This week SPA Undergraduate News interviews Dr Matthias Varul, a sociologist in the department specializing in cultural sociology and social theory. In this interview we asked Matthias about his research interests and his views on students’ experiences.
On his background
That was unexpected! I’m a sociologist first of all. I studied sociology with Islamic studies and philosophy as by-subjects. I did a study in industrial sociology, organizational sociology, Taylorism, post-Fordism, expropriation of subjectivities – basically how enterprises try to get hold of employees’ subjectivities and identities as a resource. For my PhD, I’ve written a study on health consumerism that promotes various hypotheses, the central being that of health consumerism as a translation of money into morality. I came here in 2004 and have since then done various things on studying consumerism society, ethical consumption and engaging more broadly in cultural sociology and in social theory. I’m very much interested in capitalism, its moral implications and its moral underpinnings.
On his current research interests
I’ve developed an interest in the role of religion and capitalist development especially on the interrelation between Islam and capitalism with particular attention to Turkey, the late 90s, what they call the “Anatolian Tigers” and the interrelations between economic development and a specific Turkish variety of Islam, sort of a neo-Sufi Islam. All this in relation to the emergence of an Islamic consumer culture, which is interesting because of its political and cultural implications.
On his book project
I am working on a book project “Ghosts and Spirits of Capitalism: Past, Present and Future or yet to come” in which I try to weave all the above into a narrative from into capitalism, through capitalism and out of capitalism; so I’ve got some ideas of how consumerism is suggestive of a socialist future. I’ve written a socialist defence of consumer culture which doubles as a consumerist critique of capitalism. So I’m trying to break the link between consumerism and capitalism.
On inspiration for his book
I haven’t got a book contract yet but I have been contacted by a representative of a publisher who has read my blog and suggested “don’t you want to write a book proposal?” I looked at my miscellaneous writings and the underlying theoretical claims and I thought “actually, there is a story in there.” For example, there is a story in the role of accumulation of ideology. Just like there was an original accumulation of productive resources at the beginning of capitalism there also was an original accumulation of ideologies, disciplines, theologies which sort of made it possible for capitalism to emerge in a specific historical situation. Then there’s the idea that these religious bases of capitalism are destroyed by the capitalist process itself. There are new quasi-religious and moral ideas emerging out of everyday capitalist practices. They reproduce mentalities and ideas of the past that then haunt capitalism: that’s this idea of the ghosts and the machine.
Consumer societies are commodity societies and that means that everything is exchangeable to everything else, or translatable. So you can basically translate your t-shirt into my jacket if you know what the prices are and you think about what it says about how much you’re worth, how much I’m worth. It says something about your position in society, and it also communicates back to you how much valued you are in society, so it’s also a question of recognition.
It is also about collective and individual identity, which is bound together in the logic of fashion. So what you do is, you reproduce an existing style as your own. You can’t just copy. So if you were to get into say, to quote one more prominent style on campus, you can’t just be a Jack Wills person by looking at another Jack Wills person and recreate that item by item. They would basically say that you’re fake.
On student life and its ties to consumerism
You are still in a formative life stage, your identity as a student is less fixed because more of your life is left. You have more chances to change and you are less compelled to justify your past life. You are still more, kind of, “your future”. And also you’ve got a cut from your past, you move into a different context, you have an opportunity to reinvent yourself without having to explain to your mates all the time. University is a space where you can experiment. That’s how a university should be which is why it’s very important to have available space at this stage where you can try out ideas, try out futures where you can dream and that is also reflected in the way you dress which is also an aspect of consumerism. That being embedded in a consumer culture plays into each other because you style yourself aesthetically as that person that you want to become. From the other side, as most people of my age will tell you, it’s very likely that not all of your dreams will come true. But you can still represent some of those dreams, too, by stylistic references.
On seeing the diversity of students every year
There are sort of regularities, but especially with what I am doing, when doing the Imaging Social Worlds class, there we’ve got very small groups where you have more direct interaction. It’s a constant reminder of individuality. If you step back, there are certain student fashions and styles, they might look very uniform in some ways. But then you realise that they all have got their own aspirations, dreams, insecurities and hopes.
For more information on Matthias’ work, visit his blog at http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/unfinishedbusiness/