A Fireside Chat: Defending the Social

‘This is a mind-blowing panel’ (opening comment in the Q&A)

It’s rare, but when you go to a conference and come away feeling that you are being challenged to push against the boundaries of what we are (not) allowed to talk about in our disciplinary silos, then that is good.

This is what happened just now to those of us listening to the authors of a paper that won a prize for outstanding scholarship in 2016, and their respondents (Marie-Andrée Jacob (far left of the photo) replaced one of the panelists but I don’t know which one – apologies for missing that info – I blame the live blogging!).

Convenor: Dr Mark Carrigan (Sociological
Review Foundation)
Panel members: Professor Ros Edwards
(University of Southampton), Professor Val
Gillies (University of Westminster) and Dr
Nicola Horsley (Royal Netherlands Academy of
Arts and Sciences)

The paper in question, which I haven’t read but clearly now need to, seems to have dealt a hefty blow to the way science is abused to socially engineer social policy. Specifically, to how the UK government has managed to spin a narrative on how to teleologically raise children from the very early years so that they turn out ‘good’.

The big questions the panalists tried to address were:

  • What are the risks of undisciplining? In this case, using Biology and Neuroscience (nature) to influence and replace the Social (nurture).
  • Can doing Sociology be detrimental to the Sociological? In this case, does informing social policy by drawing on science harm social relations by quantifying them and measuring them (for example, telling parents how many times they need to make eye contanct with their hildren to ensure they do not become dysfunctional).
  • Can nature change nurture?
  • In the politics of parenting, what causes life chances to be reduced?

The problem was framed more or less in these terms:

early years intervention assumes the root of social problems lie in childhood development. The logic is that you can head off social dysfunction by targeting certain individuals for interventions. Nobody resists this trope. It is not about helping families but about surveillance with muscular punitive interventions. The neuroscience is used in family courts to remove children from their parents.

How do we retain a notion of the social in all of this?


Other comments included:

The social is a real battleground, the right has always denied the social existed, now there is an attempt to colonise the social.

We (as a society/government policy) have moved over to seeing the social as the interpersonal rather than more collective understandings of the social. This eclipses other kinds of social.

This is what is good about the conference: it foregrounds more collective understandings of the social.

One of the respondents then took the darker political implications of this and claimed it led to the social bioengineering of eugenics:

When you read something it becomes imbricated in other things you are reading as you try to align it.

Deleuzian fascism, neo-reactionsim, Nick Land is responsible for this (University of Warwick). Biological exegesis are foregrounded. That is where the money has gone. The Dark Enlightenment: documents that draw upon books like the ‘Bell Curve’ … eugenics – we draw dark conclusions. The shift that explains Trump is a biosocio one, it is a form of accelerated eugenics.

We are not attending to the forms of deleuzian fascism that we see in the world. How is biological discourse being used in a contemporary neofascist philosophy?

And, on the topic of the sociological dimension that interests me, specifically, I was struck, once again, by the way Marie-Andrée Jacob (one of the Editors of the Sociological Review) manages to vividly bring to life the performative and centrally powerful role that the writing plays in the shaping of knowledge (she did this in her opening discussion panel on Tuesday, too):

The paper is a beautifully written and stern warning. It’s a hell of a ride. It has fast rhythms, great paper.

The paper is an invitation to look at the backstage of these powerful coalitions.

The language of the paper … it is effective how you use the language, you don’t spare us, you make it hard, it’s not gentle, it is an orgy of Newspeak … the paper is full of Newspeak, it is the hope that nurture can change nature

It reminded me that ‘innocence can have a cruel smile’ (Milan Kundera)


The Camerawoman

Since this whole fireside chat was being diligently filmed, I invite anybody who is interested in these issues to watch it (and put right the trivialisations and misunderstandings that arise from my ignorance, and the speed of taking notes and blogging in (almost) real time).




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