Fiction futures and the global grip of neoliberalism: conference reflections

In 2014 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the first time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support. 

By Emilie Whitaker

I was very fortunate to receive funding from the Sociological Review to attend the International Conference in Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA) under the title “Policies and their publics: discourses, actors and power” in Lille (France). The conference funding enabled me not only to attend the core business of any academic conference – panels, plenary and roundtables – but also to learn from international colleagues in the more informal settings of lunches and dinners. To the credit of the organisers, they made good use of Lille’s historic, Flemish-imbued city centre by hosting a cocktail reception at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille featuring the works of David, Goya, Delacroix – to name but a few. The main conference dinner was hosted a short distance away at Le Gymnase, a venue situated around a very bijoux square of independent shops and tiny French bars.

I presented a paper to the panel on policy ambiguity, the resonance of which surprised me. The paper’s exploration of work as a marker for citizenship, a proclaimed source for self-actualisation and a site of affective discipline resonated with the twenty others who attended the panel. The incursions of market logic, of auditing and quantifying in hitherto public bureaucratic fields, which the paper explored, were deemed by delegates to be a common phenomenon as worlds were remade for citizens and professionals along uncertain and divisive lines. Delegates from Brazil, Finland, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK considered the reach and depth of the phenomenon at hand – ambiguity, policymaking and the ‘post-bureaucratic state.’ Local features necessarily emerged, ranging from the implicit ‘vocabularies of motive’ I identified within contemporary social work, to the more creative appeals to choice as citizenship and transaction. Wacquant’s argument that ‘neoliberalism is a transnational political project aiming to remake the nexus of market, state, and citizenship from above’ came forth in the panel, as ambiguous policymaking helps to stabilise and smooth the way for the entrenchment of the project of neoliberalism across borders – but does so with a projective rhetoric and emotive imaginary. 

Fiction and Futures

The most creative panel I attended was entitled ‘really imaginary’, and it centred upon the use of fiction as a participatory methodology for engaging publics in policymaking and future projection. On reflection, the creation of fiction as part of or from research is a surprisingly overlooked endeavour; after all there is research in fiction, so why not have fiction in research. I could immediately see the usefulness of such an undertaking in terms of ethical engagement with participants and the coproduction of creative artefacts which are able to explicitly ‘take sides’ in ways which social science research may be chastised for. The sense of the pitfalls of ‘translation’ in research – between funders and publics, institutions and individuals – was deepened by another panel I attended, convened by colleagues at the University of Sheffield who artfully and honestly discussed how they traverse the ethics of engagement and ‘translation.’

Returning to the policy fiction panel, rather than adopt the standard format we were encouraged to design our own fictionalised characters and landscapes to explore a policy problem or potential consequence of policymaking. Contributors included Dr Marisa Zapata from Portland State University who had made extensive use of collective narration to explore the consequences of planning decisions upon local communities. Importantly, in her work with communities they had drawn characters that were often unheard or misheard in the processes of planning. Her work took her into communities and resulted in a serialization of the stories in local press. Another contributor, Sonja van der Arend, had written a ‘policy novel’ to consider the ecological and political impacts of environmental water policy. It was in this session that I made some really important links to those who practice fictional writing and storytelling as an inherent part of the research process. Narratives of the future are a core part of my work with young people which explores how they ‘visioneer’ the future. Through this panel, I have been inspired to devise a fiction workshop with the next group of young participants to explore their own stories of the future. As such, this panel both methodologically and empirically was incredibly useful.

Final thoughts

The keynote by Professor Nina Eliasoph from the University of Southern California was an engaging traverse through the organizational and rhetorical politics of ‘empowerment’ and the everyday practices and incongruities of organizations set to ‘deliver’ it. It was a treat for all ethnomethodologists and interactionists present at the conferences, as she considered scene-switching practices between funders, communities and workers and exposed the mismatches and misfortunes of those who fail to adhere to the unwritten rules of empowerment engagement. On leaving this final keynote and catching up with some likeminded delegates, it occurred to me just how far I have moved in disciplinary terms from the social policy mainstream to its more critical and sociological borders. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Eliasoph’s ironic and enthusiastic jaunt around the philanthropy industry, poking fun and providing compassion in equal measure, others seemed to dislike the focus on everyday mundane accomplishment. It did not provide enough ‘answers’. Perhaps this is the unspoken truism of all good conference experiences that you are there not only to learn from others, to discuss the joys and pitfalls of research, but also to explore and reflect upon your own theoretical and ethical position. The fact that Eliasoph seemed to speak not only to my interest in subversion – the carnivalesque and the creative actions of everyday life – but also to my way of seeing, casts me somewhat adrift from colleagues who were more wedded to a more conventional understanding of policy analysis. Nonetheless, this is the first international conference I had presented at since gaining my PhD and the conversations, keynotes and interactions have been fruitful not only in the specifics of projects and networks, but for reflecting on my own development and sense of self. Thank you, the Sociological Review

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