Saturday 19 January 2013

Snowmageddon and Sociology

The end of the world never came last year, but the way the news media are carrying on you could be forgiven for thinking it's The Day After Tomorrow outside. Yes, snow has fallen and Britain is convulsed by paroxysms of crisis. Schools and colleges up and down the land shut, planes and trains were cancelled, and millions of people had an unexpected but welcome long weekend ahead. And, of course, the weather may yet prove a useful foil should poor economic figures require it.

The idea of snow as a doom-laden crisis recurs every winter. So what's going on? Why has this notion of 'snowmageddon' got such traction, and where does it come from? Here are some sketchy thoughts:

1. We may get snow nearly every year, but compared to the British Isle's default setting (mild, dull, with a hint of rain) there is something quite rare and exotic about it. In his famous 1967 book, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Harold Garfinkel discusses what he calls "breaching experiments". These were occasions where his students were encouraged to disrupt the taken-for-granted social situations of everyday life to show how people (or 'members' in Garfinkel's terminology) construct and make sense of the out of the ordinary, and how they also constitute the standard and mundane aspects of social life. For example, Garfinkel's Wikipedia entry illustrates this with the disruption one of his students visited upon standard small talk with her husband. Another famous example/ethnomethodological urban legend was the releasing of chickens into rush hour traffic (not something I'd recommend trying for all sorts of reasons).

In many ways snow in Britain, and particularly for the heavily urbanised population of England, is a meteorological breach in the standardised practices of everyday life. All of a sudden, they are thrown out of the window. Work is, for many, disrupted and shortened. Children get a day or two off school. The sledges come out. Streets become scene to pitched battles of snow and ice. Up pop snowmen in gardens and back yards. And the more curmudgeonly among us grumble about the roads, the weather, and yearn for the normal's quick return. It's a bit like a mild outbreak of the carnivalesque, and as such snowmageddon holds a certain transgressive appeal.

2. In the age of 24 hour rolling news, of instant commentary and declining news desk budgets, widespread snow is a positive godsend. The main news channels clutter up their coverage of reporters outside council depots and schools. We've seen journalists embedded with gangs of sledging teenagers and gritting lorries. It's dirt cheap to cover but endlessly newsworthy because of its disruptive qualities. And what is true of the broadcast media works for our beleaguered newspapers too. You don't even have to send anyone out of the office. You can produce accurate reports of the snow by mining radio, regional TV, and social media. Some people might even phone or email in with the travails they've faced getting their car up a hill. Therefore it's easy, costs next to nothing, and convenient to splash snowmageddon absolutely everywhere and, thanks to the sheer volume of snow-related news, adding to the crisis anxiety about it.

3. To do a little bit of violence to Anthony Giddens, he once observed the capacity for societies to be self-reflexive has never been greater, but added the likelihood of that happening has never been more remote. Contemporary culture is founded upon a great deal of anxiety and lament. There has always been such a current running through advanced capitalist societies generally, but it has grown in prominence and weight in Britain and America these last 30 years. As the weight of economic restructuring and cultural change has broken down old communities of solidarity, it has conspired to atomise and individuate us as employees and consumers. At the same time, if the idea of being fundamentally on your own wasn't bad enough, there are all manner of things that threaten to destroy us too. The USSR and the imminent threat of global thermonuclear war went out with overdoing hairspray, but in its place have multiplied all kinds of threats and risks. Terrorists. Climate change. Immigrants. Super volcanoes. Plague. Grey goo. Crime. Europe. Peak oil. Meteors. Zombies. To greater or lesser extents, they contribute to diffuse senses of social anxiety. If they are not already gnawing away at the foundations they threaten to tear away our existence at any moment.

The peculiar characteristic of this anxiety is that we find it entertaining. In the age of extremes, it's no longer the in-thing to ponder your own mortality - only the possible extermination of everyone and everything will do. Our newspapers, particularly those mired in the irrationalism of declining, hard-right conservatism AND the political economy of more-from-less appeal to certain audiences because of the frequency they will feed, and thereby encourage this anxiety.

Snowmageddon, therefore, is a marrying of churnalistic snow reporting and WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!! The 'breach' with standardised social life isn't an opportunity for fun, it's an occasion for social breakdown, accidents, and all manner of unpleasantries. For a significant share of the audience that laps this stuff up, it speaks to those who obsess over the declining significance of Britain. The inability to cope with snow is symptomatic of the liberal rot that has made this Once Proud Nation an island full of muslamic extremists, health and safety consultants, people who recycle, and unmarried women.

Hence we can never just have a bout of snow as we would have a rainy day. Because it is potentially disruptive it must be relayed back to us as being as devastating as possible. Hence snowmageddon is here to stay.

Meanwhile, this is probably what it really looks like.


Alex Dawson said...

Yesterday I attempted to travel back from London to Stoke and ended up not being able to do so. Trains cancelled, other trains delayed, all trains packed out, complete chaos and unseemly meltdown.

I'd been at a conference all day and by lunchtime the rumour was flying around the delegates "If you're going to travel, travel now or you wont make it". Like a sheep I took this at face value and darted off a good three hours before my booked train.

Lo and behold, Virgin trains had lifted all ticket restrictions and appeared to be packing punters on to any train they could. I went to the desk and was told by the girl to "get on the 4pm" train which was scheduled next - even though I was not scheduled to travel until 6.20pm.

I did so and it was akin to something out of a rushed urban evacuation, punters packing on, pushing each other fighting over seats. In the end, I got off - unable to face a two hour journey like this.

It struck me that Virgin had contributed to this by playing along with the panic. People had been panicking, so Virgin panicked in response and in the end there was a huge mess. As it was, there was no need for it - if everyone had just travelled at the normal time they had planned, they would have been a bit late and crammed but generally fine.

The Met Office "red alerts" on the weather, the rolling news hysteria - see Sky News' "UK Snow" graphic - all has the effect of winding up the population and the services on which we rely to new and frightening levels of anxiety.

I am certain it never used to be this bad when snow fell, but each time it comes we do seem to get worse and worse. I agree this has nothing to do with the "liberal rot" you talk about, but everything to do with the rule of fear and pessimism by our elite.

But it's not all bad - I think this "carnivalesque" notion is not far off the mark either. What is interesting is this fury from many of the right wing commentariat who rage that people need to buck their ideas up and get to work and stop being so soft etc...etc... It is clear the boss class are sensing that the annual snowmaggedon has become symbolic of many workers simply not working. The "Snow Day" concept is really quite a new thing.

Given that we are working some of the longest hours for ever decreasing wages in this country, coupled with the crippling of trade unions, I do feel the snow is now one of the few events that gives people the chance to collectively down tools and stop working.

I would hazard that if workers had decent wages and annual leave entitlements, not to mention more equal industrial relations mechanisms, they would be far more likely to fight their way through the snow to go to work. As it stands, snow offers workers one of the few remaining "excuses" to throw caution to the wind and not turn up.

Chris said...

I think this is all media stuff and in the real world people do go out and enjoy the snow and don't think the end of the world is nigh.

DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE: The media DO NOT speak for the people.

Rob said...

A shorter version of this post -

Phil said...

Loz, I'm pretty sure things didn't used to be that bad either - though I'm happy to be proven wrong. IT seems to me snowmageddon has properly become a thing since the 2003/4 winter where a lot of local authorities, Stoke included, were caught on the hop by snow that immediately froze. I can remember many roads across the country becoming ice rinks and cars and buses getting abandoned by the thousands.

Anonymous said...

I'm just waiting for the BBC to attribute the oncoming 'triple dip' to the snow. Nothing to do with fiscal or monetary policy, the gutting of demand, etc. It's the snow that's responsible.

The moral and intellectual level of mainstream journalism continues on its downward trajecteory.