Last week I attended the British Sociological Association Annual Conference held at the University of Leeds. I found this to be a particularly engaging event which made me quite hopeful for the direction of sociology. Not because there are not significant social, institutional and disciplinary problems on the horizon and already here but because it seems that many people are addressing these in reflexive, challenging and collaborative way. Part of this optimism stemmed from my perception that the issue which was most consistently engaged with across the event was neo-liberalism or contemporary consumer capitalism in various guises. The papers which were on offer at the conference took a variety of perspectives and certainly not all audiences members were in agreement with what was proposed but there was a lively discussion about pressing issues of inequality and the impact of economic forces and recent policy changes. Two years ago the Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty criticised the BSA conference of that year for not dealing with the economic crisis. This was a misrepresentation based on a quick browse of the conference abstracts but if there was any truth to his claim then it is clear from this year’s event that there no longer is.

The impacts of commercialisation were explored through cultural analyses in one of the first panel sessions. Karl Spracklen discussed how alternative cultures of goths and black metallers have moved from being a localised and politicised “scene” to a broad, commodified, global subculture through the appropriation by markets enabled by the “liquid space” of the internet. Younger generations are also potentially being brought into an industry which has flourished under austerity; online gambling. Heather Wardle explored the hugely increased industry of virtual gambling which has achieved great popularity with children. While many of these are purely virtual with no real money changing hands they are increasingly intertwined with the formal gambling industry through advertising and games which blur the boundaries between virtual and actual.

As part of a discussion of the BSA’s open access Discover Society magazine and its role in digital public sociology the association’s president John Holmwood warned of the dangers of sociologists working in institutions which may be increasing rather than reducing inequality. He suggested that the “public university”, which can be aided through genuinely open access can contribute to a “real utopia”.

Evelyn Ruppert’s plenary presented theoretical, conceptual and practical ways forward for sociology to deal with “Big Data”. She focused on the role which data practices play in enumerating, constituting populations and cultivating peoplehood. Like the social statistics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries big data is producing “kinds” of people. It will be vital to engage with the economies and ecologies in order to conduct inquiries into the types of people and collectivities which are being “made up” as well as how people are diffracting or challenging the ways of being accumulated or analysed.

Monica Prasad presented a provocative analysis of the emergence of neoliberalism in her plenary address. She suggested that the policies of heavy tax cuts often associated with neoliberalism were not driven by business interests but by an electoral strategy to present then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan as electable. Evidence was presented to show that American business was not interested in personal tax cuts so the Republican party struck a bargain with them to support their policies in exchange for business tax cuts as part of the package. Post-Watergate the Republican party was deemed largely unelectable and a candidate who would be days away from his 70th birthday when taking office was deemed too old. The one issue which could trump these two issues for the American voter was tax cuts. This was a fascinating paper packed with historical detail but was a narrow view which did not take account of many other social, cultural and economic factors not to mention the emergence of neoliberalism in other countries. All of this may well be accounted for elsewhere in Prasad’s work.

The experience of obesity under neoliberalism was presented in a fascinating qualitative account by Paul Bissell, Marian Peacock, Jo Blackburn and Christine Smith. Bissell spoke of the discourses on which people draw to account for their obesity. Counter to some other approaches which have emphasised resistant “excuse accounts” they suggested that for many people sadness and guilt over being obese were the prevailing ways of discussing their situation. They suggested that overeating has taken on a similar position to smoking in the 1980s (as described by Hilary Graham) as allowing disadvantaged people to “do something for themselves” through the visceral pleasure experienced through eating. The achievement of this pleasure, however, seeks to further disadvantage many people through the kinds of judgements made about fat bodies in the “enterprise society” associated with neoliberalism. In this situation, Bissell et al suggested, the “fat poor” are shamed shadows of neoliberalism who are often stigmatised because they do not fit with the dominant entrepreneurial values.

The stigmatisation of particular people through neo-liberal governing was also addressed by Janice McLaughlin who discussed how discourses of normality led to children who are considered to be “different” come to be labelled as problematic. She showed how the regulation of normality is increasing in the global North as many disabled children are increasingly encouraged to blame themselves, or their assistive technologies, rather than their social context for their difficulties. In particular McLaughlin situated this within the discourse of self-realisation which is presented in ideas about the right kinds of transition to adulthood for disabled children. A hierarchy is produced between those who can become seemingly autonomous and independent and those who cannot meet these qualities which are highly valued in neoliberal societies.

Bill Hughes drew parallels between disabled people and migrants in his historical analysis in which he suggested both groups have been presented as strangers; the former existential and the latter geographical. He identified a populist resentment which has produced a bifurcation of the population into the moral majority of “hardworking people” and those who are perceived to constitute a fiscal burden. This distinction is predicated upon what Hughes called a “miser’s calculus” through which, largely false, statistics are presented to demonstrate the costs of these groups to the rest of society and justify the representation of disabled people and migrants as “counterfeit citizens”.

Katherine Smith presented a study of public health academics and their roles in advocacy and activism. The barriers to activism or pressures against engaging in it are many and serious and include impeding career progression, not being taken seriously by colleagues and being pushed into giving an overly simplistic view of research results in order to push a political message. All the same many academics felt that “doing nothing is doing harm” and that to merely observe is not sufficient.

The conference (or at least my conference) closed with a panel session on digital sociology. All four participants called for a more reflexive and critical approach to digital technologies than has often been the case in the past. In particular Deborah Lupton proposed a greater emphasis should be placed on the emotional relationships we have with computerised technologies. She also highlighted the changed relationship we have had with the digital through the decline in the use of the “cyborg” and “cyber” metaphors in sociology as now technologies are often too integrated to even seem like an appendage.

Mike Savage and Noortje Marres both highlighted the importance of not approaching the digital (and the methods through which we employ it) as neutral. Savage in particular called for social scientists to see methods as an agent of social change through which they should be intervening not just observing. For Marres, we must be more aware of the instability of data which is not just an object but an instrument and mediator which necessitates a move from a sociology “of” the digital to a sociology “with” the digital.

Perhaps the biggest challenge came from Susan Halford who claimed that so far sociologists have not been good at taking technology seriously. Digital sociology cannot just be critical questioning of the technical but must engage with the nature of knowledge flows (perhaps engaging with the potential impact of the semantic web) and must instate sociological concerns into the digital as well as interpreting it. In order to achieve this they must engage more thoroughly with disciplines such as computational science.

The papers presented at this year’s conference offered original, potent critiques of social, political and economic forces which create inequalities as well as significant challenges to sociologists themselves.