It could be otherwise: contingency and social transformation

There’s no such thing as a permanent present or a future that is fixed.

Luke Billingham
14 June 2016

Credit: CC0 Public Domain.

As an avid reader of social theory and an educator, there’s one question that particularly interests me: what intellectual tools are needed to examine the social world and think critically about its transformation? Although it may seem abstract at first, I think that one especially important idea is contingency.

To say that something is contingent means that ‘it could be otherwise’—it’s not necessary or inevitable for it to exist as it is. Everything in the social world is contingent. All the institutions we’re part of, the norms we follow and the practices we adopt could all be different because they were made by human beings. They only stay the same because people continue to act as they do. If that stopped, everything would change.

This can be a real mindf**k for young people. It certainly was for me, when I was first encouraged to consider it as a 16 year old sociology student in London. The idea of contingency helps to overcome a significant barrier to thinking and action around transformation, which is the tendency to assume that the world around us is fixed, normal or natural. It can foster a strong sense of possibility and empowerment, and make concrete change seem more plausible—essential seeds for any social movement. The idea of societal contingency helped stir revolutions in the 18th and 19th Centuries when enough people stopped viewing their social order as divinely ordained.

In my work with youth groups in Hackney, East London, I often show a video in which Steve Jobs, the ex-CEO of Apple, captures this point: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people who are no smarter than you,” he says, “You can change it.” The teenagers I work with can feel like they’re the object of social forces much bigger than themselves. All too often, they are belittled in institutions and find themselves on the wrong side of dominant social norms, so it can be liberating to think that all these are human constructions which can be changed.

This basic understanding of contingency has value in galvanising a sense of agency, but it’s vital to go deeper if we want to think rigorously about social transformation. Jobs’ articulation is simplistic to the point of naivety, appearing to suggest that change is easy while ignoring entrenched interests, habits, structures, inertia, and the sort of everyday practical necessities you rarely experience if you’re a tech billionaire in Silicon Valley or Seattle.

Perhaps even more dangerously in terms of how we think about the social world, it also lumps everything together that’s humanly constructed as though it were equally changeable, when clearly it isn’t. Gender, McDonalds, ice skates and cheese are all humanly made, but they’re not mutable in the same way, in the same timescale or to the same extent.

Contingency is more fruitfully understood as an historical concept which can be used to examine specific features of the social world. To say that something is historically contingent means that it could have happened differently from its beginning and could be very different in the future. This makes the social world seem less solid and stable, drawing attention to the fact that all institutions, norms and practices have formed over time in particular places and through particular processes that didn’t have to happen as they did—a way of thinking that has some significant consequences.

Firstly, it challenges the idea of an "End of History" that is encouraged in some corners of neo-liberal thought—the notion that liberal democracy has triumphed and will prevail forever more. Challenging this idea is an important prerequisite for social change because the image of an unchanging political order numbs resistance. In his study of social obedience and passivity, for example, the sociologist Barrington Moore uses a range of historical cases to show how “at many times and places”, the perception of a “permanent present” has been a powerfully conservative force by creating an atmosphere of passivity and quiescence.

Secondly, thinking historically helps to convey the fact that different features of the social world are contingent to different extents and in different ways. When thinking about transformation, it’s essential to consider that what you most value could have been formed very differently over time, but it could also fade away. In the same vein, what you most despise could be stubbornly persistent. Thinking in this way helps to guard against complacency about what ought to be continually defended, acquiescence in the face of what ought to be continually challenged, and an inability to judge between the two—which is fundamental to any successful engagement in social activism and politics.

Take the UK National Health Service (NHS), for example. If you grew up experiencing the NHS as a fixture of the Britain’s political makeup and an everyday institutional reality, it can be easy to see it as normal, ever-present, and unchanging. But looking at the NHS through the lens of historical contingency—especially at a time when it is threatened—shows that none of these things are true. And that helps to mobilize concern and illuminate the possibilities ahead.  

The NHS emerged from particular historical circumstances—created after a period of war which brought about greater national solidarity; by a Labour government with strong popular support; at a time when the ‘forward march’ of the wider Labour Movement seemed inexorable; and as part of a broader project to craft a Welfare State that was designed to guarantee basic wellbeing for all.

Even so, its birth and development were never smooth or simple. Initially, the NHS faced stiff opposition from some doctors, and less than three years after its inception it was already altered—moved just a little further away from its founding principle of free healthcare for all. In 1951, the Labour Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell introduced prescription charges for dental treatment and spectacles, so upsetting Nye Bevan (the architect of the NHS) that he resigned as Minister of Labour. In his resignation speech he dismissed those who treated the matter as a “triviality”, saying: “avalanches start with the movement of a very small stone…The pebble starts, but nobody bothers about the pebble until it gains way, and soon the whole valley is overwhelmed.”

Given the increasing marketization of the NHS it’s clear that the ‘pebbles’ have been moving ever since, and that an avalanche is not out of the question. At a time when many believe that the public health system is being quietly dismantled, it’s useful to recognize that the NHS has never been invulnerable: it has always had both forces weighed against it and people dedicated to its defence—the “folk left with the faith to fight for it” as Bevan famously declared.

Considering historical contingency in this way is important for campaigners because it provides an insight into the precariousness of social institutions they want to protect or transform. Similar ideas have been deployed in current debates over Brexit, particularly in progressive circles. One fundamental difference between the Lexit and Another Europe campaigns lies in their divergent accounts of the European Union’s historical contingency. For Lexiters, the EU is and always will be a neoliberal club, and its history demonstrates that any alternative possibilities are minimal.

By contrast, those pushing for Another Europe make a positive argument for its contingency. For them, the EU is a dynamic project that has evolved throughout its history, so it can be transformed into a force for progressive action. Looking at the issue through the lens of historical contingency doesn't give you an answer, but it helps you to think through what is fundamentally at stake.

Ideas about contingency are invoked in different ways in a huge range of political arguments. In social policy, for example, some claim that the nuclear family is a natural necessity which must be adhered to, while others say that it’s contingent and should be changed—or preserved. Anti-globalisation protestors proclaim that capitalist expansion is not a historical inevitability but a contingent process that can be challenged. And the cornerstone of critiques of contemporary gender norms is the idea that gender is a fluid social construct that’s contingent on time, place, culture and ideology.

Getting to grips with contingency can help us to critique political arguments more effectively, examine the social world with greater rigour, and define our positions on crucial issues. The current social order emerged neither by accident nor necessity, and the same is true of those that will replace it in the future. It’s up to us to discern what is more contingent and what is more resilient; to judge what is worth defending and what should be challenged; and to act on our decisions. 

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