What Theorists will be discussed at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2016?

Published: 10 April 2016

Dr Matt Dawson takes another look at who and what is, and is not, discussed at the 2016 BSA annual conference.

This week sees the British Sociological Association (BSA) annual conference, the main event in the calendar of British sociology. Last year, out of personal interest, I decided to see what theorists were referenced in the abstracts from the conference programme. The data showed a dominance for Pierre Bourdieu with 49 mentions of him as an individual or of a Bourdieusian approach. The second ranked individual was Michel Foucault with 9 and second leading school was feminism with 20 references. This year I decided to repeat this exercise, once again reading the conference handbook and noting references of theorists/schools, with the find function being used to confirm results.


Before I provide the results, I wanted to highlight the purpose of this exercise, which is relatively simple: since this is the one time a year where British sociology comes together as a whole and many abstracts do reference theorists/schools, it may be interesting to see who/what these are. In that sense, my goal here is largely an empirical one. I leave it up to the reader to draw their own evaluations from the findings.


In this light, last year I received some comments which I thought it might be helpful to respond to. When I suggested that many of the theorists were in the broad (and very much contested) ‘dead white man’ category this was not to suggest issues of ‘race’ were not being discussed at the conference. The Race and Ethnicity stream was the largest stream at last year’s conference (and seems to be so again this year) so this was not, and is still not, the case. Furthermore, this exercise is not an attempt to play ‘major theorist bingo’ and condemn the ‘lack’ of some theorists being discussed at the conference. There are a multitude of reasons why people may not mention theorists/schools in abstracts including: the time ahead in which abstracts need to be submitted for the conference, the fact analysis may not be complete, the shortness of abstracts, or relevance to the project.


Now, to turn to this year. Below are the number of mentions for theorists (as last year, this is broadly defined to mean anyone who provides concepts/a framework which is used to shed light on a topic). This list contains all theorists mentioned at least twice.


  • Pierre Bourdieu 31
  • Erving Goffman 7
  • Ulrich Beck 6
  • Max Weber 5
  • Mike Savage 4
  • Frantz Fanon 3
  • Diane Reay 3
  • Michel Foucault 3
  • Jurgen Habermas 3
  • Rosalind Gill 2
  • Anthony Giddens 2
  • Thomas Piketty 2
  • Nancy Fraser 2
  • Homi Bhabha 2
  • Guy Standing 2
  • Howard Becker 2
  • Lynn Jamieson 2
  • Paul Ricoeur 2
  • Michel de Certeau 2
  • Basil Bernstein 2


There are some similarities from last year. Bourdieu is once again way out in front. Also, Goffman ontinues to be quite well represented. However, there are some changes. Foucault, a comfortable second place last year, falls down the list a bit (though, as shown below, this approach is still well represented). Norbert Elias, the third most referenced theorist last year, only had one reference. Also the list is somewhat less reflective of the ‘dead, white man’ trend of last year, though it still tends this way. Among theorists who were not cited at all we find: Zygmunt Bauman, Émile Durkheim (though there was a reference for the Durkheimian school), Georg Simmel and George Herbert Mead. Among those referenced once were Stuart Hall, Sara Ahmed, Margaret Archer, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, bell hooks, Richard Sennett, Karl Marx, John Goldthorpe, W.E.B. Du Bois and Bruno Latour.


This then brings us to schools of thought cited:

  • Feminism (of which are black feminism) 17 (3)
  • Intersectionality 15 
  • Bourdieusian 9
  • Foucauldian 7
  • Queer Theory 6
  • Postcolonialism 5
  • Marxism 5
  • Actor Network Theory/STS 5
  • Weberian 2


Some notes on this list, it is likely the mentions of STS underrate its prominence since there is a Science and Technology Studies stream for which writers may, understandably, feel it superfluous o identify that as their approach. The same is probably also true for critical race theory (only 1 reference) which could perhaps be seen as an assumed approach for some speakers in the Race and Ethnicity stream. Among perspectives not mentioned were Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism.


When we compare these lists one thing that is notable is that prominent schools aren’tnecessarily reflected in prominent theorists. So, while Feminism is the most cited
school there are fewer feminist theorists cited (as is the case for Intersectionality, Queer
Theory and Postcolonialism). It seems possible such schools are identified ith a set of
principles rather than writers as could never be the case for Bourdieusian, Weberian or so on. On the other hand, writers who exist somewhat independently of schools (such as Beck and
Habermas) or whose thought seems to be more popular than the school to which they’re commonly assigned (such as Goffman nd Symbolic Interactionism) require a name reference.


However, the overriding finding remains the dominance of Bourdieu. Once we account for references that mention both ‘Bourdieu’ and ‘Bourdieusian’ he has 36 total references, more than double the second most commonly referenced school, Feminism and five times more than the second most commonly referenced theorist, Goffman. Indeed, it is likely this number underestimates the number of papers making use of Bourdieu. One thing that was notable from reading the programme was the number of abstracts which made use of Bourdieu’s concepts (habitus, field, capital etc.) without using his name. The fact this is the case suggests that Bourdieu’s concepts have increasingly become the common language of British sociology. Whether this is a positive, negative or neutral development is part of a separate discussion beyond the bounds of this post.


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Matt Dawson is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow with research interests in social theory, political sociology, the history of sociology and asexuality. He is the author of Social Theory for Alternative Societies (2016, Palgrave Macmillan) and Late Modernity, Individualization and Socialism: An Associational Critique of Neoliberalism (2013, Palgrave Macmillan) as well as co-editor of Stretching the Sociological Imagination: Essays in Honour of John Eldridge (2015, Palgrave Macmillan).







First published: 10 April 2016