Bourdieu, and Other Theorists, Come to Glasgow: Who will be Discussed at the BSA Annual Conference?

By Matt Dawson

This year (15-17th April) the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association (BSA) will be held in Glasgow.  ‘The BSA’, as effectively the only annual event for all of British sociology, is often a space for reflecting on the nature of the discipline in the UK (indeed, had Scotland voted Yes to independence, it seems inevitable some discussion of what ‘British’ sociology will be would have been on the agenda; this may still be discussed at a future conference). There are few things sociologists like more than a discussion about the scope and value of sociology, especially a critical one, it has been part of the discipline from the start and remains so today.  Three years ago this discussion became somewhat public when Aditya Chakrabortty, a Guardian journalist, used the occasion of the BSA annual conference to condemn sociology for ignoring the financial crisis which led to the vociferous defence of sociology from the BSA President at the time and the BSA itself. Then, last year, one of the keynote speakers, Steve Fuller, used the occasion of his talk to urge sociology to reorientate its scope, away from figures like Marx and Weber (the former a ‘historical figure’, the latter someone we ‘continue to genuflect’ towards) to new developments in biology and the development of social experiments.

Chakrabortty and Fuller, entirely accidentally, shared an element of critique: that sociology, and sociologists, tend to be obsessed with historical niche discussion of topics and theorists who are no longer relevant to contemporary society.  We should, therefore, reorientate ourselves away from such an insular discussion towards new figures and social themes.  Perhaps ironically, this is in no way a ‘new’ criticism of sociology; Emile Durkheim made it in 1904 (Durkheim and Foucannet 1905) for instance. Indeed, the never-ending search for, and emphasis upon, ‘newness’ is, for Henri Lefebvre, a key element of modern societies (Lefebvre 1995).  There seems no reason why sociology, a fundamentally ‘modern’ discipline, should be excluded from this.

So, with such debates in mind, I decided to look at what theorists will be discussed at the annual conference.  The full programme, including abstracts, is now available and my goal was to see what theorists, or schools of thought, are mentioned most frequently.  I did this not only to see to what extent we are involved in the discussion of long-dead figures, but also, since the BSA annual conference is the only event for British sociology as a whole, it could give us some indication as to the theoretical allegiances of the field.

Before getting to the results, a quick note on methodology. I began by searching the document for what could be considered ‘major’ theorists and recorded the number of abstracts which mentioned them. I then read the whole of the programme for theorists and schools of thought I had missed first time round.  For this exercise I defined ‘theorist’ very broadly, as effectively any scholar who provides a conceptual framework (hence the inclusion of a figure like John Goldthorpe due to his role in the Nuffield scale of social stratification). The result of the search for theorists are below, covering all those mentioned at least twice:

Pierre Bourdieu 34
Michel Foucault 9
Norbert Elias 7
Emile Durkheim 6
Anthony Giddens 6
Erving Goffman 5
Georg Simmel 5
Zygmunt Bauman 4
Karl Marx 3
Max Weber 3
Jurgen Habermas 3
Judith Butler 3
Howard Becker 3
Andrew Sayer 3
Bruno Latour 2
Bev Skeggs 2
Ulrich Beck 2
John Goldthorpe 2
Stuart Hall 2
Max Horkheimer 2
John Law 2
Thomas Piketty 2
Raewyn Connell 2
Mike Savage 2
Nicos Mouzelis 2
Auguste Comte 2

Before discussing who was mentioned it is notable that with over 700 abstracts very few actually mentioned any theorists.  There are multiple reasons why this maybe the case: abstracts are short and, for the BSA annual conference, submitted at least 6 months before the conference, encouraging the writer to remain on the surface of their paper. This time lag may mean people submit abstracts having not analysed their data and therefore not sure what theory they may draw on.  Also, at 15 minutes long, many presentations don’t allow much space for any discussion, let alone theoretical elaboration.

That being said, the dominance of Bourdieu is clear, at almost 4 times as many mentions as Foucault. A few other trends can be seen here, perhaps most notable is the demographic makeup. Of these 27 writers all but 3 are men and almost all are white. Very few are British, with Giddens the only prominent Brit. Significantly though, there is no notable bias towards ‘classic’ names. The continued popularity of Elias is a somewhat surprising result and perhaps demonstrates the recent ‘return’ to his thought, and Durkheim continues to do well. However, writers such as Marx and Weber aren’t especially popular (some ‘classics’, such as George Herbert Mead, weren’t mentioned at all).  Let us now look at what schools of thought were most mentioned:

Feminism 20
Bourdieusian 18
Marxist/ian 10
(Critical) Realism 9
(Symbolic) Interactionism 4
Critical Race Theory 4
Post-Structuralism 2
Functionalism 1
Actor-Network Theory 1

The popularity of feminism here is notable; this number includes references to feminism in a discussion of methodology.  Since this methodological discussion rests on a theoretical base, I included these as theoretical references (I excluded 4 more references to feminism which referred to feminist movements or ‘post-feminist’ culture). Regardless, combining ‘Bourdieu’ and ‘Bourdieusian’ gives us 49 mentions (excluding abstracts which mention both), increasing his lead.  How do we explain this?  The immediate response is to claim that British sociology is especially ‘Bourdieusian’ (perhaps indicated by the existence, and strength of the BSA’s Bourdieu study group), but there is insufficient data to argue that here. What of other reasons?  It is possible, given the largely empirical nature of the papers at the annual conference, that Bourdieu is mentioned so frequently given the value, and widespread use, of his concepts to empirical analysis (indeed, most papers which mention Bourdieu refer to the forms of capital and/or habitus).  Therefore, the next step would be to turn to the theory stream of the annual conference, which theorists/schools of thought are covered there? The following is not a complete list, but rather looks at the most prominent references:

Marx/ist 4
Elias/ian 4
(Critical) Realism 4
Durkheim 2
Giddens 2
Simmel 2
Feminist 2
Comparative Sociology 2
Modernity/ization 2
Bourdieu/sian 1
Weber 1

These results would seem to bare out the idea that Bourdieu is being discussed mostly outside the theory stream in what (one must assume from the limited indications here) are largely empirical papers.  Instead, Elias and Marxism jump up the list within the theory stream.  Once again though, given the number of papers in this stream (27) it is notable how few reference these particular theorists/schools. Looking through the abstracts, this could be explained by the fact that the theory stream has often doubled as the political and/or historical sociology stream which the BSA annual conference lacks.

What are we to make of these figures? I would suggest three points which hold for this year’s annual conference: firstly, the idea that the conference is a talking shop for sociologists to discuss long-dead figures is simply not borne out by the programme. Chakrabortty’s criticism on our choice of empirical topics may hold, but that would require a second analysis of topics.  In particular, I would suggest that the claim for the dominance of the ‘holy grail’ (Marx, Weber and Durkheim) in British sociology is questionable, at least in this fora.  Secondly, while Bourdieu appears to be the most ‘popular’ theorist at the BSA, this is primarily outside the theory stream, where the work of Elias and Marxism is disproportionally covered.  Thirdly, while feminism is well represented, the oft-repeated claim against the theoretical tools of British sociology – that these tend to be tools crafted by white and/or European men – largely holds true for the theorists who it seems will be discussed at the BSA annual conference.

References

Durkheim, E. and Fauconnet, P. (1905) ‘Sociology and the Social Sciences’, in Sociological Society Sociological Papers 1904. London: Macmillan, pp. 258-80.

Lefebvre, H. (1995) Introduction to Modernity. London: Verso.

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 ‘Late Modernity, Individualization and Socialism: An Associational Critique of Neoliberalism’ (2013, Palgrave Macmillan) as well as a forthcoming text outlining ideas for alternative societies offered through sociology’s history.