Global Societies: Fragmenting and Connecting

By Rebecca Fish

In 2015/16 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the second time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support. 

As an early career researcher, I was extremely fortunate that the Sociological Review agreed to fund my trip to Birmingham’s Aston University to attend the British Sociological Association’s 2016 Annual Conference – ‘Global Societies: Fragmenting and Connecting’. Having recently completed an ethnographic PhD study exploring the lives of learning disabled women on locked wards, my main interest was in presentations that incorporated disability studies, part of the ‘Frontiers’ stream. However I saw a range of keynotes and paper sessions that allowed me to see how sociology relates to many different contemporary themes, including diverse subjects such as the weather, masculinities and dreams.

My paper presentation was part of the 9 o’clock session on the first day of the conference. I presented collaboratively with Hannah Morgan, a Senior Lecturer in Disability Studies (Lancaster University). We talked about how learning disabled people’s ideas of futures are regulated by others, that the assumed static nature of impairments curtails discussion about futures. We used some of the transcripts from my research as representations of this phenomenon, and showed that learning disabled people have strong ideas about their futures nonetheless. The other paper presented at this session was by Dr Teodor Mladenov (King’s College London), who reflected on the usefulness of Nancy Fraser’s theory of social justice for disability studies. I found many points in Mladenov’s analysis useful, in particular when he talked about the disparity in visibility of dependence between disabled and (currently) non-disabled people.  Discussion at the end of the session focussed on bridging the gap between disability activism and academic scholarship.

After this first paper session, the delegates all joined together to hear Eileen Green, the Chair of the BSA, open the conference and remember the late John Urry (Distinguished Professor of Lancaster University) and his significant and influential contribution to sociological theory. The first plenary was Professor Paula England (New York University) exploring how effects of class can influence personal characteristics, claiming that sociologists have avoided tackling class in this way for fear of victim blaming. She used her research about unmarried pregnancy to illustrate her argument, which provoked an interesting discussion about the assumptions behind research questions and variables used, and how these can be interpreted.

Mark Sherry’s stream plenary session was the high point of the conference for me. Sherry (University of Toledo) proposed a social model of impairment – arguing that the social model of disability, whilst focussing on the structural disabling barriers in society, has a resistance to centring on personal experiences of impairment.  Sherry described the social forces that create impairment, such as dangerous workplaces and trafficking as well as intersectional and cultural influences. He showed how theorisation of impairment raises questions of embodiment and identity and has personal and political significance.

Sherry used his experiences of working with brain-injured people to describe how a social model of impairment can address the power system that is intrinsic to ideas of normativity.  He argued that brain-injury survivors have been neglected within the disability movement, and raised questions about why this might be.  In order to theorise impairment, Sherry highlighted the usefulness of phenomenology, but noted the importance of incorporating the social context. Done properly, a social model of impairment can contribute understandings of embodiment to medical sociology discourses about illness and inequality.

I came to this conference hoping to hear how sociologists engage with theory in order to bring important concerns to a wider audience.  I found that the conference used creative, often effective ways to bring about conversation. As a result of the connections I made at the conference, I now have two collaborative writing projects in the pipeline.  I am very grateful to have had this opportunity.

Originally posted 13th May 2016.

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