The ‘Big Society’ Needs Sociology

Jesse Norman MP was on last week’s Politics Weekly podcast at the Guardian talking about his new book on The Big Society (Indy review). He said that the Conservatives weren’t trying simply to shrink the state in order to replace it with the market, but instead wanted to harness and ‘unimaginable reserves of social energy’ to do good. This energy apparently exists in institutions outside of the state and the market: ‘the local church, the local school or even Manchester Football Club; the things that give people purpose and meaning’.  For the record, Polly Toynbee rightly took the Tories to task on this because the effects of the cuts are sending voluntary institutions to the wall. But I’d like to think about something else…

Taken together with the announced intention that the ONS will now start regularly measuring the happiness of the citizenry there is something new in these conservative ideas – something small and fuzzy and liable to be squashed by the weight of tradition and vested interests – but something new nevertheless. There’s signs here of a real move away from the market as The Solution for all ills and perhaps an attempt to finally shrug off Thatcher’s ludicrous view that ‘there’s no such thing as society’. The economic depression of the 30s helped swing the political-economic pendulum from laissez-faire to Keynsianism, while the crises of the 70’s sent it in the direction of neoliberalism. It seemed likely that the latest crash (coming on top of the massive corporate scandals in the early 2000s and general weakening legitimacy of corporate power) might swing the pendulum back towards the state. But the confluence of this historical moment with an exhausted Labour Party confounds things in the UK. Perhaps then, the scene is set for the pendulum to stop swinging between state power and market power and take in a new dimension?

Exciting stuff, but, have the Conservatives really got the intellectual resources to work out what that would mean in practice? And how can they, being located in government and all, can use the state to empower that as yet mystical third realm? As self-proclaimed ‘intellectual architect of new conservativism’ and now author of The Big Society, Jesse Norman might be the one to tell us. But, his academically philosophical approach is to identify a puzzle and a critique of traditional social contract theory and to describe a ‘new’ category of associations between people.[1]  When it comes to discussing alternatives he claims,

we have well developed theories of individual rationality and morality, and well developed theories of state action and politics, but we don’t have any theory of what these institutions are in the middle and how they work. There’s a massive plurality of them … and it may be that over the next hundred years academics catch up with this pluralist view.

Here speaks a man who is thoroughly educated in politics, philosophy and economics, but who could never have, even momentarily, wandered into a sociology seminar. A flick through the references finds plenty of reference to philosophers, and especially the key conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott as well as brief reference to Giddens’ The Third Way (neither his best nor most sociological stuff) and inevitably to the communitarians Etzioni and Putnam who have already been such an influence on New Labour policies.

Of course, Norman’s ‘institutions in the middle’ matches exactly the subject of sociology: family, religion, social movements, the third sector, civil society and all have been core to sociology since the discipline first became self-aware. I can’t decide whether Norman needs berating for his tunnel vision (and really, if you’re writing a book with ‘society’ in the title you might at least consider reading some sociology) or whether really this should be taken as a signal that British sociology needs to step out of the academy much much more, maybe even dust off a soapbox. Indeed, one of the main problems facing British sociology at the moment is justifying its role and claiming that it has a positive impact on society. [2] So, if the ‘big society’ is not empty rhetoric – and in truth we need far more than Jesse Norman’s efforts to show that it isn’t – then the Conservatives need sociologists. Ironically enough, just when there’s a genuine risk of departmental closures and a general decline in citizens armed with sociological education, its ‘relevance’ may be coming to the fore. Perhaps the rhetoric should be seen as an opportunity both to defend  sociology and to feed some genuinely well thought out ideas into the political machine.

[1] Side note: the new category is apparently philic (meaning connected) rather than Oakeshott’s nomic (legal/civil) or telic (goal based/instrumental). My immediate thought here is that a philic association must be a tautology – aren’t all associations ‘connected’ by definition? But I have to admit to only having glanced at the book, instead on book reviews, notes and Norman’s interview.

[2] Hardly confined to sociology of course, it applies to all the humanities, arts and social sciences. Moreover, that’s glossing over the complete withdrawal of state funding for HE teaching in the humanities. Hmmm, there’s lumps behind that gloss.

One Response to “The ‘Big Society’ Needs Sociology”

  1. Dan Olner says:

    “Conservatives reject sociology outright because it’s impossible to disentangle from its left-of-centre assumptions.” A provocative sentence: what do you think? I’d actually answer that by looking to Putnam, who has let the evidence lead the way even when it contradicted his own beliefs – I wonder how many sociologists actually manage that?

    The other aspect of all this that puzzles me the most: conservative theory of community paints a picture of an organic process. You could no more centrally direct a resurgence in this ‘BS’ that you could magic a fully developed English forest ecosystem into existence. Putnam’s work seems to support this: Italy’s levels of social capital seem to have been determined many centuries before. All the main determinants of the benefits of social capital have something to do with network processes over time – most importantly, how long you stay in one spot and put down roots, and how far you commute.

    To really flog the metaphor: you could potentially plant new saplings, but if the soil and conditions [available capital/jobs/economy] are rubbish, it obviously won’t achieve anything but many dead trees.

    At least there’s a discussion to be had – more than can be said for Thatcher. That said, looking at the actual actions of this government, I can’t help but think it’s all an utter distraction from them turning out to be, shock, good ol’ fashioned Nasty Tories. I particularly like their tenuous relationship with basic logic on things like tuition fees: putting them up will put off poorer students, you say? Nonsense! The basic laws of supply and demand don’t apply any more, we’ve outlawed them!

    Aaaaah waffle waffle…