Lord Giddens as “Blair guru”

I occasionally run across stories involving Anthony Giddens, well-known sociologist, speaking about political issues in Britain. Here is another example of the actions of the “Blair guru”:

Labour peer Lord Giddens, who brought the debate on 13 October entitled Universities: Impact of Government Policy, said ministers appeared to be pursuing policies of “ill-considered, untutored radicalism” that were not based in proper research and had “imponderable outcomes”.

The academic, who advised former prime minister Tony Blair and is professor of sociology at LSE, said the reforms would leave England as a “global outrider” with one of the lowest levels of public support for higher education in the industrialised world.

He said the “ideological thrust” of the Browne Review should have been rejected and instead tuition fees only gradually raised alongside the maintenance of direct public support for universities, due to their “massive” beneficial impact on society.

“Universities are not a sort of supermarket where education can be chosen like a washing powder off the shelf. Students are not simply consumers, making day-to-day purchasing decisions. They will make a one-off decision,” he said.

Reading these stories, it seems like Giddens has more political clout than most sociologists. Is this simply a function of having been close to Tony Blair, did Giddens do specific work/research that put him in contact with politicians, or does Britain simply have a different culture regarding public intellectuals and how sociologists can be involved in social and government life?

Another possible consequence of the foreclosure crises: a lack of trust of financial institutions

In recent decades, a number of sociologists have written about a necessary feature of human interaction: trust between the individuals or groups involved. Two sociologists discuss this in the Huffington Post:

While also feeling shame and embarrassment, even personal failure, for having allowed themselves to be taken in, these families are also aware of the exploitation they have experienced at the hands of their “trusted” financial advisors. That mistrust threatens the recovery some believe has begun in recent months.

As the British sociologist Anthony Giddens has noted, in complex societies where each individual cannot become expert in all the institutional contexts in which they must operate, trust is essential for people to negotiate the various realms, including financial institutions, in which they operate. People must feel secure in the trust networks they establish in order to survive and prosper, and for society itself to advance.

In a series of in-depth interviews nationwide with 22 adults who are at risk of foreclosure (they were either behind in their mortgage payments at some point in the past two years or, in two instances, had already lost their homes due to foreclosure) all respondents expressed both anger and personal responsibility. The interviews lasted between 30 and 90 minutes. In no question with any respondent was the word “trust” used. But in every case but one, the respondents explicitly referred to the mistrust they now have for anyone associated with the mortgage lending industry in particular or financial services generally.

From this short excerpt, it is hard to get an idea of how representative these 22 respondents are and how we can know whether their opinions reflect those of Americans at large. But if this is generalizable information, it suggests it could take a long for customers to approach the mortgage industry in the same way. At the same time, many Americans don’t really have many other options when shopping for a home: a mortgage is a necessity. So how could the mortgage industry once again gain the trust of consumers – special programs, special efforts, more government regulation?

According to the postscript at the end of the article, a longer argument from these two sociologists will be published soon in Social Science Quarterly.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman influencing British politics

The Guardian offers some insights into how sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has continued to influence British politics and thought:

Despite officially retiring in 1990 as professor of sociology at Leeds University, the 84-year-old has remained remarkably productive – churning out a book a year from his home in a leafy Yorkshire suburb. His latest, entitled 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World, is a collection of columns written for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper featuring pithy potshots at Twitter, swine flu hysteria and the cultural elite.

Such is his star power that when Leeds opened the Bauman Institute for sociology in September, more than 200 foreign delegates flew in to listen to the octogenerian thinker. Despite the plaudits, Bauman appears to be a prophet everywhere except in Britain. This may be because until now he had proved unwilling to provide politicians with grand overarching theories to explain what they were doing and why – unlike Lord (Anthony) Giddens, the sociologist whose “third way” political approach was embraced by Tony Blair’s New Labour.

That has all changed with the arrival of Ed Miliband as Labour party leader and his Baumanesque analysis that the party had lost its humanity by embracing the market. The sociologist says he was encouraged by Miliband’s first speech as leader to the Labour party conference, saying that it offered a chance to “resurrect” the left on a moral basis.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. It is interesting that Britain has sociologists who are influencing politicians and policies. Does any sociologist in the United States play a similar role?

2. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Bauman called a major thinker. And yet, how many Americans (or even American sociologists) have heard of him? I think I once read a piece by him regarding modernity but other than that, haven’t really encountered his work.

3. This all is a reminder that there is a role for the public intellectual in Britain and Europe that doesn’t really exist in the United States.

Additionally, Bauman comments on the ability of sociology to help solve the major problems in society:

Despite such interrogative success, Bauman today is sanguine about his own discipline’s ability to find answers for such problems. He warns that sociology, with its falling student rolls and insular outlook, is caught between number crunchers and philosophers. “The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We have to be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of,” he says.

What kind of freedom is Bauman talking about? Freedom from repressive dictators? Freedom from traditional metanarratives? Freedom from restrictive social structures?