Recovering the Social: revisiting the more than personal of personal life

By Professor Lynn Jamieson, BSA President, University of Edinburgh

In adopting this subtitle, 'the more than personal of personal life' I start with CW Mills's discussion of private troubles and public issues as naming the sociological 'more'.  The personal domain is deeply implicated in how social worlds become more or less hierarchical and exclusive through social differences such as gender, class, ethnicity and religion.  This is in part why I think that work on almost all aspects of social life can be enriched by knowledge of the specialist area. While I make this claim because of the distinct significance of personal relationships, I’m also aware that a reader thinking from a different specialism, race and ethnicity for example, may also have reason to reach the same conclusion.

The relationship between the sociology of families, relationships, intimate and personal life as a specialist area – the one in which I operate – and the 'mainstream' speaks to a set of more general issues. Sociology as a discipline draws strength from its diversity and from its resistance of any one right way of theorising and doing. At the same time, the discipline is also enriched by willingness to read across specialisms, develop a common cause and search for coherence. Research relevant to so-called 'populism' illustrates the potential benefits.  Excellent work on the English Defence League shows the significance of relationships in entrance, exit and persistence within the organisation, yet reading lists for the sociology of social movements are unlikely to include the leading contributions to transmission through intergenerational relationships and friendship networks from my topic area. 

Research in my specialist area often remains pigeon holed and sometimes theoretically relegated to the periphery, as if it speaks of a domain that is buffeted by action elsewhere and never the site that is making the waves.  In some social theory, and most everyday lives, the intersecting histories and biographies of personal relationships are the key contexts of becoming and being human: the site of physical and social sustenance, shaping selves and capabilities to make and reimagine the social world. Healthy debate about the appropriate relationships between theory and evidence and around our role in speaking to wider publics is an ongoing part of sociology. Research in specialist areas necessarily works at different levels, for example, to debunk myths about personal lives, exposing the harms caused when politicians use them to justify policies, to explore how people work with more or less mythic public stories in reflecting on and shaping their own lives.

In a recent issue of the journal Families, Relationships and Societies, I've tried to argue that readers should do much more to contribute to discussions around the future and climate change. Under the leadership of David Morgan, the topic are has already adopted a 'practice turn' which is the approach that is to the fore in analysing the interlocking of global socio-technical systems and everyday lives that consume unsustainably. Understanding the circumstances that enable the political possibility of generosity to strangers is an urgent question that spans climate change, migration and populism. Some recent theoretical developments including the current direction of the sociology of emotions, call for a new emphasis on relational sociology, opening up new routes to acknowledging the entanglement of personal life in 'world making'. The need for more attention to climate change applies to the discipline as a whole.  The fact that there is no more important topic does not diminish other work but somehow we must also weave this into the fabric of all our work rather than treat climate change as a specialism.

Professor Jamieson's presidential address, Recovering the Social: Revisiting the more than Personal Life,  took place at the BSA Annual Conference on Thursday, 6 April.  If you couldn't attend the session, or indeed the conference, watch the video.