Interview with Gurminder Bhambra

Gurminder K. Bhambra is the convenor of the British Sociological Association’s (BSA) Theory Study Group, and is currently editing a TCS Special Issue on economist Amartya Sen. In this interview with Simon Dawes, she discusses the activities of the Group, Sen’s theories and her own research interests.

Image: Gurminder K. Bhambra

Simon Dawes: Gurminder, you’re the convenor of the BSA Theory Group. Could you tell us a little about the group, and how you became involved with them? And why do you think the Group is necessary – do you think British sociologists have a tendency to neglect theory in their research?

Gurminder Bhambra: The Theory Study Group is a longstanding study group of the British Sociological Association. I took on convening it in 2006 with Steve Kemp (Edinburgh) and Ipek Demir (Leicester) on the steering committee. I think the group is increasingly necessary in terms of advancing the profile of ‘theory’ within sociology more generally. The report on the last RAE indicated that while theory was central to sociology, fewer departments were submitting ‘research clusters’ in the area of theory and that this was a real cause for concern for the discipline. The recent discussions around ‘impact’ are also not conducive to the field of theory and so I think we need to work together to maintain and develop those spaces that exist for critical reflection and thought.

SD: What sort of activities have the Group been involved in since you became convenor, and what else is on the agenda? I know you have a symposium on ‘the age of re-embodiment’ coming up soon. Perhaps you could explain what ‘re-embodiment’ is? And does this give us an indication of the sort of direction in which you’re taking the Group?

GB: In 2008, to signal the start of a new period of activity for the group, we organised an international conference to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the events of 1968. The conference, ‘1968: Impact and Implications’, was very successful with over 90 papers accepted and close on 200 people attended. Since then, we have organised a new Theory stream at the annual BSA conference, put on stand-alone events ourselves, and also supported events organised by others which fall within our remit of advancing research in the area of social and sociological theory.

The symposium on ‘the age of re-embodiments’ is one such initiative that we are supporting. It has been organised by Ruth Thomas-Pellicer (Surrey) and seeks to examine the possibilities for re-centring theory around popular struggles and embodied experiences and away from simply abstract conceptualisations. The Group is open to supporting various initiatives in the area of theory and does not seek to direct that research in any particular way. For example, we have supported symposia on topics as diverse as Foucault and the family, understanding diasporas, anti-Semitism and sociological theory, and critical realism. Next year we will be organising another international conference provisionally titled ‘Theory for a Global Age: Imperialism, Slavery and Empire’.

We also seek to facilitate the publication of papers presented at events we organise. An edited volume containing a select number of the papers presented at the conference on 1968 was published by Palgrave in 2009 under the title, 1968 in Retrospect: History, Theory, Alterity. The Theory stream plenary at the 2009 BSA conference, ‘Global Social Inquiry: The Challenge of Listening’, resulted in a special section of Sociological Research Online on this topic. The 2010 Theory stream plenary was on the work of Amartya Sen and his recent book, The Idea of Justice, and the papers from this event are currently being edited for a special issue of TCS.

SD: On that subject, could you tell us a little about Sen, his theory of justice and his concept of capabilities, and give us a taster of the recent session and forthcoming special issue?

GB: Amartya Sen is an internationally renowned economist whose work has been influential across many disciplinary domains and national contexts. His influence has perhaps been greatest in the areas of welfare economics, development studies, social policy, and political theory with sociology being rather late in its engagement with his work. Although Sen’s work addresses sociological issues, such as poverty and the diversity of needs, few sociologists have explicitly engaged with his work. Indeed, at the International Sociological Association conference in July this year, Alain Touraine urged sociologists to begin engaging with Sen and represented him as a model for us in thinking about public sociology. The BSA annual conference earlier in the year had as its theme ‘Inequalities and Social Justice’ and given that Sen had recently published his book on The Idea of Justice, I thought it would be pertinent to organise the Theory stream plenary around Sen’s work and its link to the conference theme.

Sen’s theory of justice seeks to provide a historically embedded account of justice which recognises the necessity of compromise and complexity. This is in contrast to the dominant approaches within political philosophy and economics which tend to emphasise a single principle for adjudicating claims for justice. In this way, Sen is open to the contribution to ideas of justice and tolerance that have been produced historically and in other contexts than those conventionally recognised by the Western tradition. Equally, his idea of capabilities is designed to engage with immediate problems of suffering and disadvantage stressing how agency can be effective and puncturing the complacent assumption that ‘normal’ processes of growth and economic advance will secure benefits against the possibly distorting effects of intervention.

For the BSA theory stream plenary, we brought together four sociologists who were engaging with Sen from various perspectives and a lively session ensued. This resulted in the idea for a Special Issue on this theme for TCS. The collection of articles, which includes an extra commissioned article as well as shorter commentaries, addresses the relation between ‘sociological reason’ and ‘public reason’ bringing Sen’s work into fruitful dialogue with recent debates in sociology around the themes of democracy, justice, and global inequalities.

SD: Finally, how do your own research interests relate to the activities of the Theory Group and to the work of Amartya Sen, and what are you currently working on?

GB: My research has primarily been on addressing how, within sociological understandings of modernity, the experiences and claims of non-European ‘others’ have been rendered invisible to the dominant narratives and analytical frameworks of sociology. I have sought to challenge the dominant Eurocentred accounts of the emergence and development of modernity and to put forward an argument for the recognition of ‘connected histories’ in the reconstruction of key sociological concepts. I have developed this research in subsequent work critiquing the idea of cosmopolitanism as exemplified by Beck and also addressing notions of global history and global sociology which often seek to posit the global without taking the world beyond the West into consideration; or without examining what such a consideration would mean for the categories of thought with which they initially began. I think, following Leela Gandhi, that is it important to acknowledge the epistemological value and agency of the world beyond the West and also to rethink our disciplinary categories and concepts in light of their structured absences and silences. It is not enough simply to add what has previously been missing, but rather it is necessary to deconstruct the structures of knowledge which enabled such exclusions in the first place and then reconstruct them in terms more adequate to our times. While the Theory group supports various initiatives in the area of theory, in the events it organises itself, it seeks to broaden what is understood as theory, both in terms of the theorists engaged with and the topics considered. Amartya Sen’s work is of interest because, perhaps uniquely among economists, he has challenged the rigid axiomatic universalism of that discipline to engage with issues of more locally constructed moralities and ideas of justice while avoiding debilitating relativism.

Gurminder K. Bhambra is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK, and convenor of the British Sociological Association’s Theory Study Group. She co-organized the re-launch conference, 1968: Impact and Implications, held in 2008 in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research.

Simon Dawes is the Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and the Content Editor of the TCS Website.

The TCS Special Issue on Amartya Sen is still in production.

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