The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Staff Profile

John Vail

Senior Lecturer in Sociology


Roles and Responsibilities

Exams office, chair of the Sociology Board of Exams


Research Interests

My main research interests are as follows:

·         political/social economy: including egalitarian political economy, market society, commodification, and decommodification;

·         political sociology: including social movements, contentious politics, democratic participation, participatory and deliberative democratic experiments, projects for social justice;  

·         politics and sociology of the arts: including oppositional cultural movements, cultural economy, cultural work, arts and egalitarianism, arts and social movements, arts and social transformation.

Other Expertise

Before entering academia, I worked for nearly a decade in the field of community economic development and community participation in the United States so would be happy to collaborate with people on these kinds of issues and projects.

Current Work

I recently completed a monograph entitled Karl Polanyi and the Paradoxes of the Double Movement, forthcoming in 2016 from Routledge. The book is a critical examination of Karl Polanyi’s famous work The Great Transformation, one of the most celebrated books in the post-war social sciences, which argued that the double movement (the inception of laissez faire and subsequent regime of social protection) represented the core dynamic of social change in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I explore Polanyi’s argument about the key stages of the double movement: the range of factors (technological, social class, state/institutional, ideological, and contradictions of political economy) leading to the inception of laissez faire; the establishment of a market society, with specific focus on three core processes that subject society to the imperatives of the market -market imperialism, market corrosion and market insulation; the promulgation of social protection; and the profound social, economic and political contradictions precipitated by the clash of opposing social principles that lead inexorably to the catastrophic spiral of World War 1 and the birth of fascism. I then explore the efficacy of the “double movement” as an explanatory framework in delineating the contours of the political economy of the contemporary period.

My current research (with Professor Robert Hollands) is an ESRC funded project "The Promise of a Transformative Arts: A Political and Social Portrait of the Amber Collective". It explores the four decade trajectory through the cultural economy of an egalitarian arts collective, the Amber Collective based in the northeast of England. Amber is one of the leading cultural institutions in the region: its films unit has produced nearly 50 documentaries and feature films; its photography gallery, the Side Gallery, has achieved an international reputation for its exhibitions and archive. In series of journal articles and a monograph in preparation, we use the Amber case study to explore any number of issues of interest to sociologists: to what extent was Amber able to sustain its egalitarian, cooperative structure over time and what kind of commitment mechanisms did they develop to bind members to the collective; how are its creative endeavours shaped and influenced by democratic norms and practices; how did the group navigate the complex pathways of commercialism and grant funding; what kind of improvisation and cultural bricolage did they employ (alongside discounted labour) to sustain the group's material livelihood over the decades; how did their initial founding in Newcastle influence their subsequent artistic and organizational directions; to what extent was Amber linked in networks of social cooperation and a gift economy with other arts organizations; how did the social processes of valuation impact on their evolution; what constitutes a transformative and oppositional arts and to what extent did Amber imbue a transformative and oppositional element in their creative choices and practices.

We have written the following papers out of this research which I would be happy to send to anyone if access is restricted: 

J Vail and R Hollands (2012), “Cultural Work and a Transformative Arts: the Dilemmas of the Amber Collective”, Journal of Cultural Economy 5 (3): 337-353. We explore the diverse forms of cultural work engaged in by Amber (paid labour, collective labour, gift labour, creative labour), the extent to which this cultural work was fused with political and normative commitments, and how the shifting patterns and trade-offs of cultural work underpinned transformations within the collective itself.

J Vail and R Hollands (2013), “Rules for Cultural Radicals”, Antipode 45 (4), available online. Using the concept of “social skill”, we explore the various forms of social cooperation and coordination that Amber’s founder and leading visionary, Murray Martin, enlisted to create and sustain a vibrant, long lasting oppositional cultural movement.

J Vail and R Hollands (2013), “Creative Democracy in the Arts: the participatory democracy of the Amber Collective", Cultural Sociology, 7 (3). We explore the ways in which the collective’s artistic endeavours were influenced and shaped by participatory and deliberative democratic norms and practices.

R Hollands and J Vail (2012), “The Art of the Social Movement”, Poetics, vol 40, no 1: 22-43. Using the framework of social movement theory to explore the question of cultural formation, we investigate the origins of the Amber collective amidst the political and social ferment of 1968.

We have two additional papers currently in preparation:

J Vail and R Hollands, "Risky Business: how an oppositional arts group navigates the cultural economy and art world", where we explore the case study of the 1980's independent workshop film movement and investigate the extent to which an oppositional culture required new networks of social cooperation, new alliances and new valuation circuits in order to foster and sustain itself.  

R Hollands and J Vail, “Place Imprinting and the Arts: the case of the Amber Collective”. Using the idea of “place imprinting”, we trace the complex relationship between the arts and place to explore how place impacted on the Amber collective’s early organisation, artistic practices and social networks.

Future Research

I am also working on two projects that carry on themes that emerged from my previous and current research. The first, arising from the Polanyi book, is on the theme of decommodification. I recently published an article entitled "Decommodification and Egalitarian Political Economy" in Politics and Society, 2010, 38 (3): 310-346 where I outline an expanded framework for decommodification (including boundary protection, public goods, socially embedded economic circuits, social protectionand market transparency) and argue for its centrality in any egalitarian reform. Future papers will focus on the dilemmas of decommodification and theoretical traditions of decommodification. I hope to use these papers as the basis for a monograph that will explore this topic through four case studies (arts and cultural industries, science commons, micro-credit and the social economy).

The second project would expand on the theme of a “transformative arts” begun with the work on the Amber Collective. Although the language of “transformation” has always been a prominent feature of how artists talk about their calling - “transforming is what art does” suggests Susan Sontag-  what constitutes a transformative arts and how it should be conceived is not so straightforward. I am particularly interested in exploring how the arts can offer a distinct cultural pathway to the achievement of egalitarian and emancipatory objectives. To social solidarity: creating new solidarities, heightened empathy, and equal regard through the artistic unveiling of hidden injuries and bearing witness to social suffering. To democratic autonomy: enhancing capabilities, building self-worth, improving the capacity for reflexivity and self-realization, weakening forces of oppression and domination through artistic creation and consumption. To social learning: understanding social complexity, empowering local knowledge, developing a new ethical understanding via the arts. To social and political reform: prefigurative cultural movements that anticipate social and political reform by galvanizing new forms of social awareness and understandings of power that inspire social mobilization and instantiate a belief in the possibility of change. To a democratic culture: increasing participation in cultural activity, widening locations where art is produced and exhibited, inculcating new capabilities for creativity. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the arts, as opposed to political reform or social agency, are the sole means of achieving these ends, but at the same time, I believe the contribution of the arts to egalitarian objectives and social transformation has been curiously overlooked by social scientists.

This future project would draw on a series of paired comparisons across different art forms, national cultures, and historical periods in order to identify common patterns and social processes underpinning a transformative arts. These might include social documentary photography in the 1930s and political memoirs and diaries (Victor Serge, Victor Klemperer, David Grossman among others) for solidaristic arts; Czech samizdat culture and cultural activism on AIDS in the United States for mobilizing arts; Theatre of the Oppressed, El Sistema and street art for a participatory arts. 

Postgraduate Supervision

I am presently co-supervising four PhD students:

Sreevidya Varma: micro-credit in Kerala

Iain Phillips: class and employment transitions

Deborah Burn: the social world of the allotment  

Maksym Zherebkin, "Shareholder Activism and the Occupy Movement" 

I would be interested in supervising in any of the research areas listed above.


I an the co-recipient (with Professor Robert Hollands) of an ESRC small grant totally £98000 for the project "The promise of a Transformative Arts: a Political and Cultural Portrait of the Amber Collective".


Undergraduate Teaching

SOC 2082: The Politics of the Arts
SOC 3073: Exploring Social Complexity

Postgraduate Teaching

SOC 8047: States, Markets and Social Transformations