a bleak social theory for bleak times

Given the number of times I’ve argued with him on Twitter, it was a surprise to discover quite how much I like Steve Hall’s work. There’s an unapologetic bleakness to it which I find appealing, not as a matter of aesthetics but rather because it serves an important conceptual function. As he recounts here,

‘The growth and concentration of a shared sense of suffering and dissatisfaction has throughout history driven progressive politics, and it can do so again. However, these same sentiments have often been perverted and knocked off course to descend into regressive nationalism. There are already signs throughout Europe of strange, postmodern nationalisms developing as post-political populations experience a profound sense of social anxiety and loss.’ (Winlow and Hall, 2013: 110)

This was written in 2013. It’s fair to say the argument in Rethinking Social Exclusion has proved rather prescient. He and his co-authors developed this approach in a number of books, including Riots and Political Protest and Rise of the Right. The latter books are every bit as bleak, presenting the results of an ethnography which illustrate the arguments they’d earlier made on a more abstract level. The bleakness, I think, helps unsettle the conceptual comforts which afflict contemporary sociology. I largely agree with his account of how recent events have wrong-footed the discipline:

Over the years social science has made a lot of noise about its ability to shatter the myths that constitute popular common sense. It has been a little quieter, however, about shattering the myths that have come to constitute its own common sense. Across Europe and the USA social scientists looked on horrified as the Brexit drama unfolded, Marvel-comic villain Donald Trump – resplendent in his very own urban tower with its gold-plated elevator and other tasteful soupçons of interior design – was elected to the White House, and far-right parties increased their popular support in Europe. Social media was full of perplexed liberals firing off missives to scold the Brexit voters for their senseless decision. It was like watching irate 1950s schoolmasters using morning assembly to tell off the kids who had had a food-fight in the dinner hall the day before. Over the past thirty years social scientists have been highlighting creativity, resilience, resistance, progress and so on. Looks like something went badly wrong.


I don’t agree with all aspects of their diagnosis, but this disagreement is as much a matter of emphasis as fundamental difference. They’re doing social theory with a hammer. I don’t agree with all their targets or all their arguments, but I agree with the intention. Bleakness can be a tool and a resource. It can be what motivates us to question what is settled, reconsider the ends which our activity serves and to look back out towards a world beyond the fog of words and concepts which sociology spews forth on a daily basis.

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