Looking for Utopia: A PhD Story

Ronnie Hughes, Sociology, University of Liverpool, 2018 Cohort

RonnieA Beginning

I am writing this like a story, though it could also be a PhD if such things were only meant to be less than a thousand words long. A stretch to imagine, but the story for me begins years ago with a long fascination that groups of humans might be able to make up better lives in better places for themselves. It also has another beginning just over two years ago when I applied to be doing the work I’m now doing. Back then it was to be a study of time and it’s effects on Port Sunlight, but that soon got wider and deeper once I got going with my Sociology MA and began calling it ‘Looking for Utopia’. Which it still is, for now, despite my gathering doubts about whether anything called a utopia is going to be useful in any of the places where people actually live.

Looking for Utopia

As soon as I started to think about Port Sunlight I’d begun to wonder how such model industrial villages came to be and why. Which led me, like thoughts will, to thinking about them as imagined utopias. Next it led me into the section of the library where utopian writings live. Where I soon got so lost in a forest of disagreeing definitions that I decided it was time to look at the history of the whole idea.

What I found were two very clear histories of utopia. A chronological one and let’s just call the other a literary one. The chronological story being a long journey from creation myths like the Garden of Eden, through centuries of renaissance and revolution to the confused dystopias of now, when ‘utopian’ is so often a term of dreamy abuse.

The literary history begins with Thomas More making up his ‘utopia’ word five hundred years ago. And then I found it being applied to everything before and since that’s tried to imagine or make better realities, from warring ideologies to science fictions and housing co-ops. A heavy burden for one made up word to carry and enough to get me thinking it might be time for a reconsideration of ‘utopia’ as a search term for my quest, even before a global pandemic turned up.

A Reconsideration

Because pandemics are awkward things aren’t they? This one stopping my search and my story altogether for a little while. But once I got going again I found I was indeed thinking I might not be looking for utopia at all any more, and might therefore think about doing my planned out literature review with a more sceptical eye.

A Literature Review

I’ve not mentioned specific writers and their theories yet as the ones I’d found were so many and varied. But one day, back when we could still go into our universities, I’d used a method of my own to sort them out by writing all the literature down on individual postit notes and then clustering these over a couple of tables into the four utopian categories that follow:
1. Imposed
2. Better than now
3. No alternative
4. Of Science and imagination

So I carried on and did my literature review anyway, after my reconsideration and in these same categories, but with let’s call it a more adversarial attitude. And I emerged with a new group of companions for the next stage of my ‘What might work for real people in real places’ search. Strathern, Foucault, Braidotti, Kumar, Massey and Vitesi they’re called. Most of them not considered to be utopians at all.

A Time Shift

Now at this point in the story, though you might not notice it from where you’re sitting, we’re entering a time of work not done and experiences not actually had yet. Though everything might well turn out a bit like this, who knows?

Local Research

So my new theoretical companions and I, with varying levels of lockdown still going on (and yes, let’s pretend I carried on calling the search utopian for a while), went out into a few nearby locations to do our empirical research into how better lives in better places might get made.

To Port Sunlight of course, also to Granby 4 Streets and their Winter Garden where I’d already been involved for ten years, as well as a nearby allotments site. ‘All heterotopias’ I can hear some of you wiser ones calling out, but let’s leave that for now as we’re running out of words and I haven’t even described what the research discovered yet.

Well in the end all everything worked out fine. The pandemic passed and it turned out humanity had learned a few things in the painful process. Some of them being learned by me in the writing up of my final PhD story. Such as, none of my research locations liked being called utopian, but they all valued and even depended on each next generation having a secure base and safe places where they could keep on imagining better futures, retelling the old stories of getting to now and wondering “What next then? What would be good?”

Oh and there was other important stuff too. About hope as a human instinct, paradigm shifts in future thinking and utopia being a method and a story form, but not a name for realised social realities any more. But now I really have run out of space for any more words, so you’ll have to wait for the full PhD write-up to read about all of that.

An Ending, For Now

Then time folded back to the reality of now, when April was ending in the virus spring of 2020, and at least half of what you’ve just read hadn’t happened yet. But it might, and it might even turn out a bit like my story, plus some added extras I can’t imagine right now. And wouldn’t that be good?


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