Interview completed: 01/29/2014
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
I first came across anarchism during my undergraduate term studying abroad from Grinnell College in Iowa to Stirling University in Scotland. I met a young man there who was incredibly enthusiastic about anarchism. We travelled to London together to attend the Anarchist Bookfair which, to be honest, I found a little overwhelming. There were all these interesting looking people, many of whom were excited to see each other again, and I only knew my friend. And there were so many books! I wanted to absorb it all! When I went back to the States, my luggage was well over the weight limit from all the anarchist material I had collected! (Luckily they didn’t charge me.)
Anarchism as a critique of all kinds of domination including institutions taken for granted is necessary, such as the state, also struck me as consistent with what I have been learning in gender and women’s studies classes. It contributed to the intersectional approaches to power, privilege and oppression which were integral to my training as a feminist scholar. Anarchism also touched me deeply on a personal level. I had experienced domination in my life in various forms and was deeply drawn to anarchist visions of relationships and even a whole world based on dynamic and vital experiences of freedom and equality.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
I’m sure there are many ways of seeing compatibilities! What I see most clearly is what I have been trying to exploring myself. This includes queer sociological approaches to identity, intimacy and power which are potentially deeply compatible with anarchist values of individuality, community and vitality. As I mentioned above, feminist and other sociologies committed to intersectional approaches to domination have a great deal in common with many anarchist individuals and movements. I’m also interested in how a post-structuralist sociological understanding rooted in seeing how apparent structures are continuously produced through everyday forms of social relations are consistent with the anarchisms of folk like Gustav Landauer, Emma Goldman, and many, many more. Post-Anarchism: A Reader (Pluto, 2011) is a useful resource for this last example.
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
It would be fascinating to trace the historiography of this. I’m sure anarchism has had influences from the beginnings of sociology which have mostly been written out of the dominant histories. Such powerfully insightful figures such as Proudhon, Kropotkin, Goldman, Landauer and others will have touched on the lives of those considered to define sociology. That is my assumption anyway. I’ll leave it to others who might feel called to do so to undertake the careful research.
I love the ways in which so many people have been bringing anarchist analysis into social movement studies (folk like Sasha Roseneil, Richard Day, Uri Gordon among many more). There’s the anarchist work on sociologies of sexuality and intimacy including my own alongside people like Abbey Willis, Deric Shannon & Marta Kolarova. The work of folk like Stevphen Shukaitis, Sandra Jeppesen and Anja Kanngeiser, for example, demonstrate the power of anarchist approaches to cultural studies. Perhaps what inspires me most is anarchistic forms of methodology, so that the process of sociological research nurtures a capacity for relating freely as equals.
What could anarchism contribute to sociology?
Judith Butler once wrote, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we‘re not, we‘re missing something.” Perhaps anarchism and sociology could undo each other. Borders between us and them might dissolve. The idea of an ism or ology may be lovingly, erotically deconstructed, undressed. Freedom might be practiced, experienced, without conforming to any identity, whether institutional or anti-institutional. How delicious to allow ourselves to be undone.
What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?
If you mean people like Marx, Weber or Durkheim, I’m afraid I can’t say. None of them ever sparked my imagination or touched my soul. Perhaps I never gave them the chance… I would say instead a number of classical anarchists might be read as sociologists. For example, as Kathy Ferguson points out in her brilliant book, Emma Goldman: Political Thinking in the Streets, Goldman was an astute social commentator whose analysis was grounded in direct experience, insight and keen observation. She was a forerunner of contemporary cultural studies and influential public intellectual. All of this, without ever going to university. Can we call her a classical sociologist? I think I will.
Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?
Good question! I don’t know the answer. That seems to be changing now, as anarchism is being taken more seriously by scholars across disciplines. Also, there is interesting cross-fertilisation happening between anarchists, marxists and feminists. I’m not very good at seeing the borders anymore.
How could academic sociology be more anarchist?
My personal request would be for more playfulness! I’m very grateful to those who have taught me that sociology can be imaginative, embodied, and fun. I’d love to see that spread more. Conferences could have experiential streams to bring new insights to life (yoga, dance, theatre exercises, meditation) as well as more interactive discussions and less expert/audience division. Professional development could include humility, facilitation, nonviolent communication, deep relaxation, acting skills (because what else is a lecture?), creative writing, permaculture (not just for gardening, you know), and more. I like the phenomenon of performative social science – using the arts to share what has been learned in social research. This could be combined in interesting ways with participatory theatre like Boal’s theatre of the oppressed. Implementing and experiencing egalitarian, libertarian and vibrant forms of social relations could be a profound sociological research and pedagogical method.
Ever encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?
There was an anarchist undergraduate student in my department at the University of Edinburgh. He became a tutor (a TA in American terms) after graduation and we ended up organising a strike together in response to labour conditions. D.D. Johnston is now a lecturer in creative writing and a published novelist. None of my students declared themselves anarchists, though I certainly got them thinking about it. I remember clearly one sociology tutorial (seminar in America) where none of them had done the reading. I had found it incredibly boring myself and wasn’t going to spoon-feed them something I didn’t care about. So we had a discussion about anarchism instead. It was one of the most vibrant tutorials I ever facilitated.
Is it possible for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Esp. within the academy?)
I know quite a few anarchists working in sociology departments, so clearly it is very possible. These days it seems that anyone working in a university needs a lot of emotional support. This might come from compassionate colleagues and compas, friends and family, students and strangers. It may come from within, with the help of practices of freedom like yoga, biodanza, tai chi etc.
When I was finishing my Ph.D., I asked, could [I] be hired as an anarchist? I didn’t ask, did I want to be hired! Perhaps one of the most dangerous things about doctoral training is that academia appears to become the entire world (what Goffman called a total institution). It’s taken me a long time to realise that while I’m happy to be an occasional visitor to that world, it is not my place. I’m learning to weave the skills I developed in sociology and in other places into new forms, finding my own ways of learning and teaching. Is that professional, or not? I’m not sure. But I do know, I’m not the only one doing it. All around people are following their hearts rather than the authority of the mind, the idea of really think they are or should be (bringing the post-anarchist critique of representation to the nano-political level). Of course, people are doing the same thing in academic posts. How wonderfully creative we can be, when we allow ourselves to express it!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Only that whatever work one engages in, there is something very beautiful about doing it mindfully. For me there is an important relationship between mindfulness and anarchy. Over-thinking and multi-tasking is the trying too hard I associate with patterns of control. Anarchy for me is the harmony which comes from neither laziness nor over-working, but finding a beautiful balance in between.
There is also something about being direct. For anarchy, it’s direct democracy rather than representative, direct action rather than appealing to authority. For mindfulness, it’s direct action rather than a reaction to some unrecognised patterns of thought and feeling, and the direct experience of life rather than always through the lens of intellectual models. Of course, it’s also possible to be mindful when constructing intellectual models—to be aware of the experience of doing so, to create them as a service to others. But it’s also possible to get lost in the model. It can feel very safe to keep life at a distance by intellectualising it all. I know! But I also know there is something richer beyond safety. It’s intimacy. Intimacy with the body, even as we sit at the computer. The intimacy of listening to a research partner’s stories in an interview. Intimacy with what motivates our work. Intimacy with life itself.