For a feminist punk sociology: collaboration as rebellious sociology?

My ten minute talk from the BSA Postgraduate Day, 5th April 2016 on a panel about ‘Rebellious Sociology’*

What I want to do in my 10 mins is to explore another possible route through what Dave Beer has termed ‘punk sociology’. Taking a punk ethos, perhaps best encapsulated in this cartoon from the Sniffin Glue fanzine this cartoon from the Sniffin Glue fanzine,sniffin-glue-chords punk sociology called for a similar boldness among sociologists in order to reinvigorate the discipline.

The book’s central argument is that ‘the attitude and sensibility of punk can productively be used to regenerate and energise the sociological imagination’. Beer argues that the lessons that can be learned for sociology from the punk attitude are: DIY ethic, the breakdown of barriers between audience and band, and open-ness to other music.

When reading the book, which I like, it struck me that feminism has being doing punk sociology for a long time and that isn’t really explored in the book. Also, if you read Viv Albertine (of The Slits) book, the experience of women in the 1970s punk movement doesn’t chime with this idealistic rendering – but that second point is for another day.

My take on punk sociology comes through a different lineage. It comes filtered through the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s which inspired me and my friends to form a band when I was 15. Riot grrrl took punk’s DIY spirit – which manifested, for example, in the fanzine culture, mode of production and aesthetic (see our debut single on the left, I’m the cat in the feather boa) – but fostered a more communal approach to music making and Unknowndoing. It had feminist politics at its core, as encapsulated in the shout ‘girls to the front’. When my teenage band got together we couldn’t play our instruments but we learned how to play together, through learning from each other. The reason we felt equipped to form a band had a lot to do with a DIY sensibility that valued creativity over technical proficiency.

Collaboration – and feminism in the face of a male-dominated music scene – was absolutely key to this and that is something I want to emphasise here, following on from Hannah [who was speaking just before me of the need for non-heroic sociology and about when to speak up in public debate].

Feminist collaboration and collective working strikes me as a quiet kind of rebellious – and unheroic – sociology. I think it is important because of the individualising times we live in, both in universities and beyond. Firstly, following on from Hannah, we are encouraged by the current academic system to market ourselves as lone wolf heroic researchers in order to get jobs, to be ESRC ‘Future Research Leaders’ or British Academy ‘Rising Stars’, or even Harvard ‘Geniuses’. This is all a very individualistic and potentially seductive model of doing research. Yet some of the best work is done collaboratively. I think it’s politically important within sociology to argue for collaboration and to present collaborative work as such and not parcel it up in individual packages for the sake of presentation.

The times we are living through require sociologists to operate in different kinds of temporalities at once. Kirsteen Paton captures this beautifully in her blog for the Sociological Review on ‘getting real’  where she suggests sociologists learn from the fast organising of those who are currently resisting and use the tools we have to hand – this echoes Les Back and Nirmal Puwar’s call for ‘live methods’ for sociology that intervene in real time. We have to be quick-footed as researchers and this can often be more effectively done through collaboration with other academics and with other groups.

Two examples: the first comes from a collaborative piece of work conducted by Kirsteen, with Gerry Mooney and Vikky McCall. Kirsteen writes about approaching East End residents in Glasgow to talk about the possibility of applying for funding to study the impact of the Commonwealth Games:

‘I was swiftly put right when they replied ‘no offence, but we’d rather not have a research event like this after the fact telling us that we got displaced by the Games’.  Bingo. They saw limitations of academic practice before I had. The speed of response required to understand social issues is not matched by that of funding processes. Yet I was able to get some funds through collaboration with a colleague Gerry Mooney at the Open University. This gave us enough money to buy diaries, and we asked residents to record their thoughts and day-to-day experiences of the Games. Another colleague on the project, Vikki McCall, lives in the East End and was on the ground keeping fieldwork going, popping round collecting diaries, texting participants. We even held our research meetings in Vikki’s living room; really DIY. And the beauty of the diaries and blog was that they captured how residents’ thoughts and feelings evolved in relation to their experiences of the Games. They made choices about what to report and how, such as including unsolicited photos and even poems. This DIY became a kind of co-production which produced a snapshot of everyday life in austerity Britain.’

This co-production was between the participants and the team of three. One practical  reason for working collaboratively like this is it allows us to do the work that needs to be done, at the time when it needs to be done, without creating a huge workload for one person. It allows us to think on our feet and to respond.

The second example comes from a piece of work I have been involved in on ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy’. The initial impetus for this research was a Twitter conversation about what we as sociologists could do in the face of ‘Operation Vaken’ a Home Office initiative that involved immigration checks at public transport hubs and what became known as the #racistvan, the van mounted with the board reading ‘In the country illegally? Go home or face arrest’. In order to capture what people on the street thought about these interventions, an assortment of academics and activists got together and constructed and carried out a survey. Again, this was a fast response to an unfolding event. Following this, Hannah saw the new call for the ESRC ‘Urgent Grants’, marking a realisation by the funders that some research is time sensitive, perhaps. Some of us put together a proposal, working in partnership with community groups from the outset, and were successful.

We not only carried out that research together but have collaborated on a bunch of other things including a blog which tracked our research as we carried it out, public events, and we are currently finishing a book. We also commissioned a film to represent our findings.

The digital age makes it really easy to both collaborate and communicate results in different kinds of ways. I was recently inspired by an example of old school DIY – a pamphlet – but which is also circulating online.


This example comes from SARF‘s  research and is based on a project examining stigmatisation and economic marginalisation of ‘white working class people in Salford and Manchester’. As well as a long research report, those involved wanted to produce something that could circulate in a different way and that was more immediate, taking inspiration from Emory Douglas, the artist of the Black Panthers. You can read more about how this booklet was generated through workshops here.

Present conditions conjure competition and individualisation among academics. I’m not suggesting people don’t apply for individual fellowships with embarrassing labels or sell themselves as a ‘rising star’ in a job interview situation. The problem is when we start believing those stories that we tell about ourselves. In order to produce the kind of research that is vital for the times we will need to work together and resist this.


Later on, after this talk, I learned via Twitter of #ResSisters, a collective of early career feminist researchers who are challenging individualised modes of production in the contemporary university – and crucially speaking up about the ways in which these modes are gendered. You can read and watch Victoria Cann’s Pecha Kucha on this here. The first point on their manifesta is ‘Embrace collectivity and embrace allies’.

This attitude also comes out very strongly in Les Back’s new book Academic Diary where Les discusses learning from feminism of the importance of ‘trading envy for admiration’. As my friend that works in fashion says ‘three is a trend’ so maybe we are all on to something here…

*I had written out the first part of this talk and free-styled the second half so the words might not be exactly the same as those used on the day…

Bowling Together?

I finally got round to putting up my current research project on the Goldsmiths Sociology Research pages.

Much more to come on this project but here’s the blurb…

‘‘The Choreography of Everyday Multiculture: Bowling together?’ is a multi-method ethnographic study of a bowling alley in the heart of a fast changing urban neighbourhood in London and is funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s Future Research Leaders scheme.

This research starts with a seemingly ordinary place, a bowling alley, used by a diverse population in terms of age, class and ethnicity and standing on a busy crossroads in a fast changing neighbourhood at the intersection of three London boroughs. The research uses this example to examine the dynamics of contemporary leisure space in the context of processes of urban change in London and changing discourses of what makes ‘good’ urban space.

Rowans interior.JPG

There are three inter-related layers to this research. First, through an in-depth examination of who uses the space and how, the research seeks to find out what kinds of interactions, tensions, belongings and negotiations the space engenders. Second, the research will uncover how the changing uses of this site reflect the social historical processes (including economic processes and migration histories) that have shaped the area. Lastly, the neighbourhood is set to undergo major redevelopment and so the bowling alley provides a prime location for investigating these processes of change and debates about what constitutes valuable urban space, what stays and what goes. The project thus examines how processes of neighbourhood change, including gentrification and town centre remodelling, intersect with arguments about multiculture and the city and practices of belonging.’


Urban Studies beyond the male and pale

An email came around the Centre for Urban and Community Research mailing list yesterday advertising an event on the future of cities, or somesuch. I noticed there were more men called David on the panel than women (there was one woman on the panel of four and two Daves) but after noting this, I soon forgot about it. One woman on the panel = not a disaster. Then today my friend Ealasaid Munro posted a link on Facebook to a conference ‘Cities in Transformation’, where the list of 30 speakers were all male. I did not put all the names through Google but commentators on the Critical Geography mailing list pointed out it was also a very pale selection, i.e. entirely or almost entirely white.

I am used to going to urban events where the keynote slots are dominated by white men, but this myopia and total absence of women was particularly depressing, astounding even.

It is not difficult to find women working in the field of urbanism at all levels, although I am sure we are still under-represented. I tweeted a (not exhaustive) list of women based in the UK working on cities.




Urban studies in the UK definitely has a race problem. Aside from the overall pernicious and pervasive whiteness of the academy in general, my hunch is that the way discussions about ‘the urban’ are defined by those at the top, often white men, shape the conversation in narrow ways. I’d be interested to hear others thoughts on this. This means that discussions of the way that race and racism, sex and sexism, are reproduced in cities often get excluded and not discussed alongside the more convivial aspects of city dwelling or of other kinds of urban processes, such as gentrification. The importance of looking at those things in tandem was one of the motivations Anamik Saha and I had for organising our conference New Urban Multicultures: Conviviality and Racism.

Anyway, back to the man conference. After some Twitter reactions (including a few of my favourites)





and a lot of traffic on the Crit-Geog list, there was an apologetic response from the organisers to Ealasaid and others who raised this on the Crit-Geog list

‘You are absolutely right! Thank you for reminding us. Having nearly 30 only male speakers looks really bad. All we can say is that it of course has not happened intentionally (which is no excuse, and does not make it less bad…), and this is not yet the final list of speakers. We have of course also invited some female speakers (but they have yet to confirm), and we will now put in additional effort to get some gender representation.

We are still accepting abstracts, so submissions and additional suggestions for speakers are more than welcome.’

So on the one hand, good. Rather than meeting the criticism with defensiveness the organisers took this on board. But on the other… a. how could they send out that list without seeing the gender imbalance and pervading whiteness as a problem and b. as pointed out by Desiree Fields…


I suppose first you have to see the gender imbalance and then see it as a problem. And secondly, I agree with Desiree this isn’t about looking bad but a huge problem with the way that the conference has been put together.

I am writing about this because this conference season it seems that many are still sat fuming through #allmalepanels, or not noticing (see for example this article about the International Studies Association).*

This is also a moment for reflection as Kirsteen Paton and I are taking over as convenors of the British Sociological Association Cities Group. This strikes me as an opportunity to think about these issues within urban studies and to do better.

*In the first version of this I wrongly identified the conference as the ASA, rather than the ISA. Thanks to Gurminder Bhambra for pointing this out and apologies to the ASA!




On the Radio

When we were carrying out the ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy Project‘ there were quite a few press requests. Most of these were handled ably by Hannah Jones (see for example, Hannah on Sky News), our project leader. I was approached for an appearance too – ‘but are you media trained?’ asked the Goldsmiths press person. I had a flashback to my days in a band where we did countless radio and tv shows, but rather than asking ‘does being on Zig and Zag count?’ I replied ‘no’. This particular request was about a subject too far beyond our project and my area of work for me to feel comfortable, but working on this project constantly brought up questions for the team of when to say yes or no to being ‘an expert’. This was an issue that came up at the BSA post-graduate forum conference last week. When should you claim expertise, and say yes? If sociologists don’t step up, will we just end up with more horrors like David Starkey commenting on the London riots? Perhaps we need to be less reticent? Laurie Taylor, who gave the keynote at the event had a simple answer to this, ‘don’t be shy, get on the radio. Plenty of ill-informed people do. If you fuck it up, that’s ok. Get it right next time.’


(Laurie Taylor speaking at the BSA Post-graduate Conference)

There’s a difference in appearing on TV or radio as an expert to talk about a news item and going on to talk about your own work. The latter is less daunting, I’d rather mess up talking about my own work than mess up discussing immigration on the Today programme. As the host of Thinking Allowed, Laurie had some advice for those appearing on the show ‘don’t lecture. Academics are used to lecturing, but the art of radio is chat’. I also asked Laurie about how he pitches the discussion in terms of explaining to the listener. He said that the audience hate discussion of theoretical concepts ‘hegemony, liquid modernity…’but at the same time you can’t patronise the audience. ‘If you are talking about Freud say ‘Freud’ and not ‘Freud, the Viennese psychoanalyst’.

This week I had the massive luxury of hearing others chat about my work on the radio. I was honoured to be shortlisted for the BSA Thinking Allowed award for ethnography and there was a special addition of the programme this week featuring a discussion of the shortlisted books, including my own. I found it quite moving to hear the words of a research participant being read by an actor on the radio. It made me think about another issue that came up at the at the BSA post-graduate day conference. During a roundtable discussion on careers there was a question about how much the contents of PhD thesis itself mattered, in terms of getting a job. The question wasn’t answered very fully – as time was running out- but the one brief answer was that the PhD was just a necessary hurdle to be jumped before getting onto the other stuff (the papers, the job, the books). But hearing those words, that were part of my PhD thesis as well as the book, read out on the radio was a reminder of how the PhD lives on in all kinds of forms, how the thesis is such an important foundation for those other things and also the deep emotional connection I have to that particular piece of work.

I got the chance to discuss the book myself on Dave O’Brien’s podcast New Books in Critical Theory. This is a really excellent series and a great way of hearing about books you might not have time to read. A kind of extended and intense Thinking Allowed. The podcast is such a great medium for storytelling (at the moment I’m addicted to Strangers) I’m sure sociologists could make more use of this mode.

I was also called in to Radio 4 last week to appear on a tribute to Doreen Massey on The Last Word alongside Dave Featherstone and Hilary Wainwright. This invitation was on the basis of a blog about her influence on my thinking on the CUCR blog. Funny how these little pieces can travel.


(BBC Broadcasting House)



Emma Jackson, Goldsmiths

My sociology desert island picks, for the British Sociological Association Post-Graduate Forum’s blog…

BSA Postgraduate Forum

E Jackson

1: If you could only have four books on you island, what would you take?

The Art of Listening – Les Back

Les Back is one of my favourite writers, sociological or otherwise, and this is book I reach for if I ever need a reminder of why I wanted to do sociological research or writing in the first place. The sociology this book puts forward is one with a strong ethical commitment to a close and thoughtful examination of everyday life – particularly the over-looked or dismissed – in order to better understand how the world works. The chapters deal with all sorts of different examples, from how we might read London as a city in the wake of the 7/7 bombings from listening to its sounds, to a reading of tattoos as ‘inscriptions of love’. What cuts through the book is the argument that sociologists must listen to…

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