Spaces of selfhood

John D. Brewer reflects on the experiences that led him into sociology and drove his research interests over the following four decades

December 10, 2009

Sociology has made my life, if not also saved it. My father died in a mining accident, diving headlong to push away the mine manager as the rocks smashed into him instead, leaving a widow aged 24 and two children, aged two and four; which, incidentally, gives the lie to the sociologists in the pages of this magazine who alleged that I believe class is dead - it is very much alive, even in death. It made me mature before my years and left me particularly sensitive to unfairness.

This vague, generalised feeling that life is unjust turned into sociology. I left school in 1968 to go to a further education college and take A levels in sociology, politics and economics, which means that 2009 marked the start of my fifth decade as a sociologist. My English master at school, when told I was going on to study sociology, said to the assembled class that I didn't even know what it was. "It's the study of society," I said proudly, leaving him speechless for once.

1968 was just the sort of year to do this, of course. Julius Gould, my tutor in first-year sociology at the University of Nottingham in 1970, deflated me immensely when, after asking what A levels we'd taken (in a tutorial class of three), he said that my choice was an awful combination and I should have done European history and literature instead. This wasn't the last issue on which we disagreed.

What he didn't know was the personal biography that connected me to the subject. Sociology helped me to make sense of my life. Ronnie Frankenberg's book, Communities in Britain (Penguin, 1966), which I read almost as my first book at A level, carried extracts of Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Clifford Slaughter's book Coal is Our Life, a study of Ashton, the pit village in North East England. I still have my copy of Frankenberg's book and tears fill my eyes for that young boy as I look today at the underlinings and the marginal notes. This was me and my family life. It was my Shropshire village. It explained my father's selflessness for the work group, my stepfather's aggression and my own emotional dependence, giving me the urge to get away but not the emotional strength to do so. The fact that I don't use the term "domestic violence" signals my awareness that my stepfather's behaviour in the home was nothing but an extension of the brutality he experienced in his workplace, a danger, after all, that had killed my father. I might have had the same enlightenment if I'd read D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, which was in some way Gould's point, but I was a sociology zealot.

Maturity as a sociologist enables me now to look back and see some foundational experiences arising from this kind of entry into sociology. As a teacher of the discipline, I try to communicate some of sociology's life-changing qualities to new generations and display my continued excitement with the subject, hoping that my enthusiasm rubs off. Sociology is more than a subject - it's a vocation, a life.

I remember giving an account to my A-level class in which I tried to explain sociologically why a young female passenger on my double-decker bus ride to college didn't sit next to me but chose the only other available seat. My A-level teacher declared in a way I thought ambivalent that I'd "turned"; I was shocked that he didn't share my view that there is nothing that cannot be approached sociologically (although sociology sometimes asks the least important questions).

This entry into the discipline also affects me as a researcher. I am committed to qualitative methods and sociology's unique ability to capture the richness and detail of the social meanings involved in reproducing social life. As a person, it has made me conscious of the obligation I owe the discipline. Sociology made me by giving me the knowledge of how to break the cycle of family life I inherited and the career and wherewithal to do so. I have always felt obligated to give something back. I am now president of the British Sociological Association (BSA) and see this as another opportunity to honour the subject that has honoured me.

There is another enduring resonance. One of my research interests focuses on the biographical experiences that connect a sociologist's life and work. I enjoy delving into musty collections of letters and archives, and analysing autobiographies. I have adopted an approach to writing sociological biography taken from David Livingstone's writings on major figures in the history of science. It focuses on the "spaces of selfhood" in which ideas are produced (as well as read), a perspective I've applied to Charles Wright Mills, Adam Ferguson and Robert MacIver.

In one sense we live our lives sequentially, but some moments are so foundational that they mediate all other experiences. Sociological ideas emerge out of the confluence of key spaces of selfhood and sequential experiences, culminating in their production and writing.

Such an approach, of course, applies as much to me as anyone else, and these "eureka" disclosures ought now to move on from the spaces of selfhood that drew me to sociology to account for the kind of sociological work I do.

I am mapping a new field I call the "sociology of peace processes", an aggrandisement that some critics may baulk at: I recall still with shock a senior member of the profession writing to me when I was considering allowing my name to go forward for the presidency of the BSA, stating that the body was based in a shed up North and that I, working in Aberdeen, was nearer Bergen than London, clearly implying that I was in the wrong place and space. Overcoming London-centricism, wild misconceptions of the BSA and some senior sociologists' disengagement from it will be some of the defining motifs of my presidency. But heads above the parapet are likely to be lopped off, affecting the perception of the work you do.

Sequentially, it seems a natural extension that my interest in the sociological dimensions of peace processes should follow on from my concerns with the features of control in divided societies' unjust social systems. Most of my early career was spent charting the social processes that structure this social control, such as non-democratic politics, policing, crime, racism, religion and sectarianism, among others. My academic and personal lives seemed in synchrony and to be following the sequencing of time: a daughter born in South Africa in the wake of the murder of Steve Biko while I was doing covert research there on the emergence of a new kind of black politics following the 1976 Soweto uprising; a son born in Belfast during the height of the hunger strikes while I was researching sectarianism.

Later becoming a practising Christian while living in Northern Ireland - a disclosure, if you forgive the tragic humour, which may heap coals on my head, as occurred recently late one night in a Canterbury pub after I gave a seminar at the University of Kent - made me particularly interested in the role of religion as a site of conflict: from this followed an analysis of the role of anti-Catholicism in Irish Protestant culture. All sociologists with belief systems are enjoined to expose them to interrogation and critique. It seems I did this so successfully that during a seminar in Dublin, a minor Loyalist politician queried what sort of Protestant I was, whispering to his neighbour, at a volume intended for me to hear, that I should be shot.

However, lives are not just lived sequentially, and my recent interest in peace processes is mediated by key spaces of selfhood that exist, as it were, out of time. This is not to deny that experiences are cumulative. From 1999 to 2002, I was involved in an international project based in the US looking at grass-roots Christian peacemaking, where I took responsibility for the Northern Irish case. In 2003, my book C. Wright Mills and the Ending of Violence was published, in which I utilised Mills' notion of the sociological imagination to explain the concurrence of the peace processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa. In 2010, Polity will publish a more general sociological analysis of peace processes.

But cumulative experiences are mediated. Rather than a sudden "eureka moment" in which my sociological imagination burst forth, my work on religion and peace processes, for example, needs to be located in the key spaces of selfhood in early and later life that helped shape both my interest in the topic and whatever insights I might have.

For example, "the sort of Protestant" I am is one raised in rural Shropshire as a Catholic, who rejected Catholic social teaching and when resuming worship again in much later life converted to Presbyterianism; one who nonetheless is now married to a Catholic, with a daughter married in a Catholic church, one son married to a Presbyterian according to their rites, and a younger son who is being raised as a Catholic.

My "outsider status" to both main religions in Northern Ireland and my critical sociological gaze on religious belief systems gave me, I contend, special insight into religion's role as a site of conflict, which helped to shape my subsequent concern with its role as a possible site of reconciliation. An Economic and Social Research Council grant followed, allowing me to explore the role of the churches in Northern Ireland's peace process, the results of which are now being written up. Sequence and space combined out of chronological time to fashion this work.

I am all too aware as a sociologist that in places such as Northern Ireland, religion is part of the problem. The difficulty facing the churches is how to become part of the solution. My answer to that conundrum involves exploring the link between church, civil society and the state, identifying the key strategic social spaces in peace processes that churches can occupy while analysing how the state facilitates or constrains this opportunity.

Politics - and the state - are central to the sociological imagination, as Mills recognised. The great pantheon of sociologists made the state one of the meeting places between the disciplines of sociology and political science. In a humbler way, my interest in locating the role of religion in peace processes within wider church-civil society-state relations derives in part from the spaces of selfhood in which I as an ordinary citizen, trying to live, work and help to raise a young family, confronted an omnipotent state that impinged on my every capacity to do so.

I lived for three years under the apartheid regime in South Africa and for 23 years in Northern Ireland throughout the worst years of the Troubles and the vicissitudes of the ceasefires. Studying the potential for peace became both a personal impulse and eventually a professional obligation, but it was one rooted in the specific social spaces that marked my selfhood. Like everyone else I had people close to me: children, a spouse and friends who ran the risk of being affected by acts of indiscriminate political and criminal violence - small though this might have been in the social spaces I occupied (what Mary Kaldor calls the "islands of civility" that exist in the midst of violence), but possible nonetheless.

A simpler way of saying all this is that sociologists take their intellectual stimulation from the environment in which they find themselves. I have been fortunate, paradoxically, to find myself as a sociologist living in stimulating places at stimulating times, but I am sensitive to the fact that most lay people experienced them quite differently. Within this paradox lies the potential for sociology - and in my case, for the development of the sociology of peace processes. Sociology, as Mills said all those long years ago, cannot change the world, but it does no harm to try to make a difference to ordinary people's lives. This is the legacy of Coal is Our Life.

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