Jul 28 2015

To study sociology is to study oneself…

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This is a fundamental understanding I have developed since I started studying Sociology at degree level just under a year ago. Motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, has suggested that a person is the average of the five most prominent people in their lives; even if not entirely accurate I believe the sentiment, that our behaviours, mannerisms and life choices are largely the result of socialisation is valid. Sociology can look at influences that range from structurally maintained privilege to micro aggressions, so it is difficult to quantify just how much of what we are is passed on directly to us though socialisation. However, the joy of sociology to me is that it attempts to go beyond the individual and, some might say, the arbitrary.

Having grown up in a reasonably liberal environment, I was always troubled by the existence of social ills such as racism, poverty, gender inequality, heteronormativity (not that I knew it was called that at the time) etc. Why did such injustices and inequalities exist? Why could we not just fix them and make the world a better place? Sweet naivety.


Studying sociology was like a slow sunrise as the light gradually began to hit me, almost blinding me with both painful and exciting realities. It is a beautiful discipline as it makes the student aware of the tangled web of power structures in which they exist, and exist so obliviously at that! I look back now and think how the simple ignorance of my various privileges, for example being white and educated, meant I could never experience certain things no matter how objective I wished to be.

Equally, sociology in a more morality based sense, allowed me to be angry. I could now see that certain struggles I and others had faced were not simply coincidences or bad luck but the consequence of systematic oppression. Sociology is knowledge, is awareness, is justification for that anger. Some of the more classically thinking sociologists wish to maintain the notion that any sociological research conducted should only aim to study society “sui generis” and not apply it in the hope of implementing positive change. I see sociology as a tool that gives the most oppressed in society back some degree of power to change their social environment.

In short, to study sociology is to study oneself. That does not mean it is limited to the self, after all it is not social psychology, but I defy any conscientious student to study this wonderful discipline without experiencing some degree of introspection. We may study large groups, societies, national populations, but in doing so a sociologist is always unconsciously asking how they relate to those around them. I make no exaggeration when I say sociologists are the single most socially aware group of people I have ever met, and I am more the better for it. When you not only think about “social facts” that you may have previously taken for granted, but also discuss your knowledge gains with incredibly open-minding peers who are on the same journey as you there can be few limits to what can be achieved with regards to the liberation of social understanding.

I’m sure all children of the discipline have had that uncomfortable moment when asked “So what actually IS Sociology?” Many students I know have simply replied with “I don’t know” or “the study of society” to avoid the long explanation, which unfortunately can often reinforce the academically elitist attitude that Sociology is “not a real subject”. I cannot deny either that this hasn’t been my response on occasions. What I would like to say is something more along the lines of this: Sociology is more than me, you or even everyone in the world. Some people say it is nothing but I say it is everything, from the systems of exchange that exist, to power structures that oppress. It is liberation, restriction, obligation, even life and death. It is what we call history and what we will do tomorrow. It is contested, inescapable and incomplete.

I then check if they’re still there or if they’ve mysteriously disappeared during my rather poetic rant. But that’s the thing with sociology. So many of those who follow it can be no less that passionate about it, because that is the strength of feeling it evokes in so many. I can never regret choosing Sociology for my degree and I think even 10 years from now I still will not fully understand the magnitude of what I have gained from it. I think everyone could do with a little Sociology in their lives, but I accept not everyone will be as fanatic about it as me. All I can hope is that when future students come to study this discipline, they will realise that Sociology is not just in the words of books; it is in the real world, real people, every second of the day.

Written by Perdita Blinkhorn, BSc Sociology student in the LSE Department of Sociology

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Jul 23 2015

Why it’s always sociological….

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LSE Sociology alumnus Phil Woodford on his reasons for studying sociology in the 1980s.

The growth of media studies over the past 25 years was probably the best thing that could ever have happened to sociology. There always needs to be a subject which is the butt of everyone’s jokes and back in the 1980s, I guess sociology was it. Despite its reputation and associations with bearded 1960s Marxists, I was still pretty determined to study it.

My motivations were wildly naive, to be honest. I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old when I first arrived at the LSE in 1987 and I believed that sociology was a subject that provided answers to the world’s questions. In many ways, I felt it to be the epitome of the School’s motto of Rerum Cognoscere Causas.


Phil even made it to the front page of The Beaver

After three years of undergraduate study, I realised that unfortunately there weren’t any answers. Just more questions. But when I arrived, I was full of anticipation.

I had lived through the Thatcher era as a teenager and was actively involved in various left-wing causes. Long before I became a student at LSE, I had been banning the bomb and campaigning against Apartheid in South Africa. I’d pushed against lines of riot police at Wapping in east London when the printers were involved in their bitter dispute with Rupert Murdoch. I’d supported Arthur Scargill and the miners from the comfort of a semi-detached suburban home in south-west London.

When I came for my interview, I was probably full of chat about the state of the country and I doubt that I made a great deal of sense. Maybe the academics who interviewed me – Dr Chris Husbands, an expert on the far right in British politics, and Dr Eileen Barker who specialised in new religious movements – thought that offering me a place was the best way of shutting me up.

So what did sociology give me? Well, it may sound very trite, predictable and clichéd, but it certainly encouraged independent and critical thought. I remember writing a rather feeble paper in the first term and being pleased when the German PhD student who ran our seminar group told me that it showed ‘sociological imagination’. (I’m not sure that C. Wright Mills would have made too much of it, but it was a start.)

Even though there may ultimately be no definitive answers, it does make sense to go looking for them. Sociologists always dig beneath the surface of what is superficially apparent. I like that.

If crime is falling, we might quite happily believe that people are better natured than they were previously. But one sociologist will ask whether we’re recording crime differently. Another might postulate that policing tactics have changed. A third might point out that most crime is committed by young people, but populations in the developed world are ageing.

I was given a good grounding in methods, which makes me pick holes – probably unfairly – in virtually every academic study I see quoted in newspapers and magazines. I was forced to study statistics, which was probably good for my brain at the time, but I confess that I retain virtually nothing of the detail today.

From a personal point of view, however, the thing that meant the most to me in the study of sociology was the subject’s all-encompassing nature. Virtually no aspect of life is left untouched. I remember being fascinated by the idea that Georg Simmel might extend the discipline to investigate an area such as fashion, for instance.

It was good that I came to sociology relatively fresh. My A-levels were actually in government & politics, history and law. There was an advantage in having studied subjects which were relevant to the sociological endeavour, but not having my head crammed full of Lockwood & Goldthorpe and the other stuff that was part and parcel of the sociology A-level syllabus.

The bible used by A-level students at that time was written by Michael Haralambos. They were pretty sure that if they stuck to this worthy text at undergraduate level, nothing much could go wrong. My tutor, however, was rather bemused at their determination to quote from Sociology: Themes and Perspectives.

‘I’ve heard of Marx,’ she confided in me, ‘and I’ve heard of Weber. But who is this Harry Lambos that everybody talks about?’

We were very much left to our own devices back in those days and I don’t really know how it would compare to a degree course today. There were only a few hours of formal lectures a week and a few hours of seminars. Perhaps if I’d been paying £9,000 a year in tuition fees, I would have demanded more. The culture, however, in the late 1980s was one of gratitude for being given the opportunity to study. Many of my fellow sociologists were mature students and had taken a very deliberate break from their roles as homemakers, customs officers and psychiatric nurses.

In terms of my career in advertising and marketing, the fact that I went to the LSE probably counted for more than the specific subject I studied. Nevertheless, I know just how much I owe to a subject which frames the way I look at the world. Remember, something is usually going on beneath the surface. And it’s always sociological.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Jul 13 2015

The “Why” that Made Me Discover Sociology

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Doctoral researcher, Isabell Loeschner, explains what brought her to Sociology in the second of our series of blog posts on ‘Why Socoiology?’.


Sociology does not always have a good reputation in society and we sociologists don’t always do a good job at improving this reputation, because we like to keep to ourselves. In fact, many people don’t even know what Sociology is. The word resembles the word social, so it must have to do something with social work, many think.

In this post I don’t want to judge people for what they know or don’t know about Sociology. In fact, coming from a management and business studies background, not too long ago I was one of these people who considered Sociology to be what we Germans call “Brotlose Kunst” (i.e. work that won’t pay you enough to buy you your daily bread and butter). Instead I want to tell you the story of what got me interested in Sociology and why I have found fulfilment in a discipline that has the study of society with all its facets at its core.

You could say I was the complete opposite of the typical rather left-wing sociologist. Already back in school I had enjoyed economics and business and felt that I had a deeply ingrained entrepreneurial spirit within me. It then seemed as a natural step for me to study management upon graduation. I was also very lucky to be accepted onto a programme at Lancaster University that required a large amount of work placements and practical experience throughout my undergraduate degree.

So it happened that I was able to explore 5 different organizations of varying sizes within the corporate world as an intern and to my surprise I was very quickly faced with a lot of very puzzling questions that I couldn’t find an answer for. There was a sheer endless numbers of “Whys”.

Why are women treated differently in the labour market? Why do people choose to work 16 hour days? Why do the same sort of people always end up in senior management roles? Why do some people choose insecure but autonomous self-employment over a more stable, possibly more secure corporate job? Why do we have ever better technology to help us get our work done but don’t seem to be able to enjoy more leisure time?

These and many more questions made me seriously reflect on my own motivations, morals and life goals and made me develop a curiosity that I just couldn’t seem to be able to satisfy through work in a corporate job as e.g. a banker, financial auditor or marketing specialist. I soon realized I didn’t want to spend my efforts on maintaining and optimizing the existing system. Instead I wanted to step out of it in order to study it, understand it and criticize it. This realization was like a revelation to me. I had discovered Sociology.

Once I had realized this there was no way back. I applied for a PhD in Sociology at the London School of Economics, hoping for the very best. Yet, on my first day in the Sociology department at LSE I was in panic. What am I doing here? I don’t know enough about Sociology to complete a PhD in it! This is not my peer group! I don’t know what they are talking about! These are only a few thoughts that crossed my mind before and on that very first day; but in fact the more I heard about my fellow PhD students and their work, the more I realized what Sociology was and did.

The sheer breadth and depth of the topics I was surrounded with was breath-taking and my own interest in every single one of them showed me that I would be able to answer and discover “Whys” for a lifetime.

When I got home on that very first day at LSE I was excited and motivated and I felt that I had truly found my peer group. The coming weeks and months did not change this first impression. These people all went through the world with their eyes wide open, discovering “Whys” everywhere and they all had found their first “Why” that they sought to answer in their PhD.

The longer I was part of this community the more I was sensitized to the inequalities existent within our society, be they related to gender, race, age, wealth, education or many others and I realized the value of developing an awareness for these in my own life and for society more generally. Studying our society in its many facets gives me a deep sense of purpose that I hadn’t yet found in the corporate world.

It was at this point that I decided to stop searching and instead embrace my new identity as a sociologist. I asked myself can I see me working as a social scientist in 10, 15, 20 years time and the answer was a clear YES, TOTALLY. The thought of being able to answer some of the “Whys” and to discover new “Whys” provides me with an immense sense of fulfilment and it gives me deep satisfaction to see how my research can be applied to the real world and make a difference in our society.

So with all this talk about “Whys” and my personal sense of fulfilment through the study of our society what does Sociology actually do for us? It helps us sharpen our eyes for issues such as inequalities, social and technological change, and exploitation. It helps us see structural forces that constitute the society we live in and opens up spaces to changes these structures and with it, society. The “Whys” can have impact. Knowing answers to these may not completely change the world but it can influence and shape society as we know it.

I think the value this can bring is so obvious that we sociologists should really stop keeping the answers we find to ourselves and our peer group. We would quickly find that our findings have greater effects when we share them with the world.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Jul 7 2015

Putting the T in Sociology

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This first in a series of blogs posts on the theme of Why Sociology? is from Mira Buerger, an MSc student in the Department of Sociology at LSE.

Many T smaller

I study sociology. And I did and will work in the business world. For many people this sounds like an oxymoron. But sociology provides me what is so often demanded by today’s recruiters: T shaped expertise. Both IBM and Ideo’s CEO Tim Brown called for the T-shaped employees already back in 2010.

I personally love sociology for its creative, sometimes mind-twisting theory and for the curious insights in everyday life it offers, which make me understand why I dislike the new craze for gin connoisseurship but somehow still find myself holding a glass of gin and tonic with a fancy cucumber slice while standing in a craft distillery pop up store in Dalston, London. This knowledge is not getting you a job, they say. This is not business-relevant, they say. It is, actually! Because this is part of the T, the T in sociology.

The horizontal stroke of the T is often described as the ability to empathetically collaborate with people from other fields and to be a constructive part of a creative, interdisciplinary team. Empathy is seen in this context as the ability to step in someone else’s shoes, to adapt to other skills, and to explore problems from different perspectives.

What sounds like a natural given gift can be learned: sociology is a great trainer of empathy. Plus, it provides me with an analytical lense towards the world. Sociology = Empathy + Critical Analysis.

This critical analysis applies to a horizontal breadth, enabling sociological scholars to examine social phenomena in diverse fields ranging from vaccination to shopping malls, power plants and finance, the art of baking, algorithms or time. Within these fields, sociology enables to grasp the complexity of a situation, to realise that there is never the ONE truth but multiple realities and to create compelling solutions for diverse problems. After all, the solutions are most often found outside the field in which the problem arose. ‘Think out of the box!’ they say. That is intrinsically sociological thinking. It’s this generalist perspective that I can put on like sunglasses to every single topic I come across, from sitting at the dinner table to a discussion in parliament. That is not to say that there are no other nice pairs of sunglasses out there that provide another view on the world. Sociology is just the one pair I cherish since many summers and that just gives me this special colouring I like so much.

Then there is the vertical stroke of the T. It refers to depth of a specific skill and expertise. This can be found in the sociological specification in on social field to reveal multiple causes, interdependencies and future scenarios. Depending on the topic focus of a sociological scholar, we can present multidimensional causes and deep rooting relationships which explain why banks but not Greece are too big to fail, we investigate how technology is shaped by social relations and how it shapes us, and we tell you why everyone stares at the digital numbers in the elevator as if there is going to happen something unexpected. And don’t get me even started on the deep vertical skills of research methods sociologist have to offer.

More than ever, generalist analytic skills are necessary for today’s business world because former distinct fields of expertise become more and more intertwined; democracy and finance, health and technology, consumption and politics, business negotiation and culture. This comes to show in product design, customer and client relation or business strategies and we sociologist can pull strings together to make sense of the messy interconnectedness of today’s world.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Jun 30 2015

Can sociological thinking help to address the bad apples and rotten barrels of the financial industry?

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by Sian Lewin, doctoral researcher in the LSE Department of Sociology


Source: Shutterstock


Recently, US and UK regulators announced that six global banks (including Barclays and RBS) will pay over $5.6bn between them in fines for the manipulation of benchmark exchange rates in the foreign currency markets. This is the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of financial scandals including the ‘London Whale’ traders at JP Morgan, the rigging of LIBOR and the alleged HSBC tax avoidance schemes. From these events, it seems that unethical or even illegal behaviour is rife in the banking industry today.

Understandably then, since the financial crisis, there has been a mounting sense of public outrage as each scandal breaks, angrily articulated in this video by Paul Mason from Channel 4 news. Standing in the middle of the City of London, he questions what the regulators are doing to both bring the individuals involved to account and to prevent such misconduct in the future. Such questions are particularly pertinent in the wake of the foreign exchange debacle, where wrongdoing at Barclays occurred after the bank committed to eliminate misconduct in reaching a resolution of the LIBOR investigation with the US regulators.

The answers to these questions, however, are not clear cut. In a speech at the LSE last year, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Minouche Shafiq, questioned whether these compliance breaches in the financial markets were due to unethical behaviour of a few individuals (the bad apples) or whether there was a more systemic problem – the ‘barrel’ of the financial system itself being rotten to the core. Determining whether we are dealing with ‘bad apples’ or a ‘rotten barrel’ dictates the types of regulatory solutions required to address these transgressions.

Regulatory solutions – structure or agency?

Deciding whether to address individual conduct or implement more widespread, structural solutions reflects to some extent the ongoing sociological debate about the relationship between the individual and society. At one extreme, theorists who emphasise agency such as Weber, Parsons & Merton, contend that it is individual actions which bring about the patterns of social life. At the other, theorists including Marx and Durkheim claim that it is the structures of society that influence and determine individual action.

Relating this to financial misconduct, the structural view of society would suggest that we need regulatory solutions to deal with the structural problems within the financial markets. Measures such as the overhauling of benchmark rate setting and increasing transparency and accountability in the markets though regulations such as the European Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II have already been introduced. However, it is too early to tell whether these structural reforms have been effective.

A more agent-centric approach comprises regulatory standards and sanctions that target individual behaviour; laws that provide for individual criminal prosecution, reducing or removing remuneration incentives that drive excessive risk-taking activities and / or lifetime bans from working in the financial industry. Such responses, it is hoped, would deter individuals in engaging in wrongdoing. However, whilst there have been efforts to restrain the bonus culture in the City of London, their efficacy is questionable, given that the recent misconduct has occurred despite these new rules being in place. Similarly, to date, only twelve individuals in the UK have been charged with fraud offences with respect to LIBOR manipulation.

Bridging structure and agency by regulating “culture”?

Perhaps more promising might be regulatory solutions that attempt to bridge both individual behaviour and structural issues and get behind the more fundamental aspects of the financial system which drive (and allow) this unethical behaviour. Regulators and policy-makers have attempted this focusing on changing the “culture” of the financial industry. The Banking Standards Board has been established to promote ‘high standards of behaviour and competence’ amongst banking organisations and employees. The financial industry has also acknowledged that a cultural shift is necessary, see, for example, Andrew Jenkins’ plans for cultural transformation at Barclays. However, as a recent report by New City Agenda found, it is ‘clear that this journey towards a healthier culture is nowhere near complete. A toxic culture decades in the making will take a generation to clean up’ .

The issue here is that ‘culture’ is not problematized or defined. There are many and varied understandings of the term. Without having a clear idea of what culture is, it is impossible to create adequate prescriptions for cultural improvement. And, even when there is consensus about the meaning of culture, the report concludes that ‘you can’t regulate your way to a better culture’; the onus must necessarily be on the banks to transform themselves.

How can sociology help?

If changing ‘culture’ is problematic, and structural and individually focused solutions are insufficient, where else might we begin to look for solutions? I suggest  two ideas from sociological theory may prove more fruitful in addressing banking misconduct.

Social networks

Granovetter makes the important point that economic relationships are not abstracted from our social relationships. This embeddedness can have both positive and negative consequences. In this graphic, the Financial Times shows the social connections between a group of foreign exchange traders and their involvement, if any, in the Forex scandal. There is also anecdotal evidence that loyalties between these cross-industry tribal members are stronger than to the banks for whom they work. If this is the case, these traders will be more likely to transgress their employers’ codes of conduct, reducing the efficacy of regulatory solutions targeted at the individual organisational level. Thus, by attempting to understand the nature of these social networks, it might be possible to come up with novel cross-industry solutions to deter these various tribes from future transgressions

Normalised deviance

We could also attempt to understand how and why this type of unethical behaviour appears to be tolerated, even when there are suggestions that senior management were aware it was going on. The simple answer is that the goal of the financial industry is to make money, so a blind eye is turned to those who are using unscrupulous means to do so. However, the reality is likely to be more complex. Diane Vaughan’s study of the Challenger space disaster showed how deviant behaviour can become normalised within an organisation, to the extent that it can itself be the cause of accidents. Getting to the bottom of how and why such deviant behaviour in the banks became taken-for-granted may point to new avenues for the regulatory authorities to explore.

These are both ambitious projects but are worthwhile undertaking to be rid of the rotten barrels and bad apples that are far too prevalent in an industry that, in the public eye at least, has become a necessary evil.

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Feb 27 2015

Three Things a Year of Sociology Has Taught Me

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Frances Brill, who completed her MSc in Sociology in 2014, reflects on what she learned during that year.

Let me beginning by introducing my background and myself. I graduated from an undergraduate course trained in classical economics, law and normative urban planning processes. I spent the final year of my undergrad writing a dissertation on the intersection of class and gender and I was desperate to study Sociology. All of my friends are brilliant people who have worked very hard to get their degrees and their corporate jobs but as I was awarded my degree, I was unaware of how little I questioned the texts we read or the privilege I was surrounded by. A year in the Sociology department has changed me, it’s an ongoing process and I am not going to pretend I can fully comprehend my own privilege (or classical Sociology’s writing styles) but I am making progress.

1. The value of ethnography 

I am currently teaching second year physical Geographers their methods course. This means spending week after week debating whether ‘science’ in all its glorified ‘objectivity’ is superior to their human geography social science counterparts. I am making progress. The only reason I can debate with such determination and belief is my experience with social research methods in Sociology. My thoughts on qualitative and quantitative work are continually changing. With each new piece of work I try to strike a balance.

I learnt to love qualitative work this year though. A group ethnography project studying the Barbican opened my eyes to a whole host of challenges, including writing based primarily on qualitative observations. It was fun. I learnt a lot. Ethnographies, situating yourself in the middle- being totally immersed- is an incomparable experience that adds real value to research. Being subjective is not a bad thing and it does not undermine your work, refusing to acknowledge your subjectivity is and can.

I recognize the perceived failures of qualitative work, the idea numbers and ‘facts’ are indisputable. But more recently I have challenged this, not only can facts be easily manipulated but every element of the research that created them has some level of subjectivity. Rather, facts and stats can be used to shock and society has been taught facts and stats hold weight. Getting things changed, convincing people of a problem is helped by a few statistics. It’s all about striking a balance.

2. Neoliberalism is evil

I knew from the onset Sociology would change me. I warned those closest to me and I asked them to make sure I did not change too much. I think we would agree they have failed on their mission, or rather their mission has evolved. In developing my new views and moving on from my leanings there have been a number of challenges. By far the hardest topic to fully understand has been neoliberalism.

I tried my hardest to write in defense of neoliberalism, I questioned the alternatives and then, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, as the only person who could convince myself- I did. I convinced myself neoliberalism is not a good thing. I read Harvey, I read Wacquant. At the end of the day it was reading the original (neo)liberal texts that sold it to me: reading Friedman and Hayek and the other Chicago economists. I needed to separate the ideology and the practice. Too many times I stumbled around trying to work out how state supported financial institutions reconciled with Friedman’s dream of completely free markets. Embarking on a PhD with undercurrents of ‘neoliberalism is bad’ I think I have learnt not only the problems with neoliberalism but with the problems of lumping together different issues under the umbrella neoliberal discourse. Rather than treating the individual issues and seeing the slow changes on the ground there is a tendency to portray the global shift as a sudden unified wave of reforms. Realizing the intricacies involved and the politically grounded societal shifts are part of a pattern but one situated at a local as well as global level was key in my understanding.

3. Intersectionality should always be centre-stage

In the summer of 2012 someone I admire greatly asked me about feminism, whether I define myself as a feminist and my general thoughts on gender equality. Always keen to avoid speaking in an uninformed way I tried to deflect the conversation. Unfortunately we were away together for a month without the Internet, so there was no escape. A few days later, emerging with mixed opinions from Moran’s How to be a Woman I was (marginally more) ready for the conversation. Fast forward eighteen months and I have moved on: my shelves now support Skeggs, I’ve queued for hours to see Butler speak and I’ve written a ten thousand words on gender and class. In my academic work, having discussed intersectionality at length, I had failed to name it.

I took the Gender and Societies course with thirty-five other women and two men. Week after week we read readings lists an arms’ length long (even though only two or three were compulsory) and at the core of each topic was intersectionality. My understanding of gender inequality and its relationship with class, sexuality and race grew beyond comparison. Banded together by admiration for our professor, as students, we created an informal space on Facebook for sharing our ideas and extra-curricular readings. Outside of term time, activity levels shot up with everyone clearly having more time to pursue gender analysis of every news item. The solid combination of classic texts in seminars and the reactionary group of Facebook has kept my interest and reading on intersectionality alive as I move to study urban speculative processes. Part of this discussion has been on privilege and learning to acknowledge the privileges society has afforded me. I am more self-reflexive.

It was a rollercoaster of a year. I have learnt vast amounts and a lot of it came from my fellow students. I am still grappling with how to consolidate everything I want to achieve personally with my newly developed ideals. I will always respect the people who want to put their head down, work hard for the money they earn and want to earn money. I now understand and can justify my inherent dislike of Reagan, I can sit for hours discussing privilege and I am using qualitative methods for my PhD. A lot can change in a year.

Frances is now a doctoral researcher in Geography at UCL.


Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Feb 19 2015

Suspended between Armageddon and Immortality? A Sociology for the 21st Century

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Source: Jason Yan

The ‘Digital’ Panel (Photo: Jason Yan)

by Elena Denaro, PhD Student

The first evening of Cumberland Lodge kicked off to a roaring start: an inspirational opening presentation by Craig Calhoun (Director of the LSE) followed by our first panel session on ‘Digital Futures’ with a trio of professors: Lord Anthony Giddens (Former Director of the LSE), and the department’s own Judy Wajcman and Nigel Dodd. Despite the late hour, the room was buzzing with thought-provoking ideas; about the future of the world, the impact of technology, how social theory can help us address the problems of the present and future, and how sociology as a discipline could position itself in the future.

The tech triad driving the future of the 21st century

Anthony Giddens took us on a whirlwind tour of ‘digitalisation’: a phase he characterised as the most extensive period of technological advancement and change in human history. The impacts of the digital, primarily through the medium of the internet now best embodied by the smartphone, have already been pervasive and significant; for migration and communications (Giddens), but also for labour (Wajcman) and money (Dodd).

Giddens then proposed a triad of catalytic forces propelling us into a new world: the Internet, supercomputers and robotics. Much of our lives now depend upon Internet-connected supercomputers – our entire financial and monetary system, for example – and these supercomputers are already able to overtake us mere humans in many ways, from chess to musical composition. The potential consequences of continued advancements in these fields are substantial. Giddens reported a study suggesting that developments in supercomputers and robotics could lead to the loss of nearly 50% of the labour force – and given the creative capacity of supercomputers, it will not only be manual jobs that disappear.

However, the prospects are not all doom and gloom. Despite radical changes to our economic system stemming from increasing automation, humans are incredibly resilient and adaptable; in fact we rarely notice the extent to which automation has already changed our lives (Oyster cards ring any bells?). So we find ourselves in unprecedented times, in a ‘high risk, high opportunity society’, chiming with Beck’s work, which was lauded throughout the retreat.

Back to the future

All three talks referenced reactionary movements seeking to resist the digitalisation: from a revival of analogue as a protection mechanism (Giddens); to the growing rise of mindfulness, a desire for simpler times and a return to nature (Wajcman); to the metallistic view of money embedded in Bitcoin as a means of creating scarcity in digital abundance (Dodd). However, these ‘back to the future’ themes within the presentations rang deeper. Some of these digital shifts may actually reflect a modern take on older practices. The thinning of the lines between work-life and personal-life, between production and consumption (Wajcman) and indeed between the social and economic, is reminiscent of the pre-industrial age. Similarly, the move away from a monetary monoculture (a very recent and short-lived phenomena) to a pluralistic monetary system, is a return to a mode of multiplex money that extends beyond its historical plurality, entering the digital sphere as well (Dodd). Yet even within digital attempts to re-envisage our financial system, such as Bitcoin, the same inequalities play out, in fact to heightened degree. With Bitcoin we are talking not of the 99% but of the 99.9% (Dodd).

The paradox inherent within the phrase ‘back to the future’ is one social scientists should not shy away from. By acknowledging the problems with both extreme epochal thinking (as discussed in reference to patterns of social and economic inequality by Mike Savage later in the weekend), and with notions that nothing has really changed, we may unpick more nuanced understandings of the complex relationships between past, present and future. This will be crucial for critical, public sociology in the future, if it hopes to help address these problems, as well as understanding them.

Personal lives: digital worker or digital player?

Giddens argued that digitalisation is driving a revolutionary transformation in participation, all of which is happening within a very short timeframe and in a truly global way, as highlighted by the penetration of smartphones across the African continent. Through our smartphones we are constantly connected. Soon they won’t just be our calling and texting devices, our internet portals and social media access, but also our bank accounts and debit and credit cards (Dodd). They are progressively a larger and more crucial part of our identities (Giddens).

While many lament the increasing intrusion of work into our personal lives through our smartphones, Judy Wajcman aptly pointed out that the private-professional boundary is being loosened in both directions, allowing us to bring our homes to work, as much as we bring our work home. As the digital expands, it is not only the work-home boundaries that are being bent, broken and redefined: production and consumption too are blended into notions of ‘prosumption’. ‘Big data’ raises not only issues of personal privacy and security (Giddens), but as value creation is more and more embedded in the digital (think Facebook, Google and the like), serious sociological questions emerge around what is and is not work, and what should and shouldn’t be commodified (Wajcman). In the world of Bitcoin (Dodd), micropayments for micro-transactions of micro-value creation are a technical possibility, but are they a socially desirable one?

Reorganising society

With potentially drastic changes in the horizon, both social and economic, this opening panel at Cumberland lodge raised many important questions. As sociologists, we should cherish the opportunity to work on such rapidly changing worlds and harness the reflexive power of our discipline. Giddens concluded his presentation with my personal favourite, and definitely the most memorable statement of the weekend: the 21st century is “suspended between Armageddon and immortality.” On the brink of such a brave new world, we sociologists must hope to be there to document and analyse it, and maybe – dare we say – even to steer it.


Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Feb 17 2015

Feeding our sociological imaginations….

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Helen Traill, PhD Student, reflects on the annual Sociology retreat at Cumberland Lodge.

Walking in Windsor Great Park (Photo: Paz Concha)

Walking in Windsor Great Park (Photo: Paz Concha)

There comes a time at the end of January when the cold persists and London seems grey and dismal; when you can’t help but think grey, dismal thoughts. It is a good time to escape London for a weekend, and that’s part of what the annual Sociology department retreat to Cumberland Lodge offers. This year, our focus was on Using Theory in Sociological Research, as a complement to last year’s focus on methods. We were lucky to have a number of distinguished guests, but the value of the weekend goes much further than the experience of meeting with highly esteemed colleagues. Cumberland Lodge itself is very committed to educational work, and to be allowed to use it annually is itself a great boon to the department. But it also provided the most delightful setting–with a grand piano and grander staircases, a lot of antique furniture and tapestries, all in the peaceful setting of Windsor Park.

Friday was a bumper treat with two evening sessions that went on late into the evening. Firstly, Craig Calhoun opened with an amusing and provocative take on the purpose of theory in sociology. This naturally included a tribute to Ulrich Beck, for whom we held a minute’s silence on Saturday. Calhoun laid out three aspects of importance in the production of sociological theory. These were as the ability to surprise, to put form to that as yet unsaid; the ability to produce causal coherence, to tell a convincing and empirically viable story; and the ability to create an empirical toolkit. What was noticeable from many participants throughout the weekend was the way we returned to these ideas to draw a singular theme through the talks – allowing subjects as disparate as digital futures and the European central bank to feel thematically related.

We were also fortunate to have Antony Giddens join us, who on a panel with Nigel Dodd and Judy Wacjman, discussed the vagaries of the digital age – from our historically unique position (Giddens) through the ways it affects labour – particularly digital production (Wacjman) to digital currencies (Dodd) and the ways this might be a return to previous models of monetary systems, rather than the single currency system we have now. We thus all went to bed on the Friday with rather swirling heads – wondering if we did indeed lie poised “between Armageddon and immortality” (as Giddens claimed) and wondering what would come tomorrow, if tomorrow came at all.

Thankfully it did, and what Saturday highlighted – beside the variety of work across the department – was a lack of hierarchy. There was a distinct equality of meeting here – with Masters students questioning faculty, and staff and student alike wrangling with sociological theory. We heard from Mona Sloane on the urban design process and Paz Concha on the street food scene. Their work both draws on the urban assemblage as a construct, allowing them space to talk illuminatingly across their different fields. We also heard from Leon Wansleben on the sociology of Central Banks in our first morning session. Despite this diversity of topics, there was a distinct theme of capital in its different forms and it was one we continued in the later sessions.

Late morning, Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra and Mike Savage took us through their respective work on difficulties in financial regulation, and why regulators might be ill equipped, and Bourdieu and Picketty, with particular reflections on how we might be returning to Victorian levels of want.

Photo: Paz Concha

Photo: Paz Concha

Having spent the morning in deep thought, we had a few afternoon hours to wander the grounds of Windsor Park and wonder at the contradictions between the wealth of our surroundings and the recurrent ideas of inequality and difference. This certainly was put into stark relief later in the evening by Lisa McKenzie, but first we were lucky to host Nick Crossley from Manchester University talking to us about his work on relational sociology – particularly his work on punk and the networks which allowed it to flourish in London and later Manchester and other cities in the North. A theoretically engaged session, it was extrapolated in clear conversation with his empirical work, recalling Calhoun’s interest in producing an empirically viable toolkit – as well as for many, a surprising new approach to sociological theory.

Tara Quinlan followed, whose work on counter-terror was provocative and thorough. Particularly helpfully for those of us just starting PhDs, she outlined her rigorous and punctual process of getting to where she is now. The space the weekend created for all of us for admitting things like trial and error, rather than complete pristine projects for presentation in more formal contexts, enhanced the experience. This is not least because, in this kind of coming together, there is much more room for creating space for dialogue between sociological imaginations.

Consider Lisa McKenzie’s contribution – a documentary made in 1969 and directed by Stephen Frears about the St Ann’s district of Nottingham, a place where Lisa both lived and researched in her own ethnographic work. In providing us with this provocative visualisation of absolute poverty, we were forced to face more starkly the empirical reality that theorisation abstracts from. The most telling response to the original St Ann’s film was from Nick Crossley’s son: who’s suggestion that the rich just give the poor more money, because they obviously need it more, received a round of applause from the audience.

Our substantive sessions ended on Saturday, but we did spend Sunday talking about sociology – simply from a different tack. How best to establish ourselves as interested parties? How best to use the influx of digital communication to our advantage? A morning discussing social media and sociology – with leadership from Sian Lewin and Tara Quinlan – let us all use our everyday experiences, previous careers and natural curiosity to ask how best we can communicate sociology to the world. We thus ended the weekend on a soft, more reflective note; where we could consider our own contributions to sociological knowledge and the best way of presenting these, and our selves, to the world of social media.

What can’t easily be elucidated in a sketch of the weekend like this is the provocative way that sustained engagement with sociology creates engaged conversations and indeed has value beyond sharing ideas around the department and beyond. The intellectual kick from dinner-time chats recalls a more noble idea of what scholarly life looks like. But the context in which this happened couldn’t be ignored – we were taken care of all weekend, meals provided, spaces cleaned, coffee and tea on demand. Perhaps this raises provocative questions, but none more so than the way the context of Windsor Park (and Cumberland Lodge has a great many portraits of the royal family) contrasted with discussions of inequality. This gave me, for one, pause for thought.

Massive thank you to Elena Denaro and Georgia Nichols for organising, with lots of support from Mike Savage. Thanks also to all who gave talks.


Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Feb 10 2015

Successful Societies – “Self, Individualism and Moral Communities under Neo-Liberalism.”

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Personal Reflections on Successful Societies meeting, London, January 30-31 2015 by Mike Savage.

This blog reports on a fascinating seminar held at the end of January in London, part funded by my ESRC Professorial Fellowship. This seminar was an unusual opportunity to allow interchange between eminent European and North American social scientists to address the relationship between “Self, Individualism and Moral Communities under Neo-Liberalism.” The over-arching concern was to consider how profound neo-liberal restructuring has been associated with the remaking of personal identities and how we can thus better understand the links between change at the macro and micro level as they are occurring today.

A feature of this seminar was thus the opportunity to reflect on different traditions of North American and European social science for exploring these questions, as well as the differing approaches which can be found within psychology and cultural sociology. Given the weighty issues explored, no firm conclusions were reached, but a number of fundamental themes arose out of these discussions which will help set future agendas.

1: The power and social influence of contemporary capitalism. Craig Calhoun argued powerfully that the current capitalist crisis was historically the first which had not been accompanied by major socialist opposition. He suggested that capitalism had become a machine for creating externalities which entailed a lack not just of critique of capitalism itself but of its relations to politics and other social institutions. He reflected on the institutional success of capitalist corporations and the challenges this would pose for democratic futures.

2: The issue about how this current conjuncture was associated with a fundamental break in the nature of class relationships was addressed by several speakers, including Beverley Skeggs and Mike Savage. Here the argument was that in previous periods the working class played an important role in shaping democratic capitalism, but that this has been changed radically by economic transformation, globalisation, and especially the rise of the wealthy elites. The significance of the growing profile of wealthy elites was discussed by several speakers. The extent to which changes at the bottom end of the social structure were also changing the character of working class culture was also discussed through the input of Skeggs and Duvoux, both of whom emphasised the individualising and stigmatising forces exerted towards these groups.

3. A linked stream of reflections concerned the cultural aspects of the current neo-liberal conjuncture. Calhoun’s argument implied little or no place for a ‘cultural’ reading of capitalism because of the power of its economic and institutional forces. Other presentations had different emphases. Underpinning Peter Wagner’s reflections on the different trajectories of Brazil, South Africa and Europe was an interest in the changed conditions of modernity and self-understanding in different contexts. This allowed him to recognise the diversity of experiences in these experiences and resist arguments suggesting unilinear or global trends. Skeggs further argued that there has been a profound remaking of the ‘self’ so that working class individuals felt a loss of self and personhood, with the result that they were marginalised and stigmatised, though they could find alternative strategies for seeking to gain value elsewhere. This perspective was consistent with Nicolas Duvoux’s examination of how those in receipt of welfare spending often accepted and internalised this neo-liberal ‘subjectification’. Sam Pehrson helpfully pointed to the complexity of identification processes by which people might affiliate to social groups. All these contributors point in different ways to the limited class consciousness of those at the bottom of the income hierarchies.

4. These concerns were linked also to reflections on the significance of the nation state and the city in the current context of rampant neo-liberal globalising concerns. Adrian Favell introduced a discussion on the significance, desirability and generalizability of the British case where the European free market has allowed marked immigration which could be a precursor for economic dynamism. Savage complemented his arguments by reflecting further on the way in which the case of London allowed it to develop as a distinctive elite location. Pherson’s reflections on the lack of cross national evidence for any association between attitudes to immigration and national identity were striking evidence that national forces mediate in different ways. Savage raised the issue that these trends might amplify urban distinctiveness, as large metropolitan cities became vehicles for powerful emerging socio-cultural currents which aligned wealthy elites to powerful capitalist forces.

Several contributors reflected on what new kinds of politics might be engendered by these trends, although no consensus arose. There was widespread agreement that older class politics was weakened but different views about the viability of new forms of politics linked to the accentuation of wealth inequalities.


Successful Societies attendees

The Successful Societies Program is funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. For more details on its intellectual agenda, see the two collective volumes produced by the group: Successful Societies: How Institutions and Culture Affect Health; and Social Resilience in the Neo-Liberal Era. See also http://www.cifar.ca/successful-societies-timeline

Those members attending were:

Peter Hall, Senior Fellow, Program Co-Director, Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard University

Michele Lamont, Senior Fellow, Program Co-Director, Acting Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University.

Gérard Bouchard, Professor in the Department of Human Sciences at the University of Québec at Chicoutimi.

Margaret Frye, Global Scholar, Harvard

Peter Gourevitch, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies,

David Grusky, Senior Fellow, Director of the Center on Poverty & Inequality, the California Welfare Laboratory, and Recession Trends, Professor of Sociology, Stanford

Patrick LeGales, sociologist and political scientist, CNRS research director at the Center for European Studies at Sciences Po and professor at Sciences Po, FBA.

Will Kymlicka, Senior Fellow, Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada

Paul Pierson, Senior Fellow, John Gross Professor of Political Science University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Vijayendra Rao, Lead Economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank

Leane S Son-Hing, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Guelph


Prof Craig Calhoun, Director, London School of Economics

Prof Nicloas Duvoux, Paris Descartes

Prof Adrian Favell, Sciences Po

Dr Sam Pehrson, University of St Andrews

Prof Mike Savage, London School of Economics

Prof Bev Skeggs, Goldsmiths College, University of London

Prof Peter Wagner, University of Barcelona

LSE guests

Dr Sam Friedman, Assistant Professor of Sociology, LSE

Dr Daniel Laurison, Research Fellow in Sociology, LSE

Katharina Hecht, PhD student in Sociology, LSE

Tara Lai Quinlan, PhD student in Sociology, LSE

Bruno Baroboza-Muniz, PhD student in Sociology, LSE.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin Tagged with: , , ,

Jan 13 2015

Book Review by Philipp Degens: The Social Life of Money by Nigel Dodd

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SL Money 2

Money is ubiquitous. We all take money for granted – not in the sense of having enough money in our pockets or our bank accounts, but in the sense that we weigh objects, goods, services, claims, maybe even time in a monetary standard. We seldom ask ourselves what money is. Yet, especially in times of economic crisis, money does increasingly become the object of debate. Part of this debate takes place within conventional economic theory and focuses on monetary and fiscal policy issues. Beyond these issues, however, there are more fundamental concerns about the very nature of money, questions about the value of money, how it works and how it is sustained. These questions evoke perplexities that seem to render money almost incomprehensible.

Nigel Dodd, social theorist from LSE Sociology, explores the social life of money and tackles many of these questions in his new book. His book expands the discussion on money, particularly by linking it to a strand of thought that is commonly regarded as being external to a theory of money. Although his own approach is sociological, he draws on economic, philosophical, anthropological, linguistic and other disciplinary concepts. This way, Dodd permanently opens up and broadens our understanding of money. By doing so, he goes well beyond (orthodox and heterodox) economic theories of money.

The book covers a few key themes that I’d like to stress here particularly. Throughout the book, Dodd challenges the idea that there is or might be money simpliciter, or just one kind of money, and particularly that such money would be an objective ‘thing’ bearing value in itself. One of his key influences is Georg Simmel’s philosophy of money. Following Simmel, Dodd explores money as a “claim upon society”. Money expresses a form of debt between an individual and “society” as a whole. Dodd then further investigates issues rising from this notion, e.g. what is the basis for such claim? And what exactly is society in this sense? He argues, drawing on Keith Hart, for a flexible understanding of “society” that resembles the scale of a particular monetary form. It might be the state or even the nation, but it also might refer to a particular community of users.

The argument, in brief, is that money is not a thing, but a process. It consists of social relations. Just like Simmel emphasized the process of sociation (as opposed to society as something fixed or stable), Dodd holds a fluid view of money and focuses on the process by which money is actively (re)created by its users. It is not an objective entity, but it has social life which rests on, for example, its underlying political, economic, and social framework. Money is never independent of social and political relations, or of culture. It is based on trust and social values. In practice, it might be materialized in precious metal, paper notes, book entries, bits and bytes, shells or whatever form it takes – yet it still derives its value and its meaning from the social relations among its users.

Dodd takes many forms and kinds of money –past, present and imagined– into account. The fact that he conceptually accepts monetary pluralism paves the way for conceiving of multiple opportunities to re-imagine and re-organise money as a means of social progress. Whereas classical social thought on money tends to regard money as malevolent and highlights, by and large, money’s capacity to threaten and erode society and culture, Dodd explores money’s progressive potential. Money, this is one of the key messages, can be organised in a beneficial way, it can be used as a means to reach economic, social, or political goals. However, not one single form of money can serve all purposes at the same time. Dodd discusses various alternatives like, for example, time banks and LETS on a local level, yet also ‘global’ alternatives like bitcoin and freicoin. This openness to and curiosity for utopian and monetary reform concepts is one of the great strengths’ of the book. Dodd asks what such conceptions might offer for a general understanding of money, yet also what they might offer from a normative perspective, how money should look like. In fact, Dodd slightly favours a flexible monetary system with various forms and kinds of co-existing monies. For him, the solution to our monetary crisis is not to develop an alternative form of money, but to develop plenty.

This original and comprehensive book is organized in eight chapters, each of which deals with a particular category. These are origins, capital, debt, guilt, waste, territory, culture and utopia. While some of the themes (e.g. capital; debt, origins, territory) seem to be necessary ingredients of any book on money (although dealt with from different perspectives), others are rather unexpected. On a first glance, the reader might even be surprised by the titles of some of these chapters. Yet Dodd unfolds their key relevance throughout the book and gives plenty of cross references to guide the reader. The chapters on guilt and waste are probably best suited to exemplify the distinctiveness of this book and how it differs from most other works on money. Dodd offers compelling insights from psychoanalytical approaches which link money to excrement and the unconscious. Then, following Bataille’s concept of the general economy, Dodd invites us not to imagine scarcity, but surplus as the fundamental economic problem. Unusual as it is, such a conceptual shift allows for a new perspective on the Eurozone’s transfer union, as the discussion in the book exemplifies thoroughly.

Dodd writes with great skill. The style is compelling and one enjoys reading the book. At the same time, it is not an easy read. It is demanding, and it takes time to follow Dodd carefully. This is something that inevitably comes with the broadness of Dodd’s approach. Dodd raises questions even more than giving answers, and he draws on a huge range of scholars of which many are not commonly regarded when it comes to money.

Some readers might miss a narrower conclusion and/or a more formal synthetisation of the complex and original discussion. Yet Dodd does not aim to offer one coherent approach to money – on the contrary, he severely doubts that such an approach might even exist. As we have seen, just like money can take various forms, there are various theories on money all of which have something valuable to say. The book proves how fruitful and intriguing it is to take different perspectives and stances on this polymorphic phenomenon. Dodd rejects overly narrow concepts of money that theorize some monetary forms out of sight (e.g. neochartalist approaches focusing on money of account as the defining feature of moneyness). In this sense, the book is a strong argument for diversity in the theory of money.

To repeat: yes, the book is demanding. But it is far more rewarding. Some might not be inclined to accept every argument Dodd develops – yet for sure this brilliant book helps reconsidering views, opinions and theoretical claims on money that might be taken for granted too easily. It is a must-read for any scholar interested in the topic as it helps to better understand the nature of money –or, of monies. Also, surely many future in-depth case studies of particular forms of money will gain enormously from this work.

Philipp is a PhD student and research fellow in the Department for Co-operative Studies at the University of Cologne and spent Lent Term 2014 in the Department of Sociology at the LSE.

Dodd, Nigel (2014): The Social Life of Money. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 456 pp. ISBN 9780691141428, £24.95

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