Updates from July, 2014 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 9:16 pm on July 31, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Gigs I wish I had attended (#1) 

     
  • Mark 7:59 pm on July 31, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    Music I find inexplicably conducive to writing (#3) 

    I’d forgotten quite how terrifyingly weird and wonderful this album is:

     
  • Mark 7:44 pm on July 31, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    Self-tracking and social control: what would techno-fascism look like? 

    Earlier this week I finally bought the Jawbone Up24 after weeks of deliberation. I’d got bored with the Nike Fuel Band, losing interest in the opaque ‘fuel points’ measurement and increasingly finding it to be an unwelcome presence on my wrist. I’d also been ever more aware of how weird my sleep patterns have become in the past couple of years, cycling between rising early and staying up late, with little discernible rhyme or reason. The idea of tracking my sleep in a reasonably accurate fashion, using degree of bodily movement as a cypher for the depth of sleep, appealed to me on a reflexive level. Somewhat more practically, the Jawbone’s silent alarm sounded great: it gently wakes you by vibrating on your wrist at the period within a defined interval at which it detects you are in the lightest state of sleep. It’s only been a few days but it really seems to work. I’ve woken up refreshed in a way that feels oddly natural given the rather novel consumer technology that’s bringing it about.

    So thus far I’m rather pleased with this purchase. It also looks so much better than the Fuel band. It wasn’t a major factor in my decision by any means but it’s still nice. However there is something that bothers me about it. The Jawbone Up24 has an “idle alert”. This is how the company describes the feature:

    What is an Idle Alert and how does it work?The UP Idle Alert is a great way to remind you to get up and move. You can set an Idle Alert within the app, so the band will gently vibrate if you’ve been inactive for a period of time.

    https://jawbone.com/up/faq

    This sounds innocuous, right? I spend far too many hours sitting down each week. I’m either working on a computer and sitting in a chair or I’m sitting reading sociology books and papers on my sofa. It has really started to bother me and the idle alert initially struck me as a great way to help ameliorate this problematic trend in my lifestyle. I spent yesterday afternoon working my way through various bits of social theory at home, with the Jawbone gently vibrating every 15 minutes to remind me that I’d been sedentary for that length of time. I stood up, walking around the room while continuing to read and sat down again. It’s only one occasion so it would be a mistake to overgeneralise but I was struck by how much less lethargic I felt than I often would have after spending an afternoon reading at home on my own. Oddly I also forgot to drink coffee, though it’s entirely possible that was a coincidence.

    However I spent this morning struggling to copy edit and format an upcoming book when I really wasn’t in the mood for it. I was trying to decipher the superficially helpful instructions provided by the publisher which were, in practice, anything other than helpful. A task that had seemed simple, albeit dull, suddenly acquired an unexpected complexity. I spent the morning getting increasingly stressed out and the Jawbone would not stop fucking vibrating…. oddly it didn’t occur to me to just turn the feature off until after lunch. The constant buzzing on my wrist, as the little device grappled for my attention in a manner that felt creepily agentive, only served to intensify my general state of irritation at the world and frustration with my lack of progress at the task at hand.

    I set the ‘idle alert’. I did so because I found it an appealing idea. It was an expression of my own agency. But it left me with a sense of quite how intrusive and aggressive this technology could be if it were ever mandated. How hard is it to imagine a situation where Amazon factory workers are expected to wear similar bands, programmed to issue a vibrating warning after 15 minutes of idleness and to alert the supervisor if the worker is still idle a few minutes later? Is it at all challenging to imagine a comparable band with an RFID chip being used to track and sanction a call centre operator who spends too long in a toilet? The social arrangements invoked here are not a matter of dystopian science fiction. They already exist. My suggestion is that this technology very likely will be rolled out in such settings, at least in the absence of legislative intervention which seems unlikely. How far could it go? What will a debate about its implications look like? What role will voluntary self-trackers and the quantified self play in these debates?

    As Emmanuel Lazega has argued, ironically in one of the chapters I was editing this morning, the conditionality of welfare is likely to be an important vector of diffusion for these techniques of control. Earlier this morning, enjoying a relaxed start to the day at the crack of dawn thanks to the silent alarm on my magical band, I listened to a radio discussion of ‘sobriety tags’:

    People who repeatedly commit alcohol-related crime will be forced to wear ankle tags that monitor whether they are still drinking, under a year-long pilot scheme.

    The “sobriety tags”, to be worn around the clock, will enforce abstinence by measuring a person’s perspiration every 30 minutes and testing whether it contains alcohol.

    If any trace is found, an alert will be sent to the offender’s probation officer and they can then be recalled to court, where they may be resentenced or face sanctions such as a fine. The tags register alcohol consumption but do not monitor movement or where people are.

    The scheme is being trialled for 12 months in four London boroughs – Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark and Sutton. It is anticipated that up to 150 offenders will be fitted with the tags. They will be banned from drinking alcohol for up to 120 days.

    Offenders will be screened before being tagged, and the scheme will not be used on people who are alcohol-dependent and require specialist support.

    The scheme, being introduced by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, builds on a similar scheme in the US and aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending and ease pressure on the police and courts.

    http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jul/31/sobriety-tags-offenders-alcohol-related-crime-pilot-scheme-london

    Consumer self-tracking devices and schemes like this serve to normalise tracking of this sort. What comes next? How hard is it to imagine a situation where a Conservative government, eager to separate ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ demands that welfare recipients submit to monitoring of their alcohol and nicotine intake? How hard is it to imagine a situation where recipients of weight related interventions on the NHS are made to wear activity tracking bands with the threat of withdrawn rights to healthcare in the case of unhealthy eating or sedentary lifestyles? What comes next? Part of me wants to research this stuff, looking at the subjective meanings attached to self-tracking as the devices become mainstream and analysing the assumptions loading into the emerging discourse surrounding the application of this technology for social policy. Part of me wants to write a dystopian science fiction novel about the coming techno-fascism. Part of me just wants to despair about a likely future in which the iron cage becomes an iron straight jacket.

     

     
  • Mark 5:54 pm on July 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , rob kitchin,   

    Rob Kitchin on critical data studies 

    An interesting presentation and video from Rob Kitchin. There’s an excellent paper developing these arguments online here. More here.

     
    • Rob Kitchin 8:00 pm on July 31, 2014 Permalink

      Mark, many thanks for sharing. A full paper to accompany the slideshare above, titled ‘Towards critical data studies: Charting and unpacking data assemblages and their work’, is available here – http://ssrn.com/abstract=2474112 All the best, Rob

    • Mark 8:34 am on August 1, 2014 Permalink

      thanks Rob, look forward to reading it! the new book as well!

  • Mark 9:56 am on July 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    What will neo-neoliberal ideology look like? 

    Do you remember compassionate conservatism? It seemed vacuous when promulgated by George Bush pre-9/11 and even more so when David Cameron was going through his ‘hug a husky’ phase pre-crisis. It still seems vacuous now, at the point of its purported resurgence, though much more interestingly so given the broader ideological context within which an increasing number of influential figures within the Republican party are advocating its embrace as a solution to their growing electoral woes. In essence, it still seems to amount to a matter of ‘how do we get people to like us?’ but I think this question takes on an epochal significance in our current situation. Rather than solely being a matter of professional politics, with conservative modernisers seeking to catch up to their third-way predecessors on the centre-left, it comes to encompass an ideological project to rebuild a constituency for neoliberalism as the old one is coming to shatter (particularly demographically in the US), the spectre of populism looms and the prevailing ethical motif of the Thatcher-Reagan settlement (“a rising tide lifts all boats”) comes to seem like a hollow joke.

    In this interesting podcast Bill Moyers debates compassionate conservatism with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Leaving aside the noxious absurdity of hearing the president of a hugely influential think tank backed by the richest people and most powerful corporations in America complain about corporate power in Washington, it’s actually quite interesting to hear what he has to say and to use this as a basis to consider the future contours of ideological debate in the US. The think tank system in effect takes responsibility for road testing ideological constructs and providing the intellectual infrastructure for class politics in the country. So I think it’s important to take seriously what this man has to say, without slipping into a lazy conspiratorial mindset which assumes that just because he says it, it’ll be taken up as an organising motif by the Republican party for the next election. But he’s putting forward an ideational construct and seeking material sponsorship for it.

    It’s partly a critique of the left, accusing it of monopolising the debate surrounding poverty while offering non-solutions that only serve to harm the people they purport to help. It’s partly a critique of the right, repudiating the quasi-technocratic discourse of the free market right that his own organisation did more than most to promote in American politics. It’s partly a reiteration of tired and familiar themes that serve to illustrate the intellectual vacuity of contemporary conservatism. However I was struck by how coherently it combined the tropes of compassionate conservatism (we need to take hard working families out of the tax system, enthusiastically supporting the safety net for the ‘truly poor’, invocation of a renewed philanthropy and public spiritedness) with the influential notion of Austrian origin that the problem is that contemporary capitalism is not capitalist enough. It’s not convincing because the coherency is only superficial, necessitating the suppression of the obvious structural link between how capitalist contemporary capitalism actually is and the communitarian values that are being sought, as Moyers astutely observes in the case of the Walton. family. But I find it hard to see another strategy that can sustain a constituency for the Republican party in the medium to long term and voter suppression can only go so far in the face of a changing country in which angry white men are an increasingly particular demographic group. The worrying thing is that the Democratic political machine is sufficiently spineless that, in the absence of someone like Elizabeth Warren running, it’s easy to see how the disciplined advocacy of this neo-neoliberalism could actually rob the opposition of any critical standpoint from which to make a case for even minute social change.

    There’s a lot of nice responses to this which have been posted on the Bill Moyers website but this is my favourite. You can read the rest of them here. It probably goes without saying that I disagree with everything Arthur Brooks says, not least of all his appropriation of the Dalai Lama as a free market capitalist. But I’m sufficiently interested to read further. I guess my fear is that the glaring holes in his argument are ones which can only be pointed out on the basis of causal inference e.g. clientism and rent seeking are consequences of the principles he embraces rather than exceptions to them, unemployment is generated in part by the accumulated power he gets paid $700k per year to defend etc. The contemporary media environment makes it hard to make arguments of this sort in a sustained way.

    Joel Berg
    Director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger

    “Pure Chutzpah”

    People, like Arthur Brooks, who proclaim that money can’t buy happiness usually have both. In 2012, Brooks earned $716,908 in total compensation from his American Enterprise Institute position alone. It’s nice that Brooks says that US poverty and inequality are too high, but, in this interview, he again indicates that he opposes every policy that actually reduces them. His claim that minimum wage increases kill jobs has been factually disproven repeatedly. It would be bad enough if he admitted that he opposes wage hikes because they harm his corporate funders, but it’s pure chutzpah to claim that they harm the people who get higher wages.

    I also wonder about the potential alliance between a mainstream compassionate conservatism of this form and a populist radical right. Could the ‘moral reformation’ that Brooks calls for be invoked rhetorically against the radical right at opportune moments while nonetheless serving to solidify a ‘small government’ alliance? Would the Tea Party accept this way of talking? I suspect so if the distinction between welfare dependents and the ‘truly poor’ is drawn carefully enough and the proposed solutions to the plight of the latter are presented as a matter of working towards the remission of state intervention rather than entrenching it. The problem is how you sustain this given the inevitable need for some intervention. Compassionate conservatism would come to look a little implausible if support is withdrawn entirely, with all the social consequences that would ensue from this.

     
    • Systemic Disorder 5:39 pm on July 30, 2014 Permalink

      I’m not as confident as you that the Tea Party would accept Brooks’ concept of “moral reformation” should the ideas he is floating gain ground within the establishment/corporate wing of the Republican Party. The Tea Party, at bottom, is a product of a split within corporate ranks, whereby the most extreme leaders, such as the Koch Brothers and those who align or free-ride off them, wish to eliminate any vestiges of the social safety net.

      Being too open with this loses general elections yet Republicans need Tea Partiers to come out in large numbers to be able to win elections, an increasingly difficult line to walk. Angry white male conservatives also represent a dwindling percentage of the overall electorate, so demographics play a role here, too. Some calmer heads within the Republican Party must realize this, thus we see efforts like the one by Brooks you have described well. I suspect this is a battle within the Right that has only begun.

    • Mark 5:39 am on July 31, 2014 Permalink

      Maybe you’re right. I was posing it as a question really – I’m not sure what I think. However I do think that people like the Koch’s could get behind this compassionate conservatism (though perhaps they coherently won’t) because it offers a moral framework to advocate for their policy preferences which potentially has much more appeal than straight forward libertarianism does. It supplies the moral theory which libertarianism has partly lacked.

      I’m interested in the ‘calmer heads’ – I’m finding the Republican party such a fascinating case right now precisely because it shows how complicated the relationship between ideology as strategy and ideology as a autonomous force can be. Everything I read suggests the Republican grandees desperately trying to close the pandora’s box that right wing think tanks and right wing advocacy groups have opened in the past two decades.

    • Systemic Disorder 4:05 pm on July 31, 2014 Permalink

      I have reached the same conclusion in regards to the Republican establishment trying to close the pandora’s box. I would also agree with your assessment of the potentiality of “compassionate conservatism” as a strategy and I do believe we will see renewed efforts on that track.

      The most extreme elements, however, such as the Koch Brothers, seem to believe that their money is enough; that they can overwhelm the conversation through relentless messaging, and they have more than ample money to keep the Tea Party going and fund their think tanks. These people seem to believe their opportunity has come and they are going to do whatever they can to ram it home.

    • Mark 8:34 am on August 1, 2014 Permalink

      I don’t think it’s a new thing though – the Kochs are a particularly virulent embodiment of a much longerstanding trend.

  • Mark 3:02 pm on July 29, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags:   

    Call for Contributions – Special Issue on Sexism 

    This looks interesting and important:

    feministkilljoys

    I am editing a special issue of New Formations on Sexism. Please see the calls for papers below!

    —————————————————————————————————————-

    This special issue of New Formations will explore sexism: a problem with a name.

    Sexism is a term that feminists have used to explain how social inequalities between men and women are reinforced or upheld through norms, values and attitudes. To use the term ‘sexism’ is, however, always to be involved in a political struggle or contestation. Marilyn Frye begins her important essay ‘Sexism’ with the following observation: ‘like most women coming to a feminist perception of themselves and the world, I was seeing sexism everywhere and trying to make it perceptible to others’ (1984: 17). Frye suggests that making sexism ‘perceptible to others’ becomes a project because many ‘would not see that what I declared to be sexist was sexist.’ In this special issue we hope to explore why making…

    View original post 388 more words

     
  • Mark 11:32 am on July 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    Self-tracking and data sensibilities 

    I recently blogged about the idea of the ‘qualified self’ and why I’m drawn to this phrase. As sometimes happens, I wasn’t being enormously serious when I started writing the post but had argued myself into a new position by the end of it. I like the ‘qualified self’ because it draws attention to the aspects of self-tracking, broadly construed, which can tend to be obscured if we focus in an overly narrow way on the Quantified Self. I use capitals here in allusion to a distinction offered by Whitney Erin Boesel between the Quantified Self and quantified self: as an organised movement of sorts, the QS encompasses a very particular relationship between personal and social reflexivity: ““QSers” don’t just self-track; they also interrogate the experiences, methods, and meanings of their self-tracking practices, and of self-tracking practices generally” as Boesel puts it.

    However I think the ‘big tent’ strategy she discusses as characterising the movement, if indeed we can call it that, can obscure how specific these reflexive practices are because it’s easy to mistake inclusivity for commonality. To be clear I really don’t mean this as a criticism of the Quantified Self. I think this is a very valuable thing for them to have done on a number of levels. I say this as someone who has thought about ‘big tent policies’ a lot in terms of another social movement of sorts that can be found in asexuality activism. But as with the asexual community, ‘big tents’ can obscure the differences of those within the tent. The notion of the Qualified Self appeals to me as a way of articulating certain motivations for self-tracking, techniques and attendant technologies which I worry are being subsumed under the rhetoric of the QS. Perhaps I’m even talking about an entirely different sensibility with which people engage in self-tracking? This interesting post by Deborah Lupton observes the trends in google search terms relating to these practices:

    As part of my research for the book I made a Google Trends graph comparing the major terms that are used to denote the practices of voluntarily monitoring aspects of the self: self-tracking, the quantified self, life logging and personal analytics. As the resultant graph demonstrates, it was not until mid-2007 that any of these terms began to show up in Google searches. Self-tracking led the way, followed by life logging, then personal analytics. The quantified self is the newest term. It began to appear in searches in January 2010 and rose quickly in popularity, beginning to overtake self-tracking by April 2012 (although just recently self-tracking has caught up again). The quantified self, therefore, has become a well-used term, at least among people using Google Search. In another study of news coverage of the quantified self I found that the term has become increasingly used in these accounts as well.

    But is it time to rethink or even relinquish the term ‘the quantified self’? For my book I prefer to use ‘self-tracking’ over the alternatives, as this term is broader and more inclusive of a range of practices (and I refer to ‘self-tracking cultures’ to denote the various social, cultural and political contexts in which self-tracking practices are carried out).

    http://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/beyond-the-quantified-self-the-reflexive-monitoring-self/

    This doesn’t confirm my sense of ‘quantified self’ swallowing up the broader discursive field out of which it emerged by any means. But it is suggestive of a trend. While I agree with Deborah that “Self-tracking is not simply about quantified (or quantifiable) information”, I’m not sure it follows from this that we can detach self-tracking practices from the kinds of data that inform them in the way I perhaps wrongly read her as saying. I think epistemologies are encoded into practices and the appeal of those practices in turn must be understood in terms of personal biography. Certain types of people are led to practices under certain conditions and then contribute to the reproduction or transformation of those practices (and the broader conditions) in virtue of what they bring to them.

    What intrigues me about the QS is how closely entwined the ethos and the epistemology seem to be. On a personal level, it just doesn’t make sense to me to think of my own life in terms of what I take to be the prevailing concepts within the Quantified Self. But I can easily see why it would for others and it’s these questions of biographical differentiation that interest me e.g. how does one come to be someone who participates in quantified self practices? How does one come to be someone who participates in QS events? How does one come to be someone who engages in the kinds of practices I was describing in terms of ‘qualitative self-tracking’?

    This is why I think the distinction draw by Margaret Archer between different modes of reflexivity is so important to understanding this. My hunch is that the QS community is filled with autonomous reflexives. In a later post, I’ll map out my reasons for thinking this and explain the concepts I’m using properly. But my broader claim is that there’s often a contingent complementarity between particular styles of internal life and particular practices of self-tracking. I’d like to understand this at an empirical level much more than I do and I think doing so would help illuminate at a theoretical level a lot of issues about the relationship between personal reflexivity and technology which interest me.

    Perhaps this is all a long winded way of saying that I think the kinds of information that a person comes to think of as salient to their selves is a very interesting issue. So I think numbers are important to people whose self-tracking practices revolve around quantifiable data and my inclination as a biographically orientated sociologist is to ask how did this come to be so? Addressing this question properly entails consideration of structure, agency, culture and the relationships between them. This is far too big a question to address in a blog post but I can see the outline of a potential paper beginning to take shape.

     
  • Mark 10:50 am on July 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: dissent, ,   

    Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation 

    Earlier today I came across this wonderful passage by Frederick Douglass in this book by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco:

    Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

    – Frederick Douglass

     
  • Mark 7:20 pm on July 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags:   

    Music I find inexplicably conducive to writing (#2) 

     
  • Mark 11:54 am on July 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    Time is always running out 

    I got briefly obsessed last year by the observation that at a rate of one book a week between the ages of 5 and 80, it will only be possible to read 3,900 books in a lifetime. This is a little over one tenth of one percent of all the books currently in print – obviously an overall figure that continues to grow at an astonishing rate. Around the same time, I came across this odd little insight into the understanding AC Grayling has of the finitude of his own life:

    As a shake-up, the philosopher AC Grayling is fond of reminding people that the average span of human life is less than 1,000 months. “If a third of them you are asleep and a third you’re in Tesco’s,” he says, “the other third, about 25 years, is left to you to live well.”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/9035892/A-C-Grayling-the-master-of-positive-thinking.html

    Much as I despise the man, it’s an orientation towards life which resonates with me. The reason that quantifying the number of books it will likely be possible to read in a lifetime struck such a chord with me (apart from the fact that I don’t naturally tend to think quantitatively and it just hadn’t occurred to me to place a number on it) was because I’d long noticed that my ‘to read’ list was becoming ever more problematic. At first it was a list. Then it was a stack. Now it’s a heap. This is a photo I took around last Christmas:

    heap

    Six months on and the heap is twice the size. Or perhaps it’s two heaps – I’m foregoing the impulse to make a geeky philosophers joke about the sorites paradox… my point is that it keeps growing and that this invites explanation. It may just be that I have a ‘book problem’. In some ways I clearly do, both in terms of my continuing to acquire them at a rate faster than I can read them and the problem of determining the ‘right’ thing to be reading when there’s so much from which to choose e.g. I recently found myself obsessively reading a 600 page biography unrelated to any research work at a point where I was in the final stages of writing a paper and should have been focusing my reading upon that task. Prioritisation is hard and so too is committing to reading a particular book when there’s always a further pile waiting for me that I’ve already selected  from a much broader pool of cultural variety.

    However I think this example from my own life reflects a broader process. As soon as I try and write about my ‘book problem’ seriously I inevitably start using words like ‘prioritisation’, ‘commitment’, ‘selection’ and ‘variety’ – invoking social theoretical concepts that have been integral to my PhD research. Part of the problem is that my capacity to identify potential reading material and my inclination to select it both tend to increase with my reading and associated practices. I become more attuned to following references. As I read more, I read more literary publications (like the LRB and the culture bit of the New Statesman which I tended to skip in my early 20s) and identify more books to read, in turn inclining me to attend further to these sources of information about new books to read. The frame of reference I bring to books expands and so too does the range of what I extract from the books I read, broadening the range of things I might read in future and what I might take from them.

    This is all taking place against the background of a necessarily finite lifespan. Time is literally running out. However our awareness of this finitude is always conceptually and culturally mediated. This might be a statement of the obvious but I think it’s very interesting to consider the implications of this for the variable ways in which we understand that finitude at different points in our life. One interesting way of looking at this is to consider ways in which it can be represented. This illustration from Wait But Why represents this in a way I find very powerful:

    Weeks (1)

     

    My point is that there is an existential challenge objectively encountered in the finitude of the human lifespan but that philosophical approaches to understanding this can often be insufficiently sensitive to the social and cultural factors shaping the ways in which people within a given social setting actually attempt to elude or build upon these inherent constraints. I think the mundane challenges of ‘time running out’ offer a very interesting way in which we can connect the everyday dimension to temporal finitude to the biographical dimension inherent in the limitation of the lifespan. I’ve talked about my ‘books problem’ simply because it’s familiar to me rather than it necessarily being a particularly typical or interesting example of what I’m suggesting is a broader trend.

    However the lifespan itself is not fixed. Beyond the social and cultural factors shaping how it is understood, we have the similarly social and cultural factors shaping its temporal extension. Social institutions, relations, practices and ideas all contribute to conditioning the extent of the lifespan in complex and interconnected ways. So too does technology, though I’d suggest never in a way that can be abstracted from the relational framework within which technological interventions are enacted (the closest I can think of in relation to this is a nuclear destruction launched by one person accidentally pressing a button).

    The social theorist Harmut Rosa distinguishes between the time structures of everyday lifelife time and that of the epoch in which they life. He argues that all persons continually struggle towards a degree of synchrony between these three dimensions to temporal experience. I think this is a really helpful perspective through which to address these issues. It’s from this perspective that I find the analysis of things like my ‘book problem’ so interesting – in identifying the mechanisms which lead to the intensification of the problem rather than its abatement, we get a fine-grained perspective on the temporal dynamics of the broader social system.

    It also helps us understand what goes on in people’s lives when the struggle for synchrony backfires. A sudden awareness of mortality at the biographical level inculcates hedonism (live faster, live more) that proves destabilising at the level of everyday life. Or a concern to do work that matters leads to a day-to-day routines deprived of pleasures and so proves unsustainable. The strategies people adopt in the face of this central question (“my life is short, how do I make the most of it?”) necessarily play out in the three dimensions that Rosa delineates even if the person themselves does not recognise them. In fact many of the interesting unintended consequences emerge from the frequent disjuncture between the objectivity of these temporal dimensions and their subjective (mis)recognition. Things like productivity culture and self-help books can also be analysed in relation to a struggle for synchrony, as can their many failings. So too can religious practices which regiment time and social institutions which provide temporal structures that negate the existential pangs provoked by the absence of synchrony. Our attempts to get out of the mess of life are more temporally complex than we tend to realise.

     
  • Mark 10:13 am on July 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags:   

    Stretching the Sociological Imagination: A Conference in Honour of John Eldridge 

    From Matt Dawson at Glasgow:

    Glasgow University will be hosting a conference in honour of John Eldridge on 16th-17th September. Entitled ‘Stretching the Sociological Imagination’ it will include papers inspired by John’s work in the fields of social theory, work and industry and the media. The event is free to attend.

    Confirmed speakers include John MacInnes (Edinburgh), Kevin Williams (Swansea), Tim Strangleman (Kent), Tony Elger (Warwick), David Miller (Bath), Greg Philo (Glasgow), Bridget Fowler (Glasgow), Howard Davis (Bangor) and Robert Moore (Liverpool).

    For details on how to register and the conference programme, see our conference website: https://eldridgeconference2014.wordpress.com/.

    We hope to see you there. Please feel free to pass on details of the conference to anyone who may be interested.

     
  • Mark 4:32 pm on July 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: slam poetry,   

    The slam poetry of Denice Frohman 

    What wonderful work – more information about the poet here:

     
    • julie gosling 5:43 pm on July 24, 2014 Permalink

      YESSSSS a LNG time favourite

    • Mark 5:58 pm on July 24, 2014 Permalink

      a new discovery for me! I love their work

  • Mark 11:29 am on July 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    Qualitative self-tracking and the Qualified Self 

    The idea of “qualitative self-tracking” is one that I’ve mentioned on my blog before. It’s a term in which I think but it’s also one that I’m aware of being unclear about exactly what I mean by it. Searching google shows a complete absence of material relating to it – returning only three hits for the exact phrase, all for the same document, which makes reference to “qualitative and quantitative self-tracking data” as opposed to the specific sense in which I’m suggesting qualitative self-tracking can be thought of as a distinct type of practice.

    There’s a lot more on the notion of the Qualified Self. This is a term that had occurred to me a couple of years ago and I really like it. My point at the time was that the ethos of self-knowledge through numbers does very little for me personally. But I’m intellectually drawn to the Quantified Self because it’s a fascinating example of the intensification of reflexivity in contemporary society.

    In talking about the Qualified Self I’m not disputing the complexity of the inferences that people can and do draw about their selves and their lives on the basis of quantitative data. I’m just suggesting a different starting point which might often have similar implications at the level of practice. I also think there’s an inherent tendency towards behaviourism in a lot of the discourse surrounding the Quantified Self. To be clear: I don’t have any objection to quantitative research into human behaviour (in fact I’d find such an objection absurd) but I do see it as a form of abstraction that is methodologically unavoidable in addressing certain kinds of question and/or to work at a certain level of scope. But what ultimately concerns me are the qualities of things – this is something that’s often associated with description and narrative but I’d argue causality, in the sense of what lies beyond observable regularities, necessitates invocation of qualities. Why does X do Y under condition Z? I see how it’s possible to reject the assumptions underlying the question but I don’t see how it’s possible to address such a question without a concern for the qualities of X, Y and Z.

    So rather crudely here’s an attempt at a definition of qualitative self-tracking: using mobile technology to recurrently record qualities of experience or environment, as well as reflections upon them, with the intention of archiving aspects of personal life that would otherwise be lost, in a way susceptible to future review and revision of concerns, commitments and practices in light of such a review. So obviously things like personal journals would fall into this category. Quantitative self-tracking pre-existed the Quantified Self, as well as the novel practices that began to diffuse and prompted the elaboration of the QS. But I think qualitative self-tracking goes back much further. It’s the continuities that interest me here and how examination of what is similar can help us better understand what is different about our present circumstances.

    While I use the term ‘mobile’ above in a rather generic sense, it’s nonetheless the case that smart phones facilitate greater opportunities for qualified self-tracking. For instance iDoneThis, though designed as an enterprise tool, has been something I’ve increasingly enjoyed using in the last week. Every day it sends you an e-mail at a defined time asking, perhaps unsurprisingly, “what did you do today?” – to which the response is to e-mail back and say “I done this …. “. It’s an incredibly quick process, automatically formatting each line of the e-mail into a separate entry. These are then indexed to the day in question and marked on a calendar which can be (re)viewed later:

    Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 12.38.04

    In a little under a week of using this, though not on every day, I’ve already been struck by the variability with which I respond to it. Some days I’ve immediately been able to say “I did a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h” etc. On other days, it’s necessitated that I deliberate about what exactly I did do that day. I find this very interesting as an example of a socio-technical system inculcating a deeper degree of personal reflexivity about how you’ve spent your day. Some days, I felt I did a lot but then realised upon reflection that I hadn’t done a great deal. Other days, I thought I hadn’t done much but then realised I had actually accomplished rather a lot.

    Goalstreaks is a ‘habit tracker’ which may seem an odd choice to include in a post about the qualified self. It’s designed to keep track of the number of days in which you have taken action towards a goal. The idea is that this produces a goalstreak which, as it becomes longer, feels progressively more jarring to break. I’d argue it’s qualitative, at least in the particular sense in which I’m using the term, as a result of the distinction it draws between goals and action. The idea is to define a medium term outcome (e.g. write a book) and then specify a particular daily task which contributes substantively towards achieving that goal. In this sense, it links what the social theorist Harmut Rosa describes as everyday and biographical time horizons – drawing out connections between day-to-day routine and the unfolding of your life in the longer term, with the intention of progressively reshaping the former so that it contributes towards the shaping of the latter. This is why I think meaning is integral to the process – it tracks but it does so in a way that tracks the quality of the action vis-a-vis personal concerns. The normativity is built into how you use the app rather than being something that only factors in when you interpret the data (in fact the scope for treating goalstreaks as data is quite limited I think, over and above modulating your plans because certain goals you’ve aimed for progressively come to seem as if they might be unsustainable).

    Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 12.45.33

    Hopefully this has given some sense of what I mean by ‘qualitative self-tracking’. As I said at the start of the post, it’s a term I use in thinking about my own life, as opposed to one I’m necessarily serious about as a proposed concept for sociological inquiry. But this is my starting point for investigating personal reflexivity and digital technology. So it seemed a good idea to try and clarify, at least for myself, what I actually mean when I use the phrase.

     
    • joeharrod (@joeharrod) 10:20 am on August 1, 2014 Permalink

      Excellent article, and I’ll follow your development of this topic with interest. Personally I have an aversion to the tiny victories and brags of the quantified self (“I just smashed a 2.3km jog on Nike+!”) but can see a huge value in setting internalised, qualitative goals. It’s not a new idea as you acknowledge (and Goalstreaks is an exact replica of Seinfeld’s writing policy) but technology can really add something in recall and motivation. Thanks!

    • Mark 12:07 pm on August 1, 2014 Permalink

      Precisely, that’s what I’m interested in – how new technology reshapes these ways of relating to our selves and our lives, as opposed to just being preoccupied by the novelty.

    • gileslane 10:07 am on August 3, 2014 Permalink

      Mark, you might be interested in a project I led a couple of years ago, Lifestreams, exploring new ways we might make meaning from personal biosensor data that are very much about personal reflexivity.
      http://proboscis.org.uk/5302/digital-alchemy/
      Transforming data into physical objects offers a wholly different register of ways in which we can begin to encompass much longer timeframes than the immediacy of digital media often dictates, perhaps giving us insight into life patterns that become discernible when we begin using more of our senses than just the visual.

    • Mark 8:28 am on August 10, 2014 Permalink

      that looks very interesting – thanks! just put it on my reading list for when i’m travelling later this week

    • bakul200 2:20 pm on December 28, 2014 Permalink

      Overall a nice write-up on self-tracking and quantified self, enjoyed reading @http://bakul200.wordpress.com

    • Nick 1:34 am on April 6, 2016 Permalink

      I really appreciated this article. Thanks.
      In this vein, I have started to write some software that attempts to put some qualitative (1-5 style) personal surveys along side some personal journalling, with the goal of looking at qualitative trends on any personal metric you want, and encouraging people to reflect on the results.

  • Mark 10:09 am on July 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: buffer analytics, ,   

    Bourdieusian Hipsters Explain Foucauldian Memes 

    After a couple of years using Buffer to maintain the @soc_imagination twitter feed and occasionally looking through the analytics, I’ve noticed lots of key words that inevitably lead to a click through rate far higher than usual:

    Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 11.06.27

    Consider this post a crude experiment to test whether what I’m coming to think is true actually is. There are basic claims about writing effective titles that are obviously accurate: the popularity of Upworthy style titles reflects more than the people who work there being slightly irritating. But I also suspect there are domain specific keywords which just don’t translate across different kinds of audiences. If this is true then it means that a large part of social media ‘expertise’ is just a familiarity with the cultural world of the intended audience and an understanding of the incredibly basic techical steps involved in putting that insight into practice.

     
  • Mark 7:42 pm on July 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Ever wondered about how Tony Blair interprets his own drift towards right-wing politics? 

    He was kind enough to provide an answer in this recent talk:

    In some cases, this will mean a certain convergence of thinking with the centre-right. Relax. It happens the world over and where it doesn’t – see the polarisation of American politics today – a country is the poorer for it.

     
  • Mark 8:26 am on July 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Cfp: Mini Conference on Digital Sociology 

    MINI-CONFERENCE ON DIGITAL SOCIOLOGY
    CALL FOR ABSTRACTS

    Eastern Sociological Society

    New York City

    February 26-March 1, 2015

    Millennium Broadway Hotel

    In keeping with the Eastern Sociological Society’s theme of “Crossing Borders”, the Digital Sociology Mini-Conference seeks papers that address the many borders crossed – national, disciplinary, theoretical, methodological, epistemological – in digital ways of knowing. As Daniels and Feagin (2011) have observed digital technologies have offered both challenges and exciting possibilities for the ways in which sociologists do their work. Yet, as Lupton (2014) notes, the field of sociology has only just begun to take account of the broader implications that the digital has raised about the “practice of sociology and social research itself.” Similarly, Clough and colleagues (2014) suggest that the “datalogical turn” underway in the social sciences poses not only serious challenges to sociological methodologies, but requires more robust theorizing of the social itself.

    Digital Sociology as a field is gaining more traction in Australia, Canada and the UK than the US, but the burgeoning field of digital sociology is still “before the beginning” in theorizing and articulating the digital turn for the social sciences (Wynn, 2009).  Despite the fact that many of the social implications of the Internet were articulated more than a decade ago by leading sociologists such as Castells, DiMaggio and colleagues, Sassen, and Wellman, (Castells, 1997; DiMaggio, et al., 2001; Sassen, 2002; Wellman, 2001), North American sociology overall has been less concerned with defining its relationship to the digital and has instead been content to cede this terrain to those working in communication, cultural and media studies, library and information science, and journalism.

    We maintain that the field of sociology has insights to offer the questions that emerge from the proliferation of digital technologies and that a sociology without a thorough understanding of the digital will be a discipline that is irrelevant to the most pressing issues of the 21st century. The digital spaces where we increasingly interact, learn, and work lack fundamental sociological frameworks that might help us better understand such spaces (McMillan Cottom, 2014). Sociologists who wish to make sense of the social and the digital are faced with developing research methods that can account for lived realities, as well as articulate structural shifts in the nature of labor, economy, politics, and governance (Gregory, 2014). Therefore, we are convening this Mini-Conference on Digital Sociology as a way of sharing new forms of knowledge creation, connecting sociologists engaged in this work, and strategizing the future of “digital sociology” within the discipline in ways that “cross borders” of North American sociology.

    We will consider abstracts on a wide range of topics, including – but not limited to – the following themes:

    • Digital Sociological Methods: How do traditional, analog sociological methods become digital? Are there new, “born digital” sociological methods? Will big data replace survey methodology? What are ethics of doing digital sociology?
    • Critical Theories of the Digital Itself: How have we theorized the digital? What challenges does the digital pose to epistemologies underlying sociological methods?
    • Digital Structures, Digital Institutions: The datafication of everyday life is posing unique challenges to the composition of social institutions and giving rise to new instantiations of education, finance, labor, and governance. How do we theorize, study, and conceptualize the recomposition of these institutions?
    • Identity, Community, and Networks: How do sociological concepts of micro and macro, personal and public, “front stage” and “back stage,” evolve as digital and mobile technologies increasingly blur these boundaries? How do case studies of networks further the field of digital sociology?
    • Race, Racism and Digitally Mediated Spaces: How do existing sociological concepts of race and racism expand our understanding of digital diasporas, racist video games, regulating hate speech in a global era, hashtag activism, racial justice social movements and racist countermovements, the ways that racialization “happens” in digitally mediated spaces?   
    • Queering Digital Technology: How do we deploy – and queer – sociological theories to make sense of the twined realities that historically marginalized groups (like LGBTQ people) use digital technologies to connect across geographic distances, share resources and to work for social change while simultaneously experiencing the expanded practices of digital surveillance, loss of privacy, and identity-based harassment, even leading to violence?

    We encourage submissions from scholars at all levels, and are particularly enthusiastic to support the work of graduate students and early career researchers. We welcome submissions for individual papers and for entirely constituted sessions. The organizers share a commitment to creating a field that honors diverse voices, and as such are excited to see scholars from groups that are typically underrepresented in sociology. When proposing entirely constituted sessions, please keep this commitment to diverse voices in mind.

    Because we aim to foster dialogue beyond the parameters of the meeting, papers presented will be considered for inclusion in an open-access, peer-reviewed volume on Digital Sociology. If you have any questions about proposals, topics, or session ideas please contact one of the organizers: Karen Gregory (kgregory@ccny.cuny.edu), Tressie McMillan Cottom (tcottom@emory.edu) or Jessie Daniels (jdaniels@gc.cuny.edu).

    For papers, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words, as well as the title of the paper, name of presenter, institutional affiliation and contact details. For wholly constituted sessions, please include a short description of the concept behind your session, and then include all of the abstracts (along with names and affiliations of presenters) in one document. Please email your submissions to:ESSDigitalSociology@gmail.com. Proposals not accepted for the Mini-Conference will be submitted to the ESS general call for submissions.

     
  • Mark 8:18 am on July 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Christian Smith on the Sacred Project of American Sociology 

    I’m a big fan of Christian Smith’s work. Largely, though not solely, for this book. But his new one sounds slightly odd. While it appeals to me on the level of the sociology of sociology, it’s hard not to wonder about it given how utterly scathing some of the reviews are. I’ve ordered a review copy to write one myself and contribute to this, hopefully finding out in the process if the reaction Smith’s book has provoked in some quarters has been deserved. There’s a long review here by an author who acknowledges past antagonism with Smith:

    Like a vaccine denier, Smith is more and more convinced of his theory the more all the sociologists around him deny it. In fact, actually, rightly understood, rampant denial is literally evidence that he’s right. By the end of the book he concludes, “Many American sociologists will … find it impossible to see the sacred project that sociology is – precisely because my argument above is correct” (199). This treads uneasily close to the line where common arrogance tips over into a lack of grip on reality.

    In the text of the American Sociological Association (ASA) description of the discipline, for example, “none of it admits to advancing a sacred project” (6). Aha! Why not? Two reasons, he figures. First, the sacred project “is so ubiquitous and taken for granted … that it has become invisible to most sociologists themselves” (6-7). Why would we discuss something universal and uncontroversial? Second, admitting its existence “would threaten the scientific authority and scholarly legitimacy of academic sociology,” so it must be “misrecognized, implicit, and unexamined” to maintain “plausible deniability,” and therefore “sociologists carefully exempt their own discipline from their otherwise searching sociological gaze” (7). So, we “carefully” keep secret for strategic reasons that which we cannot even know exists. The devil does work in mysterious ways.

    [….]

    Given the worldwide magnitude of this project, and its global success over several centuries, in which American sociology has played such a small role, its seems useless to single out today’s idealistic graduate students and young researchers for blame. They are mere cogs in the modernity machine. This is the deep incoherence of the book: he pours his scorn so superfluously on the leftists who annoy him even though the details of contemporary politics seem tangential to his existential concerns.

    http://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/its-modernity-stupid-book-review/

    There’s a shorter review here from Scatterplot that’s also worth a read.

     
  • Mark 11:32 pm on July 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , ,   

    The narrative significance of ‘unreadability’ 

    I’m increasingly interested in how interiority is represented in culture. I mean this as a general term for depicting inward experience of whatever sort. I’ve been primarily thinking about this in terms of film and tv so far. Partly because I happen to be someone who watches a lot of films. But there’s something interesting about manner in which this medium so often depends upon inevitably visual techniques to depict inner life. However not all such representations take this form. In fact some are a matter of the deportment of the actor, how they depict the orientation of their character towards others in a film (and often implicitly towards the audience). There was a Vanity Fair article I came across a while ago which captured something of this

    How does Pitt embody cool? As the director Andrew Dominik noted in a DVD extra for the 2012 film Killing Them Softly, “When you watch Brad, you always feel like something’s going on under there, but you’re not quite sure what it is. I think that’s the reason he’s a movie star. He has that quality of mystery. He doesn’t invite you to share his position somehow.”

    He doesn’t invite you to share his position. That is as good a definition of movie cool as there is. The cool actor invites admiration, envy, and desire, much more than empathy, because he is unreadable. His characters leave you wondering what it would be like to be them, without ever imagining that you could.

    On the other end of the continuum is Tom Hanks, an actor who almost always invites you to share his position. The power of Hanks’s performances lies in their ability to communicate exactly what it would be like to the character he is playing, which is why he has succeeded so much at the Oscars. He has been nominated five times for best actor and won it twice, one of only nine actors to do so.

    http://www.vanityfair.com/vf-hollywood/leonardo-dicaprio-oscar

    I would suggest that the argument being made here could be recast in terms of the variable opacity with which an audience experiences the internal life of a given character played by an actor. Not ‘inviting you to share his position’ constitutes a representation of inner life which embraces the elusiveness of that interiority. Some characters draw you in, externalising what is going on internally and inviting others to empathise with it. In contrast, there are those who make no attempt to do this, with their actions being clearly purposive but it being equally clear that those purposes do not include seeking understanding from observers.

    I think this is why the final scene of Killing Them Softly is so powerful. Pitt’s character has been elusive throughout. At the end, his frustration leads him to share aspects of his internal life and we gain an insight into the cynicism with which he views the world. But appropriately enough, this heretofore absent externalisation is soon subsumed into a practical attempt to terminate the transaction: “Now FUCKING pay me”.

    Pitt plays him in a way that makes no attempt to “communicate exactly what it would be like to be the character he is playing” and the film is so much more powerful for this. In fact I’d argue it’s crucial to the unfolding of the film’s narrative. This raises a question: is the mode of representation applied to the interiority of key characters similarly important to the narrative progression of other films? How does the role played by the representation of inner life (thinking, deliberating, imagining, day dreaming etc) in telling cinematic stories vary? Do the two ends of the continuum invoked by the Vanity Fair article tend to map on to two distinctive kinds of narrative? I suspect it can’t be that simple but there nonetheless seems to be quite a lot in this question that could be usefully explored.

     
    • Benjamin Geer 7:27 am on July 21, 2014 Permalink

      “When you watch Brad, you always feel like something’s going on under there, but you’re not quite sure what it is. I think that’s the reason he’s a movie star. He has that quality of mystery.” I’d say it’s the star’s lack of acting skills that’s being mystified here.

    • Mark 7:34 am on July 21, 2014 Permalink

      Substitute Keanu Reeves for Brad Pitt and I’d completely take your point…

  • Mark 2:55 pm on July 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    The materiality of digital technology 

    This point made by Liz Stanley and Andrea Salter can’t be stressed enough:

    Digital communication is however a supremely material medium involving large amounts of hardware, including computers, cell-phones and tablets, requiring software platforms that structure and help shape in very material ways the communications that can be engaged in, and being reliant on electricity or proxy-forms such as batteries. Also, an array of traces remains and can be made material. Websites stay in existence long after hosting sites may have vanished; email is ‘there’ and can be recovered; and text messages are similarly ‘there’ and available. And for all these, people can and do engage in their own forms of archiving, some of which involve printing out and making as material and ‘words on paper’ as the conventional letter.

    http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/cabinet-of-curiosities/the-death-of-the-letter/

    In fact I’d supplement this argument with the observation that my neck is hurting because of the slightly odd position I’ve been sitting in while using my laptop for the past hour. Digital technology is ‘supremely material’ and our engagements with it are unavoidably embodied. This should be axiomatic for any attempt to understand socio-technical systems.

     
  • Mark 5:32 pm on July 19, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: pawson, realist evaluation, , tilley, ,   

    Realist evaluation, mechanisms and theoretical minimalism 

    At IACR earlier today I heard two interesting talks about Realist Evaluation. I had previously had a vague idea about what this involved, largely through encountering citations from Pawson in other texts, without ever having really grasped what it was in a concrete sense. Now I have, I’m very interested. All the more so because of the number of people who have told me today about the excitement that realist evaluation has generated in environments that one would have expected to be utterly hostile to critical realism more broadly. So there’s an interesting question about how realist evaluation has proved so amenable to circulation outside of its initial domain. Certainly, some of this must be a matter of networks, in terms of the original generation of those advocating this approach and the patterns of work stemming from their own engagements. I imagine it’s also a matter of analytical value – I was particularly interested to hear how realist evaluation appears to those from an applied background working within a positivistic intellectual culture. It sounds like the conceptual distinctions it draws are crucial – realist evaluation critiques what positivist empiricism does but also explains how its own function corrects these mistakes by going deeper into the case.

    However the aspect that interested me most were the questions about intellectual self-presentation. Firstly, in terms of the limitations upon the acceptability of realist evaluation that some people encounter e.g. the approach is becoming fashionable but the results may still be somewhat alien on an intellectual level to funders. Secondly, in terms of what strikes me as the terminological minimalism which characterises the approach and its proponents. Take this extract about mechanism in a paper i just found by Pawson and Tilley:

    The concept is best grasped through an illustration. The ‘primary school breakfast club’ is a very popular measure used to boost early education performance, often included within community regeneration initiatives. The key point here is that ‘the measure’ is not the basic unit of analysis for understanding causation. A measure may work in different ways or, in realist parlance, they may trigger different mechanisms (M1, … , Mn). A breakfast club may aid classroom attentiveness by offering the kids a ‘nutritious kick-start’ (M1) to the day, which they might not otherwise get. And/or it may act as a ‘summoning point’ (M2) to prevent kids loitering or absconding or misbehaving in the chaotic period before school. And/or it may act as an ‘energy diffuser’ (M3) to soak up gossip and boisterousness before formalities commence.

    And/or it may enable to school to present a more ‘informal face’ (M4) to those uninspired by classroom and book learning. And/or it may act as a ‘pre-assembly’ (M5) enabling teachers to troubleshoot potential problems and seed the day’s schedules. And/or it might give parents and school staff an ‘informal conduit’ (M6) to mix and offer mutual support. Mechanisms also explain a programme’s failure, of course, so to this list we might add some adverse processes. It may act as an  opportunity for ‘messing about’ (M7) if only ancillary staff are on duty; it might provide an unintended ‘den of iniquity’ (M8) for planning the day’s misdeeds: or it might prove a ‘cultural barrier’ (M9) because inappropriate food is served, and so on.

    http://www.communitymatters.com.au/RE_chapter.pdf

    I’ve long thought that mechanism is a powerful concept. In fact encountering the notion of a generative mechanism, in virtue of the operation of which events unfold in the way that they do, played a crucial role in winning me over to critical realism in spite of my initial scepticism. Even the more instrumental conception of mechanism found in analytical sociology appeals to me because once you start to think in terms of mechanisms, it’s hard to understand how anyone could be satisfied by a form of social inquiry entirely absent of them, even if you may disagree with the way in which other people conceptualise them.

    But it can also be a hard concept to explain to those who don’t think in these terms. They are also often not written about clearly and, in spite of what I’m suggesting is their analytical pay off, I can understand why this is the case. In my own work I’ve tended to use ‘mechanism’ as a vague concept I employ in my provisional analysis but then articulate in other terms at the point of writing. The reason for this is partly because I don’t have the confidence that I can write clearly in terms of mechanisms while also being accurate. Or sometimes, if I’m honest, it’s because what I’m bestowing the ‘mechanism’ title to actually just reflects a causal hunch. Or my own thinking is much vaguer than I would like it to be.

    It’s in terms of this experience that I find the clarity of Pawson and Tilley’s writing about mechanisms so striking. What I see as problematic, using it to designate the fact that I think I’ve identified operative causal power of some form, seems utterly fine when I encounter it in their writing. I find it problematic in my own because of the vast meta-theoretical edifice in virtue of which the concept is meaningful to me. But perhaps this is a feature of my own intellectual biography rather than anything that should exercise normative power in relation to my own writing? Could this be a more general mistake i.e. assuming that the theoretical considerations that led you to come to have accepted a concept should figure into your applications of that concept?

    I look forward to reading more of Pawson and Tilley’s writing and I’m interested to develop my understanding of the style they write in. The small amount I’ve looked through in the last hour or so certainly fits with the effusive complements I heard about their style during the conference today. I’m also intuitively of the opinion that this style is, in a very particular way, part of the reason for the success their work has enjoyed. I’m not making the rather trite claim that ‘theory would be more popular if theorists wrote more clearly’. I’m suggesting there’s something very specific about their particular kind of clarity which lends to their work a wider popularity than would otherwise be the case.

    My suggestion is that it uses the minimum of terminology necessary to convey the conceptual distinctions which have practical implications. It’s stylistic parsimony. Or at least it tends towards this. Are there many other theorists this is true of? I’m not convinced that there are. I’d like to be one of them though.

     
c
Compose new post
j
Next post/Next comment
k
Previous post/Previous comment
r
Reply
e
Edit
o
Show/Hide comments
t
Go to top
l
Go to login
h
Show/Hide help
shift + esc
Cancel