Interesting or Important

Aileen I love going to Sociology conferences, I get a buzz from hearing new ideas (even if they have nothing to do with my actual work). Yet, half way through the American Association of Sociology Annual Conference, I sat on my hotel bed drinking a cold beer, and thought to myself ‘I hate this conference, I’m never coming here again’. Later I said this to another sociologist and they asked me what papers I had been to. Because I was mostly meeting publishers hawking my book proposal, by the end of the four days, I’d only been to five sessions, four of which were excellent (the fifth was the one I presented at, so I was too involved to enjoy it). Four good sessions is a fairly decent score, so what is it about the ASA that makes it so little fun. Partially it’s a big conference thing, it’s lonely to know nobody in such a crowd – but I’ve been to big European conferences, and found them much enjoyable affairs. Maybe it’s because they are in some beautiful historic university in a sunny city, so after sessions it’s out to the sunshine for cold beer in a city. Whereas, after ASA sessions it’s out to the air conditioned lobby of some bland hotel, a massive hotel lobby filled with suited sociologists, networking like nobodies business. It brings out the Homer Simpson in me (‘can’t compete, won’t try). I think it’s this business end of the ASA that feels so alienating to me – still despite this, by the last day, I was thinking to myself, maybe I’m beginning to get the handle on this conference, maybe I will come back again (though not next year.  This year I had to self finance, and given the state of the Irish economy, probably will again next year.  It will be just too pricey).

So the sessions (or at least, one of them for now).

The first was planned as a retrospective of Giovanna’s Arrighi’s work, with Arrighi answering the critiques of four presenters. Sadly Arrighi died in July so his partner Beverley Silver took his place. She introduced her talk saying that this was the first ASA in over twenty years that she had to attend without him, and throughout all the sessions I felt there was a sense of loss, that there were too few people with such ambition and audacity within sociology, that Arrighi was one of his kind. He used to tell his students that they needed more ‘analytic nerve’ (as an aside, it was strange to me and perhaps says something about how rare his type of sociology has become, there weren’t any special displays of his work on offer in the publishers room). She said he wasn’t tied to any theoretical concepts, he kept moving, looking for new tools, wasn’t tied to defending his decisions which why he didn’t shy from making predictions about the future, but was always ready to move on to the next project

She referred to the David Harvey interview (linked to in an early blog post) saying that he was always influenced in his work by his families’ anti-fascism, motivated by the urge to do what ever he could do to combat racism and injustice. For this reason he didn’t study what was interesting to him, but what was important, even if this lead him to make disastrous career moves (such as giving up a well paid university position in Italy, to work in the factories and from there the work he produced wasn’t even published in his own name). Deciding to study what is important sounds like such a simple thing, maybe like such an obvious thing, but it is very much counter to the ‘the game’ of academia as it is currently being played. It is an idea worth thinking about. How does one decided what is important anyhow? The difference between ‘interesting’ and ‘important’, is that interesting is that something is felt by me as an individual, but importance is something that answers larger social concerns. For Arrighi, knowing what was important, came from being immersed in social struggles. In the Harvey interview he says

“I had very good relations with the broader movements. They wanted to know on what basis I was participating in their struggle. My position was: ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do, because you know your situation much better than I ever will. But I am better placed to understand the wider context in which it develops. So our exchange has to be based on the fact that you tell me what your situation is, and I tell you how it relates to the wider context which you cannot see, or can see only partially, from where you operate.’

The articles on the capitalist crisis originated in an exchange of this kind, in 1972-3 . The workers were being told, ‘Now there is an economic crisis, we have to keep quiet. If we carry on struggling, the factory jobs will go elsewhere.’ So the workers posed the question to us: ‘Are we in a crisis? And if so, what are its implications? Should we just stay quiet now, because of this?’

[This post was late because after I went on my summer holidays, maybe I'll blog them later, but for now, more pictures can be found here.]