Natalie Partridge and Gemma Molyneux are third year Sociology PhD students at Newcastle University. Gemma and Natalie are also the 2021/22 Sociology PGR Representatives to Student Voice Committee. On Tuesday 28th June 2022, they took PGRs from across Geography, Politics and Sociology out for an away day to Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats. This post shares some visual minutes from the day.
Dr Lisa Garforth is a senior lecturer and the Postgraduate Research Director for Sociology at Newcastle University. Recently, our colleague Audrey Verma and her collaborator JC Niala ran the Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene symposium. In the second of two related blog posts, Lisa links themes from the event to her work on imagining green futures. This post is based on a conversation with Natalie Partridge who transcribed it and helped frame the ideas.
My work has for a long time explored how we imagine better futures in relation to nature and the environment and how sustainable societies might look. Although a lot of environmentalism is about crisis, loss and fear for the future, there have also been philosophies, policies, polemics and fictions trying to envision a different model of human wellbeing and a different relationship with nature. Much of radical ecopolitical thought and writing since the 1960s has said that there can be better ways of living with, and in, ‘more-than-human’ communities – with a focus on connection, care and caution rather than the emphasis in much of the global North on consumption, commodities and economic growth.
The idea of the Anthropocene is a moment of realisation or recognition that what we conventionally call ‘nature’ has been thoroughly made and remade by social actions and systems. In scientific terms, the Anthropocene marks the point at which humans supposedly become geological actors and when the outcomes of human impacts become threatening to all planetary life. So, older ideas about saving or caring for nature, or saving ourselves, by getting closer to nature, become problematic in two main ways. The notion of a separate nature becomes extremely unstable, and the idea that we can make or remake the future is undermined by the earth system threats already in train.
The climate-changed future
There’s something about the physical dynamics of climate change, in particular, that erodes the space for imagining better futures. The emissions that are probably going to cause global temperature rises, sea level rises, and climate chaos have already happened. Without major geo-engineering this can only be mitigated, not removed. The climate changed future is already unfolding in the present. The climate modelling that explains these dynamics induces a constant sense of belatedness: the right time to act for a better or at least liveable world has always already passed. The solutions currently proposed by technoscience entrepreneurs and neoliberal government policy tell us that all we need is more of the same: technology, economic expansion, efficiency logics.
So what kinds of utopian imaginary are possible in relation to climate change and the Anthropocene? I think speculative fiction has done a lot to speak to us about alternative Anthropocene futures with utopian dimensions. The cliched image of contemporary futures in science fiction is dystopian blight and post-apocalyptic ruin. It can be easy to dismiss darker future visions as nihilistic or failing to inspire action. But that flattens all dystopias into a monolithic pessimistic message and assumes that post-apocalyptic scenarios are literal predictions. Good speculative fiction is much richer and more complex than that – and so are its readers.
Dystopias and utopias: A different way of thinking
A different way of thinking about speculative fiction is as a kind of lay sociology of what John Urry calls “probable, possible and desirable” post-carbon futures. Speculative fiction creates alternative worlds in text. As readers, we can use them to explore what it might feel like to live in very different kinds of societies. In the last thirty years, many of the best science fiction writers have been the most utopian, and also the most sociologically astute: Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler. Between them, they have written compelling social-ecological futures – often apocalyptic or dystopian, but always insisting that we can, and should, imagine better ways of living and being.
Butler was one of the earliest science fiction writers to extrapolate the social and political implications of climate change in the context of social and racial injustice, anticipating current tensions emerging in California over land and water use and contemporary authoritarian and populist politics. Kim Stanley Robinson has approached environmental and climate challenges with an unflagging but always adapting utopianism in his fiction over the last 30 years. ‘Utopian’ here doesn’t just mean formal visions of sustainability and security. It means refusing the anti-anti-utopianism that says things can only stay the same or get worse. Thinking about hope and resistance for the Anthropocene, we are going to need all the positive resources we can get to change an unsustainable, climate disrupted global capitalist system. These novels can help both publics and sociologists imagine it otherwise.
Dr Lisa Garforth is a senior lecturer and the Postgraduate Research Director for Sociology at Newcastle University. Recently, our colleague Audrey Verma and her collaborator JC Niala ran the Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene symposium. They drew together interdisciplinary, intersectional and diverse papers to reflect not just on “life and loss in the Anthropocene” but also on “what sustains us and what it means in practice and theory to be citizens and humans in these trying times.” In the first of two related blog posts, Lisa links this with ideas from contemporary utopian theory. This post is based on a conversation with Natalie Partridge who transcribed it and helped frame the ideas.
One of the real pleasures of Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene was hearing anthropologists, systems ecologists, biologists and many other researchers thread conceptual ideas about prospects for making better more-than-human societies and communities through their work. We heard from Matthew H. John about how concerns over the loss of natural beauty might stimulate better thinking about environmental challenges (‘Radical relationalities, possible futures: Reimagining experiences of beauty-of-place in nature’), and from Lyn Baldwin about using place-based learning and art to mobilise new forms of connection and care in relation to bee conservation.
It was exciting to hear about projects looking empirically for hope for a better future and resistance to current Anthropocene realities. It can be helpful to think about these issues in relation to utopia – which I see as encompassing a range of cognitive and affective imaginaries and desires for things to be different.
I define utopianism broadly. It can include individual ideas and feelings that collective life can and should be different (however weak or fleeting). It includes more worked up visions of better collective futures, like formal utopian novels. In relation to politics, it can encompass the desires for change that so often infuse activism and social movements. And there are multiple social sites where people try to live everyday life differently that we can think of as utopian.
I find Ruth Levitas’s idea that utopia can be a method or hermeneutic helpful – a practiced and disciplined way of understanding social life oriented towards better futures. It’s a way of understanding the world rooted in everyday social experiences in worlds that are far from perfect. This method can also be taken up by social theorists trying to understand both how the world is and how it could be. That critical and creative tension between what is and what might be, between present and the future, is where utopia works.
Staying playful and creative
Often utopia is criticised as a way of trying to impose rigid social structures on people – blueprints and totalitarian regimes. At the other extreme it is written off as unrealistic and silly – daydreams and fantasies. Contemporary utopian theory celebrates utopia as process, journey and critique rather than endorsing specific endpoints and blueprints. Sometimes social scientists’ thoughts are either dismissive of utopia’s wild dreaminess and lack of realism or seek to domesticate it by only valuing realistic utopias. But for me, this risks missing the value of utopianism which lies in the playful, creative and excessive character of imagining otherwise – in its refusal of reality and realism.
This can and should often have an otherworldly or fantastical character. A creative refusal of realism is also often a moment of social critique, enriching the progressive imagination. Utopian visions can inform and enliven policy proposals. But you can’t reduce utopia to policy proposals – and policy proposals can’t and shouldn’t be utopian. So that raises the question of what utopia might have to do with sociology.
Speculative thinking in sociology
In my experience contemporary critical and qualitative sociology is primarily concerned with people’s experiences and struggles in current social circumstances. In the discipline’s formal origins, there was, by contrast, the ambitious confidence of Comte that it could predict and manage the future. We are rightly sceptical of this positivism now. In the post-war period critical social theories have maintained a broadly utopian interest in understanding contemporary social structures and dynamics by insisting things could be otherwise. But I share with Ruth Levitas a sense that sociology as a discipline has not often engaged with explicitly speculative thinking.
Levitas’s answer is to encourage sociologists and sociology to become overtly and committedly utopian, to get involved with imagining and describing proposals for better societies, not just exploring what is wrong with how we live now. She argues for a utopian sociology that would work in what she calls the ‘architectural’ mode – building and making visionary alternatives. But I am just as interested in a sociology of utopia, linked with what Levitas calls ‘archaeological’ utopianism, or the digging up and examining of utopianism in the wider society. Sociology – social thought, making critical sense of the social world that we’re in – is not constrained to professional or disciplinary practice. Undisciplined, creative, speculative sociologies can be infused with a utopianism and resistance to the real in ways that might complement and extend academic sociology in vital ways in the face of the climate crisis.
Natalie Partridge is a second year Sociology PhD student at Newcastle University. Here, Natalie introduces a forthcoming mini-series of posts by Dr Lisa Garforth and shares some insights from the event Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, hosted by Audrey Verma and JC Niala.
Greenhouse gas emissions, plastic pollution, deforestation… These familiar yet hopeless images beam into our living rooms and mobile devices on an increasingly regular basis. Anyone who has watched a David Attenborough documentary recently will have come away with the uncomfortable sense that human beings are affecting the planet in multiple, unpredictable ways.
For many, though, the word “Anthropocene” might not mean very much. In a quick canvas of some friends about whether they’d heard the term, responses ranged from “no, I don’t think so,” to sarcastic, frowning-face gifs.
This is a rich and complex concept which I am conscious not to oversimplify. The Anthropocene is a proposed geological age, the ‘human’ age, if you like, borne of the suggestion that humans’ (relatively short) time on earth has been impactful enough to warrant definition as a distinct epoch. The shape of the Anthropocene remains contested. Some argue that it began in the 1950s. For others, it doesn’t exist at all. Many debates about Anthropocene life also problematise human existence as conflictual with the world we live in. Within this, ‘nature’ might be conceptualised as separate from the human world. This can feel jarring and destructive, evoking dystopian images of the future.
It’s good, then, to find ways to talk about hope.
Feelings of hope and resistance
The symposium Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, organised by Audrey Verma and JC Niala, was held online on the 19th February 2021. The day was divided into sixteen short talks pinpointing reasons for hope and examples of resistance in the face of ‘climate disaster’. Speakers and attendees tackled topics such as ecological grief and loss, inequalities, the reponsibilisation of individuals and local communities, the role of structural issues and the impact on policy interventions, political and economic ideologies and systems like neo-liberalism and capitalism, colonial pasts, social connections to land and vulnerability. All practitioner contributions were also fantastic, including creative arts-based research, poetry, and botanical illustration to the event.
Each talk was vivid and question-generating: What do we mean when we talk about social justice? How do we understand human relationships to the non-human world, including ecological grief and ecological loss? In which ways might we collectively process and reflect on climate change and other overlapping challenges? How do we conceptualise a shared future for humans and non-humans? How do we recognise each other’s needs as our own?
The Hope and Resistance presenters also consistently challenged narratives which oppose humans and non-humans. Discussions explored the reconceptualisation of the human-non-human relationship as something reciprocal. In fact, for Matthew H. John, “the Anthropocene is nothing if not a crisis of relationship” between humans and the planet. John argued that natural beauty has relational capacities, and the ability to create space for relationships to form between the self, others and the beautiful.
Through her work on crane conservation in and around the Korean Demilitarized Zone, Myung Ae Choi explored the ways in which the lives of cranes, farmers, ornithologists, conservationists and computer engineers are entangled in and amongst the rice field ecosystem. Myung Ae Choi addressed the perception that nature is something to be “squeezed out for our own benefit”, or something to be cared for or saved. Instead, her work explored surprising visions of a shared future, prompting co-host JC Niala to suggest that perhaps shared vulnerability can be a source of shared hope.
Imagining better futures
Our Postgraduate Research Director, Dr Lisa Garforth, also gave a conceptual talk tying together threads from sociology, fiction, green utopianism and radical eco-philosophy to explore the idea of ‘utopia’. I caught up with Lisa afterwards to find out a little bit more about how imagined futures might offer a way for sociologists (and others!) to reflect on their place in the Anthropocene. Our conversation covered more ground than we could hope to condense into a single post. So, in the two posts that follow, Lisa shares her impressions of the Hope and Resistance symposium, and insights from her work on speculative fiction and utopianism. Lisa’s focus is one important aspect: imagining better futures.
Alexandra Bannon is a 2nd year Undergraduate Sociology student at Newcastle University. She reflects on the role Newcastle’s West End Refugee Service has played in supporting refugees in Newcastle, following participating in an eye-opening refugee week webinar.
Taking part in the WERS refugee week webinar and reading the highly emotive personal stories of some of their clients has sparked some reflections about the refugee week theme of ‘imagine’. It became evident from the accounts that for many individuals who find or are referred to WERS, their first encounter with the service is that of a crucial lifeline amongst the chaotic and volatile nature of their situation. For many, it is a last resort, beginning their relationship with the organisation as a one-way form of support but results in clients staying and developing a rich relationship with the organisation, creating a culture of hospitality and leaving clients wanting to help others in the same way. In addition, after experiencing the ever-growing commitment, community and trust, WERS becomes a place of sanctuary, safety and family, instilling hope and providing a place for people to begin to imagine a better life for themselves within Newcastle.
The success of the befriending scheme transcends the accounts, exhibiting it as an invaluable part of the client’s lives. This well-established initiative provides one-on-one support to the clients through dedicated volunteers, aiding them in everyday activities, reading letters, phone calls and day trips. It is evident from the accounts that the consistency of this project is a way for clients to feel empowered and in control of their lives in Newcastle and indeed allows them to imagine a life for themselves within the city. The hope instilled through this programme and through Ali as not only a support worker but as an example of a fulfilled future in Newcastle, shows the potential for this city to become a place of sanctuary for many. The webinar exhibited the organisations commitment to this scheme, showing how due to the current pandemic the need for befrienders has become even more necessary and so a remote befriending scheme has been implemented. This consists of regular phone calls between volunteers and clients, enriching activities, and remote meet ups. The unprecedented times that we find ourselves in, becomes even more volatile in the context of refugee lives, therefore this scheme enables clients to have some routine and consistency within their lives and actually becomes a simultaneous support network for both the clients and volunteers, enabling them both to imagine a life outside of lockdown.
The term intersectionality was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) to explore the multitude of oppressions that African American women face as a result of their intersecting identities of race and gender. The concept’s ability to adapt to differing forms of social oppression makes it a successful framework to use to understand and support refugee lives. This concept significantly resonated with me whilst reading these accounts, particularly in the context of refugee mothers who use WERS services and is something I am increasingly interested in as a soon to be third year Sociology student. Often the norms and values of host countries contradict the culturally sanctioned customs of refugee’s home countries, rendering women significantly marginalised within host countries and in need of additional support.
One particular account expressed the importance of WERS providing the Bititi project to mothers and their children who are trying to navigate parenthood in an unfamiliar setting. This initiative empowers women and administers access to services within their houses when they need it most. It is clear from the accounts that this project is a crucial lifeline for these women as it successfully recognises them as doubly oppressed victims and enables them to reach their full intersectional power. Furthermore, COVID-19 has put substantial pressure on all parents and the multifaceted intersectional nature of refugee mothers has made them doubly isolated, as mentioned by Hannah, WERS’s volunteer project manager, during the webinar. The lockdown has seen WERS identify women in need through the remote befriending scheme and working closely with welfare education services they have provided activity packs for families. Relieving pressure for refugee mothers to entertain their children in this challenging time. I believe the continuation of this dedicated support both normally and during this health crisis is what it takes to encourage refugee mothers to recognise their power and WERS as an organisation not only provides a space to empower them as intersectional subjects but enables them to imagine and believe in their own potential.
All in all, participating in the webinar, crafting specific questions for Ali and Hannah and reading the clients stories has been a hugely enriching and insightful experience for me. Something that particularly resonated with me was the ever-growing networks surrounding WERS and their extended community. Whether that be the refugee communities who inform newcomers of WERS services or the interdisciplinary nature of WERS relationship with local organisations in order to identify and provide the upmost support for their clients. In short, it is evident that although there is always more work to be done, Newcastle, with WERS at its heart really does have the potential to be a place of imagination and sanctuary for all who need it.
Crenshaw, K. (1989) “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, issue 1, article 8, 139-167. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Silvia Pasquetti and Cathrine Degnen are Sociology staff members at Newcastle University. Here they write about the experiences of asylum seekers in Newcastle, and the role the West End Refugee Service has played in supporting them over the past two decades. (In addition to writing this blog, Silvia and Cate took part in a webinar with WERS to mark its 20th anniversary. This can be viewed here.)
Sauda is a refugee from Burundi who has lived in Newcastle since 2004. Like many other asylum seekers who were “dispersed” in Newcastle in the early 2000s, Sauda’s early experiences of and in the city, were troubling and disorienting. Newcastle had become an asylum-dispersal city in the late 1990s as a result of the Home Office policy to “disperse” asylum seekers outside the London area. Yet, the globally displaced people arriving in Newcastle had, at that time, little institutional or social support. They struggled to find people who spoke their languages or understood their experiences of displacement. They felt isolated and uncertain about the environment around them.
For example, Sauda was initially “dispersed to Angel Heights,” a now-closed accommodation for single refugee women on Westgate Road opposite to the main hospital. Before becoming an asylum centre for refugee women mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, Angel Heights hosted up to a hundred single Afghani men. Before that, it was a nurses’ hostel. In the chapter that she dedicates to “the politics of dispersal” in Newcastle in her book Human Cargo (2006), Caroline Moorehead describes Angel Heights as “both decent and dreadful; both humane and cruel.” What impressed Moorehead the most was the silence: “Angel Heights is a waiting room, a building in which nothing happens. Few of its inhabitants speak English, and few can speak to each other…Forbidden to work, they [the refugee women] have literally nothing to do; nothing, that is, except to worry…They sit alone in large rooms full of cobalt-blue chairs in rows; they stand in the corridors; they queue by the single payphone. Angel Heights is quiet; when the women speak, they speak in whispers” (p. 147).
Despite the isolation wrapped around her, it is at Angel Heights that Sauda heard from another resident about the existence of the West End Refugee Service (WERS). This informal conversation was the beginning of a more positive experience of refuge for Sauda. For that is to say, about six years after Newcastle became an asylum-dispersal city, Sauda had tapped into a growing network of support in which the local residents who eventually founded WERS in 1999 were key actors. These residents were not particularly expert in refugee law or human rights issues. Yet, they took note of all the changes and challenges that the arrival of globally displaced people brings to a city. In a way, even when the language of sanctuary or protection was not explicitly used, these local Newcastle residents started to work to transform an asylum-dispersal site created through top-down policies that are often (willingly or neglectfully) convoluted, fragmented, and contradictory into a city of sanctuary where refugees can rebuild new lives, and local residents can also grow in knowledge of and involvement in global issues of injustice.
This network was and still is striving to produce, solidify, and expand an environment of possibilities and growth for newly arrived refugees in the city. Each achievement brings a new challenge. Historical events such as the global financial crisis, Brexit, and, more recently the covid-19 outbreak, risk setting the clock backward endangering some of the achievements reached gradually and with a lot of hard work against racist and anti-migrant practices and discourses. Yet, the case of WERS demonstrates that positive change can and often is effected from below in everyday life through everyday communication. Sauda’s experience of WERS in the last fifteen years confirms the importance of such a network of support. It traces the way forward for newly arrived refugees who, unlike for her 15 years ago, often find a richer urban environment in both social and institutional opportunities. This trajectory emerges from how Sauda describes her encounter with WERS, an encounter that for her stood in stark contrast with her experience of dread and isolation at Angel Heights:
I went [to WERS] and got some clothes from their store. WERS made me feel so welcome and I really liked what they were doing. I came back and asked to volunteer. I have now volunteered on and off for WERS for 14 years which I still really enjoy doing. My experience of being in the UK would have been so very difficult without WERS. I feel I had the whole team by my side fighting with me to get my leave to stay in the UK. WERS has provided counselling, a weekend break at a Friary with David the counsellor and Helen from WERS, where I was able to relax. I still have very fond memories of the experience, I will never forget it! WERS more recently referred me to Wise Steps and this has aided me to develop my skills and become more confident in my abilities!
Over the past year, we have been working with WERS to tell more of this complex and still evolving story of its role and presence in the community here in Newcastle. We have been listening to and learning from the voices and experiences of the people who make WERS what it is – founding members, volunteers, support groups, refugees turned into volunteers, and members of the broader local community – who first embarked in a transformative journey for themselves and the city where they lived. Our reflections in this blog post draw on our research interviews conducted this year as part of this work, and from 20 biographical stories of WERS clients that were assembled to commemorate the past 20 years of the service. Called “20 years, 20 stories”, these personal accounts come from refugees and asylum seekers. They are their own reflections on their experiences with and at WERS. These individuals have arrived in Newcastle from Zimbabwe, Algeria, Eritrea, Iran, Burundi, Nigeria, Israel, India, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Iraq, Iran, Cameroon and Nigeria. They are women and men recounting their own stories of the refugee and asylum seeking process in contemporary Britain, and specifically in the northeast of England.
This permits us to research and tell the story of WERS from both historical and contemporary perspectives, through memories of the past and activities of the present. Both these personal narratives and the interviews with WERS stakeholders, staff, and founding members make clear the deep and pernicious challenges that people seeking refuge and asylum face in Britain. The system is cold, it is harsh, and it is often an impenetrable, faceless bureaucracy. There is a designed intentionality in this experience, the government’s so-called “hostile environment”, and it does damage to one’s humanity.
In marked contrast, WERS is described time and time again by the people who come to it as offering a haven, as feeling like home. This is attributed in part to key things that WERS helps with (such as finding housing, finding a solicitor, registering with a GP, attending hospital appointments, understanding letters and paperwork, and making support payments), and the supplies it can provide (including clothing, bedding, toiletries, food parcels, and items to furnish one’s home). This assistance helps individuals who attend WERS, but also evident in the testimonies are the positive ways in which this impact ripples out into families as children, parents and siblings also benefit from the support and advice delivered by WERS.
But whilst these forms of assistance help generate a sense of home, it is also the connections of reliability and trust that emerge from the testimonies: “WERS has been with me all the way through good times and bad and never gave up on me. WERS is not just a place to get things.” This sense of connection that WERS creates is present in Sauda’s words above, and attributed by many of the “20 years, 20 lives” participants to the humanising atmosphere that is built at WERS. People use “safe”, “trust”, “happy”, and “it takes stress away” as words to describe how the space at WERS makes them feel, as well as these words to describe it:
“Being a part of WERS helps you to feel integrated and part of the society you are living in, not just the asylum process.”
“Ali and Helen’s faces, it makes me feel a part of something and not just an asylum seeker. Familiarity is rare when claiming asylum, there is so much that is unknown.”
“Coming to WERS has helped me to feel better about myself. Being amongst people, being able to talk and feel relaxed has helped a lot. Just being able to sit and watch people helping each other makes me feel happy, less isolated and more a part of life.”
“WERS has helped me to remain responsible, keep my dignity and independence!”
“I am able to dress in smart suits from the store when I attend church or group meetings. I don’t have to beg and ask others for bus fare to Middlesbrough. Without WERS I would have lost these things which are so important to me.”
“Thank you for WERS you have given me my life back!”
Forced displacement ruptures the connections that knit us into place. Isolation, the unknowns of the asylum process and the loss of control over everyday circumstances can be profoundly dehumanising. These challenges can and do feel insurmountable and unyielding at times. But what we have learned from the memories of the recent past here in Newcastle and the activities of the present is how WERS mobilises its energies into a focus on emotional wellbeing, and dignity, alongside practical assistance. Both are key elements that help people like Sauda rebuild their lives by opening a possibility of sanctuary, and a possibility of becoming knit into place once again.
Emma Seddon is a PhD student in sociology at Newcastle University, with a background in languages and translation. Her research looks at the translation industry and translators as a professional group. Here she reflects on the Sociological Review’s recent conference in Gateshead.
The Sociological Review went out on a limb at this year’s conference: “Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges” (18-21 June 2018). They wanted to encourage discussion and collaboration across disciplines in a conference with a difference. This “undisciplining” took various forms. The venue itself, far from being your average convention centre, was the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead – a converted flour mill. The itinerary included challenging keynotes and panels, as well as walking tours, films, board-making and practical workshops. The conference was not only “undisciplining” in name, this was fundamental to every aspect of the event. It fell somewhere between festival, exhibition and academic conference. From the beginning, Michaela Benson, the managing editor, made a clear statement that not only the conference, but also the journal did not limit itself to Sociology the discipline with a big “S”, but was committed to the sociological more broadly.
The journal’s manifesto calls for research which is “demonstrably alive”; aware of the consequences and politics of its standpoint; seeks to open up discussion and avenues for action; and doesn’t simply aim to fill a gap in the literature. This ethos was key to the opening discussion and was referenced across the three days. It’s quite unusual for a journal to have a manifesto, but this seemed aligned with such an “undisciplined” event. The theme of the conference and the spirit of the manifesto made it feel like a true call to action.
This came through in the keynotes, given by Dr Ayona Datta and Professor Jenny Reardon. Dr Datta gave the opening keynote “Undisciplining Urban Futures” – in which she discussed her work on Indian “smart cities”. She spoke of “futuring” as a strategy of governance that sought to rescale nationhood at the scale of the urban, and brought together discourses and practices at global, national and local levels. She explored the idea of a digital class and the relationship between social mobility and technology in India, asking a poignant question: “whose urban futures are we referring to?”
Prof Reardon gave the closing keynote – “When Prairie Meets Genome” – and discussed completely different concerns and themes to Dr Datta, exemplifying the “undisciplined” nature of this conference. As part of her research, she is cycling across her home state of Kansas. Here, cycling becomes a method, an embodied form of knowing that allows her as a researcher to ask ontological and epistemological questions by engaging with a certain space, and the people – and things – within it. Her talk covered clashes between political ideals and convictions, environmental disasters, refute and subsequent acceptance of climate change, and the silent absence of indigenous peoples, among other things.
The conference also included the Sociological Review’s Annual Lecture 2018 given by Professor Satnam Virdee: “Unthinking Sociology and Overcoming its History Deficit”. For me, this was the most challenging and fascinating talk of the conference. He started by unpacking the Eurocentric beginnings of social theory and described the culturally syncretic roots of the Renaissance. He aimed to show the importance of history and how looking historically at the intertwined issues of race and class can help shed some light on the rise of reactionary populism we see today, particularly in the US and UK.
The two keynotes and the annual lecture, although presenting different subject matter, nonetheless had something fundamental in common: a desire to extend or go beyond disciplinary definitions of the sociological, the social, and what should be studied sociologically. I came away from the conference with more questions than answers – and I think that was the point. It challenged and questioned what the discipline of sociology is and what it can – and should – do. It questioned the disciplinary barriers between sociology and other fields that deal with the sociological. It started a conversation about what foregrounding the sociological means, and challenged me not to shy away from what may be uncomfortable truths. Ultimately, it showed me what it means to do research that is “demonstrably alive”, and I think the value of that, especially during the long, lonely days of your PhD, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Adrienne Attorp blogs about her first academic conference, following a windswept journey to Cornell.
As a first-year PhD student I was not sure what to expect from my first academic conference. The Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (TARRN) is “a collaborative network of social scientists in North America and Europe conducting original research on rural transformation and rural policies”. The main aim of the network is to undertake comparative research on rural transformations in the US and UK. Each year the group meets to discuss new and ongoing research being conducting by network members, and to act as a “springboard” for new research that is in line with the network’s aims. I’m told it’s not a “typical” academic conference but it was a great introduction for me, particularly as I was able to give a paper myself. This year the network meeting was hosted by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and I attended along with four academics from Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. Nothing at all against Aberystwyth (last year’s hosts) or Aberdeen (next year’s hosts), but there is something rather exciting about taking a trans-Atlantic flight in order to get to a conference, and I for one was delighted that it was Cornell’s turn. Never mind that a fierce nor’easter shut down the entire eastern seaboard the day most of us travelled over, meaning that more than one of us had to go on a magical mystery tour of European and American airports before finally arriving in Ithaca (I highly recommend Detroit’s airport). We did all get there in the end!
I spent the days leading up to the event preparing to have my underdeveloped ideas torn to shreds by the seasoned academics in attendance, most of whom are leaders in the field of rural sociology. Thankfully, I was spared humiliation; it turns out that TARRN works to actively support new and experienced academics alike, and this meeting was no exception. I am pleased to report I didn’t have any rotten tomatoes thrown at me, nor did anyone tell me I am stupid (I cannot confirm no one thought this, but I choose to remain comfortable in my ignorance). Instead, I received a great deal of thoughtful, constructive feedback, which left me feeling motivated and inspired.
TARRN meetings aim to maximise idea sharing. Participants present ‘think pieces’, each written with a view to stimulating debate and sparking future research. This is followed by round table discussion on the topic – an opportunity for people to ask questions, provide feedback, and suggest ideas for future research and collaboration. There are also short presentations about attendees’ current research again followed by round table discussion. This offered those who wished it an opportunity to receive valuable feedback about their research from their fellow academics. The conference room was abuzz with exciting ideas, and everyone seemed energised.
To me, the TARRN meeting felt like what academia should be about: idea sharing and collaboration, for the benefit of all. For why do we research if not to learn about the world and how it works, in order to help make it a better place? And therefore, if our research is indeed for “the greater good”, should we not, as academics, be helping further each other’s work as much as we can? Perhaps it is naïve of me to believe this. I am aware of academia’s competitive, cut-throat reputation, and maybe after another three years of PhD study I will become jaded. However, I hold out hope, because the TARRN meeting demonstrated to me that academia can be positive, supportive, and collaborative. I am already looking forward to next year’s meeting in Aberdeen, which, although not as exotic as New York, will at least not take two days to travel to.
Poster created from my MA Dissertation for the BSA conference 2018