On Wednesday, 24 April over 600 sociologists came together for the 68th BSA Annual Conference at Glasgow Caledonian University. In a period of dramatic uncertainty around Brexit and challenging higher education working contexts, the conference created a space of collegiate community, which those present clearly valued. Over 3 days we discussed the theme of Challenging Social Hierarches and Inequalities. Glasgow was a highly relevant context to explore these themes within; something multiple papers and sessions reflected, drawing from research in the city to examine the conference theme. The Call for Papers had suggested the following questions for participants:
Which are the hierarchies and inequalities that matter most in contemporary social divisions? How do we understand the relationship between different sources of hierarchy and inequality? What are the methodological tools we need to both capture them and to support challenges to them? Is sociological research doing enough to work with other associated disciplines and non-academic knowledge and expertise to play a meaningful role in public debate and social practice to challenge the important social problems created by inequality?
The responses these questions produced in the abstracts, the papers given and the lively discussion around them generated a strong cohesion across the conference. Our 3 plenary speakers helped frame the agenda by critically considering why contemporary societies are so beset with hierarchy and inequality, who carries the cost of the resultant societal problems, and crucially, how we might work to change this. In the first plenary, Satnam Virdee (Professor of Sociology and Founding Director of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Research on Racism, Ethnicity and Nationalism (CRREN)), explored The Racialized Outsider As The Conscience Of Modernity, forensically detailing the importance of the exploitation and eradication of ‘racialized outsiders’ in the establishment of capitalism in modernity. Looking at historical and contemporary oppositional racial politics he asked whether they contain within them ‘concrete utopias’ which might offer hope of different societal and economic configurations that could ‘create innovative cultures of solidarity’. In the second plenary, Nonna Mayer (CNRS Research Director Emerita at the Centre d’études européennes et de politique comparée of Sciences Po) discussed The Political Impact Of Social Precariousness In Post- Recession France, drawing from extensive analysis of voting patterns in the last French Presidential election to show how the most economically marginalised groups are also the most disenfranchised from the mainstream political system. Crucially, she also showed how the protest politics of the Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes (the Yellow Jackets) should not simplistically be seen as where they find their political voice instead. Finally, Imogen Tyler (Professor of Sociology and Deputy Head of Department at Lancaster University) captured in Stigma Machines, the desperate human costs of the decimation of the welfare system, which not only denies people the material resources to live, but in the process seeks through systemic practices of stigmatization, to blame them for the poverty and social isolation they experience.
While the plenaries were headline moments in the conference, across all contributions we saw a sociology engaging with some of the vital societal challenges around us, not just in the UK, but across the globe. Something also captured by the winning monograph of the BSA Philip Abrams Memorial Prize for the best first and sole-authored book within Sociology – Black Mixed-Race Men: Transatlanticity, Hybridity and ‘Post-racial’ Resilience, by Remi Joseph-Salisbury. The global resonance of the conference was also captured by the presence of the Presidents of both the French Sociological Association and the Australian Sociological Association.
Next year the Annual Conference will be at Aston University, Birmingham (21– 23 April 2020). Here the theme will be Reimagining Social Bodies: Self, Institutions and Societies. The intention is that the conference will continue some crucial questions asked this year, for example, thinking about how contemporary welfare practices of assessment in areas such as disability produce entitled and unentitled bodies; how contestation over the rights of different bodies to be in different spaces (from nation states to toilets) speak to regulatory policing of varied boundaries; and the potential scope of medical innovation to engineer future possible bodies and embodied inequalities. We look forward to the many varied ways our streams and plenaries will examine these and many other issues, proving again, the current vitality and necessity of the discipline.
Professor Janice McLaughlin is Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University.