navigating the field.

    Whether planning to present at the BSA annual conference (or any conference or seminar for that matter!), refining ideas and questions through the literature review, or preparing to seek out avenues to disseminate your work in journals in the field, the day will provide a safe space for participants to receive feedback and help them develop their research in a range of different ways.

    The process will be supported by advice and guidance offered by established scholars in the fields of Sociology of Youth and Youth Studies.

    The day will also provide a useful networking opportunity to meet other people researching in similar fields. With this in mind, delegates not wishing to present but who would like to take part in an observational capacity or share and discuss their ideas more informally are very much encouraged to attend.

    Places are limited, but every effort will be made to include as many presenters as we can.

    If you are interested in presenting your work at this event, please email a very brief outline of your research (maximum 150 words) and an indication of your stage of research and the primary issues you would like to develop (presentation skills/ content, refining questions, dissemination etc) to s.d.roberts-26@kent.ac.uk before September 5th, 2013. This will enable us to cluster or stream the presentations effectively.

    Similarly, if you wish to attend without presenting or have any other questions about attending the event please feel free to email.

    Fee: BSA Member £15 / Non Member £25

    Hope to see many of you in November.

    Dr Steve Roberts, University of Kent

    BSA Youth Study Group Co-convenor

  • Mark 9:23 am on August 23, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Social Normativity,   

    Being Human and Social Normativity 

    In my last two posts on Being Human I discussed Archer’s account of emotions as commentaries on human concerns and her analysis of natural, practical and social affectivity. In this post I’ll explore her understanding of social normativity in greater detail before moving onto a discussion of the transition from first-order emotionality to second-order emotionality in a post next week.

    From the realist point of view, normative conventions are not like some version of the social contract which acquires powers from its signatories, having none prior to this notional compact. Instead, such conventions and agreements are themselves culturally emergent properties (CEPs) which derive from past chains of interaction, but which, in any contemporary context, are pre-existent to, have relative autonomy from, and exercise causal efficacy over the present ‘generation’ of subjects. Individuals confront them, they do not create them, although they may transform them.” (Archer 2000: 218).

    On this view social norms tend towards the production of regulative effects within society but, contra Elder-Vass, Archer cautions against conflating the ‘attempt’ with the ‘outcome’. She offers a view of well established norms “as a template which is slid across the total array of actions exhibited by members of society at a given time” which serves to “both categorise our action and attach evaluative judgements to them”. This represents certain behaviours or relationships to subjects as “being offensive, morally reprehensible and normatively unacceptable, above and beyond their legality” (Archer 2000: 218). These evaluative standards are emergent from past interaction and impinge upon present interaction, through which they are either transformed or reproduced. However the efficacy of these standards depends upon their subjective reception i.e. to exercise causal power we have to feel good if we live up to them or feel bad if we fail to meet them. Archer contrasts this to something like a traffic fine, which “operates as a simple deterrent which does not rely upon the internalisation of a normative evaluation” (Archer 2000: 218).

    The punitive reactions which can be attached to a negative normative evaluation of our behaviour can certainly influence our actions but crucially it is our anticipation of the sanction which is exercising causal power rather than the normative standard as such: “for social evaluations to matter – and without mattering they are incapable of generating emotionality – they have to gel with our concerns” (Archer 2000: 219). So our evaluative capacities as deployed throughout our biography become crucial to understanding how subjects respond to the normative register they encounter at a given point in time. This is an objective phenomenon but not a homogenous one, as it emerges relationally and its reproduction or transformation is dependent upon the shifting orientations of evaluative subjects. The emergence of social affectivity requires more than a normative register and a continual stream of evaluations being passed on the comportment of fellow subjects: it requires that those norms actually be endorsed by people. This is the distinction between the power relation and a normative relation. If P1 does X and an indignant P2 does Y in response then the objective consequences of Y must be negotiated by P1 regardless of what they think of P2’s underlying motivation. However if P1 shares P2’s commitment to the underlying norm which motivates Y then the simple operation of power (the need for P1 to circumvent or otherwise negotiate the response of P2 to their action) becomes more complex, as P1 recognises themselves to have fallen short of a shared standard in their encounter with the action of P2 which has been motivated by that same standard.

    As discussed in previous posts, Archer sees affectivity as arising in relation to our concerns. Environmental threats move us affectively because of our underlying concern for bodily well-being. The feedback we receive from objects in virtue of their material affordances and constraints pleases or frustrates because of our generic concern for performative achievement. In keeping with this relational view of affectivity, which sees it as emergent from the interaction between our subjective concerns and objective environment, she argues that the “most important of our social concerns is our self-worth which is vested in certain projects (career, family, community, club or church) whose success or failure we take as vindicating our worth or damaging it” (Archer 2000: 219). So the distinction here is between the normative evaluation of our discreet actions (e.g. someone finds offence in my unthinking choice of terminology while engaging in idle conversation about a topic of no great importance to me) and the normative evaluation of the projects within which we have invested ourselves (e.g. someone finds offence in how I have characterised asexual people in an journal article). For instance my own experience of the former is to either not care or find it mildly irritating or thought-provoking whereas my experience of the latter is to be deeply troubled by it.

    In the first case the normative evaluation either does or does not resonate with my own evaluative dispositions but in the second case it troubles me because I’m deeply invested in the project which is receiving negatively evaluation. My prior commitment to the project serves to intensify the affect arising from someone normatively evaluating my comportment on the basis of a standard that I myself endorse (e.g. maintaining fidelity to the lived experience of research participants). Or this is what I take Archer’s argument to be at least. The notion of ‘social self-worth’ as a generic concern isn’t spelled out as clearly in Being Human as the analogous notions of physical well-being and performative achievement are. It also seems to reduce the significance of our projects into a narrowly social register in a way which obscures the complex assemblage of commitments which I can introspectively point to when reflecting on something like my own project of being a sociologist. I suspect she means something akin to a distinction between internal goods and external goods here i.e. we are driven either by the standards internal to a practice (practical affectivity) or the recognition of our achievement by others (social affectivity). But the distinction seems somewhat overdrawn if so. I’m going to think about this later when continuing with my data analysis.

    • Tom Brock 3:18 pm on August 23, 2013 Permalink


      It is clear to me from this that individual reflexivity is the process through which a normative relation becomes a power relation – if I’m right on this interpretation then I’ve think you’ve nailed the point I was trying to make about how hegemonic acts (as co-optation). I don’t think EV has distinguished, in such clear terms, what a normative relation is and what a power relation is (in a context such as this). I think this was the aim of his next book on power.

      I’m totally onboard with the idea that individual reflexivity is the process through which a norm can become affective. Fleshing it out in this way allows us to see represent resistance as a very personal process – one where personal projects are *felt*. I suppose one point of discussion, then, is whether social norms can still have a regulatory effect on us even if we consider them in an affectively neutral way. Why problematise something that doesn’t bother us? I think to maintain a sound realist position there needs to be some space where social norms can objectively reside, otherwise, don’t we fall into the trap of that which is effective is only affective? Is it capitalist exploitation if the norm – of working to exchange labour for money – is not considered exploitative by the call-centre worker? I think this actually provokes quite a provocative idea – may social norms can be considered the unintended consequences of our (collective) affective neutrality – a latticework of “stuff” that needs to be problematised but will, inevitably, lead to more “stuff”. This is just a musing though – the idea of turning normativity on its head is something that has appealed to me every since writing on morals.

      But yes, I think this is a serious challenge to DEV. As I see it, you’ve broken down the distinction between endorsing and enforcing a norm by expanding on the difference between normativity and power. I’m not convinced this has invalidated the idea of objective normative environments but I do think that when we talk about norm circles we need to be thinking less in terms of actuality – one group per norm – and more in terms of normality as something that we act towards as an imagined construct (biographically framed), but whose actions have real, often unintended, consequences.

    • Mark 1:01 pm on August 24, 2013 Permalink

      “if I’m right on this interpretation then I’ve think you’ve nailed the point I was trying to make about how hegemonic acts (as co-optation)”

      and I think you’ve nailed my discomfort about hegemony which I’ve struggled to articulate. it negates the value rationality involved in someone coming to endorse a norm and assimilates it to the power relation.

      “I’m not convinced this has invalidated the idea of objective normative environments”

      nope, it’s just making a claim about how they are reproduced or transformed. norm circles invoke subjectivity to either (a) reflexivity adjudicate between competing normative demands (b) explain the ‘encoding’ of normative pressures into the constitution of subjects. on this view, normativity always a subjective moment involving endorsement, neturality or opposition towards values.

      “I suppose one point of discussion, then, is whether social norms can still have a regulatory effect on us even if we consider them in an affectively neutral way. Why problematise something that doesn’t bother us?”

      We wouldn’t – this is helping me finally get a theoretical grip on why, assuming people who don’t experience sexual attraction didn’t magically pop into existence in the early 2000s, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that an asexual community began to emerge. the internet was a necessary but insufficient condition – i’ve argued (speculatively) that the underlying ‘condition’ was rendered socially problematic until fairly recently (e.g. it’s only when sex becomes a topic of everyday conversation that not experiencing sexual attraction becomes even remotely visible) so perhaps by ‘the sexual assumption’ all i mean is a new norm. or a presupposition underlying a whole array of new norms? perhaps it’s the presuppositions underlying diverse norms which we could talk of as being ‘hegemonic’? so for instance capitalist hegemony could be construed as the underlying presuppositions encoded within a whole range of diverse and sometimes conflictual norms and politics and economy?

    • Tom Brock 10:42 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      “and I think you’ve nailed my discomfort about hegemony which I’ve struggled to articulate. it negates the value rationality involved in someone coming to endorse a norm and assimilates it to the power relation.”

      I think you are onto something with the Gramscian conception of hegemony – Hegemony as the state material-ideational construct has conflated endorsement and enforcement. I can see why you’d want to separate these out in a more nuanced approach to normativity and power. Hegemony assimilates the norm into a power relation as endorsement and endorsement become the ‘matrix’ through which those with a particular – privileged – material-ideational base can operate from. As I see it, hegemony (small ‘h’) is a kind of power relation that operates under positionality, but also under geo-spatial/temporal location and under particular socio-cultural conditions. This power relation is intended – as a form of co-optation – that I think is more complete that the notion of censure (that we’ve discussed previously). Co-optation, as I see it, is an appeal to another persons worldview, in a way that censure is not. Co-optation is about getting another person to see and consent (at least in their actions) to your worldview. This might sound like splitting hairs but I think hegemony as co-optation is about getting people to see their world on your terms and acting (at least in front of you) as if they consent into your way of thinking. I actually think that is from here that dialectical contradictions arise (as we janus-face between inner and outer self but also between conflicts within intra-psychical self).

      “normativity always a subjective moment involving endorsement, neturality or opposition towards values.”

      I think even DEV is clear on the internal and external moments of subjectivity. He is just more concerned (however wrongly) with the external moments of intentional acts. The problem is that this isn’t where a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the social world needs to start from. Bhaskar would argue that it needs to start at motives in a 7-scalar social being and this is where I think me and you agree.

      “so perhaps by ‘the sexual assumption’ all i mean is a new norm. or a presupposition underlying a whole array of new norms? perhaps it’s the presuppositions underlying diverse norms which we could talk of as being ‘hegemonic’? ”

      I think there are two types of ‘H(h)egemony’ and one could be the material-ideational construct which conflates endorsement with enforcement through the emergent properties, e.g. laws, of intersecting collective macro actors. This is not the hegemony of power relations of which I was trying to point out before but, rather, something actually built into the archive of knowledge itself – made consistent (or is itself consistent) and reproduced over time. (h)egemony as a power relation is something much more intimate, reflexive and affective.

    • Mark 11:10 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      i don’t know – i keep veering between seeing where you’re coming from and thinking that the concept of hegemony is intrinsically conflationary….

  • Mark 6:20 pm on August 22, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , class war, Elysium, , ms,   

    Floating Cities, Class War and Matt Damon: what more could you want? 

    I like Matt Damon. I like Science Fiction. I loved Neil Blomkamp’s first film District 9. So it was pretty inevitable that I would be excited about Elysium. As if that wasn’t enough, there was the added benefit of the film’s heavily trailed politics, as described by Gavin Mueller from the Jacobin:

    Trailers for Elysium were like catnip for the left-leaning viewer: a near future where the masses, stranded in crumbling cities, outfit Matt Damon with a robot suit and send him to fight the bourgeoisie, who have Galted off the planet to Space Station Elysium, taking their shrubbery, Spanish-style mansions and cancer cures with them. It promised to be an allegory about class struggle as transparent as director Neill Blomkamp’s first movie, District 9, was about racial apartheid. The 99-vs-1 narrative would finally get the sci-fi blockbuster treatment it richly deserved.


    Mueller makes a number of fair criticisms of the film. Not least of all taking issue with the film’s gender politics (with the exception of Jodie Foster’s defence secretary, it is hard to imagine how this film could have rendered women any more marginal or passive) and its oddly dichotomous treatment of race – on the one hand, the film depicts a dystopian future where “the oppressed classes stuck on polluted and undeveloped Earth are almost entirely brown and black while Elysium is full of WASPs” but on the other the weird casting of Matt Damon in the lead role transforms “pointed commentary on race, citizenship, and gentrification into a white saviour narrative”. However Mueller also picks up on what I loved so much about this film:

    The space station concept nicely dramatizes the spatialization of class that geographers like David Harvey and the late Neil Smith have written about for years. Elysium collapses the gated city and the militarized border into one potent metaphor, and Blomkamp’s not afraid to show the privileged defending their picturesque suburbs against crippled children with deadly force. Perhaps the most novel idea is to collapse citizenship with health care. A ticket to Elysium grants you citizenship and access to miraculous life-preserving technologies, a powerful point as citizenship is one of the biggest holes in the Swiss cheese that is Obamacare. Blomkamp’s able to see how the overt authoritarianism of apartheid biopolitics (where blacks were denied citizenship, had their movement strictly controlled and had a life expectancy at least a decade shorter than whites) hasn’t been abolished. Instead, it’s been globalized, covered with a thin neoliberal veneer of market and meritocracy. In Elysium the struggle is not for the means of production, but the means of reproduction, as the vast majority of Earth is treated as a surplus population left to die lest they waste precious resources.

    It depicts a future where the ruling class have withdrawn nearly entirely from contact with the vast majority of the world’s population. The robotic workforce securing and serving the ruling class renders the population largely surplus to requirements. The neoliberal condition diagnosed by Loic Wacquant and others finds itself generalised to the planet as a whole – the poor are rendered surplus and punished for behaviours arising from this marginalisation. But in the world depicted by Elysium the entire planet is poor. All who are not are now ensconced in the safety of Elsyium, the floating utopia (eerily identical to my mental image of the orbital platforms from the Culture books) looking down upon the earth. It’s a direct descendent of the floating cities which occupy the contemporary libertarian imagination:

    Since 2003, a colossal barge called the Freedom Ship, of debatable tax status, should have been chugging with majestic aimlessness from port to port, a leviathan rover with more than 40,000 wealthy full-time residents living, working and playing on deck. That was the aim eight years ago when the project first made headlines, confidently claiming that construction would start in 2000.

    A visit to the “news” section of freedomship.com reveals a more sluggish pace. The most recent messages date from more than two years ago, forlornly explaining how “scam operations” are slowing things down but that “[t]hings are happening, and they are moving fast.” Meanwhile, the ship is not yet finished. Indeed, it is not yet started. Despite this, Freedom Ship International Inc. has been startlingly successful in raising publicity for this “floating city.” Much credulous journalistic cooing over “the biggest vessel in history,” with its “hospitals, banks, sports centres, parks, theaters and nightclubs,” not to mention its airport, has ignored the vessel’s stubborn nonexistence.

    Freedom Ship’s website claims that the vessel has not been conceived as a locus for tax avoidance, pointing out that as it will sail under a flag of convenience, residents may still be liable for taxes in their home countries. Nonetheless, whatever the ultimate tax status of those whom we will charitably presume might one day set sail, much of the interest in Freedom Ship has revolved precisely around its perceived status as a tax haven.

    And despite the apparent corrective on the website, the project’s officials have not been shy in purveying that impression. They have pushed promotional literature that, in the words of one journalist, “paints the picture of a luminous tax haven,” and stressed that the ship will levy “[n]o income tax, no real estate tax, no sales tax, no business duties, no import duties.” Of course, as no cruise ship could ever levy income tax, to trumpet that fact is preposterous, except as a propaganda strategy.

    Freedom Ship’s board of directors are canny enough to recognize tax hatred as a defining characteristic of the tradition of fantasies in which it sits. It is one of countless recent dreams of a tax-free life on the ocean wave: advocates of “seasteading” are disproportionately adherents of “libertarianism,” that peculiarly American philosophy of venal petty-bourgeois dissidence.


    But their pesky reliance on a human crew has been technologically negated by the time of Elysium. No more awkward interactions with social inferiors, as the robotic workforce serve all the needs once met by the working classes. It’s a world where the problem of the mass, the inconvenience of their sheer numbers, has been overcome. The few details we are given about the onset of this dystopic world point to problems arising from overpopulation. The mass have doomed the planet so the ruling class have sensibly absconded and moved beyond what little reliance they had on a small fraction of the population.

    There are certainly problems with this film’s script. It seemed as if it had been a much longer film cut down to size, with much having been lost in the process. But Mueller’s critique of its underlying politics, as resolved in the final scene of the film, seems grossly unfair. My reading was of the film grasping at accelerationism, making a much more interesting point about the role technology played in formulating this dsytopia but also the role it can play in moving beyond it:

    Given the enslave­ment of tech­nos­cience to cap­it­al­ist object­ives (espe­cially since the late 1970s) we surely do not yet know what a mod­ern tech­noso­cial body can do. Who amongst us fully recog­nizes what untapped poten­tials await in the tech­no­logy which has already been developed? Our wager is that the true trans­form­at­ive poten­tials of much of our tech­no­lo­gical and sci­entific research remain unex­ploited, filled with presently redund­ant fea­tures (or pre-​adaptations) that, fol­low­ing a shift bey­ond the short-​sighted cap­it­al­ist socius, can become decisive.


    We need to revive the argu­ment that was tra­di­tion­ally made for post-​capitalism: not only is cap­it­al­ism an unjust and per­ver­ted sys­tem, but it is also a sys­tem that holds back pro­gress. Our tech­no­lo­gical devel­op­ment is being sup­pressed by cap­it­al­ism, as much as it has been unleashed. Accel­er­a­tion­ism is the basic belief that these capa­cit­ies can and should be let loose by mov­ing bey­ond the lim­it­a­tions imposed by cap­it­al­ist soci­ety. The move­ment towards a sur­pass­ing of our cur­rent con­straints must include more than simply a struggle for a more rational global soci­ety. We believe it must also include recov­er­ing the dreams which trans­fixed many from the middle of the Nine­teenth Cen­tury until the dawn of the neo­lib­eral era, of the quest of Homo Sapi­ens towards expan­sion bey­ond the lim­it­a­tions of the earth and our imme­di­ate bod­ily forms. These vis­ions are today viewed as rel­ics of a more inno­cent moment. Yet they both dia­gnose the stag­ger­ing lack of ima­gin­a­tion in our own time, and offer the prom­ise of a future that is affect­ively invig­or­at­ing, as well as intel­lec­tu­ally ener­gising.


    • johannespunkt 7:12 pm on August 22, 2013 Permalink

      There are some good points here, but what more could I want from from Elysium? I would want it to live up to its potential. I was hoping for the movie to raise political points, but apart from the first 20 minutes and the last 5, that stuff just felt like a backdrop to a visually pleasing but otherwise boring action movie.

      I want to know how the orphanage works, how it is to live in the skyscrapers we see for 5 seconds in the beginning, with balconies becoming apartments, growing more balcony-apartments. I want to know how the ruling class there actually justifies living like that — they weren’t given any agency here and I could not see them as villains, even sympathetic ones. I couldn’t see them as people, they were just statues with cool scar-tattoos.

      I want to know how that society actually works on a socio-economic and sociological level. It’s no longer crisis capitalism, obviously, but crisis capitalism doesn’t seem to have been replaced by anything but a vague ownership of the Earth.

      I left the cinema feeling very unfulfilled and as far as I can tell, these are the reasons I felt unfulfilled.

    • Mark 12:43 pm on August 24, 2013 Permalink

      Yep there are many more things I wanted from the film to – it was quite flawed in some respects, I was just struggling to find a title for that post. I think it would work better as a big weighty (social) science fiction book than it did as a film.

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