Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression? 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 Harriet Gray

The sun was shining in Glasgow for the British Sociological Association’s Annual Conference, which engaged with the theme of ‘Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?’ The conference offered an engaging variety of streams, including Families and Relationships; Race, Ethnicity and Migration; Rights, Violence and Crime; Social Divisions/Social Identities; Environment and Society; and Work, Employment, and Economic Life. In addition, there were compelling plenaries from both well-established scholars and early career researchers in Sociology. While much could be said about so many of these great papers, I offer here just a brief overview of those which I found most compelling.

Alice Goffman’s plenary drew on the fieldwork for her recently published book On the Run, for which she conducted six years of ethnographical fieldwork in an impoverished Black neighbourhood in Philadelphia. Goffman’s passion for her topic – the catastrophic harms engendered by the mass incarceration of poor American Black men driven by policies such as the ‘war on drugs’ – is undeniable. Her book has generated both high praise and significant criticism, in particular around the problematic politics of location embedded in conducting such research as a privileged White woman (for critical reviews of the book, see here and here). Goffman fielded questions about the politics and the ethics of her work with humility and sincerity – although an author’s passion for a topic, and even their careful reflexive practice, does not of course absolve their work of its potential for harm.

Colin Samson’s plenary focused on ‘progress’ narratives, indigenous peoples, and colonialism, with a particular focus on Canada. Samson offered a damning and somewhat bleak indictment of the Canadian state’s treatment of the Innu Nation, who live in the far North of the country. He charted the state’s attempts to dispossess these indigenous people of their lands, through a water-tight ‘certainty clause’ in the Innu Nation Land Claim Agreement-in-Principle – which he described as appearing “like it was written by Kafka, and ghost written by Donald Rumsfeld.” The paper focused in particular on the Canadian State’s attempts to frame extractionist policies as beneficial to local people despite compelling evidence to the contrary. While the analysis offered in the paper seemed a little bleak, the question and answer session allowed a little more space for discussions of resistance and of cultural renewal.

In the Families and Relationships stream, Raksha Pande discussed different notions of ‘love’ and their relationship to arranged marriages among British Indian people, drawing particular attention to the notion of love as something that can develop through marriage. Petra Nordqvist reflected on kinship structures and relationships between lesbian parents and the grandparents of their children, using the concept of ‘strong’ and ‘vulnerable’ kinship ties to argue that although family structures are changing, traditional tropes of genetic kinship remain powerful. Matt Dawson pointed to some of the fluidity, multiplicities, and complexities of sexuality and sexual identity through his discussion of asexual identities. Jaqui Close’s presentation on the contemporary figure of the ‘good mother’ reflected on mothers’ negotiations of their identities and mothering practices in relation to this ideal. She drew attention to the use in policies and reports of the neutral language of ‘parenting,’ and suggested that this linguistic strategy allows for a move away from paying attention to the lived experience of mothers and fathers themselves and towards a greater emphasis on the dominance of ‘expert’ and ‘professional’ voices – erasing the ‘messiness’ and complexities engendered by factors such as gender, class, and race.  

Focusing on Rights, Violence and Crime, Natascha Mueller-Hirth discussed temporalities of victimhood in South Africa, suggesting that the linear perception of time which urges victims of Apartheid-era violence to ‘move on’ may be at odds with the cyclical temporalities of victimhood experienced by those who are still subjected to ongoing structural violence. Claire Moon discussed the concept of ‘forensic humanitarianism’ as a feature of transitional justice, reflecting  on the ways in which the dead are made to make moral claims upon the living, and the role of truth claims advanced around the dead in producing particular kinds of legal and political authority. An engaging paper by Karen Cuthbert in the Social Divisions/Social Identities stream drew on interviews with participants who identified as both disabled and asexual, and highlighted some of the difficulties encountered in claiming both of these identity categories. Cuthbert explored the political work being done by activists in the areas of both asexuality and disability against the pathologisation of their bodies, and showed that this makes it more difficult to claim these identities from some embodied positions than from others. Also in this stream, Gillian Love introduced her PhD project exploring the ways in which class might shape experiences of abortion. In the Race, Ethnicity and Migration stream, Hyun-Joo Lim shared some of her fieldwork with first-generation Chinese and Korean migrant mothers living in the UK, arguing that the ideologies of family which circulate in their countries of origin shape their approaches to motherhood in diverse ways.

I presented two papers at the conference, both of which drew on my interview-based PhD research into domestic abuse in the British armed forces. The first, in the Families and Relationships stream, juxtaposed narratives of ‘progress’ in the gender order of the British military – in particular those tied up with current moves to open all military roles to women – with some of the structures and ideologies which shape the help-seeking decisions made by civilian women married to servicemen who experience domestic abuse, as these remain largely patriarchal in character. My second presentation, in the Race, Ethnicity and Migration stream, problematised some of the colonial discourses in relation to domestic abuse perpetrated by Fijian personnel in the British armed forces which emerged from my interviews.

Unsurprisingly, the conference did not help me to come to any sort of conclusions about whether society is, indeed, ‘progressing’ or ‘regressing’, as if ‘progress’ could ever be sketched in such a linear fashion. I did, however, come away from Glasgow with a heightened sense of the political impetus – as well as the political danger – which lurks behind any declaration of ‘progress.’ This scepticism towards the notion of ‘progress’ is one which should inform areas of sociological study well beyond those in which it was invoked at this particular conference.

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