The Sociological Imagination A daily dose of the Sociological Imagination Mon, 26 Jan 2015 08:00:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Sociologist in the Strip Club Mon, 26 Jan 2015 08:00:51 +0000 Read More ›]]> There’s a wonderful essay in the New Yorker reflecting on Howard Becker’s life and work. Among many other features, it contains a trenchant critique of Bourdieu:

“Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”)

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Centre for Social Ontology Seminars: Spring Term 2015 (@SocioWarwick) Mon, 26 Jan 2015 07:26:55 +0000 Read More ›]]> ​​Centre for Social Ontology Seminars: Spring Term 2015

January 27th: Dave Elder-Vass (Loughborough University) R1.15
Prosumption, appropriation and the ontology of economic form

February 3rd: Beth Weaver (University of Strathclyde) R1.15
The Relational ‘We’ in Social Morphogenesis

February 17th: Balihar Sanghera (University of Kent) R1.04
Lay ethics, distortions and charitable giving

March 10th: Alistair Mutch (Nottingham Trent University), R1.04
Routines and Reflexivity: Consequences of Developments in Organizations for Morphogenesis

All Seminars Take Place 5pm – 6:30pm in the Ramphal Building on the University of Warwick Campus

All welcome! Contact with any questions.

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The Super Rich and Us Sun, 25 Jan 2015 08:00:48 +0000 I thought this was pretty good, given it’s a popular show produced for prime time TV:

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CFP for the Asexuality Studies Interest Group at the NWSA Annual Meeting 2015 Sat, 24 Jan 2015 08:00:57 +0000 Read More ›]]> 2015 Call for Papers about Asexuality

Asexuality Studies Interest Group

National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA)

November 12-15, 2015, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The NWSA Asexuality Studies Interest Group welcomes papers for the 2015 NWSA annual conference. These asexuality-related themes are orientated towards the full NWSA 2015 CFP which can be found here:

If you are interested in being a part of the 2015 Asexuality Studies Interest Group panels at NWSA, please send the following information to the designated panel organizer (listed under each theme) by Friday, February 6, 2015:

*Name, Institutional Affiliation, Mailing Address, Email, Phone

*NWSA Theme your paper fits under

*Title for your talk

*50-100 word abstract

We will try to accommodate as many qualified papers as possible, but panels are limited to 3-4 presenters. NWSA will make the final decision about which panels are accepted. Presenters accepted into the conference program must become members of NWSA in addition to registering for the conference.

1) Sponsored Session: Disciplining Bodies, Regulating Identities: Affect/Eros and the Intersection of Asexual and Fat Identities

This is a sponsored session of the Asexuality Studies Interest Group in collaboration with the Fat Studies Interest Group.

The fields of Asexuality Studies and Fat Studies are two exciting areas of inquiry in the contemporary academy. Rigorous scholarly analyses and theoretical production combine with cutting-edge social activism to create new epistemologies, creative political strategies and visionary, new social paradigms. Understandings of affect and eros have informed these two academic fields and social movements by fostering knowledge about the role of affective and erotic economies, intensities and potentialities As the NWSA CFP states: “There is ample evidence of communal and collective practices that invoke alternative imaginaries, worlds, memories, mythologies, desires, cosmologies, embodiments, and yearnings and that disrupt the disciplining of non-normative emotions, desires, bodies, peoples, practices, histories, spaces, and ideas. Affect and eros can thus be considered pivotal both to understanding how precarity is structured and also contested.” This session will utilize perspectives gleaned from asexuality studies and fat studies to explore the fields’ relationship to affect/eros and the productive potential of these intersectional analyses to interrogate, deconstruct and reimagine oppressive corporeal regimes based on compulsory sexuality and the tyranny of slenderness. Topics for this session could include, but are not limited to:

– the experiences of individuals who identify simultaneously as fat and as asexual and the vulnerability engendered by converging ideological systems based in acephobia and fatphobia; affective knowledge of uniquely fat and asexual grammars of the body

– the ways in which affective and/or erotic work is deployed in service of fat and asexual acceptance, rights, visibility, community-building and education; the fostering of fat and asexual affective solidarity

– the corporeal disciplining of fat and asexual bodies and the regulatory control of these identities through affective and erotic inducements in a culture of precarity

– The construction of fat bodies as inherently asexual and the theoretical, discursive and political implications of this conflation

– The stereotyping, bias and discrimination faced by fat and asexual communities; affective and erotic policing and regulatory surveillance of fat and asexual bodies and identities within a neoliberal cultural economy

– The ways in which asexual and fat eros/affect intersect with multiple categories of difference including race, ethnicity, class, age, immigrant status, dis/ablity and religion

Please submit materials for the sponsored session to organizer, Joelle Ruby Ryan (

2) Co-Sponsored Session with Trans/Gender-Variant Caucus:

Institutions, Containments and the Intersection between Asexuality & Trans/Gender-Variance

This is a co-sponsored Round Table Discussion* with the Trans/Gender-Variant Caucus and the Asexuality Studies Interest Group.

Institutions, even with the best of intentions, can create containments or confinements for those they work to serve, and exclude those outside predetermined groups. Asexuality and trans/gender-variance often fit outside institutional categories, which can cause uncertainty, insecurity, or precarity for one’s well being. This discussion will focus on the intersection of trans/gender-variance and asexuality, how their resistance to control, repression, and confinement overlap, and power imbalances between them.

Proposals for this theme may include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

●How can the intersections of trans/gender-variant and asexuality studies serve as a way to critique institutional control and containment, through disability, debility, race, citizenship, sexuality, class, and gender?

●How are asexual and trans/gender-variant bodies positioned within hierarchies of power and what (different) avenues are available for contestation and resistance to those hierarchies?

●Collaborations and intersections between trans/gender-variant and asexual studies can be key to contesting the violence of institutions/containments and to addressing pervasive injustice, but how are power asymmetries addressed within such work?

●How do institutions promote and help asexual, trans/gender-variant, and queer communities and how do they induce precarity, marginalization, and containment?

●Where do trans/gender-variance and asexuality intersect and how can they work against precarity?

●How can asexuality and trans/gender-variant identity be a form of empowerment and not stigma?

*As a round table discussion there may be 4-6 presenters. In addition, paper titles are not required for individuals and 50-100 words introducing your contribution to the discussion will suffice as an abstract.

Please submit materials for the co-sponsored session to organizer Bauer McClave (Caroline) at

3) Theme 1: Debility/Vulnerability:

The Relevance of Asexualities, Debility and Vulnerability

This panel examines the adaptability of asexualities, debility and vulnerability, as related to both current and past issues of precarity and paradox: indifferent and varying working contexts and creative agency and voice; uncertain futures and possibilities of the present; established hierarchies and open, horizontal structures – largely organized online; old nationalism and new cosmopolitanism; individual inadequacy regarding climate change and project based alliances.

Questions to consider for applicants:

– In what ways are asexualities connected to, and different from, debility and vulnerability?

– How do asexualities, debility and vulnerability represent a radical challenge to power structures rooted in heteronormativity?

– What are working lives of lived asexualities, vulnerability and debility like, within framework of heteronormative dominant culture?

– What are the risks, possibilities and ensuing tension implied within asexualties, debility and vulnerability?

Please submit materials for this session to organizer Anna Lise Jensen,

4) Theme 2: Affect/Eros

Between Affect and Eros: Precarity and the Asexual Community

Following the NWSA theme of Precarity and Affect/Eros this panel will explore the “embodied, political, affective, economic, ideological, temporal, and structural conditions” which construct and regulate asexuality. Precarity “draws attention to the lived conditions, structures nature, and relational aspect of systemic inequality” as an emerging and often contested sexual orientation asexuality is a precarious identity, and asexual individuals often find themselves in precarious positions. As an emerging political identity and orientation asexuality challenges established understandings of both eros and affect. What role can eros play in the politics of asexuality? How do eros and affect emerge in the daily lived experiences of asexual individuals? What expectations around affective labor does asexuality reinforce or challenge? Can eros and affect be deployed to challenge the precarious and marginalized position of asexuality? Or do eros and affect contribute to the precarious position of asexual identities?

Proposals for this theme may include–but are not limited to–the following topics:

●What can be gained by attending to eros and affect together, as sites where Asexual Identity is both precarious and resisted?

●How have affect and eros served as sites of social control? How does Asexuality challenge these conceptions across context and over time?

●How has the surveillance and regulation eros and affect been differently marked in the asexual identity and across intersecting identities such as race, class, disability, citizenship status, gender, ethnicity, religion and/or spirituality and body size?

●How does asexuality eros and affect transform inequality and challenge hegemonic values and practices?

●What productive investigations can be produced by placing asexuality into conversation with affect theory?

●How can feminist theoretical understanding of asexuality produce challenges and knowledge about the norms of romantic love?

●How can asexual identities and experiences challenge, reinforce or dismantle expectations of eros and affective labor sexual relationships of all kinds

Please submit materials for this session to organizer, Julia Rogers

5) Theme 3: Institutions/Containments

This theme will seek to explore how various institutions and regimes of social control have sought to contain or regulate asexual identity, as well as how asexuals might form coalitions to resist oppression and precarity. Papers might address any of the following questions, or other relevant questions:

-What is the state of asexual institution building? Do these institutions help asexuals resist precarity or do they further reproduce it?

-How have various institutions and regimes of social control (medical, legal, educational, cultural, carceral, etc.) sought to contain, regulate, or define asexuality across different historical and geopolitical contexts?

-How might asexuals’ coalition building with other gender and sexual minorities contest the violence of institutions/containments and combat pervasive injustice? How are power asymmetries addressed within such work?

-What are the possibilities and potential problems inherent in institutionalizing asexuality under the umbrella of queer identity? Is such an alliance a site of resistance or containment?

-How does asexuality intersect with other institutionalized forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, colonization, and poverty, to produce precarity?

Please submit materials for this session to organizer Kara French at

6) Theme 4: Distortion/Dispossession

This year’s conference theme of precarity is particularly relevant to Asexuality studies and to work which intersects many fields of study including health sciences, sociology, anthropology, geography, and others. Precarity, as the NWSA 2015 CFP indicates, is intended to “draw attention to the lived conditions, structured nature, and relational aspects of systemic inequality. Focusing on diverse forms of violence, inequality, and harm pervading contemporary life, precarity names a ‘politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become deferentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.’”

To address precarity and differential suffering, distortion (via representational economies and controlling images) and dispossession (structural dispersal and material deprivation) are key areas of interest. This panel will look specifically at social and material realities of Asexuality, including the effects of distortion and dispossession at both individual and collective levels and possibilities for resistance. From relationships with Queer/LGBT communities, to media representations of Asexuals using only White representatives, to the lack of legal protection for Asexual/LGBTQ people in many states, this panel is intended to build from lived experiences of Asexuality in relation to the systemic and structured nature of inequality and violence.

Proposals for this theme may include–but are not limited to–the following topics:

-Asexual activism as resistance to dispossession/distortion

-Intersections of distortion and dispossession in Asexual experience/Asexual community

-Differential suffering of/for/by Asexual people

-Ways that structures, institutions, and systems perpetuate dispossession/distortion around Asexuality and Asexual people and the associated effects

-How do Asexual people deferentially “experience the material, representational, environmental, political, and discursive effects of dispossession, distortion, and degradation?”

-Solidarity with Asexual people/communities and confronting dispossession/distortion/degradation

Please submit materials for this session to organizer Sarah Jasmine Stork,

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What is Digital Sociology? Fri, 23 Jan 2015 08:00:36 +0000 Read More ›]]> What is Digital Sociology? I really like that Deborah Lupton suggested this title for her recent lecture at Warwick because it’s a question which fascinates me. Obviously this is in part a matter of terminological novelty, with ‘digital sociology’ obviously supplementing parallel projects of ‘digital humanities’, ‘digital geography’ and ‘digital anthropology’  in ways that are nonetheless difficult to pin down.  However I think there’s more to it than this and that asking the question ‘what is Digital Sociology?’ helps keep our focus on digital sociology as a project that is open-ended and integrative, aiming to combine the various disparate strands of sociological engagement with digital matters into a more or less unified field of inquiry. One of the many things I like about Deborah Lupton’s work on Digital Sociology is the way it attempts to answer this question in a way that is intellectually diverse but nonetheless remains coherent. I’m increasingly drawn to the idea that Digital Sociology could be conceived of as:

  1. an intellectual and institutional project which aims to build spaces within which these strands of activity can be brought into productive dialogue with one another
  2. the totality of work which emerges from within such spaces having been shaped by them

It sounds absurdly abstract when I phrase it like this. In practice I’m talking about quite mundane things like expanding study group activity, organising conferences, developing websites, establishing journals. I’m also speculating about what will emerges out of such spaces because I don’t know but I’m convinced it would be valuable. I’m also convinced it’s going to prove crucial to the future of the discipline in an increasingly inhospitable climate, though whether I’m able to justify that intuition evidentially is another question. I think there’s something very exciting beginning to happen though and it feels like Digital Sociology is beginning to take some kind of concrete shape rather than simply being something which is invoked in a quasi-speculative manner.

One of the things that appeals to me most about digital sociology is the possible transformation in sociological practice which it both reflects and reinforces. If digital communications increasingly become part of the research process itself then there’s a tendency towards a form of continuous micro-publication, almost constituting a kind of open-source sociology, which could contribute in an important way to the profile of the discipline. I’m cautiously optimistic that the tendency within sociology to see the communication of sociological knowledge as something of secondary importance could become a thing of the past & sociologists could become somewhat more sociable than they have tended to be. I’m also excited by the feral forms of public engagement which are proliferating on social media and hope they resist assimilation into the assessment structures of the academy. I’m deeply opposed to social media metrics being incorporated into academic assessment precisely because I think it’s likely they’ll squeeze the life out of the nascent sphere of activity. In this sense I think the potential implications of digital sociology extend far beyond new research topics, new methods and new methodologies – underlying questions of what constitutes sociological craft and how, if at all, it should be revised to take account of new circumstances have heretofore entered rather naturally into digital sociology. I hope these won’t be sidelined as it continues to develop.

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How to be an academic and deal with stupid & hostile interviewers Thu, 22 Jan 2015 08:00:58 +0000

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2015 – The year of the new necropolitics? Wed, 21 Jan 2015 08:00:43 +0000 Read More ›]]> by Emilie Whitaker 

Unusually for a festive period associated with new beginnings and births, the past fortnight has been suffused with debate around death and dying. The death of Debbie Purdy, long-term campaigner for assisted dying, reopened the ‘right to die’ debate in frank fashion. In obituaries, commentators called for the House of Commons to support Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill which would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to terminally ill patients judged to have less than six months to live. As a barometer of the public mood, a steady 60 – 70% are in favour assisted dying. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work with the practitioners of tomorrow are likely to report similar patterns of support amongst students in our classrooms. In my own experience many despair at the ‘warehousing’ of older people and argue for ‘self-determination in death.’*

Debate over what constitutes a ‘good death’ has moved from the hands of bioethicists into mainstream and social media. Indeed, perhaps our collective engagement with social media provides scope for a ‘digital afterlife’ – leaving a tangible legacy after death. Dr Kate Granger tweets about her experiences of terminal cancer and her personal confrontation with mortality. The late Philip Gould wrote about his preparations for death following his diagnosis of oesophageal cancer in 2008. His book, When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone possesses a kind of dark comedic reverie befitting the forensic detailing of his experience. This year’s Reith Lectures were delivered by bestselling author and surgeon Atul Gawande whose recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine & What Matters in the End, critiques the extension of life at all costs.

There has been the rise of the ‘death café’ which seeks to engage the public at large on debates about death and dying. Indeed the mundane interaction of strangers gathering over cake to discuss death in order to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives” underlines how death discussion is losing the protective clothing and going mainstream. There can be little doubt that the stories of those living with dying have through their adoption of social media, brought the debate into kitchens, chat rooms and pubs. The intently personal reflections by Gould and Dr Kate Granger and the sociability of the death cafés make it increasingly difficult, perhaps passé, to keep death sealed in the box we all hold at the back of our minds.

The shift from the social denial and medicalisation of death to the conversational and public has been placed into sharp relief by a controversial blog post written by Dr Richard Smith. Smith, a former editor of the British Medical Journal wrote that cancer provided the “best way to die”. His argument rested on temporality and vitality. He outlined the long decline of dementia “slowly erasing” the person, the “up and down” of organ failure as ‘tempting’ doctors to ‘treat too long’ before dismissing the widely preferred quick, sudden death as self-centred, “That may be OK for you…but it may be very tough on those around you.” On his case for cancer he writes,

You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.

Dr Smith revives in many ways, the most ancient of arguments – that only through confronting death can we truly know how to live.

From a sociological viewpoint these events mark a reorientation in the politics of death and dying, one which alerts us to the generative as well as punitive aspects of what Mbembe (2003) coined ‘necropolitics.’ In Mbembe’s Foucauldian-inspired theorising, our current geopolitical condition is indicative of unprecedented forms of biopolitical governmentality in which the technologies of control strategically subject life to the power of death. Drone strikes, ISIS orgies of violence and the geopolitics of the Ebola outbreak underline such a thesis, but perhaps there is more to necropolitics as a site of inquiry and human experience.

The current academic writing on necropolitics tends to deny the generative aspects of Foucault’s schemata – the subversions, the resistances the alternate narratives, the cultural. The work of those like Gould, Dr Granger and participants in death cafés suggest that necropolitics can be a site for cultural action and broadening public understanding. The turn outwards to debate what a ‘good death’ means is sociologically instructive of a burgeoning public reclaiming of death. Such an expansion troubles the current conceptualisation of necropolitics, challenging it to encompass the generative cultural responses and subversions of citizens to biopolitical governmentality exercised not only on the battlefield but in hospitals and residential homes across the county.

Reflecting these burgeoning cultural shifts in the practices, narratives and cultures of death and dying I, with Professor Steve Fuller, have a call for papers on “Beyond the Negativity of Death: Towards a New Necropolitics” in a special issue of the journal Social Sciences. Open until 30 June 2015.

Emilie Whitaker is a lecturer in sociology and social work at Cardiff University. She is a sociologist of the life course with a particular interest in the practices, cultures and experiences of care. Her burgeoning work on necropolitics, ageing and dying has been buoyed through her teaching on the social work programme at Cardiff University. She gives particular thanks to the students on the course for their insights and engagement with these complex ethical issues. She tweets @Whitaker_Emilie

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The Relational ‘We’ in Personal Morphogenesis – February 3rd @SocioWarwick Tue, 20 Jan 2015 08:31:06 +0000 Read More ›]]> Beth Weaver (Strathclyde)
Tuesday, February 3rd
5:00 PM to 6:30 PM, R1.15
Ramphal Building, University of Warwick

This paper discusses my empirical application of a relational realist analytic framework to illuminate the role of social groups or collectives, as social relations, in shaping and affecting outcomes for individuals and for groups. Using the morphogenetic sequence developed by Archer, to illustrate the conceptual schema progressed by Donati (2011), this framework affords equal recognition to individual actions, social relations and social systems. To empirically capture the relational ‘we’ in social morphogenesis, however, requires taking the social relation as a central unit of analysis. This means empirically conceptualising the social relation as both context and as interaction, and it means analysing the shifting dynamics and influences on the form and shape of a given social relation. Such an analysis can reveal what triggers reflexivity, what different forms of reflexivity entail, and how social relations can shape and influence outcomes for individuals and groups as well as how such processes shape and alter the relations themselves. Using examples from my own research examining the dynamics of desistance from crime, I will show how both individual and relational contributions are interconnected, and how the manner of relating and the reciprocal orientation of individuals-in-relation towards the maintenance of a given social relation are significant in understanding the relational ‘we’ in social morphogenesis.

Beth Weaver is a Lecturer at the Glasgow School of Social Work, University of Strathclyde. Prior to entering academia, she worked in the areas of youth and criminal justice social work in Scotland and latterly as a MAPPA Coordinator. 

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Prosumption, appropriation and the ontology of economic form – January 27th @SocioWarwick Tue, 20 Jan 2015 08:30:20 +0000 Read More ›]]> Dave Elder-Vass (Loughborough)
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
5:00 PM to 6:30 PM, R1.15
Ramphal Building, University of Warwick

Prosumption – the unpaid performance of productive work by ‘consumers’ who thus help commercial businesses to generate a profit – is perhaps the most studied of the many hybrid forms of economic practice that have proliferated in the digital economy. A number of critical accounts have analysed prosumption in terms of Marx’s labour theory of value, suggesting for example that as prosumers do useful work for free they are infinitely exploited by the firms that profit as a result. But such accounts analyse the digital economy in terms that were derived from the nineteenth century factory – and terms that were highly questionable even in that context.

The spectacular mismatch between this model of capitalism and the case of prosumption exposes the inadequacy of the standard monolithic conception of capitalism as a homogeneous and universal contemporary economic form – a conception that at a certain level is also shared by the marketised discourse of mainstream economics. We need a new ontology of economic form that goes beyond the totalising concepts of mode of production and market economy and instead provides us with tools for understanding the sheer diversity of forms of economic practice in the contemporary economy. This paper offers the concept of appropriative practices as a contribution to such an ontology and applies it to the case of prosumption.

Dave Elder-Vass is a senior lecturer in sociology at Loughborough University, where he teaches a variety of core sociology modules. He also offers an MA module on Digital Economies and an innovative undergraduate option that consists entirely of debates between students on popular recent books. He is available to supervise PhD students, particularly those with an interest in social theory, critical realism, digital social developments or economic sociology.

Previously, he spent three years as a British Academy post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, after completing his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. Before returning to the academic world he was a senior IT executive in a major UK retail business.

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Syndicalist Sociology: The Forgotten Work of Guillaume De Greef Tue, 20 Jan 2015 08:00:23 +0000 Read More ›]]> by Jeff Shantz, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Vancouver

Radical perspectives, particularly those that have connections with or roots in actual movements for social change and resistance, often find their contributions unacknowledged or marginalized within formal academic disciplines such as the social sciences. Even where such radical perspectives make useful, insightful contributions to the development of, and developmental debates and arguments within an academic discipline, they are often written out of the history of those disciplines after the fact. Such has been the case especially for those theories that challenge instituted structures of authority, such as anarchism or syndicalism.

Despite the fact that anarchism has always informed sociological thought and debates (from the inception of sociology as a formal discipline up through the present) anarchism has largely been excluded from discussions of sociological thought. This is true in the case of both texts on the history of sociology as well as in works focused on traditions of sociological theory (see Shantz and Williams 2014). Recently, though, some work is being done to re-evaluate the contributions of anarchism to the social sciences more broadly (See Howell 2014; Shantz 2014; Shantz and Williams 2014; Williams 2014).

If anarchism has been marginalized within disciplines like sociology, the situation is even more dire for treatments of syndicalist theory within sociological history (and thought). With a few exceptions syndicalism has been rendered, unjustifiably, invisible. Syndicalism emerges as part of the radical working class movements in the nineteenth century, not only in Europe but on virtually every continent (see van der Walt 2010). It presents searching perspectives on exploitation, labor, and workplace relations that eschew hierarchy, including labor hierarchies, and emphasizes informal work networks, rank-and-file self-determination, and working class solidarity and autonomy from capital. At the same time syndicalism highlights social developments that hint at alternative social relations in formation, suggestive of “a new world within the shell of the old.” This is an anti-authoritarian vision of labor that focuses on working class self-organization and decision-making. It views such organizing as incubators for new, innovative, non-exploitative, forms of human social arrangement.

Syndicalism has made important contributions to thinking about work, production, divisions of labor, hierarchy, authority, class relations, democracy, etc. Yet an examination of sociological history or theory texts shows that syndicalism is almost entirely absent from the literature. The few exceptions include brief discussions of Georges Sorel, theorist of revolutionary syndicalism, the general strike, and social myth, who wrote numerous notable texts such as The Decomposition of Marxism (1908), The Illusions of Progress (1908), Material for a Theory of the Proletariat (1919) and most famously Reflection on Violence (1908).

Yet there are other, intriguing yet hidden, syndicalist contributions to sociology, from practicing sociologists, from within formal sociology. Among the most interesting and insightful if unjustly long forgotten syndicalist contributions to sociology is the work of Belgian sociologist, and contemporary of Sorel, Guillaume De Greef (1842–1924). Indeed, De Greef has been recognized as Belgium’s most prominent and noteworthy sociologist (of any tendency or tradition). The radical character of De Greef’s work perhaps contributed to the limitation on its broader influence on Belgian sociology, during his lifetime but especially following his death.

De Greef was born in Brussels in 1842 and was raised in a family of free thinkers and artists. In his youth he read progressive philosophers, like Voltaire, who influenced the thought of Revolutionary France and the generations following the Revolution (Douglas 1948, 539). As a university student he gravitated toward the works of utopian socialists, including Saint-Simon and the proto-anarchist Charles Fourier, before coming to his greatest influence Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first to explicitly identify his philosophy as anarchist. De Greef adopted Proudhon’s theory of mutualism that emphasizes social order and interchange on the basis of mutually beneficial, equal, exchange or interaction. De Greef would go on to edit the Proudhonian journal La Liberté along with his colleague and classmate Hector Denis.

From his days as a university student onward the petit bourgeois De Greef would dedicate himself to the cause of the working class and social reform (Douglas 1948, 539). It is believed that De Greef prepared the program if the Belgian delegates to the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA, or First International) in the 1860s. A clearly Proudhonian program, emphasizing free credit and opposing any state, this perspective was defeated at the International by the approach promoted by Karl Marx, which asserted the necessary role of a proletarian state in the transition to communism. The growing dominance of Marxism in international socialist movements contributed to the marginalization of De Greef’s syndicalist perspective, as indeed it did for other libertarian and anti-statist versions of socialism and communism.

With his influence within the labor and socialist movements waning, De Greef devoted his efforts increasingly to his academic research and writing. De Greef’s first published monograph in theoretical sociology appeared circa 1886 with his relatively influential Introduction à la sociologie. The critical response to De Greef’s initial work was so positive that he was appointed the first Chair in Sociology at the University of Brussels. While in this position De Greef became embroiled in some controversy related to the university’s decision to dismiss respected geographer, but active anarchist, Elisée Reclus, due to that eminent scholar’s political agitational work. In response De Greef mobilized an exodus of numerous other professors and students from the school (Douglas 1948, 540). The departed scholars soon founded a new progressive institution, L’Université Nouvelle, which was committed to work in the social sciences while also asserting freedom of thought and cooperation with the educational movement of workers (Douglas 1948, 540). This project, and the earlier support of Reclus and academic freedom, shows De Greef as a committed public intellectual and principled scholar. The project also represents a much earlier model of institutions such as the New School for Social Research set up as centers of critical research, scholarship, and pedagogy in the face of politically motivated attacks on critical and progressive scholarship and faculty.

De Greef’s sociological work builds upon Proudhon’s conception of free credit associations and proposes the notion of occupational representation through trade associations. In this perspective free credit associations would be organized on a trade by trade basis in each locale. In this they would carry out their more traditional economic activities but also, at the same time, assume the functions currently carried out by the political state. In this the trade associations provide the basis for a syndicalist form of social order. Notably this vision of social order is developed by De Greef more than a generation before the ideas presented in the works of better known syndicalists such as James Guillaume and Emile Pouget or in the guild socialism of G.D.H. Cole (which is perhaps closest to De Greef’s perspective).

Among De Greef’s major theoretical works are Structure général des societies and Lois sociologiques. His applied works, which stand as some of his most engaging, include Ouvrière dentellière (The Women Lace-Makers), Rachat des charbonnages (The Repurchase of the Coal Mines), and Régime representatif (How Government May Be Made Representative). These give a robust presentation of the Proudhonian syndicalist social order in the actual contemporary conditions of life which they discuss (rather than in a future utopian scheme). In his social researches De Greef finds evidence for such directions among social conditions and practices. His is not some speculative or utopian approach.

De Greef’s analysis centers on the role of workers’ associations, something similar to but more than trade unions as typically understood. Collective bargaining in industry provides the model for an occupational parliament on a national scale for De Greef. This occupational parliament is accompanied by transformation in systems in credit (in a manner inspired by Proudhon’s discussions). In terms of political transformations, De Greef suggests that formal democratic practice may be reformed immediately by having all people register at polls by trade instead of by simple geographic divisions or ridings. In these trade polls, workers and management are represented separately and equally (Douglas 1948, 541). While his will initially result in an inequality of representation, as fewer owners will have the same representation as far more workers, De Greef is not overly concerned by this. From his perspective this approach makes tis contradiction open for all to see unlike current representative democracy which masks this fundamental reality of social structure and inequality. In his view:

Equality is not personal, but functional….Suppose there were formed a nationwide trust of all coal mines….in the hands of a dozen….large capitalists. These twelve….could have a representation equal to that of the 144,000 workmen!….well, I do not recoil before this abominable situation. Why? Because….I prefer a truthful representation to one which is fictitiously and deceptively democratic. What matters it if the mirror that reflects our social system gives back an ugly image? Is it the fault of the mirror that society is not beautiful, and should we in anger throw down and break the mirror. (quoted in Douglas 1948, 542)

As labor comes to play a more predominant economic role (in cooperative ownership, for example) its representation will grow accordingly. As capital becomes usurped or expropriated its representation will diminish such that workers solely will be represented.

At the same time governance can occur on a day to day basis in local joint industrial councils. These industrial councils, including employers and workers, will oversee grievances, working conditions, and trade issues.

For De Greef, these innovations, which are possible within current conditions, would bring the social questions, and key economic functions, to the center of politics (rather than giving them the phony cover they enjoy in conventional parliamentary politics). At the same time they would shift the reconstruction of these systems in the direction of control by labor (Douglas 1948, 542). This would occur because of the day to day practical and pedagogical effects of a national system of mass, rather than trade-based or union based, collective bargaining in which all were directly and actively involved.

It was De Greef’s expectation that the syndicates would eventually take on the functions of employment, through cooperatives for example, and thus assume all political power (Douglas 1948, 542). In terms of the system of credit, De Greef suggests the issuing of what amounts to fiat currency, alongside redeemable money (Douglas 1948, 541). Fiat notes would reflect the commercial and industrial transactions underway at a given time. They would not carry any interest above a nominal charge for overhead and risk and would be apportioned to member institutions, typically workers’ associations, which would supervise applications for credit by members and apportion the notes accordingly to them. Such readily accessible credit made available to productive enterprises would allow for syndicates to quickly take over collective contracts for work (Douglas 1948, 541). In De Greef’s view, this would mean that idle capital would be absorbed by the syndicates with the capitalist employer eventually dispossessed (as a matter of economic efficiency rather than political ideology or revolution).

De Greef analyses processes that simultaneously bring social contradictions to the surface of politics and transform social relations in the present. His evolutionary approach is a break with most syndicalism which asserts revolutionary perspectives on social change. Indeed, De Greef’s work is particularly at odds with the perspective of Sorel who abhors notions of worker and management councils or collective bargaining which he views as buffers on class struggle. For Sorel, the emphasis is on scission or the rupture, along class lines, of workers and capital. In this, class violence famously plays a part in Sorel’s view.

De Greef, perhaps ahead of much early sociology, provides an ecological analysis that recognizes and emphasizes the connectedness of humans and the natural world and centers this in his analysis. He emphasizes not only humans and their social relations, but situates these within the physical environment in connection with which he says human relations must be studied. De Greef constructed Herbert Spencer’s notion of social evolution in terms of increasing differentiation and coordination (Douglas 1948, 542). This is similar to the ecological notion of unity in diversity.

Overall, De Greef understood his sociology as a merging of Comte (classification), Spencer (social evolution), Quételet (statistics and quantitative analysis), with socialism In his view sociology is scientific socialism. Yet this is a socialism of Proudhon rather than of Marx. De Greef’s syndicalist perspective suggests that economic activities outweigh the political. In addition, organic economic divisions according to function represent the rational seats of power in the future (Douglas 1948, 551). At the center of his analysis is his conception of débat, or processes of mutual interest adjustment between groups and group pressures. In a subsequent article I examine this and other key components of De Greef’s sociology.

Further Reading 

Howell, Christopher. 2014. “Anarchism: A Critical Analysis.” Radical Criminology. Brooklyn: Punctum, 155–164.

Douglas, Dorothy W. 1948. “The Doctrines of Guillaume De Greef.” In An Introduction to the History of Sociology, ed. Henry Elmer Barnes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1926. “The Social Purpose in the Sociology of De Greef.” American Journal of Sociology 31(4): 433–454.

———. 1925. Guillaume De Greef: The Social Theory of an Early Syndicalist. New York: Columbia University Press.

Shantz, Jeff. 2014. “Lombroso’s Anarchy Problem.” Simply Criminology

Shantz, Jeff and Dana M. Williams. 2014. Anarchy and Society: Reflection on Anarchist Sociology. Chicago: Haymarket Press

van der Walt, Lucien. 2010. Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940. Leiden: Brill.

Williams, Dana M. 2014. “A Society in Revolt or Under Analysis? Investigating the Dialogue Between 19th-Century Anarchists and Sociologists.” Critical Sociology 40(3): 469–492.

Author Biography

I currently teach critical theory, elite deviance, and community advocacy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Metro Vancouver. My recent publications include “Cyber Disobedience: Re://Presentations of Online Anarchy” (Zero Books, 2014, with Jordon Tomblin) and “Anarchy and Society: Reflections on Anarchist Sociology” (Haymarket Books, 2014, with Dana M. Williams). My works have been published in numerous journals including “Contemporary Sociology” and  “Critical Sociology” and I am the founding editor of the journal Radical Criminology (journal.radicalcriminology/org). I can be followed on twitter @critcrim.
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