A report from this year’s BSA Annual Conference

A report from this year’s BSA Annual Conference

Sociology learning to push its own boundaries by collaboration and re-conceptualising the human.


22 June 2011

Sociology learning to push its own boundaries by collaboration and re-conceptualising the human…

David Drabble, Researcher/ Consultant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR), offers his thoughts on some of the subjects raised during the British Sociological Association (BSA) Annual Conference, which took place in April 2011.

My recent attendance at the British Sociological Association (BSA) Annual Conference at LSE had a number of highlights: amongst them the visionary keynote speeches of feminist authors Arlie Hochschild and Sylvia Walby, Ulrich Beck’s strident presentation questioning whether Sociology still has the conceptual framework to understand the modern world and, of course, the fulsome lunches.

Yet what most gripped my attention were the sessions that focussed on expanding the vision of Sociology. As a sociologist by training and working in the multi-disciplinary environment of the TIHR, it was fascinating to me how defensive some of my colleagues at the conference were in protecting conceptual spaces and how well others made arguments for reassessing the scope of sociological endeavour. In this article I will focus on three sessions which caught my eye: first on objectivity and subjectivity, second on neuroscience’s relevance to Sociology and finally on a study of PhD students in Science and Technology studies (STS).

Objectivity and Subjectivity?

The first session was held by three eminent writers on methodology (John Scott, Malcolm Williams and Dawn Weatherby) and displayed a great ambition: to transcend the debate of whether to prioritise subjectivity or objectivity in research. Their answer was why not both?

Beginning with Kant’s distinction between phenomenon and impressions, the presenters contended that all knowledge is embodied and mind dependent, the perspective of the researcher becomes a problem. How can a researcher gain a ‘view from nowhere’ and go beyond the self?

One answer is ‘good enough’ objectivity. This level of objectivity can be reached through purposeful research searching for truth which begins from examining the subjective stance of the researcher. By acknowledging power and emotional involvement we can get closer to a notion of the truth. Is this a ‘good enough’ conception of objectivity? The truth seeking claim is problematic in application, and this framework did not set practicable standards, yet the approach seems to be a step in the right direction by providing a loose framework to conduct enquiry which accounts for the major weaknesses in both qualitative and quantitative research.

Sociology and Neuroscience

The second presentation I wish to highlight was John Bone’s energetic talk which attempted to revolutionise mainstream Sociology’s tabula rasa approach to social life; human’s are not blank slates but are pre-programmed towards certain patterns. The mainstream approach to Sociology says that social phenomena can only be explained with reference to social causes and, thus, any biological or psychological explanation is inherently wrong.Bone contended that neuroscience has shown that a) social order comes from the way we are, that we avoid uncertainty and strive towards comfort and b) we typify and categorise people due to constant transference from past experience, remembering past people and events and placing current phenomena into comfortable categories.

This second point had obvious implications for movements to eliminate prejudice and the response to the talk was decidedly lukewarm. There was little engagement with the ideas presented, mostly question were (sadly predictable) quibbles over definitions of terms. Indeed, many in the audience immediately fell back into the position that culture is a more likely explanation of order. On reflection, perhaps this defensiveness was due to the feeling of being conceptually restricted; many of the audience were concerned with emancipating people, and any theory which began with the ‘generalised individual’ would be unlikely to resonate. Neuroscience appeared to the audience to shackle human potential.

Sociology and psychology

It seemed at that point that multi-disciplinary perspectives were unlikely to resonate at the conference. Yet on the final day I attended a talk by Dimitrina Spenser, an Anthropologist/ Psychologist, who offered a robust multi-disciplinary perspective on the topic of ‘Algorithms and PhD’s students’ experience’. Her research used a relational reflection methodology to understand the bond of STS students with the algorithm they develop. An algorithm is a precise rule (or set of rules) specifying how to solve some problem so algorithms can have great utility. For a PhD student a successful algorithm can be the basis of a good academic career whilst an unsuccessful one can fatally ruin a career before it even begins.

The relationship between the student and the algorithm is therefore ambivalent: the student is so dependent on the algorithm that over the course of a PhD, students constantly swing between loving and hating the ‘object’ which is seen as both elegant & productive (‘good’) and flawed & frustrating (‘bad’). Their dependency on the algorithm leads to a mother-like protectiveness so that while some students revisit the algorithm after graduating and work through this fraught process again, many others live with this productive ‘split object’ unwilling to go through the anxiety of improving the algorithm, which must ultimately weaken the STS field.

Dimitrina Spensor got a great reception with her challenging presentation, a great indication that Sociology can learn and employ new perspectives in the search for understanding social phenomena. The presence of other disciplines and sociologists willing to push boundaries and reappraise what we mean by social ‘science’ was very welcome; in time it may lead to a more integrated account of both our tendencies as humans and the societies we live in.

For further information, please contact David Drabble

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