Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Choir: sociological genius?

By Dr Rebecca Leach

I unashamedly and utterly love the Choir. Doesn't everyone? It is a brilliant piece of TV, forged by some clever director with an eye for an emotionally realist narrative, and a central charismatic figure who manages to pierce the bastions of masculinity and come out intact.

And I can't think of a better programme to show students in order to illustrate some of the complexities of sociological thinking. Let's take the basic principle: how to make a difference (see What is Sociology blog below). Millions have been poured into ASBOs and youth training. Yet the Beeb's idea - at least in narrative form - is simple: use the power of social effervescence to empower and raise aspiration. And what works here is not the healing power of middle class aspirations and the parachuting in of the classical canon; in fact, it is the host's ability to make himself the fool at the centre of doubting machismo. Yet he patently isn't a fool: at least in edited form, Gareth Malone's confidence and slightly camp self-possession spread around.

So making a difference here seems to work, a formula The Choir series is reusing again and again. It is hard not to be caught up in the effervescent moment of people finding a tiny bit of passion for something against the adversity of the daily grind. OK, some of this is milked beautifully for story: just as doubt and struggle set in while rehearsing Barber's Agnus Dei, the shot cuts to bleak, wasted council estate streets, blighted by ice. Ho hum. But on the other hand, these are real people with fire in their eyes.

Indeed the eyes of Matty shift quite dramatically over one programme: from the steely eyed inscrutable stare of a man about to shove his glass in your chin, to those fired up with a camaraderie he thought he could only find beating people round the head (as a boxer, lest you think I am being libellous). He found it instead in reluctantly persuading young men to strip away their entrenched masculinity to perform in public.

This was only one poignant moment. Leaving aside the wet-eyed triumphs of small children, it is a great social commentary. Now. I'm not so naive I think this will make a lasting difference to poverty and social exclusion. Yet there are precious few initiatives that bring together generations as this kind of thing. Jesus, the Church worked this out a heck of a long time ago: people rather like singing together, but they are, mostly, just too cool now. Yup, the single parents facing racism will still be shunned for not being part of the 'real' community in some steely eyes. But what else is there but talking to each other to overcome that? And the odd judicious prison sentence.

One of the most telling sociological moments for me was when a member of the Choir pointed ou how much South Oxhey felt like a community since the Choir began: people talked to each other more, she explained, and that had never happened before. I doubted this. I bet there is exactly the same amount of social interaction as there had ever been, though perhaps with a few more nodes in the network. But what was different was how she felt about herself, her environment, her community. This is what Giddens and others call 'ontological security': comfort in ones environment and 'skin'. And this has an impact, as is well known, on feelings of safety and belonging.

This is, above all, a programme about class. But it is cleverly done. It could have been about the healing but patronising power of middle class pursuits 'improving' the cultural lives of the poor. But it isn't. More cleverly, it is about the lasting influence of charisma and personality (and, natch, resources and being on telly) to make people feel different. And oddly, it remains rather classless: Gareth, with his chorister's training and Oxbridge diction and cool camp demeanour was probably recruited in the first Choir series as a fall guy. Yet he turned out to be captivating, funny, modest and deploying steely ambition. And Matty, his boxer alter-ego, turned out not to be a Rottweiler with a taste for protection rackets (well, at least not in public), but a rather good singer who loved his estate. It reminds us we are wedded to class archetypes, yet they evaporate in the form of real people.

And yet. The 'transformation' genre of TV is ultimately manipulative, pulling emotional strings in the same way I am sure Radio 4 pitches itself just below the knowledge of its audience to instil a sense of knowingness. Who was its audience? People like me, I imagine, a bit touched by irritating optimism and possibly patronage. We don't know who is representing South Oxhey here. The black single mum who had racist abuse thrown at her seems to have disappeared after her solo: did someone quietly remind her she shouldn't try and stand out? Or did she herself begin to feel her own aspirations didn't fit those of her neighbours. I am not deluding myself that a bit of singing makes everything rosy or that 'community' above all else is an obvious 'good'. But piercing the embarrassment and fear that prevents people from just talking to each other is an obvious good. I don't buy Putnam's Bowling Alone argument too much. But I do think compulsory individualism and hegemonic masculinity need challenging. Even if that does mean sometimes strapping on a foppish public school boy and letting him charm people into joy.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

What is Sociology for? Part 1

By Dr Mark Featherstone

In the face of global recession academic disciplines, such as Sociology, are being called upon to justify the value of their research to government and wider society. This questioning of the value of academic work is not unusual in a period of crisis. Sociology itself was born in an age of crisis with the collapse of feudalism and the rise of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. The value of Sociology to this historical period was to enable people to understand the changes that were taking place in their world and to help them to orientate themselves within it. In this respect, Sociology began life as a reflexive practice: the first Sociologists, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, took the material conditions of their societies and tried to explain them through theoretical models in order to first understand them and second predict how they may evolve in the future.

The classical sociologists were not new in this regard. The history of abstract thought about the world and society began in Ancient Greece in order to cope with the harsh conditions of life. In this way, it is possible to say that the Greeks were the first utilitarians, since the original purpose of their thought was to find ways to cope with and improve their lives through understanding the world around them. Centrally, they were only able to do this because they lived in an environment that simultaneously offered them little shelter and great freedom. The central principle of life in Ancient Greece was, therefore, exposure. It was exposure that caused them to think about their world and enabled this thought to happen.

Later, as the Greek city began to evolve, political systems developed that attempted to stifle the free thought and enterprise that had led to the evolution of the original political cities in the first place. The most famous form of political system set on preventing free thought was, of course, tyranny. Ancient tyrants tended to want to limit free thought because it was considered threatening to their rule. On other occasions, the limitation of freedom of thought was not necessary because the people could not muster the energy to engage in politics and chose to live under some tyrant or other who would make decisions on their behalf. In this instance, the idea of tyranny loses the violent connotation it carries in the modern world, where it is assumed, I would say mistakenly, that people always want to be free. In the ancient world tyrants could be elected, or take power, over an apathetic mass that did not want to be free. This situation, that people did not always want to be free, was understood and accepted by Greek thinkers.
We should be thankful however that Greek culture never evolved into a culture of apathy and its people were willing to argue the toss, state their case, and not sit back and be told what to do by tyrants and aristocrats. The Greeks called this practice of argumentation, politics. They thought that politics was central to the expression of free thought, the development of a better society, and sharply differentiated it from economy, which they associated with basic survival, getting by, and the preservation of the status quo. Although their thought originated in this effort to survive, it soon became about improvement and progress in general and they resented the reduction of philosophy, politics, and debate to the level of base economics.

Centrally, in his book on politics Aristotle argued that tyrants often encourage obsession with economy because it deflects people’s attention from political questions about whether this, that, or the other way of living is better or worse and allows social, economic, and political inequalities and injustices to remain unquestioned. In this respect Aristotle saw that obsession with economy erodes critical thought by encouraging people to busy themselves with private matters concerned with the continuation of their way of life. The effect of this was, in his view, to leave the public sphere, the space of politics and debate about social issues, wide open for colonisation by those interested in preserving the status quo.

In many respects the original sociologist Karl Marx took the same view. In Marx’s view monetary economy is modeled on natural metabolism comprised of the simple circulation of food and other resources to sustain life. In the social world, this model is organised on a higher level to sustain a civilized way of life organised on a basis of a complex division of labour. Despite the differences however between the natural and social world the point of similarity that has been taken up by contemporary bio-economists remains the same: economy is simply an unthinking eating and shitting body on a sociological scale. However, much like the Greeks, Marx was aware that economy was cut across by power relations between the people, who either think for themselves or sink back in apathy and simply try to ‘get by’ by keeping the economic metabolism moving, and the aristocratic class, who know that encouraging easy apathy and an obsession with economy is good for keeping politics clear so that they can call the shots.
But we must be clear about this: like Aristotle’s tyrant, Marx’s capitalist aristocracy was never really interested in calling the shots for the sake of calling the shots. As Aristotle pointed out, the problem with tyrants is that they are not reasonable, but rather spend their time obsessing about money, wealth, possessions, and power in general. Marx’s ruling class is the same. The capitalist is not political for the sake of being political. He is not interested in making decisions about the way the social world is organised. Instead, what matters to him is lining his own pockets, maintaining the status quo, and generally promoting the view that economic metabolism is what matters in life because he believes this to be case.

In Marx’s view, the capitalist world is a thoughtless world. Capitalists exploit workers to make money. The capitalist obsesses over money simply because he has no sense of the difference between needs and wants and comes to consider the pursuit of money and later on luxury an end in itself that can somehow make his life better. Since this is not the case beyond the level of basic need, the capitalist’s desire for money that will somehow make life better knows no limits. His obsession with money is endless. The workers who live miserable lives making a profit for the capitalist and a living for themselves are similarly obsessed with money because it is necessary to sustain their lives and provide them with a distraction from the boredom of their lives.

For Marx, both parties are lost and neither are really in charge of their own lives. In his language they are alienated from (a) their true nature, which is not simply about metabolism and economy because humanity is capable of more than survival, (b) each other, because they become enemies who vie for a larger share of the pie, and (c) the world around them, which is seen as little more than a resource to plunder in the name of profitability. On top of this situation, which causes people to live our emotionally miserable lives, the economic system, the stupid eating and shitting machine that cannot think but simply consumes in order to produce in order to consume and so on ad nauseam, seems like a monster to both of groups because neither bosses nor workers really control it. Both parties fear the monstrous economic machine because, as various capitalist Gods have discovered over the last year or so, it is completely inhuman in its judgement of success and failure. Capitalism is a fickle master. All that matters is the bottom line. It can, and will, chew anybody up. Nobody is safe. Life is precarious.

The Marxist response to this situation was to return to the Greek model of politics and to think about finding ways to put people back in charge of their own lives. In this way Marx sought to resolve the original paradox of philosophical thought, which is that it evolved in order to try to combat problems of exposure and solve concrete problems leading to the eventual dominance of economy and the creation of a new man-made state of nature that reduced people to the level of beasts, by creating a new revolution in thought on the basis of state managed socialism or communism. I do not think it is necessary to tell the story of the rise and fall of socialism in the limited space available here. Instead we should note that the rise of the new version of laissez faire capitalism and collapse of socialism as a viable model of government in the 1980s coincided with a profound crisis in Sociology itself.

In the face of neo-liberalism, or the total ideology of the new capitalism, everything was subsumed under the economic model and the kind of critical thought advanced by Sociology, and thinkers such as Marx, was seen to be irrelevant. Elements of the subject considered to have utilitarian value in the new economic world were hived off and became new disciplines. But even these new disciplines, which have become especially popular in the New Labour years where personal freedom has been undermined by both an economic system that is completely out of human control and an enormous socialistic state machinery set on managing every aspect of life in order to control the masses who are hammered on a daily basis by said economic machine, are under threat today because the mindless economic system has finally crashed. This has left everybody wondering how the state is going to not only save the collapsing financial system, but also continue to bank roll its own massive bureaucratic machine, which is meant to absorb the social problems caused by the monstrous economy that continues to lay waste to individuals, families, cities, and on a global scale, entire nations.

The answer to this question is probably that the state will not continue to fund the entirety of its bureaucratic machine, but that it will instead cut, slash, and burn many of its public service functions in the name of trying to maintain its primary commitment to the mindless economic machine which has plunged us into our current predicament, simply because the ideology of laissez faire capitalism advises that (1) economy is everything and (2) everything is economy and should be judged on the basis of its ability to measure up to economic criteria of profitability and competitive advantage. One would imagine that in the wake of our recent economic crash the thinking person, the descendent of Aristotle or Marx, who is also incidentally the descendant of the Greek hoplites who fought for the city and therefore felt that they were owed a say in the way the city was run, would have reached the conclusion that it is probably better to stop thinking about the world in economic terms, because these principles have proven to be more or less stupid in their support of an economic machine that is essentially little more that an enormous eating and shitting body.

One would have thought that the thinking person, the descendant of Aristotle, Marx, and the hoplites, would have made the link between (a) the obsession with economy, (b) the economic crash, (c) the immorality of the financial sector, which has been run to line the pockets of the banking class for the best part of three decades, and (d) the petty corruption of the political class, which has recently been exposed as being more, or at least as, interested in lining its own pockets as it is serving the public good, and stopped talking about value. Yet in the face of all of this academic disciplines, such as Sociology, which, since its break from more so-called useful disciplines, has become purely about critical reflection on society, are expected to justify themselves in terms of value, where value is a thinly veiled reference to economic worth. The truth is that the value of disciplines, such as sociology, is that they enable people and, as a consequence, society to think reflexively.

This thinking takes place through teaching and learning and critical research that contributes to societies knowledge of itself. That this cannot be made subordinate to concerns with economic value is evidenced by the fact that in the wake of three decades of economic tyranny that have resulted in the emergence of a fragmented anomic society characterised by monstrous levels of inequality and the most serious economic crash since the 1930s we continue to listen to renewed calls to justify the value of social research. If this fact, which testifies to the scarcity of even the most basic levels of thought in our society, does not teach us that we have to stop thinking of the economic system in religious terms, then I do not know what will.

Perhaps now is the time to reject the tyranny of economy and return to the critical thought of Aristotle and Marx, accepting that although we may not be able to think in world historical terms, we have the right, like the modest Greek hoplites, to engage in critical debate on the basis that we are our society, not simply beasts of burden meant to supply some unthinking over-blown eating and shitting body that simply consumes in order to produce in order to consume ad nauseam.

A graduate's welcome to Keele sociology...

By Amy Jones

So, you have just arrived at Keele University with a world full of expectations and now you have come to grace this spacious superstructure with your presence, you are left with the prominent question of ‘what now’ and a bunch of worrisome ‘what ifs. What if I don’t make friends? What if I get lost? What if I cannot comprehend and engage with the courses being taught to me? Well, as a current Keele graduate I wish to answer some of these prominent questions and to candidly reveal to you what studying at Keele, particularly Sociology, is really like, in order to show you that the next three years of your academic journey holds a stimulating promise of enrichment, enjoyment and excitement.

Whether you have studied Sociology before or not, becoming a Sociology student entails a form of equality which unites you and your fellow comrades together in a quest to comprehend the complexities of the sociological world. Thus, regardless of your past experiences and qualifications you will be treated with the same gracious manner as every other student and will be offered the same high standards of teaching, learning and guidance as all your fellow peers. Furthermore, by becoming a Sociology student at Keele you have now become part of a form of Sociologists R Us, in which you will be able to choose from a selection of assorted courses all offered under one roof. For example YOU will have the CHOICE to study topics such as social theory, the body, work, families, health, risk, conspiracy theories, post-colonialism, feminism, consumption, cities, utopias/dystopias, research methods and much much more and to add that extra special cherry on top, all the courses are taught by extremely professional, talented and experienced academics who specialise in the subject fields being taught.

Furthermore, studying Sociology at Keele offers you so much more than the opportunity to learn creative and distinct subject specialism’s, as the department encourages you to think independently, originally and critically. Therefore, if you do not agree with a specific sociological theory and can back your claims up with some form of evidence (no matter how quirky this may be), then say so, whether this be in your written assessments (essays, posters, dissertations and examinations) or more verbal assessments (class presentations and seminar classes). Do not be afraid to question and challenge, as despite what you may think, all the academic staff want you to show innovative thoughts in your work and the ability to do so is one of the most rewarded skills at Keele. You never know, your views may even enlighten the most experienced of academics!

If I am to briefly and candidly tell you my own experiences of studying Sociology at Keele, I would start by saying that when I began at Keele University I was a shy individual who knew not a single soul in the courses I was taking (Sociology and History) and worried terribly about all the ‘what ifs’. However, whilst I may have walked into the wrong toilets within my first week at Keele and wondered why everything was backwards; the other worries were all in vain! I realised, like you will do, that all the teaching staff want nothing more than to see you fulfil your own goals and reach your potential and therefore are happy to facilitate and guide you in any way possible and that the majority of your fellow students are in the same position as you are; nervous, excited, and looking for valuable friends who they can depend upon. Thus before I knew it, I was surrounded by a cohort of friendly and encouraging people who would support me through the journey of gaining a degree and by special friends who not only shared a laugh with me over a drink, stressed with me during assessment periods and graduated with me when we all successfully finished our degrees, but who will unquestionably become lifelong friends. Therefore, whilst you may understandably be worried about the prospect of starting at Keele, rest assured that upon your arrival there will be a considerate and accommodating community waiting for you!!

As for the courses offered upon the Sociology programme at Keele, I can honestly say that when I was an undergraduate I enjoyed every course which I attended, whether I was learning about the body, health, risk, cities, social theory or research methods, I found them all stimulating, challenging and incredibly insightful in their own unique ways. I also have to say, that the Sociology department go to extraordinary lengths to allow their students to take their first choice option modules in the majority of cases, which is undoubtedly to their credit. However, as a student who has been there, if you do find yourself being placed upon a course which was not your first choice (due to timetable clashes or oversubscription to a module), then the secret to success is to not walk into that first class with the attitude that ‘this course is going to be awful’, as it may become a self fulfilling prophecy. Instead, keep an open mind, try to emphasize the positives and be willing to be embraced by diverse and thought-provoking sociological perspectives, as often modules which you did not initially rank very highly in your order of preferences, prove to be fascinating and interesting courses. They just require a little extra effort and a greater enthusiasm to engage with them. I would actually argue that the ability to overcome difficult situations and circumstances leads to the greatest rewards!

I think it is also important to stress that the assessments for Sociology are not as bad as you may think. I remember when we first began at Keele and we were told that we would have to take part in many presentations and write a 10,000 word dissertation and suddenly being engulfed by trepidation and hoping that that day would never come, as did a lot of other students. However, having survived the experience I would like to tell you that they aren’t as bad as you may think. An awful lot of students feel anxious about the thought of standing in front of their peers and their lecturer and giving a presentation, but the fact is, you are all in the same situation and we all make mistakes. I remember giving a PowerPoint presentation in my final year, shaking like a leaf, my voice going three pitches higher than usual (screeching and turning a tomato colour became a new norm for me whilst giving presentations at university), going to press the mouse button on the laptop to start the PowerPoint Presentation and pressing the wrong button and losing the entire presentation...which if I had thought about that happening before, I would have imagined my world coming crumbling down around me! Yet, whilst in that momentary second I may have desired someone to dig me a hole a mile deep to bury myself within, I soon realised that there was nothing to be frightened of, as no one was mocking me and instead they only desired to help me fix the problem. So in relation to presentations, try to enjoy the experience and don’t worry about making errors, we all make them and we and others can always learn from them.

As for the dissertation, there is no disputing that it will be one of the most challenging things you ever do, because it involves a lot of hard work and dedication and predominately absorbs your time in your final year (forget sleep: coffee and Redbull become your new best friends), but the fact is that the majority of students thrive upon this challenge, because it is their time to shine and show themselves and others not only what they are interested in, but also what skills they have acquired over the previous two years at university. If I were to give you some tops tips for completing a successful dissertation, I would say; 1) Take the RESEARCH METHODS course (in your second year) seriously because if you can conquer this in your second year, it becomes so much easier to write your thesis in your third year, 2) Utilise all the ADVICE you can, especially from the academic staff because they have, after all, got an abundance of knowledge and years and years worth of experience within their specific sociological fields and 3) probably the most important tip, is to choose a subject which you are ENORMOUSLY INTERESTED in because you will be stuck to it like a fly caught in a spider’s web for over a year and a continued enthusiasm really is the key to success!

However you decide to spend the next three years of your life at Keele, which ever courses you choose to study, you can rest assured that you are now part of one of the best Sociology departments in the country and that a multitude of exciting opportunities lie at your feet. I promise you that after you have studied Sociology at Keele your eyes will be opened to a new form of realism which you never knew existed, as you will find yourself perpetually questioning, challenging and critically appraising the world and humankind around you, which is precisely what being a Sociologist is all about. Enjoy your time at Keele as it all flies by so quickly and finally from one student to another, I wish you all the luck in the world for the future!


Amy Jones graduated in summer 2009 with a first class honours degree, having achieved straight firsts in all her principal Sociology modules and her dissertation received not only the highest mark in 2009, but was one of the highest ever awarded in Sociology at Keele.

Representing Families: Funding a Return to the Sociological Imagination

By Dr Siobhan Holohan

The Hughes Family

The Hughes Family

I went to The British Sociological Association’s 2009 annual conference held in Cardiff in April, where I gave a paper on last year’s Channel 4 documentary The Family. The paper focused on the relationship between the documentary remit and sociological research into families. Here I explained the traditional links between to the two forms of social investigation and how these have altered in light of both recent changes to the documentary form and theoretical developments in the sociology of families.

Originally conceived as a means to observe everyday practices in order to better understand the world we live in, factual film-making has been reinvented enormously from social observation to its most recent transformation into reality TV. In 1974 Paul Watson’s The Family pioneered the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ technique to build a picture of family life that also exposed inequalities contained in British society. Recently in the new Channel 4 show also called The Family, film-maker Jonathan Smith updated this format using technologies such as motion sensor cameras usually found in reality programming such as Big Brother to focus on the mundane everyday practices of family life. However, I suggested that instead of the meta-narratives of class, race, etc, displayed in the 1970s documentary, the naughties version appears to have been stripped of politics. While it is true to say that today’s family loves the same, argues the same and slams doors the same as it did thirty years ago, I argued that it is problematic that its documentary presentation is solely concerned with the minutiae of everyday family life and contains no broader social narrative. At its most straightforward The Family simply becomes another form of display for the participants, the same kind of display that we now see everyday on our TV screens through numerous ratings driven reality programmes. However, on another level this form of representation reveals a society confessing its own disconnection from the bigger picture.

In addition I also wanted to suggest that the apparent lack of social reflection in the documentary form of The Family has been mirrored in sociological research into families, which has in recent years also de-contextualised families to the extent that wider social conditions have taken a back seat behind the individualisation thesis. Here thinkers such as Giddens (1992) and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995: 2002) have lead the way in conceiving the negotiated family as one that makes its own (very fluid) meaning regardless of (and also perhaps because of) global and/or local social conditions. The problem with the individualisation thesis, which in part suggests that we are able to pick and choose our ‘families’ and how we relate to them in any number of ways, is that it ignores our desire to be embedded in something bigger. While I accept that kinship has altered greatly in recent decades, I suggested that this does not mean we want to be fragmented individuals; that instead we want to find meaning in terms of our social position, our family history, or whatever. I situated this idea by referring to Carol Smart’s recent work, Personal Life (2007), which suggests that sociology needs to start paying less attention to the ways we deconstruct ourselves and more attention to the ways in which we build our identity, often around heritage, memory and tradition. This idea was augmented by one of the other speakers on my panel, Anne-Marie Kramer of Warwick University, who discussed this process in terms of the recent increase in people attempting to trace their family history via dedicated internet sites or specialist genealogists.

While The Family is set to return for another series later this year, thus perhaps finally discarding its documentary credentials, it is important that sociology re-imagines how it investigates everyday social life in order to reconnect these practices to both local and global social conditions.

I am currently preparing this paper for publication. The paper was abstracted from my current research into the history, cultures and technologies of confession. My book, The Culture of Confession, is due out next year on Palgrave.