I just arrived back home in Perth, smelling like a week in the tropics topped off by a plane ride in dirty bamboo socks. My last day in Cairns was spent on a hostel couch, where I slept and stewed in a climate which a bunch of people were right to call oppressive. Now that I’m back I feel refreshed and refurnished, renewed by the tropical weather. I was in Queensland for the annual conference of The Australian Sociology Association (TASA). Though I’ve been to sociology conferences before, I can safely say that this one, my first with TASA, was the best one. What follows are some of the thoughts I saw drifting above yesterday’s couch.
Lessons from #TASA2015
Settling into your discipline without meeting its community is like living alone in the city. Ever since I discovered that the sociological imagination was the best fit for my own ‘ness, I’ve been wandering around the various fields like a tourist. I frequent the hot spots and attractions, read the plaques and know the history. I’m up to date with the latest developments and know how to spend my evenings with them. But I’ve been so lonely. Lying in bed or bath or wherever else with a book written by dead thinkers can be like a night in with the cat or a night out that you’d prefer to have spent in.
At last year’s International Sociological Association (ISA) congress I met so many lovely people, though made friends with them in the same way one would a backpacker in a hostel, knowing that it would be a brief engagement followed by an email here-and-there. While it will be a similar deal with many of the people I met at TASA, it didn’t feel that way. I felt no nerves in meeting them, and no desire to network uncoupled by a genuine appreciation for not just who, but how they were.
I decided in my sweaty spot and bamboo socks that TASA seemed more real than I expected because it was a community rather than a congress. A hub coupled with a conference. Now there are faces that move in my mind when I read familiar names at the top of the material – and they move according to the reactions they had to my very own presence in real time. More than any key-term or visibility-measure, that makes me want to read what they have to say.
For anyone who has a passion for their discipline, though have not yet entered its community, let me say this: there are people out there whose collective effervescence may well do the same for you. Give it a go. Meet the locals. Take fresh socks.
Future employers and important contacts are vigilant. So wear a shirt and tie, don’t conga line, and criteria, criteria, criteria. I think I can do all these things, though I resist those structures that would discourage a conga line among friends.
Wait until after the opening night to meet new people. Waiting on the outside of a circle for your chance to shake a hand isn’t fun, so chill: you’ve got a whole week to meet and greet.
However, I can’t in good faith recommend attempting to spark up a conversation with someone you admire while waiting in line for coffee number 6-7…
The “dead white guy” thing needs to cool its jets. I heard senior academics and young ones alike refer to the giants who once roamed the fields as “dead white guys” numerous times. I have also taught classes on these greats under the same heading, though have no intention of doing so again. It generally seems to be used jokingly, though occasional comes across in a way that somehow seems dismissive of the intellectual stature of these men and the contribution that they made to our discipline.
I often want to ask those who use this trope exactly what it is that they’re implying. One reason for not making such a request might be that I’m expected to know what is being implied (I find it doubly concerning when it is taken for granted that some things are expected to be taken for granted). Another is that there are simply more interesting and less touchy things to discuss when these thinkers are mentioned, and I’ve little interest in derailing chats headed in exciting directions. Nevertheless, I think the prevalence and acceptance of the “dead white guy” trope that I witnessed at TASA has made it worth addressing here.
My main concern is that it should not be taken for granted that these “dead white guys” were “white” in the same way that the label is often used today. While this is of course a complex matter, I understand the popular use of the notion as communicating a preconception based in pseudo-racial language, that denotes broad-brush privilege and relative freedom from marginalised social status, while working around the actual lived experiences or observations of the individual, their economic situation, and personal troubles and successes. Sometimes this is well placed, particularly in discussions that are aware of the limitations and dangers of using such language willy-nilly.
In sociology, the “dead white guy” thing is usually used to refer to the three fathers who still feature in university text-books. Of this pantheon, a full third is Durkheim, who was a French Jew when it wasn’t such a great time to be so in Europe. If we accept the implication that “whiteness” ignores the individual in order to speak to the group they are supposedly a part of vis-a-vis social structures to do with race, then the fact that Durkheim himself was dedicated to secularism and would become hugely successful is not reason enough to question Durkheim’s status as yet another “dead white guy”, comparable to Marx or Weber. So why do we lump him in using this language, the use of which is problematic at best, especially when considered in the purview of its commonly accepted conditions vis-a-vis the relation between the individual and the group?
I won’t dwell on this longer here, other than to say that: 1. I believe the reasoning behind the “dead white guy” thing to be questionable, and 2. if we are not willing to at the very least question what it is that we are implying when we use such language, then the ready acceptance of the “dead white guy” thing by sociologists is irresponsible. Anyways, if you have to talk about whiteness, there’s always Lord Giddens.
Interesting research and neat presentations from #TASA2015
I attended so many fascinating presentations, and no doubt missed many more. Here are four of the former that come to mind – if you’re interested in learning more than stay up to date with the researcher:
“Neoliberalism and psychiatric power: a case study of the DSM” – Bruce Cohen.
The diagnostic and statistical manual is the Main Man(ual) for the psycho-sciences. It’s full of every neurosis, disorder, dilly-dally and deviation that what some imagine to be the mind can possibly succumb to or construct. This study was a simple one: how often do the words “work” and “education” appear in the DSMs 1 through 5? It turns out both of these terms increased exponentially from the DSM 3 to 5. Interestingly, references to mental disorders occurring vis-à-vis community events external to the market will have to wait until the science finds itself in a different society (but I jest).
*excerpt from correspondence with Bruce: “My argument, however, is that psychiatry is increasingly policing (e.g.) the work and school environments on behalf of capital. In that way it makes itself useful in spreading and enforcing neoliberal values and norms, in encouraging self-surveillance for pathology, etc. Hence DSM-III (pub. in 1980) signals the start of this change.”*
“The gendered smart home: outsourcing domestic labour to home automation devices” – Yolande Strengers & Larissa Nicholls
The smart home will dim the lights, adjust the temperature and turn on your favourite song when you get home. Its ambience is seen and heard, but it lacks the presence of a spouse. What do you think about that? Improvements in domestic technologies are supposed to make our life easier, right? This is where Strengers and Nicholls excellent sociological insight comes into play. Did the entry of such technologies free up time for (mainly) women back in the day, or did it work to raise expectations for cleanliness? What if the fridge meant an expectation for better meals? Did the vacuum cleaner mean more time spent on mopping and dusting? In some places, at some times, apparently so, suggests this area of study. On a personal note I see parallels with “smart-technology”, such as my iPad, whose time saving apps and scheduling devices take up a lot of time and deplete excuses for my tardiness. I’ll definitely be staying up to date with these two in the future.
“Putting the Social back in the social sciences!” – Eva Cox
This was the keynote address that had people talking all week. The point of the talk seemed to be that neoliberalism has done so well in part because it involves a grand narrative which, confounding as it is, can be captured by rhetorical language which speaks to the trajectory and agendas of nations and markets: The politicians and people might not be clear on what it is but, like pornography, they can get behind it. In this way neoliberalism is an ethic or doxa conducive to sound-bites: risk, growth and innovation, flexibility, competition and excellence. According to Cox, to challenge neoliberalism we need to get back to the job of developing an alternative “grand theory” that can guide our discipline. This involves a comprehensive conceptualisation not just of what “Society” now means, but what we ought to make of this, how, and for what purposes. The inspiration lies in the idea that if it’s happened before it can happen again.
In 2002, Philip Smith described the “the rescue narrative in social theory”, like this: “We need to confront this reality through an act of rescue … intellectual renewal as well as critique as we step boldly into the next century. Sound familiar? It should do. This is the template for the thousand and one keynote speeches that we have all sat through with sometimes grater and sometimes lesser interest as we wait for afternoon tea.”
I think this fits well with Cox’s reception. On the one hand, she is a wonderful speaker (e.g.: “if you have to bang your head against a brick wall, at least figure out where the loose bricks are”). Moreover, no one can deliver a grand theory in one opening address, and so her decision to gesture and inspire rather than outline and touch base is understandable.
On the other hand, her move straight from Mills (who was a famous opponent to grand theory, and whom just about everyone in the room would have read) to a call grand theory in the space of a moment left many in the audience vexed. On top of this, it’s not like people haven’t been working on grand narratives, Bauman has been speaking of Liquid Modernity for years, and Beck (who sadly passed away this year) captured the imagination of students and power players around the world with his Risk Society. Nevertheless, these developments were ignored in favour of a message reminiscent of those lyrics by Bright Eyes: “We are nowhere, and it’s now”. On top of this, failure to account for contemporary works was coupled with what some considered a misrepresentation of the classics, vis-à-vis the old “two sociologies” narrative.
In regard to my own thoughts and feelings, I understand both the fans and the critics, and find myself sat between them. I do not appreciate people talking about the state of the discipline while portraying a lack of attention to it, especially when the speaker is someone so influential as Cox. Moreover, I don’t enjoy taking the wind out of peoples’ sails – and, to be sure, there was a lot of wind in a lot of sails following the speech. That said, it was no doubt an effective and admirable talk, given what it was designed to do in the bracket it was given. With all that said, I think we need people like Cox not just because of their gravitas and charisma, but for their willingness to spin a yarn and inspire, even if it means loose ends and cut corners. In this way I am contemporary and vulgar – but so are the times, apparently.
In the question time that followed I stood up and asked Cox to elaborate on what she actually means and what kind of project she is gesturing toward. I can’t remember what I said precisely, so I’ll try to reproduce my concern here verbatim and at greater length: Part of the reason neoliberalism has been so successful is not because it exists as some cohesive grand narrative that can be applied to the world, but because it can frame small-scale problems across sectors using rhetoric that seems intelligible and conducive to development. It’s a nebulous ethic that somehow seems to all add up to what we now loosely call a grand narrative. In other words, people do not always know that they are “doing neoliberalism” until they are already embedded in it. How do you suppose we respond to this? Do we develop an alternative narrative and then mobilise it across the sectors and our discussions in a similar way, given that such a method seems at least on the face of it to be successful? Or do we just try to stick to a general alternative ethic and see what emerges from it?
I know many people remembered this question, as many people thanked me for asking it throughout the week. I ask those who were in attendance to try their hand at remembering Cox’s answer.
“Using hegemony as a sociological tool for the analysis of ideology within popular culture” – John McGuire
The most humorous moment of the conference: during the theory moment of this talk (which was in the media bracket) a phone switched on to Siri and called out: “sorry, I didn’t understand that”.
Well, that’s it for now. There’s work to do.
Thank you so much to everyone who helped organise #TASA2015 and make it what it was. It was such a pleasure to meet you all, and get to hear your thoughts on all those old and new matters which make me proud to be a part of your community and the discipline we share.