In this exchange originally posted on the Goldsmiths website, our editor-at-large Bev Skeggs discusses the contemporary Sociological Imagination with her former Goldsmiths colleague Les Back.
Bev: Tell me, what do you think is the politics of the sociological imagination now, in the contemporary?
Les: Well, I still think what’s significant and relevant in Mills’ formulation of that idea is connection to, or connection with a sense of unease to people and problems, disquiet about the world and our relationship to our most intimate as well as our most public experiences of being in the world. About the formulation of private troubles, and it doesn’t have to be troubles in the social problem sense of the word, but something that’s disquiet, that doesn’t, doesn’t square, doesn’t sit right, and a kind of lack of certainty about all the things that other people are so certain about. It can be about discomfort. I think sometimes often people come to sociology with an incredible sense of discomfort or dislocation. I have something within myself, you know, a discomfort, a disquiet sense of not quite fitting in place or being out of place, or even being confined or suffocated by the place in the world that one occupies, you know.
Bev: So it’s about a complete lack of ontological security ?
Les: It can be, sometimes students are absolutely suffocated by that lack of ontology. Of a sense of, you know, ‘I just don’t fit in this world’…
Bev: Or know how to? On a tangent, this is very interesting in terms of Bourdieu’s habitus, because he had the model of subjectivity, which is about fitting dispositions to positions, and I’ve always thought it was highly problematic because I think most people just do not fit the fields into which they are positioned. It’s a theory of adaption that does not work for me.
Les: And in a sense he was betrayed in his own biography. It is a sense of being displaced; being displaced not only from the world he enters in the Ecole Normale and all that whole world that he described in Homo Academicus, but he also doesn’t fit in the world in which he identifies so strongly.
Bev: Or the history of the postcolonial in Algeria. That’s a strong telling of not fitting.
Les: Exactly. And it’s interesting that, you know, in way that what he does is that he ends up trying to make sense of that postcolonial dislocation. The fact that he served in the colonial army, although he was, you know, kind of castigated and persecuted in the army itself in many ways. He doesn’t quite fit but he’s displaced there, and then he uses his other scene of peasant life in Bearn almost like as a kind of device or interpretative resource to try and make sense. But he doesn’t fit in there either.
Bev: But it’s interesting, isn’t it, because then would you say Bourdieu operates a sociological imagination? Because he is trying to understand that lack of fit, but then he comes to a theory of fit.
Les: Well, it’s funny that the energy seems, the intellectual energy, the critical energy, is driven by not fitting in. At the same time it comes back to, it’s not exactly cosy his fit but it is a coherence.
Bev: And you’re saying that you think the politics, and let’s be clear, it’s the politics of the sociological imagination, is understanding the lack of fit?
Les: A lack of fit or I think a sense of kind of suffocation often people feel in their place in the world.
Les: Crampedness, being hemmed in, there’s something very powerful in Mills’ formulation when he says, although I’m not sure it holds true now, but he says, people experience themselves as if they’re spectators in their own lives. You know, and I think there’s something about that that is very powerful as a formulation, as an invitation. And I suppose what the politics of the sociological imagination and I’ll just put to one side the question of what you do with sociological imagination as a practice, but part of the politics I think is to have an enlarged sense of an understanding of one’s place in the world. I think there’s something about that. The importance of understanding and imagination, not something that’s finished or complete or arrogant but has a kind of opening out, asking what is all this stuff that feels so closed down? I think it can be as relevant to people in workplaces that are supposed to be so great and brilliant and creative, you know, but feel like they’re utterly shut down and suffocating. I remember Emily Nugent’s PhD on working as a creative web designer in an environment that felt like a complete prison house to her inside it. So something about that, opening the possibility of a different kind of understanding of those sorts of confinements, as well as, I think, a different kind of attentiveness to the world, and there’s a politics in that, a wider, broader sense of attentiveness to the world.
Bev: Can I just take you back a bit? Because what I think is really interesting when you’re describing the crampedness is, does it work across very different scales? Because I was thinking about, say, the scale of Marxism and the global economy, you know, and you can look to it and it can be that kind of totalising narrative, this phenomenal analysis of how this massive, massive system works. So from it we can understand how people are in cramped spaces in similar ways to us, in far, far flung places. So that’s one big scale, so then I’m wondering if we need different scales in sociological imagination. So we can think about, say, subjectivity is a very small scale from which we try to understand ourselves but we need to have some connection between the scales. These are social relationships and part of traditional sociology such as Durkheim’s anomie, Marx’s alienation and Weber’s spirit of capitalism.
Les: What Mills does and why he is so suggestive is, he says, okay, the most up close is also connected to the largest historic transformations. Now it might not be that they operate, the thing about span and distance might , whatever it is, but what’s at stake in that up closeness or down the streetness or what’s going on in the news-ness, are big large social formations and movements through history. That’s why it seems so alive to me still, you know, it’s that suggestion that there can be a movement between those scales. And that that produces a different way of imagining the nature of the social and understanding social life. That you are just part of many different ways of imagining the social.
Bev: So you were saying about attentiveness, attention to How do we see things, or in your case, how do we hear things. I’m referring here to your book ‘The Art of Listening’ which I introduce to students as the new sociological imagination, which makes the case for different ways of paying attention to life.
Les: I think it’s about a disposition and a relationship to life itself, and not just one’s own life but the life of others and that’s why I think it’s so important. And it’s not something that Mills really talks about and it’s something that I think we don’t talk about enough in sociology is, what is the value of attention? There’s a lot of discussion now that shows that the sociological imagination has been a huge success story but may have undermined sociology itself. The movement of sociological ideas into, you know, fantastic media productions like The Wire, that’s a success story of the sociological imagination. You can also see the sociological imagination moving in all kinds of ways, some of which I think I personally would be happy about and some of which I think is deeply troubling and and damaging. I’m thinking the most extreme example is not just the sociological imagination but a kind of ethnographic attentiveness has been deployed in the human terrain teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, you know, where anthropologists and ethnographers are being trained as cultural intermediaries and cultural translators, you know, for the benefit of the US military. I think there’s a part of this current situation, which is about the success of the sociological imagination and this kind of proliferation, so much so that people like Mike Savage and Roger Burrows propose an empirical crisis of sociology in that everybody else from government organisations to think tanks are doing sociology so much better and so much more effectively.
Bev: Management schools and are one of the big success stories of sociology-lite
Les: And I think what they’re missing in their account of the current situation is the value and the sort of attentiveness that we drive, that’s not just about me listening to you, you listening to me, or me hearing the sound of the road outside the window or whatever, but about how that attentiveness is infused with precisely those movements of imagination, not only historic construction but also theoretical and conceptual, that introduce a different kind of language to make sense of those up close, very personal, seeing the individual experiences and making connections to larger political formations.
Bev: So you’re saying what’s happened is that the technologies of sociology, say, the methods of empirical understanding, be it measurement or ethnography, are detached from a very particular form of sociological attention, a detachment from critical political understandings of power relations, and it’s that detachment that has enabled the spread of the sociological imagination but only in its limited technical forms
Les: I think sometimes it’s reduced to those bare technical forms and other times it’s really fantastically alive, at its most imaginative. And that’s part of the, of the difficulty in summing up exactly that thing about where sociological imagination has moved to, because partly, you know, I think in some ways the sociological imagination is much more alive in The Wire than it is in most seminars about urban ethnography.
Bev: And that I would want to argue, is because The Wire pays attention to big explanations whilst locating those big explanations, which are institutional, they’re economic, in characters. So it comes back to what you were saying about how the characters’ crampedness carries the precarious conditions of the global in which they creatively struggle to survive. So it’s not about positioning them as passive or victims, it’s about looking at how people are struggling within those incredibly cramped conditions, paying attention to that intensity of struggle and the reasons for it.
Les: There’s two sets of things I think we, as a kind of a rabble, collected under the banner of sociology, have lost touch with. Firstly is that yearning for a big explanation, a characterisation of the nature of the times and how the times have moved, a sense of history and how that characterisation impacts on the characters. And the second thing that I think we’ve lost touch with is the idea of characterisation, that’s what so brilliant in the kinds of telling that The Wire and things like it achieve. I don’t mean it’s only in The Wire, but it achieves a characterisation of life in the process of living it.
Bev: But interestingly it’s a form of telling that isn’t a technology of holding people to account. It’s telling people’s stories in all their complexities rather than making it fit a particular model of what the social or they should be, for things like benefit and welfare, a sense of how people should behave. So there’s no kind of moral judgement. The techniques of telling that we usually have, with law, with crime, are usually about making people account for their actions through telling and performance. Carolyn Steedman beautifully charts how these techniques of telling develop through religious forms of redemption, through moral narratives. And our recent research details how reality television is just a spectacular visualisation and extension of these techniques, in which people are incited to perform their own moral value publicly. What is important is to separating the technology from actual understanding of what a character could be and how they live in particular situations.
Les: It comes back to a very simple distinction, doesn’t it, between whether the project of thinking should be about telling people how to live or should it be about broadening a sense of the complexities of people’s lives and choices that they make, without having to legislate or resisting the impulse to legislate, which is now what sociologist are asked to do via agendas such as ‘impact’.
Bev: But that also raises a really interesting question that I know some sociologists would definitely point to, which is can we have a sociology without the normative?
Les: Well that’s a good question. The normative, or to put it another way, which is less closed ‘we’re not just going to talk about what we’re against but we’re going to argue about what we’re for, but the norms seem to make that into a homogenising set of things. Perhaps the desire for a normative move is suffocating in another way, or can be. But perhaps if we’re moving towards not only what we’re against but also the things that we might be for, it doesn’t have to be the same, it doesn’t have to be, and it doesn’t have to be normative in that way, it can be more open perhaps, so it’s about making judgements and evaluations without having to impose a set of norms. I think there might be another option here, because I think just getting into either the deconstructive or simply the circuit of criticism isn’t necessarily an alternative.
Bev: We need to hold on to the critical capacity and not just focus on the ’how’ questions, and question the moral values on which there appears to be universal agreement. I don’t think there is agreement. All my research suggests that very different value systems are in existence.
Les: That’s right, that’s right. Mills argues that we can’t just pronounce freedom as a good thing, we have to interrogate every definition of freedom, argue about it and then see what happens next and not just to simply extol freedom as a value.
Bev: We should never know in advance what we’re studying, which is part of the problem when you use ethnography for national intelligence, you’re assuming in advance what you need and send people to find about culture in particular interests.
Les: It is what it presumes that an outcome is already set.
Bev: Now do you think there are many sociological imaginations?
Les: Yes I do, I think there are many, I don’t think there is just one, there are almost an infinite variety of others that are justifiable and legitimate.
Bev: So how do you recognise it?
Les: Well, that’s a good question, how do you recognise it. I think it is in that movement between contextualising of a character’s experience or a position in the world or pattern of life within larger forces that impose, guide, structure, in a sort of non structuring way sometimes, those lives. I think that’s what it should be. It is a concern with attending to the pattern of social life and the forces that shape those patterns of social life.
Bev: So forces becoming incredibly important.
Les: Forces are incredibly important, I think they are incredibly important. We are not free floating atoms. The version of my theory of trying to develop a sociological imagination becomes almost a kind of poststructuralist bracketing out of those questions.
Bev: Can you say a bit more about that ? Because you have pursued a project on developing a contemporary version of the sociological imagination through attention to very powerful forces. You know, in your book where you’re talking about, using metaphors of flight and travel to talk about movement and immigration, so how bodies become held in place. Can you say a bit more about why you focussed on these things and what shaped your attention?
Les: I think it is so much about what the craft of, not only developing a sociological imagination but living with it and making it not only something you have on your CV but something you try and live through and by. It is that constant shuttling between things, you think, oh, that’s interesting, that’s important, I need to think more about that, or how can I find out another view or another take on that thing that I’ve just encountered? So I think in a way it’s not something that I’ve kind of willed.
Bev: Is it just a constant questioning of all your explanations?
Les: It is a question of explanations but sometimes also a settling with some ways of either paying attention or seeing what’s of interest in what you’re paying attention to.
Bev: So are doubt and curiosity key motivators?
Les: They are to me, curiosity, hugely so I think. Remaining curious is something you have to work on continually. Not thinking that we know. That’s something that’s important to me, I know it’s not important to everybody. [laughs]
Bev: There is a kind of sociological complacency that we can detect whereby people have stopped worrying about things they don’t experience. What really worries me is when people say ‘that’s not important anymore’.
Les: I just want to throw them out the room.
Bev: And they’re saying it about something like class, race, gender, mind you rarely about race because that would make them sound really stupid. And you’re thinking, well maybe not for you these things are not important, but for those who are actually living in those conditions. It’s exasperating, there’s a real phenomenal stupidity in such a statement.
Les: I think that’s an effect of the institutionalisation of thinking. To go back to those dispositional things or what it means to inhabit this imagination, I think curiosity is absolutely key. Surprise is also important, to work at remaining surprised. That isn’t just to work on being ignorant or not learning any lessons, but not to foreclose, to be surprised by things, to try, and pay attention to things that will surprise you, put yourself in situations that will surprise you, you know. [Harvey Inaudible 0:24:36 name] has this wonderful essay called Going Out, and he says the death for thinking, for people working in universities like us is that we don’t get out enough.
[both laugh because for academics we actually go out a lot].
You don’t encounter the world other than, you know, going to and from an academic seminar about a thing that you’re interested in and become closed down. I remember something I was involved in a few years ago, which was a phenomenal thing, a kind of piece of research that was a citizens’ investigation into the immigration service at Croydon. It was tremendously fraught both a success and a failure at the same time, huge compromises involved. One of the things that was really important was to be in those rooms and listen not only to the people who were using the immigration and being confined by it, trapped by it, literally trapped by it, but also to hear what the people inside of the immigration service said about what it felt like for them to constantly have to treat people like human waste. And for some of them, not all of them by a long way, some of them have corroded their own sense of who they were, what they were doing every day. Because there was this gap between not only what they were being paid to do and what they were being told they were doing, but also the cameras that they had on the other side of the glass. Some of them were incredibly troubled by that and left, and others were utterly gleeful and thought, that’s another one we’ve just chucked out of the country. But I remember going on one occasion to hear evidence from very senior civil servants working at what was then the immigration and nationality directorate, and one of these very rather smug and public school educated. The civil servant said to me, “You know, what we really need to do is to find the ideal circumstances so that we can elicit the asylum narrative.” What was so surprising and shocking was that all of those words could have easily been articulated in a sociology seminar, but here it was coming out of the mouth of a civil servant. Generating the ideal circumstances for the immigration service to elicit the asylum narrative is to find out the holes in the narrative or the inconsistencies in the narratives so the asylum seeker can be rejected.
Bev: Yes definitely, holding people accountable through their own telling, that Emma Jackson (PhD student, Goldsmiths) charts so brilliantly in historical research, is about subjecting them to their own narratives, to their own stories, and then making them subject to their inability to tell it the way they should. But they don’t have access to the resources (the techniques/narratives) for telling precisely because of the situation they are in.
Les: Yes, I think that one of the technologies that has travelled , in some ways technology, as in a specific piece of technological kit and also as a technique for mining people’s lives, is the whole idea of the qualitative interview and the tape recorder, that’s the time device through which the self is told. So I suppose the question that I think is still an open one is, well, can we make the sociological imagination a different kind of attentiveness that isn’t compromised in that way? I think there’s another dimension to this which is a kind of, once you’re out, what do you find when you’re out, how do you render it? And asking the question of the ethics of what we do, and I would extend that to the politics of what we do, is the next one that we really need to think about carefully. So it’s precisely in the ethical moment where some of these things get argued about, they don’t necessarily get settled very easily…But I think that’s one of the things that we don’t value enough the ethical conversation, the ethical argument.
Bev: Because that’s not what the techniques in the wider world are concerned with. The ethical conversations we’re talking about are sociological ethical conversations, which is about what is at stake for people, you know, in terms of life and death in some cases. For Mills it was a question about ‘in whose interests’ is this knowledge produced?
Les: I think there’s a strong hint of 20th century optimism in his vision of a sociological imagination. He didn’t think the sociological imagination was particularly alive and well in the institutions, but he did have this sense, if only people knew, if only they understood, if only they could train the right way of thinking, then this would be a transformative, democratic force. And, you know, part of what the history, or the joke that history’s played on him, is that those techniques have moved and they’ve moved to places which are certainly not about democratic shifts or openness. For him if you know the truth then you’ll be more moral.
Bev: Or you will actually change things, in the classic Marxist false consciousness version: through your particular materials or conditions you will come to an understanding that will leave you to overthrow these conditions. But we know, we’re both ethnographers, that most people do understand the conditions that they’re living, it’s the sheer impossibility to do anything about it because the alternatives are not present, there’s nothing they can do, and it is about those current conditions.
Les: I think partly also about a sense of being caught, of being snagged, being netted…
Bev: Netted is good.
Les: You know, you’re floundering around, you’re moving but you’re not moving freely, is a very powerful part of what I think the kind of invitation to sociology should and could do is. But I also think it’s paying attention to that which is elusive or that isn’t already decided or that’s emerging, you know, that’s shifting or that has potential not to be already predetermined by the forces that are applied. And I think that is another dimension of what a sociological imagination might help provide is an attention to that which is undecided, that’s emerging. I’ve been interested for a long time in the idea of the ethnography of hope, those things are not decided quite yet, you know, the room for manoeuvre may be limited but it’s not completely preordained or crushed.
Bev: Isn’t that the politics of it,? Do you think that we need something like the affect or energy of hope to enable us to think through or think out of those cramped spaces? Is it the optimism of the will?
Les: It’s not, no it’s not. I think the thing that is different from the kind of cruel optimism identified by Lauren Berlant, beyond the ideas that you introduced me to, where the conditions of possibility simply aren’t there, so it is cruel. It’s cruel, it’s brutal actually. Whereas what I’m talking about, or what I’ve been trying to think about through an idea of an ethnography of hope, is to look at precisely the conditions of opening up things that are in the world, not possible, are in the world already and shifting and escaping and maybe being confined in another way.
Bev: How would you conceptualise a mobilisation of hope? There’s the massive mobilisation of hope on the Obama scale or there’s the much smaller recent Hope Against Hate campaign that managed to get rid of the BNP in Barking, London. Is that the type of hope we’re talking about? Because that mobilisation was saying, you don’t have to feel hate, you don’t have to feel fear, you don’t have to feel horror at what may happen to your lives, is that the kind of hope or is it the study, when you say the ethnography of hope, is it the study of hope?
Les: It doesn’t have to be named as hope in order to be hopeful, so it’s…, I think all of those…
Bev: How would we recognise it then?
Les: That’s a good question. Well, maybe we recognise it at those moments of surprise.
Bev: So it’s coming back to the fact that we cannot know in advance, we have to keep opening ourselves out to the possibility that things may change.
Les: Or being attentive to, being aware and being engaged actually in those things that are shifting and opening. I was so completely surprised by the London Citizens campaign (Hope not Hate) I just thought, how could, you couldn’t imagine this, you couldn’t have scripted this. Not to say it was a huge success ‘cause it wasn’t, something happened though, and something like the Barking result in the last general election. These all seem to be the kind of, the forces or the moments where the counterintuitive becomes intuitive.
Bev: I was thinking of this in terms of the British Airways picket lines. People were terrified, they didn’t want to be filmed, they didn’t want to be held accountable, they were absolutely terrified of what would happen to them for being on that picket line, but they were a very unusual group of pickets, incredibly glamorous working class woman and a substantial proportion, of camp young men, not like the miners’ strike. Now whether it will change their lives in their long term, it may, because they’re being politicised. They’re probably going to get destroyed and they’ve lost all their perks and they’re going to be sacked and, you know, the whole airline industry is against them, but I thought, well, isn’t it amazing that this group got together, without any prior political education of any kind, no history of industrial organisation or whatever else, and they actually just know that they are being treated so so badly, you know, talk about cramped spaces at work, they are being treated so badly they have to do something about it. So for me, that was kind of a moment of hope. I don’t know where it’ll go, but I suspect it will remain with them for the rest of their lives in various different ways.
Les: It reminds me a little bit of Peter Linebaugh’s idea, of part of the project of writing and doing the kind of work that we do is to develop, not an audit of our world classness but an audit of just relations. Rethinking justice, rather than rethinking the norm which gives a very different inflection. I am one of those characters who tries to remain alert to those kinds of things and moments. Most of the things I end up really becoming obsessed with and fascinated by are things noticed because you’re filling your imagination with ideas, with books, with precedents, with clues, with hunches that other people pass on to you. I’ve got a big box of tapes in my room that I’m trying to find time to go through, which is another counter intuitive moment during the miners’ strike in ‘85 when in a city like Birmingham and there are no mines in Birmingham but there was a phenomenal amount of support for the miners’ strike, particularly in communities where others with a different kind of political imagination provided a huge amount of support from the black communities and Asian communities in Birmingham, so much so that these burley miners would come and sometimes, I’d get into kind of arguments about who could go and collect on the Soho Road, because that’s where you would collect the most. And there’s something about that transformative moment for those miners, some of whom came to the city with all kinds of baggage about what they expected from those Asian and black communities, and met this demonstration of support and solidarity. And then towards the end of I think ‘85, there was a strike of Asian women at a sweatshop, a sweatshop in central Birmingham called Kewal Brothers, and these miners came back and picketed with the Asian women, which, in the context of two strikes that both were broken, two defeats if you like, something happened I think which was extraordinary.
Bev: So phenomenal points of connection, around issues. I think we’ve lost many of our sociological understanding of issues, focusing instead on difference and the self. I would argue that issues are crucial to the ethics of the sociological imagination, what connects people rather than what divides people, because its not hard to work out what divides people, so much effort goes into it.
Les: Sometimes we presume what divides people without thinking, hold on, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, maybe those things that bring people together create moments where there’s a different kind of arena of what the political might be, that gets brought to life, animated. The impulse to get out more almost invites a sense of, well, what are the stages of social life, where do they take place, or political life even, and I think they’re different now than they were in the 20th century. Different things at stake. Going back to the mid 20th century moment, there’s a kind of magnetic relationship that develops between sociological and modernity, where certain things are ruled in and other things are ruled out. Sociology gets caught at that moment where, ythe ethical gets pushed to one side, and it’s about kind of understanding the mechanisms of modernity and its bureaucracies and so on.
Bev: And to come back to the institutionalisation of knowledge sociology had to establish its credibility, to prove itself as a discipline, which imposed limits on the imaginary. Just like now where we experience the iron cage of bureaucracy in all its intensity through [RAEs, Refs, QAAs and the multiplication of audits that subject us to performance and productivity measurements constantly.
Les: Basically the forces of institutionalisation mean that the forms of sociology that count within the audit culture lack imagination. I feel it in my own work, let alone anybody else, I’m not pointing the finger at anybody else, but I feel that kind of of conservatism that comes with professionalisation very, very keenly.
Bev: Just like the linits on methods, talk about the ethnography of hope, but actually doing ethnographies anymore as a sociologist, is almost impossible,. The possibility of knowing people over time in a particular space has been closed down, because it has been limited to, you know, let’s count the number of interviews or let’s count people in various different ways. But also having to produce work really quickly, there’s a speed by which we have to channel knowledge, and so we don’t read enough, we don’t know what’s occurred in sociology prior to our work or we don’t know what’s going on in parallel areas, so in health or something like that, because we don’t have time to do all that reading as well. There’s a whole interesting issue about how these performance measurements have limited our performance and stopped us performing in ways that would be most intellectually productive.
Les: Next on the list after ethics I would say, is the importance of taking time. Our thinking takes time, and part of the furnishing of any kind of sociological imagination is the time it takes to read, to encounter, to think, to change our mind, to think again, to argue, to get involved in that kind of open dialogue with the people that, you know, who are concerned with the same things, the conversation, the speciality of conversation around the things that we do. And I think that’s one of the things that the audit culture has closed down, so much so people are sort of arguing now for the importance of slow thinking. Edward Said has this wonderful formulation in his book about intellectuals and representation of intellectuals, where he says, what is the thing that really threatens the university and prevents thinking? Well what he says, at the end of the day the thing that threatens thinking is professionalisation, and he makes this very, it’s serious but it’s also slightly playful, appeal for amateurism, for that sense of a kind of…
Les: Curiosity, a passion, something that you are overtaken by. And I was reading that book thinking, well some of the people that I really admire were kind of gifted amateurs, like the poet and writer William Carlos Williams, he was a doctor all of his life going and attending to this industrial community in New Jersey. I mean, the irony is that he gets remembered as a writer but he was really an amateur, you know. Primo Levi did the same, he wrote this wonderful book called Other People’s Trades, which is journalism without literary criticism and things like that, he spent his life, after coming back from the camps, as a professional industrial chemist. And there’s something about what those figures had that I think professionalism either kills or makes almost impossible to sustain, because now it is about quick thinking and fast turnaround, about a kind of economy of time.
Bev: And thats what we’re doing with our PhD students, we’re speeding them up more and more fitting funding regulations. We’re reproducing a speeded up generation, increasing the inflation of writing tht nobody has the time to read.
Les: I think that there has to be a way to not be possessed by the tool actually. I mean, sometimes I find myself, probably in a very juvenile way, refusing to play the- game, I find it very hard to inhibit the sort of vocational disposition anyway [both laugh], but I just think you have to be braver and say, and less timid, because I think there’s a tremendous atmosphere of timidity in universities, that strikes me, and conservatism. But the other thing I suppose that’s been strange about my own way of inhabiting this imagination and trying to work with it is that I suppose, and I don’t know if this is a resource or a benefit or whether it’s a limitation, but I’ve built all of my interests around things that are very close to me, physically, so people constantly say to me, don’t you ever get sick of being at Goldsmiths, or don’t you ever get tired of being where you are? Well there’s a degree to which I think that is the place I go to get out more, just down the street, just the people that I’ve known for 25 years, the people that I did my PhD with.
Bev: I remember you telling me about a café that you go to get some head space.
Les: Yes, there’s lots of those kind of places that I go to. This morning there was an accident I ended up in this place but it’s a place I go all the time, and it’s right next to a builders’ yard this place and over a period of years I’ve got to know the woman who runs the burger, bacon sandwich, tea stand right next to this builders’ yard, and it’s on my way to work, I often go there for a cup of tea, just for a bit of head space, but also it’s a different kind of space to the commuter car or the bus or whatever, it’s a kind of micro social world, there’s all the people practising their trades coming to go to the toilets or get the bags of plaster. But I just noticed over the last six weeks there are large numbers of workers, I don’t know where they’re from, they look to me like they could be from Eastern Europe, they could be from anywhere actually, they could be from the Mediterranean, but every day now opposite the teashop and the bacon sandwich place, are 30 workers waiting to be employed on a daily rate, probably being employed off the books.. And you think, I’ve never seen that before, before the financial crisis and the downturn those 30 workers weren’t there every day, now they are.
Bev: I know what you mean, I think getting the bus down the Old Kent Road is a kind of sociological experience, every day it changes so much, so many different nationalities, it’s like microcosm of a world in many respects or it feels like it. And again, B&Q car park, two lots usually of workers waiting for work very early in the morning, and you’re just thinking, yeah, what does this say about, you know, kind of the vectors of the space that we occupy?
Les: And you see, I think the sociological imagination, for all of its variety, for all of the contrasting ways that we furnish our bookshelves with ideas and things that we love to read, it, the politics of it I think is it provides the resources to make sense of that B&Q car park, at the same time as a kind of appeal to and an invitation to notice the fortunes of globalised labour. I wonder if those people are citizens or not, I wonder what their immigration status is? I mean, are they doing that kind of work because if they do some other kind of work they’ll become, the border will be wrapped, will be drawn around them as a kind of subject, has no leave to remain or whatever.
Bev: Like Emma’s story of the London bendy bus and immigration premised on the Oyster card. If you don’t have one because you’re homeless and you’ve just arrived from Somalia or wherever, and you think you can get away with a free ride, it may be much further than you think. The chances are you’re going to get picked up and taken back just for being on a bus. Now I think things like that become really interesting, how these, you know, these small incidents (inspectors on a bus, not having an Oyster) have absolutely phenomenal disastrous repercussions for some people and they’re just places of comfort for others, or a minor irritation.
Les: I think that’s where it seems most alive for me, sociology, how can you make sense of that? You have to make sense of it by being able to shift through whether it’s the kind of scales, or shift through a connection to the way in which the forces and structures of power enwrap those people and pluck them out of the every day, you could do it 20 times in a week and nothing will happen, that one day you’ll get caught and plucked and you’ll end up in a detention somewhere and you’ll be deported.
Bev: And just the fact that that one bus seat contains the difference between those who are going to be subject, have been subject to phenomenal violence, they wouldn’t be here from Somalia if they hadn’t been, and could be subject to another incredible amount of violence if they’re deported again, and I could just sit there thinking, well, I’m really tired, what am I going to have for my tea? There’s something about the sociological imagination that has to pay attention to the way violence structures our lives in radically difference ways.
Les: I think that’s absolutely right and violence is an incredibly powerful force within time. It’s that thing about being alert.
Bev: I know I don’t know enough, I don’t know enough yet, and there are things that I’ll never know.
Les: Well, the important thing is that you never, I think, that we never lose track of how little we know.
Bev: Maybe that is sociological imagination.
Les: One of Monica Greco’s phrases is that we should never be ignorant of our ignorance,. Because I think what happens under the weight of the professional, the purposes of professionalisation that we’ve been talking about, or the way in which universities start to measure their own value and then the value of each other relatively and the value of each individual element within the university and all the rest of it, across the sector, is that urge to produce, to specialise, it’s kind of like an intellectual kind of coalmine.
Les: You’ve got to get out of the channel because you already know you go deeper and deeper along, and it can be a particular thing or it can be a particular area, to the point in which people say things which have always struck me as being curiouser. I can’t comment on whatever you’ve just talked about there because it’s not my area, and the area is the space of the mind that you’re channelling your imagination into. I think that’s a very bad sign, our area, well, where does our area begin and end? We can never know, there are things we’ll never know and we have to be mindful of that, but also that sort of curiosity and openness and interest in, the fact that you’re interested in this thing that you may not ever fully appreciate…It keeps us in a kind of conversation that isn’t so atomised.
Bev: Do you think it could make us go mad too, because sometimes I panic and think I don’t know about this, I need to know about this? You know, it’s like if you think globally, or say, this year I’ve been trying to learn all about financialisation and the economy and the detail of those kind of formulas and how it works, and there was one point where I did think,, I’m never ever going to know exactly how this works, but then I did realise that actually a lot of bankers don’t even known how it works. I asked them. But it can almost produce an incredible neurosis.
Les: It can produce a neurosis and I think it can produce, I mean, one of the PhD students described to me recently, if you went to a doctor and described these symptoms you were having doing any piece of sociological research, the moments of elation, you think, wow, I’ve just found something out, yeah, or moments where you’re at your word processor and you write two or three sentences and you think, yeah, that’s what I was trying to say, that euphoria, if you described that and then the next minute you described those moments, feelings that I’m never going to know this, everything I write feels like it’s some terrible version of some bureaucratic speech, moments of complete and utter despair. Despair and resignation, if you described that to a doctor they would probably think you had some kind of psychological condition, that you were bipolar in some way. But that’s what scholarship is like, and I think the up and the down of it is part of what it means to live with this craft actually, or to try and live with it and by it actually.
Bev: And you see it, in your terms, as a craft.
Les: Well, they’re not my terms, they’re borrowed terms of course, but I can’t think of a better metaphor, I’ve been trying to think of a better one, I certainly can’t come up with one, and I haven’t found anybody else who’s come up with a better one either. The alternative I think is to start to close down, to stop reading, which I know lots of people do because they can’t keep up and they want to just hold to the things that have formed them and are useful to them. And give them comfort. I think, it’s not a comfortable appeal or invitation that we’re issuing to people is it? It’s not about comfort.
Bev: Not at all, not at all [laughs].
Les: And you know, it’s hard sometimes to make an argument for the value of discomfort. Something about which I have absolutely no regret at all in terms of pursuing, it’s not comfortable, it’s, it is living with doubt and disquiet, which isn’t always the most cosy proposition, but you know, I think there’s the opportunity or the outside chance or the potential to be involved in a practice and to write things that open up the world to readers and students in the way in which the world has been opened us to us by other writers. You never really know if you achieve that, you never really know the value of what you do, because readers decide that, but there is the promise of being in that moment where you pass on that sense, that makes the world different to me, I see the world differently now, or I see myself in the world differently because of what, you know, what somebody wrote.
Bev: It’s the conduit for, we are conduits for a sociological imagination that we ourselves keep trying to shape and understand.
Les: What’s been done in recent times I think has closed down the sociological imagination, we have to be vigilant about opening it up. And the balance of forces might be against us but I don’t think they’re completely against it. I see that and I sense that enchantment in the way the students talk about the things that they read and the way that they talk about their own work. So in that sense I think the sociological imagination is alive and well.