Digithum issue 23 January 2019. Call for Papers

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Call for Papers: The Politics of Social Suffering

Submission deadline: 1 October 2018
To be published in: Issue 23 (January 2019)
Author guidelines:

The Politics of Social Suffering

In recent decades, social suffering has come to be one of the key topics in sociological and political debate. The growth in diagnoses of depression and burnout has received increasing amounts of attention, leading a number of social analysts to interpret them as symptoms of the wide-ranging transformations taking place in society (Ehrenberg, 1998; Honneth, 2002; Rosa, 2005; Neckel and Wagner, 2013). During this same period, an idea has gained traction, namely that the social question, most notably in its contemporary forms, cannot be properly described without taking into account the psychological experiences and feelings of malaise attached to it (Bourdieu, 1993; Castel, 1995; Dejours, 1998; Gaulejac, 2011). As a result, the notion of social suffering has moved to the forefront of a research programme involving different but converging approaches in sociology, anthropology, social psychology, and social philosophy (Kleinman et al., 1997; Wilkinson, 2005; Renault, 2010).

This research field’s emergence signals an important turn in these disciplines, insofar as it leads to the explicit addressing of the – still contested – status of suffering within social analysis and normative philosophy. While for a long time the social sciences resisted bringing such a question centre stage in fear of the alleged risk of “psychologizing” society, political philosophy often regarded suffering as an inadequate or, at best, insufficient foundation for normativity, given its purportedly individualistic, contingent and arbitrary nature (Fraser, 2003; Kompridis, 2004). In contrast to these perspectives, new approaches to the subject rely on the assumption that, in order to properly explain and assess social processes deemed unjust or pathological (Honneth, 1994; Zurn, 2011; Laitinen et al., 2015), reference must be made to the negative psychological experiences involved and the ways in which they are morally articulated at the individual and collective levels (Deranty, 2009; Keohane and Petersen, 2013; Freyenhagen, 2015). In a similar vein, the ambivalences of human openness to suffering have been taken up in recent debates on the critical potential of categories such as vulnerability and precariousness (Butler, 2004; Gilson, 2011; Murphy, 2012; Ferrarese, 2016; Petherbridge, 2016).

Problems of this sort are particularly relevant in view of the current political situation. At a time when social movements and struggles in many parts of the globe are frequently understood as reactions to experiences of malaise, suffering seems to have taken the spotlight in our political life. Of particular significance is the fact that it is not just the movements traditionally linked to a left-wing agenda (against State violence and different forms of discrimination, for the expansion of social and human rights, etc) that draw their legitimacy – with ambivalent outcomes – from discourses on and practices involving suffering (Das, 1995; Mbembe, 2003; Fassin, 2012; Jansen et al., 2015; Bargu, 2016). A similar trend can be observed within right-wing movements demanding the strengthening of national borders, stricter anti-immigration policies, and more repression to fight criminality and terrorism (Hochschild, 2016; Rosa, 2017).

That these very different trends are often associated – by observers or the participants themselves – with underlying experiences of social malaise raises a number of important issues: In what sense can the social struggles of our time be regarded as articulations of collective experiences of suffering? What connections can be established between contemporary political processes and diagnoses of the present centred on the notion of social suffering? How are feelings of malaise mobilized and channelled by social movements or by those who claim to represent them in the political realm? What sort of normative standpoint must be developed in order to make relevant distinctions between progressive and regressive forms of politicized suffering?

For this special section, papers that address these and other related issues are welcome. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Meta-theoretical discussion:
    • The pertinence of the “social suffering” category for sociology and social philosophy
    • Social suffering: a descriptive and/or normative category?
    • Methodological-theoretical tools for identifying and conceptualizing social suffering
    • Social suffering: symptomatic or constitutive of social pathologies?
    • Vulnerability, empathy and precarity as critical categories?
  • Diagnostic analyses:
    • Political uses of social suffering, past and present (fascism, populism)
    • Political articulation of social suffering: uprisings, social movements
    • Social-political causes and/or consequences of rising rates of depression, anxiety, burnout, borderline personality and other psychic disorders
    • Forms of silencing social suffering
    • Medicalization and normalization of social suffering
    • Institutional and discursive forms of legitimating social suffering
    • The bio- and necropolitics of social suffering

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