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  • Mark 8:39 pm on September 1, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: foundations of british sociology, Sociological Walking,   

    On sociological walking, without obsessing about the ‘sociological’ 

    My notes for the opening talk at The Sociological Review’s Thinking on the Move conference, co-organised with Emma Jackson, Les Back and Jenny Thatcher. 

    I feel like a fraud talking in the opening session of this event because there’s no sense in which I’m an expert on sociological walking. This is obviously compounded by talking alongside two people who clearly are. But it’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time in a very specific way so I thought this would be a good opportunity to articulate exactly what that is and how it came about.

    My first encounter with sociological walking actually came from Les in 2012 when he suggested a walking tour in south east London to reflect on the riots that had taken place the year before. I was editor of the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog at the time and with Cheryl Brumley, then digital editor in the group, we joined Les for an afternoon in Catford. The resulting podcast and digital map was one of my favourite things I’ve help produce in almost ten years of doing social media professionally. The second encounter was with an economic geographer who took us on an incredible tour of Lower Manhattan a few years after Occupy Wall Street, reflecting on events he had been a part of. In both cases theoretical insight, ethnographic detail and personal narrative were combined with a force and unity that would have been impossible if this had been a talk in a lecture theatre, let alone a piece of writing. The third encounter was a theoretical walk with Maggie O’Neill in which we explored the accelerated academy by walking slowly through it. These three walks sparked a sociological enthusiasm for walking in me which felt like it needed to go somewhere. But apart from leaping on any opportunity to go on an organised walk since then, I had no idea where this somewhere might be. In a vague sense I imagined walking as a form of public engagement and public sociology but I struggled to articulate this beyond pointing to how enjoyable they can be.

    This was a period of time in which I worked for The Sociological Review and became interested in the long history of the journal and what it revealed about the shifting fortunes of the discipline. I was fascinated to discover the Foundations of British Sociology archive where so much of this history was documented and began conspiring to find reasons to go to the archive, including an event we ran to promote its use as a resource for the discipline. I was immediately struck by how many of the conversations in the 1910s and 1920s I saw were mirrored in the conversations we were having now. What is sociology for? How do we ensure research helps us understand the world? How can understanding the world help us change it? But what really caught my attention was the role that walking played.

    I’d understood that walking had formed a part of the sociological methods of the time in a mixture of physical geography, ethnography and sociology which is jarring to contemporary disciplinary sensibilities. They saw the physical landscape within which humans lived and worked as a foundational factor to which a form of life must be adapted. What they called ‘rustic surveys’ began with geophysical, geological and climatological studies beyond a settlement before turning to what we now think of as the social. Walking was equally prominent in their civic investigations within cities with an orientation towards how life unfolds within the totality of a region. What I hadn’t understood though was how residents of the region were not framed as respondents but as active participants in the survey, including but not limited to walking, constituting  what we now think of as citizen social science.

    I was even more intrigued by the discovery that Le Play Educational Tours conducted at least 70 overseas trips and at least 10 within Britain. These were intended to inculcate a sociological sensibility in participants and, as I understand it, represented a more user friendly version of the fuller survey methodology. These tours produced reports, maps and slides which are still in the archive at Keele. These give a little sense of how the tours were advertised:

    For many years the predecessor organisation to The Sociological Review Foundation was running what we’d now call a social enterprise. This strange amalgamation of travel firm and educational initiative appears to have been remarkably successful. It was making money and seemingly attracting a significant amount of public interest for what must surely have been seen by many as an obscure initiative.

    However it ultimately unravelled, as a remarkable MPhil thesis by David Evans explains, with Margaret Tatton, who lead the organisation of the tours, leaving due to a combination of personal and intellectual disputes. Interestingly, the growing distinctiveness of geography played a role in this, with the tours becoming orientated towards geography at a time when it had a much stronger institutional embedding than sociology. As personal relationships deteriorated so too did collaboration on the tours and this ultimately prefigured a splitting off into a more explicitly geographical organisation Le Play Society, which existed until 1960 though was no longer embedded in the thriving community of LePlay House.

    I find it hard not see a lesson here. One of the questions I hoped we’d address is What does it means to walk in a distinctively sociological way? However discovering the role the rivalry between geography and sociology played in the partial unravelling of such a remarkable organisation as Le Play Educational Tours serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t be too concerned about what it means to walk sociologically. This history also leaves us with other questions that I hope we can address through this conference. How might participatory walking be used as a form of public sociology? How can walking help us (literally and figuratively) leave the ivory tower?

    • BeingQuest 8:32 pm on September 3, 2019 Permalink

      The Walking Philosophers is the root of every Garden made by worthy Civilization, from the beginning…I heard it tell: Towers in the deserts of Babylon, hanging Conclusions in Eden like ripe fruit from a Forbidden Tree of Knowledge; or Secular Sages, unraveling the Gordian Knots.

    • BeingQuest 5:34 pm on September 18, 2019 Permalink

      Circumabulatory is the Mind, practicing Hermeneutics with every word worth rendering: https://www.patreon.com/durandusvonmeissen

    • BeingQuest 5:38 pm on September 18, 2019 Permalink

      ambulatory, indeed.

  • Mark 10:53 am on August 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: foundations of british sociology,   

    The Foundations of British Sociology 

    This one-day event intends to raise awareness of the Foundations of British Sociology archive maintained by Keele University. This remarkable resource collects a diverse array of materials from the 1880s to the 1950s, gifted to the university when the Institute of Sociology was dissolved in 1955.

    ‘Members of the societies founded The Sociological Review, contributed to early University teaching of Sociology, published many books and papers and collected survey material from the UK and Europe. The archive comprises personal papers, business records, newspaper cuttings, lectures, reports, plans, surveys, lantern slides and an extensive collection of books from the LePlay House Library. It includes material relating to key activists and opinion-shapers such as Victor Branford, Francis Galton, Patrick Geddes, H. G. Wells, Lewis Mumford and Alexander Farquharson on themes such as the responsibilities of the state and the citizen, planning urban development, the position of women, the role of technical education, local government reform, regionalism, the co-operative movement, rural society and the family. Researchers will find valuable materials on the origins of modern British sociology, and related social sciences such as social psychology, cultural geography, town planning and demography’ (Source, Keele University).

    Here are some of the materials I looked at on a recent visit:

    It’s a fascinating resource with relevance to people working on a whole range of research topics. If you’re interested in attending our workshop on October 11th at the University of Keele then please apply online here. If you’re interested in the archive but can’t make the event then feel free to get in touch.

  • Mark 8:14 am on July 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , foundations of british sociology,   

    The Sociological Review and the History of the Discipline 

    This one-day event intends to raise awareness of the Foundations of British Sociology archive maintained by Keele University. This remarkable resource collects a diverse array of materials from the 1880s to the 1950s, gifted to the university when the Institute of Sociology was dissolved in 1955.

    ‘Members of the societies founded The Sociological Review, contributed to early University teaching of Sociology, published many books and papers and collected survey material from the UK and Europe. The archive comprises personal papers, business records, newspaper cuttings, lectures, reports, plans, surveys, lantern slides and an extensive collection of books from the LePlay House Library. It includes material relating to key activists and opinion-shapers such as Victor Branford, Francis Galton, Patrick Geddes, H. G. Wells, Lewis Mumford and Alexander Farquharson on themes such as the responsibilities of the state and the citizen, planning urban development, the position of women, the role of technical education, local government reform, regionalism, the co-operative movement, rural society and the family. Researchers will find valuable materials on the origins of modern British sociology, and related social sciences such as social psychology, cultural geography, town planning and demography’ (Source, Keele University).

    We look forward to welcoming delegates to Keele University where they will have a chance to explore this rich resource and discuss the enduring cultural, historical and evidentiary value of this archive for British Sociology.

    Confirmed Speakers:

    David Amigoni (Keele University), Helen Burton (Keele University), Gordon Fyfe (Keele University), Rachel Hurdley (Cardiff University), Rebecca Leach (Keele University), Chantelle Lewis (Goldsmiths).

    Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

    Application to Attend

    TSRF have 20 places available to attend this workshop. As places are limited they will be allocated through a competitive application process. Applications will close 17th August, 17.00 BST. Decisions will be communicated early September 2018.

    The application form can be found here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1r8RhiHsBI-vR4s-XHgxpJA28pD08Sos1MHsejdUT724/edit

    Applications will be peer reviewed by Sociological Review editorial board members. Consideration will be given to research interests as related to the event, as well as distribution of career trajectory and institutions.

    This event is free and lunch and refreshments will be provided. Places are limited and allocated via the application process. There are also a number of bursaries available for unfunded PGRs and ECRs.

    *Please note, TSRF will not accept late applications under any circumstances.

    Room Location and Accessibility Information

    The event will take place in the Campus Library Training Room located on the top floor of Keele University library, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG

    Visitors can report to the Library counter on arrival and staff will direct you to the room. The main entrance to the Library is on the second floor, up an external staircase. The accessible entrance is on ground level. Non Keele card holders should press the intercom and a Library porter will give assistance. The library has an accessible lift to all three floors of the Library and the training room is wheelchair accessible.

    All toilets, including the wheelchair accessible toilet, are on the ground floor.

    For more details on accessibility to the library, please see here https://www.disabledgo.com/access-guide/keele-university/library-and-information-services-building

    There are a number of disabled parking bays in front of the Library. If these aren’t available, any other space outside or near the Library can be used as long as a valid badge is displayed. A campus map and guide can be found here: https://www.keele.ac.uk/connect/howtofindus/maps/keele-campus-guide-colour.pdf


    We have a limited number of bursaries for this workshop – including childcare bursaries. You can apply for a bursary if you meet TSRF criteria for funding. I.e. (1) unfunded postgraduate research students, (2) Early Career Researchers (ECR) within 3 years of completion of PhD and not in receipt of a full-time wage, and (3) others on the grounds of need (e.g. those in casual employment and not in receipt of a full-time wage).

    Travel bursaries are limited at £100.00, childcare bursaries are limited to £50.00 per day of the event and day before if needing to travel and stay overnight. Accommodation will be organised by TSRF.

    Please note, that if you have been awarded a place at The Sociological Review’s ECR writing retreat this year (2018) or a full bursary (travel and accommodation) at the Undisciplining conference or the ECR day, then you are not eligible to apply for event bursaries until next year (2019).

    Contact Details

    For academic enquiries related to this workshop, please contact Mark Carrigan: mark@markcarrigan.net

    For enquiries related to applications, please contact Jenny Thatcher

  • Mark 9:39 am on April 16, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , civic sociology, foundations of british sociology, ,   

    What does it mean to claim people were ‘doing sociology’? 

    What does it mean to claim a historical figure as a (proto)sociologist? What does it mean to claim people were ‘doing sociology’ under any rubric? Keneth MacDonald began this conference on the history of sociology in Britain by directing these questions towards Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, kicking off with consideration of recent papers from the REF panel tasked with assessing the discipline in its contemporary form, finding little in these to suggest a unified discipline. He went on to consider programmatic visions of sociology, ranging from a population science, through to a discipline intended to interpret the ‘social’ as an efficacious and modifiable social structure and an activity which is defeasible, capable of being discomfited. He considered its dependence on tools, changing throughout its history and exercising a similarly changing influence over the way in which sociology was conducted. He identified features we associate with sociology now that could be found in Ferguson and Smith: a concern for summary statistics and an ability to collect data, use of government statistics, an awareness of experimental designs and a concern for regularities, even if they were construed in individual rather than collective ways. He finds sociological insights in Ferguson which are nonetheless passing remarks, undeveloped into systematic accounts. He finds a sociological sensibility underlying Smith’s frustration with political arithmetic as it was practiced in his day, concerned as he was to grasp the facts of the issues under discussion.

    It was a thought-provoking and informative talk. But it nonetheless didn’t address the underlying question as directly as I hoped: what is it to be a sociologist? What is it to do sociology? If we read disciplinarity in terms of professionalism, such that recognition by one’s professional peers is the sine qua non of being a disciplinary practioner, it becomes difficult to make sense of the origins of the discipline. Even in the most sophisticated account, we would be left with a vision of a discipline that wills itself into being through ever-expanding circles of reciprocal evaluation, evading the question of what it is to be a practitioner of that discipline. Making this claim isn’t a denial that professional custom plays a crucial part in disciplinary identity, it just insists there is inevitably much more to the question than this. It is interesting to consider this is the present context because the discipline is so professionalised, leaving its fortunes tethered its position within the university. My interest in clinical sociology, applied sociology, public sociology and civic sociology is animated by the belief that sociology will function most effectively as a plural discipline, distributed throughout sectors of society and learning from sociological work undertaken across them. Rather than search the past for sociologists in the sense in which we would recognise them in the present day, I’m interested in the exemplars we can find of what sociology could be today, as much as the circumstances in which they worked might differ from the present day. Many of the possibilities which excite me involve work outside the academy. For this reason, professionalism is an unhelpful criterion for looking for (proto)sociologists. This is why I found MacDonald’s talk so thought-provoking because he laid out so many other criteria which we might consider: the questions asked, the methods applied, the role of data and the technology used. But a more direct answer to the question still eludes me and it’s one which I’m keen to explore through my work in the Foundations of British Sociology archive.

    • landzek 4:46 pm on April 16, 2018 Permalink

      Lately I’ve been pondering how Theory tends to jump In magnitudefrom a quick marking of the individual, to the group. And then poses a gays about what the individual actually is. It seems like philosophy and in general academics on humanity side at least, often conveniently set aside actual individual for the sake of the real group. As if the individual is nothing more than a part of the group.

      In particular philosophy I’ve been noticing how it seems like a pre-ponderings of philosophy talks about subjectivity but then jumps exponentially into a different order magnitude in one sentence; often will talk about the subject of politics or the subject of ideology. I feel like everyone takes these discourses as if they were actually talking about the individual person.

      It seems no one recognizes this ; it seems like missing the actual person is just part and parcel of being modern society. I think your question of what is a sociologist could begin with a sociology of the individual but doesn’t reduce itself to an order that is so far removed from the individual that we almost have to deny it in order to have it become “actual”.

      Just something I’ve been pondering lately

    • Martyn Everett 5:38 pm on April 16, 2018 Permalink

      I’m impressed by the sociology implied in the work of Louise Michel who interviewd French prostitutes while she was in prison in order to identify the reasons why women became involved in prostitution, and the problems they faced as prostitutes. This seems to be an approach to sociological problems that is as valid means of enquiry as statistical methods.

  • Mark 4:29 am on February 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , foundations of british sociology, ,   

    When sociologists meet organised politics 

    Not for the first time when reading John Scott and Ray Bromley’s Envisioning Sociology, I was struck by the parallels between the strengths and weaknesses of the early ‘sociological movement’ and tendencies we can see within activist sociology today. From loc 4419:

    Until the 1920s, Branford and Geddes relied almost exclusively on Le Play House and the Cities Committee of the Sociological Society to promote their ideas on the Third Alternative. All their key works were published as books and pamphlets under the Le Play House imprint or as articles in the Sociological Review. They tried to influence mainstream politics through the occasional letter to a politician, but they were far from being political activists. During the 1920s, however, they began to engage with some of the political groups that they felt might give organizational form to their ideas. For the most part, this was limited to participation in small discussion groups where they hoped that their style of political discourse might have an effect and stimulate others to carry it forward. Their naive assumption was that their strategy would be adopted as soon as political and business leaders realized the logic and force of their argument.

    This is something I have written about as the amelioration fallacy: the assumption that it is only the circulation of sociological knowledge which prevents the amelioration of social problems. If only others actors within the social world realised “the logic and force” of the arguments we are making then productive action would inevitably ensue.

  • Mark 6:52 pm on January 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , foundations of british sociology, , , , ,   

    What the lost tradition of classical British social theory can teach us about the dangers of charismatic leadership 

    In the conclusion to their Envisioning Sociology, John Scott and Ray Bromley reflect on how the project of Patrick Geddes and the sociologists around him came to be forgotten, in spite of the influence they exercised in their own time. This lost tradition of classical British social theory was an energetic and multifaceted engagement with the changing world around them, drawn together in a powerful vision of a sociological movement which sought to reconstruct this world.

    How this project failed and how they came to be forgotten within the discipline is a complex story. But one particularly interesting aspect is how the intellectual charisma of Geddes himself might have contributed to this, imbuing the emergent movement with characteristics which lent it dynamism in its own time but failed to equip it to reproduce itself in subsequent generations. From 4554-4569:

    The circle was organized around Patrick Geddes as its inspirational and charismatic leader. This was clearly one of its strengths, as it provided the core set of ideas that went largely unchallenged among his followers. This structure was also, however, a source of weakness. Geddes’s charisma as a teacher attracted those who were seeking an answer to fundamental questions. His synoptic vision and the apparent completion of his theoretical system tended to ensure that his followers were immediately and absolutely committed to furthering his work. They believed they had discovered “the truth” and so felt an almost religious obligation to bring this truth to those who had not yet encountered it. They became disciples with a commitment to proselytize on behalf of the master and to take his words to the ignorant masses. As convinced believers, they felt that it was necessary only to bring these ideas to the attention of others for them to recognize and accept their truth. Argument and persuasion were felt to be unnecessary, given the “obviousness” of the ideas once stated. Hence, they emphasized didactic education rather than persuasive discussion. The members of the circle therefore felt no real need to enter into proper dialogue with advocates of other positions. Their absolute certainty—often perceived as arrogance—was viewed with suspicion by their intellectual rivals, who simply ignored what they had to say. Other sociologists felt alienated from the Geddes circle and refused to cooperate in any venture that they thought might be a mere pretense at cooperation designed to impose the Geddes viewpoint. Excluded from expanded professional activities, the Geddes circle became increasingly inward looking. Its members tended to overpromote the work of very minor members of the group, further undermining their credibility in the eyes of others.

    I find it hard not to see echoes of these tendencies in critical realism. There’s a much broader lesson here about the dangers of intellectual leadership, as the characteristics which lead ‘schools’ to form can in turn undermine the longevity of their ideas. I’ve long been drawn to the idea of a social life of theory which would unify the conceptual evaluation of theoretical ideas and their sociological explanation as cultural forms. These are two sides of the same coin and going back to the lost traditions, examining the failed projects which one promised so much, helps us look at the contemporary landscape of social theory in a new way.


  • Mark 8:40 am on November 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , envisioning sociology, foundations of british sociology, , ,   

    Margaret Archer as neo-classical British social theorist 

    While Margaret Archer’s theoretical work is widely respected, it is often categorised as little more than an elaboration of Roy Bhaskar and a critique of Anthony Giddens. This framing leaves it secondary to Critical Realism and Structuration Theory, understandable (though limiting) in the former case and deeply inaccurate in the latter case. Reading Envisioning Sociology by John Scott and Ray Bromley has left me wondering whether she should be categorised as a neo-classical British social theorist, as her work embodies many of the theoretical themes which concerned early British social theorists whose influence and ideas have largely now been forgotten.

    The obvious counter-argument to this reading is that she has never, to the best of my knowledge, engaged with the work of Patrick Geddes or Victor Branford. Indeed, as we discussed in the interview here, many of her foundational influences came in a Sociology department at LSE which was profoundly shaped by Geddes losing the opportunity to become the first chair of Sociology after messing up his interview. It’s a fascinating counter-factual to imagine what the intellectual culture might have been like in a Geddes run department and the implications this would have had for subsequent generations of PhD students imbibing those influences.

    This reading is interesting because it overcomes the tendency to see Archer’s earlier and later work as separate phases, whether as a mystifying turn to the individual (by critics) or as an attempt to solve critical realism’s agency problem (by fans). What struck me when reading Envisioning Sociology was how closely the notion offered by Geddes and Branford that “Humans … are born not only into a physical environment and material heritage but also into historically specific social relations that comprise their ‘social heritage’” (loc 2803) resembles Archer’s own account of the natural, practical and social order. As they contextualise these influences on loc 2777:

    In the early debates of the Sociological Society, as exemplified by the articles in the three volumes of Sociological Papers , including most of the works presented to the founding meetings of the Society in 1904, 1905, and 1906, the primary debate is between eugenics, as advocated by Francis Galton, Benjamin Kidd, and others, and civics, as advocated by Patrick Geddes, Victor Branford, and others. It was apparently a classic “nature versus nurture” debate in which the two alternative explanations of the human condition are genetics and culture. In reality, however, Geddes’s position was much more nuanced, combining the biological and social sciences and focusing on ecology, environment, and culture. To Geddes, the human condition had three major features: our biological nature as mammals within ecosystems; our social nature as the species uniquely possessed with powers of speech, culture, and spirituality; and, our activist nature, as a species, like ants, possessed with a tremendous capacity for social organization, construction, and improvement in the physical and social environment.

    What makes these ideas jarring to read in the present day is how they traverse disciplinary boundaries in their attempt to engage with social, practical and natural reality in its totality:

    This was the grand idea that Geddes and Branford sought to bring to sociology, a multifaceted vision of an activist society in its cultural and biological context. Their idea was grander and more sophisticated than eugenics, but they never managed to make it fit into universities because twentieth-century academia had more restrictive concepts of disciplines and expertise. Instead, a much narrower concept of sociology took root, a much narrower version of planning emerged as a separate discipline, and biology, psychology, anthropology, and education all took their separate courses.

    This I would argue is precisely the promise that Archer’s social theory has begun to reclaim, integrating a developmental sociology of the individual, a meso-sociology of conflict/consensus and a macro-sociology of transformation/stability. There are the foundations for a radical reorientation of social theory and social science in this work, capable of reclaiming the lost promise of the classical British social theorists. I’m concerned that their current categorisation as ‘critical realist Sociology’ means this value is unlikely to be realised.

  • Mark 12:43 pm on November 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , foundations of british sociology, ,   

    A renewed engagement with the past could be a powerful means through which the critical tradition in British sociology could fortify itself for a difficult future 

    In his magisterial A Secular Age, Charles Taylor introduces the notion of ‘subtraction stories’ to describe our dominant narratives of secularisation. This narrative structure is crucial to teleological thought, explaining our current situation in terms which preclude any backwards movement. As he explains on pg 22,

    Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings have lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process – modernity or secularity – is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside.

    It occurs to me that critical sociology, in the sense in which it used in this paper to refer to a dominant strand within British sociology, involves precisely such a subtraction story. Critical sociologists are prone to understanding themselves as locked into a fight against positivism, sometimes cast as a present day enemy to be found on all sides and at other times seen to have been vanquished but constantly at risk of making a return. These positivist horizons constrained sociological inquiry, turning sociologists away from everyday life and the meaning it holds for participants within it. Through struggle against positivist dominion, these confining illusions have been cast off, liberating a sociological impulse which was struggling to break free.

    What interests me is how the intellectual culture of critical sociology is experienced and narrated by proponents of it. The aforementioned paper is not perfect by any means but I see it as starting an extremely important conversation at a time when British sociology finds itself at something of a cross-roads. As Malcolm Williams, Luke Sloan and Charlotte Brookfield write in the paper:

    Many, if not most, sociologists in UK universities have themselves come from a culture of sociology that emphasises critique over analysis, theoretical positions, and qualitative over quantitative methods of enquiry that reflect the historical influences on the discipline, as described above. This culture exists at all levels of teaching, from pre-university A-level teaching through to postgraduate training. Their attitudes and practices incline them ideologically and practically to favour a humanistic and critical attitude towards the discipline, the selection of research questions that require interpretive methods, and often either an expertise in these methods or a preference for theoretical reasoning alone

    What I’m suggesting is that this intellectual tradition should be taken seriously as a tradition. One which might lack clarity about its own moral sources, framing its emergence in a way which circumscribes the past resources upon which it can draw. The lost tradition of British classical sociology is foremost in my in here, as a result of my recent work with the Foundations of British Sociology archive but the point is a much broader one. A renewed engagement with the past could be a powerful means through which the critical tradition in British sociology could fortify itself for a difficult future.

  • Mark 8:31 am on November 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , foundations of british sociology, , , , victor branford   

    The Public Sociology of Patrick Geddes and Victor Branford 

    In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading about the foundations of British sociology and the motivations of its main figures. One of the most striking things about their work was how explicitly committed it was to a moral vision and sociology’s role in realising that vision. Whereas contemporary public sociology is driven by the impulse to escape the (perceived) confines of the university, sociology at this point in time still had not been fully institutionalised. Combined with the independent wealth of some within this nascent ‘sociological movement’, these conditions created an astonishingly energetic, even entrepreneurial, public sociology. This is how John Scott and Ray Bromley summarise it on loc 2044 of their Envisioning Sociology:

    Sociology is not, therefore, a detached and completely “value-free” discipline, but neither is it an ideologically committed doctrine. It is an autonomous discipline with a responsibility to engage in public discourse and involve a wider public in its own deliberations. Branford and Geddes’s view of the discipline sees it as what Burawoy (2005) has called a public sociology. Their public sociology does not pursue its practical vision and strategy of reconstruction in the manner of the bureaucratic expert, and they rejected the Fabian reliance on the centralized temporal power of state politicians and administrators. They called, instead, for a “resorption” of the powers of government from the state to the individual and the community ( Branford 1914a, 319–23 ), with sociologists promoting their ideas in cooperative and participative endeavors

    They saw the role of sociological science as being the liberation of suppressed possibilities, deploying sociological knowledge in pursuit of realistically achievable ends: eutopias rather than utopias. The sociologist took on the role of coalition-builder in their scheme, creating initiatives through which fragmented groups could come together in common purpose. As Scott and Bromley describe it on loc 2063:

    They must challenge dominant or mainstream thinkers and actively involve those who are engaged in spiritual tasks and so can best contribute to spiritual renewal: “These are the marching torchbearers of our social inheritance. It is theirs, in the onward and upward movement of civilization, to lead the way and light the path” ( Branford and Geddes 1919b, 93, 87, 92 ). They have the capacity “for exalting well-being, quickening the spirit, dignifying labor, beautifying cities, ennobling personalities” (ibid., 93). They include artists, poets, musicians, novelists, architects, and scientists: “The sociologist has now to search out the fragments of spiritual powers which have been growing up spontaneously and in isolation” ( Branford 1914a, 307 ), bringing them together in a coalition for social reconstruction.

    There were two key mechanisms of engagement which they pursued: dramatisation and social surveys. Dramatisation was motivated by a belief that “sociologists could join with playwrights, poets, and other artists to write and present sociological knowledge and understanding in a way that is both accessible to a general public and could motivate them to join in a strategy of social change” (loc 2063). Surveys were a form of direct participation through which “those most affected by contemporary conditions” could become involved in a way that “would allow them to participate in the formulation of social policies” (loc 2119). In a future post, I’ll write more about these mechanisms and the role of the ‘sociological laboratory’ in facilitating them.

  • Mark 1:56 pm on November 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , foundations of british sociology, , , ,   

    There once was a ‘sociology movement’: could there be one again? 

    Within contemporary British Sociology, it can seem like a strange question to ask if the discipline has a moral vision. There are moral commitments which animate much of the activity which takes place within it, manifested in a range of motives including revealing vested interests through critique of ideology, describing inequalities in order to facilitate their ameliorationgiving voice to those who are denied it, deploying expertise to support oppressed groups in exercising their agency and promoting democratic citizenship through the transmission of sociological understanding. However, we rarely talk about having a moral vision, possibly because the legacy of ‘value-neutrality’ still permeates throughout our self-understanding, conceptual frameworks and established practices. Morality is everywhere, constantly invoked and assumed, while rarely being a sustained object of reflective deliberation.

    In a strange, flawed but thought-provoking book from a couple of years ago, Christian Smith argues that American Sociology has a sacred project. It is “an unstable amalgam of variously accumulated historical and contemporary ideas and movements” which he describes on pg 8 of the eponymous book:

    American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realising the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favoured identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures.

    His point concerns what Phil Gorski described as the ‘moral unconscious’ of the discipline: the influences that lurk beneath the surface, moving it along without ever being clearly articulated. The project of the book is to recover that moral unconscious, connecting sociologists with the moral sources they draw upon in motivating their work. I’m sceptical that the book is successful in this endeavour but it’s a project which caught my imagination. It stands uneasily with the tendency inherent in pursuing a professional career in sociology, reflected upon by Michael Burawoy in his famous address on public sociology:

    The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

    In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading about classical British sociology after visiting the Foundations of British Sociology archive at Keele. One of the striking things about this era was how readily people spoke of a sociological movement, driven by a vision of the transformative implications of sociological science and the urgent need to institutionalise it within the universities (even though ironically this helped eviscerate this vision over time). This is how John Scott and Ray Bromley summarise it on loc 924 of their Envisioning Sociology:

    The collaborative circle around Patrick Geddes and Victor Branford shared a vision, nurtured in the emerging strands of nineteenth-century thought and the Edwardian New Age, of a society reconstructed according to principles derived from social science. Pursuit of this vision solidified it in the developing social science disciplines and the educational and professional organizations and practices through which these disciplines were being established. In this chapter we will trace the intellectual origins of their vision and disciplinary concerns, and we will sketch the particular disciplinary practices and forms through which they attempted to organize that vision.

    Could we imagine sociology having a moral vision today? Could the multitude of overlapping moral projects I mentioned at the start of this post ever coalesce into a unified ambition? Could there be a sociological movement today? What would it seek to achieve? In a number of recent disputes with people, I’ve been confronted with the argument that ‘political correctness’ is taking over sociology today. Could it be that there’s a grain of truth to what these critics say but they’re misconstruing as ‘political correctness’ what is actually the coalescence of a 21st-century sociological movement?

    • Robert van Krieken 8:37 pm on January 1, 2018 Permalink

      Sorry to keep harping on about Norbert Elias, but I think he said it well enough with his argument about the need to seek a *balance* between ‘involvement’ (moral vision) and ‘detachment’ (objectivity, science), not choosing one or the other. In at least one sense, it’s a false did dichotomy, even if it’s a real one in others.

    • Mark 10:50 pm on January 1, 2018 Permalink

      Where’s a good starting point to read about his take on this?

  • Mark 12:24 pm on October 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , foundations of british sociology, , , , ,   

    How can Sociology be inspired by its own archive? 

    What can sociology learn from its archive? In asking this question, I mean archive in the broadest sense, far beyond the formal outputs of the discipline. I spent much of yesterday in the Foundations of British Sociology archive at Keele University, gifted to the university by the Institute of Sociology when it dissolved in 1955. This was the precursor organisation to The Sociological Review, founded at LePlay House in 1930, when the original editor of the journal Victor Branford and his partner Sybella Gurney gifted their estate to the earlier Sociological Society. There’s a vast array of material in the archive and I’ve only reached the vaguest understanding of this institutional history. It contains papers from the following organisations and people:

    • Sociological Society
    • Regional Association
    • Civic Education League
    • LePlay House
    • Institute of Sociology
    • The Sociological Trust
    • LePlay House Press
    • The Sociological Review
    • LePlay Society
    • Victor Branford
    • Sybella Branford
    • Alexander and Dorothea Farquharson

    The archive is filled with historical curiosities which shed light on the history of the discipline, revealing the many changes but also the startling continuities. While the co-operation with the Eugenics Society seems startling from a contemporary point of view, it’s even more jarring to encounter concerned discussions about the style of the journal (insufficiently empirical and with literary pretensions that detract from sociological science) which could be encountered almost verbatim a century later.

    However what really fascinates me is the question of how Sociology can be inspired by its own archive: what practical initiatives have been undertaken in the past which we can learn from in the present? To give one example, the Memorandum on Tours summarises the public interest in the many regional surveys which were undertaken. These strange hybrid explorations of geography, anthropology and sociology apparently proved popular with a certain subset of the broader public:

    These Tours have aroused considerable interest amongst people to whom the ordinary Tourist Agencies offer no particular attraction. Quite a number of travellers have repeatedly joined the different parties setting forth from LePlay House during the past four years. Each Tour is accompanied by one or more persons distinguished for their knowledge of the history, ethnography, etc. of the particular country to be visited; also an unusual and pleasing feature of these Tours has been the cordial manner in which the University Authorities and other eminent men and women in the different Continental Cities have received the visitors and afforded them facilities for studying social life, customs and places of interest usually closed to the ordinary

    It struck me when reading this how the sociological walks organised for The Sociological Review’s conference next year could be seen as a tentative recovery of this tradition. What else can we find in there? What can we learn from it now? What practical projects might it inspire? These questions have been circling in my mind since visiting the archive yesterday and it has left me pondering something between cultural entrepreneurship and action research inspired by this archive. The undisciplining of Sociology, at least in the UK, proves eerily familiar when we read about the context within which the Sociological Society and the Institute of Sociology operated. The same is true of the sense of social and political urgency which motivated their work:

    But in the present disturbed state of the public mind there would seem to be open to the Society, two wider opportunities of public service. One is to promote an impartial and detached habit of mind in regard to current movements. The other is bring to bear on the manifold problems of Reconstruction, Civic, National and International such established truths as the present state of the psychological and social sciences affords. Hence an endeavour is being made to extend the Review to a wider circle of readers.

    I am convinced that Sociology can find inspiration in its archive. Get in touch if you’re interested in looking for it with me.

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