Blog Topics, Sociological Castaways

Matt Dawson, University of Glasgow

matt dawsonMatt’s Four Sociology Books

Zygmunt Bauman– In Search of Politics

When you said 4 sociology books I immediately knew the author of 3 of them and this was first. I would have to take something from Bauman, for two reasons. One, he’s where it all started for me, I doubt I’d be a sociologist, or if I were, I’d be a very different type of sociologist, were it not for Bauman. Two, is there a sociologist more fun to read than Bauman? Two other candidates are on this list and we could debate that, but I can’t think of anyone clearly better.  There are texts from Bauman I’ve read numerous times yet, whenever I go back to them, I find something new and interesting I had missed, or simply not registered before.

Therefore, the next question was what Bauman? I thought about Postmodern Ethics which might be my favourite of Bauman’s books as well as Art of Life which is a somewhat overlooked text in which Bauman brings his argument about morality into conversation with his work on liquid modernity and neoliberalism.  Then there’s the ‘liquid’ texts which have so come to define his thought (especially Liquid Modernity and Liquid Life) plus I am a great admirer of what have been called the books he wrote ‘before he came Bauman’ especially Socialism: The Active Utopia and Hermeneutics and Social Science.

Give me any of those and I’d be happy, but, force me to choose and it would be In Search of Politics.  The book hinges on a seeming contradiction: that an era of individualization promises more individual power and choice than ever, but that these same individuals claim to be less powerful politically than in any point in modern history.  This seeming contradiction is then explored throughout a text which takes in neoliberalism, reality TV, systems of justice, weight watchers, ideology, the decline of the ‘agora’ and, that most un-Bauman of things, a suggestion for an alternative in the form of the basic income.  There’s no better way of defending this choice than quoting from it and Bauman’s claim that ‘I happen to believe that questions are hardly ever wrong; it is the answers that might be so. I also believe, though, that refraining from questioning is the worst answer of all’ (p. 8). Elsewhere Bauman has claimed the goal of his sociology is exactly this asking of questions. If I’m going to have just four books I’d want them to be ones which force me to ask questions, exactly like In Search of Politics.

Émile Durkheim– Professional Ethics and Civic Morals

Everything changed for me when I read this book.  I received a fantastic sociology education which, as each year passes, I’m more and more thankful for.  A key part of this education, from A Levels, to degree to postgraduate, had been the classics; I was probably, for better or worse, taught the classics more than any of the students I’ve taught since. Part of this had been plenty of Durkheim and while this education had certainly told me that he wasn’t the ‘conservative positivist’ caricature of much literature (I had, for example, a whole class in second year on his ‘The Dualism of Human Nature and its Social Conditions’) I was not prepared for what I saw when I opened this halfway through my PhD. Here’s a selection of quotes just from just pages 10-12: ‘this amoral character of economic life amounts to a public danger’, ‘ever-recurring conflicts arise between the different factions of the economic structure’, ‘science has hardly any prestige in the eyes of the present day, except in so far as it may serve what is materially useful, that is to say, serve for the most part the business professions’, ‘the stronger succeed in crushing the not so strong or at any rate in reducing them to a state of subjection.  But since the subjection is only a de facto condition sanctioned by no kinds of morals, it is accepted only under duress until the longed-for day of revenge’. And so on. It was a revelation, I’d never been taught this Durkheim.

This book opened a new Durkheim to me and, as I read further, gave me a new source of inspiration.  It’s a collection of lectures Durkheim gave in the last decade of the 19th Century and are driven by his concern with the ‘malaise’ he saw confronting society at that point in time. It takes in the history of the guilds, their possibility for reformation, the nature of the state, parliament and democracy, morality, the ideas of property, contracts and inheritance. It’s also undoubtedly Durkheim at his most radical, not just in the plans for reviving the guilds in the form of professional groups but also in the final chapter, which condemns inheritance as unjust and – it’s harder to imagine a stronger rebuke from Durkheim – ‘contrary to the spirit of individualism’ (p. 217).  There’s also amazing insights throughout its pages. For example, at one point when discussing where ideas of justice comes from Durkheim comments on the fact that this can only happen when there is at least some international equalisation of prices, in so doing grounding any ‘cosmopolitan justice’ very much in material conditions often overlooked by contemporary writers on the topic.  So, I’d have to take it to the island, I suspect I’ll never get that same rush as the first time I opened it, but I can try!

Lemert, C and Branaman, A. (eds) The Goffman Reader

Bauman and Goffman are the two sociologists I enjoy reading more than any other.  I guess for similar reasons, they both make you ask questions, the only difference being that Goffman makes you ask them at a more micro-level; everyday life becomes a rich tapestry of sociological interest after flicking through Goffman. He is also a compulsive read.  There aren’t many sociological ‘page turners’, we associate the phrase with gripping narratives, where we just have to know what happens, the nature of academic writing (arguments stated beforehand, logical flow etc.) mitigate against this. But, Goffman is a page turner.  A few years ago I had to re-read maybe 20 pages of Stigma for a lecture, I ended up spending all of a Sunday re-reading a book I’d read two or three times before simply because I couldn’t put it down.

I’ve probably cheated a bit in picking a reader rather than an actual ‘book’ (make me choose one of Goffman’s original texts and I’d probably take Asylums). The reason for this is that so much of Goffman’s best writings aren’t in books and, given the nature of his writing, it is also possible to have some book material stand on its own. So, for example, this collection has his amazing ‘On Cooling the Mark Out’ (which actually contains the words ‘the mark is the sucker’ and ends with a discussion of how British universities partly exist to cater for the failures of the aristocracy), ‘The Underlife of a Public Institution’ from Asylums, ‘Role Distance’ from Presentation of the Self, ‘Where the Action is’ and ‘The Interaction Order’. I’d love to write one thing as good as any of them, let alone all of them! It’s become almost automatic to say there’ll never be another Goffman, but there will never be another Goffman, not just in how he wrote but also his contribution. As Giddens argued in the mid-80s we have often marginalised his contribution to sociology as a whole and his ‘systematic’ social theory.

Further to this, he has clear lessons to teach us about how and why to do sociology, of which the following is one of my favourites: ‘Indeed I’ve heard it said that we should be glad to trade what we’ve so far produced for a few really good conceptual distinctions and a cold beer. But there’s nothing in the world we should trade for what we do have: the bent to sustain in regard to all elements of social life a spirit of unfettered, unsponsored inquiry, and the wisdom not to look elsewhere but ourselves and our discipline for this mandate. That is our inheritance and that so far is what we have to bequeath’ (‘The Interaction Order’)

Ruth Levitas – Utopia and Method: The Imaginary Reconstruction of Society

The fourth text was always going to be my wildcard once Bauman, Durkheim and Goffman were on the island with me. I considered quite a few texts in this spot, things such as Cohen and Taylor’s Escape Attempts, Street Corner Society, Jamieson’s Intimacy and Marx’s Eighteenth Brumarie among many, but I think I’d have to take this one.  I’m a great admirer of Levitas’ work on utopia as a method for sociological analysis, to me it does two things effectively few do.  Firstly, Levitas is part of a recent trend to revisit and reassess the history of British discipline.  Along with people like Maggie Studholme and Alex Law writing on Patrick Geddes, John Scott, Ray Bromley and Chris Husbands writing on Victor Branford with the wider ‘Geddes’ circle’ and Chris Renwick revisiting the role of evolution in such debates these scholars have forced us to ‘rewrite’ the intellectual history of British sociology, something Levitas has contributed to in her own work on H.G. Wells.  Secondly, and this is where Levitas’ work excels, to apply the lessons from the history of the discipline to sociology in the current day.  Her utopian method is not only immensely valuable for sociology but hits on a key point: that sociologists carry ‘silent utopias’ in their work; if we critique we posit a world, even if imaginary, where what we are criticising (e.g. racism) doesn’t exist.  I think this is the terrain on which we need to discuss and assess the ‘critical turn’ in contemporary sociology. 

One thing that has intrigued me about sociology for the last few years is that, in Britain at least, it has become increasingly normative; the days of it being primarily a value-free discipline are, for now, in the past. But, this has been combined with an unwillingness to speak of alternatives, it has been normative in values (what we believe in) but not in the dictionary sense of ‘normative’, i.e. providing guiding ideas of where we should go. I’ve written a chapter recently on reasons why this may be the case and won’t repeat them here. I also don’t know if Levitas would agree with that assessment with sociology today but to me her view of utopia as method allows us to do both of these things effectively.

Matt’s Novels/Non-academic Book Choices: 

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

I read this the summer after my BA and before my MA and really appreciated the way it combined the geopolitical changes of the Napoleon era with the daily life of its main characters.  I read quite a few Tolstoy books after and it was only once I’d done so that I discovered his anarchist politics and how much of an influence he’d been on Weber (with the exception of the anarchism of course!), who, alas, never got round to writing that study on Tolstoy.  He was a fascinating character and his novels are really rich with details of daily life and the political context of Tsarist Russia.

George Orwell – 1984

I do feel a bit of a stereotype picking this but I would have to take it.  I’ve read it more than any other novel so at least I know I won’t get bored of it.

Matt’s Four Music Choices

It’s quite strange to be asked to write about personal music choices as a sociologist.  Like I suspect many of my generation I’ve had a Livejournal page (even, in my case, Geocites and Greatest Journal pages!) and I’ve quite happily written dozens of album reviews on these pages.  Thankfully, especially given some of the ratings I gave out, they’re all deleted now but there’s something different about doing it here.  If only we were all as effective at both as Howard Becker!

I’m also going to take the liberty of defining ‘pieces’ as albums since I think the album remains the best way to listen to music.

Bob Dylan- Blonde on Blonde

Whereas with the books I knew three of the four from the off this was the only one I knew at the start. I’d have to take Dylan and for me Blonde on Blonde is him at the height of his powers.  I can remember putting this on and trying like hell to figure out Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. Why was Shakespeare speaking to some French girl who happened to know Dylan in an alley? What did Dylan prove to the preacher to make him so unhappy? What inspired Dylan to write an amazing line like a railroad man who ‘smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette’? And that was just one song! I Want You would have been one of Dylan’s greatest pop songs had he not filled it with lines like ‘I return to the Queen of Spades and talk with my chambermaid’, Fourth Time Around is the best song I can think of discussing the final conversation of a relationship (the bit about him waiting in the hallway for his ex to retrieve his shirt is fantastic) and then Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is just this behemoth which I’d love to spend time with. And that’s just one album! I guess what I’m saying is that if I’m on the island I could take it as a chance to finally get my head around everything in this album. That seems like a good life’s work.

Madvillain- Madvillainy

This is, for me, the greatest hip-hop album of the 21st Century and one of the probably five best albums generally from that time period. The thing that still amazes me about Madvillainy all these years later (amazing, ten years at the time of writing) is both its havoc and almost ‘thrown-togetherness’ while also having amazing continuity and structure. Both are probably shown in the fact that this album has no choruses or hooks, in fact there are maybe only two or three ‘songs’, in any conventional sense, over its 22 tracks. Even the things that are there seem random, a whole song basically about Sun-Ra, another where only Wildchild raps and a track – on a hip-hop album! – named ‘Accordion’ since that’s what provides the melody. As a vocalist DOOM reached a pinnacle on this too which he hasn’t got to since. For someone like me, who hadn’t actually heard any DOOM before playing this the opening lines ‘living off borrowed time, the clock ticks faster/that’ll the hour they knock the sick blaster/Dick Dastardly and Mutley with sick laughter’ was enough, I was hooked from that point on.

For me anyway, this album opened another world. As I mentioned, I’d heard no DOOM, so no KMD or Operation Doomsday, plus all that would come after. I’d heard some Madlib but mostly the work with Dilla and certainly not the jazz work which would introduce me to so much stuff I love now (Sun-Ra obviously but also people like David Axelrod and Eric Dolphy). For reasons I’ll discuss in the next entry, given my class background I never expected to be someone who listened to jazz, let alone artists like that. Madvillain gave me that.

Four Tet- Rounds

I initially had a Sun-Ra record (Piano Recital) here but changed it at the last minute.  I suspect this has much to do with the fact it is the album I’m currently listening to, ask me to write it another time something else may appear here.

However, Rounds, was a huge album for me. Growing up in Essex mostly in the 90s my world was either hip-hop, the world I quickly discovered and fell in love with, or the even more depressing in retrospect battles of ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘britpop’. Amazingly considering Squarepusher lived up the road in a town that would later produce Gold Panda and of course Depeche Mode were about, this was a time very unwelcoming to electronic music (unless you include Drum N Bass and Jungle in that category, and even then it wasn’t till my twenties that I heard Roni Size’s New Forms). Even more important, hip-hop and indie were united in their working class-dom, befitting the area in which I grew up. By this I mean the means by which such music could be produced. When I showed interest in music I was immediately given a guitar, they’re affordable, they’re not too noisy or take up too much room in the smallish suburban homes of Macmillan’s housing promise and could be self-taught (though it seems I set out to disprove this). Hip-hop on the other hand just needed a tape deck and a mic, we all had those (that is, once we discovered that if you plug headphones into a mic jack they record). This is partly what makes them such amazing (with exceptions!), and enduring, musical forms.

The things needed for electronic music like Rounds though, at least in the pre Reason days, were beyond our reach. So, when I came across this at the age of 20 I was captivated, I recognised some of the hip-hop breaks, plus here and there I heard a guitar or piano but the whole was something else. I’d heard other electronic artists before this who I still love, such as Aphex Twin, the aforementioned Squarepusher and Caribou (then named Manitoba) but the heart at the centre of this was something else. When it was recently reissued I read an amazing interview with Hedben about the making of the album ( Firstly, I still can’t get over the fact it’s entirely made from samples, that’s immensely impressive. Secondly, and more importantly, he talks about the desire to make an electronic album which told a story and with which people could connect. I realised, in retrospect, that it was this element which had opened yet another world to me.

Jens Lekman- Nights Falls over Kortedala

Speaking of stories, here’s Jens! I got into Lekman only about four or five years ago, at the same time as a friend of mine. I can still remember our sharing our latest discoveries and favourites as we worked our way through his back catalogue and I think this one comes top perhaps almost entirely due to a song which sums up Jens’ appeal to me: A Postcard to Nina. It’s a true story about how he met a German friend at the airport who, with the promise of German vegan food, convinces him to go to her parent’s house. It’s not till he’s there that he realises he’s supposed to act like his (gay) friend’s boyfriend. He then tells this wonderful story about trying to pick up on cues – if her left eyebrow ‘is raised, it means yes, if not it means take a guess’ – nearly messing up the story by saying he was moving to New York rather than going home to Sweden and finally twigging it was due to her dad’s Catholicism. The song ends on this amazing note of friendship of him finishing the postcard to Nina and wishing her the best.

It had everything I love about Jens, everyday minute details, some amazing stories, sweet sentiments and explorations of what it means to be friends, partners and sometimes for it all to go wrong. Linking this back to sociology, I’ve always great treasured the moments I’ve got to teach or, as in the work on asexuality I’m currently involved in, research in that broad field of ‘the sociology of intimacy’. For times I haven’t had that opportunity there’s always Jens, so it would be nice to have that on the island.

Matt’s Luxury Item

A turntable.

This one was easy, if I am restricted to only four pieces of music for the rest of my life (is that right? Am I on the desert island forever or a determinate period?) then I would request that the four albums be provided on vinyl and I’m given a turntable on which to listen to them.

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