British Sociological Association Conference 2018: Identity, Community, and Social Solidarity

Newcastle, UK, 10-12 April 2018    

The 297-page British Sociological Association 2018 conference programme struck me, being relatively new to such things, as just a little daunting. And while I started to plan my time by cross-referencing the most apparently relevant of the themed conference streams, my partner quickly corrected me. “You’ll need to go through all the abstracts. At least by title. You don’t know where the most useful things will be.” “Really?”, I thought.

Yes, really. The joy of a conference like this is not just the sheer range and diversity of theory, methods, topics, concepts, framings, experiences and people that it brings together, but how they intersect, interact and combine with each other in perhaps unexpected ways to produce unpredictable results. Complexity theory in action. Perhaps the collective noun for sociologists should be ‘an emergence’. Certainly, some of the greatest inspirations and insights that I got from this conference came from unlikely sources.

I presented a paper on the production of conflicting identities in communities involved in Neighbourhood Planning, a new form of small-scale, community-led spatial planning. It focused on the processes through which the small groups of volunteers leading the development of plans were interpellated into three distinct and conflicting identity-relations with the wider community, revolving around three central, contradictory attributes of embodied attachment, representative mediation, and detached objectivity. It considered the work required to hold these conflicting identities together, and the political and power effects of success or failure. Indeed, it concluded that success in some ways necessarily implied failure, that a simultaneous dynamic of inclusion and exclusion, empowerment and disempowerment, translation and betrayal, ran throughout the process. But that this was a reason to tinker with it, to understand and approach it differently, not to dismiss it out of hand.

The questions and comments following the paper gave me some nods to new literature and help with conceptual refinement. It also led to a long discussion over lunch with a colleague from Jerusalem about a parallel neighbourhood planning initiative there, comparing the substantive similarities and differences and their effects.

My thinking (and hopefully thesis!) were expansively enriched by other sessions on community, cities, place and space, including on rethinking legitimacy in terms of legibility, engaging young people in political change, and thinking spatial imaginaries as material, embodied and affective. Slightly more radical was a paper suggesting that we may need to get rid of “community” from sociology, that it’s a trope that has become rhetorically rich but analytically hollow. A sacrilegious but stimulating thought!

But more surprising, and rewarding, were the syntheses I found between my work and what, on the face of it, were at best tangentially-related papers and talks. Judith Green’s sub-plenary on medical sociology, for example, focused on ignorance, not-knowing and the obligation to know, which shrinks the spaces available for trust, dependency, uncertainty, denigrated knowledges, and enchantment. This conceptual framing easily made the leap from the speaker’s hospital wards to my town and village halls, deepening the resources I have to think about the relations between people, institutions and places.

Similarly, stories of a professor getting attacked by a dog while on a Greek island and of the architecture of a post-antibacterial hospital in Sweden, in a session on “the biopolitics of entanglement”, may be unlikely springboards to help think through how community identity is constructed around the making of a plan. But their very visceral illustrations of the always-already-there but often unseen alignments between politics, bodies, knowledge and affects helped illuminate pathways towards reassembling matter and meaning in contexts far removed from their origins.

It was fascinating seeing some of the same processes at work in the high-stakes systems mapping of the nexus of food, energy and water security as I see in the efforts of neighbourhood volunteers, and relating an analysis of a Georgian oligarch’s manoeuvrings as a shadow actor to my much smaller-scale field. Plenary speaker Kimberlé Crenshaw’s talk on intersectionality was inspiring, and as applicable at neighbourhood as national level. And I am definitely stealing her idea for Powerpoint slides to explain the concepts of framing in two seconds: a picture of cows in a field. But, she tells us, the cows are sick. Who’s to blame? Well, the farmer, we assume. Next slide: the picture pans back to show the chemical works belching out smoke next to the field. Enough said!

I came, I saw, I heard, I talked, I came back: tired, inspired, better informed, better connected, and very grateful to The Sociological Review!

Andy Yuille is a final year PhD student at Lancaster University. He is studying the conflicts and contradictions that emerge in community-led spatial planning in England.

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