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).




The rising emotions of asking the panel a question

A recurring anxiety

Does anybody else feel the hot prickly pain of adrenaline-fuelled anxiety as they formulate a question in their brain and gear up to launching it?

The Physiognomy of Pain, Plate I, Fear by A. Mosso Wellcome

No matter how many presentations I have given or how many questions I have asked as a member of the audience, I still always feel a rising heart-thumping emotion as I psyche myself up to posing a question.

It starts with a quickening heartbeat at the very moment I realise that I want to ask something. Then I stop listening for a while as I try to hear and articulate the question in my head and as I picture myself actually asking it. As I increasingly persuade myself of its relevance for my own research or interests, I convince myself that I must ask it, even though it feels as though the deafening thundering of my heartbeat will smother the sound of any words I do manage to (m)utter.

And then, before I am even aware of it, the question pops out as I somehow disembody myself to be able to ask it. It then feels like I am consciously listening to myself as somebody else, as somebody who is asking a question, in order to keep calm and get to the end.

Why does this happen every time?

It occured to me that the reasons for this anxiety might include:

  • the fear of not being pithy
  • the fear of not being relevant
  • the fear of not being clear
  • the fear of not doing justice to myself
  • the fear of not being respectful to the presenters’ intentions
  • the fear of being selfish, i.e. of asking a question that is only important to me
  • the fear of not extending the conversation but of bringing it to a dead end
  • the fear of having misunderstood the spirit of the presentation

Does anybody else feel uncomfortable with asking questions? How do you deal with it?

A Sociological Walk of Contrasts

Gateshead is not in Newcastle

A group of us chose Dr Stephen’s Crossley‘ walk today. It was really lovely. He pitched it just right and having spent all morning indoors, it was a welcome relief.


He made it clear that the Baltic is in Gateshead and that what we see from there, across the Tyne, is Newcastle (with the palm trees!).

He was keen to show us the beauty of Newcastle, but also ran a dark commentary alongside this.


IMG_20180619_144750299_HDRHe reminded us that those – like Virgin – who sponsor some of Newcastle’s wonderful regeneration and who celebrate its heritage, are also those businesses who fuel social injustice by dodging their taxes or funding the arms industry. They make private profit from government funds to regenerate working class city areas for tourism, not for altruism towards the local community. In fact, Newcastle hosts one of the largest foodbanks in the country, but it is well-hidden from the paved plazas adorned with cafes and restaurants. Several homeless people paved our walk today.


There are 9 bridges crossing the Tyne, including the Swing Bridge (which it does), the Tyne Bridge (which it is) and the Millenium Bridge (which it was).


And under the vaults of the majestic Tyne Bridge, there is a resident colony of Kittiwakes, who smear the sandy stonework with their white Pollock-esque droppings. But they are part of a local heritage that no amount of complaining from nearby business owners has, so far, managed to dismantle!


IMG_20180619_144615173ps Stephen was also keen to point out at least 4 Greggs on our walk, proving that no amount of Jamie Oliver or Carluccio gentrification can threaten Newcastle’s identity.





I am NOT a sociologist, get me out of here!

An Outsider’s Perspective

Dr Michaela Benson (Goldsmiths), Dr Emma Jackson (Goldsmiths), Professor Marie-Andrée Jacob (Keele University), Dr Greg Martin (University of Sydney)

Having just attended the Opening Plenary Curating Conversations from the Edges: An Introduction from the Editors of the @TheSocReview, I am struck by the idea that

sociology doesn’t have a monopoly over the sociological

and that

the sociological is an explanation that can see the social relations in the world

I had been worrying that I wouldn’t belong, and was confused by what the conference title – Undisciplining – meant.

I now think I may have a place at this conference.

I think I get it now – it means that all disciplines can be framed sociologically because they (can) all deal with the social relations in the world. It means that the spaces in-between the disciplines matter. And it means making the invisible visible, all of which requires imagination.

And everybody can have that.

So, I am now really looking forward to the next three days.