Rarely can a film have been as timely as Denial. It tells the story of the libel action the holocaust denying historian David Irving took against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, alleging that she had damaged his professional reputation as a historian by claiming he had wilfully distorted evidence. The film recounts the events leading up to the trial, before focusing on the trial itself and ending with the judge’s ruling that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism…[4][65] therefore the defence of justification succeeds…[5] It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.[66]

The film seems remarkably salient at a time when the liberal punditry seems to have uniformly endorsed the notion that we have entered a post-truth era, concisely defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“. The importance of truth, the urgency of fighting for it, runs through the film and is explicitly invoked in the framing of it as a cultural product, as Rachel Weisz makes clear here: “It’s a true story, it’s a fight for truth and justice“.

The writer David Hare expands on this point in the same clip, explaining how “it’s not based on a true story, it is a true story … the words from the trial are the exact words. I don’t attribute to David Irving any line that he is not on record as having said, everything he says, we know he said“. It was great to discover this because I found the trial scenes riveting, though found it hard to wonder if the whole thing would have worked better on stage. The film seems to have underwhelmed critics, rather unfairly from my point of view, perhaps suggesting it was motivated by a commitment to realism of a sort liable to prove underwhelming on the big screen. However what struck me most about the film was the epistemological confusion underlying it, something which I think reflects a lot about the contemporary discourse of ‘post-truth’ and its limitations.

The avowed realism of the film obscures the inevitable cuts that the constraints of story telling necessitate. Irving had sued another historian at the same time, though the case did not go to court. He threatened a further historian with libel if passages concerning him weren’t removed from an upcoming book, prompting an American edition to be published with them but their erasure from the British edition. My point is not to criticise the film for excluding these details, despite their obvious relevance to the story, as much as to highlight the exclusions inherent in narrative. Likewise, with the court case itself, where the selection of a few incidents from a long trial were expertly used to dramatic effect. Again, these aren’t criticisms, just a reminder that even factual narratives (a term I prefer to ‘true story’) inevitably entail selecting from the pool of available facts, within the (media and genre specific) constraints of effective story-telling.

Much of the film can be read in terms of rallying forces for a defence of truth. The drama of the film rests on success in this endeavour, after overcoming much initial adversity. But framing the hard-drinking, hard-thinking Scottish barrister as a hero sits oddly with the commitment to truth in the film. After all, he’s lionised for his rhetorical skills, his capacity to pick apart the authority of Irving in a performatively compelling way. His most succesful tactics have nothing to do with the presentation of evidence, but rather involve getting under Irving’s skin in order to unsettle and undermine him. The concern here is not truth but persuasion. Specifically, the persuasion of a solitary judge, after Irving the litigant was persuaded to dispense with the jury because both sides agreed that the common folk could not be trusted to adjudicate on the truth when the relevant facts were as complex as they were in this case. Furthermore, the only thing that ensures the barrister is not cast as a mercenary is his deep commitment to this truth. This is slowly established over the course of the film, with Lipstadt eventually discovering that this is not just ‘another brief’ for him after all.

What made this film impressive to me was the way in which it explored the mechanics of persuasion in court, specifically how it was established convincingly that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence in order to establish the case for holocaust denial. In other words, it concerned the discursive machinery through which facts are consecrated and rendered socially efficacious. The apparent narratological inevitably of this being accompanied by a paean to truth speaks volumes about what has come to be accepted as ‘post-truth’. We might speak more accurately of post-fact. This is how Will Davies framed it in a New York times essay:

Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html?_r=0

The declining efficacy of facts is understood to be problematic because it undermines appreciation of truth. But reality always permits of multiple characterisations. As Roy Bhaskar put it on pg 55 of Reclaming Reality, “facts are things, but they are social not natural things, belonging to the transitive world of science, not the intransitive world of nature”. Facts are produced through interventions in the world, drawing on the labour of others and applying conceptual tools we rarely built ourselves. This is why a serious discussion of someone like Irving cannot avoid interrogating his proclaimed status as a professional historian, what this means and how it should shape our assessment of his capacity to marshal facts in authoritative ways. Indeed, this was crucial to making the case against him.

But if we see facts as self-grounded things, already made and waiting in the world to be discovered, it becomes difficult to acknowledge this. This might not matter when ‘our’ facts are socially efficacious, happily endorsed by all those we encounter and reflected back to us as common sense in the culture we engage with. But when these start to break down, the construction of ‘truth’ faces a fundamental tension: if facts are given then conflict over them must in some way reflect non-factual considerations, but if non-factual considerations consistently influence ‘matters of fact’ then facts cannot be given. This creates a crisis when we reach a situation in which facts have been ubiquitously weaponised. As Davies put it, “If you really want to find an expert willing to endorse a fact, and have sufficient money or political clout behind you, you probably can”.

This inconvenient truth could be ignored as long as there was a consensus in place. One which has now broken down, with the apparent mystery of our ‘post-truth’ era going hand-in-hand with a profound mystification of the political dimensions to how the consensual era of ‘truth’ preceding it was established. My point in writing this isn’t to preach constructionism. I share the ethos of Bhaskar’s book, one of the most powerful works of philosophy I’ve read: reclaim reality. Reclaiming reality involves recognising the reality of social construction, but resisting the dissolution of ‘truth’ into this. Figures like Irving thrive in the space opened up by the antinomies of (post)truth. If we reclaim reality, we can starve them at an epistemological level, before defeating them at a political level.

International Association for Critical Realism (IACR)
19th Annual Conference

Wednesday 20 – Friday 22 July 2016

Pre-conference workshop: Monday 18 – Tuesday 19 July 2016

Postgraduate Teaching Centre, Cardiff Business School
Colum Drive, Cardiff CF10 3EU

De/humanisation

The dehumanisation of contemporary societies

In many ways, our current epoch witnesses dehumanised social relations. While alienation (Marx) and disenchantment (Weber) or the deficit in social solidarity (Durkheim) are by no means recent phenomena, processes of dehumanisation continue to prevail in most spheres of society. In the public sphere, discussions privilege compliance with bureaucratic regulations and quantifiable indicators (such as GDP and its growth) over human needs and flourishing, have the effect of excluding large portions of the electorate from public debate while accelerating the demise of the Welfare State.

In the economic sphere, the financialisation of the economy and the spread of market ownership tend to privilege economic profitability over human well-being. Corporate Social Responsibility is thus deployed as a rhetorical device whose injunctions are followed mostly when they are profitable to corporate shareholders. Yet, contemporary observers of capitalism witness suffering, destitution and ethical corrosion, both in richer and in poorer countries. Equally worryingly, the private sphere also seems to have undergone dehumanisation: for instance, impersonal relations are the lot of ever-growing urban centres, whilst familial duties of care are gradually replaced either by indifference or by reliance on salaried transactions with professional carers.

The dehumanisation of the social sciences

The dehumanisation of society is mirrored, and perhaps intensified, by the exclusion of the notion of ‘human’ and ‘humanity’ from the social sciences and humanities in the second half of the 20thCentury. While philosophers such as Foucault, or more recently Butler, have warned against taken for granted conceptions of the human, their warnings seem to have produced effacement, rather than problematisation, of the category of ‘human’.

The realist tradition provides, however, salutary exceptions to this trend. In his dialectical critical realism, Bhaskar (1993, 1994) advances a theory of human flourishing alongside a diagnosis of the ills of modernity. Neo-Aristotelian authors such as Sen and Nussbaum have developed political philosophies that place human capabilities at the centre of the stage. In feminist studies, Lawson (2009) advocated ‘minimal humanism’ and in sociology Archer (2000), Sayer (2011) and Smith (2010) have taken stock of the absence of human subjects from social scientific accounts and sketched the contours of a humanist social science.

Rehumanising society and the social sciences?

The purpose of this conference is to explore how critical realism (CR) can contribute to rehumanising both society, and the social sciences. We welcome contributions from all areas of the humanities and social sciences. Equally welcome are contributions inspired by the various voices of CR, both within Bhaskar’s philosophy (critical naturalism, dialectical critical realism, metaReality) and by the various authors who contributed to CR’s flourishing.

Full details are available on: https://www.eventsforce.net/cbs/156/home

The organising team is Ismael Al-Amoudi, Tim Edwards & Joe O’Mahoney.

Please circulate this call to your Networks.

The International Conference for Critical Realism will be held in Cardiff on 20-22 July 2016. It will be preceded by an optional pre-conference workshop on 18-19 July.This year’s theme is de/humanisation. We welcome contributions from all areas of the humanities and the social sciences. A number of grants will be available for PhD students.
Registration and abstracts’ submission (250-500 words, deadline 31 Jan 2016) is now open.

Full details are available on: https://www.eventsforce.net/cbs/156/home

Please circulate this call to your networks. Apologies for cross-posting.

The organising team (Ismael Al-Amoudi, Tim Edwards & Joe O’Mahoney)

Trying to decide whether I should apply for this myself but sharing it here on the assumption that it will be of interest to many of those who read my theory posts:

Human Flourishing, Social Solidarity, and Critical Realism Working Group

2016 – 2017

Organizers: William (Beau) Weston (Van Winkle Professor of Sociology, Centre College), Brandon Vaidyanathan (Public Policy Fellow, University of Notre Dame).

Context: The social sciences have long wrestled with how to understand what makes for flourishing societies and to criticize social evils, while at the same time respecting pluralistic understandings of what constitutes flourishing. Common solutions turn to individual-level theories of a plurality of personal choices, or to group-level theories of colliding narratives of conflicting goods. Yet there are other traditions which have explored the empirical bases of altruism, morality, and social solidarity. The recent development of a thriving school of positive psychology has encouraged a parallel attempt to create a positive sociology. The revival of the virtues tradition in philosophy and theology has led to applied research in how societies embody distinctive virtues.Scholars of social movements have started to pay attention to how people’s moral commitments motivate collective behavior, while research in the cognitive sciences is starting to challenge conventional understandings of deliberative moral action. Most sociologists tend to either offer critiques of social structures that presuppose implicit (but unarticulated) ideals of human flourishing or embrace a strict value-neutrality, restricting themselves to analyzing moral orders and logics.

We will explore how Critical Realism can help ground and guide the study of human flourishing and social solidarity. To what extent do subfields concerned with the well-being of communities and societies—for instance, international development, philanthropy, organizational studies, sustainability, social generativity, social movements, social stratification, and others—depend on conceptions of human flourishing? Do contemporary sociologists share a common understanding of flourishing or do we have competing accounts? Alternatively, is the concept altogether untenable in a pluralistic society? How can Critical Realism’s approach to the social ontology, epistemology, and causation underlying contemporary research on social solidarity both inform and shape our future research?

This working group will read key texts of the Critical Realist approach to human causal powers, the emergence of social institutions, and reflexivity in self-understanding, among other issues. We will discuss how Critical Realism might apply to our own ongoing research projects, such as by influencing the types of questions asked and explanations provided.

Meeting sessions will be divided between discussing core texts and discussing drafts of each other’s work.

Working group members will be expected to continue regular communication in between meetings to continue providing each other feedback on their work.

The working group will meet three times over two years, for two full days at a time. The first working group meeting will take place in June 2016 in Danville, KY. Two additional meetings are being planned for 2017.

An honorarium will be provided for the participants’ contribution and participation.

Eligibility: Preference will be given to early career academics who have completed their PhD within the past 10 years.

Application Deadline: The application deadline for the working group is January 15, 2016. Participants will be notified of their acceptance by January 30, 2016.

Application Instructions: Please click on the link below to submit your application. Each application should contain a) an updated CV; b) a 2,000-word letter of interest summarizing how you think this working group might influence your ongoing work; c) one paper (published or in progress) that illustrates your substantive, theoretical and/or methodological areas of interest that could be shaped by participating in this working group. Preferred file formats are PDF.

Contact Information: Please contact Beau Weston (beau.weston@centre.edu) or Brandon Vaidyanathan (rvaidyan@alumni.nd.edu) with any questions about this working group.

If you encounter any issues submitting your application form, please contact Project Manager, Laura Donnelly (laura.donnelly@yale.edu).

I’m trying to put together a comprehensive list of critiques of Margaret Archer’s work. Any help would be appreciated! If you could e-mail me, leave them as a comment or tweet a link then I’ll add them to this list:

  1. Defining personal reflexivity: A critical reading of Archer’s approach. European Journal of Social Theory http://est.sagepub.com/content/18/1/60.short
  2. Reflexivity as Situated Problem-Solving. A Pragmatist Alternative to General Theory. Sociologica https://www.rivisteweb.it/doi/10.2383/77051
  3. Fully Unconscious and Prone to Habit: The Characteristics of Agency in the Structure and Agency Dialectic Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jtsb.12002/full
  4. For “Central Conflation” A Critique of Archerian Dualism Sociological Theory http://stx.sagepub.com/content/32/2/79.short
  5. Reflexivity, relative autonomy and the embedded individual in economics Journal of Institutional Economics http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8823761&fileId=S1744137412000239
  6. Relational sociology, agency and interaction European Journal of Social Theory http://est.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/06/29/1368431015591426.abstract
  7. Melancholia and the Radical Particular: Against Archer’s Realism Graduate Journal of Social Science http://www.gjss.org/sites/default/files/issues/chapters/papers/Journal-09-02–06-Allen.pdf
  8. Relational Sociology, Theoretical Inuhmanism and the Problem of the Nonhuman https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xS2wAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PA45&ots=tCNuRt8Lvg&dq=%22margaret%20archer%22&lr&pg=PA45#v=onepage&q=%22margaret%20archer%22&f=false
  9. Interests and Structure in Dualist Social Theory
    A Critical Appraisal of Archer’s Theoretical and Empirical Arguments Philosophy of the Social Sciences http://pos.sagepub.com/content/42/4/489.short
  10. Social Causation: Between Social Constructionism and Critical Realism http://ejournals.epublishing.ekt.gr/index.php/sas/article/viewFile/508/514
  11. Emotional Reflexivity: Feeling, Emotion and Imagination in Reflexive Dialogues Sociology http://soc.sagepub.com/content/46/3/458.short
  12. Reflexivity and social change: A critical discussion of reflexive modernization and individualization theses Portuguese Journal of Social Science http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/pjss/2014/00000013/00000001/art00006
  13. A Return to ‘the Inner’ in Social Theory: Archer’s ‘Internal Conversation’ https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=nQnRAQAAQBAJ&lpg=PA195&ots=BSQGyia0Ny&dq=%22margaret%20archer%22&lr&pg=PA195#v=onepage&q=%22margaret%20archer%22&f=false
  14. The Poverty of Ontological Reasoning Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour http://www.research.ed.ac.uk/portal/files/14608171/Tsilipakos_2012_Poverty_of_Ontological_Reasoning_libre.pdf
  15. The Reflexive Habitus http://est.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/06/24/1368431015590700.abstract
  16. Personal reflexivity and biography: methodological challenges and strategies International Journal of Social Research Methodology http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13645579.2014.885154
  17. Questioning Contingency in Social Life Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5914.2012.00499.x/abstract
  18. Situierte Reflexivität: Margaret Archers Entwurf eines kritisch-realistischen Subjektverständnisses http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/zksp.2014.1.issue-2/zksp-2014-0010/zksp-2014-0010.xml (seems to be published in English and German)
  19. Realist Social Theory and Its Losing Battle With Concepts http://pos.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/03/18/0048393114525859.abstract
  20. For a Social Ontology with a Self-Reflective Knowing Subject: Towards the Articulation of the Epistemic Criterion of Reflexivity https://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1842/8274/Bouzanis2013.pdf?sequence=2
  21. On reflexivity and the conduct of the self in everyday life: reflections on Bourdieu and Archer British Journal of Sociology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-4446.12150/abstract
  22. Ultimate concerns in late modernity: Archer, Bourdieu and reflexivity British Journal of Sociology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-4446.12147/abstract
  23. http://t.co/foHRUC7YO5

I’ll be adding to this list myself. But any suggestions are greatly appreciated! At present the above list contains everything (in English) I could find via Google Scholar published from 2011 onwards, with the criteria being pieces that took Archer’s work as their overwhelming or exclusive focus.

Dave Elder-Vass has sent me a helpful list of items to add:

  • Elder-Vass (2007) ‘Reconciling Archer and Bourdieu in an Emergentist Theory of Action’ Sociological Theory, 25:4, 325-46.
  • Elder-Vass (2008) ‘For Emergence: Refining Archer’s Account of Social Structure’. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 37:1, 25-44. (Also see the responses by Porpora, Varela, and King in the subsequent issue).
  • Archer, M. and D. Elder-Vass (2012) ‘Cultural System or Norm Circles?’, European Journal of Social Theory 15:1, 93-115
  • HEALY, K. (1998). Conceptualising Constraint: Mouzelis, Archer and the Concept of Social Structure. Sociology, 32, 509-522
  • KING, A. (2004). The structure of social theory. London: Routledge
  • KING, A. (2006). How Not to Structure a Social Theory: A Reply to a Critical Response. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 36, 464-479
  • Depelteau (2008) ‘Relational Thinking: A Critique of Co-Deterministic Theories of Structure and Agency’ Sociological Theory 26 (1):51 – 73.

Call for Papers (http://www.maneyonline.com/pb/assets/raw/PRT/REA_special_issue_gender.pdf)

Critical Realism, Gender and Feminism
Special Issue of the Journal of Critical Realism (15:5, 2016)
Edited by Angela Martínez Dy, Lena Gunnarsson and Michiel van Ingen
Email: lena.gunnarsson@oru.se<mailto:lena.gunnarsson@oru.se>

An increasing number of gender scholars have become familiar with critical realism, finding it a robust alternative to the poststructuralist perspectives that currently dominate gender studies and feminism. This trend has coincided with an increased interest among feminist theorists in the issues of ontology, materiality and nature, which have always been at the heart of critical realist interventions. However, despite these thematic alignments, and despite the fact that both critical realism and feminist theory are inherently critical-emancipatory, the critical realist approach continues to occupy a marginal role within both feminist and gender studies debates. Concurrently, the field of critical realism is decidedly ‘masculine’ in nature, both in the sense that men dominate the field, and in terms of the issues with which critical realists have most commonly concerned themselves. Recent critical realist feminist work, the International Association of Critical Realism’s adoption of a proactive policy to enhance the representation of women in its organs and activities, and the growing critical realist preoccupation (particularly in Bhaskar’s philosophy of metaReality) with historically ‘feminine’ topics such as love, mark a potential shift away from these unfortunate trends.
In order to encourage the development of this emerging field of critical realist feminism and gender studies, as well as critical exchanges between the respective branches of critical realism (including dialectical critical realism and metaRealism) and feminist theory/gender studies, we are happy to invite submissions for a special issue of Journal of Critical Realism on Critical Realism, Gender and Feminism. We welcome not only contributions that draw on critical realism in studying gender relations and/or engaging with feminist concerns but also critiques of critical realism from feminist or gender-based points of view.
Topics of interest include, but are by no means limited to, the following:

•      Critical realism and poststructuralist feminism/gender studies

•      Critical realism and socialist/eco/radical/black/postcolonial feminism

•      Critical realism and the ontological/materialist/naturalistic turn in feminist theory

•      Critical realism and intersectionality

•      Critical realism, metaRealism, love and gender

•      Critiques/auto-critiques of existing critical realist work from a feminist/gender studies perspective

•      Feminist epistemology, standpoint theory and critical realism

•      Critical realism and feminist critiques of (social) science

•      Examinations/critiques of feminist taboos on realism, nature and causality

•      Critical realism and post-feminist culture

•      Critical realism, dialectics and feminist deconstruction

•      Revitalizing the explanatory feminist tradition: what is patriarchy?

•      Critical realism and sexuality

•      Critical realism and queer studies

•      Critical realism and men/masculinity studies

•      Critical realism, sex and gender identity

•      Critical realism and gendered/sexual violence

•      Critical realism, feminism, gender studies and war/conflict

•      Critical realism and feminist ethics

•      Critical realism and pornography

•      Critical realism and feminist methods/methodology

•      Agency, gender and critical realism

•      Critical realism and feminist activism/politics

•      Feminism, gender studies, critical realism and other realisms (Barad’s agential realism, post-positivist realism etc.)

•      Critical realism as underlabourer for applied work in feminism/gender studies

•      Critical realism, interdisciplinarity, gender and feminism

•      Feminist spirituality and metaRealism

•      Critical realism and feminist economics

Instructions for authors
Papers should be no more than 8,000 words (not inclusive of references). In all other respects, our instructions for authors apply. Please consult these at www.maneyonline.com/ifa/rea<http://www.maneyonline.com/ifa/rea> or use one of our recently published articles as a guide in setting out your work. Articles (as distinct from pieces for our Perspective and Debate sections) will be subject to external peer review.
Submissions need not be exclusively concerned with critical realism or its critique, but should relate their arguments in some significant way to critical realism. For instance, the main focus of an article could be Karen Barad’s feminist appropriation of Bohr’s agential realism, but it should include consideration of critical realism.

Important dates
October 1, 2015: deadline for first drafts
February 26, 2016: reviewers’ reports and editors’ decision provided
May 23, 2016: deadline for final drafts
June 30, 2016: final copy due with the publisher
October 2016: publication of the special issue online and print

Enquiries and submissions
Please send any enquiries to lena.gunnarsson@oru.se<mailto:lena.gunnarsson@oru.se> Please upload articles for peer review to our online system, http://www.editorialmanager.com/rea/default.asp. When uploading you will be asked if your paper is for a themed issue. Please answer ‘Yes, the special issue on Critical Realism, Gender and Feminism’. If your paper is accepted but not included in the special issue, it will appear in a subsequent issue. Please send any other material for the special issue to lena.gunnarsson@oru.se<mailto:lena.gunnarsson@oru.se>.

About the Journal
Journal of Critical Realism is the journal of the International Association for Critical Realism (IACR), established in 1997 to foster the discussion, propagation and development of critical realist approaches to understanding and changing the world. It provides a forum for scholars wishing to promote realist emancipatory philosophy, social theory and science on an interdisciplinary and international b

Alistair Mutch NBS

Alistair Mutch (Nottingham Trent University)
March 10th
17.00-18.30, R1.04
Ramphal Building, University of Warwick

Much of the debate occasioned by the development of ideas about reflexivity and morphogenesis has turned on the status of habit. Whilst recognising the importance of this debate, this seminar takes an alternative tack. Returning to Bhaskar’s formulation of ‘position-practices’, it reviews recent work on organizational routines. Developing a position which sees routines as a key emergent property of organizations, recent developments in information technology are seen to cement autonomous reflexivity. Accompanied by an increasing discourse of ‘strategizing’, this might limit the development of meta reflexivity.

All welcome! E-mail socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with any questions

Dave Elder-Vass (Loughborough)
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
5:00 PM to 6:30 PM, R1.15
Ramphal Building, University of Warwick

Prosumption – the unpaid performance of productive work by ‘consumers’ who thus help commercial businesses to generate a profit – is perhaps the most studied of the many hybrid forms of economic practice that have proliferated in the digital economy. A number of critical accounts have analysed prosumption in terms of Marx’s labour theory of value, suggesting for example that as prosumers do useful work for free they are infinitely exploited by the firms that profit as a result. But such accounts analyse the digital economy in terms that were derived from the nineteenth century factory – and terms that were highly questionable even in that context.

The spectacular mismatch between this model of capitalism and the case of prosumption exposes the inadequacy of the standard monolithic conception of capitalism as a homogeneous and universal contemporary economic form – a conception that at a certain level is also shared by the marketised discourse of mainstream economics. We need a new ontology of economic form that goes beyond the totalising concepts of mode of production and market economy and instead provides us with tools for understanding the sheer diversity of forms of economic practice in the contemporary economy. This paper offers the concept of appropriative practices as a contribution to such an ontology and applies it to the case of prosumption.

Dave Elder-Vass is a senior lecturer in sociology at Loughborough University, where he teaches a variety of core sociology modules. He also offers an MA module on Digital Economies and an innovative undergraduate option that consists entirely of debates between students on popular recent books. He is available to supervise PhD students, particularly those with an interest in social theory, critical realism, digital social developments or economic sociology.

Previously, he spent three years as a British Academy post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, after completing his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. Before returning to the academic world he was a senior IT executive in a major UK retail business.

Beth Weaver (Strathclyde)
Tuesday, February 3rd
5:00 PM to 6:30 PM, R1.15
Ramphal Building, University of Warwick

This paper discusses my empirical application of a relational realist analytic framework to illuminate the role of social groups or collectives, as social relations, in shaping and affecting outcomes for individuals and for groups. Using the morphogenetic sequence developed by Archer, to illustrate the conceptual schema progressed by Donati (2011), this framework affords equal recognition to individual actions, social relations and social systems. To empirically capture the relational ‘we’ in social morphogenesis, however, requires taking the social relation as a central unit of analysis. This means empirically conceptualising the social relation as both context and as interaction, and it means analysing the shifting dynamics and influences on the form and shape of a given social relation. Such an analysis can reveal what triggers reflexivity, what different forms of reflexivity entail, and how social relations can shape and influence outcomes for individuals and groups as well as how such processes shape and alter the relations themselves. Using examples from my own research examining the dynamics of desistance from crime, I will show how both individual and relational contributions are interconnected, and how the manner of relating and the reciprocal orientation of individuals-in-relation towards the maintenance of a given social relation are significant in understanding the relational ‘we’ in social morphogenesis.

Beth Weaver is a Lecturer at the Glasgow School of Social Work, University of Strathclyde. Prior to entering academia, she worked in the areas of youth and criminal justice social work in Scotland and latterly as a MAPPA Coordinator. 

In the second Centre for Social Ontology seminar of 2014/15, Emma Uprichard(Associate Professor at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies) discusses Complex Temporal Ontologies and Method:

This paper reflects on the methodological challenge of applying complexity theory to study social systems. More specifically, the focus is on the problem of capturing complex patterns of time and temporality empirically. The onus of the talk will be: a) to problematize existing longitudinal qualitative and quantitative social research approaches, which fail to capture complex temporal ontologies, and b) to suggest some tentative methodological alternatives which focus on capturing temporal patterns of change and continuity from a complex systems perspective. A particular concern throughout the discussion is how to study complex change and continuity empirically, whilst also ensuring that notions of agency and the reflexive ageing actor remain central.

All welcome! The seminar will take place on October 28th, from 5pm to 6:30pm in R1.15 (Ramphal Building) on the University of Warwick campus. See here for help getting to the campus. Feel free to contact Mark Carriganwith any questions.

In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen suggests that “if we all just suddenly lost our memories and other relevant neural dispositions—if no one was able to remember his or her own name, let alone relatives, friends, possessions, occupation, place of residence, and so on—there would be nothing left of social relations and structures”. This is a science fiction scenario I actually find extremely interesting. Consider that one day, as a result of a natural disaster or fiendish scheme by an evil scientist, “memory and neural dispositions” were suddenly erased at one moment in time. What would the world look like afterwards? I think it would briefly look very similar to the world before the event. For instance the spatial positioning of people within a workplace would be structurally conditioned, likewise how they were co-located (or not), how they were dressed, the length of time they had been present at the workplace that day and what they had been doing up until the memory wipe. It’s certainly unlikely that these structural features of the workplace would be reproduced after the memory wipe but this simply reflects the activity-dependence of social structure i.e. they rely on agential doings for their reproduction or transformation. The enduring causal power of past structures is precisely the point that social realists are making against the central conflation that Piiroinen espouses. I’d maintain that you couldn’t explain the unfolding of events in this scenario without reference to the causal power of past structures i.e. the responses would be patterned rather than atomistically chaotic.

But a lot also depends upon precisely how many “relevant neural dispositions” have been lost in the mind wipe. In a workplace that has card based access systems, the physical possession of the card and its power to enable access to certain locations within the workplace would be unaffected by the mind wipe. People would still have credit cards, mobile phones and personal computers which with sufficient remaining ‘neural dispositions’ could be leveraged to make sense of the undoubtedly confusing situation in which they now found themselves. In fact if the memory wipe were not worldwide but rather something localised to a particular region, or even a workplace, it’s not difficult to imagine how aggregated individual actions of those subject to the mind wipe would provoke collective intervention by authorities that could in turn lead to the reproduction of those structures Piiroinen suggests would be ‘lost’. In short I think there would be something left of social relations and structures. We wouldn’t be able to see it directly but we would be able to see its effects. This obviously hinges upon the acceptance of the causal criterion but even so it seems that Piiroinen hasn’t grasped the point that’s being made here in an otherwise interesting and sophisticated critique of social realism.

See the full interview here:

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?

Bureaucratic incursion, expressed through the regulation of funding, reward and recognition for departments and individuals, via performance indicators and sanctions. Their consequences are completely negative: collegiality becomes competition; informal esteem becomes a formal hierarchy; concern for students becomes “keeping office hours”; journals are selected for their “impact factor”, articles are written with a weather eye to “citation indices” and so forth.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing in university life is the academic freedom that we are busy losing and the worst are the new bars on the iron cage of bureaucracy that are taking it from us.

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/people/qa-with-margaret-archer/2013413.article

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The Centre for Social Ontology (CSO) was established in 2011 at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. Now based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, its main focus is the Morphogenetic Project.

To join our mailing list, please contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk. The CSO website will be regularly updated with information about our activities: www.socialontology.eu

I hadn’t realised this was still online. It’s a very useful resource:

At last year’s International Association for Critical Realism conference, I saw perhaps the most impressive conference presentation I’d witnessed in my five or six years of going to conferences regularly. Jamie Morgan demolished the notion of ‘norm circles’ offered by Dave Elder-Vass and he did so in a way which made a whole host of important meta-theoretical points about the purposes of social theory (while also avoiding making the whole exercise feel at all personal, despite the fact he was kicking down something Elder-Vass had spent the last five or six years building up).The overarching purpose of the exercise was to ask what constitutes progress in social theory. As Morgan says in his write-up of this paper, “it is an issue that becomes significant for any social theory that survives long enough to become a general and recognized position with a range of proponents” (115). As a theoretical position becomes entrenched, internally differentiated into multiple strands with varying degrees of complementarity, it becomes increasingly important to ask what constitutes a progressive development in that position.

On this sort of meta-theoretical level, I’m not sure critical realism is in particularly good health (even if there are events taking place at an institutional level which could leave it stronger than ever). The internal differentiation has become quite pronounced. There’s the obvious distinction between ‘basic’ critical realism*, dialectical critical realism and the meta-reality stuff. But we might also distinguish between systems theoretical strands, relational realism, Marxist orientated realism. Or even perhaps in terms of disciplinary divisions which express themselves in divergent interests, sensitivities, proclivities etc (e.g. sociology, human geography, economics, philosophy). Only the first set of distinctions are ones that are established sites for explicit identification (e.g. I have pretty much zero interest in anything other than ‘basic’ critical realism) but this doesn’t mean the other distinctions aren’t real. They are differences and fault lines within the theoretical corpus, encountered in unpredictable ways through engagement with critical realist thought. Furthermore, there are explicit identities and social networks which emerge, unfold and change across these fault lines (and in turn contribute to the restructuring of this internal differentiation). Some of these stem from supervisory arrangements or recurrent face-to-face meetings (e.g. there’s a definite network connected to Tony Lawson and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group) to the other end of the spectrum, with networks which might be ‘virtual’ or even in some cases ‘imagined’, constituted through textual engagements with real effects but nonetheless in the absence of personal relations.

This multi-dimensional complexity is something likely to grow with an intellectual movement (which I think is a more accurate term than ‘position’) that is sufficiently entrenched, intellectually and institutionally, to avoid gradual dissipation. But very particular risks inhere in security of this sort, as an intellectual movement becomes sufficiently settled to give rise to successive generations of theorists. These are amplified by the necessity for individual scholars to establish a career, with the attendant pressures to publish widely, find some novel framing of an existing issue and generally to capture the attention space within an environment where a publications arms race mitigates against holding anyone’s attention for long. These broader circumstances can tend to distort what counts as ‘progress’, making it ever more important to be explicitly clear about this as a guiding norm on a meta-theoretical level. Jamie Morgan’s argument is very helpful in understanding the intellectual implications of this:

This then is considered progress – lacks, inconsistencies, tensions and contradictions are highlighted and some development then follows. This development is typically inferred to be, by virtue of the very process, more ‘adequate’. However, the meaning frame of adequate here can gradually become ambiguous. Though realism in particular is sensitive to epistemic fallibility and to the potential for an epistemic fallacy – and ultimately ontology is theory so one is careful to never assert a definite identity between ontology and reality – the originating point of the exercise is to under-labour for more adequate accounts of reality. As such, one can ask in what sense the development has actually enhanced one’s understanding of or capacity to undertake further explanatory investigations of reality … ‘Adequacy’ can be directed towards internal projects of social theory addressing aspects of social theory for purposes other than demonstrated adequacy for accounts of reality. They can be about finding difference or reformulating what is actually similar, where both may perhaps be in some sense a non-problem. Furthermore, they can involve the pursuit of categorizations or taxonomies that are then justified as no more than ‘consistent with the existing realist ontology’. The development may then focus on placing an existing alternative framework over the same conceptual terrain – the matter of dispute can then become difference among the positions and where one set of potential weaknesses is traded for another in terms of conceptual critique. (116-117)

http://essential.metapress.com/content/316934k1155kw362/

This is an extremely clear and succinct formulation of what I was struggling to say here. I take Morgan to be saying that a criterion of ‘progress’ is necessary because of the worrying tendency for intellectual movements to tilt towards discursive elaboration, as elaboration comes to hinge on internal points of agreement and disagreement in a way that contributes to the ideational density of the theoretical corpus. It becomes an arcane world, with its own taken for granted axioms, obscure vocabulary and in group / out group distinctions. Sound familiar? This is why the link between theoretical research and empirical research is so important (I say as someone who’s clearly a much better theorist than I am a social researcher but pursues the latter nonetheless). Realist theorists have a tendency to make pronouncements about the ontological regulation of empirical research, which I largely agree with though the point can be overstated. However I think a much more important (and interesting) issue is the empirical regulation of ontological research. 

So an important question to ask is: what is ontology for? What is social theory for? What is sociological theory for? These are the questions I’m naturally drawn to, though they’re also ones which tend to be suppressed by structural and cultural tendencies towards growing ideational density in any established theoretical position. As a body of ideas becomes ever denser, more rife with internal distinctions and specialised vocabulary, it’s very easy to lose sight of the underlying question: what is the point of this body of ideas? 

*The term ‘basic critical realism’ rather irritates me.

I’m finally reading Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive by C Wright Mills. As I expected I don’t actually like it very much. I have a strange relationship to Mills, in that I find him an inspiring figure but I’m not particularly interested in his work. In this case, I don’t accept the methodological premise that social action should be explained ‘from the outside’, I don’t accept the theoretical premise that reflexivity only intervenes when action is impeded and thus it’s hard for me to engage with the paper, given that these aren’t really argued for and the rest of his case depends upon them.

This is a shame because ‘vocabularies of motive’ is a concept that really interests me. There’s much here I agree with:

Individualistic, sexual, hedonistic, and pecuniary vocabularies of motives are apparently now dominant in many sectors of twentieth-century urban America. Under such an ethos, verbalization of alternative conduct in these terms is least likely to be challenged among dominant groups. In this milieu, individuals are skeptical of Rockefeller’s avowed religious motives for his business conduct because such motives are not now terms of the vocabulary conventionally and prominently accompanying situations of business enterprise. A medieval monk writes that he gave food to a poor but pretty woman because it was “for the glory of God and the eternal salvation of his soul.” Why do we tend to question him and impute sexual motives? Because sex is an influential and widespread motive in our society and time. Religious vocabularies of explanation and of motives are now on the wane. In a society in which religious motives have been debunked on a rather wide scale, certain thinkers are skeptical of those who ubiquitously proclaim them. Religious motives have lapsed from selected portions of modern populations and other motives have become “ultimate” and operative. But from the monasteries of medieval Europe we have no evidence that religious vocabularies were not operative in many situations.

A labor leader says he performs a certain act because he wants to get higher standards of living for the workers. A businessman says that this is rationalization, or a lie; that it is really because he wants more money for himself from the workers. A radical says a college professor will not engage in radical movements because he is afraid for his job, and besides, is a “reactionary.” The college professor says it is because he just likes to find out how things work. What is reason for one man is rationalization for another. The variable is the accepted vocabulary of motives, the ultimate of discourse, of each man’s dominant group about whose opinion he cares. Determination of such groups, their location and character, would enable delimitation and methodological control of assignment of motives for speqfic acts.

I just think you fundamentally misrepresent the process if you exhume interiority from the picture. I don’t find it plausible that the growth and entrenchment of vocabularies of motivate can be explained in entirely relational and/or structural terms. I think the approach Mills advocates, rooted in Meadean pragmatism, can offer a lot of insights into the interactive aspects of vocabularies of motive (how these operate between persons) but that it inevitably fails as an account of socio-cultural change at a macro level.

Part of my interest in this stems from a desire to better understand the causal powers which vocabularies of motive can exercise intra-personally. This is what I was trying to get at here. The vocabulary we use to make sense of our own motivations has important consequences. I can parse the same impulse, or lack thereof, in very different terms (“that’s wrong”, “that’s normal”) with importantly divergent consequences. I’m arguing that these terms, deriving their meaning from the broader network of terms in which they are embedded, exercise causal powers in the sense that their meaning makes a difference. To introspectively designate an impulse as ‘wrong’ can serve to intensify distress, producing a deepening of what Mouzelis describes as an ‘intra-habitus contradiction’:

Reflexivity may focus less on interactive and more on intra-active processes. In other words, reflexivity may be enhanced not only when there are contradictions between dispositions, positions and figurations, but also when the subject has to handle intra-habitus conflicts. For instance, Trevor Butt and Darren Langdridge (2003) studied the diaries of the well-known comedian Kenneth Williams (1928-1988) and found a deep contradiction between his homosexual dispositions on the one hand, and his deeply conservative, anti-libertarian mentality on the other; the latter predisposed him to consider anything related to homosexuality as “filth”. These two fundamental aspects of K. Williams’ habitus both products of differing and varied socialization processes were obviously linked to his overdeveloped reflexivity which a reading of his diaries makes very obvious.

http://www.socresonline.org.uk/12/6/9.html

Whereas designating the impulse as ‘normal’ can encourage the resolution of this ‘contradiction’. I’m sure I can think of many examples that fall into this category (not least of all from my asexuality research) and perhaps I need to sit down and do this in order to get a better grip on this conceptually. What interests me is:

  • How cultural resources (words, tropes, concepts, images, motifs) exercise causal power vis-à-vis intra-personal deliberation.
  • How the exercise of this power serves to condition the individual’s orientation towards these cultural resources over time e.g. how people become invested in certain vocabularies which have done affective ‘work’ for them in the past.
  • How these divergent orientations serve to contribute, directly or indirectly, towards the transformation or reproduction of these vocabularies of motive.

My point is not to counterpose an exhaustive focus on interiority to the interactionist focus upon the social. Rather I think we have to incorporate both within our frame of reference if we are to achieve an adequate grasp on the dynamics of cultural change which are observable with regards to ‘vocabularies of motive’. So to use a concrete example: with my asexuality studies hat on, I’m very interested in how what could be described (fuzzily) as a vocabulary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ came to be replaced by a vocabulary of ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ in relation to sexual impulses and sexual acts. I simply don’t see how you can explain this sort of temporally extended cultural change if you reduce, due to a prior methodological commitment, any deployment of such a vocabulary to the situational dynamics in play. What these vocabularies felt like to different persons and groups (including those reactionary groups who felt threatened by the erosion of moral certainties) isn’t just epiphenomenal froth. It’s an important part of the causality at work here.

The JCR’s publisher has chosen them as ‘journal of the month’. There’s more info here. I’ve listed the open access articles I’m planning to read below.

Throughout my thesis I use the term ‘exploration’ as a short hand to designate a rather precise process. I’m trying to conceptualise a particular sort of biographical process, which in spite of its empirical variability shares an underlying structure in which the relation between concerns and context lead a person to look beyond that context in order to find a sustainable and satisfying way of manifesting those concerns. In such a movement, an inability to find a mode of life in which they feel compelled to invest themselves leads them to look beyond the boundaries of their context in pursuit of something ‘more’. Crucially, the constitution of this ‘more’ may be utterly opaque to them. Individuals can search for ‘more’ without being able to articulate what this ‘more’ is. My contention is that this is a purposive activity which is nonetheless inarticulate. People search for new things to know, new things to do and new things to be without being clear about what exactly it is they’re looking for.

It’s in this sense that I’ve been thinking about the spatial distribution of variety. How is variety, which I’m understanding generically as opportunities (i.e. possibilities to do/know/be X which are foreclosed elsewhere), distributed in a geographical sense? Through asking this question we can begin to map a micro-sociological analysis of individual biographies (of the sort alluded to above) onto macro-sociological analysis of the mobility patterns of particular cohorts within broader populations. There was an interesting article in the Guardian recently which left these issues newly at the forefront of my mind:

Monday’s Centre for Cities report starkly illustrated the extent of the brain drain taking place in this country as waves of gifted young people shun what is somewhat patronisingly referred to as “the regions” in order to build a career in the capital. According to the centre, a third of all people aged between 22 and 30 who leave their home towns move to the south, most of them never to return.

I’m one of the exceptions. After six months of signing on while avoiding eye contact, I now have a job that is stimulating, rewarding, offers some hope of progression and, most amazingly of all, is in Birmingham – not London.

I work as a university researcher and so come into contact with bright young people regularly. The students, artists, curators and designers I meet are dynamic, imaginative and energetic. They dream, think differently and make “scenes” (in a good way).

It is inspiring, but it also makes the report’s findings all the more worrying. What does the future hold for cities such as Birmingham if the best and the brightest continue to be sucked into the capital? As the authors of the report point out, compared to other European countries such as Germany, Britain’s financial, cultural and political hubs are already disproportionately concentrated in London. A rich city is going to get richer while the rest are left to stagnate.

Some people will stay and do what they can. But it is not enough to rely on youthful vigour. Faced with a choice between the dole and a zero-hour “McJob” outside London or the possibility of a career in the capital, graduates are doing the only thing they can do: migrating south.

Things clearly need to change. My own university does good work in providing paid internships, artists-in-residence posts and other initiatives to help give young people a real stake in the city. But the problems are vast – they are structural and, as such, require intervention from local and national government. So here are a few ideas.

Local authorities and other landlords outside London should be compelled to make any shop that has stood empty for more than two months available via an application process to students free of charge. This would help break down the distinction between “gown” and “town” and provide a platform for innovation for young people with ideas.

Bodies such as the Arts Council should offer a special fund, open only to first-time applicants under 30 who have an idea for an activity taking place outside London. A young people’s commissioner with real powers should be established in every city and, importantly, it should be a recent graduate who fills the role. And we should relocate some of the key British institutions away from London to other parts of the country.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/28/young-people-lure-of-london-cities

I agree wholeheartedly with this analysis. In a sense, it’s a much more straight forward way of saying what I’ve articulated in the sometimes cumbersome language of relational realism. Macro-social trends which engender a concentration of variety in certain geographical regions and within certain social milieux (there are far more things to do, to know and to be in Manchester than there are in Rochdale) are mediated at the level of lived experience by action which aims, in various ways, to circumvent the contraction of variety in other areas as individuals try to shape a life for themselves, with the resources which individuals are able to deploy in making such moves themselves being unevenly distributed. So far from being a retreat from macro-social analysis, working at the level of individual biography offers a really interesting sort of traction on macro-social processes – these are inflected through individual biographies with all manner of aggregative consequences (the sheer weight of numbers doing X, Y, Z) and emergent consequences (acting collectively in response to convergent circumstances).

This is how I understand the linkage between biography and history, between private troubles and public issues, or in other words what I think the sociological imagination looks like from the vantage point of the particular sort of critical realism I espouse.