Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Unsettler: Sociology and Demobilisation

By Dr Mark Featherstone

After having been away from blogging for a few months because of research leave and teaching commitments, I decided to return after a research visit to Paris to finish talking about the sociology of immobility. I was curious to essay my own situation upon my return, but it has taken me more or less a month to get around to writing this piece. This is, of course, no advertisement for the high speed society, nor the advantages of blogging where information moves lightning fast. I wish that I could claim laziness, say that I had plenty of time on my hands, and that I simply hadn’t been bothered to write, because this would mean I had taken time off. But there is no laziness in the high speed society and unfortunately the truth is much worse. I simply have not had the time to write anything. Now, as research projects stack up around me, must-read books pile up in ever increasing quantities covering my office, and my diary swells with meetings, and many more appointments I have probably not written down, I thought I needed to sit down to write about the paradoxical relationship between mobility and immobility in contemporary society. So here we are.

There was something interesting about flying off to Paris, spending a day and a half in the suburbs of the French capital, and then returning to the UK in a desperate attempt to secure a visa for entry into China a week later. I never made it to Beijing in the end and had to postpone my trip. But by the time it became clear I was going nowhere the very effort of trying to organise a visa, flights, foreign currency, not to mention finish off papers to present in the Chinese capital, made me feel as though I had been to China and back without ever having left my office. Email went back and forth, and I made aborted phone calls to Beijing, without getting anywhere, before I eventually accepted I was staying put. In the end I had achieved very little, apart from discovering I had the wrong documentation to enter China on a lecturing visa. I had remained completely immobile in every sense of the word, and yet by the end of the week, I felt in a state of panic.

Admittedly, I may be prone to this kind of reaction when confronted with the prospect of travel. Those who know me know very well that I have never really considered myself a member of the global elite, having been brought up in a particularly immobile environment where nobody seemed to do anything and nothing ever seemed to change. On a continuum spanning those who belong to, or dwell in a place and those who live nowhere and everywhere at the same time, I fall very much into the former category, having never found mobility very easy. Unfortunately, having said all of this, I am, perhaps, in the worst possible position, being somebody who wants to dwell somewhere, but is also an exile from that place. So I live between somewhere and nowhere, which really means nowhere or a kind of liminal place. As a researcher of utopias I know that nowhere should be best possible place, or at least that’s what Thomas More told us, when he called his perfect world utopia meaning both good place and no place, but I can’t really sustain that belief. Nowhere is really no good. It is like the non-places French sociologist Marc Auge talks about. These places, airports and the like, are only good for moving through on your way somewhere else.

But then again, I’m ambivalent. Nowhere has its attractions. For example, I like airports. They’re transitory places and I feel a great sense of freedom in them. The paradox of airports is that even when you’re loaded down with bags, you have no baggage. You’re on the move and you could go anywhere. Unfortunately, the problem with non-places is that its easy to get stuck there. Nobody wants to be stuck nowhere, like the traveler in the Tom Hanks’ film, who ends up living in an airport for months on end, because its impossible to settle and grow any kind of roots there. There is some kind of freedom in that admittedly, but it becomes a bit tiresome in the end. So nowhere, and the non-place of the exile is nowhere to be, even though sociologists have long known that aliens make the best critical thinkers because the normal looks absurd to them. That’s okay, and it may make for good academic work, but it’s hard to live on the outside looking in. Having said all of this, I should not over-egg my status as melancholy exile. I spent my early life thinking about escaping from my immobile situation. Everybody I knew did. That was life. In this respect, roots and the idea of dwelling are based on a kind of imaginary situation for me. In the language of Benedict Anderson, I have an imaginary view of what it was like to live in a working class community.

But I also know that in a society premised on the idea of mobility, immobility kills. Perhaps this is why airports are the best and worst of places to be – we are all mobile in the airport, until we get stuck, and then our immobility is thrown into sharp relief by the very fact that the place we occupy is a kind of transitory non-place that exists for no other reason than to move people on. You absolutely do not want to get stuck there. In fact, perhaps we should learn to appreciate airports more for what they can tell us about contemporary society and our mindset today because the condition of the airport which enables movement but also invariably malfunctions and breaks down causing panic-inducing immobility symbolises the great problem of the mobile society. That to say that the great problem of moving around and running about without stopping to take stock is that you end up getting nowhere and nothing ever happens.

As such, there is a point where mobility folds into immobility, with the added ingredient of the desperate need to move in a society geared towards dynamism and change. Herein resides the difference between me now, stuck between Paris and Beijing in a kind of twilight zone, and me twenty years ago, caught on a council estate on the edge of Hull, wondering how I could escape. In the past I had nowhere to be. I had no reason to leave, even though I knew there had to be more to life, whereas now I have somewhere to be, but have come to see everywhere as a kind of transitory place on the road to somewhere else. In the past everywhere was an end, a kind of dead end, and now there is no end, but only endless movement. What is more is that I am not unusual in this view – I use myself as an example of a particular world view, the world view of the contemporary global nomad, the unsettler, who is propelled ever forward by the demand to move contained in contemporary society.

Unlike the nomads of the past who went to a place and eventually settled somewhere, today we are unsettlers because we never stay anywhere for too long. My own case is hyperbolic, because as I am well aware that I have a dislike of both mobility and immobility, and this puts me in the difficult, even comic position of not wanting to go anywhere, but also not wanting to stay where I am for too long, wherever that may be at any given time. Perhaps this makes me the ideal of citizen of More’s utopian city that did not exist, a place that was also a no place. But I don’t think so. The problem with More’s people was they were far too settled where they were and that’s not how the unsettler is today. Caught in a place that’s not a place, but rather a non-place, the unsettler displays a strange psychological condition we might want to call topophobia – the fear of places. More’s people don’t show any symptoms of this problem. They seem happy where they are. By contrast the contemporary topophobic does not like any place that exists, but instead wants to imagine places they would like to inhabit and then inhabit these imaginary places through mental constructs made up of equal parts of melancholia and desire. Imagination and the desire to move are, therefore, key to understanding the topophobic. As I see it, there is none of this unrest in More’s people.

This is, of course, paradoxical since one would imagine that unrest is exactly what makes one a utopian. Is unrest not what defines the utopian imagination? But we know that unrest is difficult to live with and nobody wants to live between places. It’s not easy. Does this amount to saying that utopia is bad, and that social dreaming is no good, because what it means is that you will never be happy where you are, and always want to find somewhere else that doesn’t really exist? Does this mean that the utopian topophobic is a person who is addicted to movement, but at the same time hates going anywhere because what they want more than anything is to stop moving and rest for a little while in some imaginary place they will never find? In many ways this question touches upon the key point of utopian thinking and practice. What most utopian dreamers have done over the course of history is to try to design imaginary places where people could rest and would have no more need of their imaginations. In utopia other places cease to exist. You are where you are and that’s it.

This is exactly what communists of all types have sought to do over the course of history – from Plato through Stalin to Pol Pot, reds have sought to destroy our ability to think otherwise. Let’s imagine imagination out of existence, because its too hard to keep wanting something that you can never have, a place that does not exist. The response to this strategy has, of course, been the great dystopias which say exactly that. From Diogenes the Dog to George Orwell, the utopians of freedom have told us that even though its hard to keep moving, nobody wants to be subsumed in a place that is completely immobile. So accept your desire to move and live with it. I think that’s true, and I would go along with the radical critique of Plato’s Republic and the Orwellian attack on Stalinism, but the problem is that our own society has taken the idea of mobility too far.

Nobody wants to be stuck in a hopeless situation, where all you can do is dream but never go anywhere, but equally topophobia is no good either. In many respects this is where we are today in contemporary global capitalism. We are all supposed to be ‘super-busy’ - and smile about it. If we have any time we are meant to cram it full of work or leisure. There is no time to do nothing. But it’s enough to drive anybody mad and I’m not sure what’s worse – sitting on a council estate bedsit somewhere wondering what could be or finding yourself caught in a similarly immobile position frantically struggling to manage an overloaded work and leisure schedule.

Although the nature of the collapse of time may have changed, the experience of immobility remains the same. In the case of the bedsit dweller, time has no meaning and it is impossible to go anywhere, because they have nowhere to go and no reason to be anywhere. By contrast, the member of what Zygmunt Bauman would call the contemporary liquid class has no time and can’t get anywhere because he has to be everywhere and has no time to do anything. The outcome of both situations is the same, I think: topophobia, the desire to move, and escape, into a stable yet imaginary place which does not continually propel one forwards.

The great founder of liberal philosophy Thomas Hobbes would have considered any such attempt to find a place beyond mobility ridiculous, since he thought about life in terms of a race. In his view people are like atoms bouncing around in abstract space. They possess trajectories and this is what keeps them alive. Unfortunately, however, nobody can ever have an unimpeded trajectory through life. The very nature of human existence means that people desire similar objects and therefore invariably clash in their life trajectories. As such, we must compete and struggle to ensure that we come out on top in the great race that is life. Obviously, Hobbes was no Darwinian before Darwin, and he did not simply advocate natural selection and the survival of the fittest, but rather thought that it was necessary to take the natural inclination of people towards struggle and competition and lift it onto the level of economic competition where it could be safely controlled. Or at least, this is how the great Canadian theorist of liberalism, C. B. MacPherson, thought about Hobbes' most famous work on the emergence of society.

Although his work is not so well known today, I think that MacPherson provides us with a useful insight into the nature of contemporary society because what it illustrates is that the root problem of our situation – and the problem of the simultaneous divergence and similarity of the experiences of the bedsit dweller and the global traveler – is the result of an economic system that imperils us in equal measure every minute of the day. Why do we fear staying anywhere for too long? Why are we all topophobic today? The answer is quite simple. In the great game of capitalist survivalism, it does not pay to stay still for too long. In order to stay in, and preferably ahead of, the game you absolutely have to keep moving and stay mobile. However, as we have seen, there is a limit to how far this is possible, and in the end it is likely that our society will congeal into a kind of immobile opposition between those who cannot go anywhere because they have nowhere to go and those who cannot move because they have to be everywhere all at the same time. We really need to avoid the emergence of this kind of society because it will result in one outcome – a massive outpouring of psychological unrest in a society committed to mobility.

What should we do, then, to oppose this situation? First, we have to resist the utopian temptation to oppose the addiction to movement with the resolution of stasis in a society where nothing changes. This has been tried by communists throughout history. It does not work. Total immobility is no way forward and only results in the reemergence of the obsession with change and dynamism. Second, I think we have to try to transform our society into a less competitive place, which is not geared around endless change and transformation, but rather takes care of those who cannot keep up and stops challenging people to do more and move faster. As Marx saw in the 19th century, and Simmel recognised early in the 20th century, the society premised on the notion that ‘all is solid melts into air’ is not easy to stand. We all know this to be true and yet, in many respects, we have yet to learn the lesson of the classical sociologists. I think this is the challenge for our society in the immediate future – we must learn from Marx and Simmel. We must learn to demobilise. But how can we do this in a society which functions like a race track? Perhaps this should be the subject for another blog. But for now I fear I must suspend my commitment to demobilisation - I need to try to re-book my flights to Beijing.

Monday, 23 May 2011


Magistrates and academics came together last week at Keele Hall to discuss how the courts can encourage desistence from offending. Presentations from academics in the fields of criminology, law and social work contributed to a lively debate.The audience was also introduced to Adam Snow, who has just been appointed as the Magistrates' Association Fellow and will be studying for a PhD entitled 'Pay As You Go Justice: Out of Court Disposals and the Future of the Magistracy'.

This is the first in a series of seminars sponsored by the Magistrates' Association, organised by Dr Helen Wells, Dr Mary Corcoran, Professor David Gadd and Professor Barry Godfrey. The next two seminars will be held in Manchester and London and will discuss "the role of short sentences" and "the future of local justice".

This collaboration between academics and practitioners has been widely praised, and we look forward to more of these kinds of events at Keele.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Another 'what can I do with a sociology degree?' resource

The Guardian Careers site is hosting a live webchat on Weds 18th May 2011 between 1-4pm on What to do with a Sociology degree.  Please join in and post a question on their site: Guardian Careers/Sociology and do refer back to the page later since they will archive it and other commentators will no doubt post their views.

We've gained promotion to the Premier League! Keele Sociology and Criminology programmes confirm their Top 20 status

The Sociology and Criminology undergraduate degree programmes at Keele were today confirmed as being in the 'Premier League' -  recognised as two of the Top 20 courses in these subjects in the UK.  The Guardian University Guide for 2012 confirmed Keele's place as one of the best places to get a good student experience and high quality education in these subjects.  Sociology moved up 17 places from 37th last year to 20th this year; and Criminology (listed as 'Social Policy' in most guides) is 14th in the country. This high rating builds on our previous successes earlier this month in the Complete University Guide in which Sociology at Keele moved up to 21st and Criminology emerged as 20th.

Bill Dixon, Head of the School of Sociology and Criminology said "We're delighted that our programmes in Sociology and Criminology are achieving recognition nationally. Teaching staff here are committed to students and to providing high-quality, research-led programmes. Keele is a special place, and we're extremely proud to be providing a special learning experience."

"One of the things we're most proud of is the close, supportive relationships we build up with our students. Students appreciate this and we work hard to maintain good feedback, friendly learning environments and personal contact with teaching staff. In 2010/11 over half of the staff group in Sociology and Criminology were nominated by students for University teaching excellence awards."

You can find out more about the Sociology and Criminology programmes by looking at our prospectus, following this blog, following us on Twitter @socandcrimkeele or on our Facebook page www.facebook.com/socandcrimkeele If you'd like to come and visit us, you can talk to staff and current students at our Open Days or if you can't make these dates, contact us to arrange for a visit.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Urban Monstrosity


Mark Featherstone

In Mathieu Kassowitz’s 1995 film 'La Haine' the outskirts of Paris are represented as a strange savage wilderness characterised by alienation, despair, ethnic tension, and low level criminality. Fifteen years on the characters may have changed, so that the ethnic aliens in Kassowitz’s film have been replaced by a new ‘other’ in the form of the Romanian immigrant, but the general condition of ethnic tension and class division remain the same. On my recent trip to le banlieues with the French cultural studies journal D-Fiction, I walked through the dystopian ruins of modern Paris, the spaces of Le Corbusier, a failed utopia, which has now decayed to a kind of anomic non-space.

But how can we understand the condition of urban monstrosity which has seen the modernist utopia become a post-modern dystopia in the context of contemporary Paris? How can we understand the contemporary nature of urban alienation in Paris, and the situation of the new ethnic alien, the Romanian or Transylvanian other, the vampire who threatens the life-blood of the French nation in Sarkozy’s neo-liberal imaginary? In my forthcoming work on urban monstrosity, I seek to explore the contemporary French urban condition through a discussion of Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, on the notions of decay, utopia, and dystopia, and a visual ethnography of the contemporary Parisian suburb. While Cioran spent much of his life in Paris, his dark works are important because they can shed light on the condition of urban decay, dereliction, and ruination. By contrast, images of urban graffiti and tags communicate the meaning of the contemporary suburban condition in the French capital, a neo-liberal dreamworld, the city of light, which is also a city of exclusion, marginality, and darkness.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Keele: (Virtually) a Top 20 place for Sociology and Criminology...

Wow. Our rating for Sociology in the Complete University guide has moved up a whole 9 places, moving us into 21st spot.  This is fantastic news and is no doubt partly due to the brilliant feedback we've been getting in the National Student Survey over the years.  Criminology (included as Social Policy - see below for why) is also in 20th place, so I think this means we can just about claim we're in the Top 20 of places in which to study both subjects.  Well, almost.

But while we're on, just a note about League Tables.  Sure, they help you decide where you want to study; sure, they tell you a bit about the places you're interested in, and their reputation.  But nothing really beats coming for a visit, talking to staff and students about what is important to you.  Our Open Days are just that: open - you can speak to staff and students of the two programmes first hand to find out what it is really like.

One of the things about League Tables that makes a difference to us here at Keele is they can never have a 'perfect' methodology.  It matters, in fact, because the clumsiness of the methodology doesn't always show us in our best light.  For example, the National Student Survey only asks you ONE set of questions; yet still many if not most of our degrees at Keele are dual honours.  Unless you've had EXACTLY the same experience in both your Schools, this fine-tuning of your views won't be reflected in your answers.  There has yet to be any form of league table or 'rating' of University courses that can adequately reflect the Keele degree properly.

In addition, people often ask about the research rating for our subjects, since it is confusing.  In some league tables you will see NO research rating for Sociology and/or Criminology.  In others you will see we end up at the top end of the ratings!   Sometimes, I've seen blogs, facebook comments and replies on The Student Room which highlight or question this. Why does this confusion arise?

Well, it is all to do with HOW research was assessed at Keele.  Most of the School of Sociology and Criminology staff whose research was included in the last Research Assessment exercise (a process by which the quality of research in Universities is measured every few years) were submitted under the heading of 'Social Policy'.  There isn't a separate 'Criminology' heading, and most of the sociologists (which was most of us) who were submitted went in Social Policy, which is quite common across the country.  I won't bore you with the reasons these choices were made but you can rest assured that ALL staff in the School are research active.  Keele was ranked 12th in the country for Social Policy - an excellent outcome- and criminology and sociology research in our School contributed to this along with research by members of other Schools (such as Public Policy and Professional Practice).

Now, some league tables have managed to reflect this complexity accurately, and have included part of the Social Policy score in their calculations for Sociology and Criminology.  But some have not.  So if it shows up a research score of 'zero', then take it with a pinch of salt.  If you want to know what kind of research we actually do, and how good it is, look at the list of books on our Facebook page, the publications and research details on our individual homepages and so on.

The real issue in the league tables though is surely how good we are as educators, how much students appreciate what they get from us when they're here, and what difference it makes to them in the long term - in terms of employability and just general life-changing experiences.  Hopefully, these rather arbitrary measures can get better at reflecting what you really get in the School of Sociology and Criminology: excellent, research-active teaching staff, who know and care about their students, teaching relevant and interesting courses that help develop you into all-round graduates.

Criminal Justice student exchange to Ball State University, Indiana

A group of six undergraduate criminology students have recently returned from a Criminal Justice Exchange Programme at Ball State University, Indiana. Dr Clare Jones, a teaching fellow in the School of Sociology and Criminology, accompanied the group. The exchange programme has been running for the last four years with criminal justice students from Ball State University coming to Keele to learn about, and experience first-hand, the criminal justice system and how it operates in England and Wales.

Students from Keele have made the return leg of the trip for three years now and the programme has been a great success. Students learn about how the criminal justice system operates in a different country, particularly one where gun crime is a prevalent issue; where the police in response feel they need to carry an array of weapons for their own, and for public, protection; and where the death penalty still exists in many states. Students therefore had the opportunity to contrast this experience with what they have already learnt about the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

This year the week-long programme took place at the beginning of April and students enjoyed a packed schedule….

Monday 4th April: The students settled into Ball State University campus life and later attended a talk by the Chief of the University Police Department, and were treated to a K9 demonstration. Canines (usually German Shepherds) are predominantly used by the police for narcotics and bomb detection, and for tracking people. The demonstration involved a role-play exercise where a (rather nervous) police officer pretended to flee from a crime and the police dog was instructed to track and catch the ‘suspect’.

Tuesday 5th April: Students attended interactive sessions held on a victim advocacy programme, police investigation of domestic violence, and a court volunteering programme. Later that evening, students were given the opportunity to attend a police ride-along with the University, Muncie, and Delaware County Police Departments. This was a highlight of the week where students enjoyed (quite literally) a front seat to all of the action!  Students were involved in stopping drivers who had committed a traffic offence; dealing with various disputes and disturbances; an alleged theft from a supermarket; as well as being involved in the arrest of individuals and taking them to the County Jail.

Wednesday 6th April: Students attended court to observe proceedings.  The morning consisted of pre-trial hearings on ten cases, which included a 22 year old male being accused of sexual misconduct with a minor, a 29 year old female accused of child molestation, a 21 year old male accused of committing an armed robbery, as well as cases of  theft, battery, burglary and probation violation.

Thursday 7th April: Students job shadowed workers from probation and community corrections. This provided an opportunity for students to see first-hand what working in probation and community punishment entails in another country. Students could also see how ex-offenders cope with life after prison, with one interesting case of an ex-offender who discussed the difficulties of adapting to modern life after being released from prison two weeks earlier, having served a 26-year sentence for murder. Later in the day, students attended a tutorial on gang violence and were asked to design some solutions and crime prevention strategies for what was becoming a particular problem in the area.

Friday 9th April: To end the programme, students had a guided tour of Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. This facility houses inmates who are serving long-term sentences as well as those who are on death row. Students were advised to wear non-provocative clothing on the day (due to the likely adverse attention from inmates) and to ensure all clothes and shoes were clean (due to the very sophisticated security system that all visitors must go through). Although certain wings were closed off on the tour for safety purposes, students were given a behind the scenes tour of all aspects of the facility. Despite a few shouts and whistles from inmates, students came away feeling privileged to have had this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Saturday 10th April: Students had an exciting opportunity to visit Chicago for a day of sightseeing. They visited navy peer, took a trip up to the 103rd floor of Sears Tower, sampled the famous caramel and cheddar popcorn from ‘Garretts’, and even managed to fit in some shopping along the ‘Magnificent Mile’.

Overall, the trip provided students with a first-hand experience of all aspects of the US criminal justice system, from the time where individuals enter the system during the arrest by the police, right through to the trial, punishment and subsequent monitoring after offenders have completed their sentence. Students enjoyed the week and were keen to recommend it to others…

"The trip to Ball State University did not only teach me a great deal about the fundamental elements of the American criminal justice system but we also 'stepped into the shoes' of Americans for a week and met some really great people. All of which gave my peers and I, a unique and memorable week."
[Laura, first year Criminology student]