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Conference diary: Laurie Taylor Thinking Allowed at the British Sociological Assocation 2011

Updated Wednesday, 2nd November 2011

Laurie Taylor prepares for his stint at the BSA, and reflects on the sociologists who inspired his thoughts on travel, style and identity.

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Everywhere I turned I seemed to see the same pronouncement on posters, on hand-outs and newsletters, this was not any old British Sociological Association conference, this was the April 2011 conference, which marked the 60th birthday of the association, in effect it marked six decades of sociology in Britain.

Inspired? Discover Introducing The Social Sciences

My Thinking Allowed task at the conference was to hunt down the authors of some of the more interesting research papers listed in the fat programme. But as I moved between the numerous bookstalls, nodding my head energetically whenever I encountered a face that I half knew from my years as an academic sociologist, my mind kept flipping to the other task that I'd have to perform in the evening - a talk on all the years I'd spent - could it really be getting on for 50? - all the years I'd spent writing and teaching, yes, defending sociology and social science.

I'd initially thought of listing some of the major achievements of British based sociologists in that period, giving name checks to Willmott and Young; Anthony Giddens; Sigmund Bowman; Paul Willis; Stan Cohen; John Goldthorpe; Angela McRobbie; Beverley Skeggs; Paul Gilroy - but that somehow seemed, well invidious, I'd gratuitously offend all those in the audience who reckoned they deserved a place in the pantheon.

A sense of scenery

So I switched tack, gone personal, and simply decided to honour those writers who'd stirred my own enthusiasm for social science. What I did I recall the moment I came across mythologies by Roland Barthes, a wonderful example of how an intelligent and subtle cultural analysis could bring a whole new meaning to subjects ranging from striptease and margarine to soap powder and wrestling.

Snake River Plain, Idaho Creative commons image Icon thejesse under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
The picturesque can be glimpsed in the distance: Snake River Plain, Idaho

Yes, I'd quote from his essay on the Blue Guide, that lovely bit where he mocks the travel guides' idea of what amounts to scenery:

From The Blue Guide:

The Blue Guide hardly knows the existence of scenery, except under the guise of picturesque. The picturesque is found anytime the ground is uneven. Among the views elevated by the Blue Guide to aesthetic existence we rarely find plains, redeemed only when they can be described as fertile, never plateau. Only mountains, gorges, defiles and torrents can have access to the pantheon of travel, inasmuch probably as they seem to encourage a morality of effort and solitude. Ultimately the guide will coolly write: The road becomes very picturesque, tunnels, it matters little that one no longer sees anything since the tunnel here has become the sufficient sign of the mountain.

The picturesque is found anytime the ground is uneven - beautiful, beautiful.

But then my mobile told me that my mental rehearsal time was over. My producer had found Valerie Walkerdine and was even now leading her down the subterranean corridors below the conference centre to our little interview room.

"Raise your badge," said the man at the conference food counter as I reached for my free tray of sandwiches, crisps and orange juice. I grudgingly produced it.

I have an aversion to wearing badges which dates back to an American Sociological Association conference in Chicago in the '80s, where I happily pinned the badge I'd been offered to my lapel and only realised, as I undressed for bed that night that it read and had read all day long: "Ms Laurie Taylor".

It was though a more general dislike of normal academic conferences which made me want to ring the changes when I began to help organise a series of symposia on crime and deviance at York University in the late '60s and early '70s. I was helped out by the bohemian spirit of the time, this was academia meets lifestyle - academics who spoke on drug taking szzht, as though they knew exactly what they were talking about.

Experts on cross dressing were appropriately cross dressed. The man who spoke on the culture of the Mods had a suit, collar and tie, short hair and a pocket full of pills.

A sense of style

It was at one of these conferences that I first met Dick Hebdige, a graduate of the now defunct Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and certainly this country's most astute commentator on youth sub-cultures. His precise account of punk style and its meaning was a must for my evening talk.

Eye make-up designed to be seen Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Detail from Toxic Perfume by Rob Boudon under CC-BY licence
"Make-up worn to be seen"

From New Accents Subcultures: The Meaning of Style:

Objects borrowed from the most sordid of contexts found a place in the punks ensembles. Lavatory chains were draped in graceful arcs across chests encased in plastic bin liners. Safety pins were taken out of their domestic utility context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear or lip.

Cheap trashy fabrics - PVC, plastic, lurex, etc., - in vulgar designs, e.g. mock leopard skin and nasty colours, long discarded by the quality end of the fashion industry as obsolete kitch was salvaged by the punks and turned into garments. Fly boy drain pipes, common miniskirts, which offered self-conscious commentaries on the notion of modernity and taste.

Contrary to the advice of every women's magazine make-up for boys and girls was worn to be seen. Hair was obviously dyed - hay yellow, jet black or bright orange with tufts of green or bleached in question marks. And t-shirts and trousers told a story of their own construction with multiple zips and outside seams clearly displayed.

Similarly fragments of school uniform - white bri-nylon shirts, school ties - were symbolically defiled - the shirts covered in graffiti or fake blood, the ties left undone and juxtaposed against leather drains or shocking pink mohair tops.

In particular the illicit iconography of sexual fetishism was used to predictable effect - rapist masks and rubber wear, leather bodices and fishnet stockings, implausibly pointed stiletto heeled shoes.

The whole paraphernalia of bondage - the belts, straps and chains were exhumed from the boudoir closet and pornographic film and placed on the streets where they retained their forbidden connotations.

You don't need to spend much time at an academic conference before running into people who are awfully anxious to tell you this year's conference doesn't compare with last year's.

And such people will often go on to explain that they're not really attending this particular conference, they've only popped in for one or two papers and quite frankly find most of the proceedings awfully dull.

A sense of self

Well, there was a time when after listening to such sentiments I'd have come to the conclusion that the speaker was in some way special, instead of immersing themselves in the closed community of fellow sociologists they tried to retain their individuality. It was only after reading Erving Goffman that I realised my mistake.

Namebadges Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Konstantin Sutyagin |
A sense of self? Namebadges worn round the neck

Goffman, the author of Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; Frame Analysis and Asylums was the 20th Century's greatest sociologist of everyday life, the subtlest chronicler of those rules of micro-government which do more to maintain the stability of society than the law or the state or the police force. Here he is on the last page of Asylums elegantly capturing the paradoxical manner in which we construct our identity.

From Asylums:

Without something to belong to we have no stable self and yet total commitment and attachment to any social unit implies a kind of selflessness. Our sense of being a person can come from being drawn into a wider social unity. Our sense of self can rise through the little ways in which we resist the pull. Our status is backed by the solid buildings of the world. My last sense of personal identity often resides in the cracks.

Erving Goffman, explaining, among other things, those surly conference goers. I didn't expect to find any evidence of surliness in Vicki Harman, the other researcher I was seeking to lure into my underground office. Her paper on the resurgence of ballroom dancing was affectionate, even loving, certainly took me back.

I duly gave my talk that night but the PA system was a bit naff so I had to shout and the stage wasn't lit so I had to stand on a chair for the whole talk so I could see people at the back. Then at the end, when I'd gone to have a solitary drink at the bar next door, a rather distinguished sociologist came over to me and he said: "That was all rather subjective."

When I said, "That's what I told everyone it would be, that's what I apologised for in my opening words."

"Oh anyway," he said, "you saved me from some public embarrassment."

"How's that?"

"Simple really, you didn't mention me."

Adapted from Thinking Allowed, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 20th April 2011

(This article was corrected on 2nd November 2011 - due to an error in transcription, Roland Barthes had inadvertently appeared as Roland Baird.)





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