Read between the lines by John Brewer
16 May 2012 Leave a comment
Whenever I teach interactionism and refer to the famous idea of ‘the definition of the situation’, I always refer to a cartoon in a Victorian-era issue of Punch. An elderly lady alights from a London omnibus after purchasing a ticket to Piccadilly, only to be told by the conductor the stop is Marble Arch. ‘It is what I call Piccadilly’, she defiantly says.
Everybody views the world from their own point of view but there are some people whom we expect to take in all sides. Social scientists and journalists come to mind. I was reminded of this cartoon on reading Aditya Chakrabortty’s latest attack on sociology. As an economist he has accused the other social sciences of failing to predict the financial crisis and while this might be thought to reflect a failing in economics rather than sociology, in the process he has taken aggressive side swipes at sociology and political science in particular. I have written to him three times, with one letter printed in the online edition of the Guardian (with Howard Wollman), responding to the first diatribe. He sees the financial crisis as an issue about the responsibility of social science; I agree. However, I see his reporting of it as an issue about the responsibility of financial journalists. To assist in responsible reporting for his last piece (printed in the Guardian on 8 May) the BSA collated a lengthy document at short notice outlining some of the sociological work we were aware of on the financial crisis and its aftermath . This was ridiculed by him as work from the Journal of Niche Studies. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether the work should be so easily dismissed. But I was deeply disappointed at his claim that on our part we refused to engage with him. I repeat here the email I sent him to which I attached the document above. It was sent on the 4 May, well in advance of his deadline.
“I understand you have been wishing to contact me as President of the BSA. We have been unable to ascertain from you what it is specifically you wish to talk to me about, so I have tried to anticipate what it is you would like to know and we have compiled the attached document. This lists some of the work that sociologists have done in the area of the financial crisis over the past few years, including some work presented at our conference and in our journals. I’m afraid it lists only the things that come immediately to mind but I am sure it will be helpful to you. To give you a sense of the books being written now, the document also lists books on the topic awaiting review that have arrived in the BSA Office. We have put this document in the public domain ahead of your piece on Monday so that it is plain we have been trying to anticipate your requests. I am very shortly leaving for a family break in Donegal until Monday night. If you wish to let us know your specific questions, please email them to Judith Mudd, our Chief Executive, and/or Tony Trueman, our media officer, and they will try to help you. Their addresses are below: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. I have also copied them into this email. Best wishes.”
Again I’ll leave it to you to judge whether his accusation is fair. One of the casualties of the financial crisis has been the credibility of economics; another is the reputation of financial journalism. This makes you realise just how far neoliberalism has penetrated financial journalism. It made me think also whether it is necessary for those who work in the public sphere to have an ego. Probably. But even so, it is impossible to work in the public sphere and believe one is always right and to always retain for oneself the last word. Not unless you want to be like the old lady from Punch and live in a world of your own. It is time for me, I think, to update my example when teaching interactionism from 19th century eccentricism to 21st century financial journalism.
John Brewer, BSA President