Author Archives: sf342

Desert Island Books: Philosophy

Continuing our ‘Desert Island Books’ posts, editor Samuel Fawcett lists five essential books that any philosophy student should read.

René Descartes – Meditations on First Philosophy

Descartes is often referred to as the father of modern philosophy, and his Meditations underpins his thought and outlines most of his key      ideas. Intended as a proof of the existence of God, the Meditations have nonetheless proved a touchstone for both religious and secular philosophers, as they stress the importance of scepticism and methodic doubt. It is in this work that the famous ‘I think, therefore I am’ statement originates.

Ludwig Wittgenstein – Philosophical Investigations

A hugely controversial figure in his day, Wittgenstein proposed that nearly all philosophical problems were simply due to semantic and linguistic issues. Philosophical Investigations is his attempt to demonstrate the limitations of language and meaning and how it impedes our search for truth. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the philosophy of language, and serves as a foundation for much of post-modern thought. This work is famed for Wittgenstein theorising that if a lion could speak English, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.

Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex

De Beauvoir was a giant of both existentialist and feminist philosophy, and her work, The Second Sex, is regarded by many as her magnum opus. The book deals with the multitudinous ways in which women’s bodies and thoughts are regulated by a patriarchal society and puts forward a pathway to liberation. It is a groundbreaking work that is credited with igniting second-wave feminism, and it was instantly placed on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books. It was in this work that de Beauvoir stated, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’

Hegel – The Phenomenology of Spirit

If you can make your way through Hegel’s turgid and often over-complicated prose, The Phenomenology of Spirit is one of the most rewarding and important books in understanding modern philosophy. It is in this work that Hegel outlines his famous ideas of the dialectic and absolute idealism. The broad range of topics and ideas covered in Phenomenology formed the basis for many future philosophical and political schools, including existentialism, communism, fascism and nihilism.

Plato – Republic

No list of essential philosophical texts would be complete without Plato’s Republic. Arguably the most influential work of philosophy and political theory ever written, the Republic outlines Plato’s concepts of justice, liberty and fair governance. In outlining these ideas, Plato also puts forward his famous allegory of the cave and his theory of ideas. So many philosophical schools and ideas can trace their roots back to Plato’s Republic, and this alone makes it an essential read for philosophy students.

Studying for a degree? Consider doing work experience!

One of the most useful things about studying for a degree is the opportunity for work experience and the extra-curricular activities it brings. These endeavours can not only enhance your CV, but also broaden your understanding of the subject and how it relates to the wider world.

I was lucky enough to be accepted to intern at the local office of Ben Bradshaw MP, and I can honestly say that as well as demonstrating the practical applications of sociology the experience was a rewarding one, helping me judge in which direction I wish to take my life.

Exeter’s MP since 1997, Ben Bradshaw. (Image: commons.wikimedia.org)

As Exeter is holding elections for its City Council next month, most of my week was taken up by canvassing. We spent the week traversing the length of Exeter, often accompanied by Ben Bradshaw, which though physically tiring gave me a great opportunity to learn more about the city and its residents. Indeed, any kind of volunteer work within a city broadens your knowledge of the area and makes you feel more a part of it. This was furthered by the fact I was able to meet not only the local MP, but also the council leader and various councillors who were able to share their experiences of working in local government and information about Exeter’s communities and the problems they face. Meeting residents was also very informative; issues raised ranged from housing and schooling to their dislike of Labour’s new direction.

From a sociological point of view, what was most interesting was how demographics offer a key indicator of voting behaviour. While working-class areas and council estates proved more likely to support Labour, they were also far more likely to want to vote to leave the European Union. This ties in with findings that show that people in areas that generally possess a lower level of education and are more directly affected by immigration are more likely to wish to leave the EU. Similarly, while middle-class areas were more likely to vote for the Conservatives, they were also more likely to vote Green, which corresponds to the idea that people who have less to lose are more likely to risk voting for principles rather than out of pragmatism.

Anyone studying for a Social Science degree should make sure they learn something of the society and people about which they are theorising and back up their ideas with hard evidence. An ideal way to do this is through work experience in the political, journalistic or charity fields. University is about more than just studying for a degree, and the excellent connections and services of Exeter University and its SPA department provide students with perfect opportunities to pursue the fields in which they are interested.

Third year? Don’t forget to fill in the National Student Survey!

 

If you are a third year studying Sociology, Philosophy or Anthropology at Exeter you have until April 30 to fill in the National Student Survey (NSS). If you have not done so already, we strongly urge you to do so. Departments which fail to receive feedback from 70% of their students do not get a grade in the following year’s league tables. Currently, the SPA department is only slightly further than halfway to reaching this threshold, meaning that the department, currently in the UK’s Top 10, could become ungraded. Obviously, it is in students’ interests that the department receives a grade, as this will affect the value of our degrees.

For every completed survey, Exeter University will donate one pound to RAG and those who complete the survey will be able to claim a free bar of fairtrade chocolate, or vegan alternative, from Amory reception. Theodore Stone, Subject Chair for SPA, writes: ‘It’s extremely important that finalists provide as much feedback as possible in order to locate problems within the college and improve standards.’

Completing the survey takes less than five minutes, and could make a real difference to your degree. So please, if you’re a third-year SPA student, fill in the NSS at www.thestudentsurvey.com and urge any friends you have who are also finalists to do likewise!

 

An interview with the newest member of the SPA team, Christopher Thorpe

Christopher Thorpe is the latest addition to Exeter University’s Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology department, taking over from Anthony King, who left in December. Thorpe graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 2008 with a PhD in Sociology, having already secured a lecturing role at the Robert Gordon University in 2007. In this interview, we ask him about what led him to the subject, his philosophical thoughts and his life prior to and since academia.

Could you tell us a little about your life prior to academia, and how you became interested in Sociology?

When I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do in terms of subject choice for further study. I  wasn’t particularly interested in going to university, so I didn’t. I wanted to travel and work abroad, in Italy specifically, so that’s what I did. I worked on a campsite, learned Italian fluently and subsequently returned to Lake Garda and Verona every year during the summers whilst I did my undergraduate degree in sociology. In terms of what attracted me to sociology, this is a vexed question! I tend to think such a question is a bit misleading because it implies I made a conscious decision to do sociology, which of course, I did at one level. What I didn’t do, or rather, what I cannot lay claim to, are the very many aspects of myself that meant sociology struck me as the only game in town. I went to private school and grew up in a boarding house but my father went to the LSE and was a local Labour candidate for a while (it’s a long story!). Sociological ways of thinking enabled me to understand the social conditions out of which my own selfhood developed, a sense of selfhood that I always felt slightly at odds with at one level. Therein, I believe, lays part of the truth behind what was to become something akin to a very intense relationship!

 

For those who aren’t familiar with it, what kind of research did you undertake during your time at Aberdeen?

During my time at Aberdeen, and at the Robert Gordon University before that, I began to develop my research interests. One strand of my work, which I hope to reengage with very soon, builds on the subject of my PhD thesis and is concerned with inter-cultural dynamics and processes between Italy and Britain. In particular, I am interested in the ways culture generally, but Italian culture specifically, is understood, shaped and consumed by different social class-groups in the U.K. Part of this involves looking at the ways in which aspects of Italian culture that seem quite banal for native Italians are re-appropriated into the lifestyles of dominant social groups as markers of class-based taste and distinction. In terms of my interest in (Italian) culture, my next project, which I have discussed with Jeffrey Alexander, whom I was fortunate enough to meet, will involve using my PhD thesis as the basis for writing a structural hermeneutics of international cultural interchange between Italy and Britain. On a completely different note, I am presently in the latter stages of writing a social theory textbook aimed at social work students and professionals entitled: Social Theory for Social Work: Ideas and Applications. Part of my teaching remit involved teaching Masters level social work postgraduates. They loved the insights that social theory gave them, but the issue of how to incorporate them into their thinking and practice was not clear to them, and the book aims to address this.

 

Do you identify with any schools of Sociology in particular?

I suppose I do, yes, but always in a context wherein I am aware that this says as much about me as it does about the merits of the ideas of that school. An act of identification always implies a relationship and relationships are more likely to take hold and develop in certain contexts and not others. In fact, the issue of the context in which an elective affinity springs up between a given thinker and a particular set of ideas is one which interests me a great deal and is something I have written about.

 

Do you have a favourite academic book/paper/piece of research etc.?

As a piece of writing I was massively impressed with Simon Charlesworth’s ‘A Phenomenology of Working-Class Experience’. I think, really it should have been entitled ‘Phenomenology of Unemployment’, but there you go. I think his use of language, once you take the time to master it, is brilliant. I know certain writing styles are accused as being overly obfuscatory, but to write about the things he does, and so well, I believe requires going beyond everyday ways of thinking and writing. I am okay with that. I wish I could write like that.

 

Do you think there are any sociologists/anthropologists/philosophers whose importance and work is underestimated?

I can think of a few who are vastly overrated – that would have been an easier question! Not that I think his work is necessarily underestimated, but I don’t believe students are exposed enough to the work of Simmel. I think too, that the work of Norbert Elias is a considerable achievement, although like Simmel, his work is regarded as something a little off the beaten track. Elias obviously owes a large debt to Simmel, which he seems very little concerned to have acknowledged, ironically! I think sociology in the present day would have been quite different had the work of these two thinkers been embraced more by the discipline.

 

Is there a major issue – whether philosophical or political – on which you’ve changed your mind?

This will sound incredibly soppy, but I am a bit of an old romantic at heart. I think my views on the issue of love have changed. One can, and many have, tried to philosophize and think about love sociologically and anthropologically, but I have never read anything that I feel really does the subject justice. Bourdieu’s analysis of love, for example, ends in a kind of self-affirming narcissism. Luhmann focusses on the different forms love has taken at different times and what is understood to constitute love, but really, as it is experienced and in terms of its power as a motivating force in human life, it remains a very powerful and largely analytically resistant topic. I read quite recently a relatively unknown book called ‘Love and Limerence’, which I thought was brilliant (I wouldn’t say I loved it), but ironically the author ended by concluding that her study had not really provided her with any real insights into what love is or why it is capable of exerting such strong feelings – and not necessarily positive ones – over people.

 

Finally, can you name a favourite novel, album and TV series?

My favourite novel is tough, not least because one’s tastes change with the passing of time. That said, I am rather fond of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The story is a very simple one and yet it operates on so many levels. It’s a psychological thriller of the highest order. My favourite album is Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I cannot sit still listening to it. My favourite TV series is ITV’s adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories featuring the superlative, Jeremy Brett. Cumberbatch is good but when I watch Brett at no point do I ever feel that he is acting. I like that.

Christopher Thorpe is the latest addition to Exeter's SPA department

Christopher Thorpe is the latest addition to Exeter’s SPA department

Why Study Sociology? Because it’s more relevant than ever.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a Sociology student is, ‘why study a Social Science?’ Shouldn’t I be studying something like a hard science, economics or business management if I want to get a “serious job”? Why should employers be interested in a social science degree? I must say, I find these assertions a little disingenuous. Quite aside from the benefits which come with any degree – research and analytical skills, an increased ability to work independently etc – I believe that Sociology is one of the most applicable degrees available.

Boiled down to its simplest elements, the word Sociology means the study of society, which makes it a discipline grounded in an ever-changing social world and one which is always relevant. The close relationship the subject has to everyday life and current affairs makes it an exciting one to study, prompting its students to look at the world around them anew. As well as this, this relationship makes the discipline a very important one, with those working within it tackling such problems as the refugee crisis, urban deprivation and crime.

While society has always been subject to upheaval and unrest, I do believe that we are currently experiencing a particularly tumultuous period, the gravity of which people are only just beginning to understand. It would seem that the consensuses established after 1945 are being undermined at an alarming rate. Since the financial crash, we have seen an unprecedented rise in nationalistic, anti-egalitarian movements which no one could have really predicted. From UKIP’s rise in the UK, to the Front National’s in France and the PVV in the Netherlands, nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-EU parties are surging. Even in Germany, the anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement has rapidly grown in popularity – particularly after the attacks in Cologne. In no small part, the growth of these sentiments has been fuelled by the refugee crisis putting pressure on European border policy, and the expansion of ISIS and renewed threat of Islamist terrorism.It is clear that the very foundations of European co-operation and liberal democracy are seriously threatened for the first time in the postwar era.

A protest against the ‘”Islamisation” of Europe, by the German far-right street movement ‘PEGIDA’. (Photo Jan Meyer/AP)

Coupled with this are seemingly ever-increasing divisions between social groups. Only last week, the so-called pick-up artist and anti-feminist ‘Roosh V’, a more grotesque example of the growing ‘Men’s Rights Activist’ movement, had to cancel a series of meetings of his ‘neo-masculinist’ movement. This was largely because of threats he had received as a result of his stance on legalising marital rape. Thankfully, such extreme views are rare, but it cannot be denied that the climate of debate in general has become more toxic – especially with the advent of social media. Debates between left and right have become increasingly polarised, with personal insults, censorship and threats now commonplace – a state of affairs which should worry anybody who values democracy and debate.

All this being set against an increasingly insecure job market, a hacking back of the state and revolutions in digital technology makes the future very uncertain, even rather dangerous. We have made the mistake of assuming that ‘progress’ is something easily defined and linear, and we forget that society is able to fall back into darker times far easier than progress to brighter ones. If our present is marked by anything, it is uncertainty, and it is the job of sociologists and anthropologists to try to both understand and explain what is happening. In my opinion, we are experiencing a backlash against rapid social change which has left an increasing amount of people ontologically insecure and in need of something to stake their colours to.

For my part, studying Sociology has led me to the thought of Émile Durkheim, and I believe his belief in social solidarity and collectivism in preference to the individual has great pertinence for our age. However, I realise there are plenty who would disagree with me, and it is this that makes Sociology a stimulating subject to study. In 2015, Exeter was ranked as one of the top 10 Universities in the UK for Sociology by both The Complete University Guide and the Guardian newspaper. Coupled with the broadness of the course and specialisms of the academic staff, studying Sociology at Exeter can equip you with the skills and knowledge needed to help combat some of the most pressing issues of our time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with the Joint Presidents of the Sociology and Anthropology Society

One of the ways you can get more involved in the SPA department is through the Sociology and Anthropology Society, who put on both social and academic events and are a good port-of-call for any issues students may have. In this interview, we talk to Joint Presidents Lily Francis and Rachel Reed about studying at Exeter and the society itself.

Introduce yourselves!

LF: Hi, my name is Lily Francis, I am a third year sociology student and Joint President of the Sociology and Anthropology Society!

RR: I’m Rachel, Joint President of the Sociology and Anthropology Society and a third year BA Sociology Student.

Why did you choose to study Sociology?

LF: I chose to study Sociology because I always knew I was interested in people and why we act in the ways that we do. Once I studied Sociology at A level I knew it was the subject for me! I love the range of topics you can cover in sociology, anything from media, to health, to globalisation and I honestly feel that it relates to the actual world we live in, rather than being too theoretical!

RR: I was supposed to study Biology as an A level but I got put off by the course. I started scrolling through the courses at college and came across Sociology. After reading about it and researching it, I discovered that it was something I’d rather be doing. I preferred looking at different aspects of society, particularly education and childhood. So I quickly changed my Biology A level to Sociology. After working hard and getting an A*, I realised it was something I enjoyed and should carry on pursuing.

What’s your favourite thing about studying in Exeter?

LF: The range of subjects that we can study, and the flexibility of the courses here. I’ve taken modules in Sociology, Anthropology, and Philosophy which means I’ve been able to widen my knowledge and be more than simply a Sociology student. I also love the campus! It’s so pretty and green, and I am always finding new places that I hadn’t yet discovered like the gardens surrounding Reed Hall.

RR: The campus! It’s so green and open. Although the hills are a struggle; it’s a good workout!

Why did you get involved with the Sociology and Anthropology Society and why should others do the same?

LF: I thought it would be a great way to make friends – and I was right! Most of my really close friendships at Exeter have originated from the society, whether we met at my fresher’s meet and greet picnic, or at a social in 2nd year, I have found some amazing people to hang out with! I think being part of the committee only strengthens those relationships, but also is a great way to develop yourself as a person! I have gained lots of confidence by being on the committee, and have developed vital skills that will (hopefully) impress future employers!

RR: I joined SocAntSoc as a member in first year. At the end of first year I realised that I hadn’t been getting involved in as much activities as I would have liked to. The AGM for SocAntSoc arrived and I decided I should run and got the place as the academic and careers rep. Then this year I got the joint role of president. It allowed me to take a break from studies, explore what Exeter has to offer outside of the University and to make new friends. Not only that, but it can allow students to help each other with their modules

Do you have any study tips for your fellow students that you consider vital?

LF: 1) Actually do work in first year (I know, boring!). But it helps you to prepare for the next two years, rather than it being a shock when you find yourself with 3 pieces of coursework that you had never properly practised before!

2) Learn how to reference properly and quickly. Find a method that works for you, and try and do it as you are going along – it saves lots of time in the future.

3) Find a favourite place to work. Mine is at my desk in my flat, but many students like the library, the sanctuary, or even Costa! Wherever you work best – stick to it!

Lastly, I know everyone says it, but actually give yourself a break and have some fun! I guarantee your lasting memories of university will be the good times you shared with your friends rather than slouched over a desk at 2am.

RR: Organise your time – Write down when all of your deadlines are. Make quality notes! They’ll help you out with revision and essays. Finally, get enough sleep!

Finally, what are your post-graduation plans?

LF: To go travelling for a month around South-East Asia, and after hopefully find a job! I am aiming to work in customer services management in the South West area.

RR: I’m going back home to Cornwall as I have a place on a postgraduate SCITT programme. I’m going to (hopefully) become a primary school teacher!