Celebrating 50 Years of Sociology at Goldsmiths
Often it can be difficult to write a history of the present that somehow connects it well to its pasts. Not only can the past feel like another country but reflections on it can seem inevitably nostalgic and out of place. But as we gather to celebrate 50 years of sociology at Goldsmiths there are very different accounts of the past that seem possible – different people involved will not only have different memories but they will inevitably have a different take on what they lived through. I do not want to attempt to give a neutral account but to share some personal memories that might find a particular resonance as they recall particular events in the living history of the department.
But what makes it possible to reflect differently in the present is that sociology in the wake of the global financial crisis has taken a more activist turn than has been possibly over many years. In the years since 2008 there have been lively discussions that have moved across diverse departments partly stimulated by the student movement against the abolition of the EMA – the Educational Maintenance Allowance - and the tripling of student fees that brought up questions of about the earlier student and workers movements in the early 1970s. Students wanted to know ‘what it was like’ and how sociology as a discipline related to an earlier time of political and intellectual activism.
As I was engaged in the discussions with many others in the department it became clear that the past had become present and that students were not only engaged as activists but they were interested in making connections between theory and practice. Students were signing up for courses on Marx again and wanted to understand the workings of a globalised neoliberal capitalism. What goes around comes around but it was also striking how difficult it could be to translate experience over time, to help people to an awareness of how things had been and so respond to questions in a way that could be helpful within a very different historical and cultural moment.
But as students ask questions about political activism we find ways of thinking and speaking that helps translate the experiences of the early 1970s and the early beginnings of sociology at Goldsmiths. What was strikingly different was the relationship that sociology as a discipline had to its different outsides. After the Dialectics of Liberation conference in the Roundhouse that I attended in the summer of 67 and the events of May 68 in Paris and the ferment created through Situationist ideas and practices and the questions they were raising about a society of the spectacle and mass consumer capitalism, there was a widespread awareness amongst a younger generation of postgraduate students and academics that what was going on outside of the university was going to profoundly affect the disciplinary knowledges gathered inside of it.
With the early years of the women’s movement and queer politics questioning prevailing modernist distinctions between public and private spheres, there was an awareness that relations of power and affect moved across different spheres. As a revival of feminist research practice in the present has acknowledged there was an affective politics that was integral to the practices of consciousness-raising in the women’s movement in the early 70s. There was also a body politics and an awareness of embodied and fractured subjectivities.
When I first taught in the Sociology Department in the early 1970s there was already a tension around relationships to sociology as a discipline and whether and how it could respond to the emerging worker and student movements. Goldsmiths was still in the glow of the publication of the shared volume NEW DIRECTIONS IN SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY that was edited by Paul Filmer, Mike Philipson, David Silverman and Dave Walsh. I think that many had been postgraduate students at the LSE and had come together to make a break to its dominant positivist research practices.
They looked to phenomenology mainly grounded through Husserl and traditions of interpretative sociology that developed in the wake of Weber and Schutz as well as to emerging traditions of conversational analysis and ethnomethodology that were developing with Cicourel and Garfinkel in the United States. There was an engagement with the meaningful nature of social actions and a scepticism of official statistics. Though I appreciated some of this work I was wary of its subjectivism and its focus on consciousness in ways that refused to engage with the workings of relationships of power and domination. But I think was appealing to them because I had come with a real philosophical training and background in Wittgenstein and Cavell.
What was striking in contrast to the present was the autonomy and authority of social theory within the discipline. The social theory courses stood at the centre of the degree in ways that has largely disappeared in a culture in which everyone is somehow expected to be able to teach social theory. There is more of an active relationship between theory and research that allows for theoretical developments to be grounded but at the same time there is less of an obvious engagement between philosophy and social theory and so less time given to the reading of philosophical texts in social theory courses. This was always a difficult balance to strike but there were dangers that became evident with the disengagement of subjectivist traditions from changes in the social and political world. But there was a way that students could feel empowered through the prevailing critiques of the authority of positivist traditions and their sensed that they were equal members of a community that together created and produced knowledge of the social world.
It is a long story but students feeling part of a democratic community in which they were deemed to be equal members questioned the authority staff meetings to make decisions that concerned them but they felt excluded from. This led to a bitter struggle in which the Sociology Department split as a Social Administration department was formed while the Sociology department itself was run as democratic open forum of students and lecturers. At the time there was a strong focus upon the politics of teaching and learning and Sally Inman and Mary Stiasny played a vital role in introducing new forms of teaching and learning.
Within this split I think it is fair to say that the phenomenology tended to become more elitist in flavour with a few having the insights that the many were denied. For a while Sociology at Goldsmiths was successfully identified with a phenomenological sociology that was critical of positivism and so able to form connections with other disciplines, including literature and philosophy. But there were also other trends in the department that drew upon Hegel, Marx and Critical Theory that were being transformed through engagements with feminism and gay and lesbian politics.
But the 70s was also a time of strong and powerful series of intellectual engagements between traditions of Western Marxism and traditions of Phenomenology and interpretative sociologies that formed the 3rd year courses. Students were very intellectually committed and there was a time when many were living in squatted accommodations on local estates in Deptford and New Cross. I was involved in the early 70s in an activist group – Big Flame – that had connections with Stuart Hall and graduate students at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies. This was a time of revolutionary ferment and I recall occasions when I would go down with students who would help the Fraud group to give out leaflets at the Dagenham Ford plant which many Afro-Caribbean and Asian workers living in East and South East London would drive too to work. Students also took their teachers at their word and felt that if they were equal members of a learning community then surely they should have equal voice in staff deliberations when they were being talked about. They walked into the staff meeting and for over two years the department was officially run by an Open Forum of staff and students.
But things were to change politically with the oil crisis and the economic crisis it was to provoke in the late 1970s in ways that would also help create new theoretical trends that would shape sociology in radically different ways. This was partly though a generations of teachers who had been brought up in university departments as students through the influence of Althusser’s reading of Marx and Lacan’s reading of Freud. Sociology as a discipline was reframed as a theoretical practice and many of the links with political activism were to be broken, not to be remade till after the post 2008 global financial crisis and the renewed student movement across Europe against increased fees.
Though there were strengths in the moves to Althusser there were also losses that were intensely fought out at the time. I remember, for example the intense discussions between Edward Thompson and Stuart Hall at the History Workshop conference. Though people rarely engage with THE POVERTY OF THEORY as a text now, what was at stake was the ways traditions of Western Marxism were going to be imagined as well as relationships between power and consciousness. This was to affect ways that ‘70s feminisms and sexual politics were to be remembered as essentialisms as if social constructionism was a post-structuralist invention. Through Althusser’s reading of Marx there was a radical split between an earlier humanist Marx who was supposedly an essentialist and a later Marx who was framing a science of history and politics. Though people rarely recall it, there was a scientism that returned with a vengeance and form of detachment and uneasy disdain for the personal and the emotional in relationships. At some level people were positioned in detached and impersonal ways as discursive practices were framed in neutral terms. As terms of discussion were often set in these terms it is only after post-structuralism has waned in its influence that can make visible its tacit ways of being and knowing.
At some level I have always held that feminism provided a more sustained critique of sociology than Marx in its vision that the personal is political. This meant that sociology could no longer assume that suffering was only real when it took place in the public sphere of a dominant male reason and power. Not only did feminisms challenge the structures of male authority that had traditionally framed what could be imagined as a sociological problem but it also identified and named structures of sexual power and sexual harassment that were often played out in the masculine terms of a dominant European modernity.
Feminisms along with critical race theory and post-colonial theory were exposing the taken for granted assumptions that had a formative influence across different traditions of social theory. These were challenge whether they were positivist and aspired to present sociology as a science that was organised according to the research practices of a dominant scientism or whether, along with interpretative traditions, including phenomenology, conversational analysis and ethnomethodology, they sought to engage with everyday practices of sense-making and were wary of abstracted concepts that could to easily be taken for granted as organising frameworks for social research.
With the global financial crisis of the late 1970s there was a turning away from activist politics and so relationships between theory and practice. Alvin Gouldner’s THE COMING CRISIS OF WESTERN SOCIOLOGY was showing itself in a multitude of different crises that
were partly settled in the widespread adoption of an Althusserian tradition and its assumption that there was no experience that existed prior to language. Saussure’s theory helped frame a turn towards language that threatened to lose certain 70s feminist insights into the tensions between language and experience – insights that resonated with Wittgenstein’s PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS in its insistence that experience was discursively framed. This led to a wariness of identity politics and an insistence on ways that identities are fractured, fragmentary and distributed across diverse domains. As with any radical disciplinary shift there are new insights to be gained that can inform research but there are also intellectual losses that become difficult to articulate. There was a significant cultural turn within the Sociology Department with tensions between phenomenological traditions and a resurgent post-structuralisms. At some level they came together in a focus upon language but they had very different takes on relationships between power and knowledge.
Often it is difficult to acknowledge that ways that our thinking and research practices in sociology have been shaped by the moment that we entered the discipline. The strength of remembering back after so many years, is that I can recall very different shifts over time but also ways that people would somehow move easily because certain basic assumptions had not been challenged. The break with Althusser and the enormous impact that Foucault was to have in the late 70s and 80s was partly prepared, though many would probably not agree, through the prevailing modernist distinction being made between nature and culture that rendered nature as silence, inert and given while meanings and identities were to be established within the realm of culture that was creative and active as the sphere of language as discourse. There was a widespread focus upon text that was encouraged by Roland Barth’s reading of different cultural texts. What was lost in the process and which took time to return in the 2000s was an earlier feminist insight into voice and the time and attention it can take to find your own voice and how this is tied in with a sense of identity and difference.
There were fierce conversations that partly had to do with the form of Althusser’s anti-humanism and the ways it figured traditions of what was still being called Western Marxism – I questioned Althusserian readings of Gramsci and insisted in RECOVERING THE SELF: Morality and Social Theory that Gramsci offered vital resources with which to question the scientism that still framed Althusser’s insistence on the later Marx as a science of history and politics. As Althusser slipped out of fashion and people looked to Foucault’s illuminating discussions on the relationships between power and knowledge, there were few reflexive spaces in which people engaged Althusserian legacies and its continuing tacit framings of ways people think subjectivities and frame oppositions to identity politics. As Foucault turned towards Nietzsche rather than Marx, there was a shift in focus to exploring genealogies and histories of the present, partly through a focus upon governmentality, in some ways sustaining a top-down legacy that could be traced to Althusser’s legacy.
Foucault’s attention to the nexus of power/knowledge proved enormously significant but his vision of micro-politics and his vision that power was everywhere also had the effect of subverting revolutionary hopes that a future could be created that somehow existed beyond relations of power and domination. There was a shift away from political activism as theory was imagined as a theoretical practice and so tensions between theory and practice were tacitly disappeared. There was a turn away from Marx and in the middle 80s right through the 90s, especially after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union students would often feel that they already knew that they wanted to know about Marx from their A-level studies.
For many students for a substantial period of time Marx belonged to the past and seemed to have little of relevance for students who were dazzled by the hopes of new postmodern theories that promised they could create their own identities within the market freedoms offered by capitalist consumer culture. There were also important turns within sociology towards the Body and towards consumption more generally with the idea that people could create their own identities through consumption. Questions of class seemed to disappear because they seemed to be tied to notion of economy and students and researchers, for an extended period of time, were much more concerned with issues around race, gender and sexualities.
Thatcher’s children were also growing up into very different technological worlds and as Thatcherism was to give way to New Labour memories of the Brixton riots, miner’s strike and the poll tax riots were to give way. Young people often took refuge in their hopes for the future and the city and financial markets were keenly competed for. This was a filo-fax generation that was to give way to the mobile phone and the Internet. Within sociology there was the influence of Latour’s work on actor network theory and the turn towards STS – Science and Technology Studies.
This helped stimulate an interest in Whitehead’s work – Whitehead had had a long association with Goldsmiths - on process and reality and and also an engagement with Stengers’ work as part of turn away from theories of social constructionism and representation that had been framed in discursive terms. This was part of a turn towards objects and the natural histories of objects as they were entangled within particular assemblages. This marked a vitalist break that allowed sociologies to think across traditional modernist boundaries of nature and culture so enabling, at long last as far as I was concerned, an engagement with ecological critiques of modernity and its visions of progress as entailing the control and domination of nature that had been tacitly assumed across diverse traditions of social theory. There was also renewed interest in biology and the neurosciences that captured the imagination and also helped question traditional distinctions between nature and culture that had helps sway for so long and represented nature as an effect of the discursive practices of culture. With the formation of BIOS and the new centre for Invention and Social Processes CISP there were spaces in which to explore new materialisms and to frame new research engagements.
Along with CUCR and its focus on the urban these centres have proved important sources of inspiration for different groups of researchers to gather around shared research interests. But at the same time the university as a public good has been questioned by a pervasive neoliberalism that has sought to recreate the university in its own image. Students are also encouraged to think of themselves as consumers who are purchasing a service. As Foucault reached a hiatus in his own thinking in relation to neoliberalism he felt a need to shift from a focus upon power/knowledge to a concern with ethics and subjectivities. He did not know how to make the move from one position to the other but felt it was a move that he had to make. He tended to regard it as a new beginning and sociology as a discipline in time is full of new beginnings.
Sociology and cultural memories
But as Gramsci taught us it is also important for sociology to shape its memories as part of a formative process and so acknowledge how it is haunted by different histories and wilful forgettings. But if the dead are to be allowed to speak then we have to also ideas of progress that so often shape our concerns tending to make us future orientated and anxious to frame new concepts that might help capture and emerging future that is not in sight. We have to grasp how the present is till haunted by memories of traumatic pasts, even if people affected feel silenced and bereft of languages that could help them grasp their different legacies and inheritances.
But as my work on events – my trilogy that moved from REMEMBERING Diana’s death to REMEMBERING 9/11 to URBAN FEARS AND GLOBAL TERRORS concerning the London bombings of 5th July 2007 and the challenges to multiculturalism it provoked- though not published in this order - was inspired by a sense that prevailing languages were being disrupted and I needed to think differently. Sociology as a tradition of secular rationalism could not provide the language in which to relate to these remarkable events and I had to learn about Islam and religious traditions to help frame a post-secular social theory. Having lived through many breaks in social theory and experienced how the spatialisation of social theory had helped illumination the urban and interrelations between the global and the local but had not really helped shape cultural memories and an awarenss of temporalities I was also aware in my own life of the difficulties of coming to terms with the Holocaust – the Shoah – and its relationship to modernity.
Often it is easier to hide within the universalist dreams of social theory than face differences that can be hard to name and articulate. But with the de-centring of European modernity and the dominant white masculinities within which they are framed, we have learnt to identify diverse postcolonial histories and memories and trace how, for example, institutions of slavery have left their mark on Bloomsbury and the university of London. We have learnt with Walter Benjamin to be wary of the claims of civilisation and to be name the sufferings that have been part of the barbarism that has often gone along with them.
As Sociology at Goldsmiths celebrates its 50th we will all carry our own memories and shape quite different narratives to make sense of what we have lived through. We might also learn to identify how we were formed at particular moments in the discipline and how we have also been shaped by the social and technological worlds that we had grown up in to take very much for granted. Often it is easy to talk past each other and it takes time to appreciate the difficult processes of translation that can be necessary to make ourselves understood and learn from each other. Different generations of students have made their own remarkable contributions in shaping the sociological culture and aspiring to a sense of freedom and wonder all of their own. They have taught as much to us as we have often been able to learn from them.
Intellectual work takes times to form and take shape and within the neoliberal university we constantly have to create spaces for reflection for both teaching and research. Often this is time we do not have within a REF culture to develop ideas gradually and organically so that they are firmly grounded and we can say things that are worth saying. Since the 80s there was a profound cultural shift in academia away from teaching and towards measurable ‘outputs’ and high ‘impact’ publications. The forced return of teaching as a priority is no bad thing so that teaching and research can find a new balance and students feel that the university is a space for critical reflection and the framing of new values and insights.
Sociology at Goldsmiths has offered a creative space to so many students and teachers and this is a space that has become even more valuable and critical in these neoliberal times. With the wonderful support of such a strong administrative team that has existed at the heart of the department, we can celebrate so much of what has been so good over so many years. With memories of the past to sustain us, may the visions that inspire the future bring freedom and a determination to work for a globalised world that is more equal and just.
Emeritus Professor Victor Jeleniewski Seidler