Monthly Archives: February 2015

Desert Island Books with Anthony King

Tony King

This week for our “Desert Island” column, we interview Professor Anthony King. Professor King is a sociologist with his main research interests in social theory, sport and the military. He publishes widely, with a distinct intellectual interest in the formation and interaction of different social groups.

I have had the privilege in being taught under him, and he has brought to lectures a stimulating and rigorous array of topics such as his exploration of crowd dynamics, the mechanisms behind the functioning of organisations and the maintenance of the class hierarchy in our society.

His most recent publication, The Combat Soldier, explores how combat soldiers generate and sustain group cohesion even when they are under enemy fire.

In this interview, we ask Professor King what 5 books he would bring for his desert island retreat.

So Professor King, which 5 books would you bring to a desert island, and why?

Tony: Lists of this kind are fun but they are also tricky; to select what I think are genuinely the 5 best books I have ever read is almost impossible for me. Five is too few. It also rather depends on what kind of book and what kind of context. But here are five that impressed me deeply and still do.

1. Joseph Heller – Catch-22

Based on Heller’s experiences in the US Air Force in WWII, this novel is a profoundly funny yet also moving satire on modern rationality, capitalism and its individualist ethos.

2. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina

Tolstoy situates the personal tragedy of a woman in a rich historical and social context, all within a pragmatic existential philosophy. The best novel ever written? Possibly.

3. Philip Larkin – The Whitsun Weddings

It is not particularly easy always to like Larkin either personally or politically. But this highly technical collection of poems situates personal experiences within an astute depiction of late twentieth century British society. It is easy to read them as pessimistic and scornful. In fact, I think there is a strong romanticism underpinning his work.

4. TS Eliot – The Waste Land and other Poems

The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land are widely considered to introduced modernism to English poetry thereby revolutionizing it. I agree. Two extraordinary pieces which draw on numerous literary traditions to analyse contemporary society and its ills. Not bad for a bank manager.

5. William Shakespeare – Hamlet

The greatest of his plays. No more needs to be said.

For more information about Professor Anthony King, check out his staff profile here.

Jason Chang

Desert Island Books with Nigel Pleasants

In a new feature, the SPA Undergrad News blog asks academics from the department to share the books they couldn’t survive without on a desert island. First up is Nigel Pleasants:

I’m Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Sociology, having joined the department of sociology (as it was then) in 1997, straight from finishing my PhD. I was centrally involved in the re-institution of Philosophy as a discipline to the University in my early years here. There had previously been a Philosophy department at Exeter, but that was closed in the 1980s. My main areas of research and teaching are: Social and Moral philosophy; Philosophy of the social sciences; Philosophical and social scientific issues relating to the Holocaust and the history of slavery and its abolition; Ethics of Animal exploitation; and the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

I began my A level education late, in my mid 20s, after having worked at a turkey meat-processing factory for 7 years. I had left school at 16 with just a few CSEs. After doing well at A level I went on to Bristol to do a degree in Philosophy and Sociology, and from there went to Cambridge to do a Masters and then PhD.

Here are my five books:

1. George Orwell – Keep the Aspidistra flying

This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read, and one of the very few (actually probably the only one) that I’ve read more than once. Ok, perhaps this reveals something about my sense of humour. I last read it, if I remember correctly, on the train coming to my interview for the Exeter job. It made me laugh out loud (I realise there’s a txt acronym for this, but don’t want to get it tragically wrong à la David Cameron). I first read it in my very early A level days. I don’t want to get too pretentious (but probably will), but in my view this is Orwell’s best novel by a mile. The other two famous books (Animal Farm and 1984) are not actually in my opinion novels at all – if you want to know the reason for this heretical view you’ll have to read TS Elliot’s essay on ‘the objective correlative’. In the past I have kept an Aspidistrain my living quarters – but unlike in the novel, mine die.

2. Shakespeare – Hamlet

I discovered Shakespeare doing A level literature. It taught me how to read a text via the language in which it is written. This textual training became the formation of my ability to read and think philosophically. It’s hard to put one’s finger on what’s so great about Hamlet, so I’d have to reach for the clichés about the astonishing depths to which Shakespeare is able to delve in reflecting on the human condition, the sheer beauty of the language, and the range of emotions displayed. It’s also a pretty gripping story.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein – On Certainty

My one strictly ‘academic’ book. I discovered Wittgenstein via this lesser known text of his in a year 2 course on epistemology at Bristol. The course began with Descartes, proceeded through G E Moore and some others to Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and then was supposed to advance onto contemporary epistemology. But I couldn’t get beyond Wittgenstein. On Certainty is replete with profound observations on the nature of belief, knowledge and certainty, intermingled with a kind of everyday anthropology of ordinary life. It’s also actually very funny too in many places (e.g. ‘this fellow isn’t insane, he’s just doing philosophy’). The extraordinary aphoristic style of Wittgenstein would be well suited to a desert Island; I’d also like to take the more famous (and more beguilingly tricky) Philosophical Investigations, but mustn’t be greedy.

4. David Lodge – Small world

Yes, another novel I’m afraid. I love all of Lodge’s ‘campus novels’ – they are extremely funny and clever. Much of the material is of a rather ‘adult’ nature. Lodge’s comic depiction of the academic’s life sustained me in my early years in academia. But don’t worry, academic life is not now (nor has it been in my time in it) anything like as salacious as it is in a Lodge novel, which took their inspiration from the 1970s and 80s British University (ask your parents about this). Not only was it a small world then, but a very different one. Another cliché – Lodge’s novels score high on the ‘feel good factor’, which would be important on the Island.

5. The Oxford English dictionary

Sorry to sound boring! As an A level student I was confronted by a lot of writing I simply couldn’t understand, so made the decision to look up every word whose meaning I didn’t know. This was laborious, but paid off in the end – I now understand the meaning of most words I encounter in academic texts, apart from the jargon, and don’t bother too much about that. In my student days it was The Collins English dictionary, but for the Island I’d like the magisterial OED. Surely I would never come to the day when I’d think “I’ve read that now” – by the time one gets to the end (if one were to read from beginning to end) one would have forgotten the beginning.

Anthropology students return to Skanda Vale

Although only founded in 1973, Skanda Vale is already firmly established as a site of pilgrimage for over 90,000 people per year. This will be the third year that Dr. Tom Rice and Dr. Sam Hurn (both Lecturers in Anthropology) have organised an anthropological pilgrimage to the site for staff and students, and the trip has quickly become one of the major annual events in the Anthropology department calendar.

From scandavale.org

Skanda Vale is an ashram (or monastery) located deep in rural Wales, surrounded by over 300 acres of valley woodland. Made up of three temples, a hospice, and various residential caravans and chalets, the ashram is not a tourist destination, but an intentional community united by common practice. It is for this reason that visitors are asked to follow a list of rules, including not consuming animal products or illegal drugs at least 3 days before their visit. It’s also why all visitors must follow the same schedule as the ashram’s residents. Hannah Mortimer, a second year anthropology and archaeology student, tells us:

“My time spent at Skanda Vale was physically and emotionally demanding, but rewarding. We attended many pujas, the first of them starting at 5am and the last finishing around 10pm. We also helped around the farm by cleaning and feeding animals. It was definitely hard work, but I really enjoyed helping out, feeling a sense of achievement. I also found the ashram to be incredibly tranquil and calming… This is not surprising considering the warm and generous nature of the people and the beautiful surrounding landscape.”

As Skanda Vale’s webpage describes, “Nobody at Skanda Vale is paid. […] We do not charge anyone for food, accommodation or services; everything is offered completely free of charge. The community is very self-sufficient, and completely independent from any religious or commercial organisations.” Furthermore, Issy Hoole, the President of SocAntSoc, says that whilst she found the week “emotionally and physically challenging, [she] particularly found the way women are treated at Skanda Vale interesting to explore and question. There is plenty of opportunity to carry out field work in the Yoga session, where we give time towards the improvement on the sights/helping out with various tasks, which allowed us to question the way of life of the individuals.” As a moneyless intentional religious community, then, isolated physically and socially from the rest of society, Skanda Vale is therefore of great interest to anthropologists as a social microcosm and alternative community model.

However, Skanda Vale is rarely just an academic trip for those who visit – it is often a spiritual one. Issy goes on to describe the ashram as a “life changing experience.” “Previously, I was quite sceptical about religion, but after living alongside the Monks and Nuns for a week, I began to see how it is a real way of life for some people. Similarly, Owen L. Fagundes, an FCH student, says the ashram was “the most coherent take on religion I’ve witnessed.” Similar reviews are common online, with many saying it has fundamentally changed the way they view belief and religion.

The ashram not only holds religious services, but also has several strong care and conservation initiatives. One of these areas involves non-human animal care. “We have a large number of different animals,” their website says, “including [an elephant], a herd of cows, buffalo, deer, goats, plus many birds, rabbits and dogs – many of whom have been rescued from slaughter or neglect.” Non-human animals play a large social role in the nominally Hindu community, and these sanctuary efforts relate strongly to the ashram’s general ecological lookout. Although rooted in culturally and religiously specific traditions, the community is also echoed by the alternative secular ‘green’ communities emerging out of the climate change crisis, which seek to be self-sustaining and live in a way opposed to human exceptionalism.

The trip is not only a hallmark of the Anthropology calendar, but a genuinely engaging and exciting journey, both academically and spiritually. Open to all years studying Philosophy, Sociology or Anthropology free of charge, held at the end of term two every year, keep an eye out for email updates and more information about this great opportunity. Issy finishes: “I loved my time at Skanda Vale, go and experience it for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it!” 

Ciarán Daly

Interview with SocAntSoc President Issy Hoole

So hello Issy! I hope you’re doing alright with everything uni! Let’s get the ball rolling. Could you give us a brief intro about yourself?

Hey! I’m Issy, as you said and I am in my third and final year of my BA Sociology degree! I am from East Sussex, but was born in Wiltshire, so my West Country blood drew me back to Exeter for my undergraduate studies. Despite how pretentious this sounds, I wanted to study Sociology to do my bit to change the world for the better… It would appear that is a little bit more difficult than my naïve pre-degree self had thought.

Well it’s great that there’s a certain drive behind you studying sociology! Being President of the Sociology and Anthropology society, could you tell us more about the society?

Yeah sure! Essentially we are a lovely bunch, who get together for socials of all shapes and sizes, organise careers events and support the department in various ways. Whilst predominantly our members are those who study either Sociology or Anthropology (or a combination), some members are total outsiders interested in what we do!

Why should students join the society then, and how would they benefit from being a part of it?

The society was a great help for me in my first year when I was struggling to settle in. It was a great way to meet new people who study my subject, particularly as it is hard to make friends in a lecture setting. Therefore, having a group of people who know what you’re going through is great. As well as that, by being a member you get discounted rates on Stash and Socials. Often the talks we put on are relevant to careers which we feel social scientists would want to go into, which the Career Zone do not tend to focus on as heavily.

What are the benefits from being a part of the committee then from your own experience?

I think it has taught me a lot about working with other people. We all work really well as a team, but due to the pressure of student life, sometimes people can’t always fulfil their role to their full potential, and therefore someone else has to step up to the plate. Therefore, the experience has taught me how to organise a team. I was Vice President last year, but the President role is a lot more heavily involved with the Guild. I am now a lot more aware of what the Students Guild does for societies and the processes involved. Of course, being a final year, I have learnt (well perhaps am still learning) the art of time management. It is a really rewarding job as well, when you see that all your plans come together, and people are at a social enjoying themselves. That’s what I do it for really!

In what ways do the committee collaborate with the Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology department?

In various ways. Often the department may call on us to help them out at Open Days or Offer Holder Events. As well as this, SocAntSoc in conjunction with SPA piloted a study buddy scheme, which was to help the first year students settle into life at Exeter. The feedback from this pilot scheme is going on to develop something more established for 2015/16. As well as this the lecturers help us advertise our events in lectures sometimes too. Also, they help us to sort out events and talks e.g. Ann Kelly pointed us in the direction of the event with ‘George Marcus’ last term. We also speak in the introduction week talks, so that the first years meet us alongside the department. We most definitely work as a team!

So you mentioned that the society organizes regular socials and events. What sort of socials are these? What was your last social about?

We have a range of socials, pub quizzes, cocktail evenings, nights out, picnics and more! We try to ensure there are a nice mix of events throughout the year. Our last social was a fancy dress night out, where you had to dress up as something which started with the same initial as your last name. I was an iPod, and the Social Sec Lily was a lion!

What can we look forward to from future SocAnt events?

Well, I am very sad to say that my time in SocAntSoc is coming to an end as I will be graduating this summer and moving away from Exeter. However I hope to go out with a bang! We have got some really exciting plans for a Murder Mystery Night at the end of term. This will be the official hand over event for the new committee, and we are hoping it will be a great night. Watch this space for more information! We should have a couple more events in the meantime though! For more information on our events, like us on Facebook.

How can students join the committee?

On the week commencing 9th of March, we will be holding our Annual General Meeting. This is when the new committee get elected. You put forward a manifesto, which then goes up online, and members then vote on our website on the Guild page for their new committee. The positions up for grabs this year are: President, Vice President, Treasurer, Social Sec(s), Publicity Sec and Academic and Careers Rep. We also elect a Fresher’s rep in the beginning of Term 1 of each year. If you would like to find out more you can e-mail me (ih236@exeter.ac.uk) or come along to our ‘Meet the Committee’ event on the 4th March to find out what it is like to be a member of the SocAntSoc team.

And finally, if you were stuck on a desert island, what are the three books that you would bring along to keep you company?

Half the Sky – How to change the world. (Kristof and WuDunn). It is an incredible book about various women who are oppressed in various different ways escape their terrible situation, and find new ways of life, where they are then successful. This book was the reason I chose to study Sociology. Chavs- The demonization of the working class (Owen Jones). It is my bible and always will be. I love everything about Owen Jones. The Progressive Patriot (Billy Bragg). I am a huge fan of Billy Bragg and his politics, and this is a very well written book, which discusses being proud to be British, whilst wanting to avoid the radical politics of groups such as the BNP.


For anyone interested in joining the committee, you will be able to put forward your manifesto and vote (for members only) at this link when it goes live:https://www.exeterguild.org/societies/SocSoc/ In the meantime, “Like” the Sociology and Anthropology Society at their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/exeterunisocantsoc or follow them on Twitter @socantsoc

Jason Chang

Image credit: Rachel Reed