Constructing a sociological career in the accelerated academy

In the last year or two, I’ve been increasingly aware of the limitations of life planning. My own tendency towards planning is something I’ve come to experience as largely pathological. It leads me to impose an artificial fixity on open situations in a way that has often led me to make really bad decisions in order to eliminate a feeling of uncertainty about how present connects to future. Anyone who knows me very well can probably guess what non-academic things I’m talking about here but in this post I’m going to limit myself to the academic manifestations of this issue.

However while I might accept that our “modernist training for constant improvement, development, and accumulation” can cause problems, I’m far from convinced that relinquishing the desire to shape your life is a desirable solution. Developing detailed and prescriptive long-term strategies might not work effectively when the conditions upon which these are based seem increasingly unstable but the opposite extreme is drifting through life as a series of fragmented episodes that render one essentially passive. There’s an obvious middle ground between the two and I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year or so about what exactly it is.

My experience has been that one of the aforementioned ‘unstable conditions’ is my own fluctuating interests. After my PhD, I’ve felt an intense pressure to specialise that I think is coming as much from my own reading of academic career trajectories as it is from anyone claiming to me that this is necessary. Without specialisation, it’s impossible to get to grips with the quantity of literature necessary to be an authoritative contributor to an area of social scientific inquiry. Without specialisation, it’s difficult to make sustained contributions which will tend to influence thought and practice within an area, as opposed to issuing in fleeting contributions to the growing mountains of ‘unread and unloved’ academic publications.

Pursuing specialisation as a deliberate project lends itself to precisely the long term planning that I’m convinced is inadequate for navigating a rapidly changing professional landscape. The only specialism that would come naturally to me (sociological theory) isn’t exactly employable at present and seems likely to become ever less so. Any topic to specialise in has an unpredictable pay off when considered instrumentally and I’m pretty sure it’s unlikely to sustain my interest levels. Long-term planning is an unsatisfying process when the only long-term plans you’re able to formulate seem deeply unsatisfying and/or inherently unreliable.

I’m increasingly convinced that the way I’ve habitually framed these questions is completely wrong and I’m trying to rid myself of the “modernist training for constant improvement, development, and accumulation” that generated it. A recent interview with Pat Thomson proved illuminating in considering what an alternative approach to developing a research agenda would look like:

I think what Pat says here is extremely insightful. I’m keen to get back to the “bigger questions” that interest me. Particular projects would then address these questions and develop my understanding of them. It’s my sense of the broad questions I’m interested in which provide the basis upon which to decide whether a particular project is worthwhile. Projects will always be constrained by circumstances but a clear connection to the broad questions which concern me means that projects will never be determined by circumstances. Specialisation is therefore a consequence of a developing research agenda rather than a precondition for it. I find it easy to see how particular pieces of work can be developed in a ‘non-linear way’ as this extract describes of painting:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outline, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

However Pat has got me thinking about how a research agenda can be similarly ‘non-linear’. It’s not a case of simply responding to situational resources (i.e. there’s funding available for X so I’ll do X) but rather of developing projects that are personally rewarding in a way that isn’t limited by situational constraints and enablements. The “bigger questions” function as what Margaret Archer calls personal concerns, utilised as a sounding board to facilitate decision-making in a changing environment: they provide non-instrumental grounds upon which to adjudicate between the options available to us. It’s a distinctively meta-reflexive mode of academic reflexivity in contrast to an autonomous mode that develops a plan to achieve a given end, revising it when circumstances changes.

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