Blog Topics, Sociological Castaways

John Holmwood, University of Nottingham

john.holmwood.2The idea of being cast away on a desert island provokes two thoughts. Where was I going? Or, more darkly, why was I turfed out of the boat (though it’s possible I was just drifting!)? Why is the island unoccupied, with no hospitable stranger to take pity on my plight? That first castaway, Robinson Crusoe, was en route to colonial modernity and his island was shared, even if the consequence of his meeting with the hospitable stranger was the latter’s subjection. Indeed, Friday, on being ‘discovered’ was also named – Friday – and lost not only his place, but also his ability to name himself. So, on being asked to reflect on my journey/occupation as a sociologist, it seems apt to think of sociology itself as a journey/occupation, and a way of naming and claiming the worlds it represents. This invites us to ask vital questions about the purposes and consequences of our discipline in the lives of others.

The four books that have helped me to make sense of that journey are:

George Herbert Mead’s The Philosophy of the Act (1938) is, in my view, more important than Mind, Self and Society in establishing science as a ‘world-constructing’ activity through problem-solving.  In the course of problem-solving social relations and selves are necessarily transformed in processes of dis-integration and re-integration. The book’s essays bring the insights of pragmatism more thoroughly into a sociological perspective and articulate the self as necessarily social (against the egoistic liberal self that Crusoe represents).

My second book is Lynn Hankinson Nelson’s (1990) Who Knows: From Quine to a Feminist Empiricism.  This develops a feminist understanding of science that extends the pragmatist approach to science as cooperative world-making to understand the inequalities that are bound up with socially structured selves. Without a commitment to gender justice (notwithstanding the plural meanings with which it might be associated), we would have nothing more than gender studies. How might sociology be more than a set of different fields of study? Only through a commitment to justice and democratic knowledge as the expression of our epistemological community(ies).

But, I should, I think, include a book from my period as an unreconstructed sociological self. Usually, I would cite Talcott Parsons’s (1937) The Structure of Social Action as the definitive statement of the aspiration to a general framework of analytical theory and the template of later attempts such as those of Giddens, Habermas and Archer. However, since I was always uneasy with the project – even my earlier self – I will take David Lockwood’s (1992) Solidarity and Schism: ‘The Problem of Disorder’ in Durkheimean and Marxian Sociology. This is suitably ambivalent about the project of general theory and points toward the need for something different, something I found in pragmatism (confession: David was my supervisor).

My fourth book is Danielle Allen’s (2006) Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown versus Board of Education. This is an exemplary exercise of the sociological imagination by a classicist and political theorist. It offers a superb account of the injuries of segregation, sacrifice and misrecognition, as well as incorporating a ‘manual’ for community action (I’m hoping the Island will be occupied and that I will be treated kindly as the stranger and refugee I will be).

My two novels are Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Regrettably, my cultural tastes are formed by the very colonial modernity that is represented in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. So as a teenager and after, I was an avid reader of the ‘English’ comic tradition, from Defoe through Fielding, Smollett, Dickens and Waugh.  Little Dorritt is a particular favourite and, given that I will have the means of playing music, I choose an audio book version read by Anton Lesser (I was unable to read or use a computer for three months after an eye operation) which brings the comic, but ‘silly’, figure of Flora to the moral centre of the novel. Mistry’s A Fine Balance is set in India during the Emergency of 1975 to 1984. It has the same monumental character as novels by Dickens, but is almost unbearably bleak save for the small possibilities afforded by love and friendship.  

Music follows a similar pattern, I am afraid. I like opera and especially the baroque period, so anything by Handel – Julius Caesar. And anything by Berlioz, which given I am allowed albums, I’ll go for the full box set of The Trojans. As a graduate student, I listened to Dylan and Van Morrison, of course. It’s hard to choose a single Dylan album, so I’ll choose Van Morrison’s (near) perfect blend of R&B, jazz and Celtic folk, Astral Weeks. Finally, I am a big fan of free jazz, especially recent engagements with the history of civil rights by musicians like Wadada Leo Smith (Ten Freedom Summers), Jaimeo Brown (Transcendence) and Matana Roberts (the projected 10 album Coin Coin Project). It’s a difficult choice, but I will go for Coin Coin Chapter Two: Missisippi Moonchile, which can be heard for free here:

My luxury item is simple. Since I like cooking, I would have some need of fire, and, therefore a survival flint fire starter would be my choice.

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