sociology

The holiday of exchange value

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/04/2020 - 8:23pm in

Many markets are on hold, as societies such as ours fight the pandemic. But how else might things be valued, and how much of that alternative could survive when economic normality returns?

 

The primary economic fact about the coronavirus crisis is how it has brought existing class divisions into much sharper light. The New York Times expressed things most succinctly:

A kind of pandemic caste system is rapidly developing: the rich holed up in vacation properties; the middle class marooned at home with restless children; the working class on the front lines of the economy, stretched to the limit by the demands of work and parenting, if there is even work to be had.

For those of us who find themselves in the middle of these three categories, there is a mixture of deep frustration with the monotony of the situation, with relief and gratitude that we do not find ourselves confronting the hazards of those in the third of them. None of what I write here discounts how many people remain locked into capitalist markets (especially in the United States), only now with their health on the line. But it remains worth reflecting on how the world looks once market-based exchange is no longer the primary yardstick of value, as many people have been doing from across the political spectrum.

The starting point of the ‘new’ economic sociology that developed out of social network analysis in the United States during the 1980s, around the example of Harrison White and the landmark papers of Mark Granovetter, was that markets aren’t ’embedded’ in society (as Polanyians like to argue), but that markets are social institutions. Granovetter showed this most famously with labour markets, but any market is amenable to this approach, and the emergence of ‘social studies of finance’ in the late 1990s was also indebted to the ‘new’ economic sociology, via Michel Callon.

The social character of markets has become visceral and undeniable in 2020. The physical act of buying groceries has become fraught with risk of contagion between buyer and seller, and amongst themselves; the social nature of markets for entertainment, food and drink has meant that entire small business and cultural sectors have had to be closed down, at least temporarily; anyone who can avoid ‘going to work’ now does so. The crisis has made it impossible to ignore that the exchange of goods for money, and of labour for money, bring people into often sustained social contact with one another. For this reason, it has had to be cancelled, limited or digitised wherever possible. As a result, we have been shown quite how far things were from 1990s  predictions of ‘virtualism’ and ‘the death of distance’, though are also now belatedly hastening their advance.

Because markets are social, and not as neo-classical economics imagines, they have had to be ‘furloughed’. With the caveat of where I started, this has created the surreal experience and spectacle of exchange value – the value represented by the price system – going on holiday for a while. Marx argued that commodities (things which are produced solely to be sold) exert a kind of mystical hold on our consciousness, resulting in a situation where we come to believe that material things possess greater autonomy than human beings. But with many spheres of exchange suspended, this spell is briefly broken: things and humans are now on an equal footing, albeit equally trapped. This is witnessed both in consumption and production, with some undeniably positive effects.

Beyond exchange

For those middle classes “marooned at home with restless children”, the overwhelming question is what to do with all this time, when it can’t be used on going out, consuming and forms of social exchange. Streaming and video games pick up a lot of the slack. But other alternatives to consumerism have had to be found, which often morph into production: cycling, baking, gardening, creative activities. During this exchange value holiday, in amongst the tedium and the stress, I occasionally find myself feeling unexpectedly moved by or grateful for something ordinary and free but nevertheless valuable: a piece of music on the radio, good weather, the new blossom on the trees. The environmentalist demand that we abandon consumerism for post-materialist or ecological values is being heard more widely. The tragedy of being unable to use public parks fully is especially hard to bear at this time.

Then there is the question of how to value work, once the labour market is no longer the main basis for the distribution of social recognition, and the state has effectively nationalised much of it. Capitalist societies are now virtually united in recognition of the fact that workers in essential services, such as supermarkets, postal, care work, utilities mainteance and above all health, have been taken for granted and underpaid for too long. The distinction between these jobs and many of the ‘bullshit’ ones that David Graeber criticises now appears plain. Pay differentials can be debated and criticised more openly and widely under these circumstances, and it seems a uniquely good opportunity to raise the question of progressive tax increases on income and wealth, as Thomas Piketty has sought to do over the past few years. For the time being, there is a palpable sense of solidarity between public and ‘essential’ workers, and it is worth trying to remember how it feels.

It’s not just markets that have lost their grip on society, but instruments of neoliberal modernisation as well. The most significant of these is clearly the ideology of welfare reform, which since the 1980s has assumed that the key problem facing the welfare state is ‘dependency’ and fraud. Where the typical claimant is morally framed as lazy and deceitful, that shapes the entire architecture of the benefit system, and was pivotal to the justification of austerity from 2010 onwards. But with that moral imaginary destroyed (at least for the time being), other ways of conceiving mutual dependence and vulnerability come to the fore, as witnessed in the widespread demand for a universal basic income. Once ‘dependency’ and fraud cease to be non-negotiable problems to be solved (because dependency is universal, and fraud vanishingly rare), new vistas open up for policy reform.

In addition to this, it has also struck me how parents have responded to primary school closures (I think secondary schools may be a different issue for various reasons). Amongst the considerable difficulties of being stuck at home with small children, finding them things to do, supporting them emotionally and so on, nobody I know has expressed any real concern about their educational progress. This is partly a middle class privilege, of feeling confident that one has enough time and informal ‘cultural capital’ to sustain one’s child, but it also reveals that a great deal of the ‘progress’ established in primary schools under neoliberalism is of relative value, not absolute value. It is all about measuring children relative to their classmates and measuring schools relative to other schools – i.e. it’s about competition, not flourishing. When the competition ceases for a time, there is no intrinsic concern for a child’s well-being, indeed there may be opportunities to expand a child’s horizons beyond the demands of SATs.

But this exchange value holiday still leaves two questions unresolved. Firstly, what will be the valuation scheme that fills the void? And secondly, how much of that valuation scheme will survive, when the holiday ends?

Capturing use value

Many have made the analogy between the present crisis and wartime economies, where market values (prices) are subordinated to use values. The example of the First World War indicated to the Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath that ‘calculation in kind’ (focused on the qualitative of things) could be more efficient than monetary calculation, spawning the ‘socialist calculation debate’ that later inspired the development of new, neoliberal defences of the free market. A similar precedent is being set today, where medical equipment needs producing at a rate that the market will not support. It places huge strains on state capacity to manage aspects of production and distribution that it has spent much of the past fifty years trying to distance itself from.

Alternatively, James Meadway has suggested that the problem is the opposite of that presented by war. War required an escalation of overall economic production (leading to new interest in GDP, as an indicator of collective potential), whereas the difficulty now is to de-escalate or de-mobilise people. It’s the switching off of most of the economy that is the central policy challenge. But even so, this still casts a critical perspective on the problem of what and who do we need, while the hiatus is underway. Some version of ‘socialist calculation’ is required, whether we are trying to put far more people to work in the national interest, or far fewer.

For the time being, the definition of ‘essential’ services and work has emerged fairly haphazardly, as one would expect. We all recognise we need to eat and be kept alive. Children and the infirm need to be cared for. From this kernel of instinct, a clumsy sort of new political economy has emerged. What’s happening is the fleshing out of a Polanyian vision that many on the Left (such as Nancy Fraser) have been asserting with increasing vigor since the Global Financial Crisis. See, for example, CRESC’s 2013 Manifesto for the Foundational Economy, which sought to build outwards from those services (in public and private sector) which we cannot do without and cannot be off-shored.

Alongside this, there really ought to be a yet more vigorous challenge to the levels of inequality in a society such as Britain. It’s now well-known that, once their needs are met, people start to care more about status (a relative measure) than absolute welfare, and that life satisfaction ceases to correlate to income above around £70,000. It’s also known that comparatively rich people can feel just as aggrieved (and Brexit would suggest even more so!) by the relative gains of those above them, as poor people can. For these various reasons, a smaller spread of income inequality produces less resentment overall. Instead, inequality should be sufficient to reflect some differentials in social status. This issue was confronted by Robin Blackburn when considering the future of socialism after communism, where he argued that entrepreneurship is entirely conceivable in a society organised around social need: “In a generally egalitarian socialist society quite small differences of pay could be quite highly valued by certain individuals.”

Then there is the rediscovery of Adam Smith’s basic insight, later abandoned by economics, that if markets are social institutions, then they must also be moral institutions. Once one’s attachment to a local pub, sole-trader or shop is represented in social terms, then it also comes to appear like one of mutual dependency and sympathy. Everything that economists consigned as ‘externalities’ to the price system is suddenly essential to our economy. For the time being, the obligation to keep paying people where possible, regardless of such crude concepts as ‘consumer satisfaction’ or ‘value for money’, has become a moral norm. Sympathy for the check-out assistant or the bin collector has become normalised. Amongst everything else, we are witnessing the boundary between charity and the market, the gift and the exchange, dissolving in all the ways that economic anthropologists have long tried to point out.

There is, however, a rival system, that one shouldn’t bet against. This is provided by a combination of the platform economy with the generalised forms of credit rating, that Michel Feher sees as the accidental achievement of neoliberalism. The new architecture of digital surveillance that has been built over the past 15 years means that it is technically possible to quantify the ‘value’ of individuals, independently of their market value as wage laborers. The dystopian statist version of this is the Chinese ‘social credit score’; the dystopian capitalist version of it is extreme financialisation, in which all social behaviour is judged in terms of what it reflects of an individual’s ‘credit-worthiness’. Either way, moral reputation (honesty, industry, citizenship, you name it) can be rendered calculable, once data is being scraped from all manner of interfaces without limit.

In practice, we can already see how dependent we are on platforms such as Amazon, Whatsapp and Facebook, and how much more dependent we become once non-digital markets and spaces are restricted. These are truly social utilities, which ought in principle to make them targets for collective ownership. But with their unprecedented calculative and surveillance capacities, they also offer a corporate-led alternative to neoliberalism (as I discuss in this paper), which renders ‘social value’ calculable in the ways that Neurath hoped socialism would do in the 1920s, but which free marketeers have always denied is possible. Platform social-ism is an entirely viable future model for our economy, which may alleviate a social crisis but exacerbate a democratic one.

When the holiday’s over

We probably all recognise the feeling of being on holiday and planning a new start upon returning. I’m going to write a novel! I’m going to get into avant-garde music! I’m going to start volunteering! Unlike many holidays, the current crisis will not leave everything as it is, but we should be wary of trusting our present affective states, hopes and critiques as a guide to the world that will emerge in due course. One of the only certainties is that it will be collectively poorer, at least financially, for most liberal democracies. The fact that the state becomes more active during an emergency tells us nothing about whether that activity is desirable or how it will behave afterwards.

But there are small sources of hope nevertheless. Firstly, this talk of ‘essential workers’, clapping the NHS and new way of seeing low-wage service sector employees will leave some kind of residue. One of the more useful insights provided by behaviour change experts is that behaviours often drive norms, not the other way around – if you ban smoking in public places, people then become more anti-smoking in their attitudes. The present emergency has forced a vast behaviour change programme upon the country, through closing schools, restaurants and public events. Any change of norms is happening in its wake. This means that the difference between the bus-driver (risking their life for £10.20/hour) and the advertising exec (producing fake needs for twenty times that) is writ large in actions, and not merely being spoken of.

The fact that elite liberal institutions, such as The Financial Times, are now expressing views that border on socialism will also be significant. Unlike the stream of nonsense that emanates from Donald Trump, these sorts of statements can’t be so easily denied or reversed in the future. At the very least, they (alongside the current emergency labour market policies) will become markers or data-points that can be used in the future, making it impossible to argue that certain policies are ‘nice but unrealistic’. Ideologies work by presenting themselves as non-negotiable. Once they’ve been shown to be malleable, the logic of ‘no alternative’ ceases to work rhetorically.

Equally, a vast number of people suddenly understand more about their own dependency and vulnerability, in ways that will have been stressful and therefore unforgettable. This isn’t to say that this is ‘good for people’, far from it, but simply that attitudes towards things like the welfare state and taxation could conceivably shift in a way that is more forgiving of people’s weaknesses. The visceral and local dimensions of this crisis mean that it isn’t merely a matter of ‘ideas’ and ‘policy’, and the way out of it won’t be found through some shift in intellectual hegemony (of the sort that led to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s). Nor is the pain easily contained in specific groups (such as students and benefit claimants, as George Osborne sought to do after 2010). The market will eventually return as one of the central ways in which people engage in public space and public life, but the monopoly of exchange value over social values may be a little harder to restore.

The post The holiday of exchange value appeared first on Political Economy Research Centre.

Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 5: 2010s

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 05/03/2020 - 1:22am in

In this, the last post in our series of underappreciated writing of the past 50 years, we turn to 2010-2019.


[painting by Anna Matykiewicz]

As before, please suggest articles, chapters, and books you think have not received the attention they deserve, noting briefly why you chose them. Is it an innovative solution to a philosophical problem? A synthesis that breaks a stalemate? The discovery of a new question? A particularly beautiful way of putting matters? Ahead of its time? Simply a solid but overlooked contribution to the literature?

In addition to commenting on this post, please note that suggestions are welcome on the previous installments in the series:

Thanks for your contributions to this series!

The post Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 5: 2010s appeared first on Daily Nous.

Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 4: 2000s

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 27/02/2020 - 12:40am in

Our series of posts on underappreciated writings of the past 50 years moves to the 2000s.


Y.Z. Kami, “Blue Dome I” (2008)

What works published from 2000-2009 are not as well-known as they should be, or not read as widely as they ought to be, or not adequately recognized for whatever it is you think makes them valuable—their contribution to a philosophical discussion, their opening up of new topics, their inventiveness, their style, etc.?

Again, here is an excerpt from the original post in this series:

A valuable philosophical work may get overlooked because it was published in a lesser-known venue.  Or perhaps it was published in a part of the world or in a language that those in the mainstream tend to ignore. Perhaps sociological aspects of the profession concerning dominant writing style preferences or attitudes about the prestige of the author’s institutional affiliations led to its dismissal. Maybe it was ahead of its time, speaking to issues or presenting ideas or arguments the significance of which was only recognized much later. Maybe it was appreciated in its time, but somehow got lost in the crowd of publications since…

It’s not an exact science, of course, judging both the significance of the work and the extent to which it is currently appreciated. I encourage people to err in ways that are more inclusive, as it’s better to hear about something you’ve already heard about than to miss out on hearing about something new (to you) and good.

Name a work you think fits the bill in the comments, and when you do so, please include a line or two about why.

And feel free to add more to the previous posts in the series:

The post Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 4: 2000s appeared first on Daily Nous.

Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 3: 1990s

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 19/02/2020 - 1:17am in

Continuing our series of underappreciated philosophical writing of the past 50 years, we turn now to the 1990s.


[Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, untitled, 1999]

Again, I’ll include some text from the post that initiated the series:

A valuable philosophical work may get overlooked because it was published in a lesser-known venue.  Or perhaps it was published in a part of the world or in a language that those in the mainstream tend to ignore. Perhaps sociological aspects of the profession concerning dominant writing style preferences or attitudes about the prestige of the author’s institutional affiliations led to its dismissal. Maybe it was ahead of its time, speaking to issues or presenting ideas or arguments the significance of which was only recognized much later. Maybe it was appreciated in its time, but somehow got lost in the crowd of publications since…

It’s not an exact science, of course, judging both the significance of the work and the extent to which it is currently appreciated. I encourage people to err in ways that are more inclusive, as it’s better to hear about something you’ve already heard about than to miss out on hearing about something new (to you) and good.

Please comment with your suggestions for philosophical work published in the 1990s that you think should be more widely known or getting more recognition, along with a line or two about why.

You’re also welcome to continue adding suggestions to the 1970s and 1980s posts.

The post Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 3: 1990s appeared first on Daily Nous.

Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 2: 1980s

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 1:31am in

Last week we began a decade-by-decade series on underappreciated philosophical writing of the past 50 years.

Today, we turn to the 1980s.


[Mary Heilmann, The Thief of Baghdad, 1983]

It might be helpful to repost part of what I said last week:

A valuable philosophical work may get overlooked because it was published in a lesser-known venue.  Or perhaps it was published in a part of the world or in a language that those in the mainstream tend to ignore. Perhaps sociological aspects of the profession concerning dominant writing style preferences or attitudes about the prestige of the author’s institutional affiliations led to its dismissal. Maybe it was ahead of its time, speaking to issues or presenting ideas or arguments the significance of which was only recognized much later. Maybe it was appreciated in its time, but somehow got lost in the crowd of publications since…

It’s not an exact science, of course, judging both the significance of the work and the extent to which it is currently appreciated. I encourage people to err in ways that are more inclusive, as it’s better to hear about something you’ve already heard about than to miss out on hearing about something new (to you) and good.

Readers, let’s hear your suggestions for overlooked, underappreciated, or insufficiently known philosophical writings from the eighties, along with some brief remarks as to why you think they’re worth drawing attention to.

(Of course, you’re also welcome to continue to add to the 1970s post.)

The post Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 2: 1980s appeared first on Daily Nous.

Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 1: 1970s

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 07/02/2020 - 12:28am in

Not everything notable gets noticed, and that’s true in philosophy, too.


[David Hammons, Body Print (1975)]

A valuable philosophical work may get overlooked because it was published in a lesser-known venue.  Or perhaps it was published in a part of the world or in a language that those in the mainstream tend to ignore. Perhaps sociological aspects of the profession concerning dominant writing style preferences or attitudes about the prestige of the author’s institutional affiliations led to its dismissal. Maybe it was ahead of its time, speaking to issues or presenting ideas or arguments the significance of which was only recognized much later. Maybe it was appreciated in its time, but somehow got lost in the crowd of publications since.

Over the next few weeks, I hope gather lists of underappreciated philosophical writing of the past fifty years. These are articles, books, and book chapters that today’s philosophers are not adequately recognizing as valuable.

It’s not an exact science, of course, judging both the significance of the work and the extent to which it is currently appreciated. I encourage people to err in ways that are more inclusive, as it’s better to hear about something you’ve already heard about than to miss out on hearing about something new (to you) and good.

To keep things manageable we’ll break this project into decade-long chunks. This week, let’s look at the 1970s. Readers, please share your suggestions of underappreciated works from that decade. In addition to the title and author of the work, please include a line or two about what makes it worth appreciating.

The post Underappreciated Philosophical Writing of the Past 50 Years, Part 1: 1970s appeared first on Daily Nous.

Call for Papers: From Economic Rationalism to Global Neoliberalism?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/05/2016 - 3:49pm in

From Economic Rationalism to Global Neoliberalism?

A Workshop for Early-Career and Postgraduate Researchers

RMIT, Melbourne, Fri 2nd December, 2016

Hosted by The Australian Sociological Association’s (TASA) Sociology of Economic Life thematic group and Centre for Applied Social Research, RMIT

CALL FOR PAPERS

Pusey bookThis year marks the 25th anniversary of Michael Pusey’s seminal text of economic sociology, Economic Rationalism in Canberra. Pusey’s book helped instigate a national conversation and publicised the concept of ‘economic rationalism’. It was ranked by TASA as one of the 10 most influential books in four decades of Australian sociology and described by The Age as a ‘celebrated analysis of how economic rationalism came to dominate policy making in Canberra’.

Today, the idea of ‘neoliberalism’ has entered into widespread use in the academy, society and social movements, evoking many of the free market, anti-statist notions critiqued in Pusey’s work. Despite short-lived claims that the 2008 global recession would bury neoliberalism, the politics of free markets and austerity seems as dominant as ever, in Australia and globally. Moreover, scholarship and debate about neoliberalism has exploded in the last quarter of a century.

In this context, this workshop offers a chance for emerging scholars undertaking studies of neoliberalism and economic rationalism, as it manifests in Australia and globally, to present their research at a day-long event in Melbourne. Held the day after TASA’s annual conference in Melbourne, this workshop will offer Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students and Early-Career Researchers (i.e., within five years of their PhD award) the chance to present their research in a supportive environment of peer-to-peer discussion and mentorship from leading scholars, including Michael Pusey who will read papers and provide extensive feedback.

We invite abstracts of 100-150 words and a brief (i.e., 50 words or less) biographical note, which should include reference to your HDR/ECR status. Authors of accepted abstracts will be asked to submit full papers of between 4000-7000 words (double-spaced) including tables, notes and references. We welcome research that focuses on any aspect of neoliberalism or economic rationalism within sociology as well as cognizant disciplines such as political science, political economy, geography, etc. Accepted papers will receive critical feedback by a senior scholar (who will also act as discussant) and at least one ECR/HDR peer at the workshop. Authors of accepted papers are expected to make a brief presentation of their paper at the workshop.

We plan to submit selected papers as a special section for the Journal of Sociology or a similar journal in the field (where they would be subject to the normal refereeing process). Please note that, as we cannot offer financial subsidies for participants, we particularly encourage those presenting papers at the 2016 TASA conference to submit papers for this workshop. (Note that TASA conference abstracts are due by 17th June, 2016 – for details, visit http://conference.tasa.org.au/).

Authors of accepted papers will be expected to be available for the full day of the workshop. We welcome papers exploring the following, and other, topics and questions related to the theme of the workshop:

  • What is the nature of economic rationalism and neoliberalism today, in Australia or elsewhere?
  • Are economic rationalism and neoliberalism the same thing?
  • Should we understand contemporary economic policy making as a form of zombie economics?
  • Is the term ‘neoliberalism’ useful?
  • Is there a distinctively Australian variety of neoliberalism?
  • How has the nature of the market, individuals, and society changed since the late 1970s?
  • What are the implications of relying on markets and money to measure values? What happens to values when they are translated into a form that is legible to markets?
  • Have economic rationalism and neoliberalism been successful? In what ways?
  • Is it correct to argue that neoliberal economic reform represents a political project that shifts income and power to corporations and elites?

Please submit abstracts, following the specifications above, to tom.barnes@acu.edu.au or elizabeth.humphrys@uts.edu.au (co-conveners of Sociology of Economic Life thematic group, TASA) no later than Mon 27th June, 2016. (Authors of accepted abstracts will be asked to submit full papers for peer review within approx. 2-3 months of notified acceptance.) If you have questions, feel free to contact us.

The post Call for Papers: From Economic Rationalism to Global Neoliberalism? appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).

#TASA2015 and the Case for Political Economy in Our Sociological Imagination

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 08/02/2016 - 8:30am in

In 1959, C. Wright Mills coined the term ‘sociological imagination’ to illustrate how sociologists can provide unique insight via a broad analysis of the social. Via this critical process, we can remove ourselves from everyday life, seeing the social in the personal. The 2015 TASA (The Australian Sociological Association) conference focused on neoliberalism and how it has affected the Asia-Pacific. Through stepping back and thinking “ourselves away” from the milieu, we approached this problem via many sociological frameworks that addressed a variety of structural, agential, empirical and theoretical topics. However, over the course of the conference, I could not help but notice a succinct trend within each of the presentations. Despite the diversity of the lenses being used to view the issues at hand, we were mostly discussing the systemic problems of a late modernity that overly favoured elite interests and economic rationalities.

Let me explain this via some examples. First, Professor Eva Cox opened the conference powerfully with her message of hope and rebellion, arguing we need to underscore the social in the social sciences in Australia and calling sociologists to participate in a more critical role in this time of curtailing choices and truncated meaning. To address worsening social inequality and fracturing futures, she suggests a return to big picture sociology that dares to visit what Jurgen Habermas calls utopian thinking (in a time where utopian thinking has been exhausted). We as sociologists have been robbed of utopia as an ideal – in other words, the dominance of neoliberal rationalism has seen us accept caveats and half-measures which represent the desires of Economic Human more than the needs of a civil society.

Second, in a session for the Cultural Sociology thematic group, several diverse topics were approached; however, it was the contemporary cultural framing of work that underscored how neoliberalist ideals have infiltrated career narratives. Dr Sarah James examined the popular idea that work needs to be ‘meaningful’ more than necessarily lucrative; and furthering this, Fabian Cannizzo studied how academics describe their work as being driven by ‘passion’ and their relationship with university management’s neoliberal imperatives.

Third, in a session for the vibrant Family, Relationships and Gender thematic group, Michelle Dyer discussed how international development discourse is strongly underpinned by neoliberal economic rationalisations. She studied how women’s empowerment in developing countries is presented as salvation for the entire nation – and how women are dually represented as victims and saviours. It is worthwhile looking at Nike’s www.girleffect.org as this campaign is an exemplar of Michelle’s argument. This mythos ignores the reality of gender relations in developing countries and also avoids any critical reflection how such campaigns are smokescreens for the wider structural issues such as the effects of unethical corporate practices.

What these presentations and topics have in common are the permeation of market ideals and rationality into the discourse of everyday life. Some of the papers, such as Michelle’s, examined the localised effects of neoliberalism in places such as the Solomon Islands; but also considered the wider international political economy of the problem. In this paradigm, tribal peoples grieve the loss of land, the loss of their cultural heritage and self as business buys what they see as valuable real estate for future profits and growth. Using our sociological imagination, we must consider the two very different worldviews and realise that the two ‘ways of seeing’ are incongruous. Furthermore, using political economy, we may also think of how current global power relations, economics and dominant norms feed into this problem. The perspective of subaltern peoples is drowned out by the drone of bulldozers logging their sacred forests. The profit motive is hegemonic and for now, it prevails. What is a sociologist to do?

The Sociology of Economic Life roundtable on the Thursday afternoon generated some practical answers and critical reflection upon some of these problems. Dr Tom Barnes addressed some dominant myths of neoliberalism and then, adding to this, Elizabeth Humphrys discussed how neoliberalism unfolded in Australia. Rather than being a product of the Right, in Australian contexts, neoliberalism emerged from the 1980s Labor government and the Unions with their Prices and Incomes Accord agreements, which gradually saw the introduction of economically rational ideals and a whittling down of labour. At the conclusion of the session, Dr. Dina Bowman provided an important perspective that we need to make ourselves available: to NGOs, to business, wherever sociology is needed.

I took a lot away from #TASA2015. I felt inspired and revitalised. My economic sociological Ph.D. work looks at how luxury consumption and economic inequality may interact. I lean towards critical theories and I unashamedly indulge in utopian thinking. I love William Morris’ ‘News from Nowhere’ and my copy of Marcuse’s ‘One Dimensional Man’ has been read more than a few times. I agree with Eva. We need to reconsider grand theory and sociology as activism. We need to think about political economy in our sociological analysis – because the neoliberal economic rationality is everywhere. As Fabian Cannizzo argues, it even saturates academic governance and the very work we do. In order for us to address the snowballing issue of neoliberalism encompassing and enlarging, we must see these problems as an urgent call-to-arms – to use our positions to make ourselves useful to society and to not shy away from challenging the status quo.

Thursday, 18 June 2015 - 2:12pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 18/06/2015 - 2:12pm in

On a whim, I decided to read C. Wright Mills' The Sociological Imagination, and am very glad I did. I had aquired - rightly or wrongly - an impression from textbooks that this was a pretty dry staking out of academic turf, bit it's actually quite a jolly table-thumping call-to-arms against bad academic practices and (for want of a better word) thinking. This exerpt is from a chapter taking the work of Talcott Parsons as its example, but it's not hard to think of many more examples one could point to since the book was published in 1959(!):

The basic cause of grand theory is the initial choice of a level of thinking so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts. This absence of a firm sense of genuine problems, in turn, makes for the unreality so noticeable in their pages. One resulting characteristic is a seemingly arbitrary and certainly endless elaboration of distinctions, which neither enlarge our understanding nor make our experience more sensible. This in turn is revealed as a partially organized abdication of the effort to describe and explain human conduct and society plainly.

When we consider what a word stands for, we are dealing with its semantic aspects; we we consider it in relation to other words, we are dealing with its syntactic features. I introduce these shorthand terms because they provide an economical and precise way to make this point: Grand theory is drunk on syntax, blind to semantics. Its practitioners do not truly understand that when we define a word we are merely inviting others to use it as we would like it to be used; that the purpose of the definition is to focus argument upon fact, and that the proper result of a good definition is to transform argument over terms into disagreements about fact, and thus open arguments to further inquiry.

The grand theorists are so preoccupied by syntactic meanings and so unimaginitive about semantic references, they are so rigidly confined to such high levels of abstraction that the 'typologies' they make up - and the work they do to make them up - seem more often an arid game of Concepts than an effort to define systematically - which is to say, in a clear and orderly way - the problems at hand, and to guide our efforts to solve them.

What he said.