The Sociology of the National Cringe
The Personal and the Social: the debate on Scots in leadership positions needs a sociological perspective.
Liz Lochhead and Alasdair Gray have been subject to predictable abuse for raising the question of the number of Scots in leadership positions in the arts. Others have met the same response for questioning the social class background of elites and the gender and ethnicity distribution of those in top jobs. It is not only legitimate to raise these questions, it is irresponsible to avoid them because they are socially significant.
Some of the attempts to sideline these debates come from the usual suspects. Dogmatic unionists don’t want any focus on Scottish identity questions. Those on the political right want to pretend that we are in a classless society and there are men and some women who see any support for positive action on gender as a threat. While we can discount these, there are others who come from a more liberal position and are concerned about prejudice against individuals. This we need to engage with.
What has been missing in much of the discussion is an analytical framework which can guide us towards the social significance of elite positions and national, class, gender and ethnic identity. The great American sociologist, C.Wright Mills, distinguished between ‘personal troubles and public issues’ in his 1950s book , The Sociological Imagination’. A ‘trouble’ is a private matter directly related to the personal experience whereas an ‘issue’ has to do with the wider organisation of the institutions of a society and its related culture.
‘When in a city of 100 thousand only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble
and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills and his immediate
opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million, 15 million are unemployed that is an issue
and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one
individual.’ (Mills 1959)
When someone is selected for a job after a fair and open procedure, this has all the appearance of a personal event and,indeed, it may be. But if, when you look at the wider picture, the pattern of those selected is hugely unrepresentative of the wider society or of a relevant grouping within that society, this becomes a social issue. When you see that not a single Scot has been Director of the Edinburgh Festival since its inception in 1947, when you see elite jobs dominated by the small minority from private schools, when you see that there were decades in which the number of women MPs in Scotland could be counted on one hand, these are social issues. We have to look at the institutional factors that produce certain outcomes. This does not necessarily offer solutions but it brings issues into the open rather than hidden as only the sum total of individual abilities. Reference has been made to the recent appointment without controversy of a Scot to a leading job in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. But would there be no controversy if half the jobs at the Abbey over the next ten years went to non-Irish?
This does not mean that any individual job appointments were wrong in their personal context. It does mean that we should address institutional factors if these appear to predispose leadership recruitment patterns in ways that are very unrepresentative of our society. That debate has been engaged on gender issues and positive action is now mainstream if imperfect. Difficult though it may be, if we try to pretend that these are not public issues but only a matter of personal qualities, then we fail to comprehend how our society works and we prevent legitimate discussion of how we can change. Preventing change is, of course, what our critics want.