The referendum in Greece and the reflexes of social scientists

Syntagma July 3rd. Image by anthropologist Takis Geros

Syntagma July 3rd. Image by anthropologist Takis Geros

This is a collaborative post by Melissa Nolas and Christos Varvantakis.

Greece, which has preoccupied the world’s media on and off over the last five years, has once again taken centre stage across media platforms on account of last Sunday’s referendum and the unfolding developments since.

There are several reasons behind this explosion of media interest. The one that prompts our own contribution to the public debate is the recurring pronouncement of the referendum of July 5th as a ‘historical moment’, with consequences for democracy, Europe, the Euro, common currency, sovereignty, coup d’etat, solidarity (among others). Accordingly, the stakes are high as taken-for-granted domains of everyday life are not only contested but also perhaps just about to be redefined or re-signified. It has also become apparent in the last few weeks (as evidenced by the sudden and widespread interest that the ‘Greek Issue’ has generated) that this is a subject that goes well beyond the interests of a single country, and apparently even beyond the interests of the European Union. It has been hailed as a global historical moment, even before it occurred, and its historical significance is acknowledged as such on any given occasion, by journalists, academics, politicians and individuals from across all political and ideological backgrounds.

To the mind of the social scientist, however, there’s a certain melancholy in experiencing a reality which, as soon as it occurs, is ‘condemned’ to be the subject of future historical analysis. And so we find ourselves asking if ‘the Greek crisis’ is a subject for the historian of the future, why shouldn’t it be a subject for the sociologist of the present too? Indeed, this appears to be an exemplary testing ground for the reflexes of social scientists, who have over the years been accused of not taking part in public debate – or of doing so a bit too late.

The occasion of the Greek referendum offers a particularly fitting occasion to enquire into the reflexes of social scientists and the implications of these reflexes. It seems to be an exemplary time to ask: how quickly can social scientists produce a response to their immediate realities? And what might be the epistemological issues at stake in this process of immediate reaction, what might be the possible misgivings in this process – and even more so, do these really matter?

In encountering these questions, we have been closely monitoring scholarly analytical articles that appeared in the press – in blogs or mainstream press, by social scientist, as well as by scholars in the humanities. For all the misgivings that their haste might have resulted in, the reaction has been surprisingly vivid and rather immediate*.

To start with: anthropologist Theodoros Rakopoulos’ was truly quick to write a blog post on Focaal blog,  ‘Of direct and default democracy: The debt referendum in Greece‘, straight after the results were announced. His piece draws much on his previous (and current) research with a grassroots activists group in Greece. Similarly, anthropologist Dimitris Dalakoglou draws on his ethnographic work to instantly produce his piece  ‘Want to know how Greeks see the future? Get in the ATM queue and ask them‘, straight after the referendum. Both scholars are additionally taking the opportunity to make a point for the merits of ethnography ( in regard to the immediate access to the field that the relation and connections of the researcher with his informants results to).

Neni Panourgia, takes a somewhat different path, and looks at the reasons that enabled the referendum to ever take place – resorting to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (here). Anthropologist Vito Laterza sums up speculations about what might happen in the aftermath of the referendum, in a pre-referendum piece.

Michalis Bartsidis, Akis Gavriilidis and Sofia Lalopoulou attempt a more deliberate analysis in their piece ‘July the 5th: How the multitude blocked a post-modern coup d’état in the EU‘, in attempting to discern an exemplary instance of (Antonio Negri’s) the concept of Multitude, in the protest gathering of ‘NO’ supporters on Syntagma square, in July 5th.

LSE’s Hellenic Observatory, who have been closing monitoring developments in Greece over the past few years, were also fast to produce a series of posts on the outcome of the referendum. Here is the collection of posts produced thus far (prominently titled: ‘Experts React: Greek Referendum‘; including some very insightful articles).

As is the case with Chronos Magazine, whose authors have regularly been commenting on the greek issue – but currently has a pre-referendum edition (here) including both greek and english articles, but with significant contributions in English by anthropologist Athina Athanasiou and philosopher Costas Douzinas).

VersoBooks published Alain Badiou’s thoughts on the aftermath of the referendum, as well as those of (Max Plank Institute’s) Wolfgang Streeck; additionally, the same website has compiled a more general reading list on the greek issue.

Over at the Sociological Images blog, Martin Hart-Landsberg takes the opportunity of the referendum to discuss the corrupt economics behind Greece’s trouble,  (and, to make the point that it seems certain that the political economy textbooks of the future will include a chapter on the experience of Greece in 2015″ )

Moreover, reference ought to be made also to pieces  that are clearly intended to intervene in public discourse, written (or signed) by well-established academics,  during the past few days. For instance, Slavoj Žižek declared that ‘This is a chance for Europe to awaken‘. Žižek is also signing, alongside several other prominent scholars (i.e. Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, Saskia Sassen, Immanuel Wallerstein, Homi Bhabha, Etienne Balibar et al.), a letter to the Guardian, titled ‘Greeks, don’t give in to the EU’s austerity ultimatum‘.  Similarly, prominent economists (such as Thomas Picketty, Jeffrey Sachs et al.) have recently tried to bring to chancellor’s Merkels attention their opinion that ‘Austerity has Failed‘.

Finally, using a different tone, Science’s editor Erik Stokstad,  alongside some Greek (mostly) natural scientists, expresses his concerns over funding implications of the referendum, in his article ‘Greek researchers worry as crucial referendum looms

The list is not exclusive. It is our expectation that articles on the topic of ‘the Greek issue’ will continue in the days and, at least, weeks to come.

How do these contributions fair against scholarly standards of methodological rigour or impartiality? Well, the answer here is most probably ‘not very well’.

They are probably biased and they probably don’t subscribe to usual academic standards of doing research or writing about it. Often they are opinion pieces and don’t pretend to be anything more than that. So what value should we assign to them? Are they the sign of a healthy public sphere and public debate and a model for engaged social science or something else? Does their social science authorship give them a weight that isn’t assigned to the plethora of other opinions? Do they help us make sense of what’s happening by opening up debate or do they hinder our sense-making?

The answers, as always, probably lie somewhere in between.

In 1961 a young French social psychologist Pierre Moscovici published a study examining how different social groups in French society of the 1950s came to know about and understand the therapeutic practice of psychoanalysis. Moscovici’s study was about the ways in which knowledge circulates in society and the ways in which each social group constitutes knowledge according to their interests and concerns.  The study, now a classic, provides some insight into understanding what value might be ascribed to commentary on the referendum.

The key thing about the financial crisis in general and the recent Greek referendum in particular, is that previous ways of understanding the financial world have been decimated, so to our capacity to understand the social and political effects of its collapse. The repeated references to high stake consequences are processes of collective ‘anchoring and objectification’, an important communicative mechanism of making sense of these novel and unprecedented situations. Here the past is invoked (anchoring) in order to find a way of talking about (objectification) what are ultimately hugely destabilising experiences (e.g. the often repeated approach to understanding the yes-no division through recourse to Greece’s civil war).

In this sense the commentaries are ‘essays’, attempts at understanding, and a testament to very human reflexes to communicate and to desire to reduce anxiety through the imposition of some form of narrative order onto everyday events that are experienced, for the most part, as being beyond comprehension; including the comprehension of experts. There is a solidarity in the process of commenting, of speaking up and of reaching out to a broader audience. Of trying. These essays are revealing of researchers’ political selves, their communities of belonging and their ‘relationships of concern’ (Sayer 2011) to the world.

And indeed our own post is by no means an exception to any of this.

But are these essays ‘engaged social science’?

We don’t know. We don’t have an answer and our sense is that this must remain an open question. Indeed, leaving the door open, for nuance, for the unfinished, for trying, may well be one of the key qualities for an ‘engaged social science’ to flourish.



*This blog post, aimed at international audiences, documents only english language sources. We claim this to be by no means exclusive; in fact, we’re thinking of re-editing this post as more articles will come into our attention. So, if you have written or read something relevant, please do share it with us!