Habermas, Civil Society and the Public Sphere

This blog is the second in a short series on the work of Habermas and issues that arise from it. The focus is on the notions of civil society and the public sphere and how these have changed as spaces of resistance and unrest.

Habermas’ early study of the rise of the bourgeois public sphere, initially in England in the eighteenth century and subsequently elsewhere in Europe, is well known (see blog ‘Introduction to Habermas’). The public sphere for him represented the public use of reason (as articulated by private individuals engaged in argument that was in principle open and unconstrained). It was a domain in which activities of the state might be confronted and subject to critique. The emergence of the public sphere was facilitated, first, by the rise of the periodical press and, second, by the establishment of new centres of sociability like salons and coffee houses. Habermas argued that this led to a greater accessibility and scrutiny of Parliament and a constitutional extension of rights of freedom of speech and expression. Over time, however, the public sphere experienced a decline (Habermas refers to its ‘re-feudalization’). In a review article in 1993 John Thompson summarized:

‘what was once an exemplary forum of rational-critical debate became just another domain of cultural consumption, and the bourgeois public sphere collapsed into a sham world of image creation and opinion management in which the diffusion of media products is in the service of vested interests’.

Thompson went on to object, however, that in ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’ Habermas:

  • neglected non-bourgeois or popular forms of public discourse and activity, some of them militantly opposed to bourgeois culture and practice;
  • overlooked prior historical examples, notably at the time of the English Civil War;
  • made too little of the absence of women (as feminists have pointed out, the absence of women was constitutive of the public sphere: it was juxtaposed to the private sphere in a gender-specific way);
  • exaggerated both the precipitous nature of the decline of the public sphere and the passivity of later recipients of media products.

These criticisms are certainly telling of Habermas’ original analysis, long since modified in some crucial respects. Yet some current commentators share his general pessimism. The literature of the late 1990s is replete with references to the near-disappearance even of what Oldenberg in ‘The Great Good Place’ called third places – that is, casual everyday meeting places like parades of shops and lauderettes – let alone civil society and the public sphere. Mayhew suggested that a new cadre of professional specialists, using market and promotional campaigns, have come to dominate public communication. He wrote of a ‘new public’, subject to mass persuasion through relentless advertising, lobbying and other forms of media manipulation.

While earlier concepts of civil society in particular, and the public sphere more rarely, were pitted against the power of the state, in his early and explicitly Marxist writings Habermas set them in opposition also to the economy. But by this time the public sphere of the lifeworld, to use his terms, had been substantially colonized by the subsystems of economy and state via their respective steering media of money and power. There is perhaps no gainsaying this conclusion. But there remains more to be said. There is space here for the raising of three sets of issues.

The first draws on an argument I made with the late David Kelleher. Habermas located civil society at the interface of the private and public spheres of the lifeworld. In ‘Between Facts and Norms’ he wrote that civil society consists of those ‘more or less spontaneously emergent associations, organizations and movements that, attuned to how societal problems resonate in the private life spheres, distil and transmit such reactions in amplified form to the public sphere’. We went on to suggest that two sectors of civil society be distinguished. What we called the enabling sector of civil society is located in, or derives its impetus from, the private sphere of the lifeworld. It is within the enabling sector that – as part and parcel of the ordinary day-to-day intercourse of the lifeworld (and typically in Oldenberg’s third places) – issues of potential concern arise and are often identified. The protest sector of civil society is located in, or is directed towards, the public sphere. It is within the protest sector that people come together, or are mobilized, in networks, campaign groups, social movements and other forms of association in pursuit of influence for purposeful change (third places are often salient here too). I still find this conceptualization serviceable.

The second set of issues concerns social movements. Habermas reluctantly concluded that even before the present era of what I call financial capitalism ‘old’ class-based movements had yielded territory to ‘new’ social movements. Producer society had been displaced by consumer society, and collective action had come to focus on issues of identity and belonging rather than material distribution. Along with others, like Susan Edwards, I think Habermas, less inclined to Marxism than in his earlier writings, has overstated the decline of class politics. In fact, in their excellent ‘Farewell to the Leftist Working Class’, Houtman et al show that class politics and voting remains alive and well but have been compromised by an increase in cross-cutting cultural voting. Anyway, class is far from dead even if class-consciousness is for the time being an unlikely precipitant of collective action.

In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-9 and the Arab uprisings, there occurred a series of transnational-to-local occupations, protests, campaigns and marches under the large and twitchy umbrella of a broadly anti-capitalist movement of movements. In the UK foci of discontent included the ending of the EMA, the tripling of student fees, the Health and Social Care Bill, benefit cuts, and corporate tax evasion and avoidance. One student activist told me that for all the anarchistic and other honed theoretical tendencies sheltering under the umbrella, most activists acknowledged that Marx was the ‘granddaddy’ of pertinent theory without espousing Marxism. In short, those we might call resisters, heterogeneous and smart, were clear and united about what they were against, but much vaguer about what they were for. This of course was both a strength and a weakness. It was also a scenario beyond old versus new social movements.

The final set of issues has been much debated – how to characterize today’s versions of civil society, the public sphere and social movements. Castells writes of ‘networked social movements’ in his ‘Networks of Outrage and Hope’. This is in acknowledgement of the rise of what he calls ‘mass self-communication’, based on horizontal networks of interactive, multidirectional communication on the Internet and, even more, in wireless communication networks. The movement activity of the last few years, he insists, have their genesis in structural economic crisis and deepening crises of legitimation. But they do not just arise from poverty or political despair. They have also been triggered by outrage against the brazen injustice of and by hope for change deriving from successful uprisings in other parts of the globe. These movements have, Castells posits, common characteristics. For example:

  • they are spontaneous in origin, usually sparked by indignation (typically, with seeds sown in the enabling sector of civil society);
  • they comprise ‘networks of networks’ (typically, moving into the protest sector of civil society, with decentred structures involving interaction between multiple nodes);
  • this horizontality of networks supports cooperation and solidarity while undermining the need for leadership;
  • they accomplish the transition from outrage to hope by deliberation (Habermas’ public use of reason) in autonomous or democratic spaces;
  • they favour non-violence (typically, using civil disobedience as a tactic of choice);
  • they become movements by occupying urban spaces (typically, local spaces globally connected);
  • they are highly self-reflexive;
  • they are rarely programmatic;
  • they aim at changing the values of society;
  • they are fundamentally political (typically, engaging in direct, deliberative democracy based on networked democracy;
  • they generate their own form of time: ‘timeless time’ (typically, living in the moment while opening up an unlimited horizon of possible futures);
  • they are ‘viral’, globally accessible and inspirational to others.

Of course I have done less than justice to Castells here; but he does in my view raise shrewd and highly topical sociological questions about civil society, the public sphere and social movements. It is within a frame ‘something like this’ that a contemporary theory and programme of research might be established. Things have moved on since Habermas addressed and then ceased to address such issues.

Twelve Favourite Living Medical Sociologists

I have yielded to the temptation to identify ‘12 favourite living medical sociologists’ for two reasons. First, it allows me to celebrate the work of colleagues I admire; and second, it will hopefully provoke a continuing debate about who does what, as well as what matters, in our volatile worlds of sociology and financial capitalism. Of course a dozen is too few (athough I mention a few more as I move down my list). It also carries risks: I do not for a moment want to upset or irritate those I have not included. Partly for this reason I have omitted London-based friends and colleagues with which my own career has been entangled, with one exception. I have been fortunate. My four immediate colleagues – David Blane, Ray Fitzpatrick, Paul Higgs and Fiona Stevenson – have each made a significant impact; and there are many others I hold in high regard. So ‘local’ luminaries like Mike Bury and David Armstrong miss out, as do candidates from the next London cohort, like Judy Green for example. I must add too that ‘favourite’ does not mean best, and that had my intellectual journey been different, so would my list. But enough of these preliminaries: here goes. As usual with my lists, names come in no particular order.

To my mind Mick Bloor is one of the best medical sociologists around (and I am using the word ‘best’ here with cool deliberation). A craftsman, he seems to possess a complete tool-kit of skills, slipping easily from theoretical or conceptual contributions to empirical enquiry, and from quantitative to qualitative and ethnographic research. Whether he is mining Berkeley’s philosophy to illuminate medical casts of mind, investigating the dialectics of street sex work and drug use, reviewing the literature on HIV or, latterly, exposing lifestyles, health risks and hazards at sea, his work shows sensitivity and judgement. Apprentices to professional medical sociology need look no further for their role model.

Kathy Charmaz is my second inclusion. She helped anchor the sociology of chronic illness in the 1980s and cemented it thereafter. But like most on my list she had other strings to her bow. Plus, sometimes, people’s commitment, diligence, charm and goodwill draw in others, and Kathy is a case in point. To complement her empirical studies she re-interpreted and enhanced Glasser and Straus’ ‘grounded theory’, not only by deploying it paradigmatically but by elucidating its underlying precepts and relaying and demonstrating its potential (as Rose Barbour has done for ‘focus groups’). As an editor I have to add that grounded theory is more often abused by researchers (‘how shall I fill in the methods bit: I know, I’ll call it grounded theory’) than it is used to positive effect; READ CHARMAZ!

Johannes Seigrist’s may be an unexpected name to read here. I must confess to liking him enormously and to gratitude for his encouragement via ESHMS to our journal, ‘Social Theory and Health’; but that is beside the point. Nor am I even put off by the Marmot-like socio-epidemiological nature of his work! In my books his Mertonian or middle-range ‘effort-reward imbalance’ theory is a core input into our understanding of what it is that mediates macro-social change and the micro-tragedies of lives interrupted by suffering’s circumspections. The deleterious and life-sapping impact of a sense of incongruence between efforts put in and recognition bites. In other words, I would personally welcome more research in this mould, studies that make more credible, even to non-sociologists, why and how it is that the lives of some are predictably encumbered and curtailed.

George Brown is my exception, a London-based sociologist with whom my career is irrevocably bound up. He was my Ph.D supervisor, and it is not his fault that it took me over 10 years to submit (times were simpler then, and I did other things during the lost decade). For me, ‘Social Origins of Depression’ (and I’m not forgetting Tyrril Harris here) remains a seminal work. His 1973 ‘Sociology’ paper on class and depression is a rare example of the elucidation of the mechanisms that link class and disease. But there was and is more to George than this. Rather like John Goldthorpe, I gather, every conversation is a challenge to up your game. His early work with John Wing on institutionalization may be by-passed now, and his occasional excursions into the mainstream, like his assault on grounded theory, also in ‘Sociology’, may be overlooked; but there is much to learn from the full range of his publications. As an apprentice postgraduate, having read his critique of grounded theory, I urged him to venture more often into the mainstream, but who was I to advise?

I admit to being peeved when Bruce Link heads towards stigma post-Goffman and takes the easy options of (a) confining himself to American sources, and (b) thinking it’s only about mental health. I guess US insularity apes the Victorian, English notion of centres of universes. But the reach of his work is extensive, as American colleagues know only too well. As well as directing us to the social structural substrates of stigma attribution, he early on authored a text on ‘fundamental causes’ that challenged the pygmies in sociology to take health inequalities seriously. He continues to combine theoretical perspicuity and empirical research.

Like me (and Mary Boulton), Ann Oakley did her Ph.D with George Brown. Her original study, reported in ‘The Captured Womb’, was a ground-breaker: she lent specific empirical substance to John Stuart Mill’s treatise on the subjugation of women (and J.S.Mills’ dad lived in my village of Mickleham, let me add). My first use of Habermas’ work – in 1987 – built on Ann’s research on pregnancy and childbirth. This was the beginning. It was her platform for a corpus of theory and research that insisted on medical sociology’s inclusion of (a) female practitioners, and (b) the substantive recognition of the marginalization of women and their health status. Sociologically and epidemiologically, this body of work was pioneering. As for her subsequent fiction, (auto-)biographical output and her feminist studies, these are for another forum.

Hilary Graham has always delivered. Along with many others, as a teacher I regularly cite her early paper on class, gender and smoking: what wonder women, diminished and starved of resources and hope and alone responsible for the welfare of their offspring smoke to get through the day? (I deploy Sally McIntyre’s noted study of GP’s stereotypes of pregnant women similarly). Hilary’s later book, ‘Unequal Lives’, epitomizes what professional medical sociology might and should put on the table (I would put Sara Arber into this category, especially on ageing). I have my qualms as an advocate of acknowledging the play of social structures on health and longevity, but Hilary’s text is an exquisite summary of the extant research literature.

Deborah Lupton has ventured onto new ground. I am no Foucauldian, but I can spot adventure when I see it (in part courtesy of London-based Durkheimian/Foucauldian consociates). Deborah has moved from pioneering exegeses on technologies of the self, governmentality and ‘risk’ in relation to health; to a sociological exploration of ‘fatness’; to exploring the parameters of the ‘digital’. She has been obdurately independent-minded and innovative. While I remain an apprentice to all things virtual, I am on a learning curve. A star on Twitter (@DALupton), I suspect she is pointing to a future beyond my remit and present capability. Colleagues, in my view, will have pick up this ball and either run with or come to terms with it. A Norwegian sociologist and friend, Aksel Tjora, regularly confirms this.

I recall having a coffee with Peter Conrad in Melbourne early one morning before attending a session at the annual ISA conference. He reeled off any number of prospective authors, referees and reviewers for ‘Social Theory and Health’ (which kicked off in 2003). People and things tend to revolve around Peter. His early work, with John Schneider, was on epilepsy, hence our knowledge of each other’s research. This interest in long-term conditions has continued but has been supplemented most notably by a very influential series of publications on social control via ‘medicalisation’ and its evolving ‘engines’. After the manner of Bill Cockerham, he has also spread the medical sociological word far and wide through key textbooks and anthologies. Watch his interview with Jon Gabe on the ‘Sociology of Health and Illness’ website (then switch back immediately to the ‘Social Theory and Health’ website).

Nikolas Rose is another Foucauldian, so what is he doing in my list? After a pint in the ‘Green Man’ in Mortimer Street he once told me he berated any Ph.D candidate at LSE (he’s at KCL now) who wanted to ask, let alone answer, ‘why’ questions (in my view sociology is about ‘why’ queries, not just Foucauldian curiosities about ‘how’). Well, he is included for his challenging originality. He was early onto Conrad-type interrogations of medicalisation, offering his own subtle tweaks. These tweaks edged him towards the idea of ‘somatic society’, which he elaborated in one of our ‘Social Theory and Health’ annual lectures. Like the others on this list, Nik’s work is not derivative, clearly another criteria for inclusion. We should not have to sign up to a paradigm or body of ideas to appreciate its inventiveness.

Gareth Williams’ work impacts on a number of different fronts. His writings in the 1980s spawned the concept of ‘narrative reconstruction’ (sibling to Bury’s ‘biographical disruption’, Charmaz’ ‘loss of self’ and my own ‘felt’ and ‘enacted stigma’). His current, longstanding programme of empirical research into ‘lay knowledge’ and action in the health domain, much of it conducted with Jennie Popay, is (a) independent-minded and innovative; (b) theoretically informed, albeit with a light and subtle touch; and (c) oriented to promoting and implementing effective policy change. A feature of this work is its use of qualitative methods to investigate phenomena like health inequalities; and he and Jennie have ploughed a lonely furrow. He is engaged too with the Welsh communities he studies. Like Jennie, is among the few in medical sociology to visit each of Burawoy’s four sociologies (even dipping a toe into a fifth, what I have called ‘action sociology’). Moreover he writes so elegantly.

Vicente Navarro’s place may be both predictable and unpredictable. He may be the leading international Marxist exponent of the political economy of health and health care, but is he original? Perhaps he has written too much (and too much in his own journal)? But he has for a long while been the lone, persistent voice of radical dissent, harassing policy-insiders like Marmot ‘to tell truth to power’. Moreover he has laid the foundations for the kind of neo-Marxist theory of health and health care, as well as of health inequalities, that I favour. David Coburn’s thesis against Richard Wilkinson’s psycho-social model of health inequalities, plus my own efforts, can be read as add-ons. Vicente, whom I met the once, as with Elliot Freidson in the company of Margot Jefferys in a taxi ride from York rail station to the Viking Hotel for an early MedSoc, has durability.

As I said, I have not considered close friends and associates in London for inclusion here, and clearly with a different career trajectory I would have met and/or read others. I can even now think of an alternative dozen names. Nevertheless, here are twelve medical sociologists whose work I greatly respect. As with previous lists, the invitation is to submit rival names. Maybe some of my alternative dozen will make it after all.

REF: ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’

Last time round, I was a sociologist in a laboratory-based Department of Medicine. Even before the RAE peeped over the horizon I was summoned by my HofD, whom I had not yet met during the several years of his tenure, to explain who I was and what I did. He was not overly harsh, agreeing to seek advice from my peers outside my university: after all, he could not judge my worth. He suggested in passing that I become PI on a small grant, say £1m or so, and think of publishing in ‘Nature’. Further down the line, with the RAE drawing closer, and notwithstanding positive input from a respected peer, I received an email from the university saying my record in ‘non-hospital-based clinical subjects’ (I think it was) was not strong enough and I would not be returned. I replied that I was equally inept at radio astronomy and music: I was a sociologist. I insisted that I either be sent a letter saying that I was not to be returned for strategic reasons, and that my record of work was in fact strong, or be returned to my own panel in ‘sociology’. The latter option was ruled out because my university does not have a Department of Sociology. The eventual compromise was that I be returned with a referral across to the sociology panel. I was, and remain, an anomaly, a sociologist in a medical school.

As the REF looms ever closer I am aware that a number of excellent and productive sociologists find themselves similarly disadvantaged. I know of friends and colleagues with enviable international reputations who have never been returned. Sometimes their Heads of Department do not understand what they do, or even why; sometime they are being forced into panels that are inappropriate; sometimes they are simply being discarded or left in a ‘dustbin’ category of miscellaneous, comprising the ‘research inactive’. Occasionally too, their work is being written off because theoretical output or ethnographic or qualitative research is beyond the ken of ignorant or dismissive line managers. I know of one colleague who was told in all seriousness that her work was ‘too scholarly’. RCTs or nothing, thank you very much.

The REF is doubtless a serious attempt on the part of serious-minded individuals to deliver a metric that affords a valid measurement of academics’ accomplishments and is therefore fair. But there are problems with and unintended consequences of this project:

  • it is intrinsically flawed, no such simple metric being possible;
  • it allows for over- and under-estimating academic worth (a number of past Nobel Prize Winners would not have met the REF submission requirements or those of their institutions);
  • it cannot handle anomalies, like sociologists in medical or dental schools;
  • it is open to abuse by universities, who rather than use discretion, can and do use the REF as a management device;
  • it exercises a corrosive surveillance over the research of academics many years in advance of its deadlines (by rating total research revenue over its products, and productivity in high impact journals over the contents of papers).

University authorities will reply that it is a game they cannot afford not to play. If vice-chancellors opposed it collectively of course, it would be game that was no longer played. But most line-managers feel stuck with the likes of the REF. They are charged then to insist on and use discretion. If they do not exercise discretion, if for example they abandon or maliciously define first-rate sociologists in medical schools as under-achievers, then they are guilty of symbolic violence. They are jeopardizing their careers and should be held to account. As has been made clear to me by senior management at my own university, which happens to have no Department of Sociology (and therefore no institutional return to the sociology panel), there is no excuse for not referring a sociologist to the sociology panel.

Historically, I have always had to fight my corner, but clearly numerous sociologists – and I know many others from across the full range of disciplines who find themselves in similarly anomalous positions, or for example teachers rather than researchers – are worse off than I have been. My university listened before the last RAE even if I had to shout loudly at it. I am aware that other universities, or their component parts, are not listening. It may feel like swimming against an irresistible tide, and it may be easy for me to say on the verge of retirement, but mechanisms like the REF must not be allowed to nudge scholarship into subservience. The REF may be an imprudent initiative, but it is also a calculated means to calculated ends; and those ends are to be found in a general re-commodification of higher education. But this is all basic sociology.

The Greek Games at Olympia

Watching an absorbing BBC4 programme on ancient Delphi brought back memories of a family visit to this magical, mountainous place many years ago. It was a trip that started in Aegina, involved picking up a rental car in Athens, and took us not only to Delphi but to Olympia and Corinth as well. Like Olympia, Delphi and Corinth were sites of significant sporting festivals, and I recall the excitement of wending my way up to see the stadia at Delphi and then, the icing on the cake, Olympia (there was less to see at Corinth). While the games at Olympia were the oldest, starting in 776 BC and surviving without cancellation at least until AD 261, the Pythian games at Delphi (in honour of the god Apollo) and the Isthmian games at Corinth (in honour of Poseidon) were both established in 582 BC. Together with the Nemean games (honouring Zeus), located at Nemea and dating back to 573 BC, these pan-Hellenic festivals comprised the periodos or ‘circuit’ games. The Pythian games took place every four years in even years between the Olympic games; the biennial Isthmian games occurred in Olympic and Pythian years; and the biennial Nemean games took place in the years in between.

I wrote about the ancient Olympics in my Sport and Society: History, Power and Culture (Open University Press in 2005), and I have been revisiting the literature for a new book, Sport and Society: Issues and Controversies (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming). It is instructive to compare the ancient games at Olympia with (1) de Coubertin’s Victorian, amateur ‘reconstruction’ of the Olympics, and (2) the Olympic movement in the professional era of financial capitalism. So although what follows is predominantly descriptive, a few pointers are included on what is now called the sociology of mega-events.

The site of Olympia was sacred long before the advent of the games. A local monument to Zeus, a vast ash altar, probably dates back to the tenth century BC. This ‘altar’ has been depicted as a huge mound in excess of 20 feet high, consisting entirely of charred bones and ashes from centuries of animal sacrifices. Only priests and diviners were permitted to ascend to preside over rituals, the central sacrifice to Zeus taking place on the morning of the third or middle day of the games and culminating in the slaughter of 100 oxen.

Originally, the sanctuary at Olympia was a rustic outpost, but it developed rapidly from the fifth century BC. The Temple of Zeus was completed in 450 BC, the 40-foot high statue it contained, designed by Pheidias and wrought in gold and ivory, being one of the seven wonders of the world. In the early centuries of the Olympic games the athletes used an open, level stretch of ground with a line scratched in the sand to mark the start (hence the expression ‘starting from scratch’). In keeping with the religious nature of the festival, the finishing line was close to the altar of Zeus. Spectators lined the lower slopes of the Hill of Kronos. In time a rudimentary rectangular stadium was built, but it was not until 350 BC that a state-of-the-art stadium with a capacity of 40,000 was constructed. By this time the games had an aura: athletes had become thoroughly professional in outlook and preparation and victors stood to become cult heroes. As if in acknowledgement of this transition, the new stadium was located outside the sacred precinct. The stadium track measured 600 Olympic feet, or 192.28 metres, and was of clay with a light covering of sand. I walked rather than sprinted its length with a degree of reverence during my visit. There were stone stills at each end to mark the start and finish of the races. It seems that neither the stadium nor the other buildings were much in use during the period between the games.

As for the games, the principal officials or Hellanodikai began their preparations 10 months beforehand. Numbering 10 over most of the games and chosen by lot, they resided in nearby Ellis. One acted as supervisor-in-chief, while the others divided responsibilities for equestrian events, the pentathlon and ‘other events’. The athletes were required to train in their home towns for 10 months prior to the games. For the final month they honed their skills in Ellis under the strict supervision of the Hellanodikai. During this unforgiving, no-nonsense final period the Hellanodikai disqualified the unfit, checked candidates’ parentage and Greek descent, and settled any disputes concerning the classification of boys and men, colts and horses.

Given the strictures around preparations, only the reasonably affluent could aspire to compete. Moreover women, slaves and foreigners were specifically excluded from participating. Women were also banned as spectators. They were allocated their own festival at Olympia, the Heraia, or games held in the honour of Hera. The games at Hera were held every four years and consisted of a single foot race, the track being shortened by one-sixth to approximately 160 metres. Winners were awarded crowns of olive like male Olympic victors.

Two days before the commencement of the games at Olympia the assembly of Hellanodikai and other officials, athletes and their trainers, horses and chariots, together with their owners, jockeys and charioteers, travelled the 58 kilometres from Ellis to Olympia. Meanwhile the spectators were arriving, their safety guaranteed by the Olympic truce, the terms of which were engraved on a bronze discuss kept in the Temple of Hera in the Altius. It forbade all states participating in the games to take up arms, to pursue legal disputes or to carry out death penalties. Initially lasting one month, it was extended to two and then three months to cover those travelling from further afield. While the truce did not eliminate all martial activity, it did suppress most local wars.

In a British Museum Publication in 1982, Swaddling paints a wonderful picture of Olympia’s transformation around the games:

‘Princes and tyrants from Sicily and southern Italy sailed up the river in splendid barges; ambassadors came from various towns, vying with each other in dress and paraphernalia. The rich came on horseback and in chariots; the poor came on donkeys, in carts and even on foot. Food sellers came loaded with supplies for there was no town near Olympia. Merchants flocked in with their wares. Artisans came to make figurines that pilgrims could buy to offer their god. Booths and stalls were set up; tents and huts were erected, for only official delegates were given accommodation in the magnificent guest-house known as the Leonidaion. Most visitors looked for a suitable spot to put down their belongings and slept each night under the summer skies’.

The religious nature of the sporting festival did not mean there were nocrown problems’, as the names of the assistants appointed by the Hellanodikai to police both athletes and spectators imply: the mastigophoroi, or ‘whip-bearers’, and the rabdouchoi, or ‘truncheon-bearers.

Passing reference has been made to types of Olympic event. In fact, the short foot-race of around 200 metres was the oldest event, and indeed the only event at the first 13 Olympiads. The winner was held in the highest esteem: not only was the Olympiad named after him but the list of victors came to be used as a lynchpin of Greek chronology (the only common denominator in a country where every city had its own calendar). Over time additional foot-races were included: the diaulos (from 724 BC) consisted of two lengths of the stadium (about 400 metres), and the dolichos (from 720 BC), the only long race, consisted of 24 lengths (just shy of 5000 metres). In both the diaulos and the dolichos athletes ran up and down the track and around turning posts at each end. False starts were punished by flogging, that is, until starting gates were introduced in the fifth century BC.

Initially athletes wore a type of shorts, but this practice was soon abandoned and they competed nude. Why this change? There are various theories: maybe it was because the shorts of an Athenian runner, leading at the time, came adrift and he was impeded; maybe it was down to Orrhippos of Megara, who lost his shorts altogether despite winning the short foot-race in 720 BC; or maybe Greek men just liked to parade their bodies (a short favourite).

The remaining track-and-field events familiar to us today were contained in the pentathlon, which comprised discuss, (long) jump, javelin, running and wrestling. The first three events were only found in the pentathlon, while running and wrestling commanded separate competitions. The pentathlon and wresting first made their appearance in 708 BC. Interestingly, documents survive on events’ victors but not on times, distances and so on. The Greeks were not bothered about records.

There is much more to be said on change over time, particularly in relation to the Roman takeover of the games, but this is a blog and I must content myself with an observation or two. The first concerns what we now know as ‘professionalism’. If the earliest of Olympia’s spectacles were religious and ‘fun’, if well rewarded fun, this was far from true of their successors. By the close of the fifth century BC commentators like Euripides were regretting the games’ usurpation by fanaticism, adulation and money. The pot-hunting ‘mercenary’ athletic career had arrived. Familiar? In many respects the ancient Olympiads were closer to, say, the modern/postmodern games post-Los Angeles (1984) than they were to de Coubertin’s very English-public-school fabrications post-1896.

Aristotle once compared combat between armed and unarmed men with a contest between professional and non-professional athletes. For the Greeks, ‘professional’ denoted serious commitment and diligent training, not payment (even the earliest Olympic champions were handsomely rewarded). It may be that prizes of value were given at Olympia prior to 752 BC, when the olive wreath was first introduced; after this date, although no money changed hands, there is no doubt that winners’ futures were secure. In 594 BC Solon passed a law that led to the awarding of 500 drachmas to winners at Olympia (and 100 drachmas to victors at the Isthmian games). One tongue-in-cheek calculation suggests that 500 drachmas in Solon’s Athens was equivalent to something like $338,000 in 1980.

Of course there are marked historical discontinuities (which the American sociologist of sport, Guttman, has endeavoured to summarize); but there are some parallels too, I suggest, between the ethos of the ancient games and the Olympiads of financial capitalism. In some respects, Jamaican short-race specialist Usain Bolt, self-proclaimed ‘living legend’, might have felt at home as a polis celebrity.

Scotts’ televised account of life focused around the oracle in Delphi sparked this blog. I recall being quite emotional as I slunk away and approached Olympia’s stadium (partly, I confess, because I slipped and splintered the best lens – of a Canon T70 – I’ve yet possessed). But don’t let anyone tell us that the study of ancient, or for that matter early/late modern/postmodern, history doesn’t matter. Resist the metrics and fight for history and for education.

Twelve Career-Nudging Books for a Sociologist

Lists can be enticing, but risky too. The list is of those 12 books that played a formative role in the development of my own thought, and it so happens that the authors are men. This is open to interrogation of course: my gender, the timing of my babyboomer’s career trajectory, my chosen interests, and so on. But the list stays.

The first book is Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I read during a summer break as a schoolboy working in a nursery north of Rustington in Sussex (I was sacked by the supervisor, a former German fighter pilot who spotted me deep in conversation and leaning on a shovel, but managed to talk him round and was subsequently reinstated). If I missed a lot in the 1500 pages, I also picked up an abiding sense of overarching historical and socio-cultural context and something also of the slow unfolding of social processes. It was not until I read Elias on: (a) the ‘civilising process’ (extending to sport, courtesy of Dunning), and (b) ‘The Germans’ that I came across a sociologist who adequately conveyed this. The historian Braudel does so too, although I read him much later. What Tolstoy bequeathed was a sense of what I would now call structural continuity even at times of all-consuming war and transition (as with Napoleon’s fated trek east into Russia). I could not have articulated this in my mid-teens, but memories lingered.

Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath had a more immediate and brutal impact. It was like a physical assault. I have little patience with those who pretend that only writers of fiction, novelists and poets, can communicate the ‘true meaning’ of social phenomena like poverty. But I was still a sixth-former and yet to encounter the pioneering investigations of Booth, Rowntree and the like, let alone those of sociologists. What Steinbeck did through Tom Joad and his kin’s trek westwards to California was detail the pain, hopelessness and despair that near-absolute poverty can, maybe must, induce (plus the need to organize to resist). Poverty beyond the relative remains in the USA and is threatening to return to Britain in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-9. Sociologists are now in the mix, although we seem for the most part better at documenting than explaining (the likes of Bourdieu, Wacquant and a few others excepted).

I read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as a first –year undergraduate and, like War and Peace, I absorbed it as if by osmosis. Gadamer writes of the ‘fusion of horizons’ that compliments any encounter, whether face-to-face or with a book, painting or piece of music: encounters change us, if only a little and often in ways beyond our ken. It is a wise analysis. Certainly a number of the books included here changed me in ways I can only begin to interpret retrospectively. What the later Wittgenstein did, of course, was take much of traditional philosophy away from professionals (‘let the fly out of the fly-bottle’). He rehabilitated ordinary everyday language-use, recognising its complexity and subtlety and decrying the academic impulse to tidy it up. I was never tempted either to tidy him up into an idealist or to follow Winch into a philosophical displacement of social scientific enquiry. Wittgenstein remains the only genius I have read to date and a constant reminder of the socially constructed nature of the worlds we inhabit. On Certainty is for me a rival to Philosophical Investigations for inclusion here.

The fourth book is Aron’s Main Currents of Sociological Thought, which Penguin conveniently published in two cheapish volumes in the 1960s. Prior to Giddens, this was the most compelling exposition and critique of the ‘masters’ (female sociologists still being invisible/suppressed). Little did we know at the time that Aron had become a Gaullist ‘reactionary’ and antagonist to Sartre and Merleau Ponty. His books nestled, library-like, by our bedside tables as constantly accessible resources. And he was thorough and good, which is why he makes it onto my formative list.

Schutz’s Phenomenology of the Social World is perhaps a surprising item. I never saw it as an application of the phenomenological philosophy of Brentano or Husserl, but rather as an attempt to deepen, or re-scaffold, the Weberian project. Weber aspired to incorporate subjectivity into an objectively compelling sociology. How can we hope to understand/explain social action in the absence of an empathic taking of the role of the other? Schutz’s analysis proffers a philosophically-informed sociology. It is stunningly rich conceptually: innovation trips over innovation. Underpinning many of them is the distinction between first-order and second-order typologies. The challenge for the sociologist is to discover a second-order (scientific) route to those Wittgensteinian lands we occupy via our first-order classifications. There are multiple worthwhile follow-ups in his volumes of Collected Papers.

I signed up to my Ph.D in 1972, my topic the stigma associated with adult epilepsy, my supervisors Tony Hopkins (neurologist) and George Brown (sociologist and Margot Jeffery’s colleague at Bedford College), and my sociological authority, Erving Goffman. I suspect the first book I read was Goffman’s seminal work on stigma. But that is not my choice here. Somehow or other I moved on to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. If Schutz provided one set of conceptual tools, Goffman set his stall by another. His contribution was the more empirical. In those halcyon days when he could sit in Chicago cafes and observe, think (often a shorthand for theorizing) and invite his students to do likewise have long since passed; but he established the parameters for ‘(symbolic) interactionism’.

C. Wright Mills authored more than one influential work. I imbibed his counsel on the sociological imagination but it was The Power Elite that most affected me. It was not to bear any fruit for a number of years (see my ‘class/command dynamic’ and ‘greedy bastards hypothesis’ in relation to health inequalities), but this is frequently the way with the planting of seeds. The Power Elite opened my eyes to power. I regard many of the subsequent critiques of C. Wright Mills’ research as either crass or suspect. Empirically inconclusive? Theoretically non-decisive: class versus elite theory? Bollocks: he did far more than add grit to the sociological mill. The lessons have yet to be fully absorbed by twenty-first-century sociology. Some of my own work represents a modest return on his in-your-face-Marxism (plus, he did ride his motor bike into his department).

Freidson’s Profession of Medicine was my toll-gate. I remember sharing a taxi and conversing with him and Margot Jefferys en route to a fledgling annual ‘MedSoc’ conference in York. His US-Sorokin award-winning book theorized what had become my sub-discipline. It represented a coming together of conflict theory and interactionism. Not just the sequelae of labelling, but the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of labelling. Here was an account of the rise and ramifications of western biomedicine that incorporated a critique of the Parsonian structural-functionalist orthodoxy of the day and in 1970 gave shape and content to what for many of us in the UK was a new sub-discipline.

Roy Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science was, I suggest, more radical than is commonly thought. Like Popper before him he has remained on the margins of professional philosophical discourse. I read him in the mid-1970s and was impressed enough to invite a medical student intercalating a B.Sc in Sociology to précis his book for a seminar (which he did brilliantly, leading to a six-hour seminar concluded in ‘The Green Man’). Bhaskar rescued ontology from epistemology and rehabilitated it. His ‘Possibility of Naturalism’ extended his philosophy to the social sciences, but for me it was his initial offering that sparked a new train of thought. It took two decades for me to experiment with sociological analyses – on health and sport – informed by critical realism.  I am fortunate enough now to see and talk to him regularly.

The late Frankfurt critical theory of Jurgen Habermas has taken a number of forms. The ideas that influenced me most – the lifeworld/system dichotomy and the notion of the colonisation of the former by the latter – were synthesised in his two-volume Theory of Communicative Action. Ironically, this conceptual frame informed by thinking before Bhaskar’s philosophy took root. I will explore Habermas’ theories in detail in other blogs so can be brief here. But the comprehensiveness of his synthesis is remarkable: on offer are critical expositions of all the major sociologists on a spectrum from Parsons/Luhmann’s systems theory to Mead’s interactionism; and they are readable in their own right. A corollary: Habermas is not as original as some, Foucault for example, his excellence resting in his novel revisiting of others’ work (I can’t resist adding that Mead published next to nothing in his lifetime: what a loser).

Weight of the World is more than a gripping title. What Bourdieu (and his team) accomplished was an amalgam or dialectic of theory and research of the kind I would aspire to if I had the time, energy and nous. What I love is the book’s very construction. Maybe it’s a homage to Wittgenstein, but it suits my temperament to ‘mix up’ authorship, reflection, theory, documentary statistics and hands-on research. Potential collaborators, please apply. This is a long book catching, Steinbeck-like, the desperation of Algerian-Parisian abandonment. It’s eloquence makes you want to weep at times. This is the alpha and omega of sociological research, the highest common denominator of evidence-in-the-face-of (or evidence-informed) policy.

I have read Margaret Archer’s critical realist-oriented sociology for a while. An educational sociologist as well as a theorist, I encountered her (with effect, Gadamer again) via Bhaskar. Over the last year or two I have explicitly picked up on her notion of types of reflexivity to address what I regard as a neglected issue within the sociology of health inequalities: a credible sociological grasp of the role(s) of agency. It was her 2007 book on Making Our Way Through the World that set me off. So far, I have published two of a planned trilogy of contributions (a chapter in my ‘Contemporary Theorists and Medical Sociology’ and a paper in ‘Sociology’, just published online). The third is being drafted even as I blog.

This is a very personal list. I recall reading Lewis on conventions: it could all have been so different (not any-old-how, but different). I am sure there is a sociology of texts-for-careers on offer here. Who reads what, why and to what effect? This is in itself a classed, gendered, ethnic and age-related problematic. As ever, any and all comments are welcome.


A Chronology of Social Formations

A few years ago I used to run a special option for medical students on social change in modern Britain. It was a bit like the general studies we had to take in the sixth form at school, intended to broaden outlooks. While my focus was on the volatility of the present, it is not so easily separated from either past or future, and I liked to start with an historical reference or two. One year I asked the group of 15 or so when the European Renaissance occurred. After a longish pause one student volunteered ‘the 1920s’. My expression must have revealed a certain disappointment because another quickly chipped in with ‘no, the 1930s’. These highly intelligent students were victims of a lack of education, having specialised too much too soon (as indeed I had done in the late 1960s).

Historical timelines are two a penny in bargain bookshops these days. Less common are chronologies of social formations. How many sociology students have an informed sense of the unfolding of the history of societies? There are tensions between historians and sociologists in these matters of course, the former as suspicious of social structure as the latter are of agency. To serve my group of students I culled a chronology of sorts from various sources, but mainly from the work of historical sociologists. It may irritate specialists but it seemed to meet a need at the time and I reproduce it here in case it is of interest. For myself, I find such chronologies useful mapping devices. I end with a paragraph or two on the present.

From the beginnings of the Neolithic revolution, occurring around 8000-3000 BC socio-political evolution encompassed four principal stages:

  1. Bands – small nomadic groups of up to a dozen hunter-gatherers; democratic and egalitarian (close to Marx’s ‘primitive communism’);
  2. Tribes – similar to bands except more committed to horticulture and pastoralism, ‘segmentary societies’ comprising autonomous villages;
  3. Chiefdoms– autonomous political units under permanent control of paramount chief; centralized government with hereditary, hierarchical status arrangements; ‘rank societies’;
  4. States – autonomous political units; centralized government supported by monopoly of violence; large dense populations characterized by stratification and inequality.

3000 BC witnessed the emergence of fully-fledged agrarian states, displaying a number of core characteristics and remaining the predominant form of social organization until around 1450 AD. These core characteristics can be summarized as follows:

  • A division of labour between a small landowning (or controlling) nobility and a large peasantry; this was an exploitative division backed by military force;
  • The noble-peasant relationship provided the principal axis in agrarian societies: it was a relationship based on production-for-use rather than production-for-exchange;
  • Differences of interest between nobles and peasants, but not overt ‘class struggle’;
  • Societies held together not by consensus but by military force;
  • Societies relatively static and unchanging: there was a 4500-year incubation period prior to the advent of capitalist states.

The transition to capitalism took place in the ‘long sixteenth century’, that is, between 1450 and 1640. Marx saw this transition as of major significance, noting three vital characteristics of the new capitalist system:

  • Private ownership of the means of production by the bourgeoisie;
  • The existence of wage labour as the basis of production;
  • The profit motive and long-term accumulation of capital as the driving aim of production.

It is customary to discern reasonably distinct stages of capitalism. Thus a transition to ‘merchant capitalism’ is typically dated from 1450 to 1640, followed by a period of consolidation and solidification, characterized by slow, steady growth between 1640 and 1760. 1760 is often cited as a marker for a switch to ‘industrial capitalism’, which is itself often divided into stages:

  1. 1760-1830 – textile manufacturing dominated by Britain;
  2. 1830-1870 – railroads and iron dominated by Britain and later the USA;
  3. 1870WW1 – steel and organic chemistry, with the emergence of new industries based on producing and using electrical machinery, dominated by the USA and Germany;
  4. WW1-1970 – automobiles and petrochemicals, dominated by the USA;
  5. 1970 onwards – electronics, information and biotechnology, dominated by the USA, also Japan and Western Europe.

Notes on the Present: Modern/Postmodern, Modernity/Postmodernity

Some have seen 1970 as the beginning of a new era of post-industrial or financial capitalism (I have now adopted the term financial capitalism in publications and in previous blogs). Others have defined this same era or stage of capitalism as postmodernity, implying the end of a prior era of modernity. These remain disputed terms, but I have arrived at my own tentative resolution.

By common consent the advent of the modern can be dated from around the time of the (English) industrial and French revolutions; more precisely perhaps, it dates from the European Enlightenment towards the close of the eighteenth century. It has less to do with capitalism than with:

  • the emergence of a secular, universal reason, promising:
  • a scientific understanding of the natural and social worlds, leading to:
  • a steady and ineluctable progress towards the ‘good society’.

Modernity as a social formation, on the other hand, has come to be identified with the progressive economic and administrative rationalization and differentiation of the social world. More specifically, it is associated with:

  • the nation-state, embedded in an international system of states;
  • a dynamic and expansionist economic system based on private property;
  • industrialism typified by Fordism;
  • the growth of large-scale administrative and bureaucratic systems of organization and regulation;
  • the dominance of secular, rationalist, materialist and individualist cultural values;
  • the formal separation of the ‘private’ from the ‘public’.

Postmodernity signals the replacement of the idea of the modern by that of the postmodern, plus the arrival of a new social formation. Many associate the idea of the postmodern with the demise of the Western or Eurocentric Enlightenment project, arguing against the latter’s flawed foundationalist defence of universal reason, rationalist metanarratives and broken promises. Considered as a social formation, postmodernity is typically associated with:

  • the declining importance of the nation-state and nationalism;
  • a growth in supra-national bodies;
  • a globalisation of markets and communication systems;
  • a concurrent process of ‘re-tribalisation’ or displacement of national by local political and cultural loyalties;
  • a shift from mass to segmented production, primarily oriented to consumerism;
  • new post-industrial or post-Fordist ‘flexible’ work patterns;
  • the increasing salience of the mass media and information technologies;
  • shifts in the social production/circulation of knowledge;
  • the superceding of ‘old’ class-based politics by ‘new’ social movements around lifestyle and identity;
  • a fragmentation, diversification and relativization of culture commonly seen as liberating.

For my own part, I remain reluctant to write of the death of modernity and birth of postmodernity. Indeed, I prefer the term ‘high’ to ‘late modernity’ when analysing the present. I see a lot of continuity (as well as some discontinuity) at the level of social structures. On the whole I now favour writing of a new stage or phase of capitalism, financial capitalism. When writing of cultural change post-1970, however, I have allowed myself to write of a thoroughly relativized ‘postmodern culture’. I see this postmodern culture, after Habermas, as a form of neo-conservatism, and as disinhibiting rather than liberating. I also believe, like Habermas again, that a reconstructed (post-foundationalist) Enlightenment project must be and is possible. But I am putting the cat amongst the pigeons now I suspect.