The finish line was in sight. The fifth and final day of the International Sociological Association Forum climaxed with a very good party. But before that, there were four sessions and a closing plenary.
The first session I went to was on “Inclusive Innovation for Inclusive Growth”. Before I say anything about that, this; you can slap any happy adjective you like in front of it – smart, intelligent, green, inclusive – but growth is still growth and as a whole, the planet can’t take it anymore. What was needed (but didn’t happen, because we are simply not that smart (or intelligent, green and inclusive) was a de-growth in the overdeveloped world to allow for a growth in the quality of life for the burgeoning Majority World populations (and pro-tip – when women can control their own fertility, they choose to have fewer children). There was perhaps enough for everyone’s need, certainly not for everyone’s greed. I write of this in the past tense, because it is too late, imho. It’s all over bar the shouting… screaming, starving, dying. Oh well.
Right, now that I have that off my chest, the session: it started out with a chap (Felipe Lara-Rosana, Centro de Ciencias de la Complejidad, Universidad Nacional utonoma de Mexico) talking about various projects in Chiapas and the challenge of doing things with rather than for or “at” people. There seemed to be a tension, imho, with the very phrase of “designing and implementing a social adaptation complex system”. Seems a bit cockpit-y to me. I stuck my hand up to ask the standard “what if the lovely design processes you ‘curate’ get captured by the rich and powerful and used to prop up and in fact further justify their privilege within the status quo?” Sadly, though, there wasn’t time to let me ask that.
Next up was Eva Buchinger (Austrian Institute of Technology on “Inclusive Innovation” not as a normative goal but as a ‘fruitful heuristic’ to deal with complexity in policy design. She quoted Luhmann (1997) on inclusion “means rather the societal system provides for people and assigns them to a position win the framework”. Thus spaces of exclusion are above all to be recognised by the interruption of reciprocity expectations. She spoke of different kinds of inclusion (professional, exit/voice inclusion” and pointed to the newly (in historical terms) assertive poor, disabled etc.
Third up, CzeslawMesjasz (Cracow University of Economics) on the subject of information overload, at pains to announce three assumptions at the outset- there is increased complexity in social systems, there are paradoxes of complexity in relation to social systems, and social science is difficult science. He thinks we have arrived at the limits (of usefulness to understand social systems) of both narratives and mathematics.) He’d identified 45 (!) definitions of complexity and threw out the great line “human systems as complexities of expectations” and threw out references to Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Joseph Tainter’s 1988 “The collapse of complex societies”.
There was some bleak commentary on what gets called by other people “cognitive limitations” and “bounded rationality” of policy makers etc
The second session I went to was on “Theoretical Contours of Global Social Change”. After a very empirical account of Chilean intellectual history (it got bumpy and bloody between 1973 and 1990, as you’d expect) and a piece on “global fields and global social structures” there was an interesting piece on the “Search for an Adequate denomination of the current social world: theoretical considerations for providing conceptual labels to current societies” by Kresimir Zazar (University of Zagreb). I liked the “labels, like rumours, can take on a life of their own” quote (from Kumar, 2005, p.29, and the point that since the 1960s and 70s there has been a proliferation of “post” era presumptions (a Post-syndrome in social sciences, according to Streckeisen, 2009, p. 183) . He gave a wonderful list of the different “kinds” of society we are supposed to be living in – programmed, technocratic, technetronic, super-industrial, hi-tech, postmodern, risk, knowledge, information, network, learning.. These is metonymy going on here, and diagnostic challenges up tha wazoo.
He closed out with advocacy for a neologism of his own – creafit, which aims to tie creativity and profit. I stuck my hand up in the Q and A and warned him about Lucy Kellaway’s (satirical) Creovative and suggested the Borges short story about the Empire so determined to make a super accurate map that it was a one-to-one. Mistaking the map for the territory indeed!
From the next talk I got the intriguing observation that mobile phones are changing social relations in Indian villages, because women who marry out of the village are no longer isolated from their own parents, and talk to them everyday. That’s potentially a game-changer for some relationships, I would have thought. We will see.
Lunch was a Chinese with Luke, Franka, Andre and Yet-another-Anna.
The third session was full of fascinating choices. In the end I chose the session “Socio-Ecological Struggles and Emergent Innovations in the Sociogenesis of Democratic Futures.” I will be blunt – it didn’t always deliver that. Maybe my expectations were too high.
It opened with Matthias Gross (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research) on “Democratic Energy Futures through Real World Experiments”
I learned a new neologism – “proactionary” (or was it preactionary?) There were some great quotes from engineers working on geothermal – the one I scribbled down was “there are not enough pre-explorations of local specificities available, but we need to move forward nonetheless.” One wonders if the engineer lives in the locality being used as an experiment, or if he expects to be held personally and financially responsible…
The next paper by Angeliki Paidakaki (University of Leuven, Belgium) on “social resilience cells” has some useful thoughts on the macro-conditions for bolstering resilience (a term insufficiently problematised, imo) such as shifts in government, geographical proximity and “positive path dependencies”. Challenges include, in the case study under question, real estate financialisation (more money to be made effectively strip mining), lack of government financial commitment and unfavourable political environments. She warned that “resilience incubation” is “inevitably fragile” and that there are vicious and rigid path dependencies and a need for a heckuva lot of state support.
Anna Szolucha (University of Bergen) (full disclosure – she is a friend of mine) talked about “repowering democracy,” based on fieldwork undertaken among anti-fracking activists in both Lancashire and Poland. She pointed to how quickly locals in Lancashire, previously unpolitical, became aware of what they were up against. It was an interesting and depressing presentation. I think she might usefully compare these struggles with those against airport expansion (Manchester in the late 1990s) or around GM food – which had similar “irreversible pollution” issues, and mobilised previously quiescent people, and I also think that the (self-reporting) claim that in autonomous groups everyone has the “same amount of decision-making power” is, um, problematic. But, props – she also was the one person who chose to limit herself to the time allotted.
The next, extremely long, presentation was on the “Global South powered by the Sun” pointing out that the bias against solar energy is partly because it’s not necessarily always useful in northern latitudes but in most of the “developing” world it could be a huge resource. Also to consider, the power of incumbents (fossil fuel industries) to shape public and policy-maker perceptions of “practicality.”
I will admit that I got publicly irked in this one because there was effectively zero time for question and answers/comments, which makes the confer part of a conference a little more difficult (what is a forum for?)
The final session I went to was a joint session between two research committees on “How are Science and Technology engaged in Eco-Innovations?”
The third talk was the most useful for me (that’s not a reflection on the others necessarily!) – looking at “smart cities” and (guided/targeted) eco-innovation. Ilaria Beretta (Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Brescia, Italy)) talked about the institutionalisation of eco-innovation both because of ‘sustainable development’ but also the Eruope 2020 Strategy which sees future economic growth as coming from these innovations. She wanted to warn about risks of technological determinism, both moral and technical. There is a risk of a rather silly syllogism – “technology is good” and (therefore) “automatically leads to transformation” from gaining traction.
She also pointed to the problem of “eco-gentrification” (Dooling, 2009 and Berretta, 2014)
The closing plenary was admirably diverse.
Asef Bayat (University of Illinois) pondered on “Post-Islamism, Life as Politics”
Akosua Adomako Ampofo spoke on “Black Lives Matter and the Status of the Africana World” and concluded with the warning that knowledge hierarchies are not innocent, that the mainstreaming of indigenous knowledge would lead to different questions and methodologies for (social) scientists and that sociology also occurs outside the academy and that needs to be acknowledged, supported, engaged with
In the same reflexive vein, Emma Porio (Ateneo de Manila University) explored the knowledge industry (what we ask, who we exclude, who we are) and gave empirical detail on (attempted) urban resilience in ever-more sprawling Manila in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ketsana (2009) and Haiyan (2014).
Reinforcing themes heard throughout the forum, she urged us to question our consumption-driven lifestyles and the unjust relationships that causes/reinforces, realise tht our values drive an inequitable system, that policies currently privilege extractive economies and that governance systems are reacting to current generations’ demands while forgetting the future.
Todd “the whole world is watching” Gitlin (Columbia University, USA) gave a fair but bleak assessment of our climate predicament in a speech entitled “What kind of world can weather climate change”. Gitlin sees a philosophical, sociological, political and economic crisis, with the viability of development’ expiring.
He used a nice quote by McKenzie Wark
“the sum total of social labor undermines its own conditions of planetary existence. There is no longer an outside, a margin, an elsewhere, to dump the waste products of that labor and pretend this disorder that we make has gone away. That disorder now feeds back through the whole metabolism of the planet. It has done so for a while, it will keep doing so, in a sense, forever. There is no ‘environment’ or ‘nature’ that is separate. There is no ‘ecology’ that could be in balance if we just withdrew from it.”
He pointed out that while the situation is unnerving, it is not entirely unprecedented, and that all history is the history of… disruption. He pointed to Barrington Moore Jr on new social arrangements only possible when
- a) the old order is unreformable
- b) elites have lost unity
- c) increased hardship on top of “normal” deprivation on top of a breakdown of basic routines.
So, what is to be done, as someone once asked?
Gitlin felt that researchers should “map corporate and state power clusters that invest in disruption for the benefit of their property interests”
[As one of the doomed activists in Marge Piercy’s “Vida” said “Keep Naming the Enemies. Put faces on where the money goes.”]
Study political cases where disaster is organised by social institutions
Critical studies is not standing on an exalted place. It should decry depredations. Shifts in energy generation are under way Sociologists should study specific cases, analyse policy results, and engage with the practical activity of adaptation and mitigation.
Theorists should remember that the crisis of the global system has deep roots and that there are no simple solutions.
As educators Gitlin urged people to “write in the vernacular and also to educate journalists.
Gitlin closed with the observation that while a life’s work requires urgencies, we must also “overthrow the tyranny of urgency.”
Alain Touraine then performed discussant duties in his own inimitable style.
Then, the party. As per Tuesday night, also a bit of a blur…
To look up
Ashby on “Requisite Variety”
So what is requisite variety?
Informally, practically, it says that in order to deal properly with the diversity of problems the world throws at you, you need to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems you face.
Ross Ashby, a pioneer British cyberneticist and psychiatrist, formulated his law of requisite variety in the context of regulation in biology — how organisms are able to adapt to their environment — and then, in quick succession, to aspects of Claude Shannon’s information theorem, and systems in general. Such interdisciplinary bridges were characteristic of the cybernetic approach. Stafford Beer extended the concept to help analyse the structure and management of organisations and whole societies