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#TASA2015 and the Case for Political Economy in Our Sociological Imagination

by Anoushka Benbow-Buitenhuis on February 8, 2016

In 1959, C. Wright Mills coined the term ‘sociological imagination’ to illustrate how sociologists can provide unique insight via a broad analysis of the social. Via this critical process, we can remove ourselves from everyday life, seeing the social in the personal. The 2015 TASA (The Australian Sociological Association) conference focused on neoliberalism and how it has affected the Asia-Pacific. Through stepping back and thinking “ourselves away” from the milieu, we approached this problem via many sociological frameworks that addressed a variety of structural, agential, empirical and theoretical topics. However, over the course of the conference, I could not help but notice a succinct trend within each of the presentations. Despite the diversity of the lenses being used to view the issues at hand, we were mostly discussing the systemic problems of a late modernity that overly favoured elite interests and economic rationalities.

Let me explain this via some examples. First, Professor Eva Cox opened the conference powerfully with her message of hope and rebellion, arguing we need to underscore the social in the social sciences in Australia and calling sociologists to participate in a more critical role in this time of curtailing choices and truncated meaning. To address worsening social inequality and fracturing futures, she suggests a return to big picture sociology that dares to visit what Jurgen Habermas calls utopian thinking (in a time where utopian thinking has been exhausted). We as sociologists have been robbed of utopia as an ideal – in other words, the dominance of neoliberal rationalism has seen us accept caveats and half-measures which represent the desires of Economic Human more than the needs of a civil society.

Second, in a session for the Cultural Sociology thematic group, several diverse topics were approached; however, it was the contemporary cultural framing of work that underscored how neoliberalist ideals have infiltrated career narratives. Dr Sarah James examined the popular idea that work needs to be ‘meaningful’ more than necessarily lucrative; and furthering this, Fabian Cannizzo studied how academics describe their work as being driven by ‘passion’ and their relationship with university management’s neoliberal imperatives.

Third, in a session for the vibrant Family, Relationships and Gender thematic group, Michelle Dyer discussed how international development discourse is strongly underpinned by neoliberal economic rationalisations. She studied how women’s empowerment in developing countries is presented as salvation for the entire nation – and how women are dually represented as victims and saviours. It is worthwhile looking at Nike’s as this campaign is an exemplar of Michelle’s argument. This mythos ignores the reality of gender relations in developing countries and also avoids any critical reflection how such campaigns are smokescreens for the wider structural issues such as the effects of unethical corporate practices.

What these presentations and topics have in common are the permeation of market ideals and rationality into the discourse of everyday life. Some of the papers, such as Michelle’s, examined the localised effects of neoliberalism in places such as the Solomon Islands; but also considered the wider international political economy of the problem. In this paradigm, tribal peoples grieve the loss of land, the loss of their cultural heritage and self as business buys what they see as valuable real estate for future profits and growth. Using our sociological imagination, we must consider the two very different worldviews and realise that the two ‘ways of seeing’ are incongruous. Furthermore, using political economy, we may also think of how current global power relations, economics and dominant norms feed into this problem. The perspective of subaltern peoples is drowned out by the drone of bulldozers logging their sacred forests. The profit motive is hegemonic and for now, it prevails. What is a sociologist to do?

The Sociology of Economic Life roundtable on the Thursday afternoon generated some practical answers and critical reflection upon some of these problems. Dr Tom Barnes addressed some dominant myths of neoliberalism and then, adding to this, Elizabeth Humphrys discussed how neoliberalism unfolded in Australia. Rather than being a product of the Right, in Australian contexts, neoliberalism emerged from the 1980s Labor government and the Unions with their Prices and Incomes Accord agreements, which gradually saw the introduction of economically rational ideals and a whittling down of labour. At the conclusion of the session, Dr. Dina Bowman provided an important perspective that we need to make ourselves available: to NGOs, to business, wherever sociology is needed.

I took a lot away from #TASA2015. I felt inspired and revitalised. My economic sociological Ph.D. work looks at how luxury consumption and economic inequality may interact. I lean towards critical theories and I unashamedly indulge in utopian thinking. I love William Morris’ ‘News from Nowhere’ and my copy of Marcuse’s ‘One Dimensional Man’ has been read more than a few times. I agree with Eva. We need to reconsider grand theory and sociology as activism. We need to think about political economy in our sociological analysis – because the neoliberal economic rationality is everywhere. As Fabian Cannizzo argues, it even saturates academic governance and the very work we do. In order for us to address the snowballing issue of neoliberalism encompassing and enlarging, we must see these problems as an urgent call-to-arms – to use our positions to make ourselves useful to society and to not shy away from challenging the status quo.

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