In Building Better Societies: Promoting Social Justice in a World Falling Apart, editors Rowland Atkinson, Lisa Mckenzie and Simon Winlow make a compelling moral case for the social sciences to challenge the prevailing neoliberal climate based around profit-making and individualism. The book’s central message — that the notion of the social needs to be reclaimed and restored for a better society — makes this a relevant and timely addition to the literature on social justice, recommends Olumide Adisa.
Building Better Societies: Promoting Social Justice in a World Falling Apart. Rowland Atkinson, Lisa Mckenzie and Simon Winlow (eds). Policy Press. 2017.
This new book from a collection of social scientists, edited by Rowland Atkinson, Lisa Mckenzie and Simon Winlow, presents critical arguments for what is needed to make society better. Building Better Societies: Promoting Social Justice in a World Falling Apart has a simple message—being in favour of the social (‘prosocial’) means valuing communal bonds not as mere connections, but rather as mechanisms through which we can attain development and fulfil our potential together. No doubt, the perspective of the book will be intriguing to anyone that is for society, but it also begs the question: do we need another book on social justice? The answer seems to be yes. The text largely makes a compelling case for the betterment of society and charts a credible way forward for how we might best achieve this.
In setting the context, the accounts in this book paint a rather depressing picture of inequality in contemporary British society: low-income households have been hardest hit by government cuts to services and the social welfare structures associated with the fabric of a tolerant Britain will become a thing of the past—indeed, the introductory section of the book appears to suggest that they already have.
Building Better Societies takes an unapologetic stance against neoliberalism—in short, neoliberalism is largely to blame for all our troubles. But the book also makes a moral case for social scientists to care again: to be bold and courageous in our ideas that may often be at odds with a climate of profit-making, individualism and careerism. It positions itself as the sociologist’s conscience in a world of social science that has become more commercialised and less in touch with proposing solutions for those who are marginalised.
The book is divided into three parts—problems, ideas and futures—with the three editors writing the first and last chapters to underpin the main purpose of the book and to conclude it, respectively. The book includes a brief historic account of how contemporary British society has descended to its current depths. It traces a journey from a post-war social-democratic era (where collaboration and community were celebrated in the development of a welfare state that saw a generation enjoying security, stability and togetherness) to a period of marketisation that has led to the erosion of a caring welfare system.
Image Credit: (Quinn Dombrowski CC BY SA 2.0)
In my view, the strongest chapters are Chapter One by the three editors, which makes a splendid case for the prosocial movement, and Chapter Two, authored by Iain Wilkinson, which critiques C. Wright Mills’s ‘The Sociological Imagination’ and makes a case for Jane Addams’s ‘Doing Sociology’. Here, Wilkinson asks ‘how should sociology hold public relevance?’ and sets the scene by presenting statistics on inequalities. He further argues that sociology has lost sight of ‘social’ questions and has become ‘morally neutralised’. As a result, the impact and sway that sociology holds, particularly in caregiving settings, have been limited. In Wilkinson’s mind, political activism ought to be better entrenched within public sociology.
The prosocial argument is further contextualised in Chapter Four authored by Mckenzie. The author makes a compelling argument that social goods, such as education, social housing, state pensions and child benefits, have always been important to working-class people. But with neoliberalism, gains from the post-war consensus have been rolled back and these social goods are no longer guaranteed for those at the bottom of society.
Chapter Seven by Deborah Warr, Gretel Taylor and Richard Williams is a pleasure to read in its discussion of creative practice as a way of examining issues prosocially and embedding them within research designs. Drawing on their research on arts-based activities in low-income neighbourhoods, the authors demonstrate an innovative way of doing social research that combines sociology with creative practice. Similarly, Chapter Eight by Kate Pahl and Paul Ward further builds on the prosocial ethics agenda by exploring ways in which co-producing research with local communities ensures that community knowledge is embedded within social research designs: this can help foster social inclusion and a greater understanding of the diversity within communities.
The book does not present itself as an objective critique but rather as a useful reminder that we need not separate our passionate selves from doing good public sociology and that adhering solely to strict academic conventions stifles our voices as social researchers. By doing so, the narratives in the book are largely inclusive and accessible.
To conclude, the book’s prosocial arguments are primarily built on moral grounds. To the converted, this book is a balm to the moral soul of sociology. And to the sceptics, dare I say hard-core neoliberals, the book’s dependence on morality to drive home its points could be misunderstood. The extent to which the ideas in this book can gain traction is greatly dependent on how quickly our society recalibrates itself to reconnect with values that foster collaborative human behaviour. When one takes a cursory view of recent political events that are dangerously shaping how we treat each other and social values, this book is relevant because it offers a different way of thinking and a simple message—that the notion of the social needs to be reclaimed and restored if we are to have a better society. This book is a well-timed addition to the social justice discourse and should be read by everyone.
Note: this review was published on LSE Review of Books.
About the reviewer
Dr Olumide Adisa is a Research Associate at the University of Suffolk. She is an economist and sociologist and her cross-disciplinary research experience straddles both disciplines. As part of a multi-disciplinary team, she undertakes qualitative and quantitative research around welfare issues affecting vulnerable groups. She also teaches and contributes to research methodology courses.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.