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Power, Politics, People And The Sociological Prism

May 6, 2010

For practitioners of sociology, the sociological imagination shapes our understandings of politics as we try to make sense of the General Election, Politics and Power. As a sociologist you can either observe society from afar or get involved as many of us feel compelled to do. The sociological prism, once perceptually engrained, is deeply compelling; and never more so than when focused on Power.

Engagement in General Elections is a sure-fire prescription for the turmoil of erupting ideas and frustrating half-finished debates, should one be sociologically inclined.

Unpredictable but fascinating
I am a sociologist. When will I ever learn? Here I am again, trying to make sense of the most unpredictable General Election for decades (yes, I can recall the last one), and acting as voluntary Agent for a Labour Candidate who has held our Constituency for the last three parliaments, and thoroughly deserves to hold it again this time around as well.

But all national predictions are off. No doubt the glass will clear but, at this point in these fascinating hustings the context in which all the political contenders find themselves defies coherent analysis, even using my special prism.

Sociology and Politics
And who can say whether the Sociology leads the Politics, or vice versa, for those of us who put this sociological prism to use on a daily basis? Do we see power in action and respond by developing sociological analyses, or does sociological analysis take us to the perception of power (in all its guises), and it is that which triggers our understandings of the action?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, one way or the other. The sociological imagination takes most of us in just one of two directions. Either we become observers from afar, perhaps from the rarefied heights of the increasingly mythical ivory tower (or even from the more cynical parts of that less mythical establishment, the media), or else we somehow find ourselves Involved.

Travelling through change
Self-evidently, I took the latter route. In the course of my sociological career – a term I use in the technical rather than the advancement sense – I have taught my subject at all levels and in many modes, taken membership of a wide range of public bodies and committees, spent time as a researcher, been a community volunteer and (separately) a social worker, developed a business, engaged in numerous backroom centre-left political roles, and written thousands upon thousands of words – and that’s before we even mention the countless conversations, debates and occasionally genteel disputes, using the spoken word, with real people.

There is, in Sociology, no going back. Sociological perceptions and understandings of the world we live in can always be sharpened and redefined; but they can rarely be blunted and put away.

The questions keep coming
And so the sociological imagination is fed, wanting forever to know more.

· Why do climate change scientists find it hard to acknowledge that human behaviour may now be a more pressing research issue than yet another modelling exercise about ice caps? And what’s the scope for the green economy?

· How can the advantages of Sure Start be rolled out most effectively to reach all who might benefit? And how can students from disadvantaged backgrounds be encouraged to raise their game and their ambitions, to realise their potential?

· Why does public health still rank low in the hierarchy of medical glamour and influence? Which aspects of teenage pregnancy need to be seen as matters of most concern for those involved?

· What’s the most effective way to tackle housing issues, or the consequence of policies such as ‘right to buy’? What does genuine engagement in the renewal of ‘communities’ entail?

· Can Big Science be made to work to the advantage of economically challenged parts of the UK? And does technology have the potential to ‘solve’ problems like the energy crisis?

· What do we actually mean by ‘sustainability’? Do we really understand that there are many different sorts of ‘stakeholding’ – all of them legitimate, but some of them more overtly evident than others?

These and many others are questions which I, like other sociologists, have had to try to address in the course of my professional and civic life, working in local authorities, colleges, health research, regional and government departments and in regeneration.

Multidisciplinary dialogues
And, within these multi-disciplinary dialogues, I’ve had to cope with the uncertainties inherent in any available evidence base for attempts to resolve very real matters of the here and now – uncertainties which social scientists often accommodate more comfortably than policy makers, natural scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, practitioners or indeed the media and general public do.

The tensions endemic in such often pressing discourse about realities nonetheless offer their own challenges and rewards.

The more I have engaged in the process of policy development (and often concomitant change management), the more I realise how broad the spectrum of perceptions is, and often how little of this spectrum is common ground. Few even of those most experienced and committed to positive progress seem routinely to articulate positions which acknowledge multiply valid perceptions or levels of operation.

Silos and single level thinking
The idea that silo and single level thinking are major obstacles to coherence is of course not new. But mostly articulation of this issue has concerned specific practices and disciplines.

A wider, more generic perspective may however offer considerable scope for the development of broad-brush shared understandings – and thereby consolidated progress in bringing forward complex and multi-faceted public issues such as those listed above.

A million small conversations
Typically, each actor / participant in such dialogues brings his or her own story to the table; but rarely are these stories all heard, in the heat of the discussion. Indeed, quite often those who have the least understood story to tell – usually those have least power and influence – are also those whose story is ultimately least well embedded in the final narrative. This tends to be the case whether the issues concern health, politics, regeneration or, say, the environment or sustainability.

My particular perception here of the world and its problems takes logically me to a left-of-centre politic. But it has also of late taken me to a new and very personal project: that of A Million Small Conversations, www.millionsmallconversations.co.uk, or amsc – strapline: connecting small ideas for bigger sustainable change.

Watching disputes and dialogue over the years, I’ve seen that when people with different perceptions are given real opportunities to talk one-to-one they very often come to a mutually understood position, and from there, in discussion with others who have done the same, they devise constructive ways to make progress. But it takes time, and it takes patience.

Multiple discussions
I aim to make such opportunities openly available on my amsc discussion forum, so that people of all sorts can share as equals their experience and views in ways which permit further supportive interrogation, until there is a tested bedrock of common understandings (or divergence) on a whole range of emerging issues. This will I hope in turn encourage the dialectic to take off in yet more diverse directions. And at each stage we will be sharing ideas and knowledge which before had been within the singular silos of specific practitioner or interest groups.

This may seem some distance from activities normally associated with membership of an advisory body, or being a time-pressed election agent, but my objective is the same: to share developing insights into how power and influence operate in daily life, and to drive towards sustainable progress using my personal prism, the sociological imagination which shapes so fundamentally so many of these understandings.

A version of this article was first published in the Sociologists Outside Academia Newsletter of Spring / Summer 2010 (Sociology for All, Issue 09 – Politics Special, pp.15-18).

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