Populist reactions against liberalism are consuming the globe. Philosophers and theologians have long recognized the gap between liberal ambitions for social justice and people's emotional attachments to religion, nation and family. Politicians, and arguably social scientists, are just catching up.
I draw on philosophy, theology, sociology, anthropology and my own ethnography to explore how to reconcile liberal ambitions with lived realities. I undertake participant observation with liberally-minded community organizers to understand the "illiberal" sources of their liberal aspirations: myths, rituals, traditions.
I teach on courses that reflect these areas of interest such as Ritual, Politics and Sociology of Religion.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of the fight for social justice is the feeling by some that they are being forced to discard their sources of identity and belonging in the endless march towards a liberal utopia. Philosophically, liberalism demands a lot. It asks us to disembody ourselves when considering what is just, giving no preference to creed, race, gender, family or locale. Sociologically, liberalism has been no less intrusive. As it grew alongside industrialization, urbanization, mass education, globalization, migration and multiculturalism, liberalism reflected the power of the freedoms that were remaking society. However, such freedoms are necessarily associated with loss, and many of the traditions and institutions that provided identity and belonging are in decline.
There is a gaping chasm between liberal political ambitions and lived political experience. This gap at least partly explains why today populists across the globe are rejecting liberal ideals in favour of traditional understandings of religion, nation, community, family and place. If social justice is to be achieved it is crucial that this gap is addressed.
Academic attempts to address the gap can be divided into four strands. The first, growing out of philosophy and theology and coalescing around the term ‘post-liberal’, uncritically heralds reactionary revivals of traditional values and institutions as evidence that these must be revalourised to the centre of political life. The second response, developing in anthropology, demonstrates liberalism’s lack of resonance in postcolonial settings as well as amongst postcolonial migrants to the West. The third approach, dominant in sociology, seeks to diagnose and cure the nostalgia for traditional values and institutions. A final more constructive response is found in the political philosophy of Martha Nussbaum, who seeks ways of cultivating an emotional connection to liberal values and principles.
It is significant that none of these academic responses observes the ways in which liberalism is being creatively reconfigured, often in its ‘home’ territories, in ways that are complexly liberal, anti-liberal and post-liberal simultaneously. Even Nussbaum’s project seeks to invent from scratch a “civil religion” on top of abstractly construed values and principles. Once again we risk ignoring lived political experience. In contrast, my research borrows frames from the study of religion, usually associated with research into those ideologically or geographically excluded from the liberal project, to explore social and political identity formation amongst liberal citizens in liberal societies (first London, UK and later Vancouver, Canada). The result is to highlight areas where liberalism fails to resonate even amongst its ideal citizens and to point to alternatives that arise out of their discourses and behaviours.
In particular, I point to the centrality of myth and ritual in developing the purportedly rational liberal identity. In the increasingly individualized, polarized and depoliticized cultures of London and Vancouver, for example, myths develop around people who come together across differences to reclaim control of their lives against big business or government. These myths are shared face to face and on social media, acting as portable technologies of moral resilience. And the moments in which these stories are shared take on an intensity elsewhere observed in rituals. Integrating these myths and rituals into mainstream politics is crucial to addressing the gap between liberal political ambitions and people’s emotional responses to political events.
Professor Adam Dinham
Professor Lori Beaman
Grants & awards
I have been involved in successfully securing funding from numerous national and international bodies, including the AHRC UK.
Most recently I was the Principle Investigator for Understanding Unbelief in Secular Social Action, funded by the Templeton Foundation Understanding Unbelief Programme.
Stacey T (2018) Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division, London & New York: Routledge https://www.routledge.com/Myth-and-Solidarity-in-the-Modern-World-Beyond-Religious-and-Political/Stacey/p/book/9780815348160
Stacey T (2019) Beyond Populist Politics: Why conventional politics needs to conjure myths of its onward why it fails to do so, Global Discourse 8(4), 573-588 https://doi.org/10.1080/23269995.2018.1524208
Stacey T (2018) Imagining Solidarity in the Twenty-First Century: Towards a Performative Postsecularism, Religion State and Society 45(2): 141-158 https://doi.org/10.1080/09637494.2017.1299905
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