A Sociological Imagination for the Anthropocene?

Part of what we are thinking in relation to this program/project/event relates to the forms of knowledge, and the types of knowledge practices that are capable of producing knowledge, that are available to the those who work in the fields we are part of.

Particularly when dominant modes of ‘world making’ tend to imagine knowledge as being in the service of…(returns on investment, new markets/opportunities, relevance to policy,…), rather than, say, knowledge for… or knowledge about…

  • What other ways of knowing are possible?
  • What other ways of producing knowledge are possible?

These questions become more interesting when we locate them in the institutionalised, intellectual knowledge production processes that characterise the ‘labour processes’ of contemporary knowledge workers (the intellectually trained) in the neo-Liberal University – where knowledge is thoroughly commodified in the service of…(education and training, work, qualifications, impact, quality, policy, stakeholders…), and knowledge practices are geared to producing knowledge of ‘value’ (quality, impact, policy relevant) in these terms.

And, here there is a rich variety of work across multiple domains/fields/disciplines, and across time (not just in an era of the ‘posts’ or the ‘new’), that continues to be engaged with these and related questions (for example, the featured image here comes from a blog called Philosophers for Change, and an essay by Kamran Nayeri on Economics, Socialism, Ecology: A Critical Outline).

I, for example, still think that Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition remains a powerful, provocative and generative engagement with knowledge/knowledge practices in their Techno-scientific-rational-capitalist mode.

For now, though, I want to reference a section in our recently published Rethinking Young People’s Marginalisation: Beyond Neo-Liberal Futures? In a chapter titled Thinking Technologies: A Sociological Imagination for the Anthropocene? we engaged in a limited way with some of these questions – as they connect to some of the challenges of unsettling some key orthodoxies in sociologies of youth.

The final section of that chapter is reproduced below (Kelly, Campbell and Howie 2018, pp.53-60).

A Sociological Imagination for the Anthropocene

Given the material and discursive spaces that produce governmentalised – institutionalised, rationalised, abstracted – knowledge practices there is no outside here. No vantage point beyond these spaces and relations. No God-trick we can play to rise above these processes, to do Youth Studies outside these processes. But, we can find, we can trouble and test, we can unsettle the limits and possibilities we encounter in doing governmentalised Youth Studies. One challenge for a governmentalised Youth Studies is to re-enchant a sociological imagination (after C Wright Mills, 1970) in ways the push up against, and trouble, the limits of what it is that counts as knowledge of young people: knowledge that comes from the biological, behavioural and social sciences. These are concerns that have, in many respects, a long history – a history that we have referenced elsewhere (Kelly 2011). This is a history of debate that has been characterised by things such as the critiques of the relationships between truth, art and science, Max Weber’s ideas about Science as a Vocation (and related concerns about the rationalisation of our lifeworlds), and Mills’ (1970) challenge to cultivate a sociological imagination. In his 1917 lecture/essay Science as Vocation Weber (1991, p. 139), for example, makes the following comments about processes of intellectualisation, comments that powerfully capture important elements of our concerns here. That hints at some of this things that are gained, that are lost, when, individually and collectively, we imagine that our intellectual knowledge practices, or thinking and writing, can produce and reveal the truth of the matter:

The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives…It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means.

Writing in the late 1950s C Wright Mills (1970, pp.13-14) suggested that the development of a sociological imagination gave us the ‘capacity to shift from one perspective to another’, to ‘range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self – and to see the relations between the two’. He situated this sense of imagination against what he identified as a bureaucratic ethos characteristic of institutionalised social science in the US at the time of his writing. He (Mills 1970, pp.114) made 5 points about the character of this ethos, points that echo loudly in many of the spaces in which governmentalised behavioural and social sciences are practised at the start of the 21st century:

(1) ‘In an attempt to standardize and rationalize each phase of social inquiry, the intellectual operations themselves of the abstracted empirical style are becoming “bureaucratic”’.

(2) ‘These operations are such as to make studies of man [sic] usually collective and systematized: in the kind of research institutions, agencies, and bureaux in which abstracted empiricism is properly installed, there is a development, for efficiency’s sake if for no other, of routines as rationalized as those of any corporation’s accounting department’.

(3) ‘These two developments, in turn, have much to do with the selection and shaping of new qualities of mind among the personnel of the school, qualities both intellectual and political’.

(4) ‘As it is practised in business – especially in the communication adjuncts of advertising – in the armed forces, and increasingly in universities as well, “the new social science” has come to serve whatever ends its bureaucratic clients may have in view. Those who promote and practise this style of research readily assume the political perspective of their bureaucratic clients and chieftains. To assume the perspective is often in due course to accept it’.

(5) ‘In so far as such research efforts are effective in their declared practical aims, they serve to increase the efficiency and the reputation – and to that extent, the prevalence – of bureaucratic forms of domination in modern society’.

So, in the doing of Youth Studies, we should try to imagine afresh the sorts of knowledge practices, the ways we have invented, and which we consider appropriate for producing knowledge about young people, about their life chances, life choices, life courses, about their marginalisation and disadvantage. We want to suggest that a re-enchantment of a sociological imagination could seek, as the late Zygmunt Bauman and others do, to push the possibilities that irony, ambiguity, allegory and metaphor offer for knowledge practices in 21st century social sciences. Would challenge the limits of what counts as evidence, as truth, as knowing in the governmentalised spaces in which we produce and enact knowledge. Bauman, possibly as much as, if not more than, many contemporary social scientists, provocatively embraced the challenge to re-enchant a sociological imagination (Elliott 2007, pp. 3-18). Bauman’s (2000, 2003, 2005a, 2006, 2007, 2008 a&b) prolific, innovative and suggestive cultural sociologies of liquid life have opened up a range of possibilities for exploring the globalised social, cultural, economic and political landscapes of the 21st century. For Bauman (1997, p. 119) a cultural sociology of liquid life is informed by a sociological imagination that embraces a ‘tolerance and equanimity towards the wayward, the contingent, the not-wholly determined, the not-wholly understood and the not-wholly predictable’.

This deliberate inconclusiveness, provocation and references to texts, ideas and sources outside of what might be called mainstream sociology is framed by Keith Tester (2007) in terms of irony, and in a re-reading and re-enchantment of the sociological imagination. For Tester (2007, p. 90) Bauman’s work sits – comfortably for some, less so for others – in a sociological tradition ‘that is ironic about the status of sociology’. Such a disposition ‘sees no reason to avoid certain books simply because they are found in different parts of the library, and which is concerned to recover the ambiguity of the human adventure from any trap into which it might fall or be pushed’. It is readily apparent, suggests Tester (2007, p.83), that Bauman’s sociologies of postmodernity and liquid life are ‘inspired to a considerable degree by literature’. For Bauman: ‘understanding human dilemmas and torments is not the sociologists’ privilege. Learning sociological methods may guarantee a job, but not wisdom and insight…I personally learned more about the society we live in from Balzac, Zola, Kafka, Musil, Frisch, Perec, Kundera, Beckett…than, say, from Parsons’(cited in Tester 2007, p. 83, our emphasis). Moreover, Tester (2007, p. 85) claims that ‘Bauman’s commitment to literature as a tool of irony, and therefore of the unsettling of the determinations of common sense’, is illustrative of his conviction that ‘the sociological imagination is quite independent of the discipline of sociology. One can be a paragon of the discipline and possess no sociological imagination whatsoever’. It is in this sense that Tester (2007, p. 82) locates Bauman’s work in a European literary tradition which is fundamentally concerned with an:

exploration of how the meaning of the world has been transformed, from the place of wide open adventure into which Don Quixote rode, to the place of petty yet life-threatening officialdom and administrative opacity in which Kafka’s unheroic heroes are consigned to dwell. How has it been that the transformation of a man into a beetle, which for Don Quixote would have been a call to arms…has become just one more family embarrassment?

Tony Blackshaw (2010, pp.70-71), in his contribution to a collection titled Bauman’s Challenge: Sociological Issues for the 21st Century, positions Bauman’s work favourably in relation to the kind of sociology practiced by Marx, Weber, Durkheim and others (the so-called founding fathers), and suggests that this hermeneutic or interpretive sociology ‘provides the well-spring of the sociological imagination’. This form of thinking, this imagination – that ‘intuitive and ethical frame of thought through which sociological ideas are arrived at’ – is ‘markedly at odds with the ethos that underpins empirical sociology, which is dedicated’, argues Blackshaw, ‘first and foremost’ to the scientific rigour of its methods. In Blackshaw’s (2010, pp.75-76) account of Bauman’s challenge sociology is ‘truthful when it is hermeneutical, not in the self-regarding ‘data discourse’ style of the sociology journals’ – which in a blind peer review process shaped by citation indexes and impact factors, and the audit practices that thrive on such things, might not have published the later Bauman – but in the ‘way that it sparks connections, like poetry’. In these ways, claims Blackshaw, Bauman ‘supplants the false coherence of empirical-evidence-tacked-on-to-social-theory-thought with the contrariness of cross-grained human narrative’.

None of this should be read as suggesting that we shouldn’t do youth studies. Or that the work that we do under the banner of youth studies is always in danger of being appropriated and used in ways that we would not want, by individuals and organisations that we would not want to be associated with. That is not our argument. Nor is it Bauman’s (or Foucault’s for that matter). Rather, it is a call to recognise some of the limits and possibilities of the spaces we work in, the relations that shape these spaces, and the practices deemed capable of producing knowledge that is often judged on some technical definition of its usefulness or policy relevance. Even its impact. At the shifting, contingent edges of these limits and possibilities ambivalence refuses to be tamed, refuses the clarity, the criteria of usefulness or impact that would render it easily translatable, technical, policy relevant. At different times, for different purposes these are the spaces that Youth Studies should co-habit, but not tame, not colonise.[1]

Donna Haraway is one of the more difficult, provocative, suggestive thinkers operating at, occupying, the edges of possibility, the limits of knowability, in relation to the things that ‘trouble’ us here. We want to pause our discussion, for it to be taken up in different ways in the chapters that follow, with a brief encounter with Haraway’s provocation to think about thinking. Haraway’s work has a long history, a number of trajectories, a humbling breadth and depth, and an often bewildering, always unsettling, series of connections and relations into, and across, what others would see as disciplinary boundaries. Even if she is best known for her location in feminist cultural studies of techno-science .[2] An essay titled, Staying With the Trouble: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene (Haraway 2016a), in a collection edited by Jason Moore (2016) Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, is just one of many instances where her work can cause us to pause, or, indeed, to depart from.[3] She opens this long, complex, ‘troubling’ essay by asking:

What happens when human exceptionalism and methodological individualism, those old saws of Western philosophy and political economics, become unthinkable in the best sciences, whether natural or social? Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with. (Haraway 2016a, p.34)


What happens when organisms plus environments can hardly be remembered for the same reasons that even Western-indebted people can no longer figure themselves as individuals and societies of individuals in human-only histories? Surely, such a transformative time on earth must not be named the Anthropocene? (Haraway 2016a, p.34)

Leaving aside, for the moment, the merits or otherwise, the limits and possibilities, of naming the past, present and future state/status of various earth systems (including capitalism) in Anthropogenic terms, what Haraway (2016a, p.34) wants to do is ‘make a critical and joyful fuss about these matters. I want to stay with the trouble, and the only way I know to do that is in generative joy, terror, and collective thinking’.

Many of her recent essays trade – at different times, for different purposes – in what Haraway calls SF: speculative fabulation, science fiction, speculative feminism, science fact, string figuring. While the particular character of these diverse practices is not of direct interest at this time (What does sting figuring entail?), the list is suggestive of the array of purposes, the array of thinking and writing practices, that Haraway deploys. What we want to introduce here is the manner in which Haraway (2016a, p.39) encourages us to think about thinking, the importance, the ‘urgency’, of thinking about thinking, in a time that many name as the Anthropocene:

These times called the Anthropocene are times of multi-species, including human, urgency; of great mass death and extinction; of onrushing disasters whose unpredictable specificities are foolishly taken as unknowability itself; of refusing to know and to cultivate the capacity of response-ability; of refusing to be present to an onrushing catastrophe in time; of unprecedented looking away.

Haraway’s exercise in ‘collective thinking’ in this space puts into play a number of figures, three of which are of interest at this time. First figure: Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that the ‘banality of evil’ that she discerned both as a general possibility of the human condition, and as an actuality embodied in the figure of Adolf Eichmann is, always, if not only, about ‘commonplace thoughtlessness’. In the figure of Eichmann we encounter a ‘human being unable to make present to himself what was absent, what was not himself, what the world in its sheer not-one-selfness is and what claims-to-be inhere in not-oneself’ (Haraway 2016a, p.39). Such much does not ‘matter’ in what Haraway is calling ‘ordinary thoughtlessesness’:

The hollowed-out spaces are all filled with assessing information, determining friends and enemies, and doing busy jobs; negativity, the hollowing out of such positivity, is missed, an astonishing abandonment of thinking. This quality was not an emotional lack, a lack of compassion, although surely that was true of Eichmann, but a deeper surrender to what I would call immateriality, inconsequentiality…thoughtlessness…The result was active participation in genocide. (Haraway 2016a, p.40)

Second figure: Anna Tsing’s ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’. Arts that involve: ‘refusing either to look away or to reduce the earth’s urgency to an abstract system of causative destruction, such as Human Species Act or undifferentiated capitalism’ (Haraway 2016a, p.40. See, also Tsing et al 2017). For Haraway (2016a, p.40) Tsing suggests that ‘precarity – the failure of the lying promises of Modern Progress – characterizes the lives and deaths of all terran critters in these times’. Tsing, in these arts, ‘looks for eruptions of unexpected liveliness and the contaminated and nondeterministic, unfinished, ongoing practices of living in the ruins’.

Third figure: Bruno Latour’s demand that we learn, somehow, to think, and to tell, stories ‘outside the prick tale of Humans in History, when the knowledge of how to murder each other – and along with each other, uncountable multitudes of the living earth – is not scarce’ (Haraway, 2016a, p.45). In this telling, Latour observes how: ‘the fundamentals of geopolitics have been blasted open. None of the parties in crisis can call on Providence, History, Science, Progress, or any other god trick outside the common fray to resolve the troubles’ (Haraway 2016a, p.45). These new stories, Gaia or geo-stories in this thinking, might provide accounts of the predicaments that terrans find themselves in: ‘in which “all the former props and passive agents have become active without, for that, being part of a giant plot written by some overseeing entity”’ (Haraway 2016a, p.45). Geo-stories are, for Latour, stories of and by the Earthbound, where the Earthbound are ‘those who eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature’ (Haraway 2016a, p.45). Latour: ‘Some are readying themselves to live as Earthbound in the Anthropocene; others decided to remain as Humans in the Holocene’.[4]

Not all these figures will appear in later chapters. Others, because of our interests, because of the limits and possibilities or our thinking, our knowing, our writing, will stand in for them and their thinking. But, as we have tried to make clear to this point, there is danger aplenty in precarious times in thinking that all the thinking has been done, or that if we just deploy ‘right thinking’ in Youth Studies (Beck or Bourdieu or Foucault or…) then we can know what we think we, and others, need to know about young people’s marginalisation, now, and in post neo-Liberal futures. Youth studies as a field, even a hinterland, is multi-disciplinary, institutionalised, rationalised and abstracted (that is, governmentalised). It is a field characterised by its particular and its shared norms, conventions, conversations and discussions. Its shared and contested meanings. Its diverse conceptual and theoretical tools. By differing political orientations, objectives and strategies. A field that foregrounds and includes some things. Backgrounds and excludes others. A hinterland whose inhabitants have often heated discussions about whether the objects of youth studies are adolescents, teens, youth, young people, young adults. Whether these objects are ordinary, normal, deviant, delinquent, maladjusted, disadvantaged, privileged, at-risk, marginalised. Whether intelligence, personality, development, identity (‘crises’), family, peers, class, gender, ethnicity, geography, ability, disability, and/or sexuality cause or can explain deviancy, privilege, marginalisation, being normal.

Haraway (2016a, pp.38-39):

‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts.

It matters what knowledges know knowledges.

It matters what relations relate relations.

It matters what worlds world worlds.

It matters what stories tell stories’.

Haraway (2016a, p.45):

‘Think we must; we must think’.

[1] These engagements with Bauman’s legacy draws on Kelly 2015.

[2] Against a charge that her writing, in its ‘literariness’, lacks ‘clarity’, can be difficult to understand, is often unclear, Haraway responds in a way that points to why some/many struggle with her meanings and purposes: ‘And I always feel puzzled or hurt when that happens, thinking, God, I do the best I can! It’s not like I’m being deliberately unclear! I’m really trying to be clear!…However, I like layered meanings, and I like to write a sentence in such a way that, by the time you get to the end of it, it has at some level questioned itself. There are ways of blocking the closure of a sentence, or of a whole piece, so that it becomes/hard to fix its meanings’ (Haraway 2015, pp.54-55).

[3] This essay also appears, a more developed version, as chapter 2 – Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene – in her Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Haraway 2016b)

[4] Cited in Haraway 2016, p.45.

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