#britsoc13: BSA 2013 Review: Highlights, Lowlights, and Issues

From Weds 3 – Fri 6 last week the British Sociological Association Conference 2013 took place in the Grand Connaught Rooms in central London. It was my second BSA conference after last year in Leeds, and my first post-PhD, post-getting-a-Lectureship conference full-stop. I have, for the sake of brevity, limited myself to 3 highlights, 3 lowlights, and a random selection of other thoughts.

I originally thought this would be one post, but given that the first one is over 800 words long, I’ll break them up into easily digestible chunks.

Highlight 1: A Renewal of Confidence in Sociology

A colleague of mine and I have discussed a theory: that sociology is not a science, that there is no such thing as social science, there is merely social critique. At the root of critique is an awareness of the self, so the first question we have to ask sociology undergraduates is ‘why are you such a terrible person?’ It felt to me that this was a conference of sociologists who are well aware of their flaws – both personally (our inability to get our message out, introversion, methodological dullness, or consistent failure to focus on things that vitally matter) and professionally (accepting our limitations, not challenging received practices, talking to ourselves), but the very act of being aware of these issues is an important start. The BSA2013 was three days of (largely) recognising the bad, and reaffirming the good.

One of the first sessions I attended was John Holmwood and Ben Fine addressing how sociology and economics can combine. Personally I believe economics has shown itself to be a thoroughly discredited discipline over the last few years (shock!). Sociology is a discipline which critiques the status quo, which points out the structural and agential issues which are either causing harm or preventing improvement. Holmwood and Fine stressed how economics didn’t rock the boat, and used the same tools and methods, those invested with legitimacy, to keep things the same. It dominated discussion through its resources, and had easy access to power, which both corrupted academia (watch this clipfrom Inside Job to see what they mean), and gave credence to things which were not credible.

One of the reasons sociology doesn’t get listened to, is that is says things that people don’t want to hear. Politicians only want data which makes their opponents look bad, or supports their policies, as do the media, as Polly Toynbee addressed on Friday (although the Telegraph did publish this). Think tanks want academics to change their findings in order to support their policy agenda, as Will Atkinson addressed in his paper on Wednesday. But whereas in 2012 I felt the BSA was afraid to rock the boat, annoyed that people weren’t listening, this year we were still annoyed, but rather than sulking in the corner, arms crossed, there was real anger, and a longing for action and activism. Obviously with the conference coming in the week of the most dramatic and traumatic benefit changes, surrounded by lies, rumour, and spurious evidence, the anger was real, as was the desire to do something about it. If the elite are to complain of a ‘broken society’, it is up to us to kick back and show who broke it (h/t Tim Strangleman). But the nagging sensation remains: are we going to do anything and what are we going to do? These questions are ones we are stuck on: I will come back to it in a future post.

I called this blog empathyscience, as this is the term I teach to all first years as they decide to embark on three-year sociology course. It will not make you a large amount of money (‘You are not the next Mark Zuckerberg’ as Shamus Kahn shows here), nor is it particularly vocational, setting you up nicely for a particular career. But it is the subject which best helps explain other people. It is the subject which enables you to understand what other people are going through, and that you are not an island. If we accept worries about individualisation in society, then perhaps it’s best to think of each student who takes it on as a small act of rebellion. As John Holmwood said in his Presidential address:

Sociology must in the service of democracy…the task of sociology in an age of austerity is to occupy public debate and make equality matter.

He’s right. And this may sound like soppy nonsense, but you have to have an emotional pull to a subject in order to go through the grind of submitting, resubmitting, and failing at article publication, and the mountain of marking that waits at the end of each term, and the completely nonsensical administrative changes that are constantly thrust our way. It’s nice to occasionally here something that makes you think ‘Oh yeah, it’s good that I do this’.

But ask me again in a year.

Jon Dean is a lecturer in Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University. This was originally posted on his blog. You can follow Jon on Twitter here


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