August 12, 2011

In Need of Some Sociological Imagination

Sign in Bedminster, Bristol, June 2011: Bristol Insurgent Artists

Sign in Bedminster, Bristol, June 2011: Bristol Insurgent Artists

I spent much of my week distracted and distraught by the demonstrations and confrontations in London, Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool, to name some of the locations of unrest this August. Perhaps I was particularly tuned in to that part of the world because in June I was working in London and Bristol, and in September I will be in Liverpool at the ReWire conference. In Bristol, I was working with the Knowle West Media Centre on the University of Local Knowledge; in London, I was working with Stephen Willats, researching his artworks co-created with residents of housing estates, such as Peckham in south London, where some of the violence occurred.

I was grateful to find a few posts on the Internet that helped me situate the events a bit: first was HarpyMarx’s post, “When Will We Get Justice?” from August 7, 2011.  He has since posted more reflections and some photos of damage in Brixton (London).

Mute Magazine compiled videos–called “Riot Round-up”–that filled in some blanks for me:  Mute also linked to a lengthy post by Evan Calder Williams, “An Open Letter to Those Who Condemn Looting (In Two Parts),” which I haven’t had time to read but seems to be an effort to establish common ground, with some irony.

Then Hipmama’s thoughtful commentary, “Letter from London” by Bee Lavender, an ex-pat woman from the United States, reflected on “the shattering rage”: “In a time of economic instability and high unemployment children have lost on every level, specifically around education. University is a complicated, fraught goal for kids who grow up in poverty, but at least it was a goal until a few months ago. Now they can’t afford the fees, and they know it.”

Christian Fuchs’ post on “Social Media and the UK Riots,” noted: “Focusing on technology (as cause of or solution for riots) is the ideological search for control, simplicity and predictability in a situation of high complexity, unpredictability and uncertainty. It is also an expression of fear. It projects society’s guilt and shame into objects. Explanations are not sought in complex social relations, but in the fetishism of things.”

And today’s find was “Is a social media-fuelled uprising the worst case scenario? Elements for a sociology of UK riots” by Antonio A. Casilli and Paola Tubaro, jointly posted on Tubaro’s blog and Casilli’s blog. These two social scientists model civil violence, adapting the 2002 work of Josh Epstein.

Most of these links came from friends on Facebook, for those of you tracking social networks.

In 1959, C. Wright Mills published his book, The Sociological Imagination, in which he wrote about social problems as “troubles” or “issues.” As Susan Nall Bales recently noted, citing Mills: “Issues are public matters; troubles are private matters.” (Mills 1961, 8-9; Bales 2009, 17) What I have taken away so far from the mass media coverage as well as politicians’ statements, is that we are in need of “sociological imagination” that would reframe the tragic murders, injuries, and brutality from individual acts (which indeed they are) and single episodes (which they also are) as themes, as issues of societal structures. Not only do I think this is important because of the need to understand the contexts of the UK violence, but also I think it matters because it might allow us to direct attention to policies, policies that we can help to change through debate, discussion, and action in the streets. In other words, I think focusing on a young person in a hoodie looting a lute (I kid you not) or on thuggery does little to support a discussion about social safety nets, educational access, poverty and racism.

The article by Susan Nall Bales that I mentioned is “The Trouble with Issues: The Case for Intentional Framing,” New Directions for Youth Development no. 124, Winter 2009, 13-27.