Tag Archives: Occupy

Using Narratives to Study Social Change

This post was contributed by Nelly Ali, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

“The narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; the history of narrative begins with the history of mankind; there does not exist, and never has existed, a people without narratives.” (Barthes)

It is such a great feeling to leave an event and want to tell everyone you meet about what you just heard. The BISR, “Using Narratives to Study Social Change” was one of such events. Chairing was Professor Sasha Roseneil who started with a recollection of the first talk in the late 1980s by Molly Andrews, professor at the University of East London. It was at the end of the talk that I believe everyone in the room could understand Sasha’s words, “I left feeling so inspired, that I too could be and want to be part of the sociology world.”

Professor Andrews started her presentation with a basic conceptual framework; the opening slide was of a photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral, littered with tents and political signs, a sight known to many of us familiar with the Occupy movement in London. From there she said that Occupy was one example (of many) in which the importance of political storytelling was evident, to participants and researchers alike.

Professor Andrews’s talk was split:

  • Part 1:Talking about Politics
  • Part 2: Contested Histories
  • Part 3: Retrospective Memories of a Critical Moment

But it was the political narratives, which Professor Andrews says highlight the complex relationship between micro and macro stories that she is  interested in and for which her research is well known. Professor Andrews generously shares data from her PhD where she interviewed activists who were 75-90 years-old now and by whom she was greatly inspired. She muses at those who had told her she would “grow out of demos”, she laughs saying, “I don’t think so, looking around and often being inspired to see any older people around”. Professor Andrews’s stories of friendships brought about through intensive narrative research were highlighted when she fondly remembers speaking at the funeral of one of the activists she spent a great deal of time with while interviewing.

One of the most incredibly inspiring aspects of this talk, and I am not sure whether this was intended, was that most of this data, was about women who made huge sacrifices for social change and justice. This is always a breath of fresh air where most focus is on men during this time.

During the discussion, the idea of “truth” was bought up, how reliable were these narratives? Professor Andrews reminded us that the meaning of truth is a complex one; the key issue is not one of objectifiable facts, but rather the meaning of a particular story, and why it is being told, in other words, the function of the story. This was excellently illustrated by a recollection of a dream one of her interviewees shared with her. The interviewee told Professor Andrews that when she was deciding to break the law in her protests, she dreamt of holding a heavy tray and as it got heavier, she looked under it and saw hands that were not her own, but instead, big, strong hands and she knew, in her heart that she was doing the right thing. This woman’s powerful narrative used the unreal (the dream) in a retrospective way of explaining what did actually happen; and this is what narrative research was interested in.

Professor Andrews also shared some of the challenges of conducting narrative research. Two examples she gave were 1) the challenge of accepting someone’s perspective on their life and not trying to convince them to see things otherwise; and 2); respecting people you interviewed who shared very different views than your own both during and after the interviews.

One thing Professor Andrews said that I will not forget about this method:  “We don’t sit around the fire telling stories, but we tell them to make change.”

Recommended reading:

  • Andrews, Molly (2008) Shaping History: Narratives of Political Change (Cambridge)
  • Andrews, M (1990/2008) Lifetimes of Commitment (Cambridge)

And forthcoming:

  • Andrews, M. (2013) Narrative Imagination and Everyday Life

More general readers on Narrative Research:

  • Riessman, Catherine Koehler (2008) Narrative methods for the Human Sciences London (Sage)
  • Andrews, M., Squire, C. and M. Tamboukou (eds)(2013)  Doing narrative research Second Edition London (Sage)

Ideology Now – part 1

This post was contributed by Eliane Glaser, Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbecks Department of English and Humanities.

On Saturday 28 April a diverse group of academics, journalists, commentators and students gathered in Gordon Square to explore the role of ideology today. The premise of the conference was the strange death of ideology within political discourse. When politicians use the word ‘ideology’ now, it’s invariably an insult. Politics is supposed to be pragmatic, consensus-building, about doing ‘what works’.

But is the narrative of the death of ideology itself an ideological move? Are ideologies and agendas still in operation, just under cover? Is ideology today primarily a covert force, creating a topsy-turvy world in which appearance is the very opposite of reality? In my book Get Real I lament the fact that Conservatives boast that they are the party of the poor, BP petrol stations are coloured an environmentally-friendly shade of green, and our TV screens are filled with celebrity chefs baking sourdough as sales of ready meals soar.

Is it time to revive ideology critique, both inside and outside the academy? And is it time to restore overt ideologies to our political culture? Since the financial crash, the Occupy movement has revitalised citizen activism. But would that movement be more effective if it embraced overt objectives and ideals?

These are some of the questions I set out in my introductory remarks, before handing over to Esther Leslie, professor in political aesthetics at Birkbeck. Esther gave a wonderfully rich and provocative talk in which she simultaneously illustrated the workings of ideology in culture today and also critiqued the very notion of ideology, arguing for a version of the term that is more rooted in social being and action. Matthew Beaumont, who teaches English at UCL, then did a fascinating reading of disaster films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, arguing that at a time in which capitalism is in crisis, these films enact Fredric Jameson’s observation that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.  

Two former heads of policy at Number 10 reflected on ideology in political culture. Ferdinand Mount, author of the newly published The New Few, was head of policy under Margaret Thatcher, and he argued for a post-ideological liberal democracy which allows for a diversity of positions. Nick Pearce, director of the IPPR and head of policy under Gordon Brown, made the case for a single ideology: social democracy.

After lunch, author and Guardian columnist Steven Poole exposed the financial metaphors that pervade everyday speech – with philosophy lecturer and activist Nina Power pointing out during questions that, conversely, capitalism is often clothed in humanising language. Author Dan Hind described how the ‘end of ideology’ thesis has obscured the rise of a single ideology, market capitalism, and pointed to new, non-hierarchical forms of public discussion and protest as the way forward.

We had two highly stimulating papers on ideology in architecture and theatre by writer Owen Hatherley and lecturer in theatre and performance at Birkbeck Louise Owen. While Owen Hatherley identified the ideologies embedded in a whole range of architectural styles, Louise Owen detected ideologies lurking beneath what passes as theatrical realism today.

In the final session, a lively and politically-engaged talk by Nina Power linked Althusser’s theory of interpolation to the current behaviour of the police and judiciary in ‘public order’ cases, and argued that protesters attempting to defend the public good are being penalised in the name of an imaginary ‘good’ public. And Renata Salecl, professor of law at Ljubljana University ended the conference with a brilliant and entertaining puncturing of contemporary assumptions about reality and wellbeing. 

What I loved about the conference was the way in which the papers linked theoretical analysis with urgent issues in today’s politics and culture. The perspectives were unusually broad for an academic conference, and the discussions over coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner were engaged and convivial. I was left with the positive sense that there is a great deal more to say on this subject; that in the contemporary world, reports of ideology’s demise are both symptomatic and premature.

All the papers are available to listen to online via the Backdoor Broadcasting Company.