Updates from September, 2013 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 8:51 am on September 28, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    BSA Annual Conference 2014: Changing Society 

    BSA Annual Conference 2014: Changing Society  

    Call for Papers 
    Theory Stream Submissions
    This stream welcomes abstracts on any aspect of theory as well as abstracts for the following Study Groups:

    · Bourdieu
    · Historical and Comparative Sociology
    · History of Sociology
    · Realism and Social Research
    · Weber

    The Realism and Social Research group would also like to invite abstracts under the theme “What is Realism for?”

    The group is particularly interested in papers that consider any of the following issues:

    • The relevance of realist theory to substantive social, economic and political issues.
    • The practical implications of methodologically operationalising different forms of realist thought.
    • Those from other schools of thought who wish to engage critically in a dialogue with realist theory.

    How to submit 
    All abstracts and proposals for other events can be submitted online at:
    http://www.britsoc.co.uk/events/bsa‐annual‐ conference/submissions.aspx

    The deadline for submission of abstracts is 18th October 2013.   

    For further information contact the Theory stream coordinators:
    Gurminder K Bhambra E: g.k.bhambra@warwick.ac.uk
    Tom Brock E: T.Brock@mmu.ac.uk
    Alternatively, contact the BSA Events Team E: events@britsoc.org.uk

  • Mark 8:47 am on September 28, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    Space, place, democracy and digital at DPR 2014 


    I’m helping to organise a conference stream at next year’s Discourse Power and Resistance. For more about the conference check the website out > http://dprconference.com/ 

    There’s an attached description of the theme. As part of the ‘Space and Place in the Democracy Project’ conference stream at Discourse Power Resistance 2014, we are particularly interested in presentations on current and future scenarios that detail the interaction between digital technologies and the potentials for and threats to fully democratic communities.  There are a series of influential agendas in the form of smart cities, big data, the quantified self, and algorithmic culture that intertwined with the neoliberal capitalist project(s) raise concerns for the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and sections of society on the basis of undemocratic principles and practices. We hope to bring together a series of thought provoking discussions that explore these alignments within the context of space, place and democracy.

    If you’re interested in presenting or would like to talk more about participating please email me.

    Please forward this email to anyone you think might be interested in this event.

    Best wishes,


    Dr. James Duggan
    Education and Social Research Institute
    Manchester Metropolitan University
    799 Wilmslow Road
    M20 2RR

  • Mark 3:58 pm on September 26, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: cuts, NHS,   

    Save the #NHS and join the march and rally on 29 September! 

    Only a few days to go….

    Supporters of the National Health Service and everybody who wants to defend jobs, services and a decent welfare state will be marching in Manchester on 29 September to deliver a clear message to Conservative Party Conference that we mean to Save Our NHS from cuts and privatisation.

    Join the marchers there!

    Nearly 100 coaches have been added to the listings now, with more to come! Check to see if there is a coach booked for your area.

    The march and rally has been called by the North West TUC, backed by unions and NHS campaign groups.

    They’ll be assembling at Liverpool Road (M3 4FP) from 11am, and marching past the conference venue to a rally in Whitworth Park.

    If you still want to add coach details, you can list the details of your coach times and places using this form.

    Coaches to Manchester are being laid on by groups around the country, with many places subsidised or free.

    Places need to be booked direct with the organisers, so check what’s in your area and get in touch with the listed contact.

    Website: NHS299.org
    Twitter: @NHS299


  • Mark 12:26 pm on September 25, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , human being, ,   

    The Incredible Disappearing Agent 

    Neoliberalism thoroughly revises what it means to be a human person.Classical liberalism identified “labor” as the critical original human infusion that both created and justified private property. Foucault correctly identifies the concept of “human capital” as the signal neoliberal departure that undermines centuries of political thought that parlayed humanism into stories of natural rights. Not only does neoliberalism deconstruct any special status for human labor, but it lays waste to older distinctions between production and consumption rooted in the labor theory of value, and reduces the human being to an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances (family, sex, race), and fungible body parts. “Government of the self ” becomes the taproot of all social order, even though the identity of the self evanesces under the pressure of continual prosthetic tinkering; this is one possible way to understand the concept of “biopower.” Under this regime, the individual displays no necessary continuity from one “decision” to the next. The manager of You becomes the new ghost in the machine.

    Needless to say, the rise of the Internet has proven a boon for neoliberals; and not just for a certain Randroid element in Silicon Valley that may have become besotted with the doctrine. Chat rooms, online gaming, virtual social networks, and electronic financialization of household budgets have encouraged even the most intellectually challenged to experiment with the new neoliberal personhood. A world where you can virtually switch gender, imagine you can upload your essence separate from your somatic self, assume any set of attributes, and reduce your social life to an arbitrary collection of statistics on a social networking site is a neoliberal playground. The saga of dot.com billionaires, so doted over by the mass media, drives home the lesson that you don’t actually have to produce anything tangible to participate in the global marketplace of the mind.

    The Incredible Disappearing Agent has had all sorts of implications for neoliberal political theory. First off, the timeworn conventional complaint that economics is too pigheadedly methodologically individualist does not begin to scratch the neoliberal program. “Individuals” are merely evanescent projects from a neoliberal perspective. Neoliberalism has consequently become a scale-free Theory of Everything: something as small as a gene or as large as a nation-state is equally engaged in entrepreneurial strategic pursuit of advantage, since the “individual” is no longer a privileged ontological platform. Second, there are no more “classes” in the sense of an older political economy, since every individual is both employer and worker simultaneously; in the limit, every man should be his own business firm or corporation; this has proven a powerful tool for disarming whole swathes of older left discourse. It also appropriates an obscure historical development in American legal history—that the corporation is tantamount to personhood—and blows it up to an ontological principle. Third, since property is no longer rooted in labor, as in the Lockean tradition, consequently property rights can be readily reengineered and changed to achieve specific political objectives; one observes this in the area of “intellectual property,” or in a development germane to the crisis, ownership of the algorithms that define and trade obscure complex derivatives, and better, to reduce the formal infrastructure of the marketplace itself to a commodity. Indeed, the recent transformation of stock exchanges into profit-seeking IPOs was a critical neoliberal innovation leading up to the crisis. Classical liberals treated “property” as a sacrosanct bulwark against the state; neoliberals do not. Fourth, it destroys the whole tradition of theories of “interests” as possessing empirical grounding in political thought.

    – The Thirteen Commandments of Neoliberalism By Philip Mirowski

  • Mark 12:19 pm on September 24, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    CfP: Theory Stream for BSA Annual Conference 2014 

    This stream welcomes abstracts on any aspect of theory as well as abstracts for the following Study Groups:

    · Bourdieu
    · Historical and Comparative Sociology
    · History of Sociology
    · Realism and Social Research
    · Weber

    The Realism and Social Research group would also like to invite abstracts under the theme “What is Realism for?”. The group is particularly interested in papers that consider any of the following issues:

    · Consider the relevance of realist theory to substantive social, economic and political issues.

    · The practical implications of methodologically operationalising different forms of realist thought.

    · Those from other schools of thought who wish to engage critically in  a dialogue with realist theory.

    How to submit

    All paper abstracts and proposals for other events can be submitted online at:
    http://www.britsoc.co.uk/events/bsa‐annual‐ conference/submissions.aspx

    The deadline for submission of abstracts is 18 October 2013.

    For further information contact the Theory stream coordinators

    Gurminder K Bhambra E: g.k.bhambra@warwick.ac.uk

    Tom Brock E: T.Brock@mmu.ac.uk

    Alternatively, contact the BSA Events Team E: events@britsoc.org.uk

  • Mark 8:07 pm on September 23, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: biographical events, , ,   

    Beyond ‘Fateful Moments’ and ‘Turning Points’: Conceptualizing Biographical Events and Their Relationship To Social Change 

    Beyond ‘Fateful Moments’ and ‘Turning Points’: Conceptualizing Biographical Events and Their Relationship To Social Change

    Advocates of biographical research often talk of it in terms of the “dynamic interplay of individuals and history, inner and outer worlds, self and other” underwritten by a view of “human beings as active agents in making their lives rather than being simply determined by historical and social forces” (Merrill and West 2009: 1). This short paper takes as its starting point two of the factors underlying this ‘biographical turn’: a concern with processes of social change variously described as late, liquid and second modernity and a reaction against what is widely perceived to be a prior neglect of agency within social research. In fact it is rather difficult to separate the two concerns given that the belief usually attached to the former that “processes of ‘individualization’ … undermine and dissolve old constraints that bound people to certain lifestyles and to open up many areas of life to personal choice” (Howard 2007: 1) necessarily entails the latter project of recovering the individual as a unit of analysis. My suggestion is that, in so far as affirming the admissibility of the individual case reflects a concern to understand social change through the particularity of biography, this inevitably necessitates some concept of how social forces ‘out there’ impinge on personal life ‘down here’. One common strategy is to focus upon biographical events and the notion of ‘fateful moments’ offered by Giddens (1991) has proved influential to this end. In this paper I critique the notion of fateful moments in order to draw out some of the underlying theoretical and methodological issues involved in theorising biographical events in a way which is amenable to empirical investigation.

    Fateful moments are “those when individuals are called on to take decisions that are particularly consequential for their ambitions, or more generally for their future lives”. These are times when events come together in such a way that an individual stands, as it were, at a crossroads in his existence”. these include things such as the “decision to get married”, “taking examinations, deciding to opt for a particular apprenticeship or course of study, going on strike, giving up one job in favor of another, hearing the result of a medical test, losing a large amount in a gamble, or winning a large sum in a lottery” (Giddens 1991: 112-113). When an individual stands at such ‘crossroads’ they may consult expert systems to help assess the risks attached to the different options which the individual now confronts. It is because of this “altered set of risks and possibilities” that fateful moments leave the individual “called on to question routinised habits of relevant kinds, even sometimes those most closely integrated with self-identity”. These ‘fateful moments’ are understood by Giddens in contrast to other tracts of our lived experience:

    • Non-routinised and non-consequential time: ‘free’ time that we ‘kill’
    • Routinised and consequential time: ‘difficult decisions may often have to be taken’ but these can be ‘handled by strategies evolved to cope with them as part of the ongoing activity in question’.
    • Non-routinised and consequential: fateful moments 

    On this view fateful moments often entail a rupture. It invokes a sharp distinction between the dramatic and the mundane events in our lives, with little capacity to recognise anything between the two. Though he is far from explicit on this point, this distinction could be construed as suggesting that it is only at fateful moments where agency need enter into the explanation of biographical outcomes which otherwise are explained in terms of routine or dismissed as  inconsequential. So while Giddens stresses agency throughout his work on late modernity, it nonetheless only manifests itself in any meaningful sense at fateful moments.

    The substance of this choice is construed largely in terms of the calculation of risk, with the subject understood by Giddens to either “reflexively control our activities, or else fatalistically resign the outcome of events to chance” painting a “peculiarly arid picture of the processes we utilize to make sense of the world and of ourselves” (Adam 2004: 393). We are seen to approach large tracts of our daily lives without reflection, accomplished through a ‘generalized trust’ which allows a ‘bracketing out’ of the existential questions which would otherwise overwhelm us. Part of what makes fateful moments fateful is the fact that they disturb these routines and force us to choose. However it is unclear why the choices which individuals make at such fateful moments would actually matter to them (Archer 2000; Sayer 2011). We are left with an excessively rationalistic risk-calculator at fateful moments who ‘goes with the flow’ in a routinised way the rest of the time. What he calls “the extreme reflexivity of late modernity” in which individuals confront “an indefinite range of potential courses of action” is actually a compartmentalized phenomenon (Giddens 1991: 28-29). Given that much of daily life is argued to revolve around ‘bracketing out’ the questions of what to do or who to be which are posed by these ‘potential courses of action’ it’s inevitably rather overwhelming when an individual is suddenly forced to confront the radical openness of the ‘post-traditional order’. So to return to the terminology introduced at the beginning of this paper: ‘fateful moments‘ conceptualizes biographical events in terms of the individual confronting an ‘altered set of risks and possibilities’ and making choices which will prove consequential for their life as a whole. This will often entail “undertaking identity work, reviewing who they think they are, drawing on experts and others for advice, undertaking research and developing new skills” (Holland and Thomson: 455). So it is at ‘fateful moments’ that we can hope to find individuals “making their lives rather than being simply determined by historical and social forces” (Merrill and West 2009: 1). It is at such events that social forces and personal life meet in a way which is held to be explanatorily relevant for biographical researchers.

    So what happens when you try and study fateful moments?

    Reflecting upon their operationalization of the concept Plumridge and Thomson (2003) explain how  it “provided us with an interesting starting point and some useful tools that we were able to operationalize in relation to empirical data, over time his framework became unsatisfactory both for descriptive and explanatory purposes”. The actual complexity of the lived life, which manifests empirically to a much greater degree in the context of qualitative longitudinal research,  bursts the boundaries of the notion of ‘fateful moments’. The provisionality of these moments becomes striking, as what can seem in one round of data collection as an instance can easily seem to be anything but in subsequent rounds. Furthermore Holland and Thomson note how “this theoretical approach to understanding the significance of biographical events obscures relationships, investments and the wider power structures that might constrain choice in practice” creating a tendency for researchers working within the model to take “professions of agency at face value” (Holland and Thomson 2009: 459-464).

    The difficulty emerges because these moments are inferred retrospectively as a subject sifts back through past experience to find those which were ‘fateful’. This poses immediate challenges for any inquiry which seeks to avoid taking professions of agency and self-narratives of transition at face value. If the identification of ‘fateful moments’ is dependent on their subjective apprehension as such then their subsequent characterization will, necessarily, remain dependent on that offered by the research participant. This becomes particularly problematic given what Furlong and Cartmel (2007) describe as the ‘epistemological fallacy’ of late modernity. They make a compelling case that the diversification of individual experience gives rise to an individualised self-understanding of its underlying causes, with the result that young people struggle to discern the operation of social structure in their lives. Even were this not the case, it still deeply problematic to leave the identification of biographical events dependent on their subjective apprehension as such by the individuals concerned. This creates an inevitable slide into narratology, as those events which the participant subjectively recognises as ‘fateful’ become the basis unit of analysis: events are displaced by stories about events.

    The difficulty here lies not with the event as such but rather with the peculiarly ‘flat’ way in which it tends to be characterized. The critical realist distinction between the real, the actual and the empirical can help illustrate how this is so (Bhaskar 1978). On such a view, we must distinguish between the experience of an event (empirical), the event itself (actual) and the underlying mechanisms which brought it about (real). The problem with ‘fateful moments’ is not the notion of a biographical event but rather the way in which the concept collapses the actual into the empirical. When we operationalize the concept we tend to lose the distinction between the event itself and how the individual recognized, interpreted and responded to that event. This engenders a tendency to take ‘affirmations of agency at face value’ because the theoretical tools we’re using can’t sustain the ontological distinction between what actually happened and the story we are being told about what happened. Furthermore, as we struggle to keep a grip on the event, we find ourselves losing any purchase on the causal mechanisms which brought that event into being. The way ‘fateful moments’ is setup on a conceptual level leaves us perpetually sliding away from the underlying causes when we’re trying to put the concept into practice. One solution would be to give up on the causal explanation of biographies and instead content ourselves with remaining at the level of the empirical, focusing solely on giving voice to the narrative of participant. Another would be to become preoccupied with the real mechanisms underlying observable trajectories but this will lead us to the sort of deterministic sociology which the ‘biographical turn’ was an (over)reaction to. Instead we should seek to develop an ontologically stratified model of the biographical event and the recent work of Margaret Archer offers us the theoretical and methodological resources to do precisely this.


    Adams, M. (2004). Whatever will be, will be: Trust, fate and the reflexive self.Culture & Psychology, 10(4), 387-408.

    Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge University Press.

    Bhaskar, R. (2008). A realist theory of science. Taylor & Francis US.

    Furlong, A., & Cartmel, F. (2007). Young people and social change. McGraw-Hill International.

    Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford University Press.

    Holland, J., & Thomson, R. (2009). Gaining perspective on choice and fate: revisiting critical  moments. European societies, 11(3), 451-469.

    Howard, C. (Ed.). (2007). Contested Individualization: Debates about contemporary personhood. Palgrave Macmillan.

    Merrill, B., & West, L. (2009). Using biographical methods in social research. Sage.

    Plumridge, L., & Thomson, R. (2003). Longitudinal qualitative studies and the reflexive self. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 6(3), 213-222.

    Sayer, A. (2011). Why things matter to people: Social science, values and ethical life. Cambridge University Press.

    Outhwaite, W. (2009). Canon formation in late 20th-century British sociology.Sociology, 43(6), 1029-1045.

    • Emmanuelle 9:40 pm on September 23, 2013 Permalink

      Let’s use as an example Master athletes, most of whom talked about a key turning point/fateful moment in their lives, one which didnt always mean a rupture but in some cases enabled them to continue running well past their 40s – all of them mentioned the Marathon Boom. It seemed to good to be true: these men and women identifying a real historical process (a real set of events) which brought about a transformation in their lives (taking up running or running beyond their 40s) (a real event). I checked the running lore and the timing of marathons and, sure enough, there was such a thing as a marathon boom and it appeared to transform some lives significantly. There were of course other factors at play – or rather this Marathon Boom interacted with class and gender (initially) to alter the athletic/running field and make it more porous. I am tempted to treat the Marathon Boom as a fateful moment because it has opened the space for agency – ie running becomes part of the realm of possibilities for more people. But it’s certainly not enough as most people do not run.

    • Mark 10:06 pm on September 23, 2013 Permalink

      oh i’ve got no problem with ‘fateful moments’ in that sense – this was a draft of a paper, i got feedback on it and it left me wondering if was massively overstating my argument here. all i’m saying really is that we need to be careful with how we conceptualise ‘fateful moments’ because certain ways of looking at it in the abstract will tend to occlude the really important questions rather than highlight and help direct the process of answering them.

    • Mark 10:08 pm on September 23, 2013 Permalink

      but yeah this is a really interesting example thanks and so far away from the longitudinal data about students that i’m working with.

    • Kylie 6:12 pm on February 19, 2014 Permalink

      I have recently come across the concept of fateful moments when trying to identify the theoretical framework for my PhD and I admit on face value I love it, it really seems to capture the experience of my participants (the study is about their use of a form of assisted reproduction). I too am taking a critical realist position in my thesis so your argument in this blog post and one other was equally aggravating and interesting and certainly (I think) very correct. I suppose my question is though can we as interpreters of the data identify a certain moment as being the ‘fateful’ one on reflection on the data gathered in the singular interview?

    • Mark 9:10 pm on February 19, 2014 Permalink

      Hi Kylie, I love the concept to. I really do – for exactly the same reasons as you. I just think it’s important to be VERY careful about using it. It’s what we’re trying to get at, rather than a device we can use in research, if you see what I mean. I also worry it can obscure the mundane, habitual and routine – these all make a contribution to the direction of our life and we can sometimes find out more about a person by investigating these than by looking for fateful moments.

  • Mark 10:11 pm on September 19, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    The Weirdly Humanistic Anti-Humanism of Richard Rorty 

    The process of de-divinization which I described in the previous two chapters would, ideally, culminate in our no longer being able to see any use for the notion that finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings might derive the meanings of their lives from anything except other finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings.

    • Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Pg 45
  • Mark 10:05 pm on September 19, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bruce springsteen, ,   

    Brian Fallon and Bruce Springsteen – a love affair in three parts 

    A few days after Bruce Springsteen appeared with Gaslight Anthem at Glastonbury, he invited Brian Fallon on stage with him at Hyde Park Calling. It’s hard to watch this video and not get the impression that the minute following 1:23 was probably the happiest moment of Brian’s life (though he does look like he’s about to burst into tears at the end of it).

    And he does the second verse of No Surrender very well:

    Well, now young faces grow sad and old
    And hearts of fire grow cold
    We swore blood brothers against the wind
    Now I’m ready to grow young again
    And hear your sister’s voice calling us home
    Across the open yards
    Well maybe we’ll cut someplace of own
    With these drums and these guitars

    Afterwards the press picks up on the Bruce Springsteen comparison in a big way and suddenly Brian Fallon is the ‘new Springsteen’. Suddenly their popularity sky rockets and a narrative begins to form about the band which clearly starts to grate. By this summer he was starting to get rather pissy about it:

    Screen shot 2013-09-19 at 22.52.45

    And then I stumbled across the video of this festival show over the summer where he seems to have not only got over his frustration at being compared to Springsteen but has diligently reproduced an outfit I’ve seen countless pictures of Springsteen wearing:

  • Mark 11:49 am on September 19, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    “I’m a cyborg? I thought I was just wearing glasses”: technology, agency and ontology 

    This is a quick attempt to elaborate on a thought which kept coming back to me during the Quantified Self seminar on Tuesday. It seems obvious to me that one of the key conceptual questions encountered in studying technology which augments human capacities (and this category is obviously much wider than digital self-tracking) is the nature of the interface between the human and the technological. One common response to this seems to be to conceptualise it in terms of co-constitution or co-evolution where the properties of the human become indistinguishable from the properties of the technological because both are changing in relation to each other. As I understand it the point being made is that the entwinement of the human and the technological has reached such a degree of complexity that it makes more sense to think in terms of hybridity rather than interaction between entities.

    Is this a fair summary? If not input would be much appreciated. It’s one of those arguments I’ve encountered in conversations and listening to talks rather than having read about in any serious way  (one of many things on my post-phd to do list). But what appears to me (perhaps wrongly) to be a case of collapsing the conceptual distinction in the face of empirically observable interplay worries me. From my point of view the interaction between myself and my iPhone involves two distinct sets of properties and powers – my own as a reflexive embodied human being and those of the iPhone as a technological artefact. During the two weeks I’ve had my new iPhone I’ve changed its properties through modalities (e.g. apps, settings) encoded into the artefact by other reflexive embodied human beings whom I will never meet nor know. I’ve also changed its properties in ways which were not designed into it as an artefact: I dropped it and scratched it*, a change in its properties reliant on the material constitution of itself and the floor onto which it fell.

    Has it changed me? I don’t think so. But my old iPhone changed me in all sorts of ways. Some of them are superficially dispositional, such as the oft cited tendency to rely on wikipedia rather than remembering information, though perhaps with long term neurophysiological correlates. Others are entirely deliberate, such as my experience of navigation using digital maps – I couldn’t navigate to begin with so I’ve not lost a capacity through failing to exercise it because of a technical substitute. It’s an affordance the phone provides which I deliberately draw on in specific situations rather than something that has changed me in a more substantive sense.

    My point is that I’m not convinced it’s necessary to think in terms of hybridity to understand these trajectories of human <–> technological change. As far as I can tell I basically agree about what these processes are but I disagree about how these should be conceptualised. Input would be very appreciated on this, as would suggestions on where to start reading about the concepts I’m expressing suspicion of so I can stop predicating blog posts on conversations I’ve had & talks I’ve heard.

    *I didn’t actually do this. I love my shiny new iPhone too much to be so careless. But the theoretical point stands.

  • Mark 11:03 am on September 19, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    The Quantified Self Research Network (QS, Self-Tracking and Wearable Computing) 

    Earlier this week the first meeting of the Quantified Self Research Network took place at the University Leeds. This was established by myself and Chris Till in order to help encourage interdisciplinary dialogue amongst people working on different aspects of Quantified Self. Our assumption was that there were a lot of people who intended to work on this topic in the near future and that it’s a topic of the sort that would produce some really rewarding and interesting discussions if people assembled in a shared space. Both seemed to be the case, with the event attracting a lot of interest despite being organised at short notice at a fairly inopportune time of year and, perhaps more importantly, turning out to be a really interesting and productive day which all present seemed to enjoy. Here’s our description of the context and aims of the network:

    In the last few years there has been a significant increase in public and academic interest in the use of devices or techniques for the accumulation, aggregation and analysis of personal data. Apps for mobile phones such asTrack My Run and body tracking devices such as JawboneFitbit and Nike’s Fuelband have perhaps garnered the widest attention with their ability to passively collect data on everyday activities which can then be analysed and shared with others. There is, however, more to quantified self than the mainstream media picture of obsessive “techies”. Many people engaged in “life logging” collate data on mood and experiences often without a direct quantitative element. While a relatively formalised arm of the quantified self movement has formed, through the Quantified Self group based in San Francisco, not everyone involved in quantified self activities is affiliated with Quantified Self. This formalised movement, as well as the broader cluster of practices and orientations which are coalescing within and beyond it, point to  commercial and political connections which have yet to be fully explored.

    The  Quantified Self research network will explore the broad implications of this loose set of practical and ethical approaches to understanding bodies, psyches and everyday practices. While we are interested in exploring the practices and techniques of assessment we think it is equally important to understand the often novel ways in which the diverse types of analysis enable new forms of reflecting on the embodied self and relations with others. We hope to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue around this multitude of emerging issues, in the belief that historical, philosophical, cultural, sociological, psychology, economic, technological and political approaches all have a role to play in understanding this fascinating trend.

    The network aims to:

    • Build network of scholars interested in qs
    • Explore possibilities for further research and collaborations
    • Share ideas about substantive issues
    • Support access and development of postgraduate and early career researchers
    • Develop sociological approaches to understanding qs
    • Identify potential for disciplinary collaborations
    • Develop relations with interested parties beyond  the academy
    • Developing quantifiedselfresearch.org as an online resource

    We’re planning some more activities in the not too distant future: another work in progress seminar early in 2014 and a proposed session at the British Sociological Association’s 2014 conference in Leeds. If you’d like to keep in touch with what we’re doing, our new website is now online at quantifiedselfresearch.org – we’re still not 100% sure what this will turn out to be yet. It would be great if it can perhaps be a place for discussion (which requires people to submit guest blogs and anyone working in this area who wants an account to post themselves is welcome to one) but even if not it will hopefully be a useful online resources where we can curate announcements, videocasts/podcasts and other resources.

    If you’d like to join the network the best thing to do at this stage is to subscribe to the blog via e-mail – the form to do so is at the bottom of the website at quantifiedselfresearch.org – we won’t be posting particularly frequently at this stage and it will mean you’re informed about everything we’re doing.

  • Mark 12:26 pm on September 18, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: plummer, , ,   

    Some critical thoughts on psychosocial research 

    One writer who made a huge impact on me during my transition from philosophy to sociology was Ken Plummer. There are many aspects of his work which I now have problems with but I think my engagement with his work (particularly Sexual Stigma, Telling Sexual Stories and Documents of Life) had a big impact on how I approach sociological inquiry. It’s on the question of the individual where we part ways and I think this can make me seem a lot less interactionist than I seem: 

    Certainly the concrete human must always be located within this historically specific culture – for ‘the individual’ becomes a very different animal under different social orders. This is not a book that champions looking at the wonderful solitary human being: my conception of the human subjects and their experiences is one that cannot divorce them from the social, collective, cultural, historical moment. But in the face of the inherent society-individual dualism of sociology, I argue that there must surely always remain a strand of work that highlights the active human subject? And in the face of a constant tendency towards the abstract and the linear in modern thought, surely there is also always a need for the creative, imaginative and concrete? (Plummer 2000: 7).

    This seemed radical and provocative to me when I first read it. Now it simply seems mistaken. I don’t think the society/individual dualism represents some intractable problem and my enthusiasm for Margaret Archer’s work stems largely from my conviction that she has largely solved this problem (in so far as one really does ‘solve’ theoretical ‘problems’) in a way conducive to empirical research. Lots of substantive theoretical and empirical work remains to be done but there’s an astonishingly expansive research programme incipient in the work she’s done, particularly in the last fifteen years. My point in writing this isn’t to sing the praises of her approach but simply to explain how, from my point of view, her work offers a much more powerful way to approach the exact same things I was interested in when I was a symbolic interactionist.

    If I’d encountered psychosocial approaches at the time I was entering sociology, I doubtless would have been attracted to them too, given that they work from an understanding of  “research subjects whose inner worlds cannot be understood without knowledge of their experiences in the world, and whose experiences of the world cannot be understood without knowledge of the way in which the inner worlds allow them to experience the outer world (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 4). However the difficulty with these approaches arises because of their construal of the subject as psychic and social such that the underlying gap between ‘individual’ and ‘society’ which Plummer sees as intrinsic is not bridged in any meaningful way. The general trajectory of psychosocial approaches is animated by a critique of ‘naive’ models of subjectivity which is simultaneously methodological and ontological:

    Taking a research subject’s account as a faithful reflection of ‘reality’ similarly assumes that a person is one who: 

    • shares meanings with the researcher; 
    • is knowledgable about him or herself (his or her actions, feelings and relations;) 
    • can access the relevant knowledge accurately and comprehensively (that is, has accurate memory); 
    • can convey that knowledge to a stranger listener; 
    • is motivated to tell the truth” (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 11-12)

    Some of the methodological aspects to this are perfectly acceptable from a realist perspective. There is a sense in which the resolution of the ‘individual-social paradox’ (described by Hollway and Jefferson (2000: 13) as “how individuals come to have experiences supposedly at odds with the norm for their social position, the fearless woman, the fearful man etc”) is precisely Archer’s  point when she contends that reflexivity should feature in our explanations because,

    without it we can have no explanatory purchase upon what exactly agents do. Deprived of such explanations, sociology has to settle for empirical generalisation about ‘what most of the people do most of the time’. Indeed, without a real explanatory handle, sociologists often settle for much less: ‘under circumstances x, a statistically significant number of agents do y’. These, of course, are not real explanations at all. (Archer 2007: 133).

    The correct recognition that “once methods allow for individuals to express what they mean, theories not only have to address the status of these meanings for that person and their understanding by the researcher, but they must also take into account the uniqueness of individuals” licenses a deeply problematic ‘drilling down’ into the (supposed) psychic life of the subject. The plausibility of this move rests largely on the (false) assumption that the only available alternatives are to treat the subject as ‘self-transparent’ or collapse their particularity into their socio-demographic placement.

    Instead the strategy offered is essentially one of psychoanalytically ‘reading’ the subject in a socially situated fashion, such that psychic phenomena are understood as a “feature of individuals” but without being “reducible to psychology”. For instance ‘anxiety’ is construed in a way that is “psychic because it is a product of a unique biography of anxiety-provoking life-events and the manner in which they have been unconsciously defended again” and it is social because “such defensive activities affect and are affected by discourse (systems of meaning which are a product of the social world)”, “the unconscious defences that we describe are intersubjective processes (that is, they affect and are affected by others)” and involves “real events in the external, social world which are discursively and defensively appropriated” (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 24).

    Leaving aside the many questions which can be asked about the application of these conceptual frameworks outside of a clinical context, the difficulty here is the lack of space between the social world ‘out there’ and psychic life ‘in here’. It is an attempt to solve the ‘individual-social’ paradox by peering into the inner depths of particular individuals, armed with a toolkit cobbled together from items borrowed from psychoanalysts based on meta-theoretical criteria which are vague at best, rather than Archer’s work which systematically bridges the two sides of the dichotomy in a way orientated towards empirical inquiry at the micro, meso and macro levels.

    Any thoughts on this much appreciated. It’s intended as a friendly engagement – until starting the Hollway and Jefferson book recently my interaction with psychosocial approaches had come predominately through conferences and online videos. I often feel I have more in common with people who work in this way in terms of my interests than I do with anyone else I meet in sociology. I also think I get the general trajectory of it as an intellectual current and am largely in agreement. My problem is with its response to this problem – plus I find the appropriation of psychoanalytical concepts very problematic over and above my broader theoretical disagreement.

    • John 12:31 pm on September 22, 2013 Permalink

      I like how Psychosocial principles are being used in our workplaces with great success

  • Mark 10:05 am on September 18, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Asexuality as a Spectrum: A National Probability Sample Comparison to the Sexual Community in the UK 

    This came through on the Asexuality Studies mailing list – posted here because of the likelihood some not on the list might want to read it:

    I have finished my Master’s Thesis: Asexuality as a Spectrum: A National Probability Sample Comparison to the Sexual Community in the UK

    The final product is available here to download for free: http://academiccommons.columbia.edu/catalog/ac:162382

    The main findings in the paper (that I thought were interesting) are that 1) there are more people who report experiencing sexual attraction who are content not having sex, indicating that the level of someone’s sexual desire is a spectrum, and 2) asexual people are more likely not to drink alcohol, and when they do they drink less. In a combination of the two, sexual people content not having sex drink an intermediary amount between sexual and asexual people

  • Mark 8:00 am on September 15, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Network analytic approaches to the production and propagation of literary and artistic value 

    Daniel Allington, The Open University
    1 October 2013
    Centre for e-Research
    Anatomy Museum Space
    King’s Building (6th Floor)
    King’s College London
    The Strand

    According to Bourdieu, the value of art, literature, etc is a form of belief that is produced within the cultural field and then propagated outwards into wider society through public-facing cultural institutions – as in the case of the ‘writer’s writer’ who is initially read only by his or her peers, but who becomes ‘consecrated’ (i.e. canonised) thanks to peer esteem and eventually finds a mass readership through school or university syllabi. In this talk, I shall lay out two innovative methodologies for studying these processes through social network analysis. This is potentially controversial because of Bourdieu’s much-discussed preference for Multiple Correspondence Analysis. However, I shall argue that, just as the abstract mathematical space of Multiple Correspondence Analysis forms a useful analogue for Bourdieu’s conception of field, the no-less abstract structure of a directed graph forms a useful analogue for his understanding of the production of value within a field, and of its subsequent propagation beyond that field.

    The first of the methodologies I shall present focuses on the production of value. It has already been trialled through a case study of interactive fiction, with results of this investigation to appear in my monograph, Literature in the Digital Economy (forthcoming from Palgrave, 2014), and elsewhere. As I will argue by reference to ongoing research, the same methodology can potentially yield important insights when applied to other cultural forms.

    The second of these methodologies focuses on the propagation of value, and thus provides a possible approach to the study of the impact of the arts on wider society, as well as a bridge between the two major strands of research in the sociology of culture, i.e. study of cultural producers and study of cultural consumers. It builds on the first methodology but presents arguably greater difficulties with regard to data collection and the interpretation of findings. However, these difficulties are instructive because they raise deep questions about the use of social network analysis in cultural research, both in the humanities and in the social sciences.


  • Mark 6:10 pm on September 14, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , path dependence, social events,   

    Biography, Path-Dependence and Social Events 

    There’s a fascinating post on Stumbling and Mumbling looking at the political implications of beliefs being path-dependent:

    However, according to Matthew Parris in the Times, many Tories have such out-dated attitudes to unions. He says they believe they benefit from Labour’s “indefensible” links with unions:

    They know the toxic potency in millions of minds of the image of the raised fist of organized labour. With relief they sink into the comforting upholstery of a ready-made rhetoric about trade union barons, winters of discontent, beer and sandwiches and No 10, union militants…

    For millions of voters, though, the winter of discontent is as distant from their lives as the Suez crisis is to mine. There’ll be voters at the next election whose parents weren’t born in the winter of discontent. And many first-time voters in the 1979 election are now retired.

    Another (not exclusive) possibility is that beliefs can be path-dependent; we believe things because we used to, and continue to do so even after such beliefs have lost truth-value or utility. What’s more, I suspect this path-dependency can sometimes be transmitted from generation to generation. So, for example ethinic minorities are very unlikely to vote Tory, in part because of memory of the party’s racist past; Greeks dodge taxes because of the legacy of Ottoman rule; and Germans are hostile to inflationary policies because of memories of Weimar hyper-inflation. Perhaps Tory antipathy to unions falls into this class of beliefs – a form of folk memory that is no longer useful. We are all prisoners of history.


    This is integral to why I think biography as a unit of analysis is important to the analysis of social events. The properties and powers of each actor at a given point in time have a specific history i.e. what led each to be that person at that point in time. So questions about the causal contribution of each individual actor inevitably point back towards that actor’s history. An acknowledgement of the specificity of the individual must encompass temporality because of precisely the path-dependency discussed in the quote above. The analysis of social events can often proceed in a satisfactory way without being attentive to the specificity of the individual (though not as frequently as is often assumed) but where this is not the case then a biographical perspective becomes invaluable.

  • Mark 5:23 pm on September 12, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic, , , ,   

    Does Žižek take himself as seriously as other people do? Idolatry, activism and the academic left 

    So as most people reading this will probably realise, Žižek bashing and boosting has been somewhat in vogue within certain sections of the academic blogosphere in recent months. The Sociological Imagination was an enthusiastic part of this recently, through an ever-so-slightly polemic blog post penned by Steve Fuller,

    Slavoj Zizek may be great at beating up on grand old men of the anti-establishment such as Chomsky, but he is a total waste of space for a self-described ‘Left’ that wants to remain politically relevant in the 21st century. Whenever I read him, I think to myself: This guy either just wants us to feel good about ourselves after performing some self-contained Occupy-ish rituals or he is calling for outright violence in a prophylactic bloodbath. Zizek can’t seem to imagine any other political alternatives, which may suit his vast legions of followers, who are ‘politically inert’ by most conventional understandings of the phrase. This was really made clear to me in his latest piece for the Guardian, which celebrates the importance of cyberspace whistleblowers, who if ultimately regarded as ‘progressive’, will be for reasons that we have not quite yet figured out. At the moment, they look like fleas on the arse of history.


    This prompted a spate of obnoxious comments which I saw no point in posting. Previous articles I’d posted myself, which were far from dismissive of Žižek, had prompted people to post abuse at the @soc_imagination – it was initially amusing to be told I was a reactionary and have my scientism denounced before  it eventually just got tedious. But then I’ve always been mildly contemptuous of academic cultural politics in a way that I tend to keep to myself, lest I wander round the academy inadvertently insulting people. My intention in writing isn’t to be vituperative, in fact I’m trying very hard to avoid this, but simply to observe that the ratio of rhetoric to action among the academic left can often be distressingly low.  As a biographically orientated sociologist I have a pretty clear understanding of the reasons why this is so and, as someone whose activism has often been squeezed out while grappling with a far from ideal work/life balance over the last five years, this understanding is informed by self-reflection as much as social observation. However I nonetheless think this is a problem and, oddly enough, some of Žižek’s ideas have been important in elaborating my understanding of how this is so.

    Particularly his account of cynicism, which at least as I understand it*, argues that post-ideological culture tends towards an over-estimation of subjective belief: people congratulate themselves on not being ‘taken in’ by ideology while nonetheless construing their circumstances in a way which engenders objective complicity. My political problem with Žižek is the peculiarly post-ideological form of idolatry his work seems to engender – what difference does Žižek make? What’s the point of Žižek? I’ve never heard an answer to this question which isn’t irredeemably subjective, construing him as a diagnostician of late capitalism in a way which implicitly invokes some objective and proactive correlate, the specification of which is indefinitely deferred. Or in slightly plainer language:  Žižek fans always talk about him as if his work is deeply practical in its implications and yet never seem to say what these are exactly. My accusation is that his work often engenders a subjective sense of one’s political outlook as being intellectually sophisticated while contributing nothing, in fact often detracting from, objective action. This is what prompted me to write this post, which I’ll finish soon lest it become overly rambling, which I cite to illustrate my point in a way which will hopefully be conducive to friendly debate:

    Subsequently, this is also why I argue that Zizek provides us with the only space for the left. Any other leftist project (“social scientifically literate” or otherwise) is by definition fundamentally apolitical if they only remain within the possible, but Zizek allows us to revive the ‘politics proper’ which is central to some of the most radical sociologists and social theorists (including, I would argue, C. Wright-Mills whose criticism of abstract empiricism in describing the sociological imagination embodied the Marxian dictum that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it”). Zizek shows us a way to break from contemporary ‘social sciences’ which spends its time and resources describing society in an age where it is needed more than ever to change society for the better.


    On the contrary I think Žižek provides us with an intoxicating rhetoric to describe this aim but offers little to nothing which helps do it and in fact muddies the waters and makes ‘resistance’ seem much more theoretically complicated than it often is. I write in the paragraph above the quote that his work ‘seems’ to engender this tendency because I’m completely open to changing my mind about this. Plus it’s probably useful to reiterate the point that I read a lot of Žižek and, more so, I don’t do it in a ‘know thine enemy’ kind of way. I read him because I enjoy his work. I have more of a problem with how his work is taken up and deployed than I do with the man himself. Žižek clearly likes reading, writing and speaking. He lives the pampered life of the international academic superstar. He is a brand. He is also idolised. I’m not dismissing him on this basis – in fact I’m not dismissing him at all – not least of all because Chomsky, one of my  life long heroes, is just as much of a brand and is equally idolised. In fact it was this meeting of the two most high profile brands on the academic left which meant their public spat, contrived in large part by academic web editors such as myself, attracted the attention which it did. Nonetheless I do think the Žižek and Chomsky brands tend to dominate the intellectual attention space of the left, simply taking up room that would be occupied by other scholars and activists – thought this bothers me much more in the case of the latter than the former.

    *And I hasten to add that if I haven’t understood his meaning correctly then I couldn’t care less. I read Žižek because I find him enjoyable and often thought-provoking, approaching him in an exegetical way is like reading the Daily Mail. I understand why people might do it, I’m sure I’m intellectually capable of it but left to my own devices it’s the last thing in the world I’m ever going to choose to do.

    • Marika Rose (@MarikaRose) 9:52 pm on September 19, 2013 Permalink

      I think the thing that’s important to notice is that Zizek doesn’t ever exactly claim to *have* the answers to the current political situation. When he talks about what he’s actually trying to do, he says that he thinks that the role of philosophy isn’t to provide answers, it’s to help people ask the right questions. He specifically voices frustration at the way people come to him and ask him what they should *do* – that’s not his role. And he’s also pretty explicit insofar as he thinks that *we don’t know* what to do. He says (and this is something you could perhaps question) that the left is essentially stuck, it doesn’t have any genuinely transformative ideas or structures, and so philosophy is all the more important because if what you need is better answers then the first task is to think of some better questions.

    • Mark 10:36 pm on September 19, 2013 Permalink

      Yep that’s what I was trying to get at (put much better than I managed) when I said my problem is with his reception more than with the man himself. I think he compounds this ‘stuckness’ (partly through massively overstating it) by virtue of his position within the academic field. I don’t think philosophy is likely to provide ‘genuinely transformative ideas’ – I think something like the Real Utopias project is a much more potent source of political ideas and it frustrates me how innovative social science can be squeezed out by the way in which superstars like Zizek are received – which I truly don’t blame him for.

    • John 2:22 am on September 29, 2013 Permalink

      Please find a site which features the work of many individuals and groups who are lighting a candle in the face of the darkness as recently described by Henry Giroux in his essay titled Beyond Savage Politics & Dystopian Nightmares
      Plus the Signs of the Times

  • Mark 9:12 am on September 11, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , making our way through the world, musement, structure agency and internal conversation,   

    The Sociology of Daydreaming 

    People who build castles in the air do not, for the most part accomplish much, it is true; but every man who does accomplish great things is given to building elaborate castles in the air and then playfully copying them on solid ground … Mere imagination would be indeed be mere trifling; only no imagination is mere. ‘More than all that is in thy custody, watch over thy fantasy,’ said Solomon. ‘For out of it are the issues of life.’

    • Charles Sanders Peirce
  • One of the most interesting aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on internal conversation is the role it assigns to daydreaming as a modality through which people change. Drawing on a reading of Peirce that is far from uncontroversial (the key influences here are Vincent Colapietro and Norbert Wiley) she understands this “imaginative anticipation” as a mechanism through which “we review and rehearse how we would act under novel circumstances and these action plans prepare the future self to execute them when a similar real conjuncture arises” (Archer 2003: 77). The point is not that this is the goal of daydreaming but rather that the activity indirectly prepares us through our experience of entertaining hypothetical novelty within the imaginative confines of our first-person experience.

    This has important implications for the common pragmatist notion that reflexivity only emerges as a response to situational novelty i.e. we’re thrown back upon reflection when habitual responses fail in confrontation with novel circumstances. Instead there is a relative independence of the mind because of our capacity to ‘confront’ novelty internally – it’s not a repudiation of the traditional pragmatist conception of how reflexivity and habit relate but rather an extension of it. Crucially, our daydreams rely on the “social variation and cultural variety available to ponder upon reflexively” (Archer 2012: 59-61). Our daydreams are furnished by the ‘raw materials’ which our social and cultural environment provides for us. But the fact we are able to furnish our inner lives with these ideational materials leaves interiority as an independent source of novelty over-and-above that which is situationally demanded by the circumstances we encounter. Peirce talked about this as ‘musement’:

    Our musings can range far and wide to include daydreams or fantasies. Some persons, situation, or idea that has been encountered may prompt them, or they may be triggered by the task in hand. Musings are exploratory; they are ways of clarifying our aspirations and ambitions, our hopes and our fears, our orientations and intentions. Increased self-understanding is their product. These explorations are very much part of our private lives because they are unobservable, have no necessary behavioural outcomes and the understanding we achieve many be of precisely the kind that we do not wish to communicate to others. Nevertheless, through our musings, certain goals can be privately scratched form our personal agendas or they can internally reinforce our determination to see something through. (Archer 2003 100-101)

    To give a sense of the implications of this for research, in my own PhD work which involved longitudinal interviews over two years, I made a great effort to get people to elaborate upon their ‘musements’. So if they made occasional remarks (e.g. “if money weren’t an issue I’d love to do X”) I’d just try and talk it through rather than let it drop out of the conversation. It’s a far from radical strategy in an interview but it’s something you become very sensitive to if you accept Archer’s argument about ‘musement’. The point is that “the uninhibited use of imagination is one way in which many people extend their horizons beyond their quotidian contexts and initiate a process of discernment about endorsing much bolder projects” (Archer 2007: 271). Much as with deliberation in general, it’s a faculty which is straightforwardly misrepresented if construed in entirely psychological terms* because its causes and consequences are intrinsically social. I think there’s more to be said about this but Archer’s account of musement’s significance focuses particularly on those ‘bolder projects’ which would,

    alter their life courses if they could discount the costs and risks by bringing themselves to the point of commitment. Instead, there are very strong reasons why sharing one’s flights of fancy or inmost urges with a familiar interlocutor will invariably curtail them. Clearly, if the castle in the air is outside the shared context of the interlocutor, then the dialogical partner has nothing positive to contribute because it is beyond his or her experience. However, they can have plenty that is negative to say, ranging from the ‘Don’t be daft – get real’, to perfunctorily entertaining the attractions of being a famous footballer or pop star, yet quickly concluding, ‘It’d be great, but it’s not on is it?’ The problem of offering up one’s dreams (or nightmares) for outside commentary is that they are regularly cut down to size – the size that the shared context can accommodate, which thus serves to reinforce ‘contextual continuity’.

    Cutting down to size also entails reminders of normative conventionality. Share your desire for savage revenge on an unfaithful partner and the likely response would be something like, ‘Sure, he’s a bastard but he’s not worth swinging for!’ Just as importantly, the internal, highly vitriolic outpouring of our recriminations in an imaginary conversation literally knows no bounds and we can derive considerable satisfaction from honing our insults into the most hurtful prose. Such mental activities may simply prove cathartic or constitute the stocking of one’s verbal armoury for possible future use; we can harden ourselves to the shocking nature of vituperation by internal repetition. But to share these phrases and formulae with a third party is to introduce an independent ‘ear’ which has the same effect as ‘the gaze’ of inducing shame. People find themselves climbing down, engaging in self-editing or adding modifications to withdraw the public sting.” (Archer 2007: 272)

    *Though this is not to advocate a sociological imperialism which would deny the role of psychology in understanding such faculties. One of the (many) things I want to work on post-PhD is to try and flesh out this account of ‘internal conversation’ through an engagement with the social psych and cognitive psych literatures. Particularly the literature on ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’ which, from my cursory engagements with it, make the equivalent sociological debate about reflexivity and habitus seem embarrassingly sterile.

  • Mark 10:33 pm on September 10, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Les Back on Digital Sociology 

  • Mark 7:13 pm on September 10, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Helene Snee on Digital Sociology 

  • Mark 7:05 pm on September 10, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    CelebYouth on Blogging 

  • c
    Compose new post
    Next post/Next comment
    Previous post/Previous comment
    Show/Hide comments
    Go to top
    Go to login
    Show/Hide help
    shift + esc