An Invitation to DIY Sociology #1

For the last few months I’ve been playing with the idea of DIY Sociology, largely as a result of my dissatisfaction with professional associations. The intuition underlying this is that the institutional forms of academic life are not immutable, arising in a particular context and changing as that context changes, so that a relational reflexivity about them becomes ever more important if that context is undergoing a radical change. Would anyone deny that higher education in the UK is currently undergoing a ‘radical change’? One of the most immediately experienced forms taken by this change is the contraction of the academic labour market, the normalisation of fixed term contracts and the rise of what could (optimistically) be labelled ‘portfolio careers’ but can more realistically be termed precarious working. The implications of these changes for professional associations seem obvious to me and I have no great desire to rehearse my own frustrations to this end.

But what does ‘DIY’ mean more broadly? Dave Beer offers some useful answers to this question in Punk Sociology: “A Do-it-yourself movement, in which forms of communication, creativity, and dissemination are co-opted to work towards this shared project”. This is what I mean by ‘relational reflexivity’. Not an individualistic ‘dropping out’ of the ‘mainstream’ but a converging orientation towards shared projects and shared values, working collectively towards their pursuit. Here are some other points in Punk Sociology where Beer writes about the ‘DIY ethic’:

The roughness of the music was a part of the iconoclasm of the movement and the projection of its DIY ethic. This DIY ethic, for some, is central to punk, as Kugelberg (2012: 46) writes, the ‘legacy of punk is simple: the immediate implementation of D.I.Y grassroots culture … No distance. Form a band, start a blog, become an artist, a DJ, a guitar player, an editor’. This DIY ethic played out in a number of ways, in the music and in the business practices, but it was perhaps most clearly honed in the use of self-publication and alternative means of communication that often took the material form of fanzines. As Hebdige described (1979: 111), ‘fanzines (Sniffin Glue, Ripped and Torn, etc.) were journals edited by an individual or a group, consisting of reviews, editorials and interviews with prominent punks, produced on a small scale as cheaply as possible, stapled together and distributed through a small number of sympathetic outlets’. Clearly the communicative possibilities and media have changed radically since the mid to late 1970s, and the possibilities for decentralized communication are now widespread in social media (which I will return to in Chapter 5).

The driving force here is a strong commitment to a pro-activism that is often expressed as the do-it-yourself or DIY ethic. The DIY ethic is an extension of the inventiveness of punk and affords an unbounded engagement with the cultural world. This leads punks to use the opportunities and materials that they encounter to express their creative forces. This is often highly opportunistic and is based upon the use of media and social networks in new and unpredictable ways. The punk finds a way to make things happen and finds a way to be unconventional in carving out pathways of expression and communication. The punk adapts to the terrain in which they are operating and refuses to be restricted by the limitations of access and funding. Punk is based on resourcefulness.

Conventions do not hold them back, and the idea of playing it safe is discordant with its central motifs. The driving force here is a strong commitment to a pro-activism that is often expressed as the do-it-yourself or DIY ethic. The DIY ethic is an extension of the inventiveness of punk and affords an unbounded engagement with the cultural world. This leads punks to use the opportunities and materials that they encounter to express their creative forces. This is often highly opportunistic and is based upon the use of media and social networks in new and unpredictable ways. The punk finds a way to make things happen and finds a way to be unconventional in carving out pathways of expression and communication. The punk adapts to the terrain in which they are operating and refuses to be restricted by the limitations of access and funding. Punk is based on resourcefulness.

The debates about ‘public sociology’ (Clawson et al., 2007) and sociology’s ‘public face’ (Holmwood & Scott, 2007) were formulated before these media developments took hold. As such they need to be re-imagined to tally with the ongoing remediation of everyday life. The punk sociologist would seek to understand and work with this remediation. The dissemination practices of the punk movement – based on hand written, cut-and-pasted, and self-printed fanzines distributed through shops and at gigs – might seem small in comparison, but it is the aesthetics of these practices and the creative and unconstrained attempts at novel types of communication that we might borrow from punk. The materials might have changed but we can find inspiration in the sentiment and in the drive to co-opt media and materials in communicating ideas.

The punk sociologist is going to need to be inventive in responding to their conditions, in working around the limitations of the austere neoliberal structures in which they are operating, and in finding opportunities that counteract the limitations of funding and powerful constraining norms and conventions. One way forward is to reflect on the boldness and inventiveness of punk, but more specifically we might look to take on the Do-It-Yourself ethic of the punk movement.

Those interested in what is described as digital sociology are also tending to use DIY means of communication, with social media outlets such as Twitter and blogs being used to publish and disseminate ideas in various stages of development. We perhaps have something here that is suggestive of how this inventiveness and DIY ethic might be deployed

So we can perhaps isolate two strands here: communication and organisation. What unites them both is a disinterest in established forms of authority and prestigious modes of dissemination. The point is not to oppose these things for their own sake but instead to subordinate these characteristics to the accomplishment of a shared project. The key values which informs both DIY communication and DIY organisation are resourcefulness, inventiveness and boldness. There’s lots of existing activity which exhibits these characteristics, whether or not it sees itself as in way ‘DIY’. I’m interested in trying to conceptualise this tendency in order to better think through its implications for higher education. I’m also curious about the self-understanding of those engaged in it. Is it possible many see this as a pragmatic adaptation to marginal conditions rather than something positive in and of itself?

I’d initially thought of trying to write a paper about DIY sociology. This soon struck me as a stupid idea on a whole host of levels. So instead I’ll try and develop the line of thought here as and when new ideas occur to me. There’s a few themes I’d like to develop:

  • Analysing projects which could be classed as examples of ‘DIY sociology’ and learning more about the motivations and self-understandings of those involved.
  • Analysing the broader trajectory of institutional change within which I contend DIY sociology becomes significant, fleshing out my assumptions about the relationship between the former and the latter.
  • Using DIY sociology as a framework through which to flesh out my understanding of relational reflexivity i.e. what’s the difference between working towards a shared project in a DIY way and doing so within existing channels? Even my characterisation of the dichotomy is ontologically imprecise in a way I’m not happy with. Perhaps this suggests it’s not really a dichotomy and I should sharpen up my concepts.
  • Perhaps trying to produce some short resources with the help of people who are engaged in DIY sociology projects e.g. “How to organise a conference with no funding”, “how to setup a group blog” etc.

Likewise if anyone else would like to write about it please do get in touch! My e-mail is mark@markcarrigan.net – I’d love to include articles (whether short or long) about this on sociologicalimagination.org – I guess I’d be particularly interested in people reflecting about projects they’re involved in. See for instance this post.

2 thoughts on “An Invitation to DIY Sociology #1

  1. As ever, a thought provoking piece. Do you think the new ‘Activism’ BSA group has anything to offer regarding a DIY sociology?

  2. I think one (and possibly two) of the convenors would see it as being informed by a DIY ethos – it would be interesting to ask them this actually.

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