by Paul Stubbs
1st November 2019

Paul Stubbs is a UK-born sociologist and currently a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute of Economics, Zagreb, Croatia.

Here he looks at the work of Stuart Hall, and how John Clarke, author of Critical Dialogues: Thinking Together in Turbulent Times, built on this to guide us through spatio-temporal shifts in the UK and beyond, including the moment of austerity and, most recently, Brexit.

Let me start, perhaps as John would, with Stuart Hall. Hall’s work, particularly on the mass media, inspired me as an undergraduate in the late 1970s, to such an extent that I often say that I knew I wanted to be an academic sociologist primarily because of reading Hall. I developed a keen interest in his work and the work of his colleagues at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) and, later, at the Open University. Here was a social science that was engaged, that sought to understand popular culture and subcultural styles in ways that seemed both innovative and relevant, and actually dared to want to make a difference. It was the antithesis of much of the dry, detached, social science I was mainly being taught.

Hall’s political essays from the same period also helped many of us break free of the no less stifling grip of deterministic, economistic, Marxism. His reading of Thatcherism as a social, political and cultural project was pivotal in encouraging forms of resistance that precisely fought on the terrain of popular common sense, leading a whole generation on the left to rediscover Gramsci. John Clarke was one of Hall’s four co-authors (along with Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts) who produced the path-breaking ‘Policing the Crisis’, a tour de force of critical conjunctural analysis, taking the moral panic of ‘mugging’ and helping us to understand the importance of ‘race as the modality through which class was lived’ in the Britain of that time. My doctoral work on racism and social work built on this and was inspired, particularly, by the collective work on ‘racism’ from CCCS in The Empire Strikes Back.

John has, subsequently, built on Hall’s commitment to understanding conjunctures in many important ways, guiding us through spatio-temporal shifts in the UK and beyond, including the moment of austerity and, most recently, Brexit. He has combined this with incisive analyses of the plurality of neoliberalisms, of the importance of forms of new managerialism, the significance of discourses of ‘participatory governance’ and citizenship and, in a collaboration that I was involved in, with understandings of policy translation (Clarke et al, 2015). Above all, though, it is Stuart Hall’s praxis as a critical thinker that John has taken forward. To quote David Scott, the two share what might be termed “an ethics of receptive generosity”. Whilst I only met Stuart Hall very briefly on a couple of occasions, John has been a friend and colleague since he accepted an invitation from me, in November 2005, to attend a workshop I was organising in a small town some 40 km away from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where I have lived and worked since 1994. In his inimitable style, John replied that he would be happy to come and speak first, as long as it was clear that those talking first are not required to know anything. I consider myself immensely fortunate to have shared a dialectic of generosity with John more or less constantly since, treasuring all of our conversations, whether virtual or face to face.

As I recall in our conversation in the book, the invitation for John to speak came after I had read his book ‘Changing Welfare, Changing States’, published in 2004. He had me at ‘hello’ or, to be more precise, he had me by the Preface, where he stressed the relevance of anthropological approaches to social and public policy. This provided huge momentum for me to continue my own explorations along these lines, including collaborations with Noemi Lendvai, having felt precisely the frustration that John named in that book, that “many of the most important ‘turns’ in social science had been ignored, dismissed or misunderstood by the main body of social policy scholarship” with “complex concepts” being “left to others” and arriving “late, if at all, and invariably in highly simplified form”.

John’s work, like that of Claus Offe before him, perhaps, suggested that reconfigurations of ‘the social’ were not ephemeral or epiphenomena, could not be charted using rigid, and universal, indicators, but are absolutely central to the work of hegemony and of resistance. In John’s invocation, social policy is always complex, contradictory and contested. It is also profoundly contingent and conjunctural. John’s work, whilst empirically primarily focused on the UK and the United States, opens up, for me, new ways of thinking about social policy in South East Europe, a space where, as John conceptualised, very early on in our dialogues, “governance and the subject and objects of governing are in process of simultaneous and mutual invention or constitution”. If my critical thinking on social policy in South East Europe has been sharpened, it is largely under John’s influence. I can hear his voice in my head as I write, in a text on Croatia finished only a few days ago, “social welfare, then, is not a marginal or side effect of authoritarian neoliberalism, but a privileged arena of struggle for a hegemonic moral economy”.

Our dialogue in the book was, appropriately enough, recorded during the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, for both of us a kind of “home away from home”, in Chicago in November 2013. Listening to the taped version captures something of the ‘sparkiness’ of the encounter although I still sound like a working-class kid from Liverpool who should never have got this far. Our shared concern with ‘being found out’ is, perhaps, an affective corollary to our continued intellectual interest in the power of ‘ambivalence’ in critical thought and action. Over the years of our friendship, dialogue and collaboration, critical thinking in and about social policy has grown, with a number of critical anthropologists working on South East Europe, most notably Čarna Brković, Azra Hromadžić, Tijana Moraca, Marek Mikuš, Dora Veta, Andrew Gilbert, and Andre Thiemann, also putting ‘the social’ at the centre of their analyses. Thanks to John, I now know how to treasure these, and many other, voices in my head as a key source of critical thinking.


Paul Stubbs is a contributor to Critical Dialogues, which is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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