Putting the social back into social sciences!

Written by Eva Cox, brief version of 2015 Keynote Address:

I start by paying my respects to the First Nations and acknowledge their overlooked and potential contributions to Australia’s social well-being. I note we have much to learn from them about valuing social connections and collective functioning, which links to this Conference and my topic of putting the social back into sociology. We need to reclaim the value of social well-being to challenge the damage being done to this region by the current dominant Western individualised neoliberal paradigm.

Putting the social back onto the public agenda requires questioning of why some social science disciplines have been displaced from public influence, to be replaced by others that emphasise much more limited forms of analysis, i.e. economics. There have been major shifts away from seeing societies as complex linked mixes of connected beings to paradigms based on individual materialistic-based exchanges. In particular, we need to ask why the belief that human self-interest explains and predicts most human behaviour has become dominant. These shifts over the past four decades have resulted in sociology, the most social of the sciences, losing its predominant influence on public debates, politics and policies to neoliberal economics based on markets.

I am going to explore these processes by using my own experiences and observations, and frame my ideas with my concerns that social well-being and progress are failing to claim public notice despite the need to address increasing social concerns. 2016 is an election year, which raises questions on the roles of the nation state, society and governments. There is already growing political evidence here and elsewhere that the current political leadership does not engage with increasing proportions of voters and communities. There are wide protests against what is on offer, and expressed antipathy to the political processes, as many are detaching themselves from seeing democracies as relevant. Voting patterns and polls suggest a lack of engagement from the rather arid debates on how to grow Gross Domestic Product, shrink deficits and manage market failures.

I start my review as a self-confessed relic of the 1970s, the years when I both returned to university to study sociology and became actively involved in some decades of major social change and then the current slowdown. I have both seen and been involved in academic research and the use of these findings in change and engaging public interest. So I am aware what social change can offer and how academic ideas can influence such changes.

The post World War 2 decades offered extraordinary social and political change, as leaders tried to avoid the loss of popular support that had created the war. These included the growth of the welfare state, de-colonisation, human rights and development via the UN, and creation of social movements to address gender, race and other forms of inequity needing liberation. The changes from 1945 to the 1970s were based on ideas of creating better societies and grew from the ideas and know-how of the social sciences. Sociology was most influential, with psychology and political science also favoured, while economics was considered useful and debated but was not dominant as resources for making changes that worked.

By the late 1970s, shifts in international financing and corporate power created doubts and took power by promoting ideological and power shifts, which undermined social changes, particularly by governments. Public services, the market and free trade arrived with Thatcher and Reagan. Now we are seeing a loss of faith in market models post Global Financial Crisis, but there is a lack of alternatives on offer.

Re-enter Sociology? The ascendancy of the neoliberal agenda is relatively recent, so it should be possible to remake the social discourses that were interrupted and return social well-being to the agenda for public debates. Can we revive the influence of sociology, as the most social of sciences, on political agendas? I am suggesting that we, as sociologists, take some responsibility for reviving debates on what types of 21st century societies we would all like to live in. We are the category of social scientists most closely concerned with analysing and evaluating collective aspects of human society, the social connections that we all value and need.

I acknowledge that I am a big picture person. I need theories that connect the dots and dashes of diverse groups, to create some coherent making-sense narratives on how societies work. More importantly, we need alternative theories and research for making the good changes that fix inequities and outgroups. So let’s revisit the concept of grand theories, which suggest some power to predict probabilities, but reconstruct them as very different to those of the mostly dead Western White men who set up the discipline. Can we encourage newer, more adaptive, less rigid and prescriptive versions of grand theories which allow for the complexity and mutability of human experiences in new ways?

Part of the return to the past is to challenge the basic machismo of a market model by revisiting the now neglected changes in the 1960s led mostly by female sociologists: Oakley, Gavron, Mitchell, and locally Bryson, Sawer and Jeannie Martin. These addressed the absence of social life, left out or grossly undervalued because it covered feminised skills and tasks. The use of broad feminist lenses to correct the acute continued gender biases would enliven current sociological debates.

In taking this standpoint, I am following a long tradition of interest in the utopian possibilities of the discipline. There were many founders who saw sociology as the potential discipline for ameliorating the ills of societies and making the world a better place. This approach echoes another current voice, Ruth Levitas, who offers a utopian methodology:

Reading austerity and the Big Society through a ‘hermeneutics of faith’ rather than a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ opens up the utopian possibility of thinking holistically about an alternative, equitable, sustainable future radically different from that offered by conventional politics

Utopia here is not a fixed concept but resembles Oscar Wilde’s concept of ‘the next island to the one you just landed on’.

By offering options we counter the current political and social malaise and create some ‘lights on the hill’ to encourage engagement to remedy inequities. I suggest, therefore, that TASA discusses how to encourage the use of the sociological imagination/imaginary to explore future social options for societies working for the diversely defined common good.

While not denying the need for critiques of the limits of some social movements, when coinciding with the shifts to neoliberalism these add to fragmented views of what constitutes societies. We need to revisit the socially connected possibilities to counter the dominant focus on the material well-being of individuals in models that ignore feelings and belonging.

So back to this conference. Sociology, with its inherent focus on the social, seems to me to be ripe for offering some interesting options in a rapidly changing world. We can liberate the discipline from the constraints of the 19th and 20th century institutions of what was seen as public spheres and create the basis for social systems based on well-being, diversity, cohesion and mutual respect that we need to make societies more civil in difficult times.

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