Bev Skeggs discusses the contemporary sociological imagination with Les Back

In this lovely dialogue hosted on the Goldsmiths website, thanks to Dave Beer for flagging it up, Bev Skeggs discusses the contemporary sociological imagination with Les Back. To begin they discuss discomfort and dislocation as an integral aspect of the sociological imagination, engendering an inability to take the familiarity of things for granted, instead prompting a search for the patterns underlying it:

Les: It can be about discomfort. I think sometimes often people come to sociology with an incredible sense of discomfort or dislocation. I have something within myself, you know, a discomfort, a disquiet sense of not quite fitting in place or being out of place, or even being confined or suffocated by the place in the world that one occupies, you know.

Bev: So it’s about a complete lack of ontological security?

Les: It can be–, sometimes students are absolutely suffocated by that lack of ontology. Of a sense of, you know, ‘I just don’t fit in this world’…

Bev: Or know how to? On a tangent, this is very interesting in terms of Bourdieu’s habitus, because he had the model of subjectivity, which is about fitting dispositions to positions, and I’ve always thought it was highly problematic because I think most people just do not fit the fields into which they are positioned. It’s a theory of adaption that does not work for me.

Les: And in a sense he was betrayed in his own biography. It is a sense of being displaced; being displaced not only from the world he enters in the Ecole Normale and all that whole world that he described in Homo Academicus, but he also doesn’t fit in the world in which he identifies so strongly

I found the critique of Bourdieu here particularly interesting. As Bev Skeggs puts it, “he is trying to understand that lack of fit, but then he comes to a theory of fit.” This prompts a lovely exchange about ‘crampedness’ and its relationship to the sociological imagination.

Bev: And you’re saying that you think the politics–, and let’s be clear, it’s the politics of the sociological imagination, is understanding the lack of fit?

Les: A lack of fit or I think a sense of kind of suffocation often people feel in their place in the world.

Bev: Crampedness?

Les: Crampedness, being hemmed in, there’s something very powerful in Mills’ formulation when he says–, although I’m not sure it holds true now, but he  says, people experience themselves as if they’re spectators in their own lives.

You know, and I think there’s something about that that is very powerful as a formulation, as an invitation. And I suppose what the politics of the sociological imagination and I’ll just put to one side the question of what you do with sociological imagination as a practice, but part of the politics I think is to have an enlarged sense of an understanding of one’s place in the world.

The whole thing can and should be read in full here. There’s one additional section I can’t resist quoting (and not only because it offers such an eloquent formulation of why the Wire is sociologically fascinating):

Bev: So you’re saying what’s happened is that the technologies of sociology, say, the methods of empirical understanding, be it measurement or ethnography, are detached from a very particular form of sociological attention, a detachment from critical political understandings of power relations, and it’s that detachment that has enabled the spread of the sociological imagination but only in its limited technical forms

Les: I think sometimes it’s reduced to those bare technical forms and other times it’s really fantastically alive, at its most imaginative. And that’s part of the–, of the difficulty in summing up exactly that thing about where sociological imagination has moved to, because partly, you know, I think in some ways the
sociological imagination is much more alive in The Wire than it is in most seminars about urban ethnography.

Bev: And that I would want to argue, is because The Wire pays attention to big explanations whilst locating those big explanations, which are institutional, they’re economic, in characters. So it comes back to what you were saying about how the characters’ crampedness carries the precarious conditions of the global in which they creatively struggle to survive. So it’s not about positioning them as passive or victims, it’s about looking at how people are struggling within those incredibly cramped conditions, paying attention to that intensity of struggle and the reasons for it.


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