Anyone fearing for the future of British sociology, in these £9k-a-year-inflected times, will be delighted to hear that 'sociology' has now found its vocation in the marketing industry. No longer will we be rushing for those criminology text books, in a desparate bid to convince George Osborne of our utility to 'UK PLC'! Yes, Bulmers cider has assembled a team of men with wacky glasses and skinny jeans to travel the country and carry out (in their words) 'sociological experiments', including this young man who goes by the name of Simon (not to be mistaken for the marginally less wacky Sheffield University political scientist, Simon Bulmer).
To revive one of my favourite old tropes, what the hell is going on here?
I only discovered this marketing ploy yesterday morning, when I had time to kill at Paddington station, and noticed that there was an unbranded yellow telephone sitting on a post, with a sign inviting people to answer it. Hmmm... situationist pranks in a major British transport hub, eh? I suspect that if Guy Debord were to ever mutter so much as a word as to what lay sous les paves in twenty-first century Britain, the entire area would have been cleared by machine-gun-wielding policemen before you could say 'spectacle'.
No, quite evidently, this was an 'official sponsor' at work, as befits public space nowadays. But situationism as marketing ploy? As Stuart Ewen, Thomas Frank and Boltanski & Chiapello have each in their own way demonstrated, capitalists love nothing more than a friendly anti-capitalist. But how, precisely, was this yellow telephone helping to sell anything? And if it wasn't, why had the entire station not been cleared by the police?
It dawned on me that an ethnomethodological experiment was underway. Garfinkel as marketing guru! And while I've never before classed myself as a more authentic sociologist than anyone, I figured that it might be fun to watch the watchers for a moment, seeing as these individuals were at the forefront of harnessing breaching experiments for the interests of capital. So here is my field data, drawn from a 5-minute study of Bulmers 'sociologists' studying innocent members of the public using a yellow telephone.
The first thing I observed was that the experiment involves a panoptical arrangement of cameras and people with clipboards, so as to capture what happens when someone answers the phone. It's not clear that the 'society of the spectacle' is being disrupted in this instance.
Many of the people wear skinny jeans and plimsoles, leading me to deduce that they are hipsters. The hipsters stand around watching the phone, adopting the bored-yet-excited stance of people who occasionally feel that they might have escaped the clutches of a real job, but then remember that they work in marketing. Some of the 'sociologists' have moustaches.
NB, there is no indication of a corporation or brand at work at this moment (other than common sense), and I had only established that this was Bulmers cider, by glancing over the shoulder of one of the sociologists, to see what was written on their clipboard. I first became suspicious of the authenticity of these 'hipsters' when I noticed that many of them have matching grey plimsoles on:
Surely these plimsoles can't have been supplied by a marketing agency, can they? (The eagle-eyed may note that the gentleman on the left in the above image is none other than 'Simon the sociologist').
Eventually, the 'experiment' gets under way, and someone (who has failed to notice the 20 hipsters with TV cameras and matching plimsoles a few yards away) answers the phone:
Little does the 'subject' of this 'experiment' know that, on the other end of this phone, is the great ethnomethodologist, Simon from Bulmers! (not to be confused with Simon Bulmer of Sheffield University Political Science Department). Simon becomes animated and sends instructions down the phone, to the unsuspecting subject:
Her instructions include asking members of the public to play tamborines, behave in an upbeat manner and generally stand in the yellow circle area, at least until sufficient footage has been gathered to create one of these youtube videos. Were Simon a slightly different breed of 'sociologist', he might reflect on the irony that, just as situationism is being instrumentalised in order to sell cider, so this last remnant of urban public space is being instrumentalised in order to achieve a viral presence on facebook.
Soon the experiment is complete (the subject no doubt has a train to catch) and the matching panoptical hipsters descend on the subject in order to establish her email address, telephone number, favourite cider and other particulars.
So the spirit of capitalism marches on willy-nilly. Now even the outer-reaches of heterodox, disruptive sociology have been dragged into the fray. This reminds me of an excellent panel series at last year's CRESC conference, organised by Fabian Muniesa, Javier Lezaun and Signe Vikkelso called 'Provoking Realism', in which speakers explored ways in which 'the real' was put on stage, made manifest, enacted, brought into being (see also Javier's article based on observing focus groups and Fabian's new project, Performativity in Business Education). Bulmers' quest to be 'real', albeit mediated by the advice of a social media consultant with a one-time admiration for Debord or Garfinkel, has drawn them to a new level of performance and performativity. No doubt there is copious science studies literature comparing experiments to theatrical performances - in this case, I have simply added an additional audience.
And why did I bother? That, as Simon the sociologist would tell you, is not a question that the situationist has to answer! Simon and I are both pranksters. But I was admittedly rather saddened by this whole event. Not only does the Bulmers 'experiment' rule out the one thing that makes experimentation vital and political in the first place - the possibility of something new and unexpected occurring - but the fact that it exists purely to generate youtube content, in the hope of circulation on facebook, represents a fairly grave insult to the 'reality' of shared urban space: sous la experience public, le capital!