The Social Distribution of Physical Activity: can Bourdieu help?

Dr Chris Bunn and Dr Victoria Palmer

Chris and Victoria are at the University of Bristol this week, speaking at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association’s Bourdieu Study Group. In this blog post they reflect on the value that Bourdieu’s work on the social distribution of culture and taste could have for those working in applied health contexts, such physical activity promotion.

We in the university are all familiar with the public health campaigns that tell us to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, to stop smoking and limit alcohol intake, watch our weight and do regular physical activity. These messages are the most visible manifestations of the public health agenda. They operate, through campaigns such as ‘Change 4 Life’, as a form of counter-ideology that attempts to contest the many incitements to consume health-damaging foods, drinks and sedentary activities that circulate in our media-saturated societies. However, these campaigns – sometimes dubbed ‘social marketing’ – tend to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to their audiences.

As sociologists working in public health, we know that blanket messages are only part of the solution: they help raise awareness, but they rarely help social groups that experience health inequalities to make the sustained changes to their daily lives that will give health-improving results. These groups are sometimes called ‘hard to reach’, but this perspective has, thankfully, been dropped and recognised as a form of ‘victim blaming’: groups that do not engage with the public health agenda often have legitimate reasons for this response. Instead, therefore, the fault is with us, in the academy: we have failed to use our analytical techniques to identify and work with the cultural forms that appeal to different social groups.

In our work, we try to facilitate increases in physical activity and reductions in sedentary time in different social groups.  Being active and avoiding sitting for long periods of time are linked with multiple health benefits including lowering risk factors for cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.  To communicate these benefits we work to understand the social and cultural conditions in which physical activity messages are circulated and tailor them to suit the groups we are trying to help.  But our attempts to do this are often hindered by a lack of robust evidence about the social distribution of physical activity: we have little knowledge about the physical activity routines and practices that are found across the sub-cultures that make up our societies.

This is a problem that sociology can assist with. In his classic work

Pierre Bourdieu

Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste, Pierre Bourdieu mapped the variety of aesthetic distinctions that were found in 1960s France. In doing so, he demonstrated that our cultural consumption is structured by the resources (or ‘capitals’) that we have at our disposal, the social spaces (or ‘fields) that we inhabit, and our internalised schemes of perception (or habitus). These three dimensions reflect our social origins: the environments in which we grew up, the value that the groups we belong to afford a given cultural practice, and the structural forces that shape both of these processes. One example Bourdieu offers is that of food consumption. In 1960s France, those emanating from working class backgrounds tended to approach food in a functional way, as fuel for work, and therefore value calorie-dense foods that are ‘value for money’. By contrast, those from more privileged backgrounds tended to approach food from the perspective of ‘form’: as something to be appreciated and admired during the act of consumption.

We do not have this kind of information for physical activity practices. We do not have datasets that link objectively-measured physical activity levels and practices to social groups. In short, we don’t have a map of the social distribution of physical activity. An approach similar to that taken in Distinction by Bourdieu would close this knowledge gap and allow us to develop more effective programmes to increase physical activity in culturally-sensitive ways.  As we continue to build this approach, we are looking beyond Bourdieu’s framework. We’ll write again soon to tell you how we’re doing this.

Book Launch: Neil Davidson’s Nation-states: Consciousness and Competition

Join us tomorrow, Thursday June 2, for the launch of Neil Davidson’s Nation-states: Consciousness and Competition!

Time: 5 – 7:30 pm
Venue: Boyd Orr 513
Chair: Maureen McBride
Discussants: Bridget Fowler and Ewan Gibbs

Drinks reception to follow, free and open to the public.

The term “nation-state” conjoins two others: “nation,” a collective social identity; and “state”, a structure of political power. Territorial states have existed since the emergence of class society around 3,000 BCE, but nation-states are a much more recent phenomenon–so recent, in fact, that they are characteristic of only one type of class society, capitalism, whose origins lie a mere 500 years ago and which attained complete global dominance only in the late twentieth century. Yet, although the two aspects of nation-states are actually inseparable, the academic literature tends to discuss them in distinct disciplinary fields: adherence to national identity is a subject for social psychology, or perhaps the cultural studies branch of sociology; relationships between states are the province of international relations wing of political science. Any analysis of the nation-state form must therefore attempt to span the gulf between the individual citizen’s “consciousness” of national identity and the geopolitical “competition” between capitalist states. The bridge between social identity and state-form in political life is of course nationalism, the term encompassing both the ideology that all peoples should have their own nation-state and a series of specific movements to establish or defend those nation-states.

It is of course both possible and necessary to draw up criteria by which nationalisms can be supported or opposed, but these criteria are in a sense separate from claims about the nature of nationalism. For most of the 20th century struggles for self-determination by oppressed groups constituted “the national question”, but while these still exist – not least in relation to the situation of Palestinians and Kurds – during the neoliberal era they have tended to be subordinated to three more recent phenomena. The first is where former nation-states have entered a process of complete disintegration, as in Yugoslavia during the 1990s and in several states in Central Africa and the Middle East more recently, in which different religious, tribal or “ethnic” groups are struggling against each other to seize territory and resources. The second is the emergence, or in some cases the re-emergence of “stateless nations” seeking autonomy or independence in the long-established capitalist states of the West. In some cases these had an earlier history of oppression, in others not; but by the 1980s differences between Catalonia and Quebec on the one hand and Scotland on the other were marginal. The third is the extent to which the nation-state form has supposedly been rendered redundant by globalisation on the one hand and the development of supra-state entities like the European Union on the other – although the fashionability of globalisation theory has faded in the face of a financial crisis which saw states mobilise in order to prevent a banking collapse and a refugee crisis which has led to a ferocious re-assertion of border controls.

These are among the issues that will be discussed at the book launch this Thursday! Come along to celebrate and discuss.

The Sociology subject area gratefully acknowledges the support of the MacFie bequest for this seminar series.

Mrs. Temple’s Watch

By Andrew Smith

In 1911 Mrs Temple, of Yoker Road, won a prize. The prize was given to her on account of her being the millionth visitor to a particular section of the Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry, which was held in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park in that year. The Exhibition was a spectacular success: Mrs Temple was one of more ten million paying visitors recorded at the event.

There are at least two rather telling things to consider about this little snippet of social history.

The first is that Mrs. Temple’s prize was a watch.

This is interesting because the Exhibition itself, in common with many other similar expositions and world fairs which took place in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, was part of a process by which the free-time of ordinary men and women came to be dominated by activities in which they became the paying ‘audience’ for spectacles arranged by others.

Henri Lefebvre, the great French theorist, talks about this as a process in which ‘leisure’ becomes a form of ‘organized passivity’. In many ways those leisure activities, which appeared to promise a break from the world of work, recreated the experiences and arrangements of work. They imposed on their audiences many of the same bodily and mental disciplines that were also demanded by the new industrial division of labour. This is why it’s so interesting that Mrs. Temple’s prize was a watch: it’s a neat a symbol of the way in which the demands of ‘work-time’, as E.P. Thompson called them, were coming to infiltrate and order the promised liberties of ‘leisure’.

Mitchell Library (GC 606.4), 1911

The second interesting thing is that Mrs. Temple won her watch for being the millionth visitor to the ‘West African village’.

This was a particular part of the exhibition, sited beside the ‘rifle range’ and the ‘mountain slide’, which housed a group of Senegalese weavers. The weavers spent their time playing out an imagined version of their everyday life for the entertainment of the paying visitors. Along with her watch Mrs. Temple was given a season ticket which allowed her to return to the ‘village’ as often as she wished.

The ‘living exhibition’ of colonized peoples was a prominent feature of events of this kind. They were an important part of the way in which the social relations of empire came to feature in ordinary life in the period. The imperial representation of colonized peoples could be suddenly encountered in all kinds of relatively mundane situations and objects: in adverts, in recipes, in the turn-of-the-century craze for ‘exotic’ postcards to be displayed on the mantelpiece.

Early Postcards of Malaysia

These forms of ‘popular imperialism’ had an important double-edged quality. On the one hand, the postcard on the mantelpiece offered to the person who displayed it the feeling that they had some emotional stake in the grand imperial project.  On the other hand, they simultaneously served to reconfirm that mantelpiece, that living room, as a space of belonging, as a home whose ‘homeliness’ could be appreciated all the more clearly by being juxtaposed with a distant ‘other’ world.

In short, we can see evidence of two different but intertwined historical processes here. The first is the process by which ‘everyday life’ comes to be subject to new forms of (always resisted) control in the modern world. The second is the way in which the idea of ‘everydayness’ itself (or ‘ordinariness’ or what’s considered ‘normal’ and ‘unremarkable’) comes to be understood and imagined through the racialized identities of empire.

What Mrs. Temple’s watch reminds us is that these two processes happened together. They were a part of each other. In the same moment as ‘everyday life’ is being made, ‘race’ is being made in and with it. ‘Race’ becomes ordinary just as domestic understandings of ‘ordinariness’ come to be racialized.

It’s this relationship which I’ve tried explore in a short new book called – appropriately – Racism and Everyday Life¸which takes its cue from the great black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. One of the crucial lessons of Du Bois’ classic study The Souls of Black Folk is, I argue, that if we wish to understand how racism works we have to pay attention to its banality. We have to understand ‘race’ as something reproduced in everyday ways: through what Du Bois calls ‘the 1001 little actions’ that make up social life.


These are not simply historical questions: there are urgent contemporary lessons to be learnt.

We only have to look at recent ‘anti-terrorist’ and ‘anti-radicalization’ strategies in the UK and elsewhere to see the same relationship playing out. Documents like the 2011 Contest strategy present the goal of anti-terrorist strategy as a defence of people’s ability ‘go about their lives freely and with confidence’. But the same strategies insist that the necessary cost of protecting everyday life is the ever-fuller extension of state surveillance over that life.

Alan Lodge, 2009, Indymedia UK

We know what the outcomes of this are: the relentless, automated messages in train stations warning us to be alert to that which is ‘out of place’; the posters which depict a pair of eyes entitled ‘bomb detectors’; the ways in which the scrutiny of belonging becomes a part of the mundane practices of working life, so that academics, doctors, teachers are all placed in positions where they are expected to act as surrogate border agents for the state.

Here, just as in the ‘West African Village’, the ‘everyday’ is asserted as a fundamental border: it is in, and through, everyday life that we are told to identify those who are not ‘like us’, and who are taken as being the very reason why we need to give up ‘our’ everyday freedoms. At the same time as it becomes a border, in other words, ‘everyday life’ also becomes subject to a more thorough-going form of control.


But this is not the whole story.

As Lefebvre and Du Bois and Dorothy Smith, and all the other major theorists of the everyday have noted, there is something about everyday life that always evades the forces of control. The everyday describes a place of unregulated meetings and a space where practices of resistance can flourish. The everyday is disorderly.

And that means that it can also be in the meetings and relationships of everyday life that ‘the order of race’, the fateful intellectual inheritance of empire, can start to unravel. As Paul Gilroy puts it, it is in the messiness and encounters of mundane life that we might catch our best glimpse of the ‘feral beauty’ of a properly postcolonial society.

More about Racism and Everyday Life here, for those interested:

TalkSeePhotography – Watched!


Some of the information in this post is taken from the event description on the TalkSeePhotography event page.

A few weeks ago I went to a talk organised by  TalkSeePhotography: “a Greenhouse for photography in Scotland […] organised and exists for anyone with an interest in the medium” (TalkSeePhotography Webpage, 2016). The event was called “Watched!”  and it focused on the dynamics between surveillance, art and research. You can listen to a recording of it here.

The talk had two speakers. Dr Louise Wolthers, curator and research manager at the Hasselblad Foundation in Göteborg, Sweden talked about her research ‘WATCHED! Surveillance Art and Photography After the Millennium – Northern Europe in Focus’. Justine Gangneux, PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, spoke about her project Surveillance Technologies under Scrutiny: the Perceptions and Experiences of Young People in Glasgow.

The session was chaired by Devin Karambelas from the University of Edinburgh. Devin is one of the key people behind the event at the 2016 Glasgow Film Festival titled “Surveillance: Now Playing” .

Discussing a range of recent cases of photographic registration together with examples of lens-based art works, Dr. Wolthers talk showed how various types of everyday surveillance becomes a constitutive part of contemporary social life. New forms of discrimination and segregation emerge as do new means of empowerment and ‘sousveillance’.”

Dr. Wolthers is a highly respected researcher whose work is regularly published internationally. Dr. Wolthers has curated exhibitions at institutions such as The National Museum of Photography and The National Gallery of Denmark. She has co- exhibitions such as ‘Lost and Found: Queerying the Archive’ (2009-2010) and ‘Places: Denmark in Transition’ (2010-2012), both of which have been exhibited internationally.

Justine talked about a participatory research project she conducted, looking at young people’s perceptions of ‘everyday encounters’ with surveillance in Glasgow. The talk drew on pictures provided by participants as well as group discussions, to critically address the dynamics of surveillance. Justine also talked about the practical and conceptual limitations attached to the project in terms of participation, photography, (dis)empowerment, and wider contribution to research.

Justine Gangneux is currently doing a PhD in sociology at Glasgow University looking at young people’s understandings of social media and peer scrutiny. Her current research focuses on social media as a mean of social sorting and of normalisation of surveillance practices in personal relationships. Her research interests include social media and new technologies, surveillance, youth studies, work/leisure, and inclusion/exclusion.

Devin Karambelas is pursuing her Masters in Film, Exhibition & Curation. She also work as a special projects coordinator at the Edinburgh Short Film Festival and a volunteer coordinator for the New Town Community Cinema, a pop-up cinema specializing in independent and art house films in Edinburgh. Before arriving in scotland she worked for Vermont Public Radio in and WGBH’s Boston Public Radio. She also interned for US Sen. Bernie Sanders right around the time of the Edward Snowden/NSA fallout.



Listen again: Scottish Independence, EU Membership, and the Crisis of the British State

Following the recent elections and the upcoming EU referendum you can listen to Neil Davidson talk from last month at Glasgow University about the state of British and Scottish current state of affairs and the complexities of our political scene. You can find a written version of the talk here and an audio recording here. The talk was offered by Raphael Samuel History Centre and it is part of the History and Environment seminar series.

Neil Davidson is the Author of  The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000), and How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (2012).

If you have any questions please email:
George Yerby:
Neil Davidson:

The Raphael Samuel History Centre is an educational collective, which seeks to broaden public participation in historical research and debate.

The History and Environment seminar series looks at political and cultural histories in their environmental context.



UofG Sociology Reads: Andreea Bocioaga, Sociology PhD Candidate

Introducing UofG Sociology Reads, a new feature on the UofG Sociology blog that highlights what those of us in Sociology are reading. Whether it’s purely work related, just for fun, or somewhere in the middle, we want to explore what books are shaping the research and perspectives that are so unique to the University of Glasgow Sociology community.  

This week we’ll be introducing ourselves, Meg Lambert and Andreea Bocioaga, the new caretakers of the Sociology blog. Andreea is a PhD candidate in the Adam Smith Business School. Her research focuses on sustainable food practices and learning as it happens in community gardens in Glasgow.

What are you reading right now?

Actually I’ve just finished a book called Nevada by Imogen Binnie. 516G4OoBR2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

What’s it about?

Gosh, I don’t even know what Imogen would say it’s about. Well I guess it’s about the experience of being a transgender woman. The main character, Maria, is trying to make sense of herself and those around her. It’s a hard hitting story of what it means to be transgender and also a woman, constantly feeling the double weight of that identity. Her reality is shaped by discrimination, job insecurity, financial hardship and difficulties in creating long lasting relationships. The book brings that together with mental illness and beautifully uncovers how individuals are created by the expectations around them and also how they try to resist and create themselves in this dynamic. The result is a messy, gritty and ultimately believable story that doesn’t really have an ending and is just a snippet out of someone’s journey.

Why did you pick it up? 

I saw it recommended by a friend on social media and I found out it was actually free to download so I got it on my e-reader.

Is this book directly related to your research?

Nowhere near.

Cool beans! Is it inspiring your work, challenging your perspective, or affecting your identity as a researcher anyway?

It was definitely challenging in so many ways. Apart from being hugely educational on what it’s actually like to be a transgender woman it also touches on mental health, self-confidence and integrity of the self. Maria’s battle to assert herself as an individual in society happens firstly with her own self and then with the rest of the world. As a starting academic my identity is slightly in a crisis as I try to assert myself in my field. I’m in a process of recalibrating I guess where I adapt to this new position and that comes with a lot of self-doubt and second guessing and a strong impostor syndrome feeling. Also, how the author talks about mental health is honest and almost too raw. It can be and it definitely was at times very emotionally taxing which made me reflect on my own experiences. Although I felt really upset reading it at times, it did remind me that our realities are very messy and that we don’t always have to have everything figured out. That was something that I really struggled with in my academic work for a while as I become really consumed by having all the pieces put together.

The book is ultimately about a car journey the main character takes to find some magical answers. There is really no dramatic answer for her, just a journey through which you learn a little bit about yourself and the others. I guess it’s a very simple but effective metaphor. For me it was a useful reminder that learning and change is a process not an event.

Would you recommend it to other people?

Definitely! It’s quite a short read and it can be infuriating at times but it ends being memorable in a very personal way.

What else is on your bookshelf right now? 

I’m really into dystopian novels at the moment so a bunch of those like Station 11, The Bees and a lot of Margaret Wood. 

UofG Sociology Reads: Meg Lambert, Criminology PhD Candidate

Introducing UofG Sociology Reads, a new feature on the UofG Sociology blog that highlights what those of us in Sociology are reading. Whether it’s purely work related, just for fun, or somewhere in the middle, we want to explore what books are shaping the research and perspectives that are so unique to the University of Glasgow Sociology community.  

This week we’ll be introducing ourselves, Meg Lambert and Andreea Bocioaga, the new caretakers of the Sociology blog. We’re kicking things off with Meg, a PhD candidate in Criminology with the Trafficking Culture project. Meg’s research focuses on crimes and social harms of the powerful in educational institutions like museums and universities, particularly as they relate to the illicit, illegal, or unethical collection of cultural objects. She blogs sporadically at

What are you reading right now?

M Train, by Patti Smith, the godmother of punk.02-patti-smith-m-train

What’s it about?

Technically it’s a memoir, but in no particular order. It meanders from the present moment to the past as the events of her life in 2012-2013 offer gateways for memories, particularly from her marriage to the late musician Fred “Sonic” Smith. She covers a myriad of topics, from concepts of memory, aging, and home, to her obsession with Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to her passion for crime dramas like The Killing, and, at the center of it all, her love for cafes and ritual. All in all, it’s an ode to coffee, working creatively, and finding lost things through memory.

Why did you pick it up?                                             

This is actually the 5th time I’ve read it since November. It had been on my “To read” list since it came out, so I bought it while on a book buying spree in the US. 

Is this book directly related to your research?


Cool beans! Is it inspiring your work, challenging your perspective, or affecting your identity as a researcher anyway?

Actually, yes. In terms of technique, it’s a constant source of learning and inspiration for me when I’m writing. As an academic, I do worry about falling into the trap of overwrought passages and unnecessarily arcane vocabulary. A half hour with Patti puts all that into check and helps me get in the right frame of mind before writing for any audience.

More personally, it’s full of small but powerful affirmations that help me put my life into perspective, particularly when I’m questioning my role in academia. Despite being a rock star, most famous for her album Horses, Patti doesn’t define herself as a musician. Performing is just something she does and can do, along with photography, painting, and writing. Her creative life is built from a lot of different moving parts, in much the same way as my own in terms of academic responsibilities and creative ambitions. After spending so much time battling the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-stay-in-academia question, it’s encouraging to see how someone can make a life of doing numerous things without getting caught up in a competitive haze of being the absolute best at all of them. She just follows her curiosity and does her best with what emerges from it, which, as you know if you know Patti Smith, leads to a lot of uniquely authentic and moving work.

Would you recommend it to other people?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

What else is on your bookshelf right now?

Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason by Biko Agozino, Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, and The Places That Scare You by Pema Chödrön.

Some reflections on language-related issues in a PhD research project

by Dr. Robert Gibb, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow

(This is the text of a talk given as part of a session on ‘Sociological Geographies’ at the BSA Postgraduate Forum Pre-Conference Day held on Tuesday 5 April 2016 at Aston University, Birmingham.)

Near the start of his recent book Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, Michael Billig makes the following point about ‘audit culture’ in contemporary universities and other public institutions:

Inevitably, the culture of auditing is not just a culture of inspection and managerial control; it is also a culture of boasting. There are good economic reasons not to be modest or to trust that virtue will gain its own reward. In the audit culture, individuals and institutions must proclaim their achievements vigorously’ (Billig 2013: 24).

Billig is highly critical of the negative effects of this ‘culture’ on contemporary academic life, notably on writing in the social sciences but also on other scholarly activities, including conferences. He would like to be optimistic that things will change, and I would too. Therefore, rather than ‘proclaim my achievements vigorously’ here I would like instead to talk about what I’ve learned recently from one of my ‘non-achievements’ as a PhD student. In so doing, my aim is to raise some questions for discussion about ‘researching multilingually’ (Holmes et al 2013), that is, using more than one language when carrying out and writing up research. In my view, this is an important aspect of the ‘sociological geographies’ we are being invited to explore in this session.

Some years ago, I spent eighteen months in Paris conducting fieldwork for my PhD thesis. I carried out participant observation in the local committee of an antiracist organisation, relying at the start – somewhat optimistically, or naively – on the six years of French I had had at secondary school in Scotland. When I eventually submitted my thesis, how much did it contain about this and other language-related issues in my fieldwork? The answer, as I discovered recently when I went back to the thesis and looked, is: almost zéro. In fact, there are only four places in the whole thesis where I allude to the ‘researching multilingually’ aspects of my PhD work, that is, the fact that it involved the use of more than one language. Looking back today, I view these four isolated comments as potential ‘leads’ to important questions about how I gathered, interpreted and presented the material on which my thesis was based. I didn’t follow these up at the time – that is my ‘non-achievement’ – but I would like to do so briefly now, as a way of pointing to some general issues that we might discuss later this afternoon.

The first of the four places in my thesis where I mention a language-related issue is a note at the end of the acknowledgements section. This includes the following sentence: ‘Unless otherwise stated, all translations from the French are my own’. I don’t go on in the note or anywhere else in the thesis to provide a rationale for the choice I had made to use my own translations (in some but not all cases) or to discuss how exactly I went about translating passages from French into English, any problems I encountered, whether I had asked anyone to check my translations, and so on. Translating is highly skilled work, and given that I was approaching the task with six years of ‘school French’ was I sufficiently equipped to undertake it? If not, how could I compensate for this? I can’t remember asking myself such questions at the time, although I think now that I should have. Perhaps I did so, however, without necessarily being fully aware of it, since in the thesis I did put the original French of longer citations in footnotes.

The second and third passages in my thesis where I briefly discuss ‘researching multilingually’ issues both deal with how my language skills, or lack of them, shaped my reception by members of the local antiracist committee I joined and the different roles they found for me to play within it. For example, I write in one of the passages that:

Initially, my lack of fluency in spoken French meant that I contributed little in meetings although I was able to comprehend most of the discussions (…). However, when a new Bureau was elected [six months into my fieldwork], a range of more informal ‘posts’ was created and I was invited to assume responsibility for co-ordinating the distribution of leaflets.

What I’m doing here in the thesis is alluding to the fact that I gained more confidence in speaking French as time passed, and that in important ways this affected my involvement in the ‘life’ of the committee, my relationships with its members, and consequently the nature and amount of material I was able to gather. However, I don’t go on to reflect on the implications of this ‘developing socio-linguistic competence’ for the process of data collection – and analysis.

The final comment about language in the thesis is the following one in the ‘methods’ chapter: ‘Participant observation is thus required in order to contextualise people’s use of language and to investigate how it both sustains and is produced by collective action’. Once again, I don’t explore the implications of this observation in a systematic way in the rest of the thesis nor do I seek to contextualise my own use of language as a researcher. In particular, there is nothing at all in my thesis about the ESRC-funded ‘language training’ I took in the form of private lessons from a teacher during the first few months of my fieldwork. (The ESRC is the UK Economic and Social Research Council, which funded my PhD.)

An account of my language learning is also absent from my fieldnotes, which I re-read recently too. The latter contain only two passing references to the formal language training I undertook in the field. The first is an entry I wrote a few weeks after my arrival: ‘This afternoon I think I’ll pop out to l’Alliance Française and find out about French classes’. However, no subsequent entry records what happened, and the second – and final – reference to formal language learning in my fieldnotes is not until nearly two months later, when I mention that I was late for a meeting of the antiracist organisation due to having a French lesson immediately beforehand. The fieldnotes I wrote over the first six months regularly contain comments, often added in brackets, about my lack of confidence in speaking French and my inability sometimes to understand what people are saying to me – and, even more frequently, what they are saying to each other. However, I do not record there my language learning ‘strategies’, nor do I reflect in a systematic and detailed way on my developing ‘socio-linguistic competence’ and how this affected the research.

Using more than one language in a research project – researching multilingually – raises many important issues, then. Some researchers have addressed these in detail, rather than simply referring to them in passing as I did in my PhD thesis. Nevertheless, I think that we need to discuss these language-related matters more in sociology (and related disciplines). The examples I’ve taken from my PhD thesis point to the following questions: If our fieldwork requires us to learn and/or use a second or additional language, how can we document and analyse this in a detailed and systematic way? How do we approach translation in our work? What are the implications of being ‘less-than-fluent’ (Tremlett 2009: 65), or of developing sociolinguistic competence ‘in the field’, for the processes of data collection and analysis? Among the other questions we might discuss in the second part of this session are: What do we mean by ‘fluency’ or ‘sociolinguistic competence’ in the first place? What kinds of expectations do researchers – and supervisors – have about this? To what extent, if at all, is support available to a researcher for language training and is the amount of time allocated realistic? If a PhD student is gathering material in a language or languages her/his supervisor does not understand, what issues does this raise for the student, the supervisor and the nature of the supervisory relationship?

These are some of the questions I thought it could be interesting for us to discuss. […] Thank you very much for listening.


Billig, M., (2013), Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holmes, P., Fay, R., Andrews, J. and Attia, M., (2013),  ‘Researching multilingually: New theoretical and methodological directions’, International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 23 (3): 285-299.

Tremlett, A., (2009), ‘Claims of “knowing” in ethnography: realising anti-essentialism through a critical reflection on language acquisition in fieldwork’, Graduate Journal of Social Science, 6 (3): 63-85.

What Theorists will be discussed at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2016?

by Matt Dawson

Pierre Bourdieu

This week sees the British Sociological Association (BSA) annual conference, the main event in the calendar of British sociology. Last year, out of personal interest, I decided to see what theorists were referenced in the abstracts from the conference programme ( The data showed a dominance for Pierre Bourdieu with 49 mentions of him as an individual or of a Bourdieusian approach. The second r

anked individual was Michel Foucault with 9 and second leading school was feminism with 20 references. This year I decided to repeat this exercise, once again reading the conference handbook ( and noting references of theorists/schools, with the find function being used to confirm results.

Before I provide the results, I wanted to highlight the purpose of this exercise, which is relatively simple: since this is the one time a year where British sociology comes together as a whole and many abstracts do reference theorists/schools, it may be interesting to see who/what these are. In that sense, my goal here is largely an empirical one. I leave it up to the reader to draw their own evaluations from the findings.

In this light, last year I received some comments which I thought it might be helpful to respond to. When I suggested that many of the theorists were in the broad (and very much contested) ‘dead white man’ category this was not to suggest issues of ‘race’ were not being discussed at the conference. The Race and Ethnicity stream was the largest stream at last year’s conference (and seems to be so again this year) so this was not, and is still not, the case. Furthermore, this exercise is not an attempt to play ‘major theorist bingo’ and condemn the ‘lack’ of some theorists being discussed at the conference. There are a multitude of reasons why people may not mention theorists/schools in abstracts including: the time ahead in which abstracts need to be submitted for the conference, the fact analysis may not be complete, the shortness of abstracts, or relevance to the project.

Now, to turn to this year. Below are the number of mentions for theorists (as last year, this is broadly defined to mean anyone who provides concepts/a framework which is used to shed light on a topic). This list contains all theorists mentioned at least twice.

Pierre Bourdieu 31
Erving Goffman 7
Ulrich Beck 6
Max Weber 5
Mike Savage 4
Frantz Fanon 3
Diane Reay 3
Michel Foucault 3
Jurgen Habermas 3
Rosalind Gill 2
Anthony Giddens 2
Thomas Piketty 2
Nancy Fraser 2
Homi Bhabha 2
Guy Standing 2
Howard Becker 2
Lynn Jamieson 2
Paul Ricoeur 2
Michel de Certeau 2
Basil Bernstein 2
NE Fondation
Norbert Elias

There are some similarities from last year. Bourdieu is once again way out in front.  Also, Goffman continues to be quite well represented. However, there are some changes. Foucault, a comfortable second place last year, falls down the list a bit (though, as shown below, this approach is still well represented). Norbert Elias, the third most referenced
theorist last year, only had one reference. Also the list is somewhat less reflective of the ‘dead, white man’ trend of last year, though it still tends this way.  Among theorists who were not cited at all we find: Zygmunt Bauman, Émile Durkheim (though there was a reference for the Durkheimian school), Georg Simmel and George Herbert Mead. Among those referenced once were Stuart Hall, Sara Ahmed, Margaret Archer, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, bell hooks, Richard Sennett, Karl Marx, John Goldthorpe, W.E.B. Du Bois and Bruno Latour.

This then brings us to schools of thought cited:

Feminism (of which are Black Feminism) 17 (3)
Intersectionality 15
Bourdieusian 9
Foucauldian 7
Queer Theory 6
Postcolonialism 5
Marxism 5
Actor Network Theory/STS 5
Weberian 2

Some notes on this list, it is likely the mentions of STS underrate its prominence since there is a Science and Technology Studies stream for which writers may, understandably, feel it superfluous to identify that as their approach.  The same is probably also true for critical race theory (only 1 reference) which could perhaps be seen as an assumed approach for some speakers in the Race and Ethnicity stream. Among perspectives not mentioned were Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism.

Feminist scholar and social activist bell hooks

When we compare these lists one thing that is notable is that prominent schools aren’tnecessarily reflected in prominent theorists.  So, while Feminism is the most cited school there are fewer feminist theorists cited (as is the case for Intersectionality, Queer Theory and Postcolonialism).  It seems possible such schools are identified with a set of principles rather than writers as could never be the case for Bourdieusian, Weberian or so on. On the other hand, writers who exist somewhat independently of schools (such as Beck and Habermas) or whose thought seems to be more popular than the school to which they’re commonly assigned (such as Goffman and Symbolic Interactionism) require a name reference.

However, the overriding finding remains the dominance of Bourdieu. Once we account for references that mention both ‘Bourdieu’ and ‘Bourdieusian’ he has 36 total references, more than double the second most commonly referenced school, Feminism and five times more than the second most commonly referenced theorist, Goffman. Indeed, it is likely this number underestimates the number of papers making use of Bourdieu. One thing that was notable from reading the programme was the number of abstracts which made use of Bourdieu’s concepts (habitus, field, capital etc.) without using his name. The fact this is the case suggests that Bourdieu’s concepts have increasingly become the common language of British sociology.  Whether this is a positive, negative or neutral development is part of a separate discussion beyond the bounds of this post.

Matt Dawson is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow with research interests in social theory, political sociology, the history of sociology and asexuality. He is the author of Social Theory for Alternative Societies (2016, Palgrave Macmillan) and Late Modernity, Individualization and Socialism: An Associational Critique of Neoliberalism (2013, Palgrave Macmillan) as well as co-editor of Stretching the Sociological Imagination: Essays in Honour of John Eldridge (2015, Palgrave Macmillan).

Listen Again: UCU Stand Up to Racism Event

On March 19, the UCUG held an open meeting on the subject of migrants and asylum seekers. It was held to coincide with the national Stand Up to Racism event in Glasgow on 19th March (with events also held in London and Cardiff). The event was a knowledge exchange to share the expertise of UCUG members working in this area and brought together academics from Sociology, Central and East European Studies and the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. Contributions were heard from Teresa Piacentini, Paulina Trevena and Jan Culik.

Thanks to PhD candidate Sarah Anderson, we’re happy to share a recording of the event with you.

(Apologies for the quality of the recording in places).