Updates from August, 2014 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 2:56 pm on August 29, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: personal device, , ,   

    Wellcome Trust Symposium and The Curious Museum of Personal Medical Devices 

    Wellcome Trust Symposium on New Conceptual Approaches to Personal Medical Devices

    18th-19th September 2014
    Post-doctoral Suite, 16 Mill Lane, University of Cambridge, Cambridge

    Fuelled by the accelerating pace of technological development and a general shift to personalised, patient-led medicine alongside the growing Quantified Self and Big Data movements, the emerging field of personal medical devices is one which is advancing rapidly across multiple domains and disciplines – so rapidly that conceptual and empirical understandings of personal medical devices, and their clinical, social and philosophical implications, often lag behind new developments and interventions. Personal medical devices – devices that are attached to, worn by, interacted with, or carried by individuals for the purposes of generating biomedical data and/or carrying out medical interventions with/on the person concerned – have become increasingly significant in clinical and extra-clinical contexts owing to a range of factors including the growth of multimorbidity and chronic disease in ageing populations and the increasing sophistication and miniaturisation of personal devices themselves.
    The aim of this symposium is to consider recent theoretical developments in the humanities and social sciences in relation to personal medical devices, and to address important gaps in understanding such as the differences between wearable and non-wearable devices, the ontological implications of personal devices for concepts of the body, the self, and technology, and the extent to which such questions may arise with particular force owing to ‘new’ technologies.
    The symposium takes place at the University of Cambridge over two days, with the first day consisting of papers and keynote presentations, and with the second day consisting of further discussion and a concluding panel of invited discussants from a range of backgrounds including computing science, clinical medicine, technology, and philosophy.
    The symposium combines invited and submitted papers from established and emerging scholars to consider how recent theoretical literature can shed light on current debates surrounding personal medical devices these and other important issues. Some of the questions that papers may address include:
    •       How ‘personal’ are personal medical devices?
    •       How new are ‘new’ medical technologies?
    •       What are the implications of personal medical devices for enduring philosophical dualities such as mind/body and self/society?
    •       What are the implications of personal medical devices for understandings of illness, medicine, and technology?
    •       How can the interaction of diverse theoretical perspectives drive new conceptual understandings of personal medical devices?
    Registration only £15 – includes lunches, refreshments, and drinks reception. Register here if interested:


    As part of the Symposium, we are hosting a multidisciplinary panel discussion inspired by Radio 4’s Museum of Curiosity – i.e. we are asking panellists to suggest technologies that they believe merit inclusion in a virtual museum, in this case of personal medical devices. The idea is to encourage interdisciplinary discussion in an interesting and fun manner.

    We wanted to open an invitation to members of the Quantified Self network who might be interested in putting forward their own suggestions of personal medical devices that have somehow defined a particular medical (or related) field or which they see as of particular significance. As long as they are attached to, carried by, worn on, or otherwise interact with individuals, the devices can be of any kind whatsoever – past or present (or future!), small or large (within reason), automated or ‘dumb’, simple or complex. They don’t even have to be ostensibly ‘medical’ devices as long as a rationale can be made for their serving medical ends – i.e. Jawbones, Fitbits, Garmin all welcome!

    We would be very grateful if you would consider contributing. If possible, we would like suggestions to be passed on by 8th September, accompanied by a short piece of text (e.g. up to 300 words) making a case for the device’s inclusion. Suggestions would be displayed at the symposium, online, and in future events. In order to illustrate the kind of thing we are looking for, I have included below the suggestion received from Professor Simon Griffin of the Primary Care Unit, University of Cambridge.

    We hope you will consider being involved in this way in what promises to be a very interesting and stimulating event.

    Best wishes,
    Conor Farrington and Rebecca Lynch

  • Mark 11:56 am on August 29, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Research ‘Ignite’ CFP – Being Human in a Digital Age 

    The event is aimed at early career researchers in the humanities (who may be also working across disciplinary divides such as in the arts and sciences) whose research connects to the theme of ‘being human in a digital age’. Ignite events challenge researchers to make their case in a short, succinct way by giving them five minutes only to make their case. For this event, which will be held in the University of London’s Senate House on the 15th November 2014, we are also challenging applicants to make their research accessible to a non-academic audience.

    The event forms part of Too Much Information – a day of public events hosted by the School of Advanced Study, University of London exploring what it means to be human in a digital age.  Contributors to the day include the Mass Observation Archive, the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (UCL), the British Library and the Oxford Internet Institute. Confirmed keynote speakers include Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt and technology writer Ben Hammersley.

    We are particularly (but not exclusively) interested in hearing from people whose research may touch upon some of the following areas working on some of the following topics:

    • the history and future of ‘big-data’ in the humanities – from paper archives to digital repositories
    • surveillance, online privacy, the ‘right to be forgotten’ and the politics of the internet
    • new technologies and their impact on human consciousness, memories, emotions
    • historical, literary or artistic explorations of ‘information overload’

    For the full call, and details of how to apply, visit the Being Human festival website. The deadline for applications in 1 October, 2014.

    Please feel free to circulate this amongst colleagues/PhD candidates who may be interested.

  • Mark 10:14 am on August 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    Notes for a Sociology of Thinking 1.4 

    In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen argued that the intellectual axis of contemporary sociological theory has shifted from a concern with individualism and holism to what he terms dualism and anti-dualism. I’m not convinced as to the accuracy of this as a claim about the state of the field given the degree of sophistication which can be seen in some of the work analytical sociologists are doing. However I think it’s useful as an expression of a core distinction between those theorists who see ‘structure and agency’ as a dualism to be transcended and those who see it as reflecting the ontological reality of two relatively autonomous aspects of the social world. I also really like how he sets this up because it helps me locate both my PhD research on personal morphogenesis and my post-PhD research on the sociology of thinking in terms of wider trends within sociological theory:

    This leads us to what I think is the main battleground between dualists and antidualists, the mind of the individual. The question is: how social is it?


    No one could question that there are singular organisms we call members of the biological species Homo sapiens, but the antidualists wish to remind you that these are not distinctly human individuals, not to mention social scientifically interesting agents, until they are in sociocultural relations with other people and thus components in sociocultural wholes that contribute enormously to their being the kinds of individuals that they are (see e.g., Bourdieu 1977; Dewey [1920] 1988:187–94, [1922] 1983, [1927] 1988:351–53; Elias 1978; Fuchs 2001; Giddens 1984; King 2004; Mead 1934; also Kivinen and Piiroinen 2013). As John Dewey put it a hundred years ago:

    The real difficulty is that the individual is regarded as something given, something already there. . . . [For, actually,] social arrangements, laws, institutions . . . are means of creating individuals. Only in the physical sense of physical bodies that to the senses are separate is individuality an original datum. Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out. (Dewey [1920] 1988:190–91)

    For central conflationist antidualists like myself, indeed, the “micro” focus is not the individual so much as specific encounters and other small-scale situations involving specific kinds of people-in-relations and their interactions (see Collins 2004:3). In effect, “the stuff of the social is made of relations, not individuals” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:179). But Archer, in contrast, needs to keep individuals free from their social relations in order to pull those relations away from agency and turn them into the essence of structures. So relations and thus structures must be external to individuals and their beliefs and concepts, according to Archer, and relational roles, institutions, concepts, and ideas cannot be allowed to “invade” or “determine” individuals’ identities and decision-making processes. Basically Archer is saying that we must not stuff too much of the sociocultural world into people’s heads

    (Piiroinen 2014:84-85)

    I think he’s misunderstood Archer’s specific point slightly but he’s certainly correct about the general intention here. My PhD research on personal morphogenesis was intended to flesh out how people change in relation to social and cultural influences in a way that sustains the distinction between the personal changes and the social influences. We become ‘the kinds of individuals’ that we are in relation to others but if we cleave self and others too closely together, we obscure the variability in how these changes unfold. In essence I’ve argued that we understand relationships in terms of intersecting biographies and the changes brought about by them. So I’d insist on maintaining individual biography as a unit of analysis, with this representing a ‘chunk’ of one person’s biography in which we they undergo a change:

    However we can’t understand the changes without analysing the intersection of biographies, as any number of other persons (Px) contribute to the unfolding of P1’s biography over this period of time. The interaction between P1 and Px contributes to the reproduction or transformation of the relations themselves but also the persons party to them:

    I would accept that we are only “distinctly human individuals” when we are “in sociocultural relations with other people”: I just want to be specific about which sociocultural relations contribute to which aspects of our individuality and when they do so. I think this is important because actual biographies are messy. My empirical case study concerned undergraduate students. For instance I’m interested in understanding how interactions between a person and their new university friends can transform how they relate to their ‘home friends’. The personal changes emergent from one set of sociocultural relations can have a huge impact on another set of sociocultural relations and I think the central conflationists can’t (consistently) account for this because they have no concept of ‘outputs’ from relations. In other words: relations change people but people change relations and these processes are not concurrent. We are enmeshed within socio-cultural relations from birth but, as Laing once put it, while “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being … any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”.

    So when we ask how social is the mind it connects us to a much wider network of questions, as Piiroinen adroitly illustrates. I see my project on the sociology of thinking as having an outward facing component (in the sense of what a sociological perspective can contribute to the study of thinking from other approaches) but also an inward facing one, in the sense that understanding thinking – as an activity but also the contents of thought – is integral to clarifying the dualisms upon which so much of sociological theory has tended to pivot: individual/relations, individual/society, agency/structure, micro/macro. I would like to critique what I see as a tendency towards disciplinary imperialism in how sociologists treat thinking and to critically engage with work in other fields with the intention of (cautiously) applying their insights to the clarification of these questions of social theory.

  • Mark 9:18 am on August 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Music I find inexplicably conducive to writing (#7) 

  • Mark 12:00 pm on August 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: sex-favourable, sex-positive,   

    On Sex-Favourable Asexuality 

    This is an interesting article by Talia on asexual agenda. I find this particularly insightful:

    I often wonder if sex-favourable asexual people are such a minority because their experiences often do not make sense in asexual discourse and so they don’t stay in (or even join) the community because it’s not useful to them. I’ve long avoided the AVEN forums and the asexual tag on Tumblr because the way that many people write about asexuality there does not include me. I feel more at home in allosexual communities and you will find me responding to their censuses because I happen to be there.


    However I’m intrigued as to how, if at all, we should see the category Gray-A as overlapping with sex-favourable. Furthermore, what’s the potential extension of the latter category? The more I’ve read, the more I realised that ‘sex-positive asexuality’ (as I called it in my first paper) slipped out of my later writing partly because I saw little empirical evidence of it (potentially indicating how much things have changed since 2008), partly because it confused me conceptually and partly because many experiences I saw as distinctively Gray-A might now come to be categorised by the people in question as sex-favourable. I’m also curious about the phenomenological boundary between desire and attraction – how does this play out over time and shift in the context of a relationship? One of the reasons I’ve found the category of Gray-A interesting is because a lot of people could potentially fall into it e.g. a common experience of the loss of sexual attraction but continuing sexual desire within a long-term sexual relationship.

    • PurplesShade 3:24 pm on August 27, 2014 Permalink

      The first thought that springs to my mind on the matter of desire and attraction is that model, which I can’t recall the name of, that includes secondary sexual attraction and primary sexual attraction.

      I think of desire as a (or the?) strong urge to seek out physical intimacy, especially that which is sexual in nature, the urge to be close and have that proximity. Sexual desire then, is the urge to have specifically sexual-proximity.
      Libido is the physical arousal state, and I find that (for me) desire seems to form or increase if it’s running high.
      For attraction, it happens directly in connection with the person, I think of it as the thing directing desire. (And yes, I do think it would be possible for someone to have desire, without the ability to feel attracted. I look to the people calling themselves “cupidosexuals” on tumbler, as a variant of aromantic aces. I think maybe they are an example of people who have desire without direction.)
      I’m not sure if I do, or ever have, experienced what that model calls ‘primary’ sexual attraction, but it seems to relate directly to looking at a person and then experiencing a spike in libido and desire, the attraction provides the direction for the accompanying ‘spikes’ as seeking personal physical pleasure.
      For what is called in that model ‘secondary attraction’ which I think I primarily experience, it might not result from looking at the person so much as thinking about them, the reasoning behind seeking closeness is to do with the other rather than the self, and I personally seem to not experience a libido spike with it, just the desire spike.

      I seem to remember having possibly, *maybe*, but I’m really not sure, experienced ‘primary’ attraction at the very beginning of my relationship with my spouse, but I still experience ‘secondary’ attraction and desire for sure.

      This topic is interesting to me, I rather look forward to what you potentially find out about it.
      Oh, and I don’t know that you’d have any, but I’d be good with answering any questions. 🙂

    • Mark 4:47 pm on September 3, 2014 Permalink

      sorry for such a late response, that’s really helpful though – i’m now wondering if I’ve ever experienced primary sexual attraction! i’m wondering how well this distinction maps on to identifications within the asexual community and how these relate to what people see as ‘normal’ experience of sexual attraction.

  • Mark 1:43 pm on August 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    What would happen if an evil scientist wiped the memories of everyone within a workplace? 

    In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen suggests that “if we all just suddenly lost our memories and other relevant neural dispositions—if no one was able to remember his or her own name, let alone relatives, friends, possessions, occupation, place of residence, and so on—there would be nothing left of social relations and structures”. This is a science fiction scenario I actually find extremely interesting. Consider that one day, as a result of a natural disaster or fiendish scheme by an evil scientist, “memory and neural dispositions” were suddenly erased at one moment in time. What would the world look like afterwards? I think it would briefly look very similar to the world before the event. For instance the spatial positioning of people within a workplace would be structurally conditioned, likewise how they were co-located (or not), how they were dressed, the length of time they had been present at the workplace that day and what they had been doing up until the memory wipe. It’s certainly unlikely that these structural features of the workplace would be reproduced after the memory wipe but this simply reflects the activity-dependence of social structure i.e. they rely on agential doings for their reproduction or transformation. The enduring causal power of past structures is precisely the point that social realists are making against the central conflation that Piiroinen espouses. I’d maintain that you couldn’t explain the unfolding of events in this scenario without reference to the causal power of past structures i.e. the responses would be patterned rather than atomistically chaotic.

    But a lot also depends upon precisely how many “relevant neural dispositions” have been lost in the mind wipe. In a workplace that has card based access systems, the physical possession of the card and its power to enable access to certain locations within the workplace would be unaffected by the mind wipe. People would still have credit cards, mobile phones and personal computers which with sufficient remaining ‘neural dispositions’ could be leveraged to make sense of the undoubtedly confusing situation in which they now found themselves. In fact if the memory wipe were not worldwide but rather something localised to a particular region, or even a workplace, it’s not difficult to imagine how aggregated individual actions of those subject to the mind wipe would provoke collective intervention by authorities that could in turn lead to the reproduction of those structures Piiroinen suggests would be ‘lost’. In short I think there would be something left of social relations and structures. We wouldn’t be able to see it directly but we would be able to see its effects. This obviously hinges upon the acceptance of the causal criterion but even so it seems that Piiroinen hasn’t grasped the point that’s being made here in an otherwise interesting and sophisticated critique of social realism.

  • Mark 11:56 am on August 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: breakcore, , digital hardcore, gabba, , , , ,   

    Social Acceleration and Musical Innovation 

    I just came across a lovely point in Harmut Rosa’s book about the relationship between social change and musical innovation. Certain forms of music come to be seen as emblematic of the age but, as that age changes so too does the sensibility which is brought to bear upon that music:

    today certain forms of jazz music that, at the time of their emergence in the first half of the twentieth century, were experienced as breathless, hectic, exceedingly fast, machine-like, and stupefyingly chaotic – and thus as fitting reflections of their era – are touted as “music for tranquil hours” or “jazz for peaceful afternoon.”

    Harmut Rosa, Social Acceleration, p. 82

    If I’m in the right mood, I love music that is “stupefyingly chaotic”. I wonder if digital hardcore, gabba and breakcore will come to see quaintly relaxing in future years? Or are there inherent limits upon musical innovation which entail an upper limit on elaboration of this very particular sort?

  • Mark 7:38 am on August 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    Notes on The Social Life of Theory 1.3 

    9780199377138_140I approached this book with a certain degree of ambivalence, curious as to the hostility one of my favourite sociologists has seemingly provoked in many of its readers. As someone fascinated by the sociology of sociology, it was exciting to hear that Christian Smith had written a book of this sort, even if it sounded incongruously polemical and had led to some strongly critical reviews. For those not familiar with him, Smith has been a prolific sociologist in recent years, working on the sociology of religion and social theory: his recent work includes Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, What is a Person? and Lost In Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. He’s also become a leading advocate of critical realism in US sociology, alongside Phil Gorski, a position which came to the fore in a very public dispute on Org Theory last year.

    His recent work represents an important and forceful contribution to the sociological dimension of critical realism, offering a philosophically sophisticated defence of the category of the person as integral to sociological inquiry. I found What is a Person? to be an inspiring work, both in terms of its arguments but also the scope and ambition of the book. One of the best aspects of the book was the way in which it situated his argument in terms of the dominant strands within US sociology, fairly but forcefully critiquing them in a way which showed Smith to be deeply conversant with intellectual tendencies within the discipline. So a book entirely about those tendencies was an appealing prospect for me. However it’s a very different sort of book and I feel much more ambivalent about it than his other work.

    His argument in the book is that American sociology is dominated by a ‘sacred project’, in the Durkheimian sense of sacred, orientated towards the amelioration of social problems and the ultimate transformation of society. Many diverse strands have contributed to this project, in a cumulative and uneven way, eventually leading to what he claims dominates US sociology at present: a “liberal-Enlightenment-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-postructuralist/postmodernist” complex. This cumbersome phrase is intended to indicate that this ‘sacred project’ “does not embody one single ideology or program” but rather constitutes “an unstable amalgam of variously accumulated historical and contemporary ideas and movements” (p. 8) with conflicts and compatibilities obtaining between them. Broadly speaking his point concerns the ‘moral unconscious’ of American sociology, to use Phil Gorski’s phrase from an endorsement blurb. There’s a rich and diverse history of American sociology which has complex and, in Smith’s view ambivalent, consequences for the contemporary state of the discipline that are rarely acknowledged. These sources don’t figure into the self-definition of sociology or of sociologists. These identities usually relate to what sociology does or how sociologists do this rather than why this activity is pursued. It is the animating force of the sacred that Smith believes accounts for the ‘why’ and he’s interested in recovering this and framing it in terms of the intellectual politics of contemporary sociology. But what is the sacred project? This is the most direct statement Smith makes about it:

    American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realising the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favoured identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures. (p. 8)

    Already the specificity of Smith’s claims about the sacred project seem to sit uneasily with his repeated caveats about the heterogeneity of both its origins and present condition. I found his argument most plausible when it takes a counter-factual form, asking what American sociology would be like in the absence of a sacred project: 

“Without this Durkheimian sacred project powerfully animating the soul of American sociology, the discipline would be a far smaller, drabber, less significant endeavour – perhaps it would not even have survived as an academic venture to this day.” (p. 8).

    However I don’t think this establishes the character of the sacred project suggested by Smith. I think it highlights the existence of a moral unconscious, in the sense of animating purposes and commitments underlying the elaboration of a discipline, without which it would not and could not exhibit its developed characteristics. This is an important thing for us to discuss: why does sociology matter to people and how does this concern shape the discipline? But would anyone deny this category out of hand? It may be overlooked and there may be systematic social and intellectual factors accounting for this occlusion but I suspect most sociologists would accept the category of ‘personal motivation’ in principle, even if their methodological commitments lead them to circumscribe it in practice. Obviously Smith means much more than this in his invocation of the ‘sacred’ but I think you could minimally restate his core thesis without losing much of consequence: it’s about the structuring of personal concerns in the (re)production of disciplines, with the notion of a ‘moral unconscious’ (I think Gorski hit the nail on the head with this) being a potentially powerful way to make sense of both the motivation and the way it is structured.

    Much criticism related to the alleged lack of rigour in the book, with one comment on this hostile review calling it “a 200 page blog post”. I think this is actually quite an apt description and, as I’m sure anyone who knows me can guess, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s a time and a place for broad brush strokes and that under certain circumstances impressionistic judgements shouldn’t be excluded a priori from discussions about ‘big’ issues of the sort that necessarily elude empirical resolution. But it’s more problematic when this gives rise to a tendency to overlook obvious objections, proceeding with such confidence and verve that the gaps in an argument  are not so much swept under the rug as left abandoned and forgotten  in the author’s wake. Furthermore, the book isn’t brief, at least not to the extent of the ‘mini-book’ format that is becoming increasingly popular amongst academic presses and that I’m enthusiastic about precisely because it provides a forum for the kinds of discussions that are too deep for a research paper but too diffuse for a research monograph. I couldn’t help but contrast The Sacred Project of American Sociology to Stephen Turner’s American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal that was recently released as a Palgrave Pivot, with the former being I think somewhat longer than the latter. My intellectual congruence with the theoretical thought of Smith contrasts to my continued inability to confidently ‘get’ where Turner is coming from (which I guess amounts to me saying I can’t pigeonhole him, surely a virtue now I think about it) but I nonetheless felt that the former’s book lacks the degree of rigour and detail we see in the latter’s, in spite of their arguably similar scope.

    In an important way I think Smith is too defensive about his argument and this compounds the more contentious aspects of how he makes it. Consider this passage from Michael Burawoy’s 2004 Presidential Address for the American Sociological Association in which he talks of the normalising pressures encountered in the pursuit of an academic career and their implications for the ‘sociological spirit’:

    The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

    I may be wrong but I read ‘spirit’ here in largely the sense that Smith intends it. His defensiveness results perhaps from an awareness that a sociologist of religion who (correctly in my view) makes no effort to privatise his own Catholicism and exclude it from the scope of his professional activities might provoke misunderstanding by talking about ‘spirit’. So he over defines his terminology in a way that sets up the notion of ‘spirit’ as a point of contention in a way that it just isn’t in the sense in which Burawoy uses it. For all the points in the book where Smith falls short of his customary rigour, I don’t find his notion of the ‘sacred project’ conceptually problematic given the qualifications he attaches to it. He is not claiming the existence of a mono-thought clique but rather suggesting a dominant tendency within the discipline, constituted by a number of more or less conflictual intellectual strands, with the ‘sacred project’ being the underlying structure of feeling (Burawoy’s ‘sociological spirit’) which animates activity that contributes towards the enactment of the project. He recognises the “variance” with which “American sociologists” pursue it: unfortunately in doing so the “liberal-Enlightenment-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-postructuralist/postmodernist” complex comes to seem so comically diffuse that it’s hard not to wonder if we might be better off just saying the ‘sociological spirit’ and leaving it at that. Smith’s point though is that this quietism would contribute to a widespread inarticulacy in sociology about its own meaning and motivation – it’s a form of argument that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the work of Charles Taylor. In effect Smith is saying that sociology needs to retrieve its moral sources and, through doing so, we can strengthen the discipline. I think the most convincing argument is a thought-experiment:

    Imagine this (if possible): What if sociology really and truly was nothing but a purely scientific, objectively neutral, spiritually disinterested, just-the-facts-and-theory study of society? Would most current-day sociologists really want to be a part of it? How would it be different than it is now? For one thing, sociology departments would have far fewer undergraduate majors and graduate students than they currently have. Sociology of that kind just wouldn’t be that attractive to as many students. For another thing, the undergraduate and graduate students that sociology would attract would be a very different bunch of people than they are now, ideologically, culturally, and politically. The composition of its practitioners would be more blandly mainstream, facts-orientated and technocratic. Furthermore, the subject matter of the journal articles and the content and tone of the books that such a spiritually blank sociology would produce would also be very different than they are now … Sociologists would generally be less impassioned about their work, and they would enter their classrooms with less of an agenda to convince and transform their students. (Pg 22)

    I find this a compelling argument and I think one that can be detached from pretty much the rest of the book. If we accept the argument and sociology isn’t just a “purely scientific, objectively neutral, spiritually disinterested, just-the-facts-and-theory study of society” then what is the additional element? This is what Smith is suggesting we are inarticulate about and this is what The Sacred Project of American Sociology attempts to retrieve. The problem is that this immensely important question gets somewhat lost in the detail of his argument, as well as the rushed and polemical way it is made. This is compounded by the fact that Smith seemingly does have an axe to grind, further provoking the critics. The overriding impression this leaves me with is akin to watching two people you were having an interesting conversation with breaking into a tedious argument, seeing them talk past each other and wishing you could go back to the fascinating point you’d seen them hit upon just before the shouting started.

    However I don’t think the book’s problems are purely rhetorical. Leaving aside the invocation of a ‘stroll’ through the ASA book displays (might it not have been better to just introduce this informally and not subsume it under the category of ‘evidence’?) and the similarly impressionistic perusal of book reviews and journal abstracts, what I found really problematic was his lack of attention to the way in which his own situation might shape his perspective on the ‘sacred project’. He begins his section laying out the evidence, in so far as it exists, with an appeal to first person experience. He has “learned and taught sociology in a small liberal arts college, at a major private Ivy League university, in a major public research university, and at another elite, private university” yet has also “always felt some distance from and marginality in relation to American sociology” (pg 28). I can only speculate based on familiarity with his more theoretical works as to what explains this feeling of distance and marginality (to be fair he qualifies it as ‘some’) and, in keeping with the broader tenants that draw me to his work, I’m reluctant to dissolve these feelings into third person sociological concepts. Even so, how marginal can he really think he is? As the hostile comment on the review I mentioned earlier points out, “The fact that Christian has a named chair at a research university and can publish a 200 page blog post on Oxford University Press belies his thesis that sociology is controlled by decadent communists.” I don’t think this is what Smith argues and I’m far from hostile to either the book or its author but this point still stands. What marginality Smith might experience is of a very particular sort, such that from the outside he can’t help but look like an enormously prolific, widely recognised, award winning tenured professor who has won over $15 million dollars worth of funding in his career. None of these factors constitute a reason to either dismiss his argument or affirm but it seems axiomatic to me that this positioning should be held in mind when meditating upon his arguments about the ‘dominant trends’ within American sociology.

    This issue occurred to me again later in the book when Smith decries the ‘secret club’ at the heart of American Sociology, the invitation only Sociological Research Association which meets at the same time as the American Sociological Association. He invokes this to make a point about the tendency towards perpetuating inequity of those committed to the sacred project. But the existence of the SRA surely indicates something else: the centre of power in American sociology is hostile to the sacred project, if indeed such a project exists. Consider this extract from the after dinner speech made by Andrew Abbott at the SRA which Smith himself cites:

    Many people in the SRA dissent from this strong politicization and indeed there has been talk about activating the SRA as a possible alternative organization to the ASA, an organization focused on sociology as an intellectual enterprise rather than a political one. I am of two minds about this project. I am also, as it happens, of two minds about after dinner speeches. It is one thing to give them, it is quite another to attempt to listen to them. Much, then, as I hate to disappoint those of you who have come to hear me say something blunt and outrageous about the follies of the ASA, and much, indeed, as I would like to say something blunt and outrageous about the follies of the ASA, I have chosen instead a milder course, and that is to argue that we have taken the ASA’s political shenanigans far too seriously.

    We have therefore missed the fact that the spectacle of a bunch of reasonably well-heeled, sinecured academics parading around a pair of fancy hotels and talking about Oppression, domination, and liberation is fundamentally and delightfully silly. Here we are trading students and manuscripts like so many yard-sale fanatics while we bustle importantly from the oppression of women here to the oppression of Puerto Ricans there and the oppression of short people somewhere else. Can anyone in the world take this seriously as political action? Is it not the very epitome of absurdity? If we ask what would be the response of the oppressed masses to a typical sociological paper about oppression, a moment’s reflection gives the answer.The oppressed masses would tell us at once, that like them, the sociologists are just trying to get by and feel good. Getting by in a fancy hotel is great, if you can manage. Beats working…

    Now if one recognizes that the ASA is, prima facie, an absurd organization, one can hardly then exonerate this august body before which I now appear. When I tell people I’m a member of the SRA, they say “whazzat?” — I should know I’m in trouble, right there….. Well, I tell them, it’s kind of a secret handshake society of the movers and shakers in sociology. They ask, “what does it do?” And I say, Well, it has a dinner once a year at which people drink and eat and sleep through a talk. When I look at people’s reaction to this explanation I begin realize that listing the SRA in the honors and awards section of my vita may not be too bright an idea. Maybe I should list it in the obscure achievements section, or even the why exactly do I do this section or even the administrative service section. Like the ASA, the SRA is, in fact, a largely silly organization.


    I’ve included the third paragraph because it would seem disingenuous not to, as it manifestly qualifies the strident tone of the first two. However I was struck by recognition of the seemingly casual contempt of Abbott’s initial paragraphs (“look at those left-wing idiots! morons! who could take them seriously?”) and how closely it resembled Smith’s own at various points in the book. The latter, it goes without saying, makes little effort to qualify his hostility, though he does at one point reveal that he has heretofore in the book been showing ‘restraint’ in his comments upon others in the discipline. Leaving aside how little evidence of this I could see, it surely reveals something about the mindset with which Smith has written the book.

    I’m focusing so much on the tone of the book because I think much of what’s wrong with it stems from this.  I think the book is flawed, particularly the ‘evidence’ section. So too though are many of the critiques  it has attracted and an awareness of this likely line of attack perhaps goes some way to explaining the odd tone that permeates the book, above and beyond it feeling rushed, which I found sharply in contrast to the confidently pleasant erudition I associate with his other writing. It was also jarring to realise that many bibliographical details seem to be missing from the book, with references like Smith (2015) – and nothing else – to be expected in a blog post but not in a book published by OUP. It feels like it wasn’t subject to any editorial feedback and I’d be interested to know the timescale of its publication. The near constant scare quotes, coupled with an attack on others for doing the same thing about “reality”, lend the text the feel of a rant at times. The fact that Smith repeatedly addresses the difficulty of “proving” his case with empirical data makes him seem defensive in a way that just wouldn’t be the case if he just used the word proving without the scare quotes.

    There seem to be sections of the book that serve no purpose other than to antagonise those who will already be sceptical about the book’s argument, adding literally nothing to the substantive case Smith is trying to make. The four  page chapter on ‘spiritual practices’, an ill advised ‘comedy’ diversion, only adds to the sense of this being a 200 page blog post. This is a real shame because the subsequent chapter is probably the strongest in the book, a concise and panoramic thesis about the mechanisms driving change in the intellectual makeup of sociology. He makes a simple though compelling argument about the confluence of circumstances that led to an initial radicalisation of sociology (expansion of higher education in response to the demographic demands of the baby boomers, social and political upheaval in wider American society and the disintegration of the Parsonian consensus) later entrenched by self-selection mechanisms that lead those amenable to radicalism to be more likely to enter university and then more likely to choose sociology as an undergraduate major. The problem is that making this argument compels him to suggest that sociology undergraduates are often intellectually inferior to their peers (it might very well be true but the repeated assertions, irrelevant to his argument as far as I can see, have a nasty tone to them) and he again lapses into the argument that sociologists are effectively indoctrinating their students (with the graduate students representing indoctrinators-to-be). Unless I have completely misunderstood Smith’s theoretical work on personhood, which alongside Margaret Archer and Andrew Sayer has been a big influence on my own work, I don’t understand how he can support these at times quasi-conspiratorial claims reducing the emergence of a series of value commitments into a hierarchical power relationship within an institutional setting. Again, the way the book is written undermines what the book is arguing.

    The following chapter is also much stronger than the early sections of the book, with Smith explaining how he sees the effective ‘peace treaty’ that emerged out of the ‘paradigm wars’ as engendering a sclerotic tendency, in some ways as destructive as the internecine intellectual warfare which proceeded it. Everyone is left to do as they wish, provided they respect the sacred project, with the consequence that:

    In sum, most of American sociology has becoming [sic] disciplinarily isolated and parochial, sectarian, internally fragmented, boringly homogenous, reticently conflict-averse, philosophically ignorant, and intellectually torpid. Sociology lacks the kinds of sustained, fruitful, and intellectually meaningful clashes, struggles and clarifications needed for a discipline such as itself to regenerate important scholarship and education. (p. 144)

    This might be correct. To address this in terms of the moral unconscious of the discipline is a line of inquiry I find intellectually exciting. It’s precisely what I’m interested in exploring in my upcoming project on the Social Life of Theory and I’ve taken illuminating ideas from Smith’s book which I intend to apply in this project. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of sociology, its contemporary circumstance or critical realist theory. But it’s a book to be read charitably and, even as someone with immense respect for Smith as a person and scholar, I had to read charitably to cut through the incivility which pervades the book. I’ve largely ignored the book’s ‘evidence’ section in this review and the personal anecdotes that seem to be as much about score settling as illustrating his underlying argument. I’ve ignored them because I simply couldn’t find any value in them, in spite of my inclination to read the book  as charitably as possible. However it’s provocative and thought-provoking in spite of its flaws. While I wish it had been produced as a 10,000 word paper rather than a diminutive 200 page book, it nonetheless has enough of intellectual value within it to be worth reading. Smith’s prolific writing shows no signs of slowing down and this represents an intriguing, if slightly confusing, precursor to his next big work of theory that will be released next year.

  • Mark 8:34 pm on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply

    Pop Sonnets 

    My new favourite Tumblr. Some of these are very good:



  • Mark 12:58 pm on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    Harmut Rosa engages with the work of Margaret Archer 

    This is very good – it’s so refreshing to see a critical engagement with Archer’s work of this quality:

    • Stephen 11:03 am on August 31, 2014 Permalink

      Thanks for the link. Very interesting.
      The various comments on Archer’s work have many similarities with those of Mouzelis. In particular :
      – the illustration of Agency as articulating with four components of the social system is very similar to Mouzelis’s remark on the need for a “methodological dualism” or a “perspectival dualism”.
      – the direction of arrows in that diagram have similarities with Mouzelis’s three dimensions.
      Rosa seems to have the same problem as Mouzelis: no engagement with the sociology of thinking and other disciplines.
      It would be interesting to know how Rosa views the work of Hans Joas (another German sociologist) and his work on the Creativity of Action.

  • Mark 8:08 am on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    An introduction to curation tools 

    I realised when looking back over old notes that someone asked me to write this for them and then never published it. So here’s a quick post about curation I wrote a couple of years ago: 

    For all that digital technology offers the academy, it also presents new problems. The instant availability of information from all over the word poses the inevitable challenge of how to collect, sort, evaluate and share this information. These are tasks which those working in universities, across the full range of roles, have always performed. However the sheer abundance which characterizes our modern knowledge environment too often results in information overload for those whose professional and personal interests give them no choice but to engage with this torrent. It is for this reason that curation tools, often ‘seen as the next big thing’ of social media, offer the potential for such enormously gainful use by university staff.

    Curation is the broader concept behind Pinterest, by far the most well known of these tools. The service operates as a virtual ‘pinboard’, allowing the user user to explore the internet, collecting images they find through the use of a convenient browser button (in a similar way to creating new browser bookmarks) and make these titled pinboards available online. However Pinterest is just one tool amongst many and, with its central focus being on images, in many ways it is less versatile than some of the others. Here are three of my favorites:

    Storify allows users to search multiple social networks and knit together items they find into sequential stories. I’ve personally found this useful for preserving Twitter debates that I’ve found particularly intellectually stimulating. However this only represents part of what the tool is capable of if you combine a sufficiently diverse range of elements, whereas my uses have been merely been reconstructing conversations on one medium that I was actively involved in. The most impressive uses I have seen have tended to revolve around covering events, either live or retrospectively.

    Bundlr is my personal favorite and I can’t recommend it enough. As with the others, you use a browser button to ‘bundle’ content. When you’re on a web page which you want to curate, press the button and either choose an existing bundle or make a new one. What’s most impressive about Bundlr is how it combines the ability to handle many types of content (e.g. youtube videos, images, tweets, presentations, web pages) with effortlessly making the finished product look aesthetically appealing. It’s also incredibly easy to pick up and use. Within a few hours of signing up to Bundlr I had multiple bundles which had collectively received hundreds of hits.

    Scoop.It allows you to publish ‘magazines’ based on content you ‘scoop’ through a browser bookmark. Whereas some of the other tools focus more on collating items, Scoop.it offers more room for curation in the strict sense of the term: it gives you more opportunity than the other tools to control what aspects of your ‘scooped’ items are highlighted and what commentary you offer about them. It also has an interesting, though in my experience not quite perfected, tool which automatically offers you ideas about things to ‘scoop’.

    If the concept of curation interests you then I would advise experimenting with a few tools to see which one is right for you. While there are undoubtedly objective differences between them, there is also a large aspect of subjective fit: each of them rests on some underlying embodied metaphor (e.g. pinning on your pinboard, putting items in a bundle, scooping up items for your scrapbook newspaper) and what works for one person might not necessarily work for another. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use these tools. Here are some of the things I have used them for: making resource packs for social media training, inventorying journal articles I use in my research, producing a portfolio of projects I have been involved in, pulling materials together to help prepare for projects I have yet to start and collecting materials about my favourite authors. But there are many other ways in which they can be used. Curationtools will enhance any task that involves collecting, sorting, evaluating and sharing digital material.

    • Hildegerd 8:26 am on August 25, 2014 Permalink

      I prefer Keeeb and Memit

    • Sadia Habib 12:43 pm on August 28, 2014 Permalink

      This is so useful. Thank you.

    • Mark 4:32 pm on September 3, 2014 Permalink

      you’re welcome!

    • Mark 4:40 pm on September 3, 2014 Permalink

      thanks, will have a look

  • Mark 7:56 am on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply

    Music I find inexplicably conducive to writing (#6) 

    There’s a lot of film soundtracks I like but I can’t think of another one that fit a film this well. There’s a review I wrote of the film here.

  • Mark 7:03 am on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply

    Help: examples of academics finding, collating and filtering information 

    I’m trying to put together the most comprehensive list I can of ways in which academics curate information as part of their usual core duties. However I’m struggling slightly and what I have below doesn’t seem comprehensive:

    – producing a reading list for an upcoming writing project
    – produce a reading list for a module or course
    – collating articles you might like to blog about or share on twitter
    – collecting academic resources for external groups
    – keeping track of media coverage of your work
    – keeping track of engagements with your work
    – maintaining a list of your publication

    Does anyone have any other examples? I’ll say thanks in a footnote in the book! Also if anyone has any examples of how they’ve performed these tasks that would be really helpful. The chapter is about notebook tools (e.g Evernote) and curation tools (e.g. Pinterest) but I’m keen to frame these in terms of other options e.g. e-mailing them to yourself (which I still do a lot) or writing them in a text file or word document. 

    • Andrea 7:30 am on August 25, 2014 Permalink

      Interesting chapter. I’m not sure if it is “part of my duties” but:
      – I maintain a bibtex/txt file containing my collection of academic papers and books on GitHub. So that if anyone needs anything, he can check if I have it and ask me for a copy.
      – I curate the media content of the philosophy twitter list (made up by Rani Lill Anjum) and produce a light and comprehensive magazine with flipboard http://flip.it/Fbegy

    • Martyn Everett 7:42 am on August 25, 2014 Permalink

      Hi Mark, could I suggest collating, disseminating and publicising information relating to social engagement/ campaigning. This is information not necessarily collected as part of work, but where the skills, insights, training, accumulated experience might be applied to non-subject related interests, but still connected to the academic’s situation as an academic eg campaigning against the neo- liberal university (eg Stefan Collini’s attack on government changes, EP Thompson on Warwick University Limited, Michael Bate on Copyright, Campaigns for Open access, information commons, etc.) This May at times be extended beyond academic issues to an involvement in community or political issues. (eg E P Thompson on anti-nuclear issues or academics involved in campaigns against the cuts)


      Sent from my iPad


    • Emma 9:38 am on August 25, 2014 Permalink

      hi Mark, I really like bundlr (which you alerted me to!). Here’s how I use this in teaching – on my third year module, on early childhood and parenting, I ask students to email me links to readings, research reports, news articles they find as the module progresses. I add the links to a bundle for that module/year (e.g. http://bundlr.com/b/sociology-of-parenting-and-childhood-2013). I encourage my students to think of the bundle as supplementary reading and to think about using some of these materials in assessed work. A link to the bundle is placed on the VLE. I also add to the bundle and continue to do this throughout the year. When I prepare to teach the module again I check the bundle so that I can update my reading lists and think about materials that can be used in seminar exercises. Fortunately, this is area is also one of my research interests.

    • Mark 4:39 pm on September 3, 2014 Permalink

      thanks Andrea, those are both the sort of things I’m planning to write about – you got me experimenting with flipboard!

    • Mark 4:41 pm on September 3, 2014 Permalink

      oh yes, definitely, that hadn’t occurred to me but that’s an excellent idea!

    • Mark 4:45 pm on September 3, 2014 Permalink

      thanks emma, that’s really helpful. could i cite you on this as one of the case studies?

      (apologies for taking ages to reply, my viva was on monday!)

    • Emma 9:19 pm on September 5, 2014 Permalink

      Yes, it is fine to cite my bundlr example (of course, given you told me about the site!).

    • evanssde 8:21 pm on September 15, 2014 Permalink

      Mark, not part of my official duties as a Prof, but I’ve been using Diigo.com for years in two ways. First, I create groups for each of my courses and curate info from the web into these groups and ask students to do the same. I’ve been doing this for six years and its a way to keep students engaged with the material long after the course ends. Second, in my research with community organization partners, I also have a few topical groups that I use to curate relevant info from the web. We have a long-standing one called “Collective Impact on Poverty” and another called “Organizations and Community” I have yet to get them participating much in the generation of curated info, but they appreciate being consumers of my shared content.

    • Mark 6:59 am on September 19, 2014 Permalink

      Thanks and sorry I missed this comment – very interesting you’re doing this with community partners as well, I’d tended to think of these tools solely in terms of curation for teaching and research. Have added this into my chapter!

  • Mark 5:46 pm on August 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: articulation, , ,   

    Struggling to put words to an idea 

    This post on things that universities should teach students is a lovely read in its own right. However the final point really stood out to me:

    That if they haven’t, at some point, found themselves struggling to put words to an idea that they feel strongly about but can’t explain adequately, then they’ve missed an opportunity to learn.

    I’ve long been a little bit obsessed with this experience, without being able to explain why in a way I’m satisfied with (appropriately enough). I guess my hunch is that much of what we subsume under the term ‘creativity’ grows from, resides in or otherwise responds to this discursive gap: the (productive) distance between what we are trying to say and what we can say given the ideational resources available to us. In many cases I think people withdraw from this gap because it can be threatening or frustrating. Could we see an important goal of higher education as being to help people develop the capacity to live in the gap in a productive way? 

    I wrote a paper about this (in relation to sexual identity rather than education) which I never tried to get published. I’m wondering if i should try and work it up into something publishable after all. 

    • Andrew 3:30 am on September 1, 2014 Permalink

      I can think of a number or reasons why this phenomenon could be of particular interest to you.
      1) There’s a silly idea (sometimes spouted by social constructionists) about how people cannot think things for which they have no words, and this is a pretty clear example of how that is totally wrong.
      2) The above mentioned social constructionist notion is a (verifiable wrong) attempt at expressing the ways that agency is constrained by structure. I get the sense that although (like pretty much any sociologist) you agree that both structure and agency are important, but that your personal interests lean towards agency and the sorts of novel things that people an create in response to their circumstances.
      3) The fact that the idea is (at least at first) difficult to express suggests (although I’m not always sure correctly) that the existing discourse doesn’t have a good way to express it.

      However, I’m not sure that this feeling of “it’s hard to put into words” necessarily indicates a “discursive gap” (though it depends on what one means by this.) I’ve had numerous experiences where I came up with some idea, only to discover later that some famous philosopher had more-or-less expressed the same idea a long time before. A quote that has stood out in my mind comes from “Time and the verb: A guide to tense and aspect.” Although he’s writing about tense and aspect, the basic idea applies to many other things:

      The consequence of [ignoring works of the past] is constant reinvention of the wheel and repeated announcement of the imminent appearance of the squared circle. In research for this book, I have come across more than one publication which presents as novelties proposals already put for–or rejected–by Aristotle, Jespersen (1924), Reichenbach (1947), and others in between.

      Another possible situation where one has difficulty putting an idea into words is that the idea isn’t well formed, and it’s more of a gut feeling than anything else. As an undergrad, I took several religion and/or philosophy classes, and in multiple of them, we covered Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. Something that I found fascinating was that it’s pretty clear that the large majority of people–regardless of their religious views or lack thereof–have a gut feeling that the argument is invalid. However, watching students newly introduced to it attempt to explain why it’s wrong (because they really want to say that it’s wrong), these are often a sort of incoherent attempt at logic to justify a feeling that it’s not valid. (And philosophers from Anselm’s day to the present have offered a rather diverse array of attempts to justify the intuition that it’s invalid.)

    • Mark 4:52 pm on September 3, 2014 Permalink

      Yep I think those are all true! Particularly (1) – once you look at in this light, it’s hard to see how anyone could see this position as coherent, let alone correct.

      I actually used to teach philosophy of religion to college students and I used to find Anselm’s argument fascinating – v intellectually formative to realise that “it’s obviously stupid!” isn’t an intellectually acceptable dismissal of it.

      I get what you mean about other people having formulated stuff – that ties in though I think. It’s a case of “I was trying to say X” – you realise what you were striving to say when you encounter someone who’s said X with a much greater clarity than you were able to. Does this entail an identity between the two positions in spite of their different formulations?

  • Mark 2:05 pm on August 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply

    Music I find inexplicably conducive to writing (#5) 

  • Mark 9:58 am on August 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    Notes for a Sociology of Thinking 1.3 

    While reading Randall Collins for my other project, I was suddenly struck by how relevant it is for the sociology of thinking. I must engage with this properly:

    Do we not have agency? it is a matter of analytical perspective. Agency is in part a term for designating the primitives of sociological explanation, in part a code word for free will. Do not human beings  make efforts, strain every nerve or let themselves go lax, make decisions or evade them? Such experiences clearly exist; they are part of micro-situational reality, the flow of human life. I deny only that analysis should stop here. One has the experience of will power; it varies, it comes and goes. Where does it come from? How do you will to will? That chain of regress comes to an end in a very few links. The same can be said about thinking. Are not one’s thoughts one’s own? Of course they are; yet why do they come into one’s head at a certain moment, or flow out upon one’s lips or beneath one’s fingers in a certain sequence of spoken or written words? These are not unanswerable questions if one has a micro-sociological theory of thinking. To explain thinking is not to deny that thinking exists, any more than to explain culture is to deny that culture exists. Culture, on a micro-level, is the medium in which we move, just as thought and feeling are the medium of micro-local experience in our own conscious bodies. Neither of these is an end point, cut off by a barrier to further analysis.


    The Sociology of Philosophies, p.14

  • Mark 9:56 am on August 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , ,   

    Notes on the Social Life of Theory 1.2 

    In the preface to his Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins argues that intellectual networks hold the key to understanding ideas and their changes: “if one can understand the principles that determine intellectual networks, one has a causal explanation of ideas and their changes”. His point is to understand the way that a focus on networks, as the “patterns of linkage among the micro-situations in which we live”, offers a middle way between a Platonic idealism and the “polemical simplification of reputation to sociopolitical dominance”: we can understand the “social construction of eminence” in a way that “does justice to the inner processes of intellectual life” (xviii). I share this broad aim to recognise and understand “the dynamics of conflict and alliance” in intellectual life, that is the causal role they play in intellectual change, without  reducing intellectual life to these dynamics. I’m also convinced by his rejection of idealism (“ideas beget ideas” i.e. intellectual culture is basically autonomous, with individuals as vectors of transmission) and individualism (“individuals beget ideas” i.e. intellectual culture is basically epiphenomenal , a product of individual activity). I use the term ‘basically’ here to recognise the risks involved in characterising complex bodies of thought in a single sentence, as well as the tendency for methodological injunctions and ontological claims to be elided when one writes in such a simplified way. His point about individuals is an important one:

    We arrive at individuals only by abstracting from the surrounding context. It seems natural for us to do this because the world seems to start with ourselves. But the social world has to be bracketed for us to arrive at the lonely individual consciousness; and indeed it is only within a particular tradition of intellectual practices that we have learned how to construct this pure individual starting point, like Descartes climbing into a peasant’s stove and resolving to doubt everything that could be doubted. In the case of the ideas we are concerned with here, the ideas which have mattered historically, it is possible to demonstrate that the individuals who bring forward such ideas are located in typical social patterns: intellectual groups, networks, and rivalries.

    The history of philosophy is to a considerable extent the history of groups. Nothing abstract is meant here – nothing but groups of friends, discussion partners, close-knit circles that often have the characteristics of social movements. (3)

    I feel the need to distinguish between a “pure individual starting point” and an “individual starting point” as a matter of intellectual reflex* but otherwise I’m in agreement here. I like the way Collins renders famous philosophers as social movements, with a famous philosopher representing a form of short hand within the history of philosophy for the intellectual movement which established them. I can see the methodological value in his injunction that “we need to see through the personalities, to dissolve them into the network of processes which have brought them to our attention as historical figures” because he’s surely correct that “to see the development of ideas as the lengthened shadows of imposing personalities keeps us imprisoned in conventional reifications” (4). But I’m uncomfortable with this dissolution because these were historical individuals and their personalities did have causal implications. Even in his own terms, Collins surely needs to recognise how concretely individual factors (socio-demographics, temperament, occupational status, personal life etc) figure into the network dynamics which are integral to his mode of explanation e.g. how prolific someone was capable of being or how they routinely positioned themselves in terms of a wider social network. I don’t think he would deny this empirically but the risk is that we obscure empirical states of affairs when we deliberately fail to recognise their underlying types at a conceptual level. In other words: if you decide on principle to ignore something like ‘personality’ you’re probably going to ignore it in practice. I think the problem here is conceptual, a failure to theorise personal factors in a way that recognises their causal significance without engendering a propensity for reification, which is being inadvertently ontologised by Collins. My point is basically that nodes matter to networks and that an inattentiveness to the former has deleterious consequences for the explanation of the latter. It seems intuitively obvious to me that explaining intergenerational intellectual networks in particular, often though not always likely to be more dyadic in character than contemporaneous ones, necessitates close scrutiny of those party to them. Collins himself invokes obvious examples of this when he cites Heidegger-Arendt and Whitehead-Russell-Wittgenstein. I’m familiar enough with the biographies entailed by both networks (particularly the latter) to find it untenable that you can explain their dynamics, even in a narrowly intellectual way, by ‘dissolving their personalities’.

    While Collins recognises the often isolated nature of intellectual work undertaken by the philosophers who are his object of study, he claims that this isolation renders the reference group more important. There’s a weak version of this claim which is utterly unobjectionable: intellectuals think, write and work in relation to the thinking, writing and working of other intellectuals. However he makes a much stronger claim: “the group is present in consciousness even when the individual is alone” (7). Is it?  To anyone who doesn’t share what I’m fairly sure is Collins’s Meadean starting point, this claim is far from obvious. My point is not that it’s inherently problematic but that it’s contentious and that Collins doesn’t argue for it in a particularly committed way. The methodological problem emerges because the way in which he sets up this intellectual framework imputes a uniformity to processes which are surely variable. Sometimes the group is present in consciousness more than at other times and explaining that variability necessitates that we retrieve the category of the individual that Collins has dissolved. It also highlights the need to attend to disciplinarity, patterns of collaboration and competition etc as factors shaping the variability with which (a) the individual is alone as part of their work (b) the group figures in their consciousness when alone (c) how this group is constituted. I think our ability to gain explanatory purchase upon this variability, to get a grip on it rather than simply identify it, begins to slip away if a strategic dissolution of the individual gives rise to an effective substitution of the reference group for the individual i.e. if we come to say it is the former that is really efficacious even when the latter seems to be alone. I find his ‘micro-sociology of thinking’ intriguing though:

    Do we not have agency? it is a matter of analytical perspective. Agency is in part a term for designating the primitives of sociological explanation, in part a code word for free will. Do not human beings  make efforts, strain every nerve or let themselves go lax, make decisions or evade them? Such experiences clearly exist; they are part of micro-situational reality, the flow of human life. I deny only that analysis should stop here. One has the experience of will power; it varies, it comes and goes. Where does it come from? How do you will to will? That chain of regress comes to an end in a very few links. The same can be said about thinking. Are not one’s thoughts one’s own? Of course they are; yet why do they come into one’s head at a certain moment, or flow out upon one’s lips or beneath one’s fingers in a certain sequence of spoken or written words? These are not unanswerable questions if one has a micro-sociological theory of thinking. To explain thinking is not to deny that thinking exists, any more than to explain culture is to deny that culture exists. Culture, on a micro-level, is the medium in which we move, just as thought and feeling are the medium of micro-local experience in our own conscious bodies. Neither of these is an end point, cut off by a barrier to further analysis. (14).

    However these are all just preliminary thoughts on a massive book I’ve barely skimmed the surface of. Given that I’ve not read the analysis yet (to be fair it’s 800+ pages) it remains to be seen whether my expectations about the methodological implications of these theoretical starting points prove to be adequate. I’m definitely seeing Collins as an important figure for me to hit against when developing my account of the social life of theory – in many ways I agree with the aim of his project, there are just particular points of disagreement which I suspect will have significant explanatory consequences.

    *At some point I need to sit down and work out if I’m turning into a methodological individualist of a very peculiar sort. I’m certainly not one in any ontological sense but I do find myself making this kind of argument an awful lot.

  • Mark 7:49 am on August 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    The sociology of data science 

    All science is becoming data science. Therefore data scientists have a lot of power in this regime [stifles a laugh] It’s a great time to be a data geek.

    This is an interesting aside made by Bill Howe of Washington University in an early lecture on Coursera’s Introduction to Data Science MOOC. I take this to be the point that Emma Uprichard was making when she wrote about ‘methodological genocide’ last year in Discover Society:

    At the risk of sounding a bit melodramatic, the big data hype is generating, for want of a better term, a methodological genocide. To my mind, it even has a flavour of being a disciplinary genocide. It is fierce and it is violent, and social scientists – and especially sociologists – need to fight back. Certainly, if we are going to meaningfully interrogate the social systems and structures that make up the social world, we will need to improve our quantitative skills. I know, I’m sorry to say it, I know this doesn’t always go down well among many social scientists, especially among those in the UK. But whilst I do think that one of the ways we will need to fight back is to increase our quantitative skills – we need to be clear about the kind of social science we move forward to [….]

    Many new statistical techniques used to crunch through big data involve ‘shrinking’ the data. This not only ‘dilutes’ the importance of extreme cases – the outliers – within large datasets, but also focuses the analysis on the masses in the middle. One of the key strengths of social research and sociological research in particular is a sensibility to social divisions, minority groups, oppressed and silenced voices. In order to remain strong in these areas, we must absolutely remain attentive to the methodological techniques that go some way to erase extreme cases, pockets of extreme difference. Another big way of organising data is through data mining, machine learning and pattern recognition. At the core of those approaches, there are issues such as classification – who or what goes into which group and how are units of analysis measured as ‘similar’ or ‘different’? How should we count in a way that allows for meaningful counts over time? How we shape the social through our counting and classifying are highly political and ethical issues.


    The only difference is that Howe thinks this is great. ‘Soft sciences’ are becoming ‘hard sciences’. Intellectual life is transforming and he finds himself at the centre of it. There are different ways in which the emerging field can be understood in intellectual terms. I find the emergence of data science in this context, within the university and outside of it, extremely interesting. It partly represents an interdisciplinary point of convergence driven by socio-technical innovation, the opportunities for inquiry facilitated by it and the technical challenges posed by them:


    I honestly think it’s hard to overstate the significance of this for the Social Sciences as a whole. Much of their future development will hinge on the dynamics underlying the second venn diagram. I find it easy to imagine a future where computational social science becomes established as the vanguard of the social sciences, with disciplinary boundaries between them a thing of the past, buttressed by entrenched pockets of more discipline bound enquiry which nonetheless are implicitly and explicitly supportive of the computational social science project on an epistemic and methodological level. Meanwhile qualitative sociologists, anthropologists and other hold outs become less part of the diagram and more a circle on to themselves, hopefully doing sustained research in an interesting way but with the risk that they become preoccupied by hurling critique at the shiny and well-funded convergent project over the road from them. Hopefully I’m wrong because this seems like it would be a suboptimal state of affairs on many levels.

    Another interesting thing about data science is the emergence of the ‘data scientist’ as an aspirational category. Not to worry though because You  can be a Data Scientist too!

    Again there is socio-technical innovation, the opportunities they provide (for business) and the technical challenges posed by their exploitation. It builds upon the existing occupational role of the business analyst, adds additional skills and valorises ‘curiosity’. It is the sexiest job of the 21st century:

    Goldman is a good example of a new key player in organizations: the “data scientist.” It’s a high-ranking professional with the training and curiosity to make discoveries in the world of big data. The title has been around for only a few years. (It was coined in 2008 by one of us, D.J. Patil, and Jeff Hammerbacher, then the respective leads of data and analytics efforts at LinkedIn and Facebook.) But thousands of data scientists are already working at both start-ups and well-established companies. Their sudden appearance on the business scene reflects the fact that companies are now wrestling with information that comes in varieties and volumes never encountered before. If your organization stores multiple petabytes of data, if the information most critical to your business resides in forms other than rows and columns of numbers, or if answering your biggest question would involve a “mashup” of several analytical efforts, you’ve got a big data opportunity.


    The corporate demand for data science has led some to bemoan a ‘big data brain drain’ in higher education. In so far as there’s lots of money to be made in corporate data science and relatively little within the universities, with even the massive funding provision for data science research encouraging academic entrepreneurism but having little impact upon the academic career structure, it can’t be separated from the broader trajectory of the labour market in an age of austerity. Nor too can we adequately understand the emergence of data science if we don’t consider it in the light of the cultural ascendency of quants and the entrenchment of the quants within the finance industry and beyond.

    I’m also intrigued about what drives these interdisciplinary trends at the level of intellectual biography. For instance physics is well represented within data science, as well as often being invoked in the discourse surrounding it as an illustration of the scientific rigour characterising data science. There has been a sharp increase in Physics PhDs  since 2000 in the US (source) – to what extent is this being driven by newly graduated post-doctoral physicists who, either out of curiosity or necessity, go marauding into other areas of inquiry because advancement in their own field is either unlikely or undesirable?

    Screen Shot 2014-08-09 at 06.29.23

  • Mark 7:45 am on August 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: applications, , ,   

    When writing on the iPad becomes a pleasure rather than a chore 

    I’ve started using iWriter for the iPad and I can’t recommend it highly enough. In fact writing this post on my laptop now feels clunky and irritating after having spent the last couple of hours working on my social media book on my iPad. There are obvious limits to the viability of iWriter, particularly if you’re using an iPad mini like I am, however it’s lovely for shorter pieces of writing. I’ve done about 1200 words this morning and I suspect that’s probably the limit, particularly if the text has any degree of structure to it. To be honest I’m struggling to articulate precisely why it works so well. Clearly, the minimalism and absence of the lag seemingly so prevalent on iOS are important factors.  It just seems to work as a cohesive whole. I like writing applications which eradicate the need to think even minutely about the application itself, allowing you to get on with writing rather than thinking about formatting, saving, backing up and editing.


  • Mark 9:16 am on August 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , wall street   

    Self-tracking, social control and cognitive triage: the trials and tribulations of aspiring financiers 

    What’s it like to be a junior analyst on Wall Street making $70,000 a year in your early 20s? What sort of people are drawn towards this career path? Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits attempts to answer these questions by tracking a handful of millennial recruits to Wall Street as they navigate a post-crash environment that has changed in some ways yet stubbornly remains the same in others. This immensely readable book is something akin to longitudinal quantitative research, albeit in an obviously journalistic mode, recurrently interviewing these recent graduates as they attempt to cope with the 18 hour working days considered the norm for new analysts. It’s a fascinating read in many respects, not least of all because of its counter-intuitive insights into how graduates are drawn to Wall Street and how they come to remain there:

    As strange as it sounds, a big paycheck may not in fact be central to Wall Street’s allure for a certain cohort of young people. This possibility was explained to me several weeks before my Penn trip by a second-year Goldman Sachs analyst, who stopped me short when I posited that college students flock to Wall Street in order to cash in. “Money is part of it,” he said. “But mostly, they do it because it’s easy.” He proceeded to explain that by coming onto campus to recruit, by blitzing students with information and making the application process as simple as dropping a résumé into a box, by following up relentlessly and promising to inform applicants about job offers in the fall of their senior year—months before firms in most other industries—Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers, don’t want to lock themselves in to a narrow preprofessional track by going to law or medical school, and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out. Banks, in other words, have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to those worries. And the irony is that although we think of Wall Street as a risk-loving business, the recruiting process often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.

    I think this argument coheres with many of the insights that can be found within the emerging adulthoods literature. Immediate material rewards in a climate of endemic insecurity and the promise of postponing difficult decisions by a number of years would inevitably seem tempting to many who might have been profoundly unlikely to be drawn into the orbit of finance in the 1980s or 1990s (not least of all because of the radically different climate greeting new graduates in those decades). However this isn’t true of all, with the author recognising the likelihood that those young financiers willing to risk their jobs by sharing their anxieties with him are likely to be atypical. What I found particularly compelling though was his insight into what it is like day-to-day to live with the demands placed upon the young analysts:

    Today, as before the financial crisis, it’s not uncommon for a first-year IBD analyst to work one hundred hours a week—the equivalent of sixteen hours a day during the week, then a mere ten hours on each weekend day. Which is not to say that these twenty-two-year-olds are actively doing one hundred hours’ worth of work every week. In fact, many sit around idly for hours a day, listening to music or reading their favorite blogs while they wait for a more senior banker to assign them work. (These drop-offs are never pleasant, but they’re worst when they happen at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. as the senior banker is leaving for the day, giving the analyst a graveyard shift’s worth of work before he or she can go home and sleep.)

    In an important sense they forego personal responsibility to choose how to spend their time, with the challenges this poses for synchronising everyday routine with longer term plans and aspirations. They are cut off from the non-financial world, with social media blocked within the offices where they spend 18 hours each day and on site services designed to minimise the need for errands and their attendant human contact outside the firm. They are encouraged to socialise together, within specific venues that graduate in cost and prestige as the analysts work their way through the clearly delineated hierarchy. Rigid sartorial norms are enforced aggressively: don’t over-dress but don’t under-dress. Certainly don’t out-dress the boss. The whole thing generates something the author describes as cognitive triage, with everyday demands blotting out reflexivity about the medium and the long term:

    The compartmentalization phenomenon turned out to be bigger than Jeremy and Samson, and bigger even than Goldman Sachs. As I interviewed dozens of young analysts at firms across the financial sector, I heard the same kinds of answers to my questions about morality and ethics: “I don’t know, I never really think about it.” “I’m just trying not to fuck up.” “Dude, I’m so far away from anything like that…” Entry-level analysts, it seemed, were so routinely exhausted, and so minutely focused on their day-to-day tasks—on pleasing their bosses, nailing every page of their pitch books, and avoiding getting in trouble—that they often avoided thinking about the big picture. It was a sort of cognitive triage, and daily concerns always took priority over long-term, large-scale worries. Still, there was no doubt that these worries existe

    I love this phrase. I think ‘cognitive triage’ is something by no means restricted to those working in finance. However what the author skilfully demonstrates is how cognitive triage can work to render these frantic actors uniquely susceptible to professional socialisation, accumulating habits of manner and outlook because the intensity of daily precludes the time for withdrawal and consideration, making it impossible to reflect in a consistent way upon whether this is really what they want to do and who they want to be.

    Now take this case study and consider the potential implications of self-tracking for these young analysts whose attentional resources are consumed by cognitive triage. Deborah Lupton has suggested five modes of self-tracking and I think three of them are particularly relevant here:

    • Private self-tracking relates to self-tracking practices that are taken up voluntarily as part of the quest for self-knowledge and self-optimisation and as an often pleasurable and playful mode of selfhood. Private self-tracking, as espoused in the Quantified Self’s goal of ‘self  knowledge through numbers’, is undertaken for purely personal reasons and the data are kept private or shared only with limited and selected others. This is perhaps the most public and well-known face of self-tracking.
    • Pushed self-tracking represents a mode that departs from the private self-tracking mode in that the initial incentive for engaging in self-tracking comes from another actor or agency. Self-monitoring may be taken up voluntarily, but in response to external encouragement or advocating rather than as a personal and wholly private initiative. Examples include the move in preventive medicine, health promotion and patient self-care to encourage people to monitor their biometrics to achieve targeted health goals. The workplace has become a key site of pushed self-tracking, particularly in relation to corporate wellness programs where workers are encourage to take up self-tracking and share their data with their employer.
    • Imposed self-tracking involves the imposition of self-tracking practices upon individuals by others primarily for these others’ benefit. These include the use of tracking devices as part of worker productivity monitoring and efficiency programs. There is a fine line between pushed self-tracking and imposed self-tracking. While some elements of self-interest may still operate, people may not always have full choice over whether or not they engage in self-tracking. In the case of self-tracking in corporate wellness programs, employees must give their consent to wearing the devices and allowing employers to view their activity data. However failure to comply may lead to higher health insurance premiums enforced by an employer, as is happening in some workplaces in the United States. At its most coercive, imposed self-tracking is used in programs involving monitoring of location and drug use for probation and parole surveillance, drug addiction programs and family law and child custody monitoring.http://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/the-five-modes-of-self-tracking/

    Given the concern to maximise one’s performance in an intensely competitive environment, it’s easy to see the appeal of personal self-tracking. This could relate to the conservation of finite resources that are perpetually being depleted by 18 hour days. It could take a more positive form of seeking to maximise efficiency but it largely amounts to the same thing. Are pushed self-tracking and imposed self-tracking equally congruent with this workplace? I suspect so but I’d like to do some more research before I attempt to draw a firm conclusion.

    However assume for the sake of argument that all three forms of self-tracking above seem likely to proliferate on Wall Street. My question is this: what will be the implications of this for the ‘cognitive triage’ that Rouse describes amongst these junior analysts? I think there are good reasons to assume it will contribute to its intensification – increasing the number of day-to-day variables in relation to which each actor is required to calibrate their behaviour over the course of the day, further precluding the possibility of sustained deliberation that reaches beyond the temporal boundaries of the present day or the coming week. If this is the case then I think this concept, which is a lovely phrase for something that Margaret Archer has written about more expansively as ‘expressive reflexivity’, helps illuminate an important vector through which power is likely to be exercised in workplaces. Not as something that ‘creates’ new quantified subjects but as something that operates through the reflexivity of people within the workplace but that will (tend to) lead to a diminution in the scope of their reflexivity.

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