On Monday (16 April), Aditya Chakrabortty wrote a thought-provoking article in The Guardian entitled ‘Economics has failed us: but where are the fresh voices?’ The article is well worth a read, as are the numerous responses that followed from a diverse range of commentators.
The essence of Chakrabortty’s piece is captured in the strap line: Mainstream economic models have been discredited [true]. But why aren’t political scientists and sociologists offering an alternative view? [the truth is, they are]. Not unreasonably perhaps, the evidence for Chakrabortty’s claim was a seemingly hasty browse through the conference abstracts from the British Sociological Association’s Annual Conference (held here at Leeds, 11-13 April). In his view, the conference was sadly lacking in addressing the ‘big questions’ of the moment, citing (somewhat unfairly) a single paper from a stream session as somehow emblematic of the entire sociological vocation. An annual conference like this rightly revels in accommodating and representing the diversity of a rich discipline that is proud of its multi-paradigmatic nature and its ability to address all manner of questions about the social world… yes, including the massage industry. But by relying upon a few abstracts – rather than attending the conference itself, which would have been another strategy for anyone genuinely interested / concerned about the vitality of sociology as a discipline – one is likely to get a rather partial view of what is being discussed over the course of a three day event. For example, alongside several conference sessions that debated the sociology of money, the main Plenary Session – an inspiring exchange between Professors Zygmunt Bauman and Michael Burawoy – focussed entirely on the dramatic social, political and economic changes wrought by neoliberalism and closed by establishing an agenda for a discipline that has far more to offer those wishing to understand the present complex of crises than does economics, which remains wedded too closely to established models and ideas (a point Chakrabortty is right to emphasise).
Chakrabortty is, however, also somewhat open to the charge of being too closely wedded to established models and ideas in assuming that sociologists are still locked in the ivory towers of the academy and speaking only to each other at professional conferences. Many sociologists are offering fresh voices in a variety of contexts and it is for them to offer their own response to Chakrabortty’s charge. For our part, since our launch in 2010 we have shown how sociology is now influencing a response to the global financial crisis in a variety of creative ways that might not be immediately available to those who sit down at a search engine in order to gather evidence before passing verdict. In order to “grasp our moment” now that Lehman Brothers has fallen over, as sociologists we have been working with the Council of Europe’s Social Cohesion and Development Division on a project that led to the creation, publication and subsequent ratification by the EC of a new ‘Charter of Shared Social Responsibilities’ that draws directly upon research by sociologists and political scientists in order to offer an alternative to the rampant individualised consumerism of the neoliberal age. We continue to work closely with Compass, new economics foundation, and recently ResPublica, all leading national think tanks that are shaping both intellectual and policy responses to the global financial crisis.
What may come as even more of a surprise to those who share Chakrabortty’s impression of sociology, is that the Bauman Institute is also being consulted by the private sector. This includes working alongside corporate representatives of the global co-operative movement, concerned with the destructive effects of neoliberalism on social capital and community well-being, and in providing the intellectual driving force for innovations in alternative models of social finance, such as Zopa and a new venture Abundance Generation. For example, empowering individuals to see their money as a source of investment-return, rather than just more ‘consumer spending power’, and encouraging that investment to seek returns in community assets that are local and tangible rather than based on the illusory ‘profit’ of the global investment casino, is an innovative way of stimulating the economy in a ‘post-crisis’ context that is providing the foundation for a more resilient social and economic reality. And it is being driven by a specifically sociological understanding of money that has shown how individuals invest for a wider range of reasons – social, ethical and cultural, optimising how money creates wealth for the community – rather than simply seeking profit purely for the sake of it. In other words, the last thing we need is a new economic ‘model’ to adapt or replace the existing neoliberal one. What is needed is a fundamental re-conceptualisation of social life in the twenty-first century and we argue strongly that Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity is the torch that will light our way as we try to navigate the complex realities of a post-crisis era.
The Bauman Institute has provided a space for a form of innovative thinking that has started to prove Chakrabortty’s first point [that economics has failed us], but startlingly to disprove his second point. As an invitation to debate, Chakrabortty’s piece is a valuable contribution to public discussion. It is to be hoped that the subsequent response has shown that sociology has plenty to say about the global financial crisis and how society should best respond to avoid recreating a model of economic life that operates in the interests of an elite few, rather than the many. This may not be apparent simply from a cursory browse through conference abstracts, but if you really want to know how sociology is providing fresh voices, the evidence is out there in abundance.