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Radio review: Archive on 4: The art of habit, War of Words, and People Fixing the World

21 October 2022


In Archive on 4: The art of habit (Radio 4, Saturday), Lynsey Hanley charted the history of sociology, a discipline derided by Margaret Thatcher

In Archive on 4: The art of habit (Radio 4, Saturday), Lynsey Hanley charted the history of sociology, a discipline derided by Margaret Thatcher

IT WAS in an interview for Woman’s Own magazine, back in 1987, that Margaret Thatcher made her infamous assertion: “There’s no such thing as society.” She was speaking in the context of debates about government-funded benefits; but the quotation has taken on totemic significance in the characterisation of Thatcherite philosophy. In this instance, the ideological cap appears to fit.

In Archive on 4: The art of habit (Radio 4, Saturday), Lynsey Hanley charted the history of sociology, the self-proclaimed “science of society”. The Thatcher era was, according to this account, a time of significant threat for the discipline — although, by the same logic, our current period of economic crisis should bring the end of economics. In truth, sociologists despised Thatcher as much as she despised them; and they both got something out of the relationship.

Hanley’s rich account revealed much about those features that are historically ingrained in sociology: its origins in ethical enterprise, the advocacy on behalf of marginalised communities, and the diversification of the academic profession. Indeed, the sociology of sociologists is itself a valuable study. If there was ever a real threat in the 1980s, that has been triumphantly overcome, and sociology has so effectively colonised university faculties that some are now arguing that the real decolonisation agenda for academia should be focused on regaining independence from its influence.

That sociological insights inform the manipulation of social media is dramatised powerfully by Neil Brand in his three-part drama War of Words (Radio 4, Tuesday to Thursday of last week). The story involves characters from India, the United States, and Ukraine, connected through the machinations of the “service provider” Gerhard: the service that he provides is misinformation. His clients including President Putin, Gerhard is hired to spread fake news wherever and whenever his paymasters require it, whether to defame a particular individual or mislead the world. People die as a result of his algorithms.

And yet it takes skill to make all this truly exciting. There is not much inherent drama in the tapping of a keyboard. Brand’s writing teeters on the brink of absurdity — when a villain walks in who is “tall, good-looking, with piercing eyes” one imagines the script editor going AWOL — but it kept me wanting to listen to the end. The climactic scenes are expertly handled.

If you have ever cringed at the sales pitch routinely employed by undertakers, spare a thought for Anthony, whose job it is to explain what goes on at Recompose: an eco-friendly body-disposal facility in Washington State. “We enter into our gathering space, where family and friends gather for a very intimate experience. . . Through the windows you can see a large array of our vessels where people are undergoing a transformation into soil as we speak.” If that doesn’t put you off, then you might be ready to take on People Fixing the World (World Service, Tuesday of last week).

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