Defending the social at #undisciplining

Notes for the closing panel at Undisciplining

Today’s session has a twofold purpose. It’s intended as a celebration of the paper which was awarded The Sociological Review’s prize for outstanding scholarship last year. But it’s also a continuation of the opening session, extending the discussion while introducing some new elements. It can perform both these roles because this incisive and powerful paper, authored by Val Gillies, Ros Edwards and Nicola Horsley speaks with such force and insight to the themes animating this conference.

Unfortunately Ros can’t join us today due to illness but we’re pleased to welcome Val and Nicola for a discussion about this work. The format for today is a fireside chat, a structure common in technology conferences which may or not may not work in an academic setting – like everything else here it’s an experiment. I’ll have a conversation with Val and Nicola about this work, as well as the larger project of which it is part. Then our editor Marie-Andrée Jacob and trustee Roger Burrows offer some reflections before we open out the discussion to include the audience, in as natural a way as is possible within such a large and imposing room.

The prize winning paper is Brave new brains: sociology, family and the politics of knowledge. It explores how the impulse towards dialogue and collaboration with the life sciences might inadvertently buttress a contraction of social horizons, as theoretical and methodological trends flows downstream through the mediation of social policy and social intervention. I was an immediate enthusiast for this paper in spite of the relative unfamiliarity of the subject matter to me. I was interested in the question of the biological as a recurrent issue within sociological thought, but had only encountered this at a certain level of historical detail or philosophical abstraction.

What I found so gripping about this elegantly written and argued paper was its capacity to retain these levels in the same frame of reference while expanding beyond them. It looks at how the cultural influence of popular biology can converge with the intellectual prestige of the life sciences to support a politics many in this room would object to. One which remains opaque if we reduce the issue of the biosocial to methodological or theoretical considerations. The conception of the social we intellectually endorse might nonetheless get chipped away at through the accumulating consequences of our practical decisions. What happens to the social when sociologists work across these frontiers? How do intellectual changes contribute to the reconfiguration of social realities?

Though their concern is with the biological as a frontier of sociological inquiry, I felt it nonetheless shed light on what we can also see with the digital. Here the challenge of transactional data invites and incites projects of disciplinary transformation. One which  might also have social and political ramifications downstream, susceptible to sociological analysis yet too rarely subject to it. Much as the embrace of the biosocial risks leaving us with an eviscerated conception of social life, in a world of ‘big data’ people begin to be reduced to the behavioural traces which register through digital platforms.

Their might be other frontiers as well and this is why I felt the paper spoke so powerfully to the themes of the conference. What are the risks of undisciplining? How might pragmatic adaptations to the realities of work across boundaries leave us underselling ourselves or failing to value our own intellectual contribution? Can we retain an honesty about the political economy we work within, recognising how the incentives we confront and the values we embrace both shape our intellectual trajectories? How do we remain aware of the downstream consequences of our work? How do we remain clear about the character of the social and the consequences of conflicting conceptions of it to be found at these frontiers? Do we need to defend the social?

Sociology as a discipline doesn’t have a monopoly on the sociological. But what happens when the disciplinary interests of sociology lead sociologists to take action which is detrimental to the sociological? What’s good for the discipline, in terms of funding and prestige, might not be good for the project of understanding social life. What does this mean for undisciplining and what resources can we find in sociological thought to negotiate these challenges?

These are just some of the issue I hope we’ll touch on in today’s fireside chat. But the place to begin is to talk to the authors about how this superb paper came about and to find out more about the broader project of which it is only one part.

These are the questions I’m planning to ask:

  • To begin with, could you tell us how this paper came about? How does it fit into the larger research project you’ve worked on?
  • How is the social now invoked within the life sciences? Is this an adequate conception of social life when considered from the perspective of sociology or anthropology?
  • You use the notion of ‘early years intervention’ to establish why we should be cautious about this embrace of the biosocial. What is this and what does it tell us?
  • The family has become a key site in which the biosocial and the political meet. How has this come about? What can we learn from it for understanding how the life sciences and sociology can interact?
  • You talk of the life sciences as being funnelled through a neoliberal politics of the social. Is there why is still such widespread sociological suspicion of the life sciences?