Blog Topics, Sociological Castaways

Graham Scrambler, UCL

Screen-Shot-2013-04-10-at-13.13.58As an only child the prospect of being castaway retains a certain appeal. I can even conceive of jumping ship in pursuit of period of isolation. To be alone is not necessarily to be lonely. But I guess I’d need rescuing after a bit.  What I often covet is companionable solitude: being ignored amid a generalized hubbub. So how might I anticipate a time apart? Well, in such propitious circumstances as these – allowing for limited planning – I have prepared a list or two.

What criteria govern my choice of books? I am writing here as a long-in-the-tooth sociologist addressing colleagues forging their own careers in the discipline, so I am thinking of books that were catalysts in my chosen trajectory. I say ‘chosen’, but maybe this is misleading. Chance and drift are significant: I became a ‘medical or health sociologist’ by chance, my first research post happening to be a community study of how adults come to terms with epilepsy. While I have always considered myself a sociologist (I managed to sneak a book on sport onto my CV in 2005), rather than a specialist on health matters, this does not accord with my labeling by others.

As an undergraduate I was struck by my first selection, C.W.Mills’ The Power Elite. It is a text I have recently returned to, mostly through blogs at Can the contemporary salience of Mills’ analysis be denied in our post-1970s phase of financial capitalism, the more so since the financial crisis of 2008-9? Mills opened my eyes to the reproducibility and enduring nature of power. His account of interlocking elites in the USA in the 1950s continues to resonate, though I personally favour the concept of a novel class/command dynamic over that of a wealth elite. I am currently sitting in a London café with Oxfam’s 2015 report on ‘extreme wealth’ and the biographical details of the richest 62 beside my laptop. Now here’s a question: do I blog the results of my investigations and reflections, or wait to publish them in a high-impact journal? As I am retired I don’t really care.

My second book is a cunning inclusion in that it comprises two volumes, Jurgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action. These works of theoretical synthesis gave me a frame, and maybe a frame or orientation is important, or at least helpful. What I particularly took on board were (a) modernity’s ‘uncoupling’ of system (economy and state) and lifeworld (private and public spheres) and (b) the companion infiltration of our lives by strategic (representing system) over communicative (representing lifeworld) action. They also encouraged me to read others of Habermas’ books and articles, notably his discussions of the attenuation of the public sphere, the potential for crises of legitimation  (remarkably prescient in the mid-1970s), and his assault on all things postmodern.

I came across the writings of Roy Bhaskar early and by chance. Interestingly it was several years before I tried to apply his – ‘critical realist’ – insights. The starting point was his Realist Theory of Science, which I was prescribing for undergraduates by the late 1970s. I believed then and believe now that Bhaskar is a profoundly original thinker. Critical realism with a light touch can, and in fact often does, underpin good professional sociology. I have done my best to illustrate this recently via commentaries on stigma and health inequalities.

I have advocated two sociologies beyond the four that comprise Burawoy’s ‘four sociologies’, namely foresight sociology (committed to exploring ‘alternative futures’) and action sociology (arguing for purposive resistance to the dismissal of theories and findings that inconvenience those whose wealth buys them the power to fuel their privileges). It is always a real pleasure to celebrate sociological excellence, and this is an opportune moment! Andrew Sayer’s Why We Can’t Afford the Rich is one of those books I would liked to have written. It supremely and elegantly presents and theorizes the case for action sociology. It does so by documenting and accounting for the subversion of justice and decency by the few (well under 1%) at the cost of the many (99%+).

Music gives me more freedom. And I love jazz, which I first researched by cassettes (remember them?) and CDs prior to first visiting New Orleans in the early 1990s. Check out Preservation Hall if you get the chance. Bus drivers in New Orleans parked their trombones by their seats to jam later. Charlie Parker is my first choice, and why not his interpretations of  ‘Ornithology’? Another sax player, Coleman Hawkins, succeeds Parker: he managed the transition between traditional and modern jazz without a hiccup, successfully re-inventing himself: I leave it to you to research and choose between his performances! If I have to restrict myself to four jazz players, then Billie Holliday makes it easily. She’s the only jazz singer I love and admire without qualification. I struggle not to see jazz as an Afro-American spoke in the white supremacist wheel. Just hear the pain of racism and personal struggle in her voice (white jazz players entered through the front door, black jazz players like Billie through the back door). And for a fourth? Well it’s an open field: Miles Davis exceeded Hawkins’ reinventions (Jazz’s Bowie); Billie’s ‘accompanist’, Lester Young, figures, as do others on many an instrument; but I will settle for sax player Eric Dolphy’s purity of sound. Again, any recording will do.

My primary choice of luxury is a solar-powered laptop. How could I stop thinking and jotting down my thoughts? It’s back to multiple A4 paper and biros otherwise.

I would be desolate without my family, but I guess I’m permitted, even encouraged, to go for career-selections beyond their presence.

A final discrete word to my younger colleagues: take out enough insurance to gain employment and keep line-managers off your back (DO YOU HEAR THIS LINE-MANAGERS?) to win sufficient space to pursue your OWN objectives. Its tougher now than it was for me, but fight for professional-cum-action sociology!  Our discipline, as are others, are on the edge. It’s too easy a compatibility between career success and throwing in the towel.

Tell us what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s