Jeff Ferrell

Interview completed: 01/21/2019

How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?

While in graduate school in sociology at The University of Texas in the late 1970s I stumbled down two paths into anarchism. The first emerged from my MA thesis and PhD dissertation work—both were historical case studies of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a radical labor union which was, I soon discovered to my great pleasure, animated by anarchist/anarcho-syndicalist ideas and an outrageous spirit of anti-authoritarian defiance. The second was a doctoral seminar on anarchism and anarchist political theory with James Miller. Miller was teaching in the Government Department (Political Science), and soon enough the UT Board of Regents would expel him and other radicals from the department—but lucky for me, he hung on long enough to teach the seminar, an eye-opening tour through the lives, ideas, and activism of early anarchist thinkers.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

Three dimensions stand out to me. First, both sociology (at its best) and anarchism undertake a critical analysis of power, and of the structures and dynamics through which power is exercised and enforced.

A second dimension is methodological. Sociological methods like survey research and statistical analysis strike me as rigid, authoritarian undertakings that maintain the sort of hierarchy of knowledge (as per Becker) that puts the sociologist in charge of investigation and interpretation. Ethnography on the other hand, as utilized in sociology and elsewhere, seems to me a method that operates closer to the dynamics of direct action. In good ethnography, knowledge is emergent and often unanticipated; the ethnographer and research subjects work collaboratively to undermine the hierarchy of knowledge; and indeed, the entire research process takes shape in the fluid execution of it. To the extent that sociology relies on surveys, data sets, and statistics, then, it seems to me a largely authoritarian undertaking; to the extent that it relies on (and has been shaped by) ethnographic approaches, it maintains at least the potential for anarchist understanding and intellectual direct action.

Third, and most importantly I think, sociology and anarchism are both dedicated to exploring and undermining taken-for-granted assumptions as to the natural inevitability of the social order. To see that reality is socially constructed is to understand that it can (and inevitably will) be reconstructed otherwise. Likewise, to see reality as socially constructed is to undermine the truth claims of bosses, bullies, dictators, and assorted fundamentalists and authoritarians.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?

Most of my professional work has been in sociological criminology, and at least in this area, anarchism has indeed made a contribution. Anarchist criminology, and its thoroughgoing critique of law and crime control, is now a viable form of analysis within and beyond the field of critical criminology, and has in many ways supplanted Marxist criminology in this area and elsewhere (there’s a new edited book just out on ‘contemporary anarchist criminology.’)

Cultural criminology has over the past quarter century emerged as an even more widely utilized form of critical analysis; this approach incorporates not only overtly anarchist themes as developed by myself and others, but also the earlier anarchist-inflected models of Stan Cohen, Jock Young, and their associates.

What could anarchism contribute to sociology?

Anarchism could offer a more robust and multi-dimensional analysis of power and domination, as well as a self-critical and self-effacing sensibility that would usefully undermine the seriousness with which many sociologists take themselves, their analysis, and their careers.

What anarchist(s) (whether classical age or contemporary, individuals or a group) seem(ed) to have the strongest sociological imagination?

Kropotkin always impressed me as not only a brilliant social theorists and geographer, but a brilliant sociologist as well. What we might now call his ‘sociology of law’ and ‘sociology of the prison’ taught me as much as any overtly sociological analysis I’ve encountered.

Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?

It seems to me that Marxism, feminism and the like isolate their analysis in such a way that forms of domination outside their focus often remain unnoticed and unexamined. Anarchism on the other hand offers an uncompromising critique of all forms of power and domination—including of course university structures, academic associations, and professional privilege. Marxism, feminism and the like are in this way fairly easily tamable, and from my experience, often more than ready to work with existing power structures, so long as their particular agendas are addressed; anarchism remains mostly untamable, and to steal a phrase from Marx (!), ‘unafraid of its own conclusions.’ As such, it poses an ongoing threat to the very order of things, including academia.

How could sociology (as a discipline, a practice, etc.) be more anarchist?

By killing method—that is, by abandoning the fetishized world of pre-set methodologies, ‘reliability,’ and the like and embracing instead approaches to the world that are more fluid, emergent, and engaged.

Is it possible (to say nothing of desirable?) for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Especially within the academy?) What are the concerns or challenges?

As an anarchist I am able to work (provisionally) as a professional sociologists so long as I remain dedicated to a way of life not at all defined by organizational affiliation or professional achievement; so long as I am able to use my professional status as a lever on behalf of marginalized groups, social change, and general hell-raising; and so long as I am able to, as William Z. Foster said, ‘bore from within’ any institution of which I am unfortunate enough to be a part.