Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Holocaust Memorial Day today: memory as political myth

Professor Pnina Werbner has today published a paper, Displaced Enemies, Displaced Memories: Diaspora Memorial Politics of Partition and the Holocaust, arguing that the refusal of the Muslim Council of Britain to attend Holocaust Memorial Day highlights a key dimension of memory as political myth: namely, the sense that time is cyclical. Prior external and internal enemies (in their current manifestations) are apocalyptically destined to threaten the integrity of the nation once more. Hence, ideologies based on political myths draw on both the future hopes and the future fears of people. The paper highlights the similarities between Jewish and Pakistani fears, rooted in the Holocaust and Partition, of a repeated ‘cycle of death and suffering’. These loom large especially for those suffering racism. The more bound people are by their narrow group’s particular symbols and history, the more apocalyptic their vision of this future is likely to be.

You can read more of this paper in: Ethnos, vol. 74:4, Dec. 2009 (pp. 441–464)

Is equality achievable?

by Dr Rebecca Leach

Part 3 in the 'What is Sociology FOR?' theme on our blog

The report of the National Equality Panel is out today, to much debate in the news. The gap between the richest and poorest is wider now than 40 years ago, and inequalities between black and white, and between men and women remain deep-seated.

Some of the most disturbing headlines from this report focus on the fate of children born into poverty. On the Today programme this morning, Professor John Hills pointed out the 'cumulative' impact that poverty and wealth have upon families, both for individuals and future generations within those families.

For every extra 100 pounds of family income when a child is young, an extra month's worth of educational development is gained. That is a simple, but awful, truth. And Hills points out that the gap in incomes between low- and high-income families runs to many hundreds and often thousands of pounds a month. Draw your own conclusions.

This reminds us that whatever the latest rash of 'initiativitis' that emerges from whichever party, it is still poverty in childhood that matters most when it comes to social mobility.

The other staggering, but unsurprising, headline is the revelation that despite women being better qualified educationally than men up to the age of 44, men are still paid on average 21% more than women. The explanations for women's disadvantage in the workplace are well-studied but can't agree whether it is pure sexism or women's likelihood of being the main carers for their children that is the most important factor.

These inequalities are cumulative, partly because they carry through from early life (and wealth/poverty), right through to pension age. In other words, if you start off poor and unequal, you're likely to end up more so. And you're likely to pass that down to your own children to because the cycle of disadvantage continues. Those at the upper end of the income and advantage scale look 'down', according to Hills, and see the threat of failure and poverty, and so they act to use their resources to bolster their own advantage and that of their children. They prop up their wealth with savings and investments, they buy education by moving catchment areas or supplementing with additional tutoring, they use their social networks to find out how access to education works and so on. So, in fact, the situation polarises rather than stabilises...

The papers are using this as a bunfight to attack the government. But of course, these patterns have developed over a very long time, and have not been eradicated in 60 years of the Welfare State. It isn't an easy job with a quick fix. More than ever, we need to understand the mechanisms and barriers within social mobility and economic well-being. Just at the time when universities, who can generate this knowledge, will be under financial attack along with the rest of the public sector. Social science - in particular - is often attacked by governments, and the public at large, because they struggle to see its point. It is sometimes seen as 'soft', overly politicised and jargonistic. Yet the National Equality Panel is overwhelmingly comprised of social scientists: sociologists, social policy specialists and economists who have spent their lifetime trying to 'make a difference' to exactly this kind of issue.

What is Sociology FOR? It is just this: ultimately, seeking to understand the processes behind child poverty, for example, in order to make it better.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Sociology Seminar series 2009-10

All welcome!

(Please scroll down for Semester 2 seminars)

13th October (Tues, 12-1pm – Room: TBA)
Dr Rebecca Leach (Sociology, Keele University)
‘Generation and Consumption: Insights from the Baby Boomers Study’

28th October (Wed, 4.30-6pm – Room: TBA)
Prof. Dennis Smith (Social Sciences, Loughborough University)
‘Whatever Happened to Globalization?’

11th November (Wed, 4-30-6pm – Room: TBA)
Dr Dale Southerton (Sociology, The Morgan Centre, and
The Sustainable Consumption Institute, Manchester University)
Title: TBA

24th November (Tues, 12-1 – Room: TBA)
Dr Siobhan Holohan (Sociology, Keele University)
‘Representing the Mundane in Channel 4’s The Family’

8th December (Tues, 12-1pm – Room: TBA)
Dr Mark Featherstone (Sociology, Keele University)
'Living on the Edge in the Forgotten City: Utopia, Dystopia, and
Public Housing in Northern England'

9th February (Tues, 12-1pm – Room: CBA0.007)
Globalization and its Aftermath: Towards a New Sociology of Ageing
Chris Phillipson (RI Director, LPJ and LCS, Keele University)

17th February (Wed, 4-5.30pm – Room: CBA0.007)
Title: TBA
Anne-Marie Kramer (Sociology, Warwick University)

2nd March (Tues, 12-1pm – Room: CM0.12)
Flow, Enjoyment and High-Risk Autotelic Experiences
James Hardie-Bick (Sociology, Keele University)

16th March (Tues, 12-1 – Room: CBA0.007)
Moving Images: The Practices and Politics of Displaying
Family Photographs
Mark Davies (PhD, Keele University)

30th March (Tues, 12-1pm – Room: CM0.12)
‘Don't Rush to Mush’:
Infants, Food and Contemporary Childrearing Practices
Emma Head (Sociology, Keele University)

11th May (Tues, 12-1 – Room: CBA1.099)
Locating the Past in a Shifting Present:
Re-membering and Returning to District Six, Cape Town
Michelle Rickett (Centre for Social Genrontology, Keele University)

25th May (Tues, 12-1 – Room: CM0.12)
Title: TBA
Andy Zieleniec (Sociology, Keele University)

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Haiti, Catastrophic Society

By Mark Featherstone

I have recently been working on a paper on the French philosopher of speed Paul Virilio and the idea of catastrophe. Virilio’s basic idea is that we should understand the development of society in terms of speed and acceleration and that the modern idea of progress is identical with notions of dynamism and movement. So far so good. We can all identify with Virilio’s thesis. We know that modern technology and specifically modern technology in capitalist society functions on the basis of an ideology of speed where faster is better.

The problem is that for Virilio the speed of technology has started to reach its limit under conditions of globalisation, so for instance communication is now quasi-instantaneous, and the planet has started to shrink to the extent that there now seems to be very little space in the world. In a capitalist world where competition is everything, the collapse of space, or what Virilio calls geocide, has the effect of intensifying the struggle between people and making them more violent towards each other. This is part of Virilio’s idea of catastrophe: social catastrophe.

However, his core theory of catastrophe turns off the idea of technology and the view that when we invent technology we also invent accidents or disasters, so that the invention of the car is the invention of the car crash, the invention of nuclear power is the invention of the nuclear disaster, and so on. All of this is, of course, useful for explaining man-made disasters, but it seems to do little to explain natural catastrophes such as the Asian Tsunami or the Haiti earthquake, which occurred as I was writing about Virilio’s theory.

The earthquake that hit Haiti on 12th January left the capital city, Port-au-Prince, covered in dust. Large sections of the city, particularly the hillside slums areas similar to Brazilian favelas in design, collapsed leaving the population buried under rubble. Current estimates suggest that as many as 200,000 people may have died as a result of the earthquake with more to follow from the 250,000 injured and 1.5 million left homeless and exposed to disease and lack of food and clean water.

At first it appears that none of this can be explained by Virilio theory of catastrophe. The earthquake was a natural disaster and Haiti has been particularly impacted by natural disasters throughout its history. In recent years the country has been hit by hurricanes and floods and has never really been able to manage any of these catastrophes, primarily because of the grinding poverty that has characterised the country since its emergence from colonial rule in 1804 and its more recent turbulent political history.

Herein resides the relevance of Virilio’s theory because it can show how the natural catastrophe of the earthquake has been magnified by the historical tragedy of Haiti, the country which was the first, apart from America, to escape colonial rule, and where the slave population was inspired by the revolutionary ideals of their colonial masters, the French, to try to build a free society. This county, the country of CLR James’ Black Jacobins, which was under the thumb of the tyrannical regimes of Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier for so long and only made the transition to democracy in 1990 with the regime of the slum priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been caught in a poverty trap by the global socio-economic system that has exacerbated its catastrophic history and without doubt made the impact of the 12th January earthquake far worse than it would otherwise have been.

This is the thesis of Peter Hallward who has written extensively on Haiti. Hallward suggests that the unimaginable devastation that has turned Port-au-Prince into a tomb was caused by the global economic regime that has trapped Haiti in poverty. According to this view we may not be able to explain natural disasters, such as the Haitian earthquake, using Virilio’s theory, but we can certainly better understand the impact and aftermath of such disasters by studying the social, economic, and political contexts that condition the ways in which they effect particular societies in different ways.

From this perspective it is the social, political, and economic situation of Haiti that has led to its current predicament in the wake of the earthquake. It is this context, which has led Haiti to be called the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, that has exacerbated the devastation caused by the earthquake and brought about a situation where corpses litter the streets and the state is unable to cope with shortages of food, water, and emergency health care to the extent that an estimated 20,000 people are dying each day because of the inability of the international relief effort to manage the aftermath of the disaster. While a richer, more robust, nation may be able to cope better with such events, so for example Japanese cities are built to survive earthquakes comparable to the Haitian one, Haiti has been thrown into what Thomas Hobbes called a state of nature where individual survival is all the matters.

Under these conditions, two particular stories leapt out from the mass of media coverage of the aftermath of the disaster, and seemed to say a lot about the ways in which such catastrophes can impact upon societies and how societies can resist the chaos of the state of nature and even under the worst circumstances, such as those which has befallen Haiti, maintain some level of civility.

The first story, which focused on the orphans of Haiti, related details of the children of the disaster and explained that the terrible situation of these children has been magnified and made intolerable by the earthquake. They now face an uncertain future and even if they survive the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe their lives are likely to be characterised by severe psychological problems and mental trauma.

The second story, which explains how the residents of Port-au-Prince’s most notorious slum, Cite Soleil, chased escaped gang members from their streets in order to prevent the descent of their neighbourhood back into the kind of violence and disorder that made it infamous, provides a glimmer of hope that illustrates how even under the worst conditions human society can survive.

Perhaps we must hang onto this social utopianism in the face of such catastrophic conditions and affirm the ability of humans to survive in even the most disastrous situations because this spirit is, after all, written into the history of Haiti, the home of the Black Jacobins. Finally, and in affirming this spirit through recognition of our common humanity and gestures of charity that counter the hegemonic savagery of global capitalism, we must certainly reject the cruel sentiments of figures such as Pat Robertson, the American Christian fundamentalist, who claimed that Haiti brought the earthquake on itself by signing a pact with the Devil in order to escape from colonial rule.

Despite what Robertson believes, Christianity is a religion of empathy, sympathy, charity, and humanity and these sentiments are the ones which we should apply in our response to the catastrophe in Haiti. For Virilio, this is exactly what we can learn from thinking about both natural and unnatural catastrophes. In his view thinking about catastrophes can teach us that despite our enormous technological feats, human society is a fragile thing that we must defend together. This is why despite the natural origins of the Haiti earthquake, it still requires us to think sociologically, because sociological thought is essential for allowing us to think about how we respond to it, the ways it has been exacerbated by human social, political, and economic formations, and how we should reform those formations in order to prevent such devastation in the future.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Funded PhD studentships available in Social Sciences and Humanities

Keele University

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

World-class interdisciplinary research

PhD Opportunities and Funding 2010-11

The Faculty of Humanities and Social Science is the largest Faculty in the University and is home to world-class scholars and research groups working across a range of topics and themes. The Faculty is proud of its success in the 2008 RAE, where 85% of the research assessed was classified as world-leading and of international importance. Research and postgraduate supervision is organised through Research Institutes which support a number of major research centres. The University has made a substantial investment in an exciting new building –The Moser Centre – to support high quality research and postgraduate work in the humanities and social sciences. There is now a strong commitment to expanding postgraduate research as a vital part of the University’s identity as a research-intensive institution.

Research Institutes: research interests and themes

Humanities (
Cultural and social history from the local to the global; Musicology since 1900 and creative applications of music technology; Literature, science and environments; literary and cultural theory; interdisciplinary approaches to life writing, Modern America and early modern and modern England.

Law, Politics and Justice (
Politics; International Relations; Law; Ethics; Criminology; Sociology and Philosophy -with particular interests in: Environmental Politics, European Politics, Crime, Security and Justice – and multidisciplinary fields such as postcolonialism, cultural studies, globalisation, urbanisation, environmental sustainability, racism, ethnicity and migration, professional ethics, legal identity and bioethics.

Public Policy and Management (
Economics; Education; Management; Marketing; Health Policy, and Industrial Relations with particular interests in: Ethnographic and critical management studies; Public policy and the regulation of public service quality; Work and work cultures; Gender and organisation; Managerial, organisational and inter-organisational practices; Consumption; Economics of ageing and retirement; Stability of banking systems; Microeconomic analysis, Finance and development.

Life Course Studies, (
Social Policy; Sociology; Social Work; Social Gerontology; Applied, Social and Cognitive Psychology; Health and Rehabilitation - with particular interests in Ageing; Families and Social Relationships; Children and Childhood; Communities; Gender and Sexuality; Consumption; Health, Rehabilitation and Well-being.

Studentships Available
We have funding to support up to 30 full-time and part-time postgraduate students across the Research Institutes. Fee waivers for UK and International Students are also available. We welcome expressions of interest from well-qualified applicants who wish to be supported by Keele in making an application to ESRC or AHRC for funding for MRes or PhD programmes. ESRC Quota Awards are available in Criminology and in Public Policy and Management. Part-funded applications with the public or private sector are also encouraged.

Closing date for applications is 28th February 2010. Applicants are strongly advised to discuss their interests with the relevant Research Institute or Research Centre and Prospective Supervisors. Helen Farrell should be contacted in the first instance for advice on the most appropriate contact point or ring 01782 733641.

Or - if you're specifically interested in Sociology or Criminology PhD opportunities and grants, come direct to the School of Sociology and Criminology: contact the Postgraduate contact for Sociology Dr Emma Head, , or the Postgraduate contact for Criminology, Prof Tim Hope, , who can direct you to the right person - there are many fields of expertise which don't quite fit into the categories in the RI list above so it is always worth exploring individual staff interests more comprehensively. You can find more about potential supervisors and their areas of interest in Sociology here, and in Criminology here.

Full details and application procedures can be found on the Graduate School website:

Email or ring 01782 734368 for the Graduate School Prospectus