Oct 29 2014

Long nights on Brick Lane

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Brick Lane 4Riad Azar on ethnographic research in London’s Brick Lane

“…and then I realised that time was circular”, a friend told me after reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel 100 Years of Solitude. Our discussion was stubborn, returning to me time and again during my first few weeks in London. I was about to begin an MSc programme in Political Sociology; it was time to think like a social scientist. But it must be possible, I thought to myself, to find a way to describe changes not only in time, but also in space. Physicists agreed that space-time was a curvature; linearity might only be a constraining factor on our human perspective. My ethnographic fieldwork on Brick Lane served as the lab to test out this idea, to counterpose the variables of time and space in order to describe social change in an urban environment, and to allow literature to inspire my epistemological foundations.

Five years ago I cycled off the ferry from Liverpool and found myself in Dublin. I had my bicycle, a tent strapped to its frame and £100 I made busking in Cambridge. James Joyce’s Ulysses took up half of the pannier bag; its dual function as a pillow helped me justify the added weight. Living Joyce’s classic on the streets of the Irish capital made a notable impression on the way I thought about time. I recognised the streets and neighbourhoods, and gawked at the McDonalds that stood in the place of Bloom’s infamous morning butcher. Perhaps the scents were similar.

Social theorists from Aristotle to Hegel have always held the telos as sacrosanct; the progression of time as the driver of change. But what about space? And perspective? 100 years on and the alley I stood in had been completely redrawn.

Fast forward a few months and I came across Justine, one of four novellas that makes up Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. In these pages, I was introduced to the Egyptian port city, and through each novella I experienced space and place from the perspective of the rotating protagonists. Time held a secondary function as the vignettes were laid out in the order of importance to the narrator, rather than chronologically.

Brick Lane 3These literary musings served as the starting point for thinking about my research on Brick Lane, the busy street in East London that has captured the hearts of London’s immigrants, tourists, bankers, workers, and curious characters since the 17th century. The street has been studied through a variety of lenses: from social scientists to film makers and novelists, some of whose works have angered the subjects they were studying so deeply that the ashes of their books are a reminder that the work of depiction is always political. Ethnographic methodology allowed my colleagues and I to think about Brick Lane from the lens of those who inhabited the space. Taking our inspiration from Joyce’s use of time, and Durrell’s use of space, our research centred around the construction of social identity through the organisation of time and space.

We sought to discover the impact of the time of day on the domination of specific spaces of Brick Lane by different social groups. We were also curious about how spatial hegemony by social groups was used to redraw boundaries – the divisions on the street in the afternoon were radically different to those in the evening and night. To do this we decided to organise our research temporally; each of us was given a specific timeframe to conduct participant observations and interviews. Our participant observation served the goal of establishing which social groups were present, whether they were weekend food market workers, hipster thrift store shoppers, businesswomen rushing on their commute, or the midnight drug dealers. Our interviews allowed us to access their perspective on how the street was organised during our allotted timeframes. Areas which were encouraged to visit by the curryhouse owner on a Saturday afternoon were frowned upon by the panhandlers of Wednesday evening. Ethnography allowed us the freedom to traverse this dense mix of social relations; documenting and understanding how specific social groups were empowered to dominate space and lay claims upon territory that would not even exist six hours before or after our conversations.Brick Lane 2

My timeframe was late night, between 10pm and 6am. My research subjects were the homeless, drug dealers, party goers stopping in for a beigal at the two competing 24 hour shops. Through them I discovered the night time economy. The Beigal shops served as the attractor that brought in capital in the form of late nighters, some of them stumbling, slurring their speech, and singing. The homeless and the drug dealers used this potential resource base to their advantage, the former soliciting spare change in order to secure a room at the nearby shelter, the latter to peddle their wares. Both were drawn by the potential of accumulation, a potentiality which existed because of the interplay of time and space on the darkened street.

I looked through the field notes of my colleagues, and discovered that they had observed similar tensions. The domination of space seemed to always be based upon some type of capital accumulation. By being acquainted with a specific slice of Brick Lane in space/time, we were able to conclude that the time of day has a profound effect on which social groups feel empowered and therefore dominate Brick Lane. I depart from my group members in hypothesising that this is due to the competition for consumers, and therefore a drive towards the monopolisation of the accumulation of capital (Harvey, 2006; Marx, 1990). Through our study of the commodification of culture (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002) and tourism (MacCannell, 1999), and our witnessing of periods of group ‘accentuation’ and dominance, I believe we were observing a transition in accumulated capital on behalf of the tourists from the curryhouses to the food market and hipster-sites. As curryhouses are losing out on potential customers and focus shifts to the food market, Bengalis feel that they are losing their hold on the space, as the food market (understood as the materialisation of the gentrification process) is commanding the accumulation of capital; the data regarding the tax-free nature of the market further emphasises the structural nature of this movement. This can be seen in the Bengali’s lack of presence – and concerns over the safety of ‘their’ group – during times when either (a) the food market is dominating the street, or (b) the morning and evening rush- hour commuter traffic is at its peak.Brick Lane 1

An interpretivist and impressionistic appreciation in ethnography methodology guided the writing process. I was able to add a spatial element to the paper by dividing the document in half. I saw this as a demonstration of the intimate relation between classroom and site, theory and practice, speculation and observation. The left column documented the discussion within the classroom where the research and observations were analysed and framed, particularly during ‘key events’ and ‘epiphanies’. The right column contained our story on Brick Lane: field notes, interview transcripts,  spatial representations and photos.

While the process came to few ‘conclusions’, as each formulation was met with a new series of questions, I took away a few lessons. The breadth of the human experience and the depth of subjectivity are infinite, maybe even containing multiple dimensions. Therefore in studying social life we should be equally diverse in our sources of inspiration. But while our interests may be diverse and many the researcher must always keep her single responsibility in mind: to do justice to those who we study.

 

 

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Oct 20 2014

LSE Sociology at the forefront of the Inequalities agenda

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Personal Reflections by Mike Savage

It hardly needs emphasis that rising inequality within and between nations is increasingly in the public eye. The success of protest movements such as Occupy has highlighted the distinctiveness of the top ‘one per cent’. The World Economic Forum recently identified income disparity as one of its principal risks to economic and political security in the twenty-first century. International nongovernmental organisations such as Oxfam have drawn attention to the cycles of advantage transmitted across generations through opportunity capture and unequal political representation that reinforce privilege. Think tanks such as the Young Foundation have championed an ‘inequalities agenda’ and ongoing concerns with entrenched social disadvantage and declining social mobility in the UK have all pushed this question to the forefront of public debate. This is an arena where the potential of academic research to cross-fertilise with such interests to produce a genuinely public social science is huge, as testified by the remarkable interest in the work of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, Thomas Piketty, Danny Dorling, Owen Jones, David Graeber and others.

I am therefore delighted that the Department of Sociology at the LSE is pushing forward with a series of initiatives to bolster and enhance this current of work. My own awareness of the dramatic public interest was hugely boosted by the popular interest in the Great British Class Survey, findings from which were publicised by the BBC last year, and is the most popular piece of digital public sociology ever (with nearly 9 million people to date seeking to ascertain their ‘new’ class position on the BBC’s ‘class calculator’). Our paper ‘A new model of social class?’ continues to be the most downloaded paper in the journal Sociology well over a year after publication. A group of us in LSE Sociology, including academic staff Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Lisa McKenzie, and numerous graduate students have been meeting regularly to collaborate on further research and publications from the GBCS. This work is a major focus of my own ESRC Professorial Fellowship which is now continuing into its second year. Seven recently prepared analyses will form a special issue of Sociological Review (collaborative with colleagues from the Universities of Manchester and York) to be published in 2015. These new papers use detailed analyses of the GBCS data to offer distinctive findings on social mobility, political engagement, geographical dynamics, and the significance of elite higher education which are also being written up for a Pelican book under the title Social Class in the 21st century.

However, this GBCS research is only a small part of a much bigger wave of interest evident both in the Sociology Department and in the LSE more widely. Within the Department there has been a brown bag seminar on ‘inequalities’ over the past year attracting up to 25 academics and graduate students. A series of meetings have taken place with the Young Foundation with an agreement to be collaborative partners in research funding bids on the inequalities theme. The Race Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies PhD Network, which collaborates with this wider inequalities group, continues to host a lively set of events. We are co-operating with the Runnymede Trust, Britain’s leading independent race equality think tank, and we hope to further strengthen the Department’s long term interests in questions of race and ethnicity in the future. The Department has played a key role in the development of a new interdisciplinary MSc in Inequalities and Social Science which will run from October 2015, and has this year put on new MSc courses on ‘Urban Inequalities’ (taught by Fran Tonkiss) and ‘Class, Politics and Culture’ (taught by Sam Friedman) – which have attracted huge student demand.

Linked to the work of Judy Wajcman, LSE Sociology has also been promoting an interest in the important but often overlooked temporal dimensions of inequality, that is, the unequal distribution of discretionary time. With this theme in mind, Judy and Nigel Dodd are organising a seminar on The Sociology of Speed, with invited speakers including Craig Calhoun, Ingrid Erickson, Paul du Gay, Jonathan Gershuny, Melissa Gregg, Steve Jackson, Donald MacKenzie, Harmut Rosa, Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett, Sarah Sharma, Oriel Sullivan, and John Urry and myself.

More generally, we are interested in exploring the intersection between science and technology studies and forms of inequality, with studies of differing kinds of meritocratic and scientific elites, and discussions of the significance of academic and intellectual hierarchies.

In the LSE as a whole, there have been a series of collaborations which my colleagues from other Departments who have worked for over 20 years at the LSE describe as unprecedented. A key focus has been the work of Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the 21st century has energised remarkable interdisciplinary debate across the globe, and nowhere more than at the LSE. The British Journal of Sociology have given over their entire December 2015 pages to a special issue with long reviews by myself, Tony Atkinson (Economics, Oxford/LSE); Laura Bear (Anthropology, LSE); Frank Cowell (Economics, LSE), John Holmwood (Sociology, Nottingham); Jonathan Hopkin (Government, LSE); Gareth Jones (Geography and Environment, LSE); Di Perrons, (Gender Institute, LSE); David Soskice (Government, LSE), and Piketty himself is writing a response to these essays to accompany this issue. On May 11th 2015 there will be a special day-long seminar when Thomas Piketty will join his reviewers in an intensive inter-disciplinary debate on Inequalities in the 21st Century (please make a note in your diaries and watch for further details).

All these energies are currently being harnessed to a proposal to form an LSE wide International Institute of Inequalities (III). In 2012-13, as part of its Strategic Review, all academic staff at the LSE were asked, ‘which three big issues facing the world do you think the School should seek to solve’. The topic of inequalities was placed first, ahead of climate change (with the inequalities related topic of ‘poverty’ coming third), and this momentum has led to huge excitement across the institution with the III expected to start its operations in early 2015. The III will host a new MSc on Inequalities and Social Science, organise doctoral provision, and co-ordinate research activity and funding bids on the theme of inequalities from across the LSE. The Sociology Department is one of the most enthusiastic backers of the III, and we confidently look forward to playing our role in the III’s aim to ‘provide strategic leadership around the theme of inequalities with a view to establishing LSE as the leading inter-disciplinary university analysing inequalities in the world’. These are, indeed, exciting times for LSE Sociology.

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Aug 10 2014

Report Back from the ‘Race’, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies PhD Summer Symposium

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This summer the LSE Sociology Department and Social Policy Department jointly hosted the fifth annual Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies PhD Symposium—a unique academic network and space where PhD students exchange ideas, present new work and receive constructive feedback from leading scholars and work collaboratively across disciplines and institutions.

The Fifth annual Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies PhD Symposium

The Fifth annual Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies PhD Symposium

It is exciting to see how this network—which had its very first meeting at the LSE five years ago, and has continued as a traveling conference at different universities in London—has now grown to include a much wider national, and even international, student participation. It is a special intellectual space, one that places an emphasis on the quality of dialogue rather than academic status. Over the last five years it has provided numerous students with a unique and vibrant intellectual space to hone their academic craft with a deeper political engagement in their research around questions of social justice and inequalities. Many participants have gone on to collaborate together.

The academics and intellectuals who first helped launch this student-led network initiative include: Paul Gilroy, Claire Alexander, Suki Ali, Les Back, John Solomos, Liza Schuster, among many others, who have continued to chair panels and lead roundtable discussions over the years maintain spaces for emerging scholars to engage critically and politically with their work inside a larger intellectual communities working on research that employ these headings.

Over the last several years we’ve witnessed a shift in participation to include much broader disciplinary boundaries, like medicine and urban studies, but find that the intentional and explicit heading of ‘race’, ethnicity and the post-colonial, continue to bring together researchers working on pressing and important questions of social inequalities and injustice.

This was a special year for the wider REPS Network as it officially launched a larger initiative to expand, what has been up until now, a primarily London-based university network to include support and participation from other institutions, faculty and students nationally, and even internationally. This year we have participants representing institutions across the U.K. including: Heriot-Watt University, University of Essex, University of Glasgow and Warwick University. This broader participation was made possible by the support of the Runnymede Trust’s AHRC Academic Forum grant and Mike Savage’s ESRC Professorial Fellowship.

If you are interested in learning more about upcoming LSE REPS-related events and seminars you can visit the LSE REPS PhD Network webpage.

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Jul 3 2014

Mike Savage Reviews Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

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Read Mike Savage’s Sociological ruminations on Piketty at the Stratification Culture Research Network blog here.

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May 27 2014

What Use is Sociology? Olivia Mena reviews this book of conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, Michael-Hviid Jacobsen and Keith Tester

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This conversational book with Zygmunt Bauman looks at the usefulness of sociology with an aim to inspire future conversations about the discipline. Olivia Mena found this book to be a sounding board of the timeless but central questions which social theorists and practitioners must revisit regularly in the everyday practice of the ‘scientific sorcery’ that is sociology.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2014/05/26/book-review-what-use-is-sociology-zygmunt-bauman/

Originally posted on the LSE Review of Books

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Mar 26 2014

Cybernetic regulation in the age of algorithmic finance

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JP Pardo-Guerra reflects on a proposal by Professor Andrei Kirilenko on the Socialising Finance blog.

http://socfinance.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/cybernetic-regulation-in-the-age-of-algorithmic-finance/

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Mar 24 2014

Researching Court Interpreting

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Doctoral Researcher, Anna Matczak, discusses her research into court interpreting.

Although I have always wanted to pursue an academic career, a few years ago I completed a translation course at one of the London’s universities and decided to advance this knowledge further. I passed an interpreting exam and since then I have been working as a court interpreter alongside my doctoral studies at the London School of Economics. What I have realised rather late is, that probably since the very beginning, I have been unwittingly researching the subject of court interpreting, the profession of court interpreters, and myself in the given context. As this short piece is a single account of my personal opinions and experiences, a blog post feels the appropriate form to share these observations.

The origins of court interpreting in the UK are rooted in community-based interpreting. What this means is that for many years it has been a specific mode of interpreting that flourished due to the presence of large numbers of ethnic minorities in this country. The longer I analyse the subject the more I realise how important it is to mention a specific context surrounding each profession, especially when discussing any type of interpreting. For instance, the background of the profession is unquestionably different than the one for interpreters who work within the European Institutions. I presume that the beginnings of court interpreting in England and Wales must have been somehow unregulated; however this has definitely changed over time. Firstly, a number of qualifications were established in order to confirm the ability of public service interpreting, including court interpreting (e.g. Diploma in Public Service Interpreting and Diploma in Police Interpreting – previously known as Metropolitan Police Test). Secondly, a number of organisations and institutions have become available to accommodate and register those court interpreters who have obtained the required qualifications and experience (e.g. National Register for Public Service Interpreters, Association of Police and Court Interpreters). Following this, court interpreters became the subject of scrutiny and various checks (e.g. DBS Enhanced Certificate, Counter Terrorist Check) and last but not least, the profession has been privatised and managed by Applied Language Solutions in the first place and then Capita Translation and Interpreting. At first glance one can notice that these changes have, to a certain extent, mirrored the broader situation in the criminal justice system in England and Wales. In my view, a similar path of developments can be observed with Probation in particular. Although the field has recently been monopolized and there is only one provider of court interpreters at the moment, there have been certain attempts among some of the interpreters to take the profession to a business-like level and approach it from the marketing perspective.

In reality, the profession consists of various individuals from various backgrounds and perspectives. There are some who have made a conscious decision about public service interpreting; but there are others who recognise it as a pathway to join the legal profession or just the opposite. In my case, a research student with an interest in criminology and for whom a temporary employment position became an opportunity to interact with the justice system and take in a great deal of socio-legal knowledge on a daily basis. What we all have in common is the fact that we are all self-employed, agency-managed ‘bilingual electrons’ constantly checking our mobile phones, as this is the way we receive work. Nevertheless, everyone brings something original to the pot and takes away whatever is individually appropriate.

What I have started to deliberate on is the feeling of disorientation that an interpreter might experience once in a courtroom and how this affects our role. My court observations were further inspired by Linda Mulcahy’s article on the use of the dock in criminal proceedings. I began to wonder what the court interpreter’s place in a courtroom is. In simple terms, our role is to convey legal cultures from one language to another. As speakers of two languages and with qualifications in legal interpreting, this indicates that interpreters are in the courts to provide language interpretation between the defendant and the court staff. Through sociological lenses though it almost always feels like a process of comprehending and translating facts, legal jargon, and personal opinions with the sole purpose of describing a ‘stolen conflict’ that has occurred from the person in the dock and the victims: still quite invisible persons in court proceedings (see Christie 1977). Furthermore, the architecture and design of the court imposes that the interpreters are placed beside the defendant, which also means being placed in the dock as well. As a consequence, these settings account for, not only the increased fortification and marginalization of the defendants, as meticulously discussed by Mulcahy (2013), but also the interpreters.

In this context, the relationship between the defendant and the interpreter is therefore more intense than would normally be expected. The role to interpret is therefore intermingled with the role of a personalised filter that allows words to be conveyed. However, these skills cannot transfer feelings of shame, remorse (or lack thereof), strangled anger, symptoms of mental illness, sharp practice or complete incomprehension of why certain behaviour can be criminalized in this jurisdiction. Therefore, with the court interpreting experience I have gained thus far, it was not surprising to learn that native tongue is more grounded in the emotion system as opposed to using foreign language which creates a possibility of developing a distancing mechanism that disassociates from emotions (see Pavlenko, 2005).

In light of the recent cuts to the legal aid scheme that have, or will very shortly, affect the availability of solicitors and barristers in courts, I anticipate further disorientation to the role of the interpreters in the criminal justice system. When there is no legal representative in a courtroom to speak on behalf of the defendant, certain questions may be addressed to us, the ones who are still looking for a place and a full understanding of our role in English courtrooms. It is an interesting phenomenon to observe sociologically, however I fear that at the practical levels, these recent changes in the criminal justice system may only bring another wave of chaos to the profession of court interpreters in the UK.

 

References: 

Christie, N. (1977) Conflicts as Property. British Journal of Criminology, 17, 1-15.

Mulcahy, L. (2013) Putting the defendant in their place. Why do we still use the dock in criminal proceedings? British Journal of Criminology, 53, 1139-1156.

Pavlenko, A. (2005) Emotions and multilingualism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Mar 17 2014

Rising Political Participation: Popular or Populist?

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by PhD Student, Vangelis Georgas

“They call us populists. We are proud of that, and angry too.”
Beppe Grillo, 5 Star Movement’s demonstration in Genoa, December 2013

The 2008 financial crisis and the austerity that is implemented as a policy reaction to it has inaugurated a new era of contention and of increased pressure from below. This is evident not only in developing countries, but also in many developed and prosperous countries of the West. In most cases discontent takes the form of resentment against elites, political and economic. It is expressed mainly through voting for anti-systemic political parties, and through participation in movements, which once again focus on materialist issues, until recently thought to have been irrevocably resolved in the developed countries of the world.

In this new political and economic environment, political struggle in many countries increasingly revolves around a debate on whether popular reaction should be described as populist, a condemnatory term used in most contexts in a pejorative way, or as popular, a term with positive connotations due to its relation to a democratic imaginary. In Europe, this debate is most heated in peripheral countries strongly affected by the crisis, and most of all in Greece and Italy: is the Coalition of Radical Left (SYRIZA), the main opposition party in Greece, equally populist as Golden Dawn? Is Beppe Grillo in Italy the leader of a populist party, or of a popular movement? Or should we understand populist as meaning popular, as Grillo is repeatedly suggesting in front of his party’s supporters lately?

Social scientists are joining the debate, by attempting to clarify the meaning of “populism”. Most students of the phenomenon agree that at the heart of the problem lies an inadequate conceptualization of the term “populism” in the academic debate. This however is hardly convincing. The meaning of the term is reasonably unambiguous and, in fact, uncontested. At the heart of the controversy lies a much bigger stake than just a linguistic controversy in everyday interaction, or a lack of analytic rigor in an academic debate. Much more than anything else, this is a real social struggle, at the heart of which lies the question of what is, and what should be, the role of “the people” in politics and social life. And eventually, what is the meaning and the political significance of “democracy”. I will try to clarify my point by first showing why the meaning of the term “populism” is less problematic than most social scientists tend to think. After identifying what I see as the heart of the controversy, I will then examine some of the implications for social research.

The criteria for applying the term “populism” to a specific situation are relatively uncontested. It refers to a style of politics characterized by a political discourse that dichotomizes citizens in two broad groups. On one side stand the vast majority of the population, “the people”, which are portrayed as representing a unity and as having common interests, despite differences which are played down as non politically significant. On the other side of the divide stands a tiny elite, which is corrupt and self-serving, and thus is preventing “the people” from achieving their potential for full freedom, material well-being and happiness. If “the many” could sidestep that elite, their problems would be resolved.

If these are the criteria for applying the term “populist”, then it is easy to show empirically that all three parties that I mentioned earlier, Golden Dawn and SYRIZA in Greece, and 5 Star Movement in Italy, do produce a discourse that divides political space in exactly these terms. In fact, the leaders and supporters of these parties would easily accept that. They would add, however, that they see nothing problematic with this; quite to the contrary, they find it as the best indicator of the democratic character of their political project. This is because, surprising though it might seem to those who see populism and democracy as radically opposed to each other, the existence of a united and sharing common interests “people”, the subject of populism, is implied in the very concept of democracy, understood as popular sovereignty.  What distinguishes the two terms, “popular” and “populist”, is not different conceptualizations, but the evaluative stance towards the relation between citizens and their government. On one side stand those who see popular will as the only criterion which should inform and direct political decision. On the other side stand those who claim, first, that the unity of the people is nothing more than a rhetorical claim; in fact people disagree on the ends they want to pursue, and even more on the appropriate means for achieving their aims. Second, they object that even if people were united in their wants, there are limits on what they can legitimately aspire for, and even more, on what they can plausibly achieve.

The linguistic debate and the theoretical controversy over the meaning of populism, are in fact demonstrations of a substantive social struggle between two competing ways of classifying reality, which lead to different practical decisions about who should decide and what can be decided on crucial social issues. Understanding the issue in these terms is reach in implications for the role of social research in understanding and possibly affecting political reality.

For a descriptive and explanatory approach, it means that in order to understand why specific social outcomes occur, we need to examine how political space it divided by political actors, what links do they make trough discursive practices between events, causes and effects, interests and identities. Social outcomes are not produced mechanically out of forces acting regardless of actors’ consciousness. They are the product of complex interactions between actors who are guided in their decisions by contingent and inherently political articulations of the social. The distinctively sociological question here is why among competing discourses some prevail over others at specific junctions? In my research I am investigating how the interaction between party framings and popular receptions of the crisis in Greece lead to the radicalization of politics, or the electoral rise of specific parties instead of others.

The most important question however is whether we can have a prescriptive role to play in this social conflict. Do we have anything to offer beyond useless expressions of personal preferences? Do we possess theories or methods that enable us to make more informed decisions among available alternative solutions, or our choices are as capricious and subjective as anyone else’s. Does, eventually, anything go?

We first need to acknowledge here that practical reasoning is definitely not an exact science. It should however be self evident that some means are more effective in achieving given ends under given circumstances. The political problem then is first how to identify those with reasonable plausibility, and then how to convince others to adopt them.

A first step towards choosing the most appropriate means is having a description of the world which is as accurate as possible. Starting from the important insight that everything in the world is relations and processes, not essences and things, we should use the method of comparison for specifying how things relate with each other. Comparison gives us the only measure available for deciding on the plausibility of competing discourses. In order to evaluate for instance the discursive claim that corruption is the main cause of the financial problems of Greece, one has to compare the governmental practices and the social relations underpinning them in Greece not with an abstract, normative model of how ideal government or democracy should be working, but with relevant practices and their effects in other countries of the world. Comparison should provide us with a reasonably credible sense of proportions, which is indispensable in the process of decision-making.

The next step is to take into account the rules of practical reasoning, so often overseen by political actors, as guiding lines for decision-making. We have to be aware that often choosing some end limits automatically the means available for achieving it, when there are necessary means for achieving this specific end; that previous decisions might limit our autonomy at latter stages; and, finally, that there are objective limits on what any political community can plausibly achieve. In the modern world, the most important limits on national sovereignty are the ones set by competition in an international capitalist economy.

Eventually, however, all these theoretically and practically rational processes, even if ideally followed by social scientists for making optimal decisions, are not going to produce any effect in practical politics, if the ideas thus produced are not communicated to the public in a way which is emotionally engaging and capable of catching the imagination and inspiring hope. This is the lesson that political realists need to learn from the successes of populist politicians, as a middle way between utopia and pessimism is once again urgently needed in national and international politics.

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Mar 10 2014

The Disappeared

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Doctoral student, Daniel James, describes the subject of his fieldwork in Chile and Argentina.

Death – like birth – has a time and a place. We mark each. Societies and cultures around the world have devised (invented?) an elaborate array of rituals to close the chapter of a person’s life in a way that signifies meaning. In obituaries, on tombstones, at a funeral or a wake, it is customary to note where and when someone was born, and died. Touchingly, it is sometimes even the same place that is recorded; a tantalising envelope that hints at the life led in-between, or a gesture perhaps to the lived experience before today’s globalised age? But what if the time and place of someone’s death are not yet known? What if there is even still uncertainty about whether somebody is really dead at all? This is what my research looks at.

On the wall of the memorial in the Santiago cemetery in Chile, the names of those executed during the period of General Pinochet’s military rule are accompanied by their birth date, the date they died, and their ages at the time they were killed. Many lives were cut woefully short; there is even a figure of ‘0’ carved on the wall denoting the death of an unborn child.

SC1 (3)

The names of those who were detained-disappeared, however, those who were abducted by state security forces before being tortured and presumably killed but whose whereabouts are still unknown, are accompanied only by the dates of their birth and disappearance. There is a subtle but profound difference. The disappeared, as they have come to be known, seem to exist outside time. Or in a parallel time, a liminal space. They are the not-quite-dead but-the-not-still-here. In a sense, they are ageless.

Forced disappearance has reached a certain purchase in social discourse. Watching an episode of Fox21’s popular series Homeland recently, I was startled to hear one character joke about another being “the magician.” “He liked to make people disappear,” he explained. It has become all-too-frequent to read on the news about the latest person/s to have been disappeared; taken from the streets in Syria, discovered to have been dumped in a well in México. Activists in Spain meanwhile now argue that there are 114,000 ‘desaparecidos’ as a result of the Civil War there, a term that wasn’t used in its original context in the 1930s.

State-sanctioned killing is nothing new, of course. The history of nation-states is inseparable from a grisly genealogy of death, as states (as well as non-state bodies) have asked their people to give themselves up for the greater cause in civil wars, world wars, wars of liberation, revolutions and ‘wars against terror.’ How sad that state-led killing now counts with, and is understood to count with, such a malevolent practice as detaining someone, torturing them, and then making their bodies disappear. And that when this happens, these cases are now routinely brandished with the moniker of the ‘disappeared.’ For a practice that appears to undermine the carefully crafted order of the social world, this seems our best attempt at beginning to understand what’s happening; at beginning to etch these people back into their (social) existence.

And yet, forced disappearance cannot surely be the latest category into which we insert the latest victims of atrocity? For me, a line is transgressed when someone is not only taken, tortured and (almost certainly) killed, as was sadly ever thus, but when their loved ones are denied the epistemological certainties of the physical body or details as to the time and place of their death. But what line? A line of space, or place, with their still being out-there-in-the-world, and not in a carefully marked and tended grave as a point of reference for those they left behind? A line of time, with the disappeared person not yet having been allocated their place in the passage of chronological time? Is this what we mean when we talk, prompted by the literature on memory studies, of a rupture? And if so, is this enough?

When a group I am working with posted on facebook that I had gone to see them to inquire about the everyday lives of families of the disappeared, one respondent posted: ‘GO TO THE MUSEUM!’ Perhaps they were right. But recent scholarship has taught us to challenge the idea of a museum as the repository of truth, to undermine that Truth a little by questioning whose truth it really is, and who it serves. (Did you know that the Argentine military junta had their own Museum of Subversion?) Another contact I spoke with described the plight of relatives of the disappeared as that of a choice. When someone you love disappears, he said, you can put it in a box marked ‘memory’, put it away, and take it out when you need it, or you can let it destroy you.

I’m not so sure. Through fieldwork in Santiago and Buenos Aires, this is the kind of notion that I want to investigate, and interrogate. What claims can a society make in the face of the massive state-led disappearance of its people? What is lost with the continued disappearance of these individuals? And how can society represent the absence of those who are missing – if it can represent them at all?

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Mar 3 2014

Sociology Retreat at Cumberland Lodge – Part One

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A Weekend to Remember

This post reflects on MSc student Tanya Anne Pinto’s experiences of the LSE Department of Sociology annual retreat at Cumberland Lodge, 24-26 January 2014.

When I first received an email informing me of an ‘academic’ getaway at Cumberland Lodge, I was wary of it. Already entrenched in coursework and essays, I didn’t think life could get any more ‘academic’. Luckily, I followed my instinct and decided to book a place on the trip. The refreshing experience that I followed to have made it the best decision I could make.

On 24th January 2014, staff and students across various years met up at Cumberland Lodge in the outskirts of London. It was a pleasant coach ride to our destination, with the travel transforming into an impromptu icebreaker session with other students who were attending the conference. It was interesting to speak to classmates outside of the classroom setup. Often we are so caught up with readings and lectures; we hardly have the time to get to know our classmates better. Though we reached the lodge only in the evening, its majestic architecture and royal heritage were unmistakable. As soon as I had stepped into the entrance lobby, I was swept into an era of luxury. The satin covered walls were adorned with oil paintings that were valuable enough to be kept in a museum.CumberlandLodge_486x248

The theme for this year was, ‘Methods and Methodologies in Sociological Research’. The weekend programme had a schedule of interesting sociological seminars and events. PhD students presently pursuing their studies at the Sociology Department of LSE presented their work, the challenges they faced during research and also encouraged questions from the audience. For a Master’s student like me, it was a wonderful learning experience as I had an insight into the field of academic research at the doctoral level. The talks covered a broad range topics- right from studying international borders to the way emails impact workplace dynamics. There was also a diversity of research methods – ethnography, qualitative interviews, mixed methods and discourse analysis – all of which require different considerations in terms of rigour and validity.

There were some lectures by faculty also,, throwing open interesting discussions about research ethics and methodology. An interesting debate about the strengths and weaknesses of Qualitative vs. Quantitative research methodology left an impression on me. Professors involved in ethnographic work and those involved with quantitative research shared their concerns about the limitations of these domains. Eventually, however, both conceded that there was no ‘right’ way of conducting research. Both methodologies had their own pros and cons and depend to a large degree on the nature of the research question.

On Sunday morning we also had the opportunity to attend a service at the royal chapel, which is otherwise restricted to common public. It was a surreal experience, knowing that this place was regularly visited by HRH Queen Elizabeth as well. Some of the students chose to visit Windsor Castle, which is neatly tucked away in the Great Park not far from the Lodge. During lunch, students had the opportunity to interact with faculty and peers, which helped form stronger friendships.

Overall, the weekend at Cumberland Lodge was an excellent learning experience. Being a Master’s student, it is the sole platform to interact with more senior students and staff. This helps to explore study and research opportunities to follow at a later stage. This weekend is a memory that will stand out from my time at the London School of Economics.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin