Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research

Making sense of the social world

Streetlife: The Shifting Sociologies of the Street symposium

Tuesday 15 September 2015, 10.00 - 18.00

A symposium sponsored by Sociological Review

The street has long been a key laboratory for studies of social life, from the roots of urban sociology in the pioneering ethnographies of the Chicago School through to the diverse studies considering the performative, affective and non-representational nature of social practice through in situ examination of street etiquette and encounter. For all this, the street remains only loosely defined, and sometimes disappears from view in studies in which social action is privileged over material context.

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This symposium is a spur to take the street more seriously in contemporary sociology, and demonstrates the value of a more careful scrutiny of the importance of the street as a site, scale and field for sociological research. See the tabs below for more details including videos of the keynotes.

About the 'street'

The ‘street’ is a contested concept, and clearly summons up different images and connotations for different audiences. In the sociological imagination, it is a site indelibly associated with some of the most important studies of social and community life: for example, Nels Anderson’s (1923) The Hobo; William Foote Whyte’s (1943) Streetcorner society; Jane Jacobs’ (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Elija Andersson’s (1990) Streetwise: Race, class and change in an urban community. More widely, it has served as the pre-eminent setting in which some of the most important theorists of everyday life (e.g. Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau) began to work through ideas concerning the relation between the rhythms and rituals of capitalist society and their aesthetic materialisation in the quotidian realm. It is also conceptualized as the paradigmatic space where notions of civil society are established and reproduced: the street may be shaped by the state and market but it is acquiescent to neither. Profoundly mundane, but thoroughly integrated into processes of commodification and capital accumulation, the street can be understood as a key site where the contradictions and complexities of capitalist societies are worked through, and where the possibilities for new forms of social life take shape.

Simply put, the street is a social space like no other. It provides a litmus of the social habits, mores and etiquette of modern times, and continues to preoccupy sociologists exploring the ways that individuals relate to one another in societies now depicted as ‘superdiverse’. It helps us anchor our sense of self in a changing society, but continually forces us to perform our identities in new ways as we negotiate with and encounter a range of individuals whose orientations and intentions are unknown to us. Consequently, the changing streetscape, and its associated social interactions, also continue to fascinate the media, which often projects the values and characteristics of communities onto specific streets. And, of course, the street remains a site that is the focus of intense scrutiny, with street pastors, community watch and the police alike seeking to ‘remoralise’ the street in moments when its excessive liveliness threatens to challenge social convention.

Despite this, the street moves in and out of focus in much sociological work, always there but rarely theorized or defined in explicit terms. The question as to whether and how the street is a site, scale or field of analysis is seldom broached, and the temporal and spatial parameters of the street as a unit of analysis remain unstated. This matters because contemporary sociology is concerned not just with human agency, but the relationality of human and non-human: it is not just bodies that matter on the street, but a vital materiality that runs through and across bodies and things, both human and non-human. Streets may be theatres of public life, but the stage is set by all manner of objects and energies moving at different speeds and of different natures: litter, dogs, trees, water, wind, paving stones, buildings, railings, billboards, tarmac, bikes, cars, houses, shops, offices, gardens, grass, post boxes, kerbs, drains and so on. Collectively, these bequeath the street a distinctive metabolism and vitality that requires critical scrutiny and analysis for social scientists to say something consequential about the social life of the street and its changing forms.

Whilst not seeking to privilege the street as the ‘ideal’ laboratory for examining shifts in social practice, moralities and interactions – and noting the shifting social uses of streetspaces in societies where virtual communication often appears to be supplanting localized and face to face communication - this one-day symposium will critically evaluate what we can learn from street spaces, and consider the range of methods that can be appropriately deployed in the study of street spaces. The symposium will address the following question of the ways in which the street matters in contemporary sociology. To do so, it will involve participants from sociology and cognate disciplines (including cultural studies, geography, architecture, and law) who will analyse the continuing importance of the street as a setting for sociological research. The day will offer focused debate considering the place of the street in a contemporary sociology which is theoretically engaged, radically oriented and thoroughly attuned to questions of everyday life and transformation.



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Last Updated: 13/04/2016