Interview with SASE President Jacqueline O’Reilly
What has anarchism and activism got to do with socio-economics? How does someone get from attending the first SASE conference to becoming the organization’s president? What is the role of academic societies in these insecure times? In this interview, Jacqueline O’Reilly reflects on her eventful stint as SASE President.
Interview conducted by Gábor Scheiring
YOU AND SASE
First of all, why did you want to become SASE President?
I didn’t – it was SASE who chose me! It wasn’t on my radar and came as a real shock; but a nice shock. I was honoured, and humbled by what felt an undeserved advantage, to follow in the steps of SO many previous presidents whose work has really influenced my own research.
Did you have any particular projects as President?
Oh my goodness!! Where do we begin? The whole experience and transition to hybrid meetings, managing the financial stability of SASE, and the surge of enthusiasm to organise new events that really ensure our debates are relevant and engaged has brought with it so many new projects.
The Pre-conference online Salons were aimed at meeting the greening agenda and allow more inclusive participation for those unable to attend in person. We have had some fantastic debates. Thank you everyone involved in helping organise those, and especially to Jacob Bromberg whose super professionalism kept all the widgets turning on time. Let’s discuss how these may evolve.
Conference projects include three great plenary sessions that really look at the conference themes in terms of fractious labour protest, the politics of plastic and climate litigation, and post colonialism.
Alongside these we have four special sessions. Karen Shire has organised A Tribute to David Marsden who made such a major contribution to SASE and SER and passed away far too early. Amy Offner, who won the Amsden Book prize last year, enthusiastically organised a session about Alice’s Life and Work.
Brexit, what is there not to love about that fractious connection that never stops giving? A massive thank you to Hussein Kassim for bringing that together with brilliant contributors. And, obviously with lots of very conscious bias, I am also massively looking forward to the Women and Gender (WAG) event with three fantastic Black women writers and activists: Sharon Dodua Otoo, Chelsea Kwaky and Ore Ogunbiyi – don’t miss it!!! They are amazing. And if you didn’t get up in time – you can catch up on the SASE YouTube.
This year’s conference reflects SASE’s progressive spirit truly: it’s rare to see anarchy and activism in academic conference titles. What was the motivation behind this year’s thematic focus?
It took me about three months to work out a theme for the conference that became ‘Fractious Connections’. The idea is related to a concept we are exploring around the idea of the ‘connected worker’ as part of our work at the UK ESRC research centre on Digital Futures at Work, where I am the co-Director with Mark Stuart from the University of Leeds, in the UK.
I wanted to make links between the ideas from our digit centre, but it had to be more than digital connections. It had to be something that had relevance to the wider and more diverse SASE community.
In the random way you think about the world around you, influenced by watching the news, and living your own life, there was the of storming the capitol, Hong Kong, Brexit, Ireland, BLM, Gillet Jaune, and now Ukraine. So the conference theme had to be something inclusive that captured all of these very different lived experiences that we were either involved in or were watching on the news.
So, after coming up with two words in three months, I thought – if I’m lucky I will have a whole sentence by the end of the year; along with an entire academic paper that explains it all! Bravo – good luck with that one! The concept of Fractious Connections is a work in progress, but an idea and potential analytical framework to use to capture the zeitgeist in many different environments, without wanting to sound very pretentious. The sub themes followed on from this simple main idea.
Anarchy is such powerful and creative way to think about organising. However, it often encounters negative reactions. When I coordinated the EU STYLE project on youth unemployment, I used to say it was ‘organised anarchy’. This statement raised an eyebrow (or two) at the European Commission when presenting our €5 million project. What made STYLE a brilliant project was that it enabled creative autonomy for researchers to work on their specialist areas but as part of a wider collective.
Resistance to the ideas of anarchy as something creative were also apparent when we were writing ‘Work in the Digital Age’. I referred to the development of apps as anarchic, which was seen as negative. But, to me, it seemed a more accurate account for developments in digital technologies where there is a lot of dispersed creativity and very few rules governing the way these work, with both positive and negative consequences.
We invited Martin Parker to talk about Anarchism at the SASE Salon because his work really spans a grounded knowledge of the varied history of anarchist thought, alongside a really innovative appreciation of different and more creative ways of working. This topic is rarely ever discussed in our intellectual circles at SASE which is why I wanted to put it on the agenda. Let’s see how it’s taken up at the conference; or whether we all dip back into conventional approaches.
Why activism? How could we not talk about activists after the recent events over the past two years during the pandemic? We have seen the force of activists from Black Lives Matters, feminists’ protests after the police abduction and killing of Sarah Everade in London, extended protests in Hong Kong and the rise of the radical right with the storming of the capital in the US. While the pandemic sought to silence and lock us down, this has led to an explosion of protests on so many different fronts.
Think back, for example, of how the small individual actions of people like Rosa Parkes’ refusal to sit at the back of the bus, unleashed the protests at Montgomery and the wider civil rights movement in the US. Focusing on activists helps us connect and understand how small individual actions can catalyse wider levels of social change. They resonate with a ‘zeitgeist’ and act as a valve for the expression of this discontent or fractiousness.
The theme of the conference, and the main lecture, will outline how individuals and groups are connected in different ways, and sometimes in ways they dislike. The nature of those connections can become contested and fractious when they question the legitimacy of existing norms and rules as how they apply to them as individuals. It is an attempt to understand how these individual actions are formed, and how they become connected to larger social change.
The subsequent concepts of coordination and control are ones that we have discussed for many decades. But by putting anarchism and activism before them might enable us to think how they relate – assuming that anyone actually looks at the themes of the conference – which some people have done; and others will do their own thing – all of which is being part of the SASE community. Let a 1000 flowers bloom.
What was your first experience with SASE?
While I was a Jean Monet Fellow at the EUI in Florence Colin Crouch encouraged me to come in 2000 to the London meeting. It was my first introduction to the ideas of communitarism from Etizioni. I didn’t get back until Copenhagen in 2007 because I had a couple of kids in between. Copenhagen was a great conference, so well organised and intellectually engaging. Since then I have tried to come as often as possible.
How did you become interested in socio-economics?
My undergraduate degree, back in the 1980s, was in Politics, but I found the questions I was interested around gender and racial inequality were being discussed more in Sociology; but back in the day I didn’t know what sociology was. I remember asking my English teacher, “What is sociology?” when trying to decide what to study at University. “THAT is NOT a subject!” she rebuked with utter distain. So, with no idea of what it was I stayed safe with a modern version of history that was familiar: politics.
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in South London politics was everywhere: the graffitied walls, the Brixton riots and the music we listened to. It even came knocking on the door in the shape of the men in black. Thanks to a neighbour tip off, (we were the only Irish family in our street), I remember answering the door when the CID came to check out our cellar wasn’t a potential bomb factory; good job my dad had taken down the illegal poitín distillery the week before. Politics was everywhere. So I went North, to Hull University, to find out more; and then it was the Miners Strike and Greenham Common. That was what it was like being a young person in England in the 1980s.
It was serendipity that landed me at Nuffield College, Oxford University for my graduate work in what was then called Industrial Sociology with Duncan Gallie as my supervisor. My initial work was in cross-national comparisons of women’s employment in France and the UK. One of the motivations at the time was that it was a good way to escape Thatcher’s Britain and my really boring job as a runner in a TV graphic company in Soho; I just craved reading books again.
After my beloved Oxford affair, and a brief stint teaching at London University, my curiosity as to why economic organisation was so different between countries led me, again somewhat accidentally, to Berlin. In the summer of 1992, I went to work with Sigrid Quack at the WZB. Thank you for the grant from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), that I could barely pronounce. My six-week trip to Berlin ended up with me staying 10 years and coming back to the UK as a single mum with two adorable babies, now grown men.
My time at the WZB from 1994-2004 was intellectually brilliant. It seemed like all the leading figures in socio-economics would pass through the doors and sit in the ‘hof’ discussing major ideas in comparative capitalism, often presided over by the very lovely David Soskice and Gunther Schmid. So, I ended up talking to a lot of economists too.
As a result of this rather unintended journey SASE became an obvious intellectual home because of the interdisciplinarity with some of the leading thinkers in the field; some of whom over the years have become really good friends. SASE has been a great breeding ground for the evolution of these ideas and it’s been fascinating to watch these developments from my friends and colleagues: once we were in the student bars, and now we are professors!
Now it’s our responsibility to enable these discussions for younger generations coming to SASE; I see that as quite an important part of my role as President, which is why I have tried to include a number of younger scholars in the main featured plenaries.
INSECURITY AND SOCIO-ECONOMICS
The pandemic transformed our lives, including teaching and conferences. SASE also had to call off its in-person meeting in Amsterdam twice. How did covid affect your work as SASE President?
It can only be described as a complete and utter nightmare! Now coupled with airline chaos, so some of our key speakers can’t make it because their flights have been cancelled. But thanks to our formidable team of Annelies, Pat, Jacob and Shaun, along with the former Presidents Nitsan and Sigrid they have made these transitions in an apparently seamless and flawless way. We have been really gifted with such a great team to work with. Love you all!! Mega thanks for keeping the show on the road from behind the scenes.
A large part of your research is on labor market insecurity. Precarity is rampant in academia. Depression is on the rise among doctoral students and post-docs, most of whom never reach the dreamed-of professorship. A Nature survey on post-docs found that 49% of the 7,600 researchers interviewed in 93 countries sought help for depression or anxiety caused by their work. How do you see the role of academic societies in such an environment? SASE has a dedicated early career workshop preceding the annual meetings. In what ways can SASE support early-career, insecure academic workers?
We all have to remember to be kind to ourselves and each other about our expectations, regardless of what central management dictate. Stand up for yourself and value of your work; real academic work is not something you whisk out over the weekend. For example, in our SASE Salon Mark Granovetter talked about his article that was rejected and published 3 years later, to become one of the most cited articles in our discipline; and his idea to write a new book in 1990 that was published in 2017, with volume 2 coming soon. I know this might be easy to say now as I am older, but ideas take time and our target managers have a short focus – but look after yourself. Publish what you need, that says something: less is more; quality is key.
Women in academia are particularly likely to face precarity and carry the burden of the extra workload. Gender inequalities in academia grew even bigger during the pandemic. You took an active role in establishing the SASE Women and Gender Forum in 2017-18. How do you see the role of socio-economics and SASE in supporting women?
WAG is wonderful. Thank you Martha for suggesting the web page on gender and the pandemic. Thank you all the initiators. Thank you Elaine Coburn and your SASE Salon on Fractious Feminism and Feminist Solidarities – what an enriching debate – check it out if you want to know what needs to be done. Bring your voice to the parade; come to the sessions in Amsterdam; plan for Rio and Limerick! We want to hear from you.
THE FUTURE OF SOCIO-ECONOMICS
SASE, Socio-Economic Review, and socio-economics in more general are among the most successful academic sub-disciplines in terms of growth and influence in the past decade or so. At the same time, socio-economics is an interdisciplinary field, which poses special challenges in a world where academic careers unfold in disciplinary containers. How do you see the future of socio-economics?
Interdisciplinary research is where it’s at! The pandemic made that obvious: it’s not just the science of vaccines, but who doesn’t take them and why. Scientists and sociologists need to work together – it’s obvious. European research funding has also massively supported us working across disciplines in multi-method research programmes; not always easy, but essential.
Our blog, Future Directions in Socio-Economics, targets early-career scholars. Do you have any special message to them?
Follow your dreams. Feed your curiosity. Care. Work hard and have fun – what else is there to do?