7 billion people

This term eminent thinkers from a broad range of fields will be contributing to a series of lectures with the theme Understanding Society. Taking place on every Tuesday from tomorrow (16 October), the talks will be held in the Lady Mitchell Hall and are open to the public.

The lecture series promises to provoke some deep questions about how we live and how we relate to each other.

Society is one of those words that are regularly bandied around often with little agreement, or discussion, about what they really mean. At its narrowest, society is a word used to describe a group of people united by a common interest or demarcated in other ways; at its widest, society is used as an umbrella term to describe all of us and how we live.

Politicians are especially prone to pronouncements about society. One of the remarks for which Margaret Thatcher is best remembered was her declaration in 1987 that there was “no such thing” as society. She went on to say that instead there were just men and women, and families, and that people should look after themselves first, and then think about how to help their neighbours.  She argued that there wasn’t something called society that would step forward and look after people: they needed to take responsibility for themselves. Thatcher was roundly criticised by the left for dismantling the welfare system and encouraging a climate that labelled those on benefits as scroungers.

Some 20 years later David Cameron came up with an updated approach to the same kind of argument for personal responsibility. He insisted that something called the big society was his number one mission: a shift of power from central government would empower communities to take more control of key issues such as housing and education. Cameron too has been taken to task by the opposition for using ill-defined talk of the big society as a cover for implementing swingeing cuts to the very organisations responsible for providing people such as volunteers to work in grass roots areas where state support falls short of social need.

Whatever our interpretation of the word society, it’s clear that how we see ourselves in relation to others, and how they regard us, is an emotive issue. The alleged use of the word ‘pleb’  by a senior politician in an angry confrontation with a police officer was widely picked up by the press and others as an example of the persistence of outmoded ‘public school’ attitudes of social superiority on the grounds of class snobbery. It was this p-word, rather than the f-word reported to have accompanied it, that was seen as the greater affront to the police.

This term CRASSH is hosting a series of five public lectures, with the theme Understanding Society. Five eminent speakers (Lord Giddens, Juliet Mitchell, Richard Sennett, Bruno Latour and Marilyn Strathern) will explore how we perceive society, and what we think it is, from a range of widely differing viewp oints reflecting their expertise and interests as well as personal experiences.  The series promises to provoke some deep questions about how we live and how we relate to each other.

Leading sociologist Professor Lord Anthony Giddens (who will on 16 October give the first of the lectures) was the main architect of Tony Blair’s third way – an attempt to marry the free market with social justice. Professor Juliet Mitchell (speaking on 23 October) is a psychoanalyst and feminist who has long been active in left-wing politics and publishing. Her lecture title is taken from Hamlet: “In my heart there was a kind of fighting.” Professor Richard Sennett (30 October) was a musician before becoming a sociologist. He is fascinated by how we live in cities and has written several books that address this topic. The most recent, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation, argues that in order to leave peacefully together we need to develop further the craft of cooperation which is an innate human attribute.

The French theorist Professor Bruno Latour (6 November), best known for his book We Have Never Been Modern, is renowned for his contribution to network theory. He will talk about the Modes of Existence project, an ambitious digital platform that invites contributions to a book that explores tricky philosophical issues related to modernity. Professor Marilyn Strathern (13 November) is an anthropologist whose early career entailed extensive field work in Papua New Guinea;  her most recent work has focused on issues surrounding reproductive technologies. Her lecture will look at the notion of assisted society, and what we might understand by such a term, from an anthropological viewpoint.

A panel discussion chaired by Simon Franklin in London will look back at some of the issues discussed in the series. In 2013 a final lecture by the American philosopher Judith Butler will offer a perspective linking feminism, philosophy and language.

All lectures in the Understanding Society series will take place at 5.30pm CRASSH at Lady Mitchell Hall on the Sidgwick Site, Cambridge. All are open to the public and free of charge. The panel discussion will take place at Kings Place, London on 27 November. Tickets cost £9.50-£14.50 from www.crassh.cam.ac.uk or Kings Place Box Office 020 7520 1490. .



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