The Potentials and Pitfalls of Public Sociology

By Kim Allen, Sara De Benedictis, Kayleigh Garthwaite, Tracey Jensen and Ruth Patrick

We were delighted to have our ‘Welfare Imaginaries’ seminar series funded by the Sociological Review Foundation, as part of their Seminar Series competition 2018.  This funding enabled us to hold three events across the year, focusing broadly on the welfare past (Lancaster), welfare present (Liverpool) and welfare future (Birmingham). 

The series aimed to explore the visions of welfare that have been dominant at key moments in British political history and popular culture; from the ambitious vision of an expansive welfare state that was ‘called into being’ through pamphlets, films and of course William Beveridge’s landmark blueprint; to the anti-welfare cultural texts of ‘poverty porn’ television such as Benefits Street; to the creative resistance generated through disability activist networks, community advocacy and support groups in the form of memes, blogs, micro-films, fanzines and other forms of art. We also wanted to look forward in the series and think about the welfare experiments, projects and ideas that are just emerging over the horizons of possibility, and how these might repeat (or transform) already-existing welfare imaginaries.

Having completed the series, in this blog post we take the opportunity to reflect upon the experience of delivering the seminar series and the challenges we encountered along the way. In particular, we reflect upon the challenges of doing ‘public sociology’ and engaging different ‘publics’ in discussions about welfare. We also consider what it means to be engaging in such efforts within a particularly tumultuous and fraught political backdrop of Brexit whereby welfare has become another site in which broader classed and racialised hostilities and antagonisms play out. 

From the start we were keen that this series not be the ‘usual academic event’ and we designed the series with the aim of being inclusive and welcoming. Our desires here were aligned with that of the Sociological Review Foundation, which has consistently promoted a more expansive and inclusive sociology; one that engages with communities beyond the walls of the university, and facilitates the inclusion of marginalised and often-silenced voices both within academia and beyond.  

This commitment to a more inclusive and ‘public sociology’ was woven into the design of the series in various ways. We held all three events at accessible public venues that were off-campus. We invited a range of speakers, some from established and senior academic backgrounds, and many others who were early-career researchers or non-academic speakers from third-sector, charity and advocacy organisations, as well as activists and independent researchers, artists and writers. We tried to include as many forms of expertise as possible, and – especially in the context of welfare – speakers who are ‘experts by experience’ and are often excluded from critical and policy discussion. We wanted to challenge the traditional and hierarchical idea that it is the senior academic ‘keynote’ who should be at the centre of the day, and that public sociology seminars should follow this format. To that end, we mixed presentations and talks with other kinds of activity.

Across all three seminars we were delighted to work with visual artist Jean McEwan who facilitated zinemaking workshops for participants to creatively engage with and respond to the themes of the day. Zinemaking has a rich political and radical history in activist communities, and have historically been valuable tools for enabling alternative – marginalised – voices to be heard. In this way, zine-making was ideally suited to our desires for the series to recognise different perspectives and expertise on welfare. Zines are also inherently collective rather than individualised endeavours, practices for community-building. In the series, zine-making proved to be a fabulous activity for encouraging connection and expression. Unlike other more technical ‘creative’ and artistic practices which may provoke anxiety, fear or a sense of lacking appropriate ‘skills’, zine making is a playful and accessible practice for those who wish to engage in it.  It enabled a different kind of contemplation among seminar attendees as we became absorbed in our individual pages, snipping and pasting away. It worked sociably too, opening up conversations and connections around the themes of the series (we will be reflecting on this activity at more length elsewhere!).  

A second important activity that we were able to include at the first two events (fear of poor weather prevented us from planning one in December in Birmingham!) were the ‘welfare walkshops’, in which seminar attendees were taken on a guided walk (led by an academic), highlighting the welfare history written into the architecture and the streets around the venues. Walking has a long and interesting history as a sociological method and is a practice that can awaken our senses and consciousness to the everyday spaces we move through – including the histories and inequalities that shape that movement. ‘Sociological walks’ were a feature of the Sociological Review’s ‘Undisciplining’ conference last year. In our series, the walks not only provided a welcome break from sitting down inside (in sometimes stuffy rooms) and listening to others. The sensory and embodied experiences of moving through cities enabled different kinds of conversations about our welfare pasts, presents, and futures to take place.   

In many ways the activities – the zinemaking and the walkshops – were crucial anchors for all of us, providing a creative and/or invigorating social activity.  They helped us all find registers of communication that do not exclude or presume familiarity with particular fields of knowledge. Yet, despite our best efforts to curate an inclusive public sociology event, we (inevitably perhaps) encountered some problems. We faced difficulties in ensuring equality of access in two of the venues. The networks, interfaces and format of the ‘academic event’ proved more enduring than we anticipated and we found ourselves, at times, frustrated to find ourselves unthinkingly reproducing academic language (with all its exclusions and assumptions) in ways that must have been alienating for some. What were the gaps between different kinds of experts in the series and how did these shape the day? And what else could we have done to flatten those?  

Indeed, it was through the troubling of this idea of the ‘academic expert’ that some of the central insights about welfare and welfare research were generated.  Throughout the series, academics emerged at several key points as sometimes being “the problem” (or at least “a problem”) – complicit in reproducing damaging ideas, parachuting in to do research ‘on’ welfare claimants rather than ‘with’ them, presuming knowledge and using jargon, going for the ‘easy wins’ and preaching to the converted. Importantly, such critiques came not only from non-academic speakers but academic speakers who reflected on not just the limitations of their work but the risks that academic work may inadvertently reproduce stubborn welfare myths and categorisations of the ‘deserving and undeserving’ poor. Such reflections resonate with warnings made elsewhere that ‘public sociology’ can often remain ‘wishful thinking’ – something academics advocate and aspire to but do not always practice

The most difficult (and we would argue, valuable) moments of discussion and debate were those where different perspectives and experiences collided – uncomfortably, even painfully – with one another.  We have to find ways to stay with those collisions, and to think through why we disagree and what imaginative work we need to do to reach out to one another. Public sociology will fail if we can only discuss social problems and solutions with those we know we already agree with.

Whether we were successful at disrupting the formats and hierarchies of academic space is less certain. At times, voices and viewpoints clashed with one another, leading us to ask ourselves – how do we create a space that values different types of expertise, identities and experiences of precarity?  What imaginative work do we need to do to create and sustain such a space?  In an era of taut uncertainty, our welfare imaginaries remain coiled around notions of deservingness which permeate every aspect of social and political life.  It is difficult to ensure that situated experiences of welfare are heard equally, and the danger is that some experiences become lost amidst the tensions. 

We were struck by the care with which questions of welfare and welfare provision were discussed and debated, and the inevitable heat that was generated around specific themes or questions.  In this moment of economic instability, where we can already feel the looming consequences of Brexit, and after a decade of welfare austerity, the notion of welfare ‘deservingness’ feels more powerful than ever.  Classifications of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ welfare subjects have long been implicated in – and reproductive of – racialised, gendered and classed processes of othering and devaluation. In the current moment we have seen these become fiercely reanimated through reinvigorated xenophobia and racism, in the weaponisation of disability stigma, in the commonsense that poverty is a legitimate consequence for socially recalcitrant groups. These are the coils of deservingness we were all trying to prise open.  We could feel the tension in the room building in some panels and discussions.  These tensions document the complexity of pro-, anti- and post-welfare imaginaries that we have sought to unravel and explore in the series.  Are there any easy ways to map these?  How might, for example, pro-welfare imaginaries nonetheless reproduce exclusions?  How might a welfare future based on conditionality reproduce ableist exclusions?  How might a welfare future based on citizenship reproduce racist exclusions? These were painful moments of tension that required a careful picking over and ‘feeling your way’ – and perhaps the only resolution can be to continue to listen and learn from one another.

We found it so valuable to be thinking outside of academic formats and presentations, and to include artists and activists at the centre of every event.  These helped us find registers which help us to ‘imagine differently’ – playfully, creatively but also registers of emotion and connection, with experience and activism.  These activities helped us sustain our ‘sociological ears’ and to practice sociological listening which takes private troubles seriously, and recognises that the meanings we give to private troubles might be inconsistent, distorted and problematic.  It is these imaginative registers that might help us to bring these welfare questions to those who are anti-welfare, or otherwise uninterested or disengaged – the very audiences that public sociology needs to be reaching out to now more than ever. 

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