Kondratiev, Brundtland and everything between… #isaforum2016

The second day of the International Sociological Association Forum was just as good as the first, if even hotter; like a Finnish sauna. It had everything from protest camps to dead Russian economists, academic infighting to open source software for Saving the World.

I caught the end of a 0900-1030 session which was on climate policy networks. There was a discussion of the reasons for the differences between Swedish and Finnish climate policy (and emissions reduction performance, though the two can be different!), using the Advocacy Coalition Framework (see introductory video here ; which involves sending questionnaires out and hoping to get enough replies. The results were, in this instance, as best I can tell, inconclusive. There’s some good work on Swiss climate policy using ACF, btw eg Ingold, 2011.

From the presentation about Portugal I learnt that there is no climate denialism to speak of – they clearly haven’t been Rupert Murdoch-ed yet…

James Goodman of University of Technology, Sydney, talked about that laggard country Australia, the only OECD country to have repealed climate mitigation legislation… He pointed to the witches’ brew of the “resource curse”, export-led “development”, state capture, “competitiveness” discourses, neoliberal framing and our old friend techno-optimism. Goodman and colleagues sent out 100 surveys, got 60 back. According to those sixty the climate policy network barely contained the government at all, with NGOs at the centre. Though as Goodman was at pains to point out, that doesn’t mean they’re powerful… They found that 70% of respondents, including even the small c conservative respondents agreed that ‘social justice’ was an important goal. There was a great quote from one respondent ruefully saying “we are way past first best options” and Goodman implied that some businesses are realising adamant opposition to carbon pricing has created enormous uncertainty (a point made in a chapter of the Harrison and Mikler book “Climate Innovation i Liberal Capitalism and Climate Change.”

This session ended with NO time for questions or discussion. Not much of a “forum”, and not a conference (at which you confer– the clue is in the name, as The Wife says). It seems an odd way to run a gathering, for us all – to shuffle from room to room, basically watching flesh youtube videos?!

Labour struggles
Next up, in the session on Labour, Nature and Corporate Strategy: Resolving Core Contradictions, there were 7 papers (sensibly split into two tranches, with speakers kept rigidly to 6 and a half minutes, to allow discussion) on trade unions.

Nora Rathzel (Umea University, Sweden) gave an overview of different stances taken by trade unionists to the thorny nature-society question, including “the reluctant Leninist”, the “comprehensive activists” and so on. She approvingly quoted that bit of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme where he points out labour is not actually the source of all wealth, there’s the small matter of ‘nature’.

Next up a presentation on Just Transitions and the US, pointing out that the term goes back thirty years, and was devised to deal with the corporate and right-wing “jobs blackmail”. Nice distinction between environmental/ecological justice and injustice here. The final pre-break presentation was on a big steel plant in Italy and “working class ecology,” defined as “the “experience of nature, the environment at ecological problems as experienced by working class communities, i.e. from a subordinate, class-based position).”

David Peetz (Griffith University) asked (how) can unions and employees influence corporate behaviour, pointing to a wide range of ‘stakeholders’ in any business – other capitals (esp finance), employer associations, employees and unions, think tanks, consultants, consumers and third parties. Should have mentioned the “Triple Embeddedness Framework” to him, I suppose. Peetz then pointed out that stakeholders have different capacities and motivations to act (that can shift over time). He made the point that business associations perhaps should be regarded as players in their own right, and not merely as a PR fig-leaf for corporations (that’s certainly my reading of the situation, fwiw).

Next up Ray Markey (Macquarie University) gave details of a study using both data on Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (but only 2% have any environmental provisions, and even those tend to be minor) and a survey sent out to 700 firms. It turns out that green HRM is an emerging field and that climate change within that is very new indeed. Anyway, it turns out that education and public administration workplaces, with joint consultative committees, have done best on this, but there is a ‘long way to go’. Two papers on Austrian Trade Unions and environmentalism closed the session out.

In the Q and A I asked about the 1970s politicisation of the workplace (i.e. workers wanting to control the process an major decisions of production, not merely battle for an increased wage), and the parallel debates over the politics of technology. Are the lessons of the Green Bans, Lucas Aerospace and so on lost, do they have to be enacted all over again? According to Peetz, Green Bans are not totally forgotten, and have become part of the mythology. Markey said the peak actors were very aware of it, but it was unclear about the rank and file. One of the Austrian speakers said that here many of the battles of the 80s and 90s had been forgotten, and feared that yes, the wheel would have to be reinvented…

So, a lunch of pancakes and espresso followed (#healthyliving) before a corking session on “What’s Left of 2011.” After an interesting talk about social clinics (providing health care to people in Greece who were ineligible because they were immigrants or unemployed), it was on to a session by Paulo Gerbaudo (King’s College London)  on “The Mask and th Flag: Populism, Citizenship and Global Protest” (the book looks delicious, and is coming out later in the year).

Gerbaudo, a participant in the late 90s-early 2000s ‘alter-globalisation’ movdment is comparing and contrasting it with the post-2011 protests. He argues that there are continuities and discontinuities. The former happened at peak global integration, while the latter follows the 2008 financial crisis. He conducted 40 interviews, witnessed stuff, did document analysis etc. He sees a move from a more anarchist (opposed to the state) mentality and rhetoric in the first batch of protest to one that is based around reform/rejuvenation of the state, so-called “citizen-ism”, since 2011. He says this affects the discourse, with new movements moving away from the glorification of diversity to a sense that in moments of social emergency, the priority is unification. Secondly, it indicates a change in the relationship between social movements in the state. Gerbaudo reckons that the post’68ers were very anti-state (Pierre Clastres struggle of society versus the state [and perhaps Harbermas on the colonisation of the lifeworld?]) whereas this is largely absent from the documents and declarations that come from the squares. Contra Graeber, the new movement is not anti-state, but trying to make the state responsive to citizens (public education, public housing, citizens income). The state is no longer perceived as Leviathan, but a failed neoliberal entity, unable maintain legitimacy. In the q and a there was pushback on Gerbaudo’s (overly?) schematic distinction, and lack of geographical nuance. But me, I want to read that book!

The next paper, by Anastasia Kavada (University of Westminster) was on “From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Sandy: Socio-Technical Infrastructures as Social Movement Outcomes.” It was another corker. She has interviewed 75 activists in London, New York and so on. Twenty were involved in Occupy Sandy, a grass-roots relief effort in response to Superstorm Sandy of late October 2012, months after Zucotti Park had been evicted. She pointed out that social movement outcomes (notoriously hard to measure) focus often on policy or biography or perhaps cultural outcomes, all relatively easy to trace. Socio-technical infrastructures as outcomes is far less studied (she cited Joan Donovan, 2016, citing Star and Ruhleder as defining these as “linking technologies, concepts, procedures and people together so that a project can be accomplished”.

She pointed to interoccupy.net, set up after the evictions, and still going (and used by Black Lives Matter people) and an external website occupysandy.net, which uses “CiviCRM”. However, it wasn’t just open source software used. Googledocs were used to keep track of what was needed where etc, and Amazon’s wedding registry function also got kluged into action.

There was a huge influx of volunteers/members after Sandy (from 10k to 35k), and one of the key things was being able to involve people who had different skills and knowledge. For Kavada the pre-existing relationships of trust (built in physical occupations) were crucial to allow judgments about the skill, commitment and character to carry out crucial tasks. There was, for example, a round-the-clock rota to deal with incoming emails, overcoming the 10,000s unanswered emails that had happened during Occupy New York.

The people she interviewed saw this relief effort (and they ended up with more local knowledge than FEMA and the Red Cross) as part of the same political project of building infrastructure, solidarity and mutual aid, and practically resisting “Disaster Capitalism”.

In the first session of this research stream, yesterday morning, Saskia Sassen had wondered allowed about the sorts of technologies poor people could use to build social capital, social capacity. Well, here they are. This project has the potential to be a more directly useful book than Rebecca Solnit’s excellent “A Paradise Built in Hell.

(See also my recent blog post on finding out what skills and knowledge are in a room, what single points of failure exist etc.)

The final paper, on the Romanian protests from 2011 onwards was interesting, especially on the importance of collective emotions (Dohatur, 2012, p. 232) and the awareness of participants that overloading “newbies” with ideology is possibly not helpful (Bennett, 2003, p. 31). It experienced quite a lot of dissent on empirical and theoretical grounds, and a robust and lengthy discussion ensued.

Not waving, drowning
I am a big fan of World Systems Theory, but remain unconvinced by Kondratiev waves. Kondratiev was a Russian economist who postulated waves of technological change/disruption, on roughly 50 year cycles. So far so okay, but two of the papers in the session on “Sociocultural Evolution in the Long Run” very confidently asserted that a sixth wave, based initially around medical technologies (I shall spare you the acronym) will kick off in the 2030s and be complete by the 2070s, at which point Kondratiev Waves will cease to be (something something Hegelian dialectic something).

There were other potentially interesting presentations in this (one on China and the World System, another giving a several thousand year overview), but my flabber was well-and-truly gasted by what had gone before. My question was along these lines;

“The previous five Kondratiev waves happened in an ’empty world’ – there was space for the population to expand, and – crucially – atmospheric space for us to dump waste carbon dioxide. I am amused or horrified (or perhaps both) to see your confident predictions stretching out to the 2070s. My question is what impact you think climate change might have – specifically how sea-level rise might affect the productivity of cities like London, New York and Shanghai, how food production might affect these waves, and most of all the psychological impact on young people of coming into a world that looks like it might be fucked.”

Several people were nodding and smiling (I hope with not at). And the answer was, I must say, fundamentally unconvincing and unre-assuring. Any other Kondatrievians want to take a shot at convincing me?

So, the final feature of the day was a made up of some “common sessions”. I went for “The Futures we want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World.”

There were five speakers, and I stuck around for the first three.

First up, Jeffrey Broadbent (University of Minnesota) on “Comparing Climate Chane Policy Networks: Improving Global Transparency”.

He pointed out that environmental sociology’s key insight is society/ecology feedback loops, and that there is a shrinking space for our waste products, with increasing mutual disruption of human and ecological systems. This has enormous implications for future society, the biosphere and sociology (whatever the Kondatrievites think). It’s all an enormous (global even) collective action problem, with the discounting of responsibility encouraging defection, free-riding etc. While there are unpredictabilities in social systems, there are, thanks to science, lots of things we can predict with high levels of confidence, and none of them good – droughts, floods, heat, storms, fires, dustbowls etc, likely to overwhelming national and local coping strategies

[at this point I started humming Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” “the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost… everybody knows the boat is sinking, everybody knows the captain lied etc etc]

Still and all, there’s an opportunity for new social institutions to overcome the dilemmas, around climate justice (zero carbon, zero poverty), gender equality and population stabilisation, taming neoliberal [and other?!] capitalism, overcoming political corruption, progress without growth, sharing economies etc. Sure, it’s a good (if dated) shopping list, but as the Marxists would say “who is the historical agent”?  Broadbent closed with an invitation for scholars (including PhD students) to get involved in the Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks project, which has a website www.compon.org.

Stewart Lockie of James Cook University (Cairns) started with some pungent comments on how this was not the first All Male Panel at the 2016 ISA Forum, and that his heart had sunk a bit. The world is changing rapidly, but are sociologists, with their sword of critique and their shield of obtuse language, changing with it. Lockie seems to think not. He decided to offer some “wildly sweeping generalisations” that wouldn’t cost him too many friendships”, and named his dread about what is at risk (a dread shared by many others, he said. On this see also Glenn Albrecht’s solastalgia). One example he gave was of the unprecedented coral bleaching of the last months, and the recently reported mangrove die-offs.

Lockie pointed out that climate change is not going to start in 2050, it’s already here… he listed four major themes

Ecologising sociology – (we have enough theory, we should stop beating up on the founders, and learn to take other disciplines more seriously. The time for “stunningly naïve statements” is over.

Sociologising ecology – He got the boot stuck into both resilience and sustainability (words I hate). “If we’re not doing justice, we’re not doing sustainability”. Apparently the UN has the word “indivisibility” to cover this. So that’s alright then.

Point three (apprehending time) whizzed by (oh the irony) and he closed out with “Democratising Futures” – who is the ‘we’ in the title of the forum? Who do sociologists speak to, and for? His final thought? The need to introduce/defend civility and evidence into/within public discourse

Before a brief overview of the third speaker, I want to say this; all these debates about justice, corruption, the “indivisibility” of social and ecological processes, were had by the Brundtland Commission between its inception in 1983 and the release of “Our Common Future” in 1987. In exactly 30 years we seem to have achieved… nothing (actually, it’s worse than that – we’ve tipped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and built the infrastructure to tip ever more. We’ve been worse than useless).

Timothy Luke (Virginia Tech) talked of “The Grounding Sociologies of the Future: Anthropocene Futures Emerging from the Present Burning Up of the Past.” He started by pointing out he’s an interloper, a political scientist. For him, there’s a “certain amount of useless abstraction” and headless chickening around the concept of the anthropocene. Along with ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ it can help support an eco-conservatism that supports the status quo. He then quoted those lines from Weber’s Protestant Ethic about machine production dominating “until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt”

For Luke the concept of the anthropocene is the “ultimate power predicate”, providing a rationale for both a policy and research agenda. Scientists, humanists and writers all use it differently [as a boundary object?] for their own ends, and it can be used as a grant-grubbing buzzword and instant invocation of ‘transdisciplinarity. Luke fears a form of neo-Victorian imperialism where the world is “saved” -but by whom, how and for who? He closed out by saying if the term didn’t exist, the geoengineers and planetary managers would have to invent it. Truly, it’s Doctor Strangelove all over again…

Swimming against the tide
So, at this point, I had an appointment for swimming. Two teutonically-efficient underground journeys and a ten minute walk with new friends, and I was swimming in the Danube and getting into a staring contest with a hungry swan (I will confess that I had stood on a bridge and watched white birds flying towards me and thought “those are massive seagulls”…. Vienna doesn’t yet have a coastline…. We see what we think we should see, eh?

So, tomorrow is the Big Day, I have my 12 or 15 minutes of infamy. Wednesday may be a day “off”. Does anyone have any suggestions for day trips from Vienna? I’ve been advised Bratislava is not a good choice…

Things to look up (thesis friendly)

Stuff on issue attention cycles – Joseph Gusfield, Howard Becker
Book – Capitalism, media and climate change by Jean-Baptiste Comby
Peetz, D. and Murray, G. 2015. Chapter on Climate and Finance Capital in a 2015 Routledge collection
Ray Markey et al in first 2016 issue of International Journal of Human Resources Management, on Australia and climate

Things for After The Thesis
Blee/Taylor 2002, p93 ff on interviewing activists
Crowther 2004 on the scarcity of Eastern European civil society, thanks to the one party states, soi-disant communist.

Carboniferous capitalism, climate and colleagues – a good day #isaforum2016

Today was the official start of the International Sociological Association Forum. There were four slots for paper presentations before the official welcome and an opening plenary. This blog post gives a (very!) brief summary of some of the highlights that I saw in my travels.

I went to the opening session of the Social Movements strand, that deliberately consisted of three women (all prominent thinkers in their fields).

Saskia Sassen gave an interesting talk on her recent work, looking at the question under what conditions can powerlessness become complex/under what conditions can the powerless make history. As followers of her work will know, she’s interested in cities, which she sees as always complex, incomplete, and having outlived the big closed systems that have washed over them. She worries, however, that the new ownership of chunks of ‘world cities’ by distant capital is changing things, with the amount of buy up doubling between 2013-14 ($600bn in the top 100 cities) to over 1 trillion in 2014-5. Her project dealing with this is aptly named ‘who owns the city? [Two books spring to mind – Ground Control by Anna Minton, and the novel Body of Glass by Marge Piercy).
Sassen asks ‘where is the frontier now’ (shades of JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians). We’ve thought of frontiers as colonial projects, land-grabs, mining, plantations, agriculture, but the real frontier now, says Sassen, is the big city (again, it made me think of Splintered Urbanism and the Stephen Graham master-work “Cities under Siege”, about the new military architecture of cities). For Sassen there were three small-scale/can be done anywhere practices worth of note
firstly, relocalising whatever parts of the economy you can (banning franchises too!)
secondly, a series of apps that could help build social capital (not a term she used). What kinds of application would be useful for poor people, could help them build links? Sassen closed with a challenge, that existing categories of analysis and governance cannot capture the new realities, and that people and ‘dead land’ are falling through the cracks.

Next up, Donatella della Porta  spoke of “neoliberal and counter-neoliberal temporalities”, pointing out that each new wave of protest brings new analytic needs. For della Porta the pre-2011 tools are not sufficient. She put forward a lovely quote (Bessinger, 2002) that reminds us that
“protests come in chains, series, waves, cycles and tides, ‘forming a punctuated history of heightened challenges and relative stability.”
She invoked William Sewell’s three temporalities (1999) around teleological, experimental and eventful temporalities, before turning to Karl Polanyi on the question of countermovements, and the cyclical re-emergence of accumulation by dispossession, moments of the ‘free market’ versus ‘social protection.
The final – and I didn’t get this point well, I fear – was about the notion of time intensification
densification of networks at the meso level
fluidization of structures at the macrolevel and
identity transformation at the micro level.

Definitely need to look into this more, but probably ATT (after the thesis)

Finally Shalini Randeria gave a talk on being “Caught between cunning states and international organisations: social movements as norm setters.”
She started by observing that movements against the enclosure of common land/property are both rural and urban (e.g. coastal zone privatisation and the creation of special economic zones (for exports). She pointed out that patent rights are often another form of enclosure (the appropriation of shared knowledge. For Randeria, as I think for Sassen, the question is where do you protest, who do you turn to to demand redress. She pointed out that if protesters went to national state, they would be told to pressure at the international level (IMF, World Bank, WTO), and if they did that, they were told that they should be talking to the ‘sovereign’ state. Reminded me a bit of Daniel Hausknost’s work on ‘agentic deadlock’.
Randeria then outlined how court cases are a new domain for struggle, especially given how so many regulations are made by governments and regulatory bodies rather than in a legislative process – so if members of parliament are useless, why lobby them or try to become them. She alluded to tensions, based on the different time/decision cycles, between activists working through courts and those still trying “traditional” lobbying.

She then turned to the thorny question of knowledge production – who it was for, who did it, and the ethical entanglements. She pointed out that there were things she knew that she could/would not publish because they would destroy important friendships she had with social movement actors, and betray confidences.
She pointed to the work of George Marcus on “para-ethnolgraphy” “the object of our enquiry are also producing knowledge on themselves”. Echoing a question Andy Stirling asked in Manchester weeks ago, who are our publics? Who are we writing for?

Randeria closed out with points about the cunning state. Cunning states, btw, are those that claim to be weak when they simply want to shift responsibility onto other actors. We need to be careful, that is, not to take self-representations of weakness at face value….

In the second session I got most from the first paper, which was on “social movement schools” – the training programs that various movements (in this example labor rights, civil rights, mindfulness and “FEMEN”) have conducted.
There’s an upcoming paper in Mobilisation by Larry Isaac (one of the presenters here) on the “Underground Workshops” in the 1950s and early 60s that taught  people how to do non-violent direct action (especially in not responding to physical intimidation and attacks). I asked about the metrics of success for these schools, and also about the impact of academia on activism.  On the latter, there was an interesting answer, that started out referencing Laclau, Jo Freeman and Piven & Cloward, but admitting these  impacts were in part because the academics were part of movements, and the movements read (but did not necessarily absorb!) the work.  On the latter question, mindfulness and intelligent design were cited by co-presenter Jaime Kucinskas (Hamilton College), and the role of famous people/celebrities as popularisers and legitimisers cited.  It is sadly true, as Susan George pointed out in the 1990s, that the right takes ideas, or rather their popularisation and the creation of common sense, more seriously than the so-called left.

In the next session Chris Rootes gave a thorough and thoroughly depressing overview of the climate “movement” in the UK.  He made the good Point that climate is a wicked problem – in scale, complexity, uncertainty, intermittent saliency – for the NGOs as well as for policy-makers.  Until the 2000 COP Meeting that fell apart, the big UK NGOs left climate change to the international “Climate Action Network”.  In 2005 things began to move a bit more (FoE and the Big Ask, Stop Climate Chaos) but there were ongoing issues about priorities, guarding of brands and priorities.  Only three big demonstrations have occurred (2006, 2009 and 2015), and Rootes was (rightly, imho) skeptical about the claims of the Transition Network to be bigger now than in 2010. (there are lots of zombie Groups listed on its website). Meanwhile, austerity has hit DEFRA (down from 7000 staff in 2002 to 2,100 in 2014) and other government bodies.  Some (conservation) NGOs are stepping in to do some of the work that the State used to do, but that comes with problems all of its own too…

Rootes concluded that environmental NGOs have limited capacity to Focus on climate Change, there is no mass movement, and declining local action.  Yup.

I then went to a session on “carboniferous capitalism “, missing the opening talk on “Modalities of Corporate Power in Carboniferous Capitalism: an Overview” but catching the others, on LNG plans in Canada, Appalachian coal and “The Coal Rush and Beyond – India, Germany and Australia”.

Paul Gellert (University of Tennessee) is looking at the Appalachian coal industry as it copes with enormous financial challenges. He is using Prechel “Big Business and the State” and a more recent (2012) article on the green economy versus the “new corporate environmentalism”, which sounds fascinating.  There was also Arrighi (World Systems Theory), Bunker and Ciccantelli (2005, 2007) and the Moore “Web of Life” book.

He had a nice graph too, of how coal is not, in fact, going away, at least globally.  Key take home was the use of multi-Level subsidiary firms to both disguise their power and also shed costs.

James Goodman is involved in a project examining proposed new coal mines in India, Germany and Australia – how do locals respond, why do mines go forward (or not)

Crucial to this is the notion of a climate dialectic, i.e. the climate crisis is not cyclical, but accumulative, and unlike other crises, not functional for capitalism. As the crisis deepens, it spills over into other fields, brings new actors into the political and policy arenas.Of note – a Special issue of Energy Policy on Coal, Climate and Development, July 2016…

In the final session of the day, UCSC Professor Andy Szasz, who taught me sociological theory in early 1992 (!), gave an entertaining account of a chap Russ George, who has done some “rogue geo-engineering”  (trying and failing to dump iron filings in the ocean near the Galapagos, and also the Canaries, before finally succeeding in a town off the coast of the Pacific North-West of Canada.  Szasz wanted us to think through the governance implications of all this (I was reminded of Thomas Schelling and his Manchester visit in 2010, where he was very enthused about solar radiation Management).

Next up Nils Markusson, (Lancaster University) explained the “Promises of Technical Fixes – Geoengineering Justifications of Defensive Spatio-Temporal Fixes”.  He gave an account of the birth of the term technofix (as with “Big Science” it originated with Weinberg in the 1960s) as an Expression meaning a cheap, reliable shortcut when compared to social Change.  It has of course become more of a slur, as Lisa Rosner put it in 2004 a “partial, ineffective, unsuccessful… one-sided approach, as opposed to a holistic one.”

Markusson talked about how techno-fixes are criticised on both a pragmatic level (will this work, or just kick the Problem down the road) and also the more philosophical Level (as symptoms of an unreasoning and unreasonable faith in Progress).  He then laid out the history of acceptance-rejection of geo-engineering, with lots of super-useful detail  (I must look into the Norwegian carbon tax of 1991 at some Point!)

The session closed out with Jean Philippe Sapinski (Universitz of Oregon) talking about “Climate Politics, Capitalism and the Governance of Solar Radiation Management (SRM).

SRM is about either stopping heat getting to earth (space mirrors and seeding clouds so they are whiter) or having it bounce off the earth better (paint your roof white, etc). Apparently there is an expectation that we will start to do some form(s) of this in the next ten years or so (as the depth of our predicament become obvious to all) and so then the question comes up of how to do it “legitimately”

So I skipped both the opening address and the opening plenary. No offence intended to the speakers at both, but you were outbid by the prospect of sitting in deckchairs talking with new friends, and then going for a meal with those same new friends. I am sure I will catch up with your thoughts via articles, books and any youtube videos the organisers post of your speeches.

Then it was time for wine/beer and nibbles and more new friends, all in the grand but not too intimidating courtyard of the main building of the University of Vienna. Talk about the imperial way of living! As befits a budding social scientist, I conducted auto-ethnographic research into the effect of free alcohol on cognition…

Things to look up

Hill “repackaging of science”

Bunker and Ciccantelli (2005, 2007

Things to look up after the thesis

All of it!!

Attack of the hipster tomatoes! Or “things to do in Vienna when not talking about social movements”

What happens when you get four and a half thousand academics (sociologists and sociologically-minded fellow travellers, to be precise) in one place (the University of Vienna, to be preciser) at one time (10th to 14th July – perciser still)? You get a lot to talk and think about, is what you get. The third “International Sociological Association” Forum, going by the title “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World” is happening here over the next five action-packed days.  Fwiw, imma aim for a blog a day, if only to capture a fraction of the excellent ideas and concepts that are poured over the saturated-by-10.30am-sponge that passes for my brain.

The ISA has a whole bunch of research committees – everything from the Sociology of Leisure to Labor Movements, from the Sociology of Religion to the Sociology of Disasters (I can hear the atheists sniggering about that last conjunction).  The Research Committees hosting today’s pre-conference were numbers 47 “Social Classes and Social Movements and 48  “Social Movements, Collective Actions and Social Change).  Today’s pre-conference – “Social Movements in the 2010s” was ably organised by Priska Daphi, Geoffrey Pleyers and Tova Benski. It was a very action-packed day, and I’ve no chance of explaining all that went on. Apologies in advance to all those whose ideas I’ve mangled or – worse – neglected.

Hipster tomatoes to follow.

After opening comments from the organisers, the first panel, on “social movements, refugees and borders” kicked off. Donatella della Porta (Scuola Normale Superiore Florence) opened by presenting a “pre-project” on the sociology of refugees that she and others are undertaking. It sounded intriguing indeed, and seeks to go beyond the exiting analytic models (citizenship rights, poor people’s movements) and research designs (case studies, rarely comparative, rarely triangulated). It sounds every bit as tricky and challenging as the question of migration itself.  She finished with the important point (she cited Eyerman and Jamison, 1991) of movements as “cognitive praxis,” producers of knowledge.

Next up Jeff Goodwin of New York University gave interesting detail on the way that immigration activists in the US are currently mobilising (with some success) against the Trump phenomenon. Goodwin, while holding absolutely no candle for Hilary Clinton, was very confident that Trump will not get the presidency.  I hope he is right, of course, and we’ll know by November 6th, give or take some hanging chads.  Top laugh – he described the Republican primaries as “carnivals of xenophobia and bigotry.”

Finally, Ulrich Brand, (University of Vienna) asked “what is the transformative potential of refugee struggles?”  In his opinion, “not much.”  He pointed to the total absence of refugees and refugee issues from current debates on climate change.  He referred to a “New Critical Orthodoxy” that sees the main actors as states and corporations, with social movements relegated to the role of spectators, even while crucial questions of exactly what needs to be transformed (e.g. our food systems, transport systems, ‘nature’/society relations) go barely heard.  There was, in this overview of transformative social change and how it does/n’t happen reference to both the MLP and practice theory.

For me the most interesting (because it was new to me as a label) portion was the notion of the “imperial mode of living” – the totally unsustainable modes of living/expectations, based on global production networks and value chains that lead back to  both people and “mother nature on the run”, if you’ll allow the Neil Young reference.  As a questioner pointed out later, the irony is that refugees are coming in search of the imperial mode of living in part because the very operations needed to sustain it have destroyed their chance of a livelihood in their own countries.

After a short break it was on to the second plenary “Social movements and change”. This was described to me by someone (I shall spare their blushes, though they can ‘out’ themselves in the comments section if they wish) as a ‘manel’, which is an excellent neologism, imho (see also allmalepanels.tumblr.com).

Markus Schulz (New School for Social Research, ISA) opened it with infectious enthusiasm and a plug for a website thefuturetheywant

He gave a quick overview of the (strained) relations between futures research [LINK] and sociology, dating all the way back to the Auguste Comtes and Emile Durkheims of this world, with their notion that enlightened elites could figure out The Rules and guide society to the correct (sic) destination. (Think also Karl Marx’s acolytes and – though Schulz didn’t mention him, the Walt Rostow-types). He lamented that outside of Scandinavia and Taiwan there are hardly ever undergraduate courses on ‘futures’, and speculated that this was a consequence of sociology being in defensive mode and having physics envy (my words, not his).

Next up, Colin Barker (University of Manchester) urged us to look at the way the limits of social movement research limit the ways we think about social movements. He did this by focusing on three “US giants” (he cautioned that because of time limits he was focusing on their flaws rather than their massive contributions)

His first was Charles Tilly. Tilly’s social movements work focuses on social movements as “organic displays of wunc – worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment”. Social movements call on power holders to take action, and are ultimately militant lobbyists. For Barker, this rules out the possibilities of social movements seeking to solve problems themselves, “becoming the change they want to see”. While this captures a reality, it obscures it too. Barker observed that social movements were often silent about the “internal politics of movements.

His second was Frances Fox Piven, more overtly radical than Tilly, and celebrating the disruptive power of poor people’s movements, which gives them bargaining power by creating turbulence via refusal, non-compliance etc. But for Barker she doesn’t see if and when movements do/can move from “blocking power” to “replacement power”. Might those movements be able to create new rules, practical challenges to the distribution of power? This of course would involve a transformation of popular consciousness. [see recent-ish ecological innovation article on social movement motivations for participating in…]

Third up was Douglas McAdam, author of many books and articles, but in this case most importantly “Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency ” (1982). For McAdam, says Barker, a key factor for this insurgency – a precondition of the movement – was “cognitive liberation”.  But oddly, this is not seen as an outcome… Participation in a movement challenges people’s sense of helplessness (what Klandermans calls “consciousness-raising in periods of collective mobilisation”. So, Barker asks, can we create new mutual roles – can social movements help re-organise wider social relations?  For Barker, collective action could/should be taken more seriously, both for conscious-raising but also of course potentially consciousness-depressing.  How permanent – and to me this is crucial – are the changes in people, or do people “regress” (does participation in, say, Freedom Summer, end up as a “holiday”/moment or is it path-dependently transformative).  How do movements contribute to new institution building (here Barker means, I think, institutions in the sense of rules and regulations, rather than particular organisations/charities/legal bodies)? Is that a precondition for the stabilisation of social ‘gains’ (or, less normatively, ‘changes’)? Do (as Lenin apparently asked in 1905) mass mobilisations speed up learning?  How uneven is the process? (How) do different repertoires of collective action facilitate empowerment? Which are the more promising forms?

Next up, Christopher Rootes (University of Kent) a refreshingly down-beat perspective, wondering if social movements can actually be movements of social change.  Starting with an anecdote about being arrested during his first week at university in Australia as a bystander to a Vietnam War protest, Rootes wondered what changes have actually be wrought by these movements. It was easier, he thought, to say what factors had produced the movements. He listed demographic shifts – the post-war baby boom (1946-1964), changes in occupational patterns (from blue collar to white collar), a relative increase in affluence/full employment, and the massive expansion of higher education.  These were a concatenation of factors producing new actors.  These changes are still affecting current society, and Rootes pondered on the effect of another demographic change – older people dying, as a factor in shifting the centre of gravity  [Two things come to mind here – the aphorism about science proceeding at the pass of old scientists’ funerals, and Marvin Harris’s book (I forget which one) on the relation between the rise of US middle-class women’s economic importance to households and the coming of second-wave feminism].

Rootes characterised the 60s/70s social movements as the demand to be heard and to participate, with a dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and the fundamental principles of representative democracy. However, as Rootes noted, few have chosen to participate, either then or now. He noted that even in social movements there is seldom more than lip service to internal democracy (take a bow, Greenpeace!)

Rootes pointed out that liberal democracies are fragile things, and that while in post-authoritarian countries the role of social movements in forcing democratic changes (at least as far as having elections) were important ‘door openers’, their impact in the West is more questionable. Rootes worried that we pay too little attention to institutional changes, but celebrate the exciting (and in my words gaudy), stuff at the edges. Rootes thinks we ignore the rise of populism that threatens social gains under western liberal democracies, and are neglecting right wing/counter-movements.

Finally, James Jasper (City University New York) decided to deconstruct the very terms of the title of the plenary, pointing out that it had shifted from “social change” to “social movements and change” but perhaps should have gone further [to the word ‘and’, perhaps?!].  For him the notion of social change reveals a stuckness in the 60s/70s notions of systems thinking, be it Parsonian, Marxist, structural-functionalism, which then leads to a ‘puzzle’ of how anything ever changes.  He touched on Charles Tilly’s notion of ‘disabling myths’ (e.g. social change explicable, that the main processes of it take you through distinct and predictable stages).  He pointed out that Habermas and Touraine layered “social movements” as agents of change on top of this systems approach, with a “no social movements will mean no change” assumption.  For Jasper, the plenary’s title should have moved further therefore, on two levels. First we should talk about changes plural – and be aware of reversals, bundles of change etc.

Second, we should think of social movements as “a bit of a fiction” – in the Habermas/Touraine grand theories we know in advance what they’re to do, in a normative if not empirical [I may have misheard this?] sense. We should be cautions about social movement actors’ claims to importance and significance, which are often rhetorical devices to boost size and influence.  Jasper prefers the term ‘players’.

Tomatoes. There will be tomatoes.

As you would expect, it properly kicked off in the Q and A. The first observation, by one Janet Conway (Brock University), was a corker, pointing to the importance of the feminist movement as a crucial bringer of significant social change (or changes), albeit with reversals, internal tensions etc. She pointed out that both women and feminist analysis were absent from the panel itself.

While various panelists felt the use of ‘movement’ was problematic to describe feminism, fwiw, I thought all of Conway’s points were well-made. As someone else (also female) pointed out later on in the Q and A, men are allowed to use feminist analysis too.

There were interesting and fruitful tensions between the panelists (as the descriptions above would suggest), on the role, nature and validity of the “self-descriptions” of social movements. There was an interesting discussion about just how important and what the sequencing of events were for the rise of parts of the regulatory state (e.g. the first Clean Air Act, 1956, was not the result of mass movements, but then again, some regulatory bodies are ‘clearly’ the result of social movement mobilisation – it depends, in other words).  I wish I could tell you more about the tos and fros, but my brain was (almost literally) fried by this point.  The room was full, and if the windows were open we couldn’t hear the panellists, but if the windows were closed it became a sauna.  Two choices, both unhappy; I am sure there is an allegory for capitalism in there somewhere…

So, over a mercifully long lunch break we were invited to clump into groups on what we were interested in (refugees and movements, digital technology/media/social movements, continuities and outcomes of movements, environmentalist movements, movements for democracy, right-wing and conservative movements, women and feminist movements, unions and movements around (precarious) work and social movements and repression).   I plumped for the environmentalist one, and it was fab.  Despite some pessimist’s predictions, a group of ten of us actually listened, took turns, with nobody particularly dominating (props to the eco-villages academic, whose name escapes me at the minute Ana Margarida Esteves– she did a good job of keeping it all together). There were lots of links made between various people, and I personally got some useful reading tips (Francesca Poletta etc).

After lunch there was another session, on “cultural perspectives on social movements”. There seemed to be some very good stuff, I was cooked by now, my proteins busy denaturing.  I went and registered – it took all of two minutes (insert line about Teutonic efficiency here)  and started browsing the  392 page long programme. Which is how I know about the hipster tomatoes.

I came back to the preconference in time to hear an important point – made by Tova Benski – that we mustn’ t imagine social movement studies began after the 1960s. There’s Blumer (social construction of problems), Neil Smelser on collective action (albeit with a bias about ‘irrationality’) and Talcott Parsons etc.

No, seriously, there are tomatoes, with curated beards and bromptons.

In the breaks I had interesting chats, including one that confirmed all my pre-judgements (or “prejudices”, if you prefer) about the latest round of international climate “movement-building” that was supposed to emerge from the COP21 protests, a chat about the politics of art and the art of politics/social spaces and generally just hanging out with some very interesting people. There was also an excellent photo exhibition made up of the words and photos of  Lancashire anti-fracking activists (bravo Anna Szolucha!)

At 6pm, a session on the repression of social movement scholars, with the immediate impetus being the murder in Egypt of a University of Cambridge student. The first speaker, Geoffrey Pleyer, suggested that there were three things we needed to do –

  1. truth and justice for colleagues who had been attacked/murdered
  2. Keep working on these issues
  3. Get organised

The second (Buket Turkmen, Unviesity of Galatasaray) and third (sorry, didn’t catch name) speakers gave powerful accounts of repression of academics and activists in Turkey and India respectively. The point that other institutions (police, judiciary etc) were stacked with regime loyalists, and academia was under attack in a similar process was well-made. The repression can/does have a chilling effect, with fewer and fewer people wanting to study ‘contentious’ issues, and leaving the field wide open for narratives devised by and for repressive regimes. This important stuff, but I just couldn’t cope with the heat; my brain, already full at 11.30 or so, had long since left the building. Protesting (this is a social movement panel, after all), I followed it. If the next five days are as intense as today, I’ll need what passes as my wits about me…

About those tomatoes;   On Monday 11th July, in the Sociology of Agriculture and Food research committee’s schedule there is a session on “Social innovation in Agriculture and Food: Old Wine in New bottles? Part III: Transformative Social Innovation? And the third paper, by Renato Marin of the University of Barcelona has the fantastic title “Are Hipster Tomatoes Socially Innovative? Forms of Urban Agriculture and its potential of social innovation.”

Things I need to look up
The book Mining Capitalism: The Relation between Corporations and their Critics by Stewart Kirsch

Things I want to look up but am going to have to put in the “after the thesis” folder
indigenous organisational strength
Eric Swyngedouw Politics of Scale
Ferhandel Bell (US Sociologist, Yale – futures)
network capacity
Markus Schulz article in World Futures Review
James Moore Capitalism and the Web of Life


Bragging: Published in a Routledge collection #activism #climate

Whoop. Whoop. WHOOP!!! I am published!!

Emergent Possibilities for Global Sustainability: intersections of race, class and gender, edited by Phoebe Godfrey and Denise Torres, Routledge 2016.

Chapter 22 is “Pathological and ineffective activism – what is to be done?” by Marc Hudson and Arwa Aburawa. Whoop!!

A physical copy just arrived. It looks fantastic, and mouth-watering.  Will have to read it all of course. Thanks to the editors, Phoebe Godfrey and Denise Torres, who’ve worked very hard and diligently to make it all happen. Thanks also to my wonderful co-author Arwa Aburawa.  And to all those who proof-read, critiqued etc.

Social Movement Learning: Partisan Collective and “Activist Skills and Knowledge”

How do we know what skills and knowledge we have? How do we know who else in the group can help us, or would benefit from our help? How do we spot “single points of failure”? What do we do about burn out – before, during, and after?

All these (good) questions were on the agenda yesterday evening when I facilitated a skill-share session for a new Manchester collective, Partisan. This blog post is a chronological account, written to a) remind me what I did and b) think about what could have gone better.

The absolute best thing was that an email questionnaire was filled in by a bunch of the attendees and put onto a spreadsheet by my contact at Partisans, who did a great job.  This helped in two ways. One, it meant that I was able to make a relatively specific/relevant to the group questionnaire for people to fill in (see below for the top of that)


Secondly, in response to the “how could it all go horribly wrong?” question, everyone independently wrote about burn out, and so that gave me the cue to structure the second half around that – I made a separate sheet listing the questionnaire answers and the questions I wanted people to tackle.

burnout discussion

The following email went around

Dear x

We’re holding a Partisans Collective meeting on [date and venue], starting at 6pm sharp.

It’s to help us all figure out what skills and knowledge we need to make Partisans a really big success over the coming year. We will look at what resources we have, what we need and – where and how to get those resources.

There’s a short questionnaire below (You don’t have to answer all the questions if you don’t want). Please fill it in if you are coming, and send it back before the night – it will help us plan the evening. If you can’t come, please please please fill in the questionnaire and send it back!


    1. What skills and knowledge do we need to make Partisans a success? (we will make a list based on the answers we get)
    2. Which of these skills and knowledge do you personally have at a level you would be happy to teach people “the basics”?
    1. Which of these skills and knowledge would you LIKE to get/become better at? (we will be running training)
    1. Given your experience of any similar sorts of projects to Partisans,

a) what should Partisans Collective do MORE of?

b) What should it stop doing/do less of?

c) What should it start doing?

    1. How might “it” all go horribly wrong (and any ideas you have for stopping that from happening!!)
    1. Anything else you would like to say

Before we kicked off, I asked how long the meeting preceeding had been, and if people were in a good mood. It had been 90 minutes, and not fraught – if it had been longer/bad, I would have figured out something particularly high energy and fun to start with. As it was, I gave everyone two pieces of paper (one green, one plain), and a name badge each, and very briefly (three sentences) introduced myself. I explained the session would be an hour, tops. I made a general plea for name badges at meetings – there will always be people, new or nameblind- who don’t know everyone’s name, it makes it easier for them to interact.

Two bits of paper
I then asked people to write something they were good at on the green bit of paper and something they’d like to be good at on the coloured bit, in big letters.
[I did NOT do introductions/go round, because there were twelve of us, and it is tokenistic unless people have a minute or two each. Even then it’s fairly lazy/crap, imho.]

Some people “cheated” and wrote more than one, but that’s fine.

Things folks were good at
writing, research, Djing, organising events ideas, meeting design [that was me], teaching, programming, numbers, liaising with people, sewing, spreadsheets, organisation, customer service, chat, public speaking, music events, vocal voluem, networking, hand-sewing, banner-making, social media and blogging.

Things folks wanted to be good at
Painting, drawing, websites, design, graphic design, organising accounting, managing money, practical organisation, machine sewing, event organisation, networking, time management , funding, public speaking, cooking, speaking Japanese, technical stuff, social media strategy,/marketing, interpersonal skills

We then stood up and circulated. As people found a “match” they were asked to shout out “huzzah”. There were several huzzahs, which helped the mood.

I then got people to self-organise in a line based on day and month of birth (not year), and then talk to the person next to them about anything while I sorted out the next bit. Date of birth is a neutral way of randomly mixing groups (unlike, say, height), and if you have 30 people there’s a very good chance two people share the same birthday. (with twelve of us we had a consecutive day situation).

Then the “novice lines”
I had people help move tables out the way to create enough space, then had everyone line up in a row. I explained the basics – one step forward if you’re a novice, two steps forward if you’re a practitioner, three if you’re an expert and four if you are a ninja. I asked people to try to compensate for their upbringing (if you’re female or working class you are generally taught to think you’re not as good; if you’re male and middle class you’re generally taught that you are ‘all that’ [race matters too, of course – this was an all-white audience, and I think I’d be nervous, as a white cis-gender male ‘lecturing’ BME people about the scars of institutional racism.]
I asked people to close their eyes and visualise where they were going to step to (so they weren’t influenced by other people’s moves). The novelty here was that if people couldn’t do something, they were told to stay put, where as in the past I’d had ‘can’t do and ‘novice’ on the same line.
So, I chose cooking as the first exercise, as I always do; nobody minds admitting to being a bad cook, and thanks to gender roles, women tend to be better and step further forward than the men, on balance. Two people stepped forward as far as expert, and I asked them both to say a little bit about how they became good cooks (“practice” and “I’m vegetarian, so I had to learn”).
We then did “liaising with people” from the green sheets of paper (I always go to the green sheets, since there will be someone in the room who is going to step forward to expert)  and I made up some definitions on the hoof that made people laugh. Again, there were a couple of people stepped further forward, and I asked one to say why she was good, how she got good. She was willing to run a workshop on this t somepoint. She then got volunteered to take over facilitating the novice lines – which she did well – on plumbing. It emerged that nobody was a good plumber BUT that one person’s dad was a plumber, and could perhaps be persuaded to do a skillshare session.

People seemed to like the novice lines – both for the ease of use and my attempt to counter-act how gender/class works to have people under-estimate themselves. I encouraged people to take it on and modify it. After all, all you need is white and coloured A5 paper…

Now that people knew the idea, I had them all individually fill in the sheet I’d made, and give them in to the co-ordinator.  This now means Partisans Collective has a better idea of who (in the room) has what skills from a self-sourced list of crucial skills,  at what level, and who wants to beef up their skills.  That should make it easier to spot single points of failure, and to organise for groups to work together on projects with the aim of spreading skills.  Fingers crossed!!

Burn out
That had all taken about 25 minutes, which meant that there was enough time for a good discussion of burnout.
I had put up flipcharts around the room with the following questions, but rather than just have people circulate (which I’ve done in the past, with mixed results), I had people in groups of 3 or 4 talking through before writing up on the flip charts, and had given everyone a sheet of paper with the questions on, as well as anonymised quotes from the questionnaire (see above). The four questions were;

  1. What are the causes of burn out?

2. What can be done to minimise these causes?

3. How can people who are feeling burnt out be supported?

4. What can you do to create cultures of support and accountability that make burnout less likely to happen, and less likely to damage your group (both its individuals and its group functioning)

This part seemed to work well – I eavesdropped and there were some very astute observations and practical suggestions being put forward within the groups.  I  kept an eye on everyone’s participation; nobody was disengaged, though some people listened a lot more than they talked (which is fine!). If groups are five or more, you usually get a dynamic of three people talking and two/the rest listening. So groups of three are usually best, groups of four tolerable. I did not use the ‘law of two feet‘ since my sense was that this was a relatively stable group whose members knew each other and would not have any individual dominating.

I pushed them to move on to the third and fourth questions, and then write up in the last few minutes before the hour was up. People had also written on their own sheets

After people had done that our time was up. I decided not to have us all looking at each flipchart in turn, or have a closing plenary. If the group doesn’t have the will and ability to collate from the flip-charts and the sheets that people wrote on, and use the conversations they had in their groups (which were full of sensible, implementable ideas), then a closing plenary wouldn’t help. And in general, plenaries tend to suck the energy out of a room, imho.  I finished with cheese – I asked people to go up to someone they did not know well/at all and shake their hand (I judged this was culturally appropriate) and thank them for their input and ideas.  People did that and it seemed to finish the meeting on a high.


Verdict: It was fun and useful for me, and hopefully/seemed to be for them too. They have now experienced “novice lines” and realised how easy it is to do, and had good conversations about burn out. My impression is that they are skilled and serious about this, and that they will avoid some of the classic mistakes of these kinds of groups.   I chose not  to do feedback forms (I am less enamoured of them than I used to be). I asked people to get in touch with me, or go via Sandy if they had anything to add.

So – what did I personally take away

  • Additional proof of concept (and, therefore, that it is time [or will be after my thesis] to get of my fat arse and make this stuff happen more)
  • People don’t read instructions on sheets – you have to say it out loud, or tell them to read the instructions!
  • Encourage people to be very specific in their white and green paper writing – “technical stuff” creates too much ambiguity.
  • Select the topic for the person who is going to take over facilitating the novice lines, and make it one that is unambiguous.