My notes on Betta, M., & Swedberg, R. (2018). Heuristics and Theorizing as Work on the Self. Sociologica, 12(1), 21-25.

Heuristics are commonly seen as either rules of thumb, simple tricks used under conditions of uncertainty, or tools for discovery, practical steps facilitating knowledge about what was previously concealed. However in this short paper, Betta and Swedberg suggest a third meaning, connected to the increasingly apparent area of theorising. From pg 22:

During the last ten or so years a new field of knowledge has slowly begun to open up; and the knowledge of tricks, moves and advice is part of this field. This new field of knowledge is theorizing. Theorizing is about sociologists becoming aware of what they are actually doing when they work with theory, and also being aware of how they can use this knowledge to shape their work.

The concern of social scientists with their own practice has led to the development of the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of sociology and the sociology of ideas. However they argue that these have been prone to blunt and oversocialised generalisations about the objective determinants of ideas. Furthermore, they are unable to inform an account of how to improve that practice.  There are books which aim do this explicitly, providing guidance about the practical steps involved in common intellectual activities. But these, argue Betta and Swedberg mainly focus on justification and say little about discovery. The focus on theorising aims to correct this deficit, as they explain on pg 22-23:

Theorizing represents an attempt to portray how things are actually done, and how theory is actually used in research. The search light is directed straight at what the social scientist does for two reasons. First, by proceeding in this way, social scientists will become aware of what they are currently doing; and second, they will also learn what they should be doing.

This involves relating to the self as an object of knowledge, in a way analogous to moral action which seeks to ensure more than mere conformity to external rules.  Heuristics should be seen alongside metaphors, induction, deduction, explanation and generalizations as part of theory work. But if I understand them correctly, their point is that beginning to talk about theorising in these terms helps constitute oneself as a theorising subject, relating reflexively to activities which would once have been (largely) tacit in a way guided by these concepts. In doing so, it contributes to constituting theorising as an area of knowledge with a direct connection to practice.

Interestingly, they relate this to the progress of methods and the consequent impoverishment of theory in (American, though they don’t qualify it as such) sociology. They also suggest that the findings of the cognitive sciences could be brought in to help inform the theory and practice of theorising. They conclude by linking this to Kant’s “project of the thinking self, which can be described as persons who act on themselves by teaching themselves how to think” (pg 24): if I understand them correctly, ‘owning’ theorising in the way they suggest involves having the courage to use your own understanding in the Kantian sense.

My notes on Skeggs, B. (2019). The forces that shape us: The entangled vine of gender, race and classThe Sociological Review67(1), 28-35.

How do we make sense of the influence of Antony Giddens? The first page of his Google Scholar profile shows 149,243 citations with many more to be expected if one were inclined to dig into the long tale of his many publications. He defined the cannon for an entire generation of social theorists, offering an account of the ‘founding fathers’ which became a shared reference point. His structuration theory drew together diverse strands in a way which directly and indirectly exercised a great influence over the landscape of social theory for decades. He wrote the best selling textbook, now in its eighth edition, introducing sociology to successive cohorts of A Level students and novice undergraduates. He cofounded Policy Press which radically reshaped the terrain of social theory and introduced continental philosophy into the Anglophone theoretical mainstream. He was director of LSE, one of the leading research universities in the world. He was architect of the New Labour notion of the third way, exercising an enormous influence over the self-understanding of this government and its subsequent trajectory. However I find it hard to write this without thinking back to Tony Benn’s observation that “Anthony Giddens just hovers round trying to put an ideological cloak around whatever is being discussed”. This blistering critique from Bev Skeggs in a new paper made me think back to his comment:

I think sociology lost its critical edge when a nationalist, individualist, presentist analysis was offered by the likes of Giddens and Beck. Sociology became a source of legitimation, not a force of critique. We should never forget that Giddens was an architect of New Labour’s ‘third way’, an apologist for the institutional structures that enabled neoliberal policies to be implemented. Through his publishing enterprises Giddens has saturated sociology with this apologist perspective. Most sociologists encounter Giddens from A-level, often throughout their degrees. Giddens and Beck both proposed the denigration of class as a key unit of analysis for sociologists; yet, analysis of class can only be wilfully ignored by those with enough privilege to do so. The occlusion of attention to the processes, structures and forces that produce class (and gender, race, sexuality), i.e. those of capital, capitalism and colonialism, I would argue, was not a conspiracy but a complacency of the comfortable, a perspective of privilege.

Even if it’s a matter of political gossip, I feel we should take Benn’s remark seriously. To what extend did Giddens move across sectors in pursuit of political influence and what did this mean for the work he produced? The discursive armoury fashioned in his early 1990s work on late modernity surely provided all the instruments he needed to “put an ideological cloak” around whatever was being discussed in New Labour circles: an epochal, justificatory, exciting framing which lifted discussion out of the quagmire of politics and policy, making it seems as if history was whispering in the ear of those present.

Skeggs supports the call of Satnam Virdee, to which this essay was originally a response at the Undisciplining conference, for an end to this complacency and a return to the critique of ‘progress’, the question of ‘in whose interests?’, the reclamation of an historical frame of reference, the recognition of over-determination and the “the contradictions between race, class and gender”. If we reclaim the past in this way, rejecting what Mike Savage has elsewhere characterised as epochal sociology, it becomes easier to see how it continues on in the present. As Skeggs writes of financialisation and digital capitalism:

Rent seeking is a major form and force of capital value. Just think of digital companies who extract billions per year through rent, e.g. for cloud computing (Amazon), extracting rent through monetizing your personal data (Facebook), extracting rent though monetizing your search data (Google). Rent as profit is now a major force, existing alongside surplus value production from labour. Interest from debt (rent from money lending) is another source of expropriation that continues to expand as capital is reorganized through financialization (Lapavitsas, 2013). And technology labour platforms such as Deliveroo extract rent whilst also exploiting labour, and Uber extracts rent, exploits through labour and also generates interest on debt through car purchase. Connecting expropriation to exploitation is now more easily identified and absolutely necessary to understanding contemporary capitalism, and how it shapes our daily lives.

Classifications ossify and they circulate and undergo institutionalisation, becoming part of the order of things as “they are used by capitalists and their managers over time” and enforced through the actions of the state. As Skeggs cautions, “Never underestimate the power of managers and state officials to enforce difference”. In the absence of a historical understand, our conceptual apparatus will be ill-equipped to understand either the present or the future. We lapse into complacency because we lack the tools to see what is urgent, even if it is right in front of our face. Skeggs over evocative description of the analytical and political challenge our present conjuncture poses:

Devices beyond our control or even understanding are giving money and trade a life of their own. The world of finance is heavily invested in high frequency trading, which only algorithms that machine learn understand. Huge investments are made in block chain technology which even fewer people understand. These are the instruments that shape our daily lives, determine whether we can pay our bills, rent, mortgages, whether our national currency stays afloat and whether trading between nations can occur. Alongside deregulated political manipulation of the Brexit kind, there is a huge distribution of wealth upwards enabled by investment vehicles (and for the conspiracy theorists amongst you – Robert Mercer is key to both worlds). Repeating historical legacies, a huge amount of violence is lived by vulnerable populations, designated as disposable and deportable. People struggle to stay alive against militarization, against structural adjustment policies in the Global South and austerity in the Global North.

Recognising how historical conditions “enabled our existence as particular types of potential value, as property, as rent, as the lubricant of social reproduction that enables capital to continue its travels” is crucial if we wish to avoid remaining “entrenched in privileged provincial perspectives”. She ends with by asking how did sociology get so side-tracked and reflects on what it is for when so many crucial turnings have been missed:

How did we get so distracted? Why did sociology refuse to engage with the crucial anti-racist analysis of Cultural Studies, from Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Les Back, Erol Lawrence, Hazel Carby? Or the wonderful feminists from history: Catherine Hall, Anna Davin, Carole Dyhouse, Ann McClintock, Vron Ware and many more from History Workshop Journal? What happened to the resistance detailed by the historical studies of power? Do we know about the motley crew? The pirates, the many-headed hydra? The many refusals against becoming surplus and disposable? Or the struggles together as the working class recognizes that divide and rule only benefits those with power, that Satnam identifies. When sociology turned its back on the state, away from education and social policy into the world of legitimation, it lost its traction. All those battles between anti-racism and multiculturalism were overlooked.

I spent much of the recent Accelerated Academy talking about the limitations of the fast/slow dichotomy and my concern that the framing of our series entrenches it. To talk of the ‘accelerated academy’ implies there was once a slow(er) academy and hints that the pathologies we currently face could be overcome by reclaiming what has been lost. It is an account which invites us towards nostalgia, imagining a past which we seek to recover rather than analysing the potential for change we can find latent within our present circumstances. In fact, between myself and Filip, it seemed the fast/slow dichotomy was trashed so much that a few people seemed apologetic when they mentioned it with anything other than condemnation.

So should we dispense with them entirely? Barbara Adam offered a qualified defence of dichotomies, recognising their limitations but insisting on their value as tools to think with. This resonated with me a lot, as someone prone to finding dichotomies in my own thinking yet continually struggling against them. Dichotomies anchor a terrain, laying out a space in a way which help us locate ourselves within it. But they only provide a rough sketch of that space, leaving us disorientated if we retain them as our sole reference points rather than elucidating the territory and exploring its topography.

The problem with dichotomies is not so much their appearance as their persistence, their tendency to prove sticky and our ensuing difficulty in dispensing with them once they have served their original purpose. We shouldn’t banish dichotomies, as much as refuse to take them seriously past a certain point. They can be useful conversation starters and sharpening blocks for our conceptual tools. But if we mistakenly take them as a primary focus then they can fatally undermine our capacity to make sense of a world inevitably more complex than a simplistic opposition can possibly capture.

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.


Clearing out my stock of library books, some of which I’ve had for a number of years, I’ve inevitably been drawn into looking through books I was once excited about before subsequently forgetting. Jeff Alexander’s Twenty Lecture in Social Theory is foremost among these, as a book I’d skim read but on second reading is even better than I remembered. This is his account of how theoretical disagreement can be read in terms of a multifaceted grappling with the various contours of social reality, taking place over time. From pg 283:

Reality is multivalent. At first glance it might seem to be composed of objects which differ widely from one another and are, therefore, in great disarray. It is for this reason that ‘partial theories’ always arise. On the other hand, if we put these partial theories side by side we can see not only that each contributes to our understanding of reality in a different way, but that, taken together, they provide an outline of the larger whole itself. Reality, it seems, is multidimensional. If one theory becomes influential by taking up one part of reality, a succeeding theory will have to move towards an emphasise on another. Yet, judging from this postwar period, the possibilities for emphasis are far from infinite; indeed, they are relatively simple and few. When Parsons set out to investigate reality, he pointed to certain elements. His critics, when they set out to challenge his theory, ended up by pointing to the same things in different ways. This convergence helps convince us that effort, means, ends and conditions really are ‘there’. If they are not conceptualized from the outset by an act of ecumenical synthesis, they will all be brought back in the end through theoretical critique.

I couldn’t agree more with this, at least until the last sentence. The apparent faith in the integrative capacity of critique over time is not just wrong, but fascinatingly wrong. One way to explore this is to ask what conditions need to be in place to ensure such an outcome:

  1. Theoretical work needs to be facilitated by an underlying conceptual literacy which facilitates meaningful conversation in the face of apparent incommensurability i.e. even if people talk about things in different ways, they still talk.
  2. Intellectual imperatives need to predominate over institutional ones. Inevitably, both will always be active factors shaping theoretical work, but unless intellectual motivations reliably win out over the imperatives of institutional advancement, self-promotion and school-building then convergence won’t happen.
  3. Both 1 and 2 necessitate a degree of systematicity to the canon and a level of acquaintance with it that makes it possible to sustain theoretical debates over time and place them in meta-theoretical context.

From my point of view, none of these conditions currently hold. What I was trying to argue here, in a chapter expunged from my thesis because it had nothing whatsoever to do with it and was also the most absurdly dense piece of writing I’d ever produced, was that the socio-cultural dynamics of theoretical disagreement within the academy militate against the cultural systemic possibility of theoretical resolution. Or, in other words, there are all sorts of meso-social factors which mean that theorists argue in a way that foregrounds disagreement and backgrounds agreement: 

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

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