Books, social media and ‘thinking-through-writing’

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been rereading Margaret Archer’s The Reflexive Imperative and I’ve been blogging about the book on a loosely chapter by chapter basis. I’ve now written eight of these instalments and have a couple more planned before I finish. I’ve gone back to the book for a number of reasons. I’m at the stage of writing about my data at present and, given that I both use Archer’s approach and conducted an extremely similar longitudinal qualitative study of undergraduate students, it seemed likely to be useful in my attempts to get a grip on my data. I also realised from a conversation with her that I hadn’t grasped one of the key points of the book on what was not exactly a thorough reading the first time round a couple of years ago. I’d seen the renewed focus on relationality as an exercise in ‘fleshing out’  the social and cultural circumstances confronted by reflexive individuals rather than, as is the case, it being an important development in understanding how the practice of reflexivity itself emerges. So given that my PhD purports to offer a realist (or ‘Archerian’ which was a label I’d never encountered until it was applied to me this week) framework for biographical research, using Archer’s morphogenetic approach to explain observable biographical patterns without falling into either the objectivist or subjectivist traps which plague biographical research, it was pretty important that I got my head around a major conceptual development in her work, even if I was then to find myself in disagreement with it.

I write all this by way of context because in my developing  understanding of ‘craft’ from a sociological perspective, it’s important that reflections upon a certain practice (e.g. ‘blogging about books’) aren’t abstracted from the who, how, when, why (etc) of the object being reflected upon. So if I’m going to reflect meaningfully on ‘blogging about books’ it matters how and why I did it. In this case two immediate reasons stand out as to why I blogged about this book: (1) I hoped it would be helpful for my PhD (2) I thought it was important, given my intellectual interests, to ensure I really understood this book. As I mentioned, I’d read it before and, as such, it’s difficult to disentangle the effects of ‘blogging about a book’ from ‘rereading a book two years later’. But I’m not sure how much that matters to the point I want to get across.

So what process has blogging about books replaced? To answer this question I only need to look towards the scrawled marginalia, perpetual underlines and promiscuous highlighting which are the legacy of my first reading of this book. They are for the most post completely and utterly incomprehensible to me. Furthermore the correlation between their span (there are very few unmarked pages left in my copy of the book) and the extent to which there were some fairly major points from the book which I didn’t grasp on first read invites obvious questions about how well this method of note taking works. I’ve been realising recently that I’m someone who thinks through writing. I rarely, if ever, know the ‘feel of an idea’ until I’ve tried to articulate it in my own words. Obviously I react to ideas that I’ve not written about but it can often be expressive (“ohhh shiny new concepts”) or entirely relational, predicated on my understanding of how the ideas I’m encountering sit in relation to other ideas with which I’m already properly familiar.

I think this is why I find blogging so helpful. It forces me to think-through-writing in a way which I just can’t replicate unless I know people will be reading what I write. If I write notes by hand they tend to be incomprehensible and pretty useless if and when I attempt to come back to them. If I write notes in a document on my computer that’s purely for my own use then my engagement tends to be flat. I persistently fail to go into it in enough depth to make the whole exercise worthwhile. It sometimes works if I have memos within NVivo or within a Scrivener project but I think in such cases the immediately practical context makes this form of writing a slightly different exercise. Jon Rainford wrote a nice post about blogging and writing a while ago,

In order to be able to write a coherent blog, I need to have read, understood, found a way to succinctly summarise and decided how the ideas in the work sit with my own. Writing this blog has helped me do that in a more concrete way and has helped me explore better not only the issues that I have been blogging about but my understanding of wider issues within Sociology. If you are reading this, you are probably someone who already knew this, certainly the part that writing was key to better understanding concepts and solidifying thinking. What a blog does more than this, is force me to consider if my arguments are strong enough to put out in public, for writing an idea on a pad and publishing it into the blogosphere are two quite disparate things.

This time I simply used index tabs to mark a paragraph which I might need to come back to for purposes of a blog post. The themes for the posts emerged pretty naturally and, now I’ve reread the book, I think it’s disaggregated in my own mind in terms of these subjectively meaningful themes. I paid particular attention to any concept in the book I felt unsure about: reading through, looking at past books and (re)articulating until I’d expressed it in my own language and felt confident that I understood it. I used quotes from the book when they seemed particularly relevant but did so in a way which left them contextualised within my own explanatory narrative. Now this is all indexed on my blog, easily searchable and ready for me to come back to whenever I need it for reference. I’m definitely going to do this again for other books but the amount of time involved means I’ll be very selective about which books I live-blog my way through in this way. But this in itself seems advantageous. The fact I’m confident this quite onerous approach will leave me understanding (pretty much) everything a book has to say raises an obvious question: which books do I care about enough to go to this much effort in pursuit of that outcome?

4 thoughts on “Books, social media and ‘thinking-through-writing’

  1. Mark,

    I especially like your post, primarily because it makes me less guilty about my own failures to grasp key points in Archer’s book which I thought (before revisiting) that I had understood. Of course, what we understand is shaped by what we are looking for, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that I failed to live up to the expectations I held (‘unconsciously’?) for myself as a reader.

    Having said this, I do wonder about the virtues ascribed to blogging by JJon Rainford (as quoted in your blog). The traditional idea about writing is that one conceives of an audience before and/or during the writing. Is this form of self-discipline (images of Foucault and lash coming to mind here) inferior to the discipline of the blog? (More Foucault fantasy: I sentence you to write eight more blogs on the Reflexive Imperative!) If so, why?

  2. I think it’s perhaps a more difficult book for people who are familiar with her other work than it is for those who aren’t – the theoretical shift is actually pretty big but presented quite subtly. It’s good though, I’ve been trying out ‘relational reflexivity’ as an analytical framework for my data & it’s really powerful.

    I don’t think it’s inferior, I guess I see it as just extending that to ‘note taking’.

  3. I absolutely think through writing – that’s probably why I write so much! I’ve started ‘live-blogging’ my new digital sociology book as I create the content and think it’s a great way to share ideas and receive feedback as the book unfolds. And yes, it’s also a terrific way to think through and present ideas for a thesis or any other continuing research project or to engage with someone else’s work.

  4. I don’t think everyone does though – I only had the notion put to me recently that some people ‘think through writing’ (for whom it seems obvious that continual writing, whether public or not, becomes desirable) and now I’m intrigued as to what the creative process is like without it. I mean ideas just don’t lead anywhere unless they leave my head – do some people develop their own views monologically & without writing?

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