ISRF Mid-Career Fellow 2013-14
ISRF Mid-Career Fellow 2013-14
I am a political and historical sociologist, interested in how we conceptualise and theorise power, its role in society, and associated long-term patterns of historical and social change. This connects to an interest in the nature of liberal society, its emergence and fate. My work can be described as historically informed sociological theory. Much of my work is on nationalism and national identity, with particular interest in liberal or civic forms of nationalism, as in Scotland. I have done ethnographically based empirical research on devolution politics in Scotland, and the role of national identities in a changing Scottish financial sector. My most recent book with Manchester University Press (July 2017) is based on ethnographic data collected in a major Scottish bank prior to the 2008 crisis, revisiting that data from a post-crisis perspective. In addition to the above, I have a range of research interests including classical social theory and Scottish Enlightenment thought (especially David Hume and Adam Smith).
This study confronts the pervasive role of competition in liberal societies today. But it sees this as a complex historical outcome, which it aims to understand better, by mapping the genealogy of conceptions of competition across the social sciences, and laying groundwork for substantiating the following social evolutionary thesis: Rather than viewing the elaboration of competition as an effect of the rise of modern market economies, I view the rise of the modern economy as one effect of a multi-dimensional transformation of ideas and practices around competition, in which competition becomes not just a fact of life, but an object that can be conceptualised, harnessed, and artificially created to a much greater degree than hitherto. This transformation is evident in the growing theorization of competition in the social and other sciences, from Adam Smith on. This shift is linked to the decline of traditional forms of authority and legitimacy anchored in ideas of personal rule, divine election, and natural hierarchy, and the rise of the idea of the self-ruling demos, around the 18th century. Competition becomes a crucial way of regulating, allocating and adjudicating power relations across society, in the absence of agreed ultimate authority. It also has the effect of ratcheting up performance across an array of institutional practices, enhancing aggregate social power within societies/states, while sharpening competition between societies/states. Modern liberal societies work by artificially cultivating competition across an array of institutional spheres, in the marketplace, in the political order, in knowledge production, etc., in ways that legitimate outcomes without requiring a clear and challengeable locus of authority. Competition, despite being highly artificial, is perceived as being grounded in nature, circumventing problems of authority. This is our current condition. Ultimately this study aims to help us understand, assess and address that condition.