What to put in your conceptual backpack
- a guide to being a 'vagabond sociologist'
Imagine you've just landed by boat on an island far from the rest of civilisation. You've looked around, decided that it feels safe and now have to make some decisions about where you should stay and how everything works for visitors 'around here'. There's no Internet, it's a place that the Lonely Planet guides seem to have missed off their list, and you've got to rely on your instincts and interpersonal skills. Although you share a common language and the level of technology is similar to your own expectations, there are things that don't make sense. No one seems to be wearing any official looking clothing, there are market stalls full of goods and food set out but no one seems to be paying for anything, everyone seems calm, are mostly on foot, smiling a lot, but when you summon up the courage to ask about accommodation, you nearly cause a riot because everyone within earshot offers you a bed for the night at the same time. Amidst all of the handshakes and welcomes, you realise that no one has mentioned money, and all that is required in exchange for hospitality are a few tales about your home country, possibly a song or some recipes. Maybe you could also join the morning rota for sweeping the pier and market square?
So as you unpack your backpack and prepare for a sociable evening, you realise that the community that you've wandered into is organised along very different lines to what you thought was possible. Being an inquisitive soul, you start asking yourself some questions about the world you've just wandered into. ….
First conceptual dilemma: What holds societies together? We rarely ask ourselves something so fundamental, except when there is a crisis – a natural disaster, a water or petrol shortage – and everyone clubs together on your street. For those who analyse societies as their job – sociologists and anthropologists, political theorists and psychologists – the answer to this is critical, and yet it is also so elusive because of what we bring to any investigation. We forget that our starting assumptions are often caught up with the power structures which have shaped our own conditioning. Too often we don't put our own 'acts of observation under observation'i, to paraphrase the late great maverick sociologist Niklas Luhmann. It never occurs to us that how we conceptualise the world itself may be part of the problems that we are trying to alleviate, or entirely unsuitable for comprehending a culture very different to our own. How we think about a problem is governed by our assumption as to what the solution might be apriori. This in turn rests upon certain expectations as to how things fit together – authority structures, symbols of power, accumulation of material goods, divisions of labour and skills, standing armies or weapons, patriarchs, moral leaders or opinion formers – and if they are absent it is easy to believe that this is a problem, as opposed to just being different. Hence the language of ‘failed states’ or ‘ungoverned spaces’: how did people manage before the agricultural revolution and the emergence of large settlements?
A lot of the history of sociology has been about reproducing this kind of thinking, in one form or another, often following the needs and assumptions of those who fund it (large State administered research bodies, charities, corporate money). Independent perspectives have often had to be conducted ‘outside the whale’ as C. Wright Mills put it, although happily, a steady stream of activist academic oddballs like Howard Becker have kept prodding with the question ‘whose side are we on?’ – something which forty years of feminist sociology and cultural studies have provided a response to, by way of more grassroots or (dare I say it?) home-based perspectives. We now realise, of course, what holds societies together: it is always unpaid female labour, the informal economy, the voluntary sector, friendships, trust, empathy, love; it is just that we don’t try and run our societies as though this matters (and it doesn't show up on many balance sheets).
Something similar has occurred in cultural anthropology, with a resurgence of interest in so-called 'gift economics' – especially through the resurrection of the work of Marcel Mauss – whose impact now is arguably much broader a century after he wrote his key work The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies.
Both of these developments are part of an ongoing series of challenges to the dominant mode of economic thinking driving capitalist societies, which prioritises 'exchange' and 'use' value to the exclusion of the subtler 'experience' value (sometimes called ‘identity value’). This of course is hard to quantify in terms of calculating the GDP of a country, and as Buddhist economists have been pointing out since the 1970s, one can’t measure the well being of a society by crunching export data of disposable goods, compared to say how socially productive a city where you can breath clean air or have access to green spaces might be.
Our imaginary island illustrates the point that the moment you take an abstract idea like money out of the social equation, one’s relationship with others changes. Instead of worrying about if you have been ripped off or dismissed from the transaction without a thank you, one accrues a whole set of social bonds, obligations, debts and most importantly, assurances; that others will look after you if you put the effort in too. Entire societies have run this way, such as in the village-based Dama trading systems of Mali, where everyone contributes on the basis that their needs will be provided for if they chip in with their own skills: be they tending crops or animals, cooking, child care, repairs, entertainment and so forth. These small scale methods have existed for thousands of years, proving perhaps that this is what people have always done, since we evolved notions of collective self-interest in hunter gatherer societies. iii
Travellers who eschew the formal apparatuses of hospitality – tour packages, guides, chain hotels and insurance policies – are merely tapping into this alternative reality. Legendary Russian hitchhiker and founder of the Academy of Free Travel Anton Krotov, talks of ‘opening a country’ to find the ‘halyava’ (relationships not defined by money), believing that people have more in common with one another than those who put borders between us like us to believe. It is what networks such as BeWelcome aim to facilitate through linking hitchhiking and couch surfing: cultural exchange and cooperation outwith official mediation. It is why Jacob Holdt (pictured) used that captivating phrase ‘security is being on the road with no money’ in his book American Pictures – a philosophy which bore true for five years as he hitched around some of the poorest parts of the Deep South in the 1970s documenting what he saw. Changed by the view from the kerbside and the compassion of those who helped him Holdt has been paying many of those social debts back, tirelessly campaigning against racism and its roots in fear and inequality, across the world for over forty years.
So we come to our second conceptual dilemma: how do we start to analyse the world from such a radically different position? Proposition: we formulate some categories which allow us to make sense of the world this way! If one is looking for informal and cooperative networks in society, it is probably best not to interview elite decision-makers and business experts! A ‘vagabond sociologist’ has different priorities, more in tune with our alternative island community, where one must put on a new set of conceptual spectacles.
Usually sociologists would approach the investigation of a particular social problem, or a new cultural phenomenon, by looking how concepts of social class, gender, ethnicity or locality shape its participants, their actions and the power relations involved. Some of these would be weighed against one another to determine the most likely truth of the situation (either by statistical analysis using 'variables' of likelihood using large data pools, or just interpretation of attitudes based on more 'qualitative' interviews). One of the difficulties of this approach is that the premises of the research tend to be somewhat 'weighted' towards one or more of the variables, because in effect the assumptions of the research are to find out the likelihood of say, a school being exclusionary on grounds of ethnicity, or workplaces being dominated by men, or political movements being class based. It can easily become a kind of ‘falsification’ process. Of course, I am simplifying, but maybe we just need to shift the focus in our viewfinder, to broaden the field. A ‘vagabond sociologist’ may be more interested in asking themselves how friendly or empathetic the society which they are travelling through is; what kind of people give lifts and why?
This makes the kerbside a useful analytical springboard because the reasons why the hitchhiker is there in the first place may tell us as much about the power relations within the society as the reasons why some groups of people may be more inclined to offer lifts than others. So, whilst the lift-giving process may be determined by a myriad of decisions in the moment, the background to whether to stop (or accept) is more complex: determined perhaps as much by empathy as occupation, age, class, gender and ethnicity and so forth.
This is a structural matter and how some political cultures and social organisations facilitate compassion more than others. In which case, let us start with some generic variables – hierarchy, cooperation and freedom – into which we might want to work factors of class, gender and ethnicity etc. So, when we look out from the kerbside, we need to be checking the local terrain for evidence of:
Hierarchy * Cooperation * Freedom
Social class * Gender * Ethnicity * Locality
i. Hierarchy How much do forms of hierarchy and domination impact on the lives of those who we meet on the road? We know for instance that very hierarchical societies have a tendency to be patriarchal, oppress minorities, accumulate wealth, restrict the liberties of their citizens or 'subjects' and many other things too. How might these inequalities manifest themselves or combine with others forms of injustice? Is the society more patriarchal than plutocratic; does one ethnic group dominate another in those structures or is it all divided by class and gender? As a rule, more equal societies have fewer systems of control and governance, and the distances between those making decisions and the people affected by them are narrower, more accountable and less driven by money. So, when we access a country or a community by more informal means, it can afford us a glimpse of circumstances which official representatives would not impart to us. Judge a society too, many have said, by its attitudes towards strangers (and the minority communities whom those strangers might meet!)
ii. Cooperation By contrast, how much self-organisation and mutual aid do we see in the societies which we are passing through? How often do people participate in the organisation of their everyday lives – as in our island example – and does transport play a part in this? Levels of cooperation within a society can be a reflection of the relative power and influence which populations have over the States and Corporations who dominate most of their activities. More cooperative societies are likely to respect individual liberties, value diversity and participation, devolve power even. Small is not necessarily beautiful, but greater levels of mutual aid and accountability along with face-to -face dealings tend to promote tolerance and equality. This is something many island or 'intentional' communities have found, or is brilliantly realised in the sizeable Mondragon collectives in the Basque district of Spain. So, perhaps it is a case of “(don't) take me to your leader” when you arrive somewhere new.
iii. Freedom Travel itself is hardly ‘free’ in any sense of the word, yet many hitchhikers regard their road time as being one of the freest of their lives. Mostly this seems to be connected with a sense of independence from officialdom and the paid economy, plus the chance to meet and negotiate one’s journey with random strangers. This claiming of liberty is in opposition to classic liberal democratic theory (John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin) which determines that freedoms are brokered by a benign State as part of a social contract, as though they are gifts to its citizens. Sometimes this is expressed in the idea of ‘freedom from (persecution)’ or the ‘freedom to (express opinion)’, which ignores how structurally complicit governments and their corporate allies can be in depriving the liberties of many (climate science denial, falsifying pollution tests in the automobile industry, using refugees as international bargaining chips) Too often freedom is individualised in terms of consumer choice (the 'rights of the motorist' etc), whereas most liberties have actually been secured through collective actions for a new set of values with the welfare of many (and now the planet) at the heart of their campaigns. The powerful are usually the last to recognise these struggles.
So, with these lenses on, any vagabond sociologist would see a more complex picture of the flows of power in a society. Using hierarchy, cooperation and freedom as touchstones, any prioritisation of class or gender or ethnicity as a main tool of analysis looks less convincing. Relations of authority cut across categories, forms of injustice overlap and there will be regional variations perhaps based on geographical and climate justice factors (the best land for growing, least polluted cities or rivers etc) which reinforce the above. Indeed, relations of authority are also closely linked to how we think about and engage with the planetary ecosystem, hence the view from the kerbside must also pose the question:
iv How connected with Nature are we as travellers? Of all of the modes of transport, hitchhiking is perhaps most curiously positioned: both an observer of the impact on the ecosystem and also dependent on the automobile and its technological systems. Many hitchhikers talk about how they slip into a different ‘temporal’ universe, less concerned with the pressures of ‘clock time’, travelling in a way that seems more in tune with natural rhythms – connected to their immediate environments in a very detailed way sometimes (the same piece of concrete!) We know that slower travel is more respecting of nature and one’s psychological health: there is a huge difference for instance between a canal boat, a pedestrian, horse rider or cyclist and those on an autobahn zipping along at 120 kph or flying at 10 km above sea level, in terms of experience of the landscape and the damage. Sometimes these reproduce existing hierarchies: the relationship between speed and power is an old one. In the case of flying, the speed not only renders the landscape and all of its politics irrelevant, but it may be the moral equivalent of ignoring a homeless person on the high street, because the chances of crossing an area experiencing war, famine, climate breakdown are quite high, in addition to the huge sweeps of plastic-saturated warming ocean. Given our awareness of the impact of fossil fuels, it is evident that our relationship with Nature whilst travelling must be regarded as part of a general alienation or cognitive dissonance from the reality of our actions, which puts some of the aforementioned structural issues into a different light.
So, if the conceptual backpack feels a bit heavy suddenly and you were tempted to make a quick getaway from the island, maybe it is worth sticking around for news of other gift economies or self-organising communities and transport systems, because this is the fun bit: changing the world!
Our third conceptual dilemma is in terms of application: how do we use 'vagabond sociology' to visualise a more sustainable and egalitarian future? The island example of a gift economy which I began with is easy to picture, and in a sense this is part of the problem. In a world of negative news media and vested interests in fossil fuels and growth, we are not usually encouraged to see the myriads of cooperative projects sustained by the gift economy which generate goodwill, regardless of what is happening on bigger stages. We're also selling ourselves short in terms of remembering what countries are capable of doing in a crisis – even on something as mundane as transport.
When the parts of any creation mirrors the whole we talk about balance and gestalt and cultures being holistic. Apposite then to evoke the notion of a ‘fractal democracy’, where we try and examine our societies from the point of view of how localised initiatives reflect the wider cultural picture of a place.i The complexity sciences have given us pictures of the natural world, such as coastlines, which look the same whether one is immediately above a Norwegian fjord or seeing it from space. The same goes for how human settlements are patterned, and I suggest it's political cultures too. So if we zoom in and out, as though we were looking to catch sight of our hitchhikers and car share schemes, we would ask more general questions about other aspects of the society in question. How do those vagabond variables look now? Does the society support more informal types of social and economic initiatives which thrive on participation and communication within small groups; does it facilitate greater levels of ecological awareness; do the State and Corporate worlds hold sway or are the vagabond sociologists already shaping the landscape on the quiet?
As you set out to leave our hypothetical gift economy island, conceptual backpack a touch heavy maybe, there's plenty to think about, but if you've read this far perhaps there are a few other books and sources of inspiration which you might want to carry with you on future journeys, for reference. Good luck utilising your vagabond sociological imagination!
Some of these ideas are also explored in other documents on this website: ‘The Hitchhiker as theorist’, ‘Towards an Anarchist Sociology’ and more expansively (a tad laboriously even!) in my PhD ‘A Sociology of Environmental Protest’.
A short reading list of books which have influenced this article.
Bell, B. (2009) 'Mali's Gift Economy' http://www.dailygood.org/more.php?n=3893 (accessed 26/6/2019)
Boehm, C. (1999) Hierarchy in the Forest: the evolution of egalitarian behaviour, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Boehm, C. (2012) Moral Origins, New York: Basic Books.
Graeber, D. (2004) Fragments of an anarchist anthropology, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm
Griffiths, J. (1999) Peep peep: a sideways look at time, London: Flamingo.
Holdt, J. (1985) American Pictures, Copenhagen: American Pictures Foundation.
Jones A.(2011) 'The Violence of materialism in advanced industrial society: an eco-sociological approach, Sociological Review 35(1):19 - 47 · August (originally published 1987)
Mauss, M. (1967) The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies, New York: Norton Books
Scott, J.C. (1998) Seeing like a State, New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
Williams D. and Shantz, J. (2013) Anarchy and Society: Reflections on anarchist sociology, Boston: Brill.
i Luhmann, N. (1998) Observations on Modernity, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
ii Smaller and more egalitarian associations of people are better placed to employ 'levelling mechanisms' – as anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls them in – against rogue leaders and disruptive bad decision making (‘the reverse dominance’ thesis) and, it follows, be more cooperative.
iii. See Heckert, J. (2010) ‘Anarchist roots and routes’, European Journal of Ecopsychology 1, 19-36.
**PHOTO CREDITS of Jacob Holdt - By Niels Elgaard Larsen - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Written July 2019
(c) J. Purkis