Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Keele World Sociology Society

In October 2010 a group of Keele Sociology students established a new sociology society open to all Keele students - 'The World Sociology Society'. The society aims to focus on sociological issues of everyday life around the world. The society has met weekly throughout semester one and have watched a range of films, held debates and invited speakers from around Keele to talk about current affairs and sociological research. The sociology teaching group has welcomed and supported this new student society.

The reviews below discuss a few of the weekly meetings and show the range of activities that the society has engaged in. New members are welcome - contact e.l.head@keele.ac.uk and I will pass your email on to the society organisers for semester 2.

October 26th - a review by Sally

The Wave

Unlike the practice of previous weeks, we started this week’s session with the option of three very different feature films surrounding what appeared to be highly different, yet equally important, World Issues. After adopting a democratic and egalitarian decision-making process (OK, a vote!) to decide which one was going to be shown, many of us rushed down to Comas to buy chips and drinks and we settled down for the viewing.

Actually, I cannot remember the rest of the films that were offered because I was only attracted by the film called “The Wave”. At first sight, I was interested because of its title, but the synopsis also sounded great! It was based on a real life psychology experiment and I was very curious about the end result of the experiment. Luckily - for all concerned - after my heavy promotion, “The Wave” won (Hurrah~!!!).

The movie aimed to show how totalitarianism - Nazism - grew to become such a powerful force in Germany during WWII and drew our attention to just how easily it could happen again in any part of the world in any time period.

Everyone was shocked after watching this movie; especially over the tremendous power of manipulation. We started our discussion by asking if this situation could more easily happen in Communist countries, where high social control exists. Many argued that within a society where people are highly disciplined, it would indeed be easy to slowly develop ‘totalitarianism’ style control of a group of people. In the film, the teacher originally just wanted to show the students how powerful the pressure ‘to belong’ or to ‘stay in-group’ could be utilised negatively during the school’s ‘project week’. However, he soon found that the exercises grew out of control and turned into a real-life scenario of a place under totalitarianism, and violent attacks started to become apparent to members of the ‘out-group’. Therefore proving – theoretically anyway - that the history of totalitarianism could be repeated anywhere and anytime.

We then discussed the power of manipulation and what made it so strong.

Many suggested that it was the power of the discipline and the fear of the individual being forced to become a member of the ‘out-group’ that made the power of manipulation become so strong. In effect, fear made the students conform .In addition, with more and more signs of unification (eg the wearing of identical uniforms, together with the implementation of standardised logos and gestures) students were ‘processed’ into becoming obedient and being ruled under the dictatorship.

Finally, we discussed whether the teacher should be punished as he was in the film. I personally believed that the teacher was also a sufferer and should not be punished, but others felt that he should. However, everyone agreed that he was largely responsible for the manipulation of his students, and should have assessed the dangers of exposing young adults to life's realities. Clearly, like most of us, he too underestimated the power of manipulation.

9th November - a review by Alex

The subject of this week's World Sociology Society was a viewing and discussion of a film about rites of passage in 1960's Hong Kong. It was shown in its original Cantonese and subtitled in English, and Hong Kong produced, providing a valuable perspective of a production removed from the cultural norms of the UK/US.

The highly emotive discussion following the presentation focussed around the role of Hong Kong in the modern world, particularly its relationship with the People's Republic of China; and the lives of people in both countries. The meeting was attended by lots of new faces, and the session was run by Sally Ng from Sociology and Criminology, who gave the film a short introduction and chaired the discussion.

2nd November - a review by Alex
Lots of new faces attended on Tuesday to view a documentary based on Naomi Klein's book. The showing was preceded by a talk by Dr. Mark Featherstone (Sociology, Keele) who explained the implications of the film in today's current 'coalition government' climate, how we might apply Klein's message to the recent economic downturn, and various government related narratives of how it came about.

The was chronological in sequence and gave a broad range of ideas for the discussion which took place after the viewing, which was part chaired by Dr Beth Johnson (English, Keele).

Monday, 22 November 2010

New book by Keele Criminologists - Losing the Race: Thinking Psychosocially about Racially Motivated Crime

Based on a two-year research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the book explores why many of those involved in racially motivated crime seem to be struggling to cope with economic, cultural and emotional losses in their own lives. Drawing on in-depth biographical interviews with perpetrators of racist crimes and focus group discussions with ordinary people living in the same communities, the book explores why it is that some people, and not others, feel inclined to attack immigrants and minority ethnic groups. The relationships between ordinary racism, racial harassment and the politics of the British National Party are also explored, as are the enduring impacts of deindustrialisation, economic failure and immigration on white working class communities.
The book assesses the legacy of New Labour policy on community cohesion, hate crime and respect in terms of its impact on racist attitudes and racist incidents, and explores how it is that racist attacks, including racist murders, continue to happen. The book concludes by using psychoanalytically informed psychosocial concepts to explore examples of how and why race-thinking can be put aside and what it is that needs to happen to get perpetrators to loosen or shed their emotional investments in hatred and violence.

Dr David Gadd is Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Deputy Director of the Social Science Research Institutes at Keele University Dr Bill Dixon is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Head of the School of Sociology and Criminology at Keele University.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Student Fees Demonstration

By Siobhan Holohan

Thousands of students and lecturers from universities across the country, including Keele, have marched in protest against the cuts in Higher Education. While politicians and media only sat up and took notice once violence had erupted among a handful of protesters, the wider British public could not fail to notice the strength of feeling behind yesterday’s student led demonstration, the largest in the UK since those staged against the introduction of student loans in the mid 1990s. Lord Browne’s controversial plan to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9000 per year has led to much debate on both sides of the classroom as academics and students ponder the impact that such an action might have on the higher education landscape. Many believe that the change will encourage the reintroduction of a two-tier system whereby those that can afford to will pay, while others will think twice before committing to lifelong debt.

In the month since Browne’s report, Internet message boards have been full of conflicting views on the proposals. While some maintain that education is a right not a privilege, many more agree with the plans complaining that they have been funding student’s lackadaisical ways and partying lifestyles for too long. This is an outmoded contention, which fails to recognise the sacrifice that many students currently make in order to attend university and the benefits they make to society once they graduate. Graduates who earn more already pay higher taxes contributing to the education of those to come in the same way that those who went before them paid higher taxes in order to fund their higher education.

While this debate will clearly rage on, what is clear is that by eroding the principles behind an affordable university system, we are at the cusp of dismissing the point of a higher education altogether. The logic of what Browne and the coalition government are proposing is a market driven knowledge industry bent on churning out a skills-based workforce based on an over-prescriptive view of what is ‘useful’ to society, rather than encouraging an intelligent public able to think, debate and, yes, protest.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The role of the magistracy in the 21st century: prestigious funding for Keele

As reported in their magazine 'The Magistrate' the Magistrates’ Association have commissioned Keele University to deliver a seminar series. The series will cover a variety of topics addressing the theme of the role of the magistracy in the 21st century. Members of the judiciary, academics and policy makers will discuss the place of short term custody; current theories of preventing reoffending and the part that the courts can play; and the meaning of local justice. A report, along with key recommendations, will be issued and discussed at a large conference to be held later in 2011. Professor Barry Godfrey will organise the three seminars with the help of Dr Mary Corcoran and Dr Helen Wells. The same team, from The Research Institute for Social Sciences at Keele, will supervise a doctoral student funded by the prestigious Magistrates’ Association Fellowship from January 2011.

Friday, 22 October 2010

New faces in Criminology at Keele

Criminology at Keele is welcoming five new faces in teaching and research at the start of the new academic year. We are delighted to be joined by three new PhD students, a research assistant and a new member of teaching staff to add to both our research and teaching capability.

Stephanie Alger, a former Masters student at Keele, joins us as a PhD student. Steph holds a linked ESRC studentship called Inverting Assumptions about Domestic Abuse.

Emma Murray also joins us to begin her PhD. Emma comes to us from Liverpool John Moores University where she graduated with a First Class degree in 2009 and has since gone on to study for her Masters in Criminal Justice, also at John Moores. Emma will be researching the topic of Returning Soldiers and their Involvement in Crime. The title of Emma’s Ph.D is ‘Out of the Killing Zone and into the Fire? An analysis of the journey from ‘soldier’ to ‘citizen’ as armed service personnel resettle into British society post combat’ and is based on extensive pilot work in the form of an ethnographic case study of a group of Royal Marine Commandos, focusing on their self-reported racism and violence post deployment. The overarching aim of the project is to provide an empirically rich study that explores the effects of combat on returning soldier’s involvement in crime and attitudes to diversity, and to situate this within approaches sensitive to the experiences they have had and the challenges of resettlement they face.

Ian Mahoney, a recent graduate of the MRes in Social Science Research Methods in Social Relations at Keele, and also a Keele BA graduate, rejoins us to begin his PhD. Ian won one of the ESRC Criminology Quota Awards to carry out research into the link between crime and unemployment with the current working title of:
'Unemployment and Criminality in Stoke on Trent: The impact of unemployment upon criminality in an area of high skill and employment deprivation.'

Mary Louise Corr also joins us as a Research Associate on the ESRC Boys to Men project looking at what can be done to reduce young people's involvement in domestic abuse. The main aim of the research is to produce an answer to the question as to why some young men grow up to be perpetrators of domestic abuse - and to learn more about how we can prevent them from becoming reliant on a range of violent, controlling and threatening behaviours. The research involves administration of an attitudinal scale, self-report questionnaire, focus groups, and in-depth biographical interviews with young people. Mary Louise joins us from The Children's Research Centre Trinity College Dublin project.

Finally, we are also welcoming back Clare Jones, a recent PhD student in Criminology at Keele, who rejoins us in the capacity of Teaching Fellow. Clare will be contributing to the undergraduate Criminology programme at all three levels, as well as on the new Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice and the MA Ethics of Policing and Criminal Justice. Clare's PhD explored the recent wave of migration of Polish nationals to a small working class town in Cheshire, and questioned whether immigration is inevitably disruptive for neighbourhoods increasing crime, conflict, and insecurity amongst “established” and “newcomer”
groups. Clare said “I am delighted to be joining the criminology team again at Keele, where I first became passionate about criminology when completing my undergraduate degree here in 2005. After continuing to study criminology at Keele for the following 5 years, I am now looking forward to contributing to the programme.”

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Chilean miners: 'science' is vital in this human story

It has been a momentous week. The world is watching 33 men saved by a clunky steel rocket and a host of saints in hard-hats and hazard jackets. It is an almost unbelievable story, except that we are watching it in every tiny detail on TV. Today, it was also the day in which the Science Is Vital campaign closed their petition to defend funding for science research in British universities, and the day after Lord Browne proposed the biggest change to student funding in two generations. And the week before the biggest cuts to university funding since the last slash and burn policy of the mid 1980s.

The irony of this rescue won't be lost on the science geeks: the people who are pulling the miners out of the ground are utterly dependent on university science: their training, their gadgets, their pulleys and winches and cages and breathing apparatuses and bio-belts ALL built from the brains of the geeks. Sure, the block and tackle (or whatever) is made and greased by worker-bees, but the buck stops with those doing the thinking, and the design. The geeks - in effect - got them out.

Some tweeters have objected that the geeks got them in there in the first place. Maybe. There is a mining and geology specialism in universities of course. But profiteering mine owners have been around far longer than the appliance of science started to make things go further, deeper and both safer and more dangerous simultaneously. Given the choice of a bloke with a gold pen and a dodgy record of exploitation, and a spotty, pale youth with an obsession for torque, I know who I'd rather have writing the manual. OK, and perhaps a raft of experienced burly miners to help him 'apply' his writing...

You can't escape the value of science in this human drama however - whatever recriminations rightly emerge about the safety failures in this mine, we all need to be grateful in part to the science. I hope the Science Is Vital campaign will exploit this link as much as they need to.

Next week, when the Comprehensive Spending Review slashes funding, the biggest cut will come - in teaching and research - in the Arts and Social Sciences. The teaching budget is likely to be all but wiped out, and it is hard to see how Research Council funds will be held at anything like current levels. Who cares?, most of the press and public will say. It will seem to make little difference to anyone's lives. The 'Science vote' will care very little too, barring a few with a broad education, because of their own sense of the necessity of their own disciplines, compared to ours.

But what will happen to these miners now? And how will the rest of us make sense of the 'miracle' (or 'tragedy')? The science bit is easily seen: the gadgets, manuals, experts are evident to the world at large. Nobody will, however, make too much of the lengthy training of the eloquent psychiatrist Dr James Thompson, commenting for the BBC, which although medical in part, could not possibly have succeeded had he not developed some grasp of the human condition from other sources. How could Freud, Jung, Klein, Winnicott, Piaget and countless other contributors to the understanding of the human personality have known what they know without cultural ideas? How could we all 'get' the drama of rescue, without a narrative of, erm, drama? More prosaically, who will be behind the film makers, writers, journalists who need to be there (perhaps not in quite such volume...) to help the rest of us make sense ? Perhaps the political plan in shutting down the debate is to get everyone to just shut up, and stop trying to make sense of difficult events. The chattering classes have been desperately annoying for the right wing, doing what they do to ask questions and all...

Look, I'm not suggesting people won't make sense without the hidden hand of Peter Mandelson telling us what to think. The point is more general: humans need to make sense and make meaning, and will continue to do it. Ordinary bods do it better, mostly, than lily-livered, soft-handed academics. But the writing, thinking, the ideas generated in arts, humanities and social science departments DO make a difference, albeit in subtle and small ways. A sociologist might help a family therapist trying to put back together those miners' broken relationships once the reality of wife vs mistress hits home. And an artist might help those traumatised children sleep at night. And a philosopher might contribute to a think tank who pushes the Chilean prime minister to rewrite his mining policy, so that the value of human life is reassessed. Someone really will, perhaps, be saved by a historian in a cord jacket, reflecting on this day. Even those betes noires of the Establishment, Meeja Studies graduates, might have their part to play. Not as the journalists (we all know they have Oxbridge degrees in English, which somehow escape the oppobrium...) who bring it all to our living rooms; but as the parents, teachers, managers, friends who say, in their pub or office conversations: 'hey, never mind the distracting rescue narrative, we're ignoring the back story about exploitation here...'.

Do we need to do this in universities? Should the public pay for it? Of course it should. Otherwise we leave all our big questions to blokes with gold teeth who give answers influenced by their paymasters. Good luck to the Science lobby - they need it. They have the luxury of knowing they can do what the public can't. We need more luck and more support, because the public thinks they don't need us. They do.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Power of the Past: Classical Sociology and the Urban Present


Andy Zieleniec

We live in times that have been variously described as post-industrial, post-modern, post-ideological. Whilst there may be some veracity in these analyses as they are applied to western developed nations where the fruits, however bitter, of a neo-liberal politics and economics are vicariously distributed in unequal portions, it is less certain how well these epithets fit for nations and regions in the developing world. What can be said with certainty is that for the southern hemisphere it is certainly not a post-urbanising world.

In the Northern hemisphere the twin processes of modernity, urbanisation and industrialisation, have been experienced for some 150 years and may have reached their zenith. Evidence for de-industrialisation (the decline of traditional manufacturing industries, mineral extraction, etc.) and the development of a reliance on service sector employment and income generation is also marked by socio-spatial inequalities as some towns/cities or regions do better than others in the changed economic climate. Similarly cities in the northern hemisphere are experiencing a demographic change in which growth rates have declined or, as in many cases, are showing signs of a movement of people away from urban living as a return to the suburb or country marks a lifestyle choice in which commuting longer distances is an accepted part of everyday existence.

However, globalisation as expressed in the flows of power, finance and status (see Sassen, 1991, Castells 1996, etc.) has also been experienced as flows of people. Migration is an international phenomenon that has seen vast movements of people not only from country to country, region to region but also as a movement from the country to the town and city. Thus whilst Britain became the first predominantly urban nation in 1850 the rest of the world has inexorably been moving in the direction of urban growth.

The fastest rates of urban growth are now no longer in the developed world but in those parts of the world that has, so to speak, previously lagged behind. As UN figures indicate the population of the world that is living in towns and cities is still increasing and as the figures demonstrate (http://esa.un.org/unup/), in 2010, half the world’s population will be urban. What we can also determine is that the world is not only becoming increasingly and more dominantly urban but that the fastest growth rates are in developing countries.

The scale of urbanisation and the growth rate and size of 21st century mega-cities is much greater than that experienced in 19th century Europe and America. We also now see mega-cities of a demographic and geographical scale never before experienced in the history of human populations.

The prospect of growth for the worlds’ largest cities (See: United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2003 Revision) demonstrates that in the 21st century there will be a radical change in the living conditions and experience of hundreds of millions of people as the shift from rural based populations to urban cities necessitates changes in ways of life and of cultures.

However, despite the differences of scale it can be argued that much of the social theory that developed as a means to explain the shift from feudalism to capitalism and from agrarian to urban societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries still has some pertinence when seeking to understand and analyse contemporary processes and experiences. I will provide a few examples below that emphasises both the development of sociology as an academic discipline and much of its foundational social theory as inspired and influenced by the transition to urban, industrial and capitalist societies and that these very insights still have relevance for understanding the modern world.

The founders fathers [sic] of sociology all considered in various ways how modern industrial and urban society had an impact on social relations. Karl Marx amongst other things, along side his collaborator Fredrick Engels, demonstrated how social (class) inequalities became much more clearly elaborated in industrial urban societies and this would, for them lead to the development of a revolutionary working class conscious of itself and its potential. Emile Durkheim also considered that the breakdown in traditional social norms was in part due to the increased moral and social densities that people in urban societies were increasingly subjected to. Max Weber, in his analysis of the historical development of ‘ideal types’ of city was also concerned about their bureaucratic organisation and administration as a means to mitigate revolutionary change.

In all of these one can see how such issues and concerns still have relevance in contemporary urban settings. The problem of continuing socio-spatial inequalities can be shown in the huge disparities between the wealthy and the rest in many cities that is expressed by amongst other things the rise of the favellas or shanty town existing alongside ‘gated communities’ or securitised residential enclaves for the rich. Weber’s assessment of the increasing role of administrative elites in attempting to organise and plan functions and services in urban centres, not least policing and law and order functions, is a concern in most urban areas. Similarly, Durkheim’s identification of changes in social norms and traditions as the result of increasing population densities and opportunities for new types and kinds of interactions is still a feature of societies today undergoing rapid urban growth.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th there was also a concern with how the changes wrought by technological and social developments was impacting not only on the structure of society but also on the experience of individuals and groups as they go about their lives in an increasingly urban world. Ferdinand Tonnies (1897) in his work on the differences between types of social organisation in predominantly rural settlements (Community) versus those found in the city (Association) points to changes in social structure and experience that is being felt in societies today as they move from agrarian dominated activities and arrangements versus those found in the city. One can look to the experience of China is recent years as rapid urban growth and industrialisation is changing the social fabric of Chinese society. Georg Simmel in his famous essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (original 1903) as well as in his other works on the city stressed the social and psychological consequences of an increasingly faster, more intense experience of life in modern cities. Simmel’s analysis of late 19th century European cities still has resonance and relevance for understanding and studying the consequences for individuals and groups who have migrated to the city and are faced with a multitude of new stimuli, experiences and opportunities (not all of them positive).

I could expand on these examples as well as to bring in other theories of urban change, structure and culture to develop my claim that there is a need for an understanding of past theoretical perspectives in order to understand the new world order of urbanisation in this era of globalisation. We need to know how the urban was understood and analysed in the past in order to be able to recognise and identify similarities as well as differences with the experience of urbanisation in an era of globalisation.

To paraphrase Karl Marx: “if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it” and we would do well to take heed of this warning lest we may end up re-inventing the wheel in 21st century urban studies. The past still has a power to illuminate the present.

Select Bibliography

Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society Oxford: Blackwell Ch 6-7

Chadwick, E. (1842/1965) Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press

Durkheim, E. (1933) The Division of Labour in Society, New York, Free Press

Engels, F. (1848) “The Housing Question” reprint in Marx/Engels: Collected Works, Lawrence and Wishart

Engels, F. (1958) The Condition of the Working class in England. Oxford, Blackwell.

Mearns, A., (1883/1970) The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the London Poor, London

Park, Robert E., Ernest Burgess, Roderic McKenzie (1925). The City, University of Chicago Press.

Sassen, S. (1991) The Global City Chichester N.J: Princeton U.P.

Simmel, G. (1903) “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in Kasinitz, P. (ed.) (1995) Metropolis: Centre and Symbol of Our Times Basingstoke, Palgrave and Malcolm Miles and Tim Hall (eds.), (2004) The City Cultures Reader (2nd edition) London, Routledge

Simmel, G. (1997) ‘Sociology of Space’ and ‘Bridge and Door’ in D. Frisby & M. Featherstone (eds.) Simmel on Culture. London: Sage. pp.137-174.

Tönnies, F. (orig. 1887) Community and Society, any edition,

Weber, M. (1966) The City New York Free Press

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Sociology of Immobility I


Mark Featherstone

It is entirely fashionable today to talk about the sociology of mobility, but I wonder whether this discourse is already more or less out of date. The theory of mobility turns off the idea that processes of globalisation have resulted in unprecedented levels of interconnectedness across the world, resulting in the emergence of what is normally called the network society. This process of global interconnectivity relies on information communication technologies to achieve the integration of financial markets and complex transport infrastructures to allow flows of people to move through global space. Ironically, this process of integration and networking, which we might imagine would lead to new levels of sociability, has also resulted in the emergence of a new brand of what we might call asocial hyper-individualism, whereby those linked into the global network are simultaneously sunk in networks of co-operation, but also provided with enormous levels of freedom.

Although it may seen strange to talk about asociality or a lack of social interaction in the context of networks of co-operation, it is important to remember that one can exist very well in society and be quite unsociable in terms of how one thinks about other people. The key here is, therefore, that processual co-operation does not necessarily entail deep social interaction. Instead I think that what continues to happen in the contemporary global society is that the high levels of co-operation demanded by the network in order to enable mobility are endlessly undercut by the kind of hyper-individualism produced by the desire to move, what we might call the will to mobility, and that it is this that means that the potential sociability written into the form of the global network continually collapses into a kind of manic individualism, whereby everybody is set on making it big and escaping from the constraints of the very social form that creates the possibility of making it in the first place.

But before we move on, let’s slow down and take stock. What we must recognise from the above is that the sociology of mobility is not simply about flows of money and people around the world or the technologies that make movement possible. Instead, I think that we have to understand that to a large extent mobility is in the head and a psychological condition. This may, in large part, be a psychological condition created by the explosion of ICTs in the final decade of the 20th century. What do ICTs do, if not allow us to let our imaginations run wild and explore the world of the mind in the fantasy space of the net?

In many respects, then, it is possible to say that the entire world is available on the World Wide Web. Moreover, the strange philosophical consequences of this statement, which revolve around the emergence of a form of spatial short circuit that shrinks the global to the level of the local and makes the macrosphere totally available to the cybernaut locked into the delimited space of microspherical PC terminal, are that it is absolutely not metaphorical to say that the internet makes the world available to everybody without the need for movement. On the contrary, what the internet, the hard infrastructural technologies that make the WWW possible, achieves is the telescoping of the entire world, or the entire networked world, into every individual node or terminal connected to the global network. According to this logic, there is no need to travel anywhere or be mobile in a physical sense, since I can go anywhere and be everywhere, without leaving my PC terminal that plugs me into the global network. This is precisely what the French writer Paul Virilio talks about in his works on globalisation, speed, and ICTs. Virilio talks about ‘the terminal man’ or the last man who gives up his body to his PC in order to inhabit the new global network. Recalling science fiction films such as the Matrix he tells us that an ethics of 21st century should be about saving people from becoming sedentary no-bodies who never leave their house, but rather travel through the interface between their mind and the globalised network.

Is this science fiction? Although the above arguments sound like the plot from a Phillip K Dick novel, consider the Japanese phenomena of the shut-in and the net addict. In both cases the globalised network starts to take over from reality rendering the body, what Virilio calls the last vehicle, an archaic irrelevancy. For the shut-in, a figure closely related to the NEET who withdraws from the public world of education and employment, the entire social world becomes a frightening place to the extent that even the family becomes an alien institution. Thus the shut-in’s world contracts to the space of the bedroom, which often becomes a kind of cockpit for connecting to the wider world through ICTs.

Herein we enter the strange world of net addict who spends his entire life in cyberspace, often neglecting to attend to the basic physical requirements of human life, eating, drinking, shitting, pissing, sleeping, and gradually losing the ability to differentiate between the fantasy space of the net and the hard materiality of the real world. Surely the classic example of this phenomenon is the recent case of the Korean couple who allowed their 3 month old baby to starve to death while they surfed the net, raising a cyber-child in the process. It would, of course, be hyperbolic to suggest that this is a generalised condition today, but the seeds of the problem of voluntary immobility and the consequent wasting of the obsolete body are clearly present in our contemporary globalised society.

After all, who has not spent their entire day sat in front of a computer screen, surfing the net, sending e-mail to people sat at PCs in far off places, and moving about in the globalised network that collapses mobility into immobility in the light speed it takes to connect to the world wide web? My wager would be that the majority of the people reading this short piece have spent days like these. It is for this reason that I would suggest that we counter the sociology of mobility, which seems to me to be largely celebratory in its view of the value of movement and dynamism, with a new dire sociology of immobility, which recognises that the flip side of the explosion of kinetic energy that has resulted in processes of globalisation is a implosive force that exerts an enormous gravitational pull on every one of us, commanding us to stay put, don’t move, because the only way to really move is to live in the wires of the net.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

100 Days: The Politics of Shock and Awe


Mark Featherstone

I recently watched Winterbottom and Whitecross’s film adaptation of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine and was immediately put in mind of recent news media marking the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s first 100 days in office. Despite the inescapable conclusion that their first 100 days in office had been marked by anxiety over public sector cuts and the onset of the so-called age of austerity, the coalition was keen was tell us that the new government was not simply about cutting back for its own sake. Instead, we were told that the future would be bright if we could take our medicine. We were told that we needed to be aware that cuts were essential in preparing for a bright new future. However, at the same time it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the suggested cuts were too severe, too much too soon, and likely to cause a double-dip recession, with even the Business Secretary Vince Cable able to be no more precise than saying that the chances of the economy slipping into another recession were ‘below 50/50’.

We do not need to be economists to understand why we may face a double dip recession. The problem with applying savage cuts to the public sector in order to reduce the budget deficit resides in the nature of the British economy which has been organised on the basis of neo-liberal theory, consumerism, and credit since the 1980s. On the surface it may appear that the best way to reduce the national deficit is to cut public sector spending, and simply weather the negative consequences of mass unemployment and social instability in the name of balancing the books, but the problem is that taking this short-cut in the context of a socio-economic system marked by neo-liberal ideology, consumerism, and the demand for credit is only likely to result in socio-economic disaster. We know that cuts in public sector spending will inevitably lead to increased levels of unemployment, primarily because the public sector became so bloated under New Labour, and that these increases in unemployment will hit particular areas of the country harder than others. Related to unemployment caused by the shrinking of the public sector, levels of youth unemployment are likely to increase steeply because of the reduction of university funding and the lack of entry level positions in areas of the labour market that had previously provided employment for new entrants to the world of work.

Of course increased levels of unemployment are not in themselves signs of socio-economic catastrophe, even though they may spell disaster for individuals and communities, because societies can cope with massive levels of worklessness, if they are sufficiently prepared to weather the storm and manage outbreaks of civil unrest. We know this much from the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was prepared to destroy the lives of so many people and so many communities in the name of socio-economic modernisation. We also know that the Thatcher governments were able to manage these transformations on the basis of an aggressive approach to law and order and policing, an approach that became necessary to cope with the fall out of the destruction of the industrial working class, and the creation of a new middle class able to drive the country into a future of consumption and credit that was, of course, expanded by the New Labour revolution that made us all into middle class consumers.

Unfortunately, the recent economic crash and related recession signaled the end of the New Labour revolution. But now that the party is over we need a new socio-economic direction. My view is that the age of austerity and cuts cannot be it because it is entirely negative in its approach to social engineering and will only result in the further decline of the Thatcher-Blair model of capitalism. It is totally unclear what Cameron-Clegg have in mind to lead us into the bright new future. It is not enough to dismantle the Thatcher-Blair socio-economic model because public sector cuts will only result in unemployment, the threat of unemployment, increases in precariousness, anxiety, and the collapse of consumer confidence, the motor of the neo-liberal economy. As soon as consumer confidence collapses, as has been seen in the housing market, production fails, and economic growth slows further, resulting in more unemployment and so on.

Whereas Thatcher, who oversaw the transformation of Britain from an industrial to a post-industrial society and replaced the destroyed working class with a new expanded middle class, Cameron-Clegg seem to have no sense of the need to replace the middle class they are about to destroy in the name of balancing the books. They cannot fall back on industry, since Britain has long since outsourced its industrial production, but equally seem to have no sense of the impending socio-economic catastrophe they are about to cause, because they have made no particular noises about policing or law and order, but rather jettisoned the New Labour security state in favour in a small state and big society.

This feature of the coalition approach is particularly difficult to understand since to my mind mass unemployment and a society of people who had been brought up on the ideology of social climbing, but now must face up to the painful reality of downsizing with no sense of a future direction, is a recipe for unrest and potential social disaster. How, then, can we explain this lack of foresight on the part of the coalition? Much has been made of the socio-economic make-up of the new government, people from old money who have no sense of the reality of the majority of people who must make it in life through social mobility, but I’m not sure this is everything. We must add to this the problem of the lack of social and political imagination that characterises our age, and has done since Thatcher’s declaration that there is no alternative, and it may be that we are close to understanding why Cameron-Clegg have no sense of the need to construct a new future for the majority, seem to lack an understanding of why it might be important to mitigate against the consequences of not providing people with any sense of a future, and probably could not provide any sense of a future social direction even if they were in a position to do so.

However, I do think that we find the glimmer of a recognition of the need to think about a better future in the declaration that there is more to the coalition than cuts, and that it is in this glimmer of a recognition that I think we can detect the roots of the kind of apocalyptic thinking that Winterbottom, Whitecross, and Klein explain in the theory of the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism. The apocalypticism of this mode of thinking resides primarily in the view that a bright future awaits after painful transformation, but centrally in the fact that there is no real causal relationship between the painful transformation and the production of a new situation. That is to say that similar to religious thinking surrounding the apocalypse the coalition’s idea of social transformation involves pain, cuts, and destruction, with no real sense of how this pain will produce an improved future situation. Instead we are asked to take it on faith that pain and cuts will transform the future, but how, and in what ways? What will the future look like?

I think that these are the questions that we should ask of Cameron-Clegg. We should ask them to explain their social theory, and move beyond their apocalyptic theory of purgatorial pain, because my sense is that the only way we can explain the haste with which the coalition has implemented its cuts agenda is in terms of Klein’s theory of the shock doctrine, which traces the history of the view that the best way to impose radical social and economic transformation upon a population is through shock, disorientation, and trauma. Given that is it difficult to believe that at least some members of the government would not be aware of the potential socio-economic effects of rapid and savage cuts to the public sector, my sense is that the coalition’s objective has always been to push radical socio-economic change through social shock and disorientation. As Klein shows in her book, and Winterbottom and Whitecross’s film illustrates so well, social shock, disorientation, and a destroyed landscape clear the way for the implementation of new social and economic models and limits the prospect of political resistance. If this is indeed the case, I think our role should be to oppose shock with thought, resist the notion of the catastrophic economy, and the idea that there is no other way but pain and cuts, and ask the coalition to explain their theory of socio-economic transformation. What kind of society do they think will emerge from the age of austerity and how exactly will the period of purgatorial pain produce it?

Monday, 12 July 2010

Anti-Christ, Critique of Individualism


Mark Featherstone

In continuing research into the contemporary culture of cruelty, I recently watched Lars Von Trier’s much hyped film Anti-Christ. In many ways Von Trier’s tale, which plays out the story of a couple struggling to come to terms with the death of their son, appears to be a study of a relationship in the process of melting down. However my view is that what the film really captures is a kind of natural history of humanity, filtered through biblical metaphor and sado-masochistic horror. I think that it is this back story that provides the existential meat which enthuses the explicit narrative of the film with so much of its power and makes it a profoundly unsettling viewing experience.

The prologue of the film shows the death of the couple’s son, an accident that occurs in the middle of their sex, highlighting the terrible symmetry of life and death, a theme which thinkers from Plato through Freud to Bataille have understood and returned to obsessively. Confronted with their loss, the two main characters struggle to cope. Chapter 1, Grief, shows Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character suffer psychological collapse, and her husband, played by Willem Dafoe, save himself by retreating into science, reason, and rationality. While Gainsbourg’s character, the child’s mother, grieves, confronting his death, Dafoe’s character seems to hide in his public role as therapist, taking refuge in her feelings of pain and loss, and never confronting his own feelings, which as we discover later on, may not actually exist.

This divergence in the way the two characters approach the problem of death is key because it enables Von Trier to turn them into representations of man and woman in general and tell a tragic story about the history of humanity through the concept of gender, taking in ideas of love, care, madness, and violence. The tragedy of this story, caught in the desperate depiction of man as a kind of Nietzschean demi-God, destined to rise above the world of nature, but totally unable to relate to those around him, is captured in the transformation of love into gynocide and the strange final scene, which shows Dafoe surrounded by a mass of faceless women and children who he is totally unable to relate to or recognise.

That the narrative of the film plays out in the woods, symbol of the Hobbesian state of nature where sex, death, and desire rule, and a site called Eden, referencing the biblical state of perfection and peace before the tragic fall of man, illustrates the wider context of the explicit content of the story. These two contextual frames, the human struggle to overcome nature in order to live in culture, and the biblical story of Adam, Eve, and the Devil who tempts Eve into sin are, of course, interrelated and entwined. But what are these two frames?

The biblical story of Adam and Eve depicts the fall of man from a state of perfection into nature, which is characterised by sex, death, desire, violence, and taboo and originates the drive to find some new form of peace, where humanity can finally overcome its own tortured nature. The Freudian story of civilization brackets out the original moment of perfection focusing instead on the drive to civilize nature, repress desire, and manage the eternal problem of the violent, savage, return of the repressed. In fusing these two stories together the film captures the drama of both, showing how Eden, the biblical state of perfection, always was the Hobbesian state of nature, the scene of horror, in the same way that the perfect Oedipal family, Father, Mother, Child, is always a traumatic triangle of sex, death, and violent struggle.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character seems to be acutely aware of the terrible symmetry of edenic perfection and the ultra violence of nature, a recognition captured in her choice of a phobic object, grass, that condenses her fear of the world. Gainsbourg’s mother is horrified by the feeling of grass under foot, terrified of Mother Earth who gives life, brings death, and is merciless in her application of the law of nature. Dafoe’s father figure seems to gain no understanding of the state of nature from the death of his son, but only later in moments which show similar scenes of death in nature, a deer still born, a fallen chick, consumed by a bird of prey, acorns falling, tapping relentlessly on the cabin, reminding Gainsbourg, Dafoe, the viewer of the terrible rhythm of nature, and the truth that life always gives way to death that brings new life and so on.

Gainsbourg’s character experiences nature in a memory of a child crying, a sound that fills the woods, and reflects her horror of the cycle of life and death characterised by grief, pain, and despair. These human responses to the relentless cycle of nature, a cycle which is entirely beyond our control, are offset by feelings of love, desire, and passion. It is the relationship between these two sets of emotions, love, desire, and passion, and grief, pain, and despair, which marks humanity down as a tragic species and leads Gainsbourg to tell Dafoe that nature is Satan’s Church. Satan’s Church, a place of desire, lust, and passion, and the drive to live, the drive to escape from the gravity of nature, offset by the crushing weight of death, and feelings of grief, pain, and despair at our inability to overcome our limit as earthbound creatures.

It is on the basis of a recognition of this tragic condition that the film progresses, showing how Gainsbourg’s recovery, her acceptance of nature, coincides with Dafoe’s collapse, and his struggle with the reality of life, death, and the ultimate futility of the disciplinary enterprise of civilization. Two events confirm this truth for Dafoe’s character. First, he meets a fox in the woods. The fox tells him that ‘chaos reigns’ and in doing so explains that all attempts at understanding and disciplining nature are fated to fail. Second, he revisits the autopsy report into his son’s death that shows a deformity in the child’s feet possibly caused by his mother confusing left and right and mixing his shoes up.

Although this tells us that there is a poor fit between culture and nature, with the former deforming the latter, and that the relationship between love and loss, grief, and pain turns off the failure of this relationship, Dafoe’s character makes a leap to a gendered value judgment. For Dafoe’s character, the classic father of psychoanalysis, representative of culture, what the autopsy report says is that the painful bind between love and loss is caused by the inability of human civilization to properly control nature, and that his other half is somehow implicated in this problematic, as a representative of nature, a flawed agent of culture.
It is at this point in the narrative that the relationship between Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s characters turns violent, with the former viewing the latter’s research into male violence and gynocide, and the latter announcing her masochist belief that women enjoy punishment and discipline. Dafoe’s character disagrees, but what follows depicts the classic psychoanalytic relationship between man and woman, where man represents culture and the desire to escape the world, and woman reflects the gravitational force of nature that seeks to pull him back down to earth. As Dafoe’s character seeks to dominate Gainsbourg’s character through the tools of culture, language and abstract knowledge, so Gainsbourg’s character seeks to control Dafoe’s character through ultra violence, tough love meant to ground him, and prevent him from ever ‘leaving her behind’. This tough love is, of course, paralleled by the infamous scene of genital self-mutilation, which represents Gainsbourg’s desperate attempt to realign herself with the world of culture, and thus her husband, who she has already sought to tie back to nature by driving a grindstone into his leg.

The final scene of the film shows the tragic failure of the couple’s relationship, torn apart by the death of their son, and their recognition of the truth of Jacques Lacan’s statement, ‘there is no such thing as a sexual relationship’. It is the main characters’ inability to accept the truth of this statement from the French psychoanalyst, which means that in any sexual relationship, or perhaps any relationship, each party is sustained by a different fantasy or perspective and that ultimately there is no symmetry, connection, or relationship between these fantasies, that pushes them towards sexual violence, because it is in their moment of loss, grief, pain, and despair that they need each other most.

It is here, in the recognition that now, when she needs him most, he is most distant, that the struggle between man and woman, culture and nature, becomes terminal, and she announces that ‘when the three beggars arrive someone must die’. Since grief, pain, and despair are on the scene, and the sado-masochistic relationship between culture and nature has reached the point of no return, we know that either she will stab him to death, thus ensuring that he will remain with her forever or he will kill her, abandoning her back to nature from where she came. The final moments of the film show the outcome. Dafoe’s character strangles Gainsbourg’s character and he wanders out into the woods to be confronted by a mass of faceless women and children who he cannot recognise or identify with and who speak of his profound alienation from his family, nature, and ultimately his own emotions.

In the late 1880s the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a book called Anti-Christ in order to announce his belief that some men are born to challenge nature, challenge God, and make their own way in the world. In other works, the figure of the Anti-Christ was represented by the famous Ubermensch or superman who was similarly capable of rising above the world. Like the superman who lived apart from society, Nietzsche was famously never married, had one brief sexual relationship, and remains one of history’s great individualists. Indeed, the Anti-Christ is thought of have been written when Nietzsche was stricken by syphilis, half mad, and totally caught up his own myth. What does this have to do with the cinematic Anti-Christ? I think that Lars Von Trier’s film tells of the other side of Nietzsche’s book. Where Nietzsche celebrates the life of the Anti-Christ, I think that Von Trier’s film is profoundly sociological in that it lays bare the horror of male, or what psychoanalysts might call, phallic individualism and shows what this approach to the world does to man’s relationships with women, children, and ultimately himself.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Question Everything: Is Greed Good?


Mark Featherstone

As George Osborne, Chancellor of the Con-Lib Coalition government announced the ‘emergency budget’ to try to balance Britain’s deficit, I was put in mind of last week’s BBC Hardtalk interview with Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, and subject of Oliver Stone’s forthcoming documentary on the return of socialism in Latin America, South of the Border. Although this may seem like a strange comparison, I think that drawing a contrast between Chavez and Osborne is interesting because it sheds light on both the nature of contemporary society and in my view the key purpose of sociology today.

In the BBC interview, Chavez, who rarely talks to the western media, told us that not only does capitalism not work, but also that it is destroying the world. Unsurprisingly Osborne speaks of ‘economic emergency, toughness, and a prosperous enterprise led future’. Immediately, the difference between the two speakers is clear. The contrast between Chavez and Osborne could not be more stark. In Chavez’s talk the key point is the transformation of capitalism as a system of exchange, which is, in his view, inherently exploitative.

In Osborne’s budget speech the idea of the form of the economic system is bracketed out in favour of an attempt to re-balance the economy, cut debt, and create equilibrium. Clearly, from the realist’s point of view, Chavez’s talk represents a kind of utopian rhetoric. How is it possible to change the system today? Surely the idea of criticising capitalism itself, the system of economic exchange we live by, is madness? The Cold War is over. In the wake of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, all sane people accept that ‘there is no alternative’.

However, once we accept this position we close off the possibility of radical change and George Osborne is one of two characters pushed centre stage. The other is, of course, Gordon Brown. Whereas Osborne represents one phase of capitalism, bust, and the attempt to restart the economy from a stable base, Brown represents the other side of the capitalist economy, boom, characterised by the good times, when we spend money we have not got and worry about it later. George Osborne is bust, worry, and recession embodied and his best hope of maintaining any level of popularity is to try to blame everything on his alter-ego, Gordon Brown, and continue to talk about over-reaching, over-spending, and the over-inflated credit bubble of the New Labour years. Osborne and Brown are, therefore, the two faces of capitalism and they cannot be seperated.

But while these two characters represent the intra-systemic function of capitalism, which is why we will never see an Osborne or a Brown think about the value of the system itself, Chavez sits outside of capitalism and is in this respect extra-systemic. Chavez recognises the evils of capitalism related to poverty, inequality, domination, exploitation, and environmental destruction. He is, however, not the only extra-systemic character on the scene. The other character who reflects properly on the wider system is represented by another Oliver Stone invention, Michael Douglas’ brilliant Gordon Gekko, who famously told us in 1987 that ‘greed is good’.

Why is Gordon Gekko extra-systemic? Gordon Gekko is extra-systemic because he is not concerned with either boom or bust, but rather the ethic of the system. For Gekko the system is not evil, in the way it is for Chavez, but rather good in the original ancient use of the word, meaning the best way of living. Gekko sees opportunity everywhere. There is money to be made in the good times, and as Naomi Klein has recently shown us in her book on disaster capitalism, there is certainly money to be made in the bad times. This is why Wall Street, and Gordon Gekko, are such important cinematic creations. They tell us a lot about the contemporary world. In many respects the dominant philosophy in the world over the last thirty years was summed up by Gekko, ‘greed is good’. We don’t need to say any more.

And one would have to say that greed has been very good for a lot of people in the world for a very long time. The 1980s, 1990s, and much of the first decade of the 21st century have seen massive economic growth across the world, but also an ever widening gulf between the world’s haves and have nots. Supporters of capitalism would, of course, tell us about ‘trickle down’ and the ‘invisible hand’, explaining that society benefits from greedy people making money for themselves in the shape of job creation.

Unfortunately, this does not really help those people who suffer when the bubble bursts, the economy crashes, and we enter a period of bust. For this reason, and because it takes social effects as a by-product that either happen or do not happen, what we might call the social ethic of capitalism is profoundly asociological. The wealth of the greedy individual always comes first in capitalism. If there is a social effect, it is an unintended consequence, a kind of risk of the enterprise, a cost built into the project of making money in the shape of the inevitability that the capitalist will always lose some profit in social effects, thereby inadvertently wasting money giving to others.

However, perhaps even here, in wasting money on others, there is profit to be made if one plays the ethical card, thereby justifying one’s own greed by saying that it is in fact a socially responsible vice whereby making money for oneself makes money for others who are unable to do so for themselves. So update Gekko slightly, telling everybody greed is ethically good, and you can continue to make a fortune at everybody else’s expense, and avoid criticism. It is, of course, enormously important to be able to do this.

The capitalist philosophy of greed is enormously seductive, but it is also sleazy and needs to be kept out of sight, hidden behind a veil of respectability. This is why Gordon Gekko is such a brilliant characterisation of capitalism. An obscene or pornographic invention who says too much, tells it like it is, and reveals everything: greed is good, which one of us would not want to live a life of luxury, riches, and vice, if society allowed it?

For a long time of course this life was the province of the adventurer, the philanderer, the cheat, but what has happened recently is that capitalism has more or less legitimised the pursuit of luxury in line with Gekko’s advice in the creation of a society organised around the principle of enjoyment and pleasure. But quite apart from the fact that legitimation takes all the fun out of fun, the social effects of this transformation are disastrous, and this is part of what has happened in what David Cameron calls contemporary broken Britain. When the individual has no responsibility to anybody but themselves and their own enjoyment, society is in trouble, and no amount of attempts to attach a minimal sociological dimension to greed by talking about trickle down and the socio-economic benefits of consumption will change that fact.

The problem of the capitalist philosophy of greed is, therefore, that it is enormously seductive, because it taps into our base desires, and it produces a normless society, that is endlessly on the edge of collapse, and for this reason makes the philosophy of greed, pleasure, and enjoyment even more seductive. What we can see then is that the kind of society this philosophy produces is not really one anybody would want to live in unless you could be sure you would be able to satisfy your desires and would not consigned to the mass of people consigned to the endless frustration at not being able to enjoy in a society geared around endless enjoyment.

And this is not the worst of the story. The division between those who enjoy and those who are frustrated probably marks out the key division in rich western nations, but the problem of the haves and haves not takes on an entirely new dimension based on survival when we turn out attention to the relationship between the west and the rest. It is here, in the division between two kinds of inequality (rich societies based on a division between those who enjoy and those who are endlessly frustrated versus a global economy of haves who live in luxury and have nots who struggle to survive), that the difference between Osborne and Chavez resides, and the reason why it seems so strange to compare them.

An effective comparison between them requires us, rich westerners, to make a shift in perception, suspend our normal view of reality, and see the world from a different point of view. We have to move from thinking like Osborne, who talks about the economy of enjoyment and frustration, in a society where people more or less accept capitalism as a good way to live, to thinking like Chavez, who talks about the economy of luxury and immiseration, where the situation is more or less intolerable for the majority of people who live on the edge of survival. This is properly sociological.

But making this shift throws up new questions. Why is making money, why is greed, always exploitative? Why can’t I be greedy, have things my own way, and forget about other people. Do I have to hurt other people? Is capitalism really a zero-sum game, where my making money means you must live in poverty? Does capitalism have to divide over enjoyment and frustration and luxury and immiseration? The answer to these related questions sends us back to classical sociology. Karl Marx teaches us that like society, capitalism is a relation, a relation based on unequal exchange and exploitation, and that there can be no real equality under capitalism. If I make money, I make money out of you, and you are exploited. My enjoyment is premised on your frustration and so on.

In light of this recognition one can see that it is perhaps the greatest trick that capitalism has ever played, a trick it has been able to play particularly well over the last thirty years, to conjure the idea that capitalism is fair and that is possible to have some form of equality in capitalist social relations.

In the first phase of industrial capitalism there was little sense that this was a system based on anything but naked exploitation. Hence, the rise of socialism and communism. In the wake of the first great crash in the 1920s, a new form of capitalism emerged based on social responsibility, but the problem with this was that it was honest to its word. The result of this honesty was a contraction of capitalism as a profit producing machine. Hence the rise of the current brand of capitalism based in naked exploitation and the fantasy of reform aimed at producing more equal societies, and a more equal world.

The evidence of this new fantastic brand of capitalism is everywhere. Consider the third way, which suggested that it was possible to have free market profiteering, and a society based in greed, and social welfare, and a fair society. And what about philanthropic capitalists? Contrary capitalist who make enormous amounts of money, only to give a small portion back to the people they exploited in the first place, once they have made their money and secured their position at the top of the economic food chain.

There is no doubt that there is a great deal of fantasy about the new brand of capitalism, but the problem may have been that too many people let the fantasy run away with them and actually bought into the idea of endless enjoyment without exploitative social relations. The problem with the fantasy here is whether it was consciously understood to be a fantasy and was therefore a cynical attempt to deceive people, dampening down their unrest, unhappiness, and frustration, or whether the exponents of the third way actually believed in the fantastic idea of socialistic capitalism.

Regardless of what one thinks about this, it seems that today the idea of endless enjoyment is over, and nobody believes that it is possible to have this, that, and other without paying for it, with the result that we are now entering the so-called age of austerity where we will have to suffer and stop enjoying ourselves. I think that it is likely that the result of this belt-tightening will be the rise of a new form of class consciousness, a new sensitivity to exploitative social relations, similar to that rehearsed by the recent ‘outing’ of the financial sector and bonus culture and MPs and their corrupt expenses culture, and that this will make Chavez’s extra-systemic anti-capitalist message more relevant to those in rich western countries, who have for too long ignored the socialist critique of global capitalism because they simply did not need to bother about the poverty of those in far off places.

It may be the case then that after twenty or thirty years on top Gordon Gekko, the philosopher of capitalism unleashed and desire realised, may be about to give way to Chavez, the champion of public ownership, free health care, and free education, as we are forced to do what Marx told us to do long ago, and good sociologists should always do, question everything, including and especially those things that seem absolutely beyond question, such as the capitalist system itself.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Research Associate opportunity - Teenagers’ Experiences of Domestic Abuse as Witnesses, Victims and Potential Perpetrators

Within the Faculty Of Humanities And Social Sciences, Keele University

(Fixed Term for 34 months)

Starting Salary, Grade 7: £29,853 per annum

We are seeking a full-time post-doctoral research associate for a major ESRC study of teenagers' experiences of domestic abuse as witnesses, victims and potential perpetrators. With support from an experienced research team, and relevant training, the postholder will have the opportunity to develop a career in the field of violence research. The main aim of the research is to produce an answer to the question as to why some young men grow up to be perpetrators of domestic abuse - and to learn more about how we can prevent them from becoming reliant on a range of violent, controlling and threatening behaviours. The research involves administration of an attitudinal scale, self-report questionnaire, focus groups, and in-depth biographical interviews with young people.
Applicants must be able to demonstrate competency with respect to both survey and qualitative data collection, including the administration and analysis of research data. Experience of working with or conducting research with young people on sensitive subject matters is highly desirable. The postholder will be expected to undertake the bulk of the fieldwork for the project, participate in the analysis of the project's data, and work with the project's interdisciplinary research team to deliver on the project's main outputs, including academic publications. The fieldwork for the project will take place primarily in the North Staffordshire area. Appointment will be from 1st October 2010.

Job packs and further particulars are available from: www.keele.ac.uk/jobs, vacancies@keele.ac.uk, Human Resources, Keele University, Staffordshire, ST5 5BG or Fax: 01782 733471. The job advert is available at: http://www.jobs.ac.uk/job/ABG664/research-associate/

Informal enquiries are welcome to

Dr David Gadd, email: d.r.gadd@crim.keele.ac.uk Tel: 01782 733598
Dr Claire Fox email: c.fox@psy.keele.ac.uk Tel: 01782 733330

Please quote post reference: RE10/15UK and see http://www.jobs.ac.uk/

Closing date for applications: 7th July 2010

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Garden Times

Now that season of the sun is upon us and we are all basking in the opportunities of summer it is appropriate timing to consider the role and functions of gardens in contemporary life. If ‘an ‘Englishman’s home is his castle’ his [sic] garden is something else besides. Gardens tell us something not only about the people who have and keep them but also something more about society in general. This is not as easy as it first seems. The private garden is a complex of competing ideas, ideals and uses that reflect different class as well as tastes, aesthetic preferences, penchants and predilections, not to mention sizes, forms and functions.

The history of the private garden includes the development of the landed gentry’s country estate in which the view and perspective f the surrounding countryside was moulded and shaped to meet an ideal of an Elysium field in which order and beauty could be arranged (including suitably dressed and posed peasant farm labourers). In this the role of landscape gardeners and architects such as Capability Brown came to the fore to design and build new estates and gardens for wealthy landowners in the 18th century. Such private parkland surrounded the mansion and houses and country retreats not just of a landed gentry but also increasingly the new moneyed classed that began to appear in the 19th century. Humphrey Repton, Brown’s successor was to develop the idea of the English Garden that not only was exported to the countryside but also to bring back ideas of landscape design and aesthetics to Britain. During the 19th century as urbanisation and industrialisation turned Britain into the first predominantly urban society the need to provide access to nature in the city for healthy leisure and rational recreation for the increasingly populous working classes was eventually recognition and commitment to the provision of publicly owned and maintained urban public parks. One important figure in the 19th century was Sir Joseph Paxton who was responsible designing may of the great urban public parks in Britain that provided much needed green and leisure space for the industrial urban working class to gain access to nature, relatively fresh air and amusements, recreation and leisure in the overcrowded and polluted industrial cities.

The development of the private garden as a more commonly accessible private green space was associated with changes in residential housing design and the development of both a move to privately owned suburban urban development and working class housing with an attached garden. For many rural labourers and those who lived in tied cottages associated with some industries as well as the more large scale development of social housing in the 20th century the provision of a small garden allowed many to have a small piece of land to cultivate. This led to the ‘cottage garden’ now known as a distinct informal style of dense planting use of traditional plants and materials but which also had more pragmatic uses. Originally the cottage garden provided herbs and fresh vegetables as a necessary supplement for wage labourers as well as the opportunity to spend some leisure time in the fresh air after the working day in the factory, mill or mine.

Nowadays, the idea of the garden has evolved and changed over time as new fashions in planting and uses have developed. Take a walk along any street and observe the choices and judgements, the time and money invested in creating the front garden that presents to the street and the world an idea or representation of the house-holders public face. Or not as the case may be given that so many urban terraced streets have replaced the front garden with a paved, concrete or mono-blocked parking space for the all pervasive culture of the car. Better still, spend some time on a train or a bus, along the canal or river towpath peering into the back gardens of the houses one passes and one will see a variety of uses, styles, functions, forms as well as fads and fashions. If one takes a critical investigation over the back walls and fences of the various styles and classes of areas you pass along you can make fairly accurate assessments of the people whose gardens one can see.

In countries where the climate is more consistently warm an outside culture is lived out in which all sorts of everyday activities take place in the outdoors as a matter of course. In Britain, the garden, for those of us fortunate to have one, takes on an extra dimension as it comes in to regular use only at certain times of the year. It is very much used and viewed as an extra room in summer, (lebensraum), an outside living ‘room’ providing the opportunity not only to take a break from the inside months of weather enforced internal imprisonment that our climate imposes on us but also provides much more. In this, it gives an opportunity to study and think on how we relate not only to the (self) created nature that gardens provide but also how we act and interact, represent our identities and selves, in the outside spaces that we inhabit.

The garden is a multifunctional space that can and does reflect the aspirations, status, ideals as well as life course of those who have them. It also tells us something of the way we live and how in the garden as much as in the home or in other more commonly considered consumption and life-style spheres (clothes, music, film, TV, cars, etc.) fads, fashions and trends have become part of a huge industry. As we peer into the gardens of others or perhaps think of our own we can sketch this multiplicity of uses as well as lifestyle and identity statements that are represented in the enactment and landscape of the domestic garden.

The garden when the weather is clement is not only a place to hang and dry washing, to sit with a beer or chilled glass of wine at the end of the working day or in the permitted leisure time of weekends and holidays. It is also a ‘safe’ space for children to play, exercise and let off the boundless energy of children. In fact, we can not only glean whether or not a family with children resides in the house by the presence or absence of play equipment we can also make assessments as to the ages of the children and even their genders. If there is a sandpit, paddling pool, the ubiquitous plastic play-equipment and tricycles we can guess the presence of the pre-school age-group. Swings may be stereotypically for girls to use whilst football goals are designated male, whilst a swingball, climbing frames or trampoline is more gender neutral. There may also be play houses of all sorts, sizes and costs as well as well as enclosures and homes for pet rabbits all of which are indicative of younger children.

But the garden is more than a play area for children. As they grow older the garden matures as the inhabitants mature and take son new or different functions. One can see how different styles of gardening reflect not only individual tastes but also fashions in plants and landscape design. Take as examples how the hardwood decking, patios, expensive brick built or gas fired barbecues have expanded over the land as they have become essential elements of the garden as a leisure and party space, where dry and mud free feet can enjoy not only the al fresco dining of a picnic but also a special type of cooking and eating. The barbecue has become an essential summer experience of contemporary British summers. Similarly what was once essential elements of gardens, greenhouses and sheds (the quintessential place of escape of many married men) the range of architectural features now includes ha-has, summer houses, gazebos, fountains, ponds, arbours, arches, benches, bridges, fences, gates, obelisks, pergolas and planters populate gardens with an architectural element that is more than merely functional.

Gardens and their aesthetic appeal in terms of their planting and appearance reflect not only the individual tastes and proclivities of the owner. They also reflect the changing fads and fashions of the industry that has grown up to serve and inspire the gardener. As the graph below indicates this industry makes a significant contribution to the domestic economy.

UK Garden Products Market 2004-2014 £M
Source: "Garden Products Market Research & Analysis Report - UK 2010-2014"

Furthermore changes in gardening practice reflect and have a correlation to wider socio-economic, political and environmental concerns and issues. An example of this can be discerned from the emphasis this year on grow-your-own. There has been a tradition of the self cultivation of fruit, vegetables and herbs that is reflected in the history of not only the cottage garden but also the popularity of allotment gardening. For those not familiar with the tradition of the allotment it is characterised by the concentration in a limited place of a number of relatively small parcels of land assigned to individuals or families for cultivation. The individual gardeners are organised in an allotment association which leases the land from the owner who may be a public, private or ecclesiastical entity, provided that it is only used for gardening (i.e. growing vegetables, fruits and flowers), and not for other purposes such as business or residence. Such is the current popularity of gardening and the shortage of suitable land for allotments that in some areas particularly in the cities there are waiting lists of sometimes up to 10 years for an allotment.

A variation of this theme has been hugely successful in Cuba since the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, and Cuba lost its food imports and agricultural inputs from which it depended for an adequate supply of food. The US Embargo also created a shortage of petrol necessary to transport the food from the rural agriculture sector to the city. This marked the beginning of serious food shortages that shook the entire country, but most of all Havana where urban agriculture has taken on many forms, ranging from private gardens (huertos privados) to state-owned research gardens (organicponicos), Havana's popular gardens (huertos populares) are the most widespread and accessible to the general public. These are small parcels of state-owned land that are cultivated by individuals or community groups in response to ongoing food shortages. The program for popular gardens first began in Havana in January 1991, and has since been promoted in other Cuban cities. In 1995, there were an estimated 26,600 popular garden parcels throughout the 43 urban districts that make up Havana's 15 municipalities. A wide selection of produce is cultivated, depending (on family needs, market availability, and suitability with the soil and locality. In addition to vegetable and fruit cultivation, some popular gardens also cultivate spices and plants used for medicinal purposes.

The private garden demonstrates not only a complexity in respect of form and aesthetic appeal but also their use value as not only a recreational appendage to the house but also as a more useful and necessary space for physical and psychological health and well-being. The benefits of time spent in the garden or in any green space for relieving stress, promoting physical and mental well-being was recognised by public authorities and urban park designers in the initial phase of municipal park building in the 19th century. The difference with private gardens nowadays is that we have much more choice and control over the style, form, content and use to which we can shape and mould our private green space to meet our own tastes, needs and values. This can reflect the changing habits and lifestyles but can also reveal positive and negative aspects of the state of neighbourliness in modern Britain. Summer in the garden can bring neighbours and friends together for garden parties and get-togethers, for chats and conversation over the fence with seldom seen neighbours and the sharing of plants and gardening tips. However, it can also bring conflict over the noise of parties and loud music, dog barking, barbecue smoke and boisterous children’s games, over the cutting of shared hedges. Patio or garden rage is the term given to the verbal and sometimes violent confrontations between neighbours because summer and sunshine in the garden bring into contact people who would not meet at other times of the year.

Next time you spend sometime in your own or someone else’s garden this summer reflect on its role and place in the social life of Britain and how it reflects tastes and tendencies, lifestyles and habits that tells us something about how we live and interact with nature and with each other through and in the such a taken for granted green space as the private garden.