Notes from the Social Science Imagination course, Autumn 2015.
Lucy and I planned the course together, meeting in a pub near the Witham river in the centre of Lincoln. She brought her knowledge of running training sessions for voluntary sector organisations, while I was trying to unlearn how to be a university professor.
This was to be a free course for anyone who wanted to learn more about how the social world works and how we can change it, with the help of social science.
The format was to be open and encouraging, taking a lead from the reading and people’s life experiences. The course would be taught in an informal environment that is inclusive, and that encourages and supports participants to share and think about their experiences. Both teachers and students are considered scholars who can learn a lot from each other. Everyone doing the course was to be encouraged and supported to read authors who have written about their concerns, and to write short essays setting out their own ideas.
We wanted to encourage participants to think about ideas, problems and issues that are important to them based on their own life experiences. Rather than viewing these experiences solely as individual problems, which can often overwhelm us and make us feel powerless to act, we wanted the course to consider how we can make connections between the individual problems we face in our everyday lives and wider public issues that affect us all, such as cuts to public services, rising food prices, and racism, sexism and homophobia in daily life.
The course was based on a close reading C. Wright Mill’s The Sociological Imagination. This book provides a framework for thinking about our own life experiences and understanding the world around us in a way that gives us confidence rather than feelings of frustration, fear, anxiety and indifference. For Mills, it was important to understand how our personal lives are affected by power in the wider society and how, by making these connections, we can start to overcome the difficulties we face individually and collectively.
The group was made up of Laura, Lucy, Mahmood, Andrew, Wendy and Mike.
During the first session in early October we agreed some principles for the course: there was to be no pressure to share our thoughts, feelings, beliefs or experiences; we would respect the confidentiality among those present and notes from the meetings were to be published on website. These notes will be read aloud and agreed at the end of the meeting. What follows is an excerpt from the notes that we taken during the course.
Lucy shared a biography of C Wright Mills that she had prepared, providing a context about the man and his life that was appreciated by the group, helping us to better understand the motivations for his writing.
The first line from Mill’s ‘The Promise’, in the first chapter his book The Sociological Imagination‘ (1959) reads ‘Nowadays men (sic) often feel that their private lives are a series of traps’. Most of the session was spent discussing if life is a trap. We agreed that work can be a trap, particularly with the introduction of more authoritarian styles of management and audit cultures, and how relationships and marriage can be traps. Mills writes in the chapter how we can avoid the trap of industrial society through using our sociological imagination, by critically reflecting about the relationship between our private cares and public troubles.
We had a general discussion about our approach to teaching and learning and the problem of explanation as pedagogy technique. Jacques Ranciere in The Ignorant Schoolmaster regards explanation as a form of ‘stultification’, imposing the view of the teacher onto the student in a way that undermines the student’s capacity to learn for themselves. This lead us on to consider the nature of reality and terms we use to explain it, like postmodernism. We all agreed that it is not possible to think about the world and our place in it without some sort of concepts, which are the building blocks of social theory. Someone suggested we read George Orwell’s 1984 to help us to understand the relationship between social fear and indoctrination.
We set a task for ourselves of writing 300 words on the subject of ‘On Who I might Be & How I Got That Way’. The title is borrowed from one of C Wright Mills’ essays.
Andrew read from the piece he had written. He told us about growing up in a working class family in the 1940 and 50s, going to Grammar School and then on to University. He did Fine Art at Newcastle and then a postgraduate degree in Sociology at Essex, before taking up a career as an academic at North East London Poly, and the Newcastle Poly, now Northumbria University. He had never felt at ease in school or in the academic world, and had refused to be indifferent to its cruel instructions. A central aspect of Andrew’s has been as a father of six children, which he brought up with Celia his partner. He worked with his hands as well as his mind, refurbishing the house where he lived in Newcastle and adjoining properties. He continues to grow vegetables and trees in his garden.
Andrew talked about his life in the context of the expansion of higher education, the post war settlement and the founding of the Welfare State and its erosion, the so called affluence and freedom of the 1960s and the decline of the UK as an industrial producer, as well as major changes in family and class structure. Andrew said it is these structural transformations that have largely determined who he is and what life chances he has had. He drew out the relationship between the private and public aspects of life in this section from his writing:
‘We live rather too easily with the illusion that we are each unique individuals, whose features result in something distinct and special. We actually have to work rather hard, not always successfully, at trying to be whom we think we are, and the nature and direction of that intimate work changes over time. We sometimes only understand who we were in the past long after the fact. I have often been mystified by myself and what I have done (and this is a selective account, where I have left out things I would like to excuse myself of). Although we share the same first name, I thought for many years I was completely unlike like my father, but now can see him physically and temperamentally in myself and where I am not like him it is because I have had to try hard not to be like him. Now I am ageing and ill and these processes are both formative and revealing.’
Lucy told us about her love of reading as a way of avoiding the trap of life and of her plans to establish a social enterprise with her friends. Lucy presented her biography. It was based on the jobs she has done and her qualifications and training. She likes to move. She gets bored easily. She left BG after starting a course in teacher training. Since joining the SSC she has started to read popular science and social science, including Ben Goldacre’s: ‘Bad Science’ and Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’ and ‘The Establishment’. She takes care of herself. Her friends are important. Friendships for her exist in private and in public. We talked about the relationship between her private troubles: divorce and difficulties at work and public issues. Mills is helpful because through him we can see the structural forces that are driving capitalist civilisation. Mills asks us to consider our position in relation to these structural forces through the values that are important to us. Later, when we all reflected on the Lucy’s story, she said she had a light bulb moment.
Mike read a short piece he had written, as a sort of prose poem, taking words and phrases from Mills Chapter 1 to tell the story of who he might be and how he got that way:
‘My name is Trouble, born amid historical change and institutional contradiction: as a sort of self-world. While all around me World War Three. Not as a trap but as an intellectual imaginary susceptible to collective critical reflection and political wilful activity. And so I am uneasy, refusing to be indifferent. To look beyond my personal milieux (be invisible), as a quality of mind, or common(s) denominator: the unknown scholar, slow and fumbling. To put the H-bomb into reverse through a reappraisal of the social role of science. Teaching in public rather than in private. This is what I know and profess, as a sociologist, for better or worse. A promise.’
We read a section from Mills on the value of value, suggested by Laura:
‘What are the major issues for public and the key troubles of private individuals in our time? To formulate issues and troubles, we must ask what values are cherished yet threatened, and what values are cherished and supported, by the characterising trends of our period. In the case both of threat and support we must ask what salient contradictions of structure may be involved.
When people cherish some set of values and do not feel any threat to them, they experience well-being. When they cherish values but do feel them to be threatened, they experience a crisis – either as a personal trouble or as a public issue. And if all their values seem involved, they feel the total threat of panic.’ (Mills 2000 p. 11)
Wendy linked her talk on values to Marx’s labour theory of value, in what she called her
Auto future biography:
‘I choose to lift myself out of my history and abolish it. I am focused on my future. My past is past. About eight months ago, several social moments occurred in and around my life which created an intensified condition of negative existence. Negative in the sense of that which negated my power to change the things that for me needed to be changed in order for me to remain human and happy? No matter what I did, I could not shift this horizon. The message was clear. I had to move out of the sphere of its influence.
I had no control over my work. My social life was fragmented. I was in debt. I could not be as self- sufficient as I wished. I had no control over the high cost and low quality of food that I was forced to buy. There was no local democracy in my village. Big business had moved in, and we had no say over planning applications for housing and fracking. These social moments conglomerated into a massive negation of my power to control my life, like a seismic shift.
At the same time as this shift manifested, a basket of external moments, I was reading John Holloway’s Change The World Without Taking Power and Crack Capitalism. This enabled me to connect my inner world with these social moments as an outer experience. I understood at exactly the same time what was negating my power, and what I could do to prevent that negation. It was like a dance between what I was supposed to believe and the truth. Part of this truth came by way of understanding my social and political environment, the capitalist social relation, and another part was an understanding of my complicity with it. The final truth was that I did not have to accept it any longer.
So my partner and I are moving out of this country, to a better place. It involves making the decision to put relationships before money, to relegate the role of money to a much lower place. To set up working conditions for myself which will enable me to be human, to barter as much as possible, to grow food as much as possible, and to live without debt and social isolation?
I start with NO to predatory capitalism. NO to devalued and devaluing working conditions. NO to no control. I do not have all the answers, but I am turning negation into a fighting chance to live.’
Mike spoke about his values, carrying on from Wendy’s No, or Ya Basta!
‘My values are derived from a position of negativity against the value of values: the capitalist law of value. Under this regimes of value humanity-in-nature is the resource rather than the project. It is out of this arrangement that the dominant liberal values of freedom democracy and equality are derived and so exist only in the form of being denied. And so the political project is to liberate the promise ( after CW MiIls): the latent potential that is within these concepts as a moment of excess or abundance. Therefore my principle value is anti-value where negativity can never be negative enough.’
Andrew wrote the following Declaration of Values stating that he has not always lived by those values, although he would like to have done so.
‘In Minima Moralia, Adorno famously wrote that, “Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen.” Hard to translate really, but something like, There is no good life in bad circumstances. However, in bad circumstances is precisely when a useful set of values is most needed and necessary. In truth, to compromise when the situation is challenging or decisive is not to really own or act upon a set of values at all. Values then are merely emotional decoration and protective colouration.
I chose to work in polytechnics or quondam polytechnics because I thought more of their students. Those institutions were where I believed that I could be most effective as a progressive teacher and thinker. I was not interested in promotion or conventional success, but I was interested in the success of my students. I hope that at work I stood up for what I professed. I have always assumed that equality is the only form of social life that does not need any defending or any legitimation because equality is obviously the best possible political and social form.
I put my own children before everything else in what is called one’s private life. I was not always a good partner, and I am ashamed of my transgressions in that regard. Vanity moved me more when I was younger than it should have ever done and vanity and hypocrisy are close cousins. There are things I should not have done. On the other hand, at the age of 26 I took on four girls, ranging from 12 to 7 in age. I am most proud of that, more than anything else I have ever done, and the returns have been manifold. Celia and I had two children together as well, but we are all a family. As I aged, I learned more about myself and who and what to value. It means that as I got older I found it easier to love and treasure my friends and family.’
Mahmood told us the story of what it was to be young man growing up in and being part of the Iranian Revolution and experiencing its brutal suppression in Tehran in 1978. He told us his experience when a protest march he was involved in September 1978 was attacked by the forces of the counter-revolution with many people massacred. He is currently writing a novel about this part of his life. You can see an image of this event below, with Mahmood identified by a red mark:
Reflecting on his own sense of being, Mahmood asked:
‘Who am I as a private domain? As a private being many years ago I defined myself as a lover who is alone and is lost in the myth of life. Who am I as a social being?
I am the product of the encounter of an ancient country and history, which once was the heart of civilization and culture, then backtracked at the time when the west was waking up from its historical backwardness and was entering the era of modernity.
I am the product of the encounter of my history with modernisation process which in our country presented itself in the form of colonisation and resistance to it. Though we were never colonized we experienced all the destructive effects of colonisation. It could be argued that the spread of the ‘inferiority complex’ was the most destructive effect of this.
I, finally, am a product of the fierce resistance to the relation of domination which has engulfed my country for more than 120 years. The resistance which finally brought me to one of the main countries whose political and economical structures played a major role in exploitation of my country’s resources and more importantly has played a major role in destroying the democratisation process in the country, as democracy would undermine its “national interest”. The struggle continues.
How I got that way? I think the answer could be sought in who am I and how I became.’
Mahmood talked about his experience of being a teacher in Iran and the significance of education in his life, and of the connection between education and revolution. Reflecting further he said:
‘The thing is most people think that revolution is just an event which can make things worse to better. However in my view revolution is a process (that event might be seen as its starting point or just a stage) which has to be followed up in order to achieve its goal/s. However such process does not happen automatically as it is human actionwhich makes it happen. Such human action should be based on, at least, three pillars which are hope, fierce resilience and education. Hope, which joy and happiness should accompany it, should be used as the most effective weapon of struggle (the counter revolutionaries which are dominating the state and society can only be certain of their continuity when revolutionaries lose hope) which needs to be linked to resilience and education. The kind of education, which can liberate the people from the logic and discourse of power, which tries to crush the space for the autonomy of agency, and opens up the close circuit, which is formed between the dominator and dominated, in which the dominated sees power as omnipresent and believes that her/his destiny is to submit to it. Such education, next to studying socio-political, economical and culture which has made such domination possible, also has to focus on human agency, to identify her/his multiple talents and actualize them as far as possible in order to use them in the revolutionary path for human freedom, independence and social justice.’
At the end of the course we all agreed it had been an education and decided to continue with our sessions in the new year.