About me

Sayer0009I’m a semi-retired academic. I was born in the west London suburb of Hounslow, and after doing a London University external degree at Cambridge Tech spent 21 years studying and teaching at Sussex University. Subsequently I moved to Lancaster University and the wonderful North of England, where I’ve been since 1993.

Not a very varied career, I know, but the best thing about being an academic is that you are constantly thinking and learning about new things and developing new ideas, so there’s no excuse for getting in a rut.

I’m a social scientist with primary interests in inequality, power and moral economy, and also what philosophy can tell us about those things. I also have secondary academic interests in ethics in everyday life, the interplay of emotions and reasons, dignity, and how people are valued by others. More recently I’ve become interested in climate change. In different ways, all these things are relevant to understanding what supports and what limits our well-being – defining that very broadly. I increasingly believe that social scientists have a responsibility to the public that funds them to do more on issues that directly or indirectly help us deal with issues of well-being.

You might be wondering what discipline I belong to. The answer is none. I believe that splitting social science into separate, competing disciplines, each of them trying to expand its empire while retaining its disciplinary blinkers, has been a failure, limiting social scientists’ ability to offer useful knowledge for life and for improving society. If you want a good answer to a question about, say, economics, the chances are you’ll need to take account of things that researchers in sociology, anthropology, politics, philosophy, human geography, history and psychology have dealt with. The same goes for answering these other disciplines’ questions. Look back at the founders of the social sciences in the 18th and early to mid 19th century, and you’ll see that they ranged freely across this now-balkanized territory: they were pre-disciplinary. And that’s one of the reasons why people like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and many others from that era have made such a mark on our thinking. This is why I have been an advocate of ‘post-disciplinary’ social science for most of my career.[i]2014-09-24 15.41.59

I have Sussex University’s former goal of ‘redrawing the map of learning’ to thank for this realisation.[ii] Although I now work in a sociology department at Lancaster University I joined it because many of my colleagues are similarly relaxed about ignoring disciplinary boundaries, and their work has clearly benefitted from this freedom; they don’t seem to mind my undisciplined wanderings, and they gave me the title Professor of Social Theory and Political Economy in acknowledgement of this. My work website is here.

Outside work, I love being with friends, walking, cycling and making music, and I have nerdy amateur interests in geology, birds of prey, and neuroscience. Politically, I’m a red-green but the only political party I’ve ever belonged to was the Labour Party for a couple of years during the Miners’ Strike in the 1980s. That’s not counting decades of membership of what Owen Jones calls ‘the yelling-at-the-TV party’, possibly the largest political party in Britain.

[i] Since summer 1978, in fact. For the full argument in defence of this position, see my article on ‘For postdisciplinary studies: Sociology and the Curse of Disciplinary Parochialism/Imperialism’, in Eldridge, J., MacInnes, J., Scott, S., Warhurst, C., and Witz, A., (2000) (eds) Sociology: Legacies and Prospects, Durham: Sociologypress, pp.85-97

[ii] I studied and worked there from 1971-1992: Sadly, it compromised this position by introducing departments after I left. See http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/12827


Recent Posts

What is wealth?

Photo: Spudgun67, Creative Commons

Photo: Spudgun67, Creative Commons

“There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, joy, and of admiration” (John Ruskin, in Unto this Life)

To be wealthy is to have a vast amount of money, isn’t it? So isn’t wealth just money? No. Money has no value in itself, and it is only useful as a means to an end. Money is just a claim on those kinds of wealth that happen to be for sale.

‘Wealth’ refers to whatever enables us to live and to live well. Most prosaically it includes goods and services. Some of these are provided without payment – most domestic labour, for example, or the food gardeners grow for their own use. Even though we don’t pay money for them, their products are a form of wealth. We should include nature’s bounties too – from clean water and sunlight, to fertile soil and all the plants, fishes and animals that grow themselves, but which we can use, often with little effort. Our own bodies are a form of wealth; our health is our wealth. And wealth includes some non-economic things, like being loved, which of course can’t be bought. We shouldn’t dismiss Ruskin’s claim as merely poetic or fanciful.

Aristotle saw the pursuit of money as an end in itself as a form of madness.

Photo: Democracy Chronicles, Creative Commons

Photo: Democracy Chronicles, Creative Commons

But what was an exception 2,300 years ago has become widely taken for granted today, for under capitalism, the pursuit of money profits has to be the goal for capitalists if they want to survive in competition with others; if they’re not successful in this they go out of business. Whatever they may say about wanting to put their customers first or wanting to bring their product to the world, they ignore this imperative at their peril. For the rest of us, money is of course necessary as a means to an end, for getting the goods and services that we need, but it’s easy to slip into treating the pursuit of money itself as our main goal.

So who are the wealth creators?

Realising this is essential if we are to explode the myth of wealth creation as the preserve of the rich.  Everyone who contributes to the production and distribution of goods and services – in a broad sense – whether for sale or not, is a wealth creator. If you’re teaching a child to read, or looking after an old person, you’re creating wealth – even though you may not get paid for it.

What about the rich, then? As any get-rich-quick book will tell you, the way to become rich is not merely – or even – to work hard, but to get control of assets that others need but lack, so that you can charge them for their use, thus providing you with unearned income. You can get a lot of money – claims on wealth produced by others – without creating much wealth yourself, if you control some key assets, including money itself. The way to become rich is to become a wealth extractor! 2014-09-24 15.41.59

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