Blog Topics, Sociological Castaways

Claire Alexander, University of Manchester


photoIf you could only have four books on you island, what would you take?

Funnily enough, I didn’t have as much of a problem with this selection. When I discussed it with my friend and Head of Department Wendy Bottero, she snorted derisively and said ‘well, we both know you wouldn’t take ANY sociology books with you’. A friend of mine once took a copy of Elias’ The Civilising Process with us to a beach in Hawaii, on the basis that it would make her read it, but on reflection I don’t think I would be that dedicated. So, I have thought slightly laterally in this selection.

The Empire Strikes Back, CCCS Collective: still one of the most groundbreaking and important books in racial and ethnic studies, and one which made me think differently about the possibilities and priorities of academic research. Errol Lawrence’s two chapters in particular sparked my imagination about black youth identities and shaped my research indelibly. The passion and anger, and the content, of this collective work still resonates over 30 years on.

The Corner, David Simon and Ed Burns. This ethnography of a Baltimore neighbourhood is written by a journalist and an ex-policeman, who also created The Wire. It is a wonderful example of what ethnography, done well, can do – linking the intimate lives of its characters with the structures and policies which constrain their everyday experiences. Powerful, compassionate, angry, funny, moving.

The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, David Lewis (ed). Another sneaky compilation. My first degree was in English literature and when I first thought about doctoral research I wanted to do work on the Harlem Renaissance. This collection accompanied an exhibition I saw in the early 1990s and brings together fiction, essays and poetry from the period – Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, W.E.B Du Bois.

Night Watch, Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is one of the most extraordinary and perceptive satires on contemporary social life ever. If we ever escape the spectre of the REF, my plan is to one day edit a collection called The Sociology of Discworld (and in fact the Waterstone’s edition of Unseen Academicals has a very funny take on the REF and impact at the back). Selection was an issue here, but my favourite is probably Night Watch, which is a reflection on biography, history and memory.

Ok, so you can also take two novels, what would they be?

Another almost paralysing task. But probably…

Paradise Lost, John Milton. I studied Milton for my History and English literature A levels. Growing up in Oxfordshire, the English Civil War was always nearby and I love that period of history, with its millennial visions and hopes, and failures. A senior academic colleague told me earlier this year that someone had told him to read Paradise Lost out loud once a year. This seems like a good opportunity to do this, without frightening the neighbours or the dog.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll. I have always loved this book since I was very little. My grandmother had a very old, beautifully illustrated copy she used to occasionally bring out and let me look at. During my Masters degree in Social Anthropology, I managed to get a quote from Alice into every single essay I wrote – just because…

What four pieces of music would you take?

Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to go shopping with me will know that I am horribly indecisive, so choosing 4 pieces of music was almost impossible. I have therefore sneakily gone for albums or compilations which minimise the trauma of choice. The four albums are:

Michael Jackson: Off the Wall. I grew up with Michael Jackson – one of my earliest childhood TV memories was watching the Jackson 5ive cartoon series on Saturday mornings. So much cooler than The Osmonds. Off the Wall was the first album I ever bought, and ‘Rock With You’ is probably my favourite track of all time. I wrote my Masters’ dissertation on Michael Jackson, hairstyles and black identity, and this paved the way to my phd research. A couple of weeks after he died, I was having tea at the Ritz with a couple of friends (really…), and there was an elderly Asian pianist in the foyer playing a medley of Michael Jackson hits. Both bizarre and very moving.

Soul II Soul: Club Classics Volume 1. This album came out when I was beginning my phd research and framed my vision for the research. The Soul II Soul collective was launched as ‘the new face of Black Britain’ and the album was seen as a watershed moment in the recognition of a ‘homegrown’ black British music and identity. ‘Keep on movin’’ is just wonderful.

Nitin Sawnhey: Beyond Skin. This album captures the many textures of British Asian identity, and came out while I was writing up The Asian Gang. It is particularly resonant of ideas of journeying and translation and provides the soundtrack to my recent work with Joya Chatterji on The Bengal Diaspora.

My fourth selection would be any Motown compilation which includes a large smattering of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Jackson 5 and the Commodores… So I wouldn’t have to choose…

And finally, what luxury item would you take?

This was easy… a TV, portable DVD player and the back catalogue of Joss Whedon’s work.


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