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Sociology, Democracy And The Economic Crisis

May 14, 2012

Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian has just (8 May 2012) published his second commentary about ‘the dearth of sociologists and other non-economists analysing how we got into’ the current economic crisis.  This silence, he says, is in vivid contrast to the (dramatic but ineffectual) protests of academic social scientists when monetarists reigned supreme whilst Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.  But, sadly older and wiser, this time we need to focus on a more encompassing agenda of transaction, impact and meaning.

Chakrabortty is not overtly antagonistic to sociology and related disciplines, but he suggests they are not facing up professionally to the grim realities of the new austerity under a hegemony where monetarists hold massive sway and the word ‘Keynesian‘ is at best an irrelevance, and more often seen simply evidence of unreal, woolly-minded thinking.  Interestingly, he suggests we are more likely to find a Keynesian economist in a business school than in a faculty of economics.

Democratising the economic debate
The concern Chakrabortty shares in his article is that ‘discussion of the economic crisis needs to be made democratic, and …. academics have a role to play in that.’  He claims (and I, probably like all other social scientists, agree with him) that discussions of public policy are enriched when academics get ‘stuck in and provide interesting analysis’ – a point which by co-incidence resonates with a quote in a Renewal post, on the same daay as Chakrabortty’s, from the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang:

“…the very notion that there is this neatly separable domain of economics, that it has its own logic and shouldn’t be tampered with by political or moral considerations – that notion in itself is at the heart of this free market ideology … Efficiency cannot be defined without reference to some shared sense of justice and fairness”– Ha-Joon Chang

This surely is the point at which sociology and related disciplines come into their own?  When this wider context is considered, there is much evidence of the social scientific analysis of the current economic orthodoxy: the work of researchers such as Danny Dorling, Tim Lang, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson alone illustrates the point well.  Here, informed by the tools of social science, we see consistent, sharply insightful deconstruction of critical aspects of human experience as they relate to demography, food / resources, health, well-being and much else. All these matters surely connect very directly with current economics?

But forensic analysis and disclosure of how policy (or lack of it) impacts on people in all their diversity is not alone enough – not even when these insights combine to suggest what we may expect in terms of likely outcomes.

Social science research
Perhaps this is Aditya Chakrabortty’s point.  Whilst he has not in his critique much explored the work we mention here, his major criticism is that there are few overt examples of research by social scientists into how those who have brought about the current economic ‘crisis’ gained the traction to bring this about.  It is not enough alone to look at policy and politics, and then describe the facts and identify trends in impact.  We also need to know how and why these things came about.

Some of this has of course been documented. As one example, the film Inside Job by Charles Ferguson, which was an Academy nominee for the Best Documentary in 2010, offers a dramatically persuasive account of the global market meltdown in 2008.  It’s relentless pursuit of the position of some Chicago monetarists alone makes it stand out as analysis of the sort we should see much more of.

Challenge need not be disinterested
But, as Chakrabortty would doubtless remind us, disinterested, peer-reviewed academic research, Inside Job is not.    In my review of it I actually wrote:

Go, see the film. And take courage from it to challenge, by the facts, the still virulent world of alpha males and ‘their’ banks.

But few seem to have taken up this challenge.  And, sadly, beyond the realms of documentarists, the impact of what is actually known has been minimal.

Nonetheless, whilst we may agree Aditya Chakrabortty has a point about the relative ‘invisibility’ of academic studies of the causes of the current economic crisis, there is also a case for suggesting that we should look more widely to discover what work has in fact been done.   Perhaps, as he (generously) supposes, the academic review process has stymied some studies which might otherwise have been undertaken; but on the other hand not all studies need to be conducted and presented from within the confines of the (alleged) detachment of the academy.

As Ha-Joon Chang observes, the study of economics should not be a cold and clinical operation – which perhaps explains why, to acknowledge Chakrabortty himself, business schools are more likely to sport the odd Keynesian, than are UK departments of economics in these straitened times.

Constructng a future
Keynes was a far from soft liberal in his fiscal views, but he insisted consistently that in difficult economic circumstances there is an imperative to provide constructive work and support for those in need – and that such a strategy also provides investment for the future which will improve everyone’s outlook and prospects.   Keynes may not have been ‘soft’, but he knew that properly constructed humane measures produce humane ends – a position in stark contrast to the monetarists, who somehow fail to observe that the fundamental building blocks of any economy are flesh and blood human beings.

And it is, unsurprisingly, at the ‘human’ end of the sociological prism that most work on the current situation has been carried out.  Studies of social policy and impact abound, albeit not all of them enshrined in the academy.

Disparate analyses
Think tanks and consultancies (my own, very modestly, included) have conducted research and enquiries into many aspects of the new austerity; we have considered everything from child care to regeneration, from ‘class’ to the distribution of wealth and opportunity, from equality to housing, from the challenges of  old age to those of the environment…   all of this undertaken, sometimes bringing to bear over-arching ideas such as the ecology of knowledge, and always using the tools and schema of sociology and the social sciences in general.

Nonetheless, the agenda for research into the current economic crisis should indeed include much more work of the sort Charles Ferguson undertook for his film, and Aditya Chakrabortty now seeks and proposes.

When findings from such enquiries become available they will add enormous richness to the work already underway into policies and impacts.  These policies do not appear without human agency, nor do the impacts impinge, except on human beings.

Indeed, this is the most fundamental criticism to be made of the monetarists, as once again Ha-Joon Chang has reminded us.  The market, and all that follows from it, comprises ultimately not ‘mechanisms’ but people and their beliefs and behaviours.

What sort of ‘democratic’ debate?
Even after the criticality of human agency and human impact have each been conceded by the ‘other’ side, however, one further question remains.

In what respect does Aditya Chakrabortty fear that the current economic situation lacks ‘democracy’?  He says:

I do think that our discussion of the economic crisis needs to be made democratic, and that academics have a role to play in that. Otherwise, we’re guaranteed that the people who steered us  into the mess will be the ones prescribing how we get out.

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but it looks to me as though this is a plea for the conjunction of social science as research, and politics (especially politics in opposition to the new austerity) as in the ‘real world’.

If that’s the case, I couldn’t agree more.  But I would also want to point to the role of the significant numbers of think tank analysts, politicians (and journalists) who already use the tools of social science in their every day endeavours.

Multi-disciplinary approach
Perhaps the universities and what Chakrabortty calls the ‘trade association’ of sociologists (the British Sociological Association, of which I am pleased to have been a member for many years) are not sufficiently enmeshed into the broader political spectrum; but there again, given the battering which sociology in the UK has suffered at the hands of right wing politicians (think of the FACTASS battles) that disengagement, whilst unfortunate, is unsurprising.

But when theory comes to hustings, no matter. You don’t need academe to work out why and how the current reign of the right has come about.  You just need research tools, rigour and curiosity.

The new agenda
Aditya Chakrabortty may or may not be correct about who so far has done, or not done, what; but he’s certainly spot on when he urges more focus on the mechanisms of imposition of the new austerity.  And it’s up to all parties concerned – academics, policy researchers, journalists, politicians and others – to get together in this work.

Letters from academics to the Prime Minister will have as little impact this time around, as Chakrabortty reminds us they had (not) last time.  But more revelations about how fiscal monetarists have somehow once again gained ascendency over the realities of every day human experience would, as he says, help enormously in understanding how the hegemony of dogmatic austerity can be deconstructed.

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