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.