Thursday, 18 December 2014

Music, Knowledge and the Sociology of Sound

Martyn Hudson, Newcastle University

As a ‘lover of music’ or what Antoine Hennion calls an ‘amateur’ I am constantly aware of the multiple meanings of the music I love. Vinyl favourites on the deck at the moment include the first This Mortal Coil EP, Luciano Berio’s Visage for voice and magnetic tape, the first Einsturzende Neubaten compilation, Beat the Retreat from Test Dept, Michael Tippett’s third symphony, and The Loving Kind from Girls Aloud. I am a huge fan of musical artists like Richard Skelton, with a substantial academic piece on his work coming out early next year, and I have recently completed a study of the musical sociology of Luciano Berio. I have a book forthcoming from Ashgate on the memory and sonority of slave ships and have recently completed an academic piece on ideas about ‘listening’ in the work of Jean Luc Nancy. I’ve also written elsewhere of my firm intention to conduct a choral version of Trumpton Riots by Half Man Half Biscuit. I love the Cardiacs and the Blue Nile. This is to give you some sense of me as a ‘listener’. But what exactly is this stuff I am listening to?

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council I was part of the Northumbrian Exchanges project at Newcastle University and we hope this project will continue in new ways. With my collaborators Julie Crawshaw and Frances Rowe we examined multiple circulations of Knowledge Exchange around the arts in rural Northumberland. My strand was to develop ethnographies and interviews with composers and musicians, to look at a variety of commissions and to think seriously about what sound and music meant in that landscape – a landscape made even more beautiful by the wonderful music of Kathryn Tickell who was a co-investigator on the project. From supporting the development of Ceilidh bands in rural communities, to supporting music in schools and at festivals, and working through the implications of working within different musical traditions in the landscape I think the project was a success. Most resonant for me were the three commissions by the sound artist Tim Shaw, the classical composer Matthew Rowan, and the traditional musician Shona Mooney. It was also linked to the superb Landscape Quartet project of Bennett Hogg and his collaborators and to the workshops, both practical and theoretical, of Jamie Savan. The project was led by Professor Eric Cross, a well-known conductor and the Dean of Cultural Affairs at Newcastle as part of the new Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice.

I am a sociologist so to understand knowledge exchange in rural Northumberland my first task was to try and ‘do a sociology of music’. The paper, now published in Sociological Research Online, is my attempt to think through the question of whether a sociology of music is at all possible. It seemed to me that the sociologists thought yes, and the musicians thought it was a much more problematic enterprise. The attempt to track the traces of social relations in music has been a staple of the sociology of music. It has been corrected over recent years by the hugely valuable work of Tia DeNora and her collaborators in their attempt to understand the social powers and effects of music or in the work of Hennion and his research into mediation and the socialities around music. For me, addressing the artefacts and the processes of music as I did, the more I listened the less I understood. Certainly I was able to examine some aspects of social meaning in music of course: society is represented through music. But to see music as a semiotic system that one can somehow ‘listen through’ to hear social relations expressed not only didn’t address the reality of music but somehow evaded it. So this article is a problem piece where you can listen to my thoughts on this develop essentially in support of what George Steiner calls the ‘radical untranslatability’ of music or at least that attempts at translation are extremely problematic.

I wanted to think about this question of translation by thinking about sound art although I am conscious that I was limited in scope in thinking about this and rely on the definitions provided by Alan Licht. There is a lot more work to develop from this and more recently I have been working with the sound artist Tim Shaw to think in more depth about the artefactuality and materiality of sound art. I also have to say that it was conversations with Bennett Hogg, composer and cultural theorist, that excited me about the potential to do a ‘sociology of sound’. My reading of Jean Luc Nancy also made me question the whole idea of social representation and sound by refocusing my attention to the sounds themselves as sonorities rather than what they ‘meant’ or displayed. The practice of sound art still holds my attention, particularly how it is structured in space, but also because the attention to listening and sound can raise questions of ‘alternative modernities’ and different ways of thinking about the world and the sociological tradition within which we situate our sociological practice. Further, it raises really significant questions about knowledge, data, evidence, sociological objects, method and attendance to small, often quite microscopic, processes.

Part of my ongoing concerns lie in the continuing relation between arts and social-scientific practice. I think we need to think urgently about questions of co-production and co-curation, of working within arts communities and agencies, understanding the ‘work’ of art as Julie Crawshaw often puts it to me. It also means understanding the landscapes within which those practices are situated and the kinds of sociology and philosophy that can help us understand the multiple circulations of knowledge out there in communities. It is about what we might call ‘omni-disciplinarity’ whilst still keeping a sense of our discipline as sociologists. It also means questioning the ongoing relationship between the ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’ worlds and how we curate ‘collections’ of sound and music in archives and out there in the world. Recently a friend and I spent a whole morning ‘curating’ our top 5 songs to display through facebook. It was agony. My friend Paul said that he felt he was letting down and abandoning all those songs that were being left off the list. We know that this stuff is full of social meaning but let’s not translate, let’s just listen and see what happens.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Activist Scholarship in an International Resistance Project

By Stevienna de Saille, University of Sheffield

How do activists develop the knowledge they need in order to make credible claims, particularly in movements which deal directly with technology, rather than social identity? That question, combined with my own history as an environmental activist, an intense curiosity about the new biological fields which were emerging in the wake of the Human Genome Project, and my involvement with the Feminist Archive North (FAN), led me towards the topic of my PhD, discussed in an article  recently published in Sociological Research Online.

 As part of my work as a volunteer archivist at FAN, I had helped unpack a huge collection of books and documents belonging to the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE), a loosely organised network of individuals and groups who had opposed the burgeoning permutations of reproductive technology, as well as bioengineering and genetic modification of plants and animals. Although largely associated with the writings of a small group of British, American and Australian feminists, during its international phase (1984-1997) it had representation in 37 countries ranging across all six inhabited continents, and is estimated to have included about 1000 women in national FINRRAGE groups and affiliated organisations. FINRRAGE groups continue to exist in  Japan, Australia and Bangladesh, and there are individual women outside these countries who still identify as FINRRAGE activists, but there had never been an internal hierarchy or an official membership list, making the network difficult to study through typical social movement models. FINRRAGE was not quite a movement of its own, not quite an umbrella organisation, and not merely an information-sharing network.

More important, I quickly found that FINRRAGE's form of 'resistance' was not accounted for in either resource mobilisation or new social movements theory. The network did not seek to promote mass street-level protest, and although local groups and individuals did occasionally create protest actions or join larger campaigns against specific technologies using the name of FINRRAGE, there was never a co-ordinated, FINRRAGE-sponsored international campaign. Instead, the women mainly engaged in what one respondent notably called 'demonstration in publication', a tactic which required verifiable facts -- such as success rates, risk factors and psychological impact of undergoing IVF -- which did not exist in the mid-1980s, when the network began. Because FINRRAGE had a disproportionate number of women in both industrialised and developing countries with advanced degrees, their strategy was therefore geared towards developing and communicating both technical and non-technical knowledge, so that women around the world could engage in public debate on their own terms.

How then to study this kind of activism? As a science and technology studies (STS) scholar, and a former activist who has frequently been asked to decipher highly technical publications to bolster the accuracy of campaign information leaflets, I have long been interested in the way knowledge functions as a component of protest. Within social movements theory there is one model which has been developed to study these kinds of questions, the cognitive praxis (CP) paradigm developed by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison (1). This gives a formal structure through which the organisational, technical and cosmological (or underlying belief-system) aspects of a movement can be reconstructed through the documents it produces.

The FINRRAGE collection at FAN includes books and peer-reviewed articles published by FINRRAGE women in English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages; a research archive of newspaper cuttings, scientific papers and governmental reports; as well as organisational correspondence, minutes, newsletters and other internal documents. Supplemented by lifecourse interviews with twenty-four FINRRAGE activists from a wide range of countries, it was therefore well-suited to a cognitive praxis approach.

The CP paradigm has some limitations which the case of FINRRAGE made clear – for example, despite its acknowledgement that science and society are intertwined, CP is still based on normative assumptions about science, scientists and technical experts existing in a separate sphere from the 'messy' movement field. FINRRAGE showed that both social and natural scientists can and do become centrally active in social movements, bringing their understanding of data, information, and evidence into the movement field to be shared and utilised, whether or not the topic of the movement corresponds to their professional expertise. While still identifying primarily as FINRRAGE activists, the women were able to carry out some of the first systematic studies on the experiences of women on IVF programmes, on clinical success rate reporting mechanisms, and on variability in dosage, outcome and side effects for the most common drug used for ovarian hyperstimulation, and to publish and use this counter-knowledge when arguing against scientific claims of safety and efficacy. FINRRAGE women also produced some of the first PhD dissertations in the area, thus helping to legitimise it as a valid topic within traditional disciplines, and for several years published a peer-reviewed journal, Issues in Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, which gave both academics and activists a specific arena in which to publish. Additionally, because various legislatures were intensely debating regulation of IVF and embryo experimentation at the same time FINRRAGE emerged, there was an unusual window of opportunity to offer a woman-centred analysis comprising both technical and social scientific expertise to these consultations, some of which is reflected in subsequent legislation.

Drawing from work on expertise and epistemic communities emanating from STS should help to overcome some of the limitations of the CP paradigm. However, as its use in the study of FINRRAGE showed, it can be an effective tool for studying the ways in which activists use social scientific data in order to create counter-arguments for new technologies whose systemic risks cannot actually be scientifically gauged. It also showed that some of FINRRAGE's technological topics, such as unregulated expansion of international commercial surrogacy, should remain of great social, as well as social scientific, concern. 

This blogpost is based on the following article, published in the August issue of Sociological Research Online: de Saille, S. (2014) 'Fighting Science With SocialScience: Activist Scholarship in an International Resistance Project' 19 (3) 18. The Feminist Archive North is located in Special Collections of the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Should sociologists study the paranormal?

By Madeleine Castro
The paranormal is a subject often found in popular media, and commonly perceived as a form of entertainment. It is not a subject usually covered by sociologists and, at first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was as it should be.
You might think that paranormal experiences are reported by few people, and only by those who are psychologically impaired, delusional, attention-seeking, gullible, or liable to misinterpret ordinary events.  

You may assume that paranormal phenomena either imply processes outside of sociology’s scope (physical or psychological ones, for example) or hint at a level of profundity which sociology is not best equipped to comment on (philosophical or metaphysical issues). For these reasons, many sociologists are likely to have considered paranormal experiences to be outside their purview.

Weighing up the paranormal as a worthwhile subject of study also leads to consideration of its perceived place in ‘serious’ research and the effect of this subject on one’s professional standing (see for instance, these blog posts by Dr Sara MacKian and Prof Charles Emmons about precisely this issue). In a sense, the paranormal is somewhat tainted as a subject; and deemed likely to blight an academic’s reputation. At the very least it is unlikely to be taken seriously.

This could partly be the result of the highly visible, well organised voices of sceptics, who seek to debunk the paranormal and ‘expose’ fraudulent claims (the website of The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, CSI, illustrates this very well).

Given all of this, why would sociologists want to research this subject? 
As our article demonstrates, there is justification for studying the paranormal sociologically and there are many aspects of genuine social interest requiring further investigation.

In 2009, over 4,000 British adults aged over 16 were interviewed in person[1].  They were asked whether they had experienced any of the following:

·         Telepathy (mind-to-mind communication with another living person)
·         Extrasensory Perception or ESP (knowledge of concurrent events or information without the use of the known senses)
·         Mystical experiences (often involving a sense of oneness with the universe, awareness of a numinous presence and altered perceptions of self, space and time)
·         After death communication or contact with the dead (visual, olfactory or auditory encounters with the deceased or a sense of their presence)

Almost 37% of British adults reported at least one paranormal experience. This is a sizeable minority and illustrates just how common reported paranormal experiences are. It shows that there are sufficient people reporting these experiences for them to be of interest to a study of society.  However, it is not only the quantity of people that are important but also the social demographics, which add weight to the case for sociology’s consideration.

We found that women, those living in the South West and those aged between 35 and 64 yrs were more likely to report paranormal experiences overall (see the article for more detailed results).  It is here we can begin to employ sociological ideas to articulate these findings. For example, women are more likely to report paranormal experiences, but how might we understand this sociologically?

Historically, other surveys have shown similar findings with women having higher reporting rates of such experiences. Previous explanations for these kinds of results have tended to be fairly naive or unconvincing.

One such explanation included the idea that women are more naturally intuitive or ‘person-oriented’. However, contemporary sociology is unlikely to accept an explanation such as this based on essentialism. Other explanations include the social marginality hypothesis or compensatory approach, which decrees that those with lower social status will be more likely to report paranormal experiences as a means of escaping their relatively poor social standing. However, there is little supporting evidence for this theory and it conceals a problematic assumption: namely, that women have a straightforwardly lower social position than men.

Instead, there is more to be gleaned from research on similar topics. For instance, findings from research on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and new age consumption suggest that women are more likely to engage with both (e.g. Adams et al 2003, Mears and Ellison, 2009, Saher and Lindeman, 2005). It also appears to be important whether an individual has community ties or interpersonal networks which uphold similar beliefs.

What these studies suggest is that there is no simple reasoning which explains the relationship between being a female and the increased likelihood of reporting paranormal experiences. It is likely to be a more nuanced picture influenced by a variety of factors such as interpersonal connections, lifestyle, spiritual choices, consumption and practice.

Whilst connecting these ideas comprehensively with our quantitative study is not possible, and would require more qualitative work to establish, it does begin to point to some of the more complex and interesting ways in which sociology could contribute to a much more complete social understanding of paranormal experiences.

Research on lifestyle, consumption, and contemporary spiritualities, not to mention ageing and the life course could play an important part in furthering this understanding. So too could material on space, place and location, for instance, particularly if we consider the findings relating to differential levels of reporting of paranormal experiences by age and region.

It was sociologist Andrew Greeley (1975, 1991) who first suggested that ‘the paranormal is normal’. We update and restate this – the paranormal is (still) normal – and renew his call for systematic sociological work in this area.

Adams, J., Easthope, G. &  Sibbritt, D. (2003) ‘Exploring the relationship between women’s health and the use of complementary and alternative medicine’, Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 11 p. 156–168.

Greeley, A. (1975) The Sociology of the Paranormal: A Reconnaissance. London: Sage.
Greeley, A. (1991) ‘The paranormal is normal: A sociologist looks at parapsychology’, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 85 p. 367-374.

Mears, D.P. & Ellison, C.G. (2000) ‘Who Buys New Age Materials? An Examination of Sociodemographic, Religious, Network, and Contextual Factors’, Sociology of Religion 61 p. 289-313.

Saher, M. & Lindeman, M. (2005) ‘Alternative medicine: A psychological perspective. Personality and Individual Differences’, 39 p. 1169–1178.


[1] This research was carried out for the University of York by Ipsos MORI. For more details see the article in the August edition of Socresonline.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Politics of Health Services Research: Health Professionals as Hired Hands in a Commissioned Research Project in England

By Simon Dyson (De Montford University) and Sue Dyson (Middlesex University)

Have you ever seen an early production line in action? Although these systems increased production, they did so at the expense of the quality of the experience of the workers, who were positioned at the bottom of the occupational ladder. The workers then had no say over the flow and pace of work. They had no voice in the organisation of work, nor any view of the overall wider picture into which their contribution fitted. Early studies in the sociology of work suggested that, in such circumstances, we should expect the following. Workers will do the minimum work possible to get by. They will not care about the quality of work they produce. They will not use initiative to solve any problems. Work will be undertaken resentfully, or else some will delight in finding creative ways to deliberately undermine the work processes.

 A US sociologist, Julius Roth, considered these ideas in the light of his experiences as a hired data collector on big research projects.  He suggested that research workers – whom he called “hired hands” – behaved in the same ways as disenchanted production line workers: they did not care about the quality of the data they produced, just so long as they did sufficient to stay out of trouble with their line-managers. When we were commissioned by the Department of Health to undertake a large health services research project we anticipated that the 300 or so midwives who would be collecting data would be put in this same “hired hands” position. From their point of view midwives had no say in the topic that was being researched, which concerned pregnant mothers being screened to see if they were genetic carriers of two inherited chronic illnesses, sickle cell anaemia or thalassaemia.  They had no voice in the design of the study, no say in the analysis of data, no role in how the study was written up and no influence on what policy might be implemented as a consequence of the findings.

Because we realized the invidious position the midwives were being placed in, we tried to ensure they could see what was at stake for them (briefly: complex and emotionally difficult work in probing the ethnic and family origins of a mother to ascertain if she was at risk of carrying genes associated with sickle cell or thalassaemia, emotional work that was far more difficult and time-consuming than either policy-makers or their managers were prepared to allow);  we also tried to ensure their time was fully paid for, and that they were given an overview of where their work in collecting data fitted into the overall policy issue being researched.

Despite our best efforts, the midwives collected only 25% of the data they were paid to collect. Managers and policy makers responded with na├»ve anger: “give me their names” said one.  Rather than blame midwives who were feeling overworked and put-upon, we tried to understand what was happening sociologically, using the sociological concept of ideal types. In the article, we refer to different styles of adapting to demand of data collection over which they had little say or formal control. These terms were Repairers (the demands for data collection disrupted their work but they adapted both processes to try to make it work as best they could in difficult circumstances); Refractors (as often as possible, they would creatively use adherence to formal rules of their usual work procedures as a basis not to collect data) and Resistors (those who actively opposed the research but could/would not directly challenge their managers, and so used appeals to broader contexts to avoid collecting data). Managers did not challenge this evasion as they feared that midwives would move jobs and leave the service even more short-staffed than they already were. Although we paid research funds to cover the work of the midwives, these monies were not always passed on by the health organizations concerned, and this lack of financial transparency was also used by the midwives to justify their resistance.

Some sociologists have tended to reject all large scale research because of this “hired hands” problem.  A current problem is that this model of research, in which ordinary nurses or midwives collect data for a project run by a medical researcher, is characteristic of much health services research. Put bluntly, much health services research would be of little value if it relies on data collected by workers who have no say over the process, no stake in the results, and who are denied any vision of where their efforts fit into an overall picture.

 In our report to the commissioners, rather than either hide these problems (the reaction of many medical studies we feel) or rejecting results outright (the reaction of some schools of thought within sociology) we characterised the practical consequences for the quality of data collected. To take just one example: midwives sometimes did not recruit white mothers into the study (wrongly presuming that sickle cell only affects ethnic minorities, when in fact 1 in every 450 white babies born carries a gene relevant to sickle cell). Rather than ignore this or discount the research entirely as flawed, we tried to use data to estimate how often this occurred and to assess the impact of this on the overall findings and policy recommendations.

The lessons for the hired hand concept in sociology is that it requires refinement to take account of how work hierarchies interact with gender hierarchies  and how contingencies of workplace organization may mean that some workers are required to be busier than others, so that extra work demands the impact upon them differently. The lesson for health services research is that it needs to take account of this phenomenon in the design of the study and in analysis of the results, but above all in the respect with which it treats health workers who collect data.  

This is based on Simon and Sue's article published in Sociological Research Online in August 2014. Read the full version here.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Mass Observation as Method

By Emma Casey, Fiona Courage and Nick Hubble

Founded in 1937, Mass Observation has played witness to eight decades of often dramatic social, political, economic and cultural change. It remains one of the most enduring and comprehensive archives to provide rich detail of the intimate and personal ebbs and flows of everyday life. The overwhelming importance of Mass Observation cannot be overemphasized, as Mike Savage remarks in Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940, ‘Mass Observation is the most studied, and arguably the most important, social research institution of the mid-twentieth century’ (2010: 57).

The founders of Mass Observation – Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge – were young radical intellectuals keen to record the hitherto ignored lives and experiences of the working classes. George Orwell in, for example, The Road to Wigan Pier was already producing prolific accounts of working class life that were noted for their focus on everyday and intimate frequently painful experiences of poverty. Mass Observation, as with Orwell’s accounts, became synonymous not only with political radicalism but also radical in the sense that the unrepresentative, qualitative and ‘thick’ description of working class practices stood in opposition to the deductive, statistical accounts and methods that tended to dominate the social sciences. Thus, although Mass Observation shared with early social scientists and critical theorists a commitment to revealing the hidden thoughts and dreams of the masses, Mass Observation dramatically differed in its methodological approach to achieving this. Today, this difference remains stark, with the ‘messy’ and unwieldy data of Mass Observation standing in direct contrast to sociological assumptions about methodological rigour. However, Mass Observation has long been of interest to sociologists, for example at the Birmingham School of Contemporary Cultural Studies whose dual interests in resistance and agency mirrored the approaches of Mass Observation. This is reflected in Stuart Hall’s The Social Eye of the Picture Post (1972) and in Tom Jeffrey’s A Short History of Mass Observation that was published as a CCCS occasional paper.

One of the distinctive facets of Mass Observation is the unique role of the observer both as researcher and researched, archivist and archived. That the observers are part of a collective project is a hugely important feature of Mass Observation particularly in terms of the type of data that is collected. Furthermore, the potential of Mass Observation to provide a reflection of ‘the past’ for future generations of scholars is a theme that runs through Mass Observers’ accounts. Ben Highmore notes the ‘thickly rendered’ and ‘temporal’ atmospheric nature of Mass Observation and remarks that:

‘Mortality, both the finitude of death and the mourning of passing time is a subterranean seam that runs through these documents as correspondents consider their (and others’) past and futures in the context of the ever-changing present.’ (2011, 92)

The papers in the special section of Sociological Research Online have been selected in an attempt to address some of the key methodological debates highlighted here. The papers fall into four key strands, the first of which examines the ‘big’, ‘messy’ and ‘awkwardness’ of the Mass Observation data. In The Materiality of Method: The Case ofthe Mass Observation Archive, Liz Moor and Emma Uprichard observe the peculiarly ‘sensory’ experience of ‘getting dirty with data’ and highlight the unique opportunities that Mass Observation offers social researchers in terms of the materiality of method and the sensuousness of the data.

The second theme is intimacies, the family and personal life. Anne-Marie Kramer’s paper explores the role and status of geneaology in exploring personal and family lives and Mark Bhatti’s paper also connects to this theme by focusing on Mass Observers’ accounts of gardens and gardening.

A third theme addressed by this collection centres around the distinctiveness of the relationship between observers and the data that they produce. Annebella Pollen’s paper considers the complex nature of Mass Observation material and how it is imagined and understood by researchers and contributors alike. In addition, Dana Wilson-Kovacs’ paper considers the use of Mass Observation as tool to aid accounts of the public understanding of science.

The fourth and final theme emerging from the collection relates to the opportunities that Mass Observation offers for producing historical and longitudinal accounts. Emma Casey’s paper traces the relationship of the Archive from its conception in 1937 to its present day incarnation.  Drawing on previously uncovered correspondence between the social researcher and reformer Seebohm Rowntree, his research assistant G.R. Lavers and Tom Harrisson at Mass Observation, Casey shows how this correspondence provides vital information about early debates and uncertainty about the sociological and particularly the methodological potential of Mass Observation. Rose Lindsey and Sarah Bulloch’s paper continues on the theme of Mass Observation as offering opportunities as well as challenges for historical and longitudinal research.

We are very grateful to the contributors to the collection for their hard work in meeting deadlines. We are also optimistic that the collection will continue to reinvigorate sociological interest in Mass Observation and that it will convince readers of Mass Observation’s capacity to permeate the everyday processes and practices through which the social and ‘history’ is continuously made and re-made.


Highmore, Ben (2011). Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. Abingdon, Oxon:

Savage, Mike (2010). Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Friday, 13 June 2014

Parenting, play and the work-family interaction

By Stefano Ba', University of Huddersfield
Contact Stefano at:
Sometimes we play with our children. Sometimes we would rather not, as we are tired and we would prefer to watch TV or relax in some other ways. Yet many parents end up organising special time to play with their children or make that extra effort taking them to swimming, music lesson or similar activities, when actually their children would rather stay home or watch TV.
Why should we have an interest in these ordinary stories between parents and young children? Where is the social interest in these mundane interactions?
Play is an important part of children’s life and it is considered a crucial element in family life and in the formation of emotional bonding. As mentioned above, taking care of children’s free time can also be quite a demanding activity, as parents – more often mothers – needs to motivate themselves and the children to do something that, there and then, requires extra efforts.
However, I think that as well as the ‘doing’ and the labour that goes into sustaining play and meaningful interactions with children (the effort of taking them away from the TV or from electronic games), there is also a perhaps hard to confess aspect which involves the pleasures of participating into the children’s world, the pleasure of creating little rituals that can be as comforting for the children as for the parents themselves.
The article I have published in Sociological Research Online explores this recreational time of parents with young children and the ways it is mixed with work life and other more taxing  aspects of family life. It is, however, important to explore this ‘mixing’ through the internal dynamics and the emotional side of family life, in order to take in consideration the richness of parents’ life with their children.
Moreover, it is worth considering the ways parents arrange time-together with their children and how the emotional focus that family needs is created through these playful and recreational interactions, if we want to see how and why work and family balance is shaped the way it is.
I found that play and activities with children represent a real area of tension, but this tension is a special one: the labour of parents and its intensification augment as the family space gains in personal and emotional qualities. Through recreational activities and play, parents construct an emotional environment for their family life. This emotional, intimate environment represents home as a distinct and special space which in the mind of parents is often separated from work, although the singularity of this space is very much connected with mothers’ constant engagement with children’s free time.
Thus, if play and recreational time becomes important for parents because this time strongly characterises their home experience and through it they construct emotional bonds with their children, these activities are also arranged with the participation of women more than men in the intimate domestic sphere.

In the article, I propose the concept of ‘parent-initiated play’ to explain some of these dynamics linked to play, bonding and care. Parent-initiated play is a type of interaction between the parent – very often the mother – and the child, whereby the parent takes the lead in stimulating play time with the child, whilst letting the child develop his/her imagination in using toys, developing games and imaginary stories. Mothers – and to a less degree fathers – are intensely involved in the participation and arrangements of play time; these interactions involve doing, dedication, time and energy, but are also an important source of meaning for family life.

Parents, especially from middle class background, very often arrange a series of activities for their children and these typically consist of: swimming, football, basketball, ballet, horse riding, drama, art classes, music lessons etc. Indeed doing something with your children is often understood in these terms, in terms of organising extra-curricular, ‘enrichment’ activities. Organising these activities for children requires the careful observation of children’s progress, the monitoring of their involvement and supervising the overall attendance. It is a practical and organisational focus that needs to be maintained in time and that can be termed as ‘organisational intelligence’, a rather intensive way of taking care of your offspring, but in the article I argue that through these recreational activities parents also form the emotional side of their family life.

Compared to these relatively formal activities, parent-initiated play is more spontaneous; the ludic, fun element comes from experiencing a close interaction with the child and her/his imagination, from taking the initiative of arranging together play time. Conversely the work-like element comes from having to force oneself in a demanding activity which requires time, empathy, patience and at times, appropriate skills; all qualities that parents are not always willing or able to apply.

In general, parent initiated play shows a peculiar characteristic of family life, that is parents literally construct time together with their children and in so doing they fill home life with meaning, they construct a world that has different features from others. This is not simply a rosy way of seeing children-parents interaction, or the separation of the public sphere of work and the private sphere of family, because as we said, this intensive interaction can be sustained only through the labour of care that is often done by mothers. I call this the dual nature of parents’ time with children, which I believe crucial in understanding family life and the strains around the work-family ‘balance’.

This blogpost is based on the following article, published in the May issue of Sociological Research Online: Ba', S. (2014) Parenting, Play and the Work-Family Interaction, Sociological Research Online, 19 (2) 7.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Can't we just talk about the music?

By Andrew Whelan, University of Wollongong
Contact Andrew at:

Music is thoroughly embedded in many contexts and practices of contemporary society. It is ubiquitous across social spaces and media environments, and is arguably the dominant form of mediated popular-cultural expression.
As such, music is very important to people. Talk about music is therefore encountered everywhere. Talking about music, however, is also a way of talking about other things: a vehicle or resource for getting other kinds of social and cultural positioning negotiated. Talking about the music we like – and perhaps especially the music we do not like – is a way to express who we are in relation to each other, and thereby a way to produce and exhibit our respective positions in relation to regimes of aesthetic and cultural value. Talk about music involves evaluation, and this kind of evaluation has moral attributes.

This is evident if we think of how ideas around social identity – ethnicity, class, gender, and other forms of social differentiation – are expressed through talk about music. Consider how conversations about, say, Michael Jackson, or Miley Cyrus, utilise the music and performance of these artists to ‘do work’ around sexuality, the politics of race and representation and so on.
There is also a fantastic quantity of academic research about music: in classical musicology, popular musicology, cultural studies, media studies, ethnomusicology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. Of course, it is commonly through writing that we most thoroughly engage with this research. Nonetheless, it is not too much of a stretch to say that these perspectives also involve ‘talk’ about music, at least in the senses mentioned above.

One of the central features of these ways of talking, ‘vernacular’ or ‘specialised’, is that they can be understood as taking music as something located in the social world, in such a way as to tell us about other things concerning that world. Or rather, they can be understood in such a way as to enable us to tell these other things. This is arguably especially the case for those ways of talking which insist on being ‘just about the music’, thereby indicating a view of the world involving ‘art’ as an autonomous realm, separate from the everyday. At the very foundation of this way of talking about music, is an insistence that such talk can delineate music as a social practice abstracted from the context of its production, and yet simultaneously furnishing ground on which artistic comment can be made on that context.

This particular way of talking about music is surprisingly common, although we might not commonly think of it in this way. Music figures here as a sign of something good, in and of itself. Conversely, it is possible to talk about the degraded state of music (and especially ‘pop’ music) as sign and symptom of our own social degradation. Bad music is a bad sign, a sign of bad things in the world, a sign of a bad world (or at least, one which is getting worse). This draws on very longstanding ways of thinking about moral value with respect to music. We can conceptualise this drawing on Bourdieu. But we can also contextualise it in relation to anxieties about the corrupting effects of music stretching back at least to Plato.
This, then, is a way of talking about music as a ‘problem’. Some (most likely recent) music is deemed problematic, sometimes through juxtaposition with some other, possibly non-problematic or even edifying music (most likely not recent). In academic and in vernacular discourses, and across the political spectrum, these ways of talking also serve as ways of imagining social orders. Notably, they imagine how music contributes to the constitution of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ subjectivities for the social order we have or might want or prefer. Music comes to be posited as ‘doing things’ to people. Selves, moral systems, and social orders are invoked and interlinked – in conversations about music.

Here is a philosophical example, drawing on aesthetics and ethics, arguing that ‘singing along’ to gangsta rap could be morally bad for you. Here is another, from psychology, suggesting that ‘problem music’ is linked with ‘delinquent’ or ‘anti-social behaviour’. The genres of music deemed problematic are predictable, but very similar lines of argument can be shown in sociological work, sympathetic to the political left, which addresses popular music. In this work, it is the ‘poppier’ mainstream which is spoken of as troubling. The intellectual lineage here is customarily traced through Adorno, and these sorts of perspectives are very well known. Vernacular versions can be seen in authenticity discussions among fans – what is ‘true’ black metal, has that rapper sold out, is this band still ‘underground’ and so on. A good contemporary ethnomusicological iteration describes music colonized by the forces of neoliberal hegemony: genres of music become brands.
Despite apparently important differences in political persuasion (in what the desired subjectivities, moral orders, and social forms are), these ways of talking share at least one important feature: they invite the listener/reader to join the proponent of the argument in directing opprobrium at the ‘problem music’ and the social order for which it finds itself serving as a proxy. Whether the relationship is reader-writer or co-conversational, alignment is solicited, and a right-thinking ‘we’ who can make sense of this music is proposed and developed.

It is productive to think about these conversations and the work they get done in this way for a number of reasons. It is not so much that the arguments involved are more or less right or wrong, or tell us more or less successfully what we need to know about music. It is rather that these ways of talking and thinking are objects of inquiry in their own right, which go towards the production of the field that is ‘music’ and how it is understood. Music is a topic or resource for talk, and for the production and display of academic disciplinary orientations. It is therefore an important interactional and discursive means of getting sociality done, and of getting conceptions of the world and how it should be into view. Considering how these conversations and discourses work helps us to understand how ‘music’ is made sensible, and made a sensible and informative feature of the social world. It can also help us to understand thereby some of the means by which we talk that world up into a moral shape.
This piece is based on an article published by Sociological Research Online in May. The article can be found here.


Friday, 30 May 2014

Making Sense of Happiness and Well-being?

By Mark Cieslik, Northumbria University and David Bartram, University of Leicester. 
Contact Mark Cieslik at

The growing interest in happiness and well-being?

The contemporary interest in well-being began in the 1950s with the World Health Organisation developing new ways of measuring and promoting international development. This was the beginning of efforts to include notions such as quality of life and subjective well-being into existing approaches of development that had emphasised economic growth and prosperity as key indicators of social progress.  Recent decades have seen much debate and research into the attributes of a ‘good life’ and the ‘good society’ – how these would be experienced subjectively and how they might be created objectively by public policy.  Many governments now conduct national well-being surveys, keen to explore the impact on subjective well-being of changes in society particularly in employment, technology and family formation.

What is Happiness?

Though the idea of happiness seems a simple and ubiquitous feature of modern societies, commentators point to various ways of understanding well-being. We can distinguish between popular notions of happiness as personal experiences of good feeling (joy and pleasure in contrast to suffering), more ‘scientific’ concepts such as subjective well-being that refer to the balance of positive and negative experiences we have (and reflect on) and finally objective or structural features of well-being such as income, family structure, community services and housing. Researchers (usually employing survey techniques) then try to correlate the structural features of societies with how these features are experienced by individuals. Hence well-being surveys from the British Office of National Statistics can tell us about variations in well-being by region of the UK and how these vary with certain characteristics such as health, education and employment status. These sorts of surveys usually offer us unremarkable insights into the nature of well-being – that higher incomes, satisfying employment, good health and secure family relationships (for example) are all important to happiness. The British economist Richard Layard has documented these trends in well-being research, championing policies that support families and communities and promote good mental health.

Critical Approaches to Happiness and Well-being

These trends have sparked much critical debate about the usefulness of “well-being” for evaluating social progress and the lives of individuals. Some social scientists are sceptical of the recent interest in well-being and happiness, suggesting that this trend reflects the individualism or even the narcissism of the age. Thus happiness and subjective well-being have been colonised by corporations and are now used to make us feel insecure about our lives – we all have to try and be happy, and popular routes to well-being involve ever greater consumption as a path to happiness.  Some instead suggest that traditional concepts of inequality, poverty or disadvantage still offer greater insights into the nature of modern societies and the life chances of citizens than a focus on well-being.  Others point to the crude way that well-being is understood and employed in surveys – the impossibility of capturing complex emotions and experiences with simple questions and scales.  It is not obvious that responses from individuals about their happiness can be aggregated to create maps about the relative well-being of different areas of the UK. Some researchers therefore call for more complex survey techniques that can grasp the different ways that well-being is experienced at different levels – from individuals and families up to communities and regional processes.  

Wellbeing as everyday practice

An alternative to survey research into well-being is to explore the ways that happiness is grounded in the everyday activities of individuals. Some researchers employ ethnographic and interview techniques to discern the different ways that well-being is experienced and pursued in different domains such as through families, partners, employment, leisure and friendships. Such approaches reflect the way Greek philosophers such as Aristotle suggested that happiness can have fleeting personal dimensions such as merry-making (Hedonia) yet also be rooted in more enduring and biographical projects that imply ‘working at happiness’ (Eudaimonia). A number of researchers are now investigating how happiness, though shaped by wider structural features in society, can also be a practical everyday accomplishment where individuals are often struggling to navigate their way through the challenges of life hoping to flourish as best they can. The happiness of individuals can reflect the sorts of resources they are able to mobilise (such as social networks and income) and also the sorts of decisions they make; likewise, different emotions, values and interests can inform the choices people make in their daily lives. Very often our efforts around well-being are focused on working at the happiness of others; care giving, compassion and altruism are still significant features of our lives. Thus these micro approaches to well-being, though appearing to focus on personal projects, also consider the important ways that well-being works at an inter-personal level – the notion of ‘social happiness’.

The promise of happiness research?

Andrew Sayer (2011) has recently suggested that our pursuit of well-being is something that we all do – it is something that really matters to us all – yet is something that is often overlooked by social scientists fixated on the pathologies of modern societies. The promise of a more sustained critical engagement with well-being – how it is experienced and can be promoted – is that it offers us a way of rethinking some of the major challenges we face today. What constitutes satisfaction with life or quality of life and how public policy can deliver these are fundamental questions in contemporary societies.  At a time of austerity and hardship it might seem bizarre to research happiness, but this is perhaps precisely the time to explore what it means to be content and fulfilled and indeed to flourish.

In recent decades we have had increasingly sterile debates between Left and Right about how to recast the contract between the individual and the state. Growing inequalities, the powerlessness of citizens and the rising influence of corporations all suggest that there are limits to what markets can achieve (Sandel, 2012). Yet some of our efforts to regulate markets appear ineffectual and suggestions of a return to state management of services appear anachronistic for many. As we find ourselves caught between market or state systems, can a sustained analysis of well-being and how individuals and communities flourish help us achieve a better understanding of what makes a good society and a good life?


Sandel, M. (2012) What Money Cannot Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. London: Allen Lane.

Sayer, A. (2011) Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Read more about happiness and well-being in the Sociological Research Online special section, published in May 2014.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The failure of civic education

By Nathan Manning & Kathy Edwards

Popular themes in recent self-examinations of sociology are concerns about the ‘decline’ of sociology and its contemporary relevance. These discussions segue with others about the declining relevance and role of ‘public intellectuals’. They also intersect with Burawoy’s ideas about the potential of ‘public sociology’ to provide a nexus between the academy and the public. We need go no further than the previous issue of Sociological Research Online to find powerful, and poignant, discussions about the role of sociology in interpreting, understanding and providing alternative discourses of contemporary events, in this case the London Riots. Rogers (2013) considers the role of sociology in intersecting with the community and McGeeney (2013) reminds us of the need to consider ways of taking sociology beyond the academy in ways that ‘disrupt’ the increasing dominance of neoliberal ideas. McGeeney also reminds us that (despite neoliberal incursions into the academy affecting us as intellectuals and as workers), the spaces we do have to pursue our intellectual lives are privileged ones. For those of us engaged in youth sociology, this often means providing voice for young people who are, with increasing frequency, the subject of neoliberal discourses and policies that seek to blame, coerce or ‘label’ young people.
The London Riots provoked (yet another) moral panic about ‘modern youth’ and their declining citizenship and community connections. Young people’s apparent disregard for ‘citizenship’ has long been of concern to governments and policy-makers, and has been a feature of sociological inquiry as well. We’ve both worked on such inquiries, specifically addressing young people’s involvement with politics. Individually, we’ve contributed to research arguing that young people are often excluded from, and marginalised by, politics. We’ve also both had a stake in arguments about the ways in which young people might be doing politics differently. Whilst working in this field we’ve both felt frustrated by the recalcitrance of the dominant discourse which constructs young people as non-participative and apathetic and proposes civic and citizenship education as a remedy for these perceived deficits. This view tends to impose a narrow definition of politics whilst ignoring the valid reasons why young people might be turning away from electoral politics, as well as questions about whether they are ‘turning away’. Moreover, the focus on ‘youth apathy’ and young people’s apparent lack of knowledge about politics has meant little play is given to the numerous ways in which young people are excluded from and marginalised by electoral politics.

To this end, a couple of years ago, Nathan thought it would be a good idea to see if there was any evidence to show that civic education could increase young people’s electoral participation (voting, signing petitions etc).  Not frequently used in sociological research, systematic reviews are widely used in disciplines like healthcare to bring together all the existing evidence on the effectiveness of a particular intervention. They use explicit criteria to search for, identify and evaluate existing research on a specific question. In healthcare this is typically along the lines of, ‘is treatment A better than treatment B or placebo?’ In evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention these methods are far superior to a traditional literature review because they should involve extensive searching of the literature and each step in the process (how the searching was done, how studies were selected etc.) should be made explicit and transparent. While the method’s origins are with healthcare, it has increasingly been picked up within the social sciences and used to evaluate public policy (see Sundberg’s piece in the special section of this edition of SRO). Kathy Edwards readily agreed to help apply these methods to examine the evidence for civic education increasing young people’s political participation.

To find evidence on the effectiveness of civic education for increasing political participation we searched numerous electronic databases, which yielded over 7,000 potentially relevant sources. Independently, we sifted through these titles and abstracts to identify those studies which actually measured the effect of civic education upon young people’s electoral behaviour. In the end we agreed that 9 studies met our inclusion criteria. Given the small number of studies we found, it is clear the evaluation of civic education has not kept pace with the implementation of civic education policies. Despite some studies using large nationally representative data sets, the review found little evidence for civic education having a positive effect on voting/registering to vote, but did identify modest positive effects on forms of political expression (e.g. signing petitions). While the evidence base is slim, it would seem civic education has not been able to increase young people’s electoral participation.
The evidence confirmed our hunch that young people’s (alleged) lack of participation in electoral politics seems to have little to do with a lack of education, but we still had a job to do in explaining why civic education seems to have failed in key areas like voting. Here, we return to our opening theme: the contemporary relevance of sociology. To address our question, we considered some of the research drawing upon a more sociological approach to young people and politics. Looking at this body of work we highlighted the range of barriers and obstacles which confront young people wanting to participate in politics. At the same time, young people have been involved in various activities which are reshaping the meaning and practice of politics, making electoral participation just one way (an increasingly unattractive way in the eyes of many young people) of doing politics.

Assuming that policy makers desire to promote genuinely meaningful political participation amongst young people, rather than use citizenship education as a tool of governance, to impose a narrow definition of politics and blame young people for voting with their feet, there is much they could learn from the sociological literature, or, put differently, much that sociology could teach. While the neo-liberal order lurches from one crisis to the next and new political forms and ideas continue to percolate, it is our view that sociologists must maintain their stake in public debates and policy – not for the sake of social ‘impact’, but for the sake of ensuring politics in its broadest sense.
This is based on the article by Nathan Manning and Kathy Edwards published in Sociological Research Online in February 2014. Read the full version here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Fresh Look at the Success of the Occupy Movement

By Clare Saunders, University of Exeter, Silke Roth, University of Southampton Cristiana Olcese, London School of Economics

The Occupy movement has been seen as emblematic of protest in a global age. Throughout 2011 and 2012, Occupiers in more than 700 cities in 80 countries had set up camps to protest against the financial system, its inherent inequality and the failure of democratic and undemocratic regimes alike to deal with associated problems. Occupy camps have been considered to be motivated by the increasingly apparent unfairness of austerity measures, which governments brought to bear in the wake of the global financial crisis, which were spurred, in turn, by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Occupy was heavily reported in the media throughout 2011 and 2012, and it would be hard to have not noticed the movement take off. Now, in 2014, it has largely dropped out of the media spotlight. At the same time, the economic system remains, firmly to date, unchanged by this significant wave of dissent. Even when it was gaining significant media attention, Occupy was sometimes caricatured as a rather disorganised ideas factory: its openness, transparency and emphasis on participatory and deliberative forms of democracy meant that it lacked a discrete goal or any concrete plans for how we might create a better alternative to the current global financial system.

Does this mean that Occupy failed?
Not necessarily. No-one ever thought that thousands of tents alone could shut down a corrupt banking system, or create an equitable financial system – at least not in the short-term. In London, Occupy attracted support from broad swathes of the populace, most notably bank workers, including a Bank of England official, and prominent members of the Church. Canon Giles Fraser famously resigned from his position at St Paul’s Cathedral in disgust that the Church would be implicated in a violent eviction of peaceful protest on the Cathedral’s steps. So it did succeed in getting broad support and public sympathy.

Occupy lives on
Although Occupy London – at St Pauls and Finsbury Park – was evicted back in 2012, the movement lives on through various related enterprises and initiatives. It is, for example, behind an initiative called ‘RollingJubilee’, which, in its own words ‘buys up pounds worth of debt for pennies and then writes it off’. In addition to gathering the support of people from many different walks of life, Occupy was a huge success encouraging people to engage in politics as a day to day activity: that is, in academic speak, in ‘prefigurative politics’.

A peak on the inside
Only by looking inside Occupiers’ tents can we understand what Occupy really meant for its participants and who those participants were. Our research did exactly that. We conducted in-depth interviews with participants – many from inside the tents – and analysed data from a survey of participants to illustrate the very concrete success of Occupy. Our survey was part of the pan-European ‘Caught in the Act of Protest’ project, which has surveyed protests across Europe. We reveal how Occupy was much more than just a protest, and much more still than an unsuccessful protest. Indeed, for some, it was a way of life. For many of those, it represented a better way of life.

A diverse range of participants
In terms of diversity, we found that participants were from a wide range of backgrounds, although most were highly educated. What many had in common was a sense of the need for a new direction in their lives: many were in between jobs, or looking for a new place to settle. Some were homeless and/or mentally ill and in need of types of care not readily available in the City.

Living outside of capitalism
One significant success of the London Occupy camps was that they revealed to its participants the possibility of existing outside of the confines of the everyday capitalist system, unearthing and attempting to resolve issues thrown up by the capitalist system in the process. For some homeless and mentally ill people, the place was a panacea: food, shelter and the creation of humane and highly supportive community were part of Occupy London’s success story. Whether or not one was vulnerable in day to day society, it was possible to live at an Occupy camp on very little money. At the same time, it was possible to learn from and make use of mutually supportive community systems, including food provision and inclusive decision-making. Those participants who had previously been involved in more organised forms of politics (e.g. through formally organised NGOs) found Occupy to be a breath of fresh air: it was less exclusionary, more participatory and generally more rewarding than many of their prior political experiences.

Tensions in camp life
This is not to suggest that life at the Occupy camps was plain sailing. As in any fledgling community, the bringing together of a diverse body of people created tensions. Amongst other incidents, there were allegations of sexual abuse and complaints about drunken people. These incidents made it difficult always to  present the camps as respectable places for political dissent, especially to the well-to-do folk of the City. Despite these very real challenges, Occupy still managed to get itself cast in a largely positive light in the media. As our research illustrates, Occupy London also succeeded in interweaving on-line and off-line forms of political action.

A success?
So, in many ways, Occupy was a huge success. Unravelling the global financial system and instituting a more equitable alternative is no small feat. It is so challenging that it would be unfair to set that as a bench mark against which to measure the success of a protest movement. Successfully bringing together a diverse range of people in a temporary community to explore possible alternatives is no simple task, either. To succeed at that whilst gaining largely sympathetic press coverage, and to have sparked a host of follow-on political initiatives suggests that Occupy did not, not by any means, fail. It succeeded. And its legacy will doubtlessly endure.

This blogspot piece draws on a research article written by Silke Roth, Clare Saunders and Cristiana Olcese, ‘Occupy as a Free Space: Mobilization Processes and Outcomes’, published in Sociological Research Online, 19(1).