I was back last week from the annual conference of British Sociological Association (BSA) in Leeds, and as usual, I try to put down my impressions as long as they’re still fresh in my mind. I wasn’t very quick, though, and the BSA’s members newsletter has already come out with comments and short reports about the plenaries, the prizes awarded, and the conference overall. While the conference is described as having been “very vibrant and sociable”, with “exciting conversations” during the breaks and a “diverse mixture of topics” that “reflected the breadth of interests”. My own feelings, I confess, are a bit more mixed.
In 2012, the BSA conference was followed by a lively debate after an article, by Aditya Chakrabortty on the Guardian, where he complained about the discipline’s lack of engagement with the financial crisis. He pointed to the BSA press releases featuring research on “older bodybuilders”, and to time devoted to the “holistic massage industry” at the conference, as evidence of what he saw as a retreat from public space. The BSA took the criticism very seriously and, apart from responding to the Guardian, put in place a massive effort to encourage public engagement. The 2013 conference was entitled “Engaging Sociology” and many sessions were dedicated to showing that the profession means it. Confrontation and comparison with economics was open and clear. A major project on social class was presented with all honours. The Sociology journal released a call for papers for a special issue to “Sociology and the Global Economic Crisis”.
This year, the “Changing Society” title aimed to stress continuity with last year’s efforts; yet it seems to me that we are back to business as usual. I had the impression that many paper presentations were on topics similar to the body builders and massage that Chakrabortty talked about. That’s why, as I said, my feelings are mixed.
To be sure, I wouldn’t dismiss topics such as bodybuilders, massage and the like as “quibbles” as a former BSA President himself seemed to suggest (sic!). I trust the colleagues who work on these topics have spotted issues there that are worth exploring, even if they are not immediately apparent to me. For sure, though, these are very micro topics, descriptions of niches of our society, of local relevance; but it is often difficult, from there, to move up to a higher level of awareness of, and insight into, the broader issues facing society and its transformations more generally. Sometimes, these studies reveal some form of frustrated ambition: using “a Foucauldian lens” (to take again Chakrabortty’s example) or some other high-profile theory to study a micro-phenomenon with, in general, a handful of interviews, can at most shed light on the phenomenon but rarely brings the Foucauldian (or whatever) theory to a significant advancement. There is often a mismatch between, on the one hand, the breadth and depth of the theories that inspire sociologists, and on the other hand, what they actually do with them. Of course it’s always hard to move from empirics up to theory, but it’s even harder with micro studies; that’s why I’d like to see fewer of them, though I wouldn’t go as far as taking them out altogether.
Here, however, is what I consider to be most valuable in the BSA 2014 conference: greater-than-before methodological ambition. The BSA has opened itself to big data and is questioning both its potential and the risks involved. The plenary given by Evelyn Ruppert on how to be a data sociologist was illuminating. Based on her own experience (which somehow resonates with mine…), she clearly and convincingly outlined how data are a social object in itself. To start from a more classical data undertaking, census not only reflects aspects of society that the government wants to know about, but is a social fact in itself; what questions to include, how to voice concern, who has ever voiced concern, and who is included, are all social policy questions. Big data are a corporate and administrative phenomenon first, and as such, they are an object of strategic choice by organisations and of policy by governments. They raise issues of citizenship, value production and social exclusion. Data are no longer a methodological concern, but a substantive object.
I also admired the introduction of a “Methodological Innovations” stream of sessions, all pretty interesting and quite diverse even though sparsely attended. A new “Frontiers” stream, more diverse in terms of topics, was also introduced to showcase novelty in the discipline. And finally, I missed because of a train to take, a very promising session on the Social Life of Methods.
If I go back to my comments to that famouns 2012 conference, where I noticed that just a few participants were live-tweeting, the progress was manifest this time, with many more active people and lively discussions online paralleling, and accompanying, what was going on in the conference rooms. The Digital Public Sociology initiative is also a most welcome development.
In short, my impression is of a lot of still-standing on the side of choice of topics, substantive issues, and (mostly) methods used; but some methodological innovations and a new direction for scholarship and research focusing on data, and greater opening to social media. Both are avenues for renewal, and it’s good they have been opened; let’s hope they will be taken, and let’s hope to see some of the results next year.
Today, Sam Martin has released nice visualisations of Twitter interactions during the conference — many active participants, a number of influencers, and many portable devices (tablets, smartphones) in use.