At the end of next month, I step down as Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review Foundation. It will have been five years at that point since I first received an e-mail from then editor Bev Skeggs inviting me to get involved, joining Marcus Gilroy-Ware to get the digital operation off the ground for what became The Sociological Review Foundation. It strikes me in retrospect that saying ‘yes’ to that invitation was one of the best things I’ve ever done, though I find it hard to imagine how I would have responded differently. I’ve learned so much through my involvement with it that has changed me as a sociologist, practitioner and person. In many ways, it’s responsible for what has been a pretty wonderful post-phd trajectory in many respects, as I got involved soon after submitting my PhD in March 2014 and leave just as I approach the fifth anniversary of being awarded it in September of the same year.

But it’s also left me juggling very different demands during that time and after years of pursuing a dual career as sociologist and social media practitioner, I’ve realised that I want to be a full time researcher. I’ve never done this before, with my part-time PhD taking six long years to finish and the idea has been playing on my mind for the last year until I realised I had to pursue it. I’m sad to be leaving but I’m excited to be  throwing myself into research in a way I never have before, albeit with six months or so of freelancing while I make the transition. It’s definitely the right move but there are so many highlights to my time with The Sociological Review I wanted to share before I go:

  1. Undisciplining was unspeakably exhausting but I was so proud of what we did, as a small team led by events manager Jenny Thatcher (who herself did a team’s worth of work) as we put on what I think was a truly different sociological conference
  2. I often say we shouldn’t treat social media metrics too seriously but I’m still proud of the nearly 50,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 25,000 on Facebook we’ve accumulated in the time I’ve been running them.
  3. Watching a network of people coalesced around a journal become a charity, with its legal existence, routines, identity and culture. I honestly feel I’ve learned more about organisations by being part of this process than anything I’ve ever read in a book or paper.
  4. Publishing creative outputs like From Stigma Power to Black Power: A Graphic Essay and University: A New Way of Life. My passion for social media began with a sense of how it could be used to ensure an audience for innovative ways of working outside of traditional publication systems. Not only do I love the outputs we’ve published, including a whole series of films, but I love the fact that I’ve had the chance to put ideas I had written about in the abstract into practice through my work with TSR.
  5. This piece by Bev Skeggs describing her experience of navigating the social care system with her elderly parents is the best blog post I’ve ever read by an academic. It also kicked off one of my favourite sections, exploring the contemporary sociological imagination in a way blogs are so well suited to yet rarely seem to be used for.
  6. On a similar note, asking Ashleigh Watson to edit a new fiction section  is one of the things we’ve done that I’m most proud of. It’s provided an online platform for sociological fiction, something which has been a passion of mine for years despite the fact I’m terrible at writing it, ensured by Ashleigh’s immense skill as a writer and editor.
  7. The events 😍 there have been so many I’ve had the pleasure to organise with Jenny Thatcher, learning so much about how to organise accessible, inclusive, engaging events in the process. My highlights include Social Media and Doing a PhD (with the wonderful Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson), The Sociological Review and the History of the Discipline (at the Keele Foundations of British Sociology archive), Social Media: Problems and Prospects and The Practice of Public Sociology. These are just the ones I took the lead on though and I’ve been involved in countless other, either helping Jenny in some way or just attending because I was interested.
  8. Stating the Sociological was a series we coordinated after an infuriating Times Higher Education feature on the state of sociology. Rather than snipe on Twitter, I instead co-ordinated a series of responses which offered a much deeper perspective on the issues which the lacklustre THE article had claimed to address. The highlight for me was this piece by Des Fitzgerald which has the best closing line of anything I’ve ever been involved in publishing.
  9. Our feature on the legacy of Zygmunt Bauman which offered an engaging, sophisticated, critical yet respectful appraisal of his work and a chance to reflect on what he had contributed to our journal over time.
  10. Chronic Illness and the Academy was a feature coordinated by Anna Ruddock and we did nothing more than provide a platform for it. But the fact we had that platform to provide made me really happy, as we hosted a powerful, multifaceted discussion about an issue which is often ignored, simplified and/or marginalised. The feature on self-harm currently underway by Brigit McWade is shaping up to be similarly important and I’m so pleased we’ve been able to provide a platform for these conversations.
  11. #SociologicalPets continues to make me happy, even if it did provoke accusations of sociologists sharing cat pictures while rome burns. I come back to it every six months or so and inevitably find that new people have used it in the meantime.
  12. Discovering the Foundations of British Sociology archive at Keele, getting the opportunity to organise an event around it and being inspired by the early British sociologists with their vast theoretical ambitions and powerful commitment to public sociology avant la lettre.

Above all else, it’s been a pleasure to work with so many wonderful people, particularly Bev, Michaela, Emma, Jenny, Chantelle, Zoe and Attila. But there are so many others, including the editors, trustees and the editorial board members. It’s been particularly fantastic working with Emma as digital editor of the journal, with whom all this work on the blog was undertaken, and Jenny in her role as events manager but as a whole it’s just been full of wonderful collaborations with interesting, passionate and thoughtful people. I could go on for a long time… thank you The Sociological Review Foundation for a wonderful five years and the opportunity to contribute to what I truly believe is the best thing currently underway within British Sociology.

In his Imagined Futures, Jens Beckert suggests four ways in which fictional expectations make an impact on the social world:

  1. They coordinate actors by providing a common focus to their action
  2. They are able to shape the future by conditioning what action happens
  3. The freedom involved in fiction means they are not constrained by reality and are thus capable of stimulating innovation
  4. They motivate real decisions which have consequences on the distribution of resources and the projects which actors have to pursue and contest them, including the attempts to influence expectations because of the consequences they have.

My notes on Barden, O. (2019). Building the mobile hub: mobile literacies and the construction of a complex academic text. Literacy, 53(1), 22-29.

In spite of the many things which smart phones can do, they have not been welcomed warmly within the classroom with many claiming they are “distracting, promote superficial learning, erode students’ ability to concentrate and teacher’s control over the classroom and entrench socio-economic divisions” (22). This is significant because the most recent figures suggest 90% of 16-34 year olds in the UK own a smartphone, with half reporting they check it within 5 minutes of waking up. They are the primary mode of engagement with digital life which makes the literacy or otherwise which users have crucially significant. But this has not been defined heretofore and this is what Barden sets out to do.

What attempts there have been have tended to focus on mobility for reasons that are probably obvious. But the meaning of mobile literacy has largely been taken for granted. Barden warns that the term ‘literacy’ is often used as a synonym for skill, as in computer literacy. Literacy in the broader sense is a capacity to manipulate symbols in order to communicate, something for which mobility offers “possibilities for different kinds of literacies, shaped by communication forms which are richer, more diverse and more flexible than before and supports multimodality, linguistic innovation, remix, playfulness, participation and connection in the in the production and consumption of texts” (23). He thus defines mobile literacies as “the use and interpretation of written or symbolic representation in texts and practices mediated by mobile digital technologies” (23).

The interview with a student he takes a case study stresses the haptic aspect of producing a text using a mobile phone, stressing the enjoyment and response which can be found through the necessity of continually manipulating a screen. I remember the discovery of this when I first got an iPad and my absolute delight in using mind mapping software, it felt like the structure of my ideas were flowing into the device in a way I hadn’t experienced properly. In this sense, touch is crucial to how we manipulate symbols through mobile computing. It constraints in some ways, providing a smaller and less powerful interface than a keyboard and mouse, but opens up new modes of engagement which are important to recognise.

This is combined with a capacity to work anywhere and at any time which increases the immediacy of the creative activity. The student describes the active working this facilitates, undertaken in the immediate moment of the lecture theatre rather than being displaced until a later date when the student would sit down at a computer. Learning an take place through text, voice, image and text. It involves rapidly moving between apps in an agile fashion, working outside of the institutional provision of computer labs and taught sessions.

 

In his Imagined Futures, Jens Beckert offers a sociology of expectations which reconstructs the role of imagination in how people orientate themselves to the future. From pg 9:

If actors are orientated toward the future and outcomes are uncertain, then how can expectations be define? What are expectations under conditions of uncertainty? That is the central question to which this book seeks an answer. If we take uncertainty seriously instead of conflating it with risk, it becomes evident that expectations cannot be probabilistic assessments of future states of the world. Under genuine uncertainty, expectations become interpretative frames that structure situations through imaginaries of future states of the world and of causal relations.

There are a few reasons I’m reading this. But I’m particularly interested in making sense of how users imagine platforms and what this means for their expectations of how their use of the platform will bring about certain ends. The role of the future in platform imaginaries might not seem self-evidently important but Beckert’s analysis can be used to make sense of how possibility is conveyed to users and how this in turn shapes their use.

My notes on Kember, S. (2016). Why publish?. Learned Publishing, 29, 348-353.

This short piece is based on Sarah Kember’s inaugrial professorial lecture at Goldsmiths, its writing timed to coincide with the launch of Goldsmith’s new press. Its establishment was explicitly motivated by a sense of “the opportunities afforded by digital technologies and the new DIY spirit of scholarly publishing”, as well as the challenges raised by contemporary scholarly communication. As Kember puts it, it was informed by “a stubborn refusal to accept the constraints of genre, style, and format; and a conviction that there is more to the future of publishing than it being online and open access” while also reflecting the specificity of Goldsmiths as an institution (348).

Racism and sexism is rife in publishing, “if not at the level of editorial decision making, then at the level of infrastructure (through marketing strategies; publishing systems that classify and categorize like with like; through policies that privatize higher education, introduce exorbitant fees, and preclude those from more diverse ethnic and social backgrounds from becoming students and practitioners of writing and publishing” (349). This is matched by discrimination reproduced through citation and review practices in a scholarly publishing culture driven by audit, metrics and professionalisation. These control mechanisms favour the already established academics, with their unsurprising demographic profile, as well as the already established ideas. Goldsmiths Press joined other new new presses (UCL, Westminster, Open Humanities Press, Open Books, Mattering Press, Mute and Meson) constituting a “collective manifesto for future publishing” (pg 249). This is Kember’s account of what that entails:

  1. Digital first, not digital only: digital first for Goldsmiths means being digitally led rather than solely digital. It is a context for publishing rather than an end point. People still like print books and digital can’t provide a magic bullet to solve the problems of publishing: books are sensory things. Unfortunately, the enormous changes in how books are produced and distributed hasn’t been matched by a change in what they are. Being digitally led can help prompt this reevaluation: “looking again, in a digital context, at once new, provisional, provocative but largely analogue forms like the essay, the pamphlet, and the manifesto” (350).
  2. Open out from open access: a terrifying percentage of journal articles and books are published but not cited and hardly read. However the solution to this fast publishing, taking place without much concern for demand, isn’t to go more slowly. Kember takes issue with the open access movement which “rightly challenges the spiralling costs and price barriers put up by commercial journal publishers in particular and the fact that they are draining library budgets while profiting from academic free labour” but increasingly encourage a “pay-to-say model of publishing” which is “not only exploitative but also dangerous because it makes the ability to say contingent on the ability to pay” (350). Furthermore, openness is too often openness to commercialisation, redesigning the public sector on behalf of the private sector. Both the top-down and bottom-up open access movements “conflate access and accessibility”: mistaking something being freely available online or it being readable. Instead, we need a research commons in which universities invest in an infrastructure to support grassroots publishing against the offerings of private platforms.
  3. Intervene below the line: established practices of scholarly publishing reproduce inequality off the page, through the mechanisms identified earlier. This is why alternatives need to intervene ‘below the line’ and explore new techniques, norms and routines which can avoid this careless reproduction of inequities.
  4. Crisis, what crisis? Crisis talk is psychologically enticing but it has little practical value and we should avoid it, not least of all because it gets in the way of recognising how new initiatives inevitably prop up existing power structures in some ways while resisting them in others.
  5. Take responsibility for companion species: a failure to recognise the particular circumstances facing different groups and career stages is a failure to recognise the opportunities which these differences offer for rethinking the forms and practices of publishing e.g. “Our forthcoming poetry pamphlet series, which puts undergraduate and postgraduate work alongside that of established poets, is just a start”
  6. Work harder there, unwork there: the criteria built into promotions mean that withdrawl from the journal system is impossible for most, leaving us with the question of how to reroute labour into less harmful and explotiative outlets. This is why academic run presses are so exciting, creating opportunities to work as publishers rather than for them.
  7. Write! It’s necessary to resist the pervasive instrumentalisation of writing, reclaiming a sense of what it do. The professionalisation of academic writing has forced us “to substitute the more writerly, discoursive forms, such as the essay, for the more measured and measurable –largely unread and unreadable – quasi-scientific journal article” 352). We need to make contact with a sense of writing as something that evades and exceeds the possibility of measurement.

The trope of ‘taking back control’ has become ever more prominent within political life, explicitly in the case of the Brexit movement but implicitly in a whole range of other movements from Trumpism to Corbynism. In their thought provoking, if at times unpersuasive, critique of Corbynism (Corbynism: A Critical Approach) Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that the promise Labour have made to take back control over capitalism is fundamentally illusory. From loc 2441:

The inevitable failure of such a model in an irreversibly global society just sets up yet another narrative of betrayal, one greatly intensified by the faith in Corbyn’s personal integrity and the self-regard of the broader movement as being the ‘community of the good.’ This is in common with all such demands for the taking back of control in a world where we are all out of control.

Leaving aside the question of whether such a promise has been made, as opposed to a more nuanced message being reduced by Pitts and Bolton to fit the argument of homology between populist right and populist left which they were inclined to make, it raises an obvious question: if control is impossible then what should we do? Their argument as far as I can see is to preserve the forces of liberal multinationalism as a means to mitigate the excesses of global capitalism. Or at least that’s the only positive case I’ve seen 2/3 of the way into the book and it remains a bit weak. But where I think they are making an important point is their concern about where a perceived betrayal of the promise of control, might lead. From loc 2445:

This is particularly risky if the institutional structures of liberal capitalism –the impersonal laws and rights which ameliorate, however unsatisfactorily, the inherent conflicts and contradictions of a system of ‘social labour’ –are conflated with that self-same system of socially mediated labour, and thus recklessly cast aside in the name of ‘taking back’ an elusive and impossible ‘control.’

This concern that Corbynism is harassing energies which, in the event of its failure, might not be contained within a left project, immediately made me think back to this gloomy Richard Seymour piece about the betray narratives taking shape on the British right. I find it easy to imagine how a narrative of betrayal could emerge among a renewed left, not directed at the leadership of a failed Corbyn project but rather at the ‘establishment’ which has destroyed it in order to serve their narrow interests. How might this entangle with the myth of national betrayal currently emerging on the right? It is admittedly one in which Corbyn himself is frequently cited, as Seymour makes clear, but the main thrust is again with the ‘establishment’. Where could this lead? Après moi le dĂŠluge.

My notes on Betta, M., & Swedberg, R. (2018). Heuristics and Theorizing as Work on the Self. Sociologica, 12(1), 21-25.

Heuristics are commonly seen as either rules of thumb, simple tricks used under conditions of uncertainty, or tools for discovery, practical steps facilitating knowledge about what was previously concealed. However in this short paper, Betta and Swedberg suggest a third meaning, connected to the increasingly apparent area of theorising. From pg 22:

During the last ten or so years a new field of knowledge has slowly begun to open up; and the knowledge of tricks, moves and advice is part of this field. This new field of knowledge is theorizing. Theorizing is about sociologists becoming aware of what they are actually doing when they work with theory, and also being aware of how they can use this knowledge to shape their work.

The concern of social scientists with their own practice has led to the development of the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of sociology and the sociology of ideas. However they argue that these have been prone to blunt and oversocialised generalisations about the objective determinants of ideas. Furthermore, they are unable to inform an account of how to improve that practice.  There are books which aim do this explicitly, providing guidance about the practical steps involved in common intellectual activities. But these, argue Betta and Swedberg mainly focus on justification and say little about discovery. The focus on theorising aims to correct this deficit, as they explain on pg 22-23:

Theorizing represents an attempt to portray how things are actually done, and how theory is actually used in research. The search light is directed straight at what the social scientist does for two reasons. First, by proceeding in this way, social scientists will become aware of what they are currently doing; and second, they will also learn what they should be doing.

This involves relating to the self as an object of knowledge, in a way analogous to moral action which seeks to ensure more than mere conformity to external rules.  Heuristics should be seen alongside metaphors, induction, deduction, explanation and generalizations as part of theory work. But if I understand them correctly, their point is that beginning to talk about theorising in these terms helps constitute oneself as a theorising subject, relating reflexively to activities which would once have been (largely) tacit in a way guided by these concepts. In doing so, it contributes to constituting theorising as an area of knowledge with a direct connection to practice.

Interestingly, they relate this to the progress of methods and the consequent impoverishment of theory in (American, though they don’t qualify it as such) sociology. They also suggest that the findings of the cognitive sciences could be brought in to help inform the theory and practice of theorising. They conclude by linking this to Kant’s “project of the thinking self, which can be described as persons who act on themselves by teaching themselves how to think” (pg 24): if I understand them correctly, ‘owning’ theorising in the way they suggest involves having the courage to use your own understanding in the Kantian sense.

I thought this was a fascinating aside on loc 999 of Joshua Cohen’s Not Working about Andy Warhol’s reliance on a tape recorder to distance himself from his feelings. This is something many people do, thinking around the troubles rather than feeling them, but rarely so explicitly and with an apparatus:

According to his account in The Philosophy, by the late 1950s, television had begun to take the place of close relationships. But it was only in 1964, with the purchase of his tape recorder (which he called ‘My wife’), that he renounced emotional life altogether. ‘The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem any more.’ ‘Problems’ are personal; when they are externalized and reproduced, they are rendered impersonal, things to be dispassionately examined, rather than experiences to be felt.

My notes on Eshet, Y. (2004). Digital literacy: A conceptual framework for survival skills in the digital era. Journal of educational multimedia and hypermedia, 13(1), 93-106.

There is widespread agreement that the ubiquity of digital technology presents a whole range of challenges to the people living within these newly digital environments, but there is little agreement about what competencies are involved in meeting those challenges. The term ‘digital literacy’ has often been used as a blanket term to cover a range of competencies (technical, cognitive, psychological, sociological) but this ambiguity about which it refers to has created problems. Eshet-Alkalai is seeking to address this problem, as described on pg 94:

Development of a more clear-cut conceptual framework may improve the understanding of the skills encompassed by the term “digital literacy,” and provide designers of digital environments with more precise guidelines for effective planning of learner-oriented digital work environments

His new conceptual framework incorporates five types of literacy which “encompass most of the cognitive skills applied when using digital environments” (pg 94). It’s interesting to note the studies he references that suggest young people show higher photo-visual literacy and branching literacy than adults but adults show higher reproduction literacy and information literacy.

– Photo-visual literacy: whereas writing became more abstract with time in its transition from visual symbols to abstract letters, the opposite trajectory is true with digital technology as text-based interfaces have led to increasingly sophisticated graphical user interfaces which rely on visual language which is familiar and resonant with the user. Photo-visual literacy is what is necessary to “‘read’ intuitively and freely, and to understand the instructions and messages represented visually” (pg 95). It’s a responsiveness to visual cues for practical action and a capacity to form associations on this basis. In its most pronounced form this is a synchronic literacy, in which different modalities contribute simultaneously to the understanding of a multimedia text
– Reproduction literacy: reproduction became possible in a meaningful way with the invention of the printing press, as opposed to simple manual copying or oral reproduction. This went through its next revolution with digitalisation, leading to “new and unlimited possibilities for reproducing and distributing digital information have opened new horizons for scholars and artists, but they have also required the development of a new set of criteria for originality, creativity, and talent in art or academic work” (pg 97). This literacy involves “the ability to create a meaningful, authentic, and creative work or interpretation, by integrating existing independent pieces of information” (pg 98).
– Branching literacy: the replacement of the scroll with the codex book changed how information could be processed, facilitating navigating to particular points in the text rather than being confined to reading it through row-by-row as in a scroll. It made non-linear reading possible for the first time. Digital media offers a radicalisation of this process, providing users ” with a high degree of freedom in navigating through different domains of knowledge, but also presents them with problems arising from the need to construct knowledge from large quantities of independent pieces of information, reached in a nonlinear, “unordered” manner” (pg 99). It should be stressed this is a function of a particular digital environment, as opposed the technology itself. Early computing imposed a linearity on information retrieval (e.g. absence of hypertext, insularity of databases, paucity of metadata) which seems remarkable in the contemporary digital environment. Branching literacy is the skill at retaining orientation when navigating a complex information environment in a multidimensional way.
– Information literacy: even if the challenge of evaluating information isn’t unique to digital technology, the quantity of information which individuals have to evaluative is. As he puts it, “the unlimited exposure to digital information, which can be published easily and manipulated without difficulty, the ability to evaluate and assess information properly has become a ‘survival skill’ for scholars and information consumers” (pg 101). This involves assessing the credibility, originality and presentational integrity of information encountered online. Information literacy encompasses the cognitive skills used to evaluate information and their efficacy at filtering the torrents of information online for that which is biased, untrustworthy or erroneous.
– Socio-emotional literacy: the capacities for communication and collaboration opened up by digital media also present all manner of challenges about managing interactions through these new means. As he puts it, “Socially-literate users of the cyberspace know how to avoid “traps” as well as derive benefits from the advantages of digital communication” who he suggests are those “who are willing to share data and knowledge with others, capable of information evaluation and abstract thinking, and able to collaboratively construct knowledge” (pg 102).

My notes on Breakstone, J., McGrew, S., Smith, M., Ortega, T., & Wineburg, S. (2018). Why we need a new approach to teaching digital literacy. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(6), 27-32.

The upset of the 2016 American election was immediately followed by a rush to provide guidance on how to negotiate what was widely regarded as a dangerous proliferation of ‘fake news’. However Joel Breakstone et al found the problem was much wider than this in 7,804 responses to tasks which required students to evaluate online content that they collected over 18 months. Media literacy has been widely invoked as the solution to this problem and Google and Facebook have been involved respectively in funding the development of a curriculum in Canada and guidance for students in schools in Italy.

Many of the media literacy initiatives which ensued have relied on checklists, such as the wonderfully named CRAAP Test, inviting students to ask questions such as whether the site is a ‘.com’ and whether a contact person is listed. However this guidance conflicts with what fact checkers do, who immediately begin to read laterally rather than drilling down vertically into the details of the specific site they are looking at. As they describe on pg 28:

When confronted by new information on an unfamiliar web-site, fact-checkers almost instantaneously left the site and read laterally — opening up new browser tabs and searching across the web to see what they could fnd about the trustworthiness of the source of informa-tion. Only after examining other sites did they return to read the material on the original site more closely.

Vertical interrogation leaves an individual easily fooled by simple procedures such as using official-looking logos and buying top level domain names. As they put it, “By focusing on features of websites that are easy to manipulate, checklists are not just ineffective but misleading.” (pg 30). Furthermore, the length of these checklists (e.g. CRAAP has 25 questions) make them unfeasible as practical everyday tools for assessing unfamiliar content online.

In contrast lateral reading involves leaving the site to try and find external sources which offer information about it which can be used to assess its credibility. It is a practical strategy rather than a panacea, taught as part of a broader array of lessons about careful evaluation of online material. Teaching this requires reinforcement across the curriculum rather than a one off class taught by a librarian. This necessitates avoiding “mistaking students’ fluency with digital devices for sophistication at judging the information such devices yield” (pg 31). Teachers need training in these techniques, as well as the time and support needed to apply them across the curriculum.

Does Corbynism have a future beyond Jeremy Corbyn? In their Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue strongly that it does not because the figure of Corbyn is essential to sustaining the Corbyn coalition. From loc 1882:

there can be no Corbynism without Corbyn, or, at least, not without rendering the project incapable of containing its internal contradictions. Corbyn is not only a vehicle for a set of ideas quite apart from his own, but their alibi –giving cover for political positions even the adherents of which would otherwise recoil from, but which guarantee in the short term the construction of a relatively successful electoral coalition.

But surely this is true of any political coalition? To rely on an imaginary element to sustain a sense of collective identity between millions of people with divergent viewpoints and interests could easily be framed as part of what a coalition is. What matters is the efficacy or otherwise of that imaginary in holding together that coalition through the inevitable compromises and disappointments which mark the parliamentary road to power.

Their account is thought provoking in its analysis of the particular discursive work which the figure of Corbyn himself enacts, even if they setup their argument in a circular way which trades off the aforementioned constitutive function i.e. as long as the coalition holds together they assume their argument must be correct.

But I can’t see how one infers from this that Corbynism must necessarily fragment without Corbyn, unless we are talking about his overnight disappearance in an unchanged political context. Not least of all because the management of those internal contradictions becomes a radically different challenge once power is assumed.

My notes on Hall, N. (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists. Genome biology, 15(7), 424.

The link between scholarly activity and scholarly reputation used to be more straight forward. A scholar would publish journal articles, gaining standing amongst their peers through the quality of those articles or the lack thereof. That at least was the idea, even if the reality was often messier. In this short paper, Neil Hall seeks to analyse a trend which has undermined this predictable relation, namely the rise of the social media celebrity within the academy:

I am concerned that phenomena similar to that of Kim Kardashian may also exist in the scientific community. I think it is possible that there are individuals who are famous for being famous (or, to put it in science jargon, renowned for being renowned). We are all aware that certain people are seemingly invited as keynote speakers, not because of their contributions to the published literature but because of who they are. In the age of social media there are people who have high-profile scientific blogs or twitter feeds but have not actually published many peer-reviewed papers of significance; in essence, scientists who are seen as leaders in their field simply because of their notoriety. I was recently involved in a discussion where it was suggested that someone should be invited to speak at a meeting ‘because they will tweet about it and more people will come’. If that is not the research community equivalent of buying a Kardashian endorsement I don’t know what is.

To construct what he calls the Kardashian index, Hall compared the number of followers which research scientists have on Twitter with the number of their cited publications. He picked a ‘randomish’ selection of 40 scientists and gathered citation data through web of science. He tried to exclude early adopters whose Twitter following would reflect this and those who were named on foundational papers which inflated their score. Their Twitter followers were taken as a measure of celebrity and their citations as a measure of scientific value. He uses this to propose the Kardashian index, which I’m not sure how to convey properly without reproducing half a page of the paper:

A high K-index suggests a scientist who is over-celebrated, whereas a low K-index suggests one who is undervalued. His proposal is that those with a K-index over 5 are scientific Kardashians. What matters is less the details of this largely facetious paper and more the point he’s trying to make:

Social media makes it very easy for people to build a seemingly impressive persona by essentially ‘shouting louder’ than others. Having an opinion on something does not make one an expert. But on Twitter, for example, the ‘top tweet’ on any given subject will not necessarily come from an expert, it will come from the most followed person. If Kim Kardashian commented on the value of the ENCODE project, her tweet would get more retweets and favorites than the rest of the scientific community combined. Experts on the Syrian conflict will tell you how frustrating that can be.

I propose that all scientists calculate their own K-index on an annual basis and include it in their Twitter profile. Not only does this help others decide how much weight they should give to someone’s 140 character wisdom, it can also be an incentive – if your K-index gets above 5, then it’s time to get off Twitter and write those papers.

Rather than seeing social media as undermining the link between scholarly activity and scholarly reputation, I’d suggest it is a further complication of an already complicated relationship. It doesn’t seem clear to me that the genie can be put back into the bottle, though perhaps I have a vested interest in saying that as someone with a high K-index. But as much as this paper is facetious, the idea of trying to measure the links between collegial reputation, citational performance and social media popularity is one I’m increasingly fascinated by, even if doing it in so openly normative a way is a bit off putting.

I thought this was a wonderful anecdote, recounted by Anand Giridharadas on pg 77-78 of his Winners Take All. Edward Snowden was interviewed at Summit at Sea by the venture capitalist Chris Sacca who immediately looked straight past the politics of what his interviewee was saying once there was a fleeting mention of a startup emerging from it:

Perhaps in an effort to be courteous to his entrepreneurial audience, Snowden had tucked a mention of a start-up into his much grander vision of heresy, thereby destroying whatever chance he had for his ideas to be heard as they were intended. He had ensured that Sacca, and presumably many others, would now hear his revolutionary words and think only of investment.

“So I invest in founders for a living,” Sacca said, staring up at the giant screen. “And I gotta tell you, as I listen to you, I smell a founder here. You’re talking about these things that need to be built. Are you going to build any of them? Because there’s probably investors waiting for you here.”

Snowden seemed taken aback. Here he was talking about heresy and truth and freedom, and now he was being asked about a start-up. Flummoxed, he tried to let Sacca down politely: “I do have a number of projects that are actively in motion. But I take a little bit of a different view from a lot of people who need venture capital, who are trying to get investors. I don’t like to promote things. I don’t like to say I’m working on this particular system to solve this particular problem. I would rather simply do it, at the minimum expenditure of resources, and then be judged on the basis of results. If it works, if it expands, that’s wonderful. But ultimately, for me, I don’t tend to think that I’m going to be working in a commercial space. So I would rather say, ‘Let’s wait and see.’ ”

It was a kindly delivered rebuke to MarketWorld’s way of life. Here was a man who didn’t like to promote himself, who didn’t crave money, who was actually fighting the system, and willing to lose for the greater good to win.

Sympathy, this is my best disguise.
My skin stepped out for my bones to dry up
For the rest of the world outside to see.
You see I, bleed on the side.
It’s a part time thing, a private affair.
I try to keep it out of the light.
I must confess, I didn’t recognize you tonight
Dressed up like my love.
And I hate these things but I always attend
A little sip of something to take off the edge
And I make my way through the ghosts in the room
Trying to crack a smile
And who are you supposed to be?
You look like heaven tonight
Me, I’m a tomb, a corpse in a suit,
Trying to look a little alive
Are you alright?
‘Cause I worry sometimes
Are you dressed up to take my life?
Keep it coming, keep it coming.
Well I think I saw you for the flash of a moment
Your broken heart and the body that holds it
I lost your scent in the flash of the party
The big bright lights, baby, constantly haunt me
I’ve never been right, have you ever been lied to?
I think I just saw the same scars upon you
Is this a disguise? Or a masquerade for me?

In the last few years I’ve been struggling to make sense of optimism as a political factor. It struck me during the pre-refendum debate that the case being made by someone like Daniel Hannan, with his neo-mercantilist vision of a post-EU Britain, could be seen as considerably more optimistic than anything being offered by the remain camp. In their book Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton suggest the same was true of the left in the 2017 election. From loc 995:

On both left and right a deranged optimism prevailed, in which faith in the future was all that was needed to bring it into being. This wishful thinking, seemingly at odds with the cold reality of forthcoming political isolation and economic decline, was exemplified both in the credulous Brexiteers convinced that Empire 2.0 was on the horizon, as well as the Corbynists who held in their man expectations apparently so high as to never be met.

I think there’s overstatement here and a considerable contraction of reality involved in their claim of a symmetry between Brexit-ism (for lack of a better word) and Corbynism. Both reflect in their view a triumph of the cultural over the economic, to use the terms Will Davies did when making a similar(ish) point, with their competing visions of taking back control. In this sense, Mayism was the earliest attempt to build a coalition on a new political landscape, albeit one that faltered due to the weakness of May herself as a campaigner. From loc 966-980:

The distinct brand of ‘Erdington Conservativism’ developed by her close advisor Nick Timothy seemed perfectly primed for the post-austerity, post-Brexit era. 49 Inspired by the 19th century Birmingham industrialist Joseph Chamberlain, Timothy’s vision was founded upon an interventionist economic programme of infrastructure investment, the rejection of ‘globalist’ free trade in favour of protectionist tariffs to secure British industry, fierce Euroscepticism, a radical reduction in immigration, selective state education, and a laser-like focus on the apparently communal concerns of the so-called ‘white working class’ –traditional values, self-responsibility, patriotism, and law and order. There was an obvious overlap with both the message of the Leave campaign, as well as the creed of ‘faith, flag and family’ which had long been touted by the ‘Blue Labour’ wing of the opposition party-indeed, Lord Glasman took tea with Timothy in the early months of May’s premiership. 50 As May walked into Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister it seemed that her programme of economic and cultural protectionism was destined for hegemonic status. On the steps of Number 10, she promised, in language clearly adopted from the anti-austerity wing of the Leave campaign, that her government would be ‘driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours’ –the millions of ‘ordinary people’ who were ‘just about managing’.

However Brexitism and Corbynism have come to thrive in this post-austerity climate. It is precisely because of the bleakness of the former that I’m so enthused about the latter, as the only way I can see to resist the creeping barbarism of the last few years. But Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that “the optimism Project Corbyn sells its adherents proposes a false resolution of contradictions contemporary conditions cannot effect” and call for “a politics of pessimism can best match present realities and work with them practically” (loc 527).

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book but thus far I remain unconvinced, as thought provoking as I’m finding it. The obvious response to that last quotation is why? Why does a politics of pessimism help us ‘work’ with them ‘practically’? I can see an analytical argument to be made for a politics of pessimism but from the perspective of a pre-analytical commitment to a left project, I see nothing practical or desirable about it. Perhaps it will become clearer to me as I get further into the book.

My notes on Facer, K., & Sandford, R. (2010). The next 25 years?: future scenarios and future directions for education and technology. Journal of computer assisted learning, 26(1), 74-93.

“Education is a future-facing activity” as Facer and Sandford put it on pg 74. Its future orientation ranges from young people making choices on what to study, through to strategic planning in schools and national debates about curriculum reform and educational priorities that look towards equipping the population for a changing world. The future is mobilised as a resource to legitimate and incentivise reform, raising the question of what this future is imagined to be. From pg 75:

In many policy fields, for example, the ‘imaginary’ upon which future-oriented projects are premised often takes for granted the contemporary existence of and con- tinued progress towards a universal, technologically- rich, global ‘knowledge economy’, the so-called ‘flat world’ of neo-liberal rhetoric (Friedman 2005). It is towards this imminent world that governments and edu- cators are exhorted to propel students and citizens; and it is this imminent flat world that is used to mobilize support for funding allocations, to justify investment in new technologies or to rationalize curriculum decisions.

The focus is on ensuring that “specific individuals or countries are enabled to keep up” (pg 75) and alternative futures are ignored or foreclosed. Technology is widely presented as a crucial tool to facilitate this keeping up, essential for policy makers trying to modernise an education system and upgrade their population. It implicates an idea of the future as a singular, inevitable trajectory in the face of which educators and citizens have no agency” (pg 75).

Foresights activities have become increasingly prominent within education at many levels. The paper reports on the Beyond Current Horizons project, commissioned by the UK’s Department for Children, Schools and Families, which brought together 100 academics from a wide range of disciplines to understand what society might look like in 2025 and the education pressures flowing from this. It was based on four pricinples:

  • Principle 1: educational futures work should aim to challenge assumptions rather than present definitive predictions. Futures work explores the relationship between possible, probable, and preferable futures rather than making definitive predictions about what will happen.
  • Principle 2: the future is not determined by its technologies. Technological determinism pervades a lot of applied futures work but the insights of contemporary social theory illustrate how untenable this position is.
  • Principle 3: thinking about the future always involves values and politics. Visions of the future operate as rhetorical devices and political tools. Therefore accounts of the future need to up front about their commitments and values.
  • Principle 4: education has a range of responsibilities that need to be reflected in any inquiry into or visions of its future. This work has to begin with a clear statement of what the purpose of education is seen to be.

The project involved a mix of foresight work (map projections of developments into the future and examine their implications) and scenarios work (developing a set of future scenarios used to examine current strategies and their assumptions). These principles mean that the project will avoid  articulating “a trajectory of future technical developments and read off a set of deterministic social outcomes” and instead “explore how social and cultural contexts might shape the production of new technologies, and reciprocally, how the clusters of capabilities (Williams 2006) offered by scientific and techno- logical development might be amplified, resisted or modified by a range of social and cultural developments” (pg 77). It began with a statement of what the purpose of education was seen to be. From pg 79:

  1. “qualifying learners to take on certain roles (requiring the development of knowledge and competencies);”
  2. “socializing learners to participate in wider community, family and social contexts;”
  3. “equipping learners to develop their own sense of selves, identity and agency”

It involved the commissioning 84 literature reviews across 5 broad areas of inquiry, with a focus on current trends in the field, long-term projections and areas of uncertainty. These were summarised in reports which aimed to provide an overview of probable futures within each of the areas. These were the foundation for specialist stakeholder interviews and workshops, with a view to identifying possible futures which weren’t contained within them. Then a broader online and face-to-face consultation with parents, learners and educators was elucidate preferred futures.

There’s a detailed description of scenario planning here which I won’t summarise but want to come back to properly at a later date, as I’m always been interested in more detail about how this works. It analysed the reviews and stakeholder events to identify (a) common features of all futures (b) possible developments which could divert things towards radically different futures. These are the developments which they concluded would have a long term impact on educational policy. These are all direct quotes from pg 83-85:

  1. The information landscape gets denser, deeper and more diverse
  2. Creating the personal cloud
  3. Working and living alongside machines becomes increasingly normal and our understanding of what we mean by ‘machines’ may change
  4. Distance matters less, but geography still counts
  5. Digital Natives grow up and need to keep learning
  6. Weakening of institutional boundaries
  7. The decline of the knowledge economy as a utopian future
  8. ‘Silver bullets’ are not expected for complex educational problems

They concluded there were three significant challenges to the future of educational systems:

  1. Challenge 1: should education continue to be organized around the unit of the individual learner?
  2. Challenge 2: should ‘the school’ retain its dominant position in assumptions about educational futures?
  3. Challenge 3: should preparation for competition within a knowledge economy remain a primary goal for education?

They offer a number of recommendations in response to these challenges. I found the account of ‘networked learning’ particularly interesting on on pg 86:

Such a curriculum would enable individuals to learn to work effectively within social networks for educational, social and civic purposes, and to develop strategies to establish and mobilize social networks for their own purposes. Such a curriculum might comprise: for example, opportunities for learners to learn and work within meaningful socio-technical networks not wholly within single educational institutions; to be assessed in interac- tion with tools, resources and collaborators; to develop capacities to manage information and intellectual property, build reputation and trust, develop experience of working remotely and in mediated environments; to create new learning networks; to reflect upon how learning is connected with other areas of personal, social, and working lives and manage and negotiate these relationships; to explore the human–machine relationships involved in socio-technical networks.

They end with a discussion of how research communities can show practical and intellectual leadership in relation to these changes. This necessitates moving beyond traditional institutional barriers, recognising learning outside of traditional arenas and ensuring collaboration between those who study it in different areas. It also requires a move from pedagogy to curriculum: “the question of curriculum – of which educational goals should pertain in the context of socio- technical change” (pg 88) What does it mean to “become human and achieve agency” in a rapidly transformed socio-technical context? This necessitates resisting educational technologies entanglement in ‘educational modernisation’.

I thought this was an excellent account in Corbynism: A Critical Approach by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton. From loc 627:

Austerity is often taken to have caused the contemporary rise of populism. In retrospect, however, it is abundantly clear that austerity itself was a populist project –both in Chantal Mouffe’s sense of the creation of a political frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and Jan-Werner Müller’s notion of the hyper-moralisation of political discourse. How else to explain the singularly odd way that Britain responded to the financial crisis? The Cameron government was far from the only one to react to the crash and their ballooning deficits by insisting on the need for a programme of austerity. But in no other country did the public don hairshirts with such gusto. As Owen Hatherley has noted, Britain was convulsed by a fit of ‘austerity nostalgia’ in the wake of the crisis – unleashing dark political energies Tom Whyman captured well in the coinage ‘cupcake fascism’.

The book was published in 2018 and presumably written in 2017. But it’s hard not to link this to Brexit when reading it in April 2019. If they are correct about austerity populism then did Cameron and Osborne sow the seeds of their own destruction in their strategic embrace of the austerity narrative? From loc 640:

It was as if the public actively welcomed the collapse of the economy, regarding it as an event which finally gave some meaning to a life waylaid by the cheap thrills of credit-fuelled consumerism and reality TV, a form of existence that suddenly felt as toxic as the junk bonds clogging up the balance sheets of banks around the world. The austerity narrative was founded on an opposition between a national community of ‘hardworking people’ and a feckless underclass who had brought Britain to its knees –namely the ‘scroungers’, the benefit cheats, those too lazy to work and choosing to live off the largesse of the state. In this telling, the financial crisis itself was essentially caused by the Labour government’s reckless decision to rack up monstrous debts in order to fund the lavish lifestyles of their shiftless clientele. In contrast to this rotten coalition of bloated state, corrupt liberal-left political elite, and workshy scroungers, the Tories would instead take the side of the ‘hardworkers’, those willing to take responsibility for their own lives and roll up their sleeves to ‘sort out Labour’s mess’. ‘We’re all in it together’ was the cry, deliberately evoking the Churchillian spirit of wartime. The ‘deficit’ –and those responsible for it –was turned into a national enemy

My notes on Facer, K., & Furlong, R. (2001). Beyond the myth of the’cyberkid’: Young people at the margins of the information revolution. Journal of youth studies, 4(4), 451-469.

In this paper from 2011, Facer and Furlong consider how the assumed digital competence of young people has led them to figure much less heavily in concerns about digital inequality. Schemes were emerging to ensure internet access through public terminals and subsidise computers for those who can’t afford them but these were aimed primarily at at an adult population that was underskilled and deprived of access. Even if the term ‘cyber kid’ they analyse may have passed from use, the series of associations expressed within it feel extremely familiar. From pg 452:

Young people, it is popularly assumed, are part of the new ‘digital generation of cyberkids’, ‘children are at the epicenter of the information revolution, ground zero of the digital world’ (Katz, 1996). The ‘cyberkid’ myth derives from diverse sources: in science ction, notably Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’, the term ‘cyborg’ was originated to suggest the fusion between human and machine; more recently, commentators have argued that the ‘cyber’ derives from the Greek ‘kubernan’ or navigator, suggesting that the cyborg signi es full human mastery of technology (Oehlert, 2000). The term ‘cyberkid’, rather than cyborg, however, emphasizes the element of youth in the equation and derives from a long-stand- ing association between ‘youth’ and ‘the future’. Young people, like technolo- gies, are constructed within current popular discourse as the natural inheritors of future societies, and young people’s mastery of technologies is read off as inevitable through a process of con ation of these two ‘future trajectories’ (see Sefton-Green (1998) for a further discussion of this association). The cyberkid myth, then, derives both from future visions of technology–human relations and from long-standing discursive constructions of the role of children in society, generating a ‘shorthand’ for the relationship between children and technology. While the term ‘cyberkid’ is used predominantly within academic discourse, the associations between children, mastery of technology and the future in popular discussions of the ‘information revolution’ can be named the ‘cyberkid myth’.

These are reinforced through the contrast between young people’s assumed enthusiasm for computers and old people’s assumed fear. But this is orientated towards compelling adults to learn and engage, with computers otherwise being framed as a threat to young people. To appropriate computing technology easily is seen as a potent means to accumulate cultural capital. But conversely there is a prevalent fear that to appropriate it too readily undermines the quarantine of childhood from adult life, exposing young people to all manner of threats. The spectre of the ‘cyber kid’ is “a double-edged sword, both the promise of the future and a threat to the security of young people” (pg 453). This is reinforced by academics trends preoccupied on the one hand with the confident adoption of digital technology by young people and their creative uses of it, on the other hand forms of addition, compulsion and harm which young people come to through their use of computing technology. This reflects a broader tendency for youth culture to be banished from public consciousness, described on pg 453:

Namely, that youth cultures are rarely represented within wider popular culture, that their emergence into popular consciousness occurs only when their presence ‘erupts’ into visibility through events such as riots, raves, criminality or other challenges to the stability of everyday life, or when the wider culture is undergoing a significant period of transformation and accordingly invests its hopes and aspirations into the promise of future stability, a future heavily dependent on the role of the children now growing up in its midst.

Unfortunately, researchers ask questions which entail “an engagement only with those children who are thought to be spearheading a spectacular information revolution” (pg 453). In this paper, the young people who are actively dissociating and/or struggling with digital technology are brought to the fore, as figures who tend to be rendered invisible in academic research and popular culture due to the trends described above. They describe this tendency in terms of a deficit or essentialist model, relating young people to a grand narrative of the digital revolution and erasing the meaning which digital technology has for them in their lives and the uses to which they seek to put it or don’t.

Defining a lack of access is more complex than it might seem to be. Having equipment at home doesn’t mean children meaningfully have access to it. It says nothing about the conditions in which confidence with technology can be acquired. Furthermore, competition within the family means what access and expertise is available may be unevenly distributed. The project their findings are from is described on pg 455:

The project included a large-scale survey of the computer use of 855 children in southwest England and South Wales in eight schools (all children were aged between 9 and 14 years at the start of the project), and 18 case studies over an 18-month period of children who were using computers on a regular basis at home [….] On the basis of analysis of 855 questionnaire responses, 46 children were asked to participate in group interviews lasting approximately 1 hour in school. Within this sample, children reporting that they ‘disliked’ computers formed 50 per cent of the interviewees (of whom one-half had access to a computer at home); children reporting that they ‘loved’ computers but did not have access at home formed the remaining 50 per cent of the interviewees.

Three themes emerged from the surveys and interviews: “issues of access”, “issues of relevance to day to day activities” and “the potential of formal educational contexts for reproducing anxieties and inequalities of access”. They found that while income was a significant factor in the likelihood of owning a computer, it was far from the sole determinant. The decision to buy a computer reflects a process of prioritisation which reflects a range of concerns of both adults and children, as well as past experiences and familiarity with computers e.g. if the primary focus was on entertaining the children, games consoles could do this more cheaply. Furthermore, those with access at home are more likely to take advantage of access elsewhere (e.g. at friends houses) while those without are less likely to do so.

Their findings were particularly interesting when it came to mismatches between the perceived functions of the computer and children’s own self conception e.g. it was perceived as indoor and sedentary in a way off putting for those who prioritised outdoor pursuits, or as a ‘friendship supplement’ necessary for those who had an active social life. This could even manifest as social sanction, with one girl describing being seen to voluntary use the library computer as ‘social suicide’. Competing discourses mean young people have to negotiate between their own pleasures, acceptable attitudes and adult interventions when it comes to computers.

Unstructured access to computers at lunchtime and in breaks seems to be taken up unevenly, with children who own computers being more likely to use them. This suggests computer access at school may be reflecting and amplifying inequalities, rather than mitigating them. The authors suggest that the ‘cyber kid’ myth may be reinforcing this by leaving teachers assuming that children’s natural enthusiasm will be sufficient to take advantage of unstructured time with the computer. It means those without access will feel excluded from the authoritative culture, those with inadequacies will feel they are not catered for within school and those who feel they are seen as outside the mainstream will construct themselves as such. The authors link these questions to the issue of what it means to be successfully young in an environment where digital technologies are increasingly ubiquitous. From pg 463:

Embedded at the heart of this debate is a debate on what it means to be ‘successfully young’ in the digital age. In exploring how low computer users express their attitudes towards computer use, it becomes clear that these competing constructions of the ‘cyberkid’ become a battleground on which they construct their de nitions of being ‘successfully young’.

This linkage of computing competence and suggests leaves some young people engage in face saving activity, distancing themselves from computing through the deployment of negative stereotypes towards those who are confident and familiar with the technology. This might include appropriate adult discourses of eye strain, internet addiction and social fragmentation to legitimate their distance. If you assume that giving access is sufficient to ensure engagement then you completely obscure the complexity of who is interested, confident, competent and willing to use computers amongst young people.  They stress the importance of the banal in getting to grips with the complex reality of how young people orientate themselves towards technology. From pg 466:

The term ‘banality’ is used here to generate an engagement with the creative, productive, subversive and conformist day-to-day lives of young people, and to pre-empt a reactive and equally deterministic engagement only with young people who are seen to ‘reject’ the dominant values of digital youth cultures

This focus helps move beyond a focus on the creative achievements of early adopters on the one hand and the problems of the struggling and pathological on the other. It raises the question of how to conduct research with those who lack the spectacular aspects of technological use without merely assuming a deficit as a consequence. It also highlights how other modes of access to technologies (e.g. mobile consoles which those who avoided computers were often familiar with) might become important as points of access to the internet which should not be excluded from the classroom. This seems like a remarkably prescient point when read 18 years from publication when mobile phones have become ubiquitous. They argue that “debates on technological solutions to the digital divide need, therefore, to move away from generalizing statements about ‘access to technologies’ and towards more detailed engagement with the patterns of use of specified software environments” (pg 467) with the potential implications of the aforementioned desktop/mobile divide for capacity to produce and engage as well as to consume content being one such example.

My notes on Pacewicz, J. (2018) It’s The Political Economy, Stupid: ​A Polanyian Take On American Politics In The Longue DurĂŠe. Perspectives 40(2)

This short piece is a valuable reminder that Trump’s capacity to endure countless scandals while retaining the support of his party wouldn’t have been possible without a degree of political polarisation in which “Republicans oppose Democrats across the board”. Far from political polarisation being a deviation from the norm, it is the breakdown of a degree of consensus in American politics which was itself exceptional:

People say that partisan polarization has increased recently, which is true, but the short term perspective misses that we are regressing to levels of polarization reminiscent of the 19th and early 20th Century (McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal 2016). The 1930s to the late 1970s—roughly, the New Deal Period—was the real historical anomaly for politicians’ high rates of bipartisan policy commitments. Explanations that look primarily to voters put the cart before the horse. The polarization of politicians, which began in the 1980s, precedes the polarization of voters by two decades, and the latter has also not gone nearly as far. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a majority of Americans, 79% in 2014 according to Pew, hold some mix of Democratic and Republican views.

The distinctive character of the 1930s to the 1970s can be seen in “grassroots political parties that were dominated by community economic and social elites”. Party politics was embedded within and constrained by community politics. The control of community elites over what was politically visible and what was regarded as politically significant mean that focus was directed towards their own economic interests at stake in locally based conflicts. It left people committed to parties, with participation intimately tied to the fabric of their daily life, but with little engagement with political issues beyond those encountered in their local community.

The political economic transformations of the 1970s led to the deterioration of union membership but also to the decline of community elites whose local businesses increasingly struggled. They increasingly collaborated in pursuit of inward investment for their region and this left them decreasingly inclined to speak in partisan terms in the way their immediate predecessors would have. The result of both trends was that party politics was disembodied from community politics, creating the space for what followed. In different ways, both parties became vehicles for social movements in a way that wouldn’t have previously been feasible.

The author makes a powerful case for the importance of historical and economic perspectives in making sense of contemporary political developments:

To my eyes, political economic-perspectives are valuable primarily because they counter the presentist assumptions of liberal democratic narratives. The public is understandably hungry for research that promises to bridge the empathy gap, adjudicate whether Trump voters were driven by economic anxiety or racism, and otherwise reveal the true character of the politically dispossessed (to a limited extent, I’ve written some publicly-oriented stuff like this myself).

Social scientists can and should feed the public’s anthropological curiosity in the politically dispossessed, but it’d be nice if we could also lead the discussion by providing historical context.

Doing justice to these questions means looking beyond individual attitudes and instead offering narratives about  “institutions that either do or don’t increase people’s appreciation of social interdependence and engender meaningful representation”.

On the same topic as yesterday’s post on the moral theories of platform engineers, Anand Giridharadas recounts a speech by Uber and Airbnb investor Shervin Pishevar on pg 66 of his Winners Take All: 

“My biggest thing is existing structures and monopolies—one example is the taxi cartels—that is a very real thing,” he said. “I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been threatened by those types of characters from that world. I’ve seen them beating drivers in Italy. You see the riots in France, and flipping over cars and throwing stones. I took my daughter to Disney. We were in the middle of that. We had to drive our Uber away from basically the war zone that was happening. “So from a moral perspective, anything that’s fighting against morally corrupt, ingrained systems that are based on decades and decades of graft within cities, within city councils, with mayors, etcetera—all those things, they are real, actual things that are threatened by new technologies and innovations like Uber and other companies in that space. So from that perspective, bring it on. That is something we should be fighting.