We Must Revoke Silences and Confront the Clamour of Common Sense

By Nick Emmel

Special Section on Future Sociologies

As I listened to the speakers at the recent Future Sociologies: Challenges to Practice, Policy and Politics event held Leeds I was reminded of Paulo Friere’s account of the liberatory problem-posing education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The next morning, still thinking about the ideas raised, I took my copy of Friere’s book down from the bookshelf and read it again. The times are so different now in neo-liberal austerity Britain, I know, from the optimism of 1960s Latin America and of liberation theology. Nonetheless, like then, so much of the education delivered today is about banking information, producing a myth of reality that conceals certain facts ‘which explains why people live in the world‘. It perpetuates existing knowledge and oppressive systems. Friere’s distinction between banking and problem-posing education is a message as important today as when Friere wrote his manifesto. An education that poses problems, seeks to uncover silences, names the forces that perpetuate ways of knowing about the world, and sucks out the nutrients that sustain false accounts of the social world were at the heart of the speakers’ presentations.

For me, two presentations, exemplified the importance of naming the world to bring about change. Gurminder K. Bhambra talked about the industrial revolution, which seemed apposite given we sat in the Tetley Brewery site on the banks of the River Aire in Leeds, right at the heart of the explosion of mechanisation, production, urbanisation and the flood of people to the slums and factories of the 1840s. Her case was Lancashire cotton (not Yorkshire wool—but the same story could have been told with deported convicts to Australia and Chinese workers). Bhambra demolished the myth of an innovative, pulsing Western-centric industrial revolution. She placed it firmly in the global productive forces of slavery upon which it depended. These slaves (and convicts and Chinese workers) have been written out of our narrative history.

In a similar way Andrew McGettigan, who listens in on the work of Tory intellectuals Oliver Letwin and David Willets, emphasised their deeply held belief that the policies they implement, like the £9000 p.a. student loans for tuition fees, increase equity, they do not exacerbates inequalities. I gasped, as maybe you will when you pause and reread this sentence. But once one recognises that Letwin and Willets build on ideas of choice—this generation can choose to continue into higher education in a way that previous generations could not—and human capital—students are investing in theirs and society’s future prosperity—then these ideas start to make some sense.

Indeed, commentaries, like James Bartholomew’s recent paean to love inequality in the Daily Telegraph start to make sense. Bartholomew argues welfare provision has unintended consequence, it exacerbates unhappiness through encouraging worklessness, divorce, through ‘subsidising childcare, lone parenting and [loneliness through] state care for the elderly’. Unhappiness is far worse than unemployment. In Bartholomew’s logic, the more people who are in work the happier they are. This is a justification for a state that places investment in human capital at the heart of its strategies while hacking back the welfare state. The notion of human capital, as an investment in peoples’ productive capacity so they are better off, generate more tax revenue, are healthier, and live in a less crime ridden society is very similar, epistemologically, to the simple formula work = happiness that underwrites Bartholomew’s commentary. They are both obviously common sense. Antonio Gramsci summed up the problem with common sense, it is the stratified deposits of ‘well-tried knowledge, customary beliefs, wise sayings, popular nostrums and prejudices’.

Many social scientists know this, which is a why, when Kirsteen Paton recounted her research of the gentrification of housing in Paisley, Glasgow, she started with description and ended with action. Paton talked of craft, of the influence of C Wright Mills, and of the role of the social scientist in bringing history into relation with biography. And in a similar way, Mark Monaghan showed why the critical interpretation of social science is invaluable to understand evidence. It is not enough to demand evidence, as David Blunkett did, to inform policy without recognising that evidence has to capture the complexity of lived experience. A neatly arranged hierarchy of evidence, providing convincing accounts (well, when the P-value is small anyway) about what works is quite insufficient. Using an example of the increased production of opium in Afghanistan as his case, Monaghan showed how massive investment to decrease opium production by international governments had quite the opposite effect, which he attributed to common sense solutions and an unwillingness to engage with complex questions about what works for whom in what circumstances and why.

Such questions are, of course, invariably emancipatory in one way or another, because they seek to get at social relations to address social justice. When Les Back talked about his analysis with the REF (Research Evaluation Framework) Sociology impact cases he found that 20% of the cases were emancipatory, 80% supported the status quo. This seemed right in one way, a Pareto distribution mirroring many of the patterns of inequality across the world. But profoundly wrong in another way, only 20% of the impact cases submitted to a Sociology panel really sought to bring about change. Elspeth Probyn and Bev Skeggs both reminded us how sociology (and social policy) must be the critical voice for our students and more widely. Andrew McGettigan observed how ill-equipped social scientists frequently are to address the critical questions they must answer. And I was drawn back to Paulo Friere’s work again and the idea central to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, silences. Tom Campbell posed a question at some point during the day ‘What is sociology for?” Friere reminds us that ‘human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words… To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. This, I think, is the future for sociology and the social sciences, we must revoke silences and confront the clamour of common sense.

Nick Emmel is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. He tweets at @NickEmmel

Originally posted 21st September 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: