Inclusive Innovation, eco-innovation and so on… #isaforum2016

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

Passive Revolution and the imperial way of living + digital repression etc, #isa47 #isaforum2016

After lunch on Tues 13th I ended up – after being approached by someone who had been at the last session who wanted to recommend “Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery,”  – at the second half (i.e. 180 degrees) of a roundtable on “Emerging Research in Environmental Sociology (Part 2).” Of particular interest was “Strategies of a Green Economy, Contours of a Green Capitalism. Sociology meets Political Economy”, delivered by Ulrich Brand. He had kindly printed copies of “Strategies of a Green Economy, contours of a Green Capitalism”, a chapter in the Handbook of the international political economy of production.” I have now read it and it’s dead useful!

He wanted to contest the idea that there is “inertia” in the current state of affairs. There is, he insisted, never inertia but always (capitalist) dynamics; “Bourgeois capitalist societies are never inert”. He warned that important elements are left out of the “Green Economy” discousrse, such as the political economy of resource competitiveness, and the geopolitics of competitiveness more generally (the “brown state”) and indeed the commodification of nature. He revisited the notion of the “imperial way of living” (see blog post about the pre-conference– basically cheap products, cheap fossil fuels and the exploitation of, well, everyone and everything). “Green Economy” discourse doesn’t even name this.Around this, he was interested to look at five things-

  1. Gramscian “passive revolution” (i.e. the deliberate actions of elites)
  2. Economic viability of production and consumption (will electric cars work)
  3. What are the aspects of an ecological way of living (contra imperial)
  4. Green corporatism – can trades unions, employer associations etc ‘go green’
  5. How the state stabilises local initiatives

There were some nice questions (if capitalism is surplus value generation, from nature and labour – where does surplus value come from under the “green” agenda) etc etc

I ended up at another session “From Indymedia ot #Occupywallstreet and Anti-Austerity Protests in Europe: Three Generations of Digital Activism Logics.”

There were some useful warnings about fetishising particular new media (people swarmed before twitter, you know). And stuff on protest cultures (Constanza 2012) and the “imaginary matrix” (Cabrera 2001, Flichy, 2007), which seems to mean the way difference activist groupings take different stances towards the usefulness or otherwise of new media, based on previous experience, skills etc. The most useful of the papers for me was by Perrin Ogun Emre (Kadir Has University) and Gulum Sener (Hasan Kalyoncu University), on “Digital Activism in the post-Gezi Era”.

They pointed out that there has always been censorship and repression, but that state tactics have become more intense and thorough after Gezi, aimed not just at prominent activists but also Joe and Jane Public if they voice dissent. They conducted semi-structured interviews with prominent media-activists, some of whom identified as activists, others as (citizen) journalists.

They gave a nice summation of the tactics used by the state – here’s what I wrote down

  • Blocking sites (especially before/around big events/controversies)
  • Filtering URLs
  • throttling the internet outright
  • monitoring social media users
  • Hacking activist websites and social media
  • creating a troll army, trolling people with hate speech (against journos and dissidents)
  • creating fake accounts/websites
  • exploiting facebook’s “community standards”
  • more repressive methods (assassinations, detention, trials. kidnapping.

They also listed the things activists do in reply

  • VPN/TOR browser, telegram
  • use of different platforms
  • solidarity with alternative media
  • organising and promoting hashtags
  • taking photos of “filtered” words and using them in the body of emails/websites to get around the filter
  • deleting and blocking trolls
  • back up, cloud service, password change
  • ‘trash’ tactic [no, I don’t know what this means either]
  • exposing trolls and police pressure
  • training and development networks.

As I said in the Q and A, a lot of this is not new at all, the FBI was doing it against civil rights activists in the 1960s, under the “Cointelpro ” programme. I also hyped Cory Doctorow’s two excellent novels “Homeland” and “Little Brother.”

Some things I re-learnt today about presenting

  • Don’t talk to the powerpoint screen
  • Have a powerpoint
  • The visual matters, more than you want it to.
  • Keep to time
  • Ask for what you want to get from the audience

Anyway, then a group of us (new friends, waifs and strays) then schlepped across town to a fantastic Austrian restaurant, and were later joined by my gracious host. There was beer. More beer. A bar. And it became a bit of a blur….

Today (Weds 13th July) There was a small matter of a large hangover and life admin this morning, so I didn’t get to any sessions. After lunch, I went to an appalling session. I am not going to name names/identify the research committee, but perhaps it is not best to start with a declaration that you do not want to follow the normal academic panel format and will have only “brief” contributions from panelists and then… have six, male panellists talking for just over half the entire period of the session? Perhaps this is not the best way to get people being creative and interactive – having them sat in rows listening silently for 50 minutes? Ego-fodder, much?

When the first “question” was an extended bit of self-promotion “I did what I should have did” about 40 minutes earlier, and invoked the law of two feet.

So I retreated to the safety of the Main Hall, and now know enough people that I inevitably had a lovely catch up with “old” (5 days) friends briefly, before we all headed off to the “General Assembly” meeting of the Research Committee within which I’ve been mostly hanging out. Then off to a local anarcho-style cafe, called Cafe Gagarin. Lovely falafel and hummus, and good conversation with people (more than one) called Anna or variations on that.

One more day of conference, (sessions to be attended, since I am off the sauce) to be followed by a quick stop-over in Prague and then back to blighted Blighty. Boris?  Boris is the best man to represent “British values”  overseas?    Well, I suppose if you think what BV are, as opposed to what we are always told they are by our Lords and masters, then it makes perfect sense…

Of thinktanks and social movement failure… #isaforum2016

The third day of the International Sociological Association Forum and another jam-packed programme. So jam-packed, in fact, that this blog post covers the morning sessions, with a sequel (the deaths are always more elaborate, the body count higher) to follow.

The first session I went to, on Global Think Tanks, was strictly kept to time by David Fasenfast (Wayne State University). He had prepped the (seven!) speakers the day before with a time limit and a request that they start from their conclusions and then fill-in the blanks if they had time (this seemed to work!). He warned everyone that in the Q and A if a question wasn’t clear in the first thirty seconds, they would be cut off.

Karin Fischer (Kepler University, Linz) advertised the existence of thinktanknetworkresearch.net (does what it says on the tin, and pointed to the interlocking staff and board membership of think tanks, with things like the Mont Pelerin Society (Atlas was not mentioned) being a “transnational neoliberal knowledge power elite”, that engages in “strategic replication” of knowledge (churning out similar storylines)

William Carroll (University of Victoria, Canada) presented work on “counterhegemonic projects and cognitive praxis in transnational alternative policy groups.” He pointed out that most social research looks at dominant groups, but that since the 1970s, and especially the 1990s, alternative policy groups have been busy generating ideas for alternative globalisation. He then showed a fascinating table that compared neoliberal, and “counter” groups on three axes – substantive practice, procedural aspects and orientation to the future, looking also at the challenges for the “counter groups”.

He talked a little about 8 think tanks; ITeM-Social Watch (Montevideo), PRIA (New Delhi), IFG  (San Francisco), CCS (Durban), Rosaluxembourg Stiftung (Berlin), TNI (Amsterdam), Focus (Bangkok) and Dawn(Development Alternatives with Women in a New Era (Global South). These fall into three categories around human right/empowerment, to the left of political liberalism and radical projects that are transnational in nature. These groups, especially the third, need to show on-the-ground actors that they matter. Abstract ideas are, as Gramsci said, “castles in the air”.

One crucial way to show they matter is to cultivate local dialogues, and help form links between individuals and groups. Resources among the eight vary, with a couple well-funded but many dependent on “sweat equity” and volunteer labour. Dawn, a feminist project, has existed for decades. Carroll was at paints to say these are new critical sources of knowledge, mobilising in projects for thriving and well-being.

Georgina Murray (Griffith University) talked about Australian think tanks as “permanent persuaders” (that chap Gramsci again), and the “shock troops of neoliberalism”, borrowing a term from Australian academic Damien Cahill, and helping to get the “spontaneous consent” of subordinate groups (Strinati, 1995). She also talked about the chicken and egg problem – do the think tanks create the policies, or do the material conditions create the think tanks. [Strinati, Dominic (1995), An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London.]

Alejandra Salas-Porras(Facultad de Ciencas, Politicas y Sociales-UNAM, Mexico) gave an account of think tank networks in Mexico (they’re relatively new).

Bruce Cronin (University of Greenwich, London) explained how reports of the demise of the US Business Roundtable are greatly exaggerated. The outfit, founded in the 1970s in response to rising public pressure (around environment, product and social concerns – see Barley 2010 Building and Institutional Field to Corral a Government for details) is a very canny street-fighting unit, with a small staff and most of the heavy lifting being done by CEOs and staff of member corporations. It has adapted to a structural shift in the US economy, and has brought the CEOs of service industries (insurance,IT, pharma etc. into the fold. Its (very effective) Modus operandi is direct engagement of CEOs in policy and implementation, wide collaboration around precise policy goals, and “grass roots” mobilisation of employees. Cronin said in the Q and A that the Business Roundtable was more pragmatic than a couple of other business associations (e.g. the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers), in that it realised health care costs needed to be control for the good of ‘the system’ (my words), and so worked with Obama rather than fingers-in-ears-stomping-the-ground.

The final chap (sorry, only have a surname- Zielinski) talked about the infamous and secretive Bildeberg Group. His research is based on a leaked archive of the groups annual meeting summaries, from 1954-1995. He is trawling through to see who the key players (invited back every year for many years) are.

Books to get

Expose, Oppose and Propose Alternative Policy Groups and the Struggle for Global Justice

Verdict: Seven presenters got to present their work, get specific questions, with time left for a general discussion, all in 90 minutes. That is not an accident, that is conscious and skillful work on the part of the chair.

The second session I went to was Environmental movements in the Age of Climate Change (and in the interests of full disclosure, I was one of the presenters).

Neil Carter (University of York) gave a compelling account of Friends of the Earth’s effective policy entrepreneurship around climate policy. He used Kingdon’s Multiple Streams approach(problem, politics and policy streams, coming together when policy entrepreneurs join the streams and create a ‘policy window’) to frame his empirical tale of the period 2005 to 2008. I had not realised that FoE basically devoted ALL their resources to this campaign (“the Big Ask”). It succeeded faster and further than their initial expectations, partly thanks to the mood of the time (you could not move but you would trip over a climate group/meeting/disaster/report), the tensions in the politics stream (a botched Climate Change Policy process, David Cameron hugging huskies to detoxify the Tory brand) and the efforts of helpful celebrities (shout out to Thom Yorke and Radiohead – they seem not to be knobs, as best I can tell). Carter made the good point that FoE, for various reasons, failed to capitalise on the success, and that newly recruited members were not retained in large numbers.

Nathalie Berny (Sciences Po Bourdeaux) talked about the big NGOs in the “Brussels Bubble”. I could track down Greenwood 2011 and Kluver 2013 on the effectiveness of NGOs around public policy and the difficulties in mobilising resources Greenwood and Aspinwall, 1998).

Cecelia Walsh-Russo (Hardwick College) talked about “climate justice and local government”, in the US. She and her colleagues looked at three adaptation plans, devised by the governments of Punta Garde, Florida, Keen, New Hampshire and Emoryville, California, all of whom worked with ICLEI . They found that climate justice is largely absent from these plans, that “vulnerability” is always framed as of the natural world, and that there are no mentions of the needs of the homeless, poor, or provisions for mental health services. Thank GOODNESS that the good councillors of Manchester City Council’s Health Scrutiny Committee have not kicked climate change into the long grass. No, wait

Joost de Moor gave a very interesting presentation on “Demanding Policy Change, Taking Direct Action nor Promoting Alternatives: Explaining Differences and Overlaps in Strategic Preferences within the Climate Change Movement.”

He’d been studying the 18 month build-up to the mobilisations around the COP21 meeting in Paris last year. He talked about the paradox of COP activism, around what the activists are trying to achieve (shut it down? Force it to be better? Delegitimise it) and how the rhetoric around “build a movement” was deployed, while all the while people worried about a repeat of the 2009 Copenhagen debacle. He added the disclaimer that some groups don’t agree with the paradox framing (see Avaaz) and others do indeed ignore the COP process

He explained that there were various proposed tactics, such as “having the last word” (denouncing the agreement as inadequate), disrupting the negotiations, targeting banks and fossil fuel companies, promoting alternatives. Some of this did take place, but there were serious challenges (unresolved), such as the age-old one of not being able to disrupt the wheels of day-to-day capitalism if you protests are planned for a Saturday, and how to say “You should come to Paris because of COP21, but when you get here you have to ignore COP21 and protest about banks and stuff” (my paraphrasing). So the “Red Lines” protest ended up being a bit of a confusion for many, but given the constraints (including the heightened security and mood post- Bataclan attacks) then what else was there to do (“don’t go – do your actions in your own cities” would be my answer, fwiw. As I wrote, “Screw Paris“.

Joost then explained that the movement has struggled to avoid a Copenhagen repeat, with key challenges around trust between Majority World organisations and the West (two weeks haggling over a meeting in Berlin, that was then cancelled by the organisers who felt it would be pointlesss), worries by the Majority World folks that they would not be able to attend all the meetings and decisions would be made without them, tensions with the NGOs etc etc. Climate Justice Action has sort of survived, but is very northern and is basically just a mailing list at present. The May 2016 actions were a dampish squib (that’s me saying that, not Joost).

It seems that there are intractable problems, and that we are not learning very much. Ho hum.
Second blog post to follow tonight or tomorrow, or when the hangover is gone…

To look up(After The Thesis)

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
Anocracy
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

www.opendemocracy.net/openmovements

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.