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  • Mark 9:39 am on January 31, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Cartoons about the impact agenda  

    Source: http://www.europeanmovement.ie/ymip-conference-on-responsible-research-and-innovation/

    Source: New Scientist


     
  • Mark 9:33 am on January 31, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    What does it mean to be an intellectual in an age of social media? 

    In Zygmunt Bauman’s Legislators and Interpreters, he identifies two different contexts in which the role of the ‘intellectual’ is performed and two different strategies which develop in response to them:

    • The legislator makes “authoritative statements” which “arbitrate in controversies of opinions and which selects those opinions which, having been selected, become correct and binding”.
    • The interpreter work at “translation statements, made within one communally based tradition, so that they can be understood within the system of knowledge based on another tradition”.

    Both inevitably rest on a conception of the intellectual’s authority in performing this role, with the legislator having universalistic ambitions which the interpreter has foresaken. This authority is grounded in access to “superior (objective) knowledge to which intellectuals have a better access than the non-intellectual part of society”. This epistemic privilege is ensured via “procedural rules which assure the attainment of truth, the arrival at valid moral judgement, and the selection of proper artistic taste”. The social place of the intellectual professions is ensured by the universal validity of these procedural rule. It grants the intellectuals a crucial role in the “maintenance and perfection of  the social order”, entailing a right and duty to intervene in society in protection of it. 

    I’m going to write a lot more about this book at a later stage, but I wanted to record the key question it provoked in me: are we entering a new context in which the role of the intellectual is performed and what are the strategies developing in response to it? What Will Davies identifies as a declining efficacy of facts is a crucial part of this picture:

    Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

    But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

    For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

    The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

    As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html?_r=0

    This over-production and weaponisation of facts, driven by the long term change in the intellectual marketplace represented by the emergence of the think tank system, would surely seem to be the final nail in the coffin of the legislator role. However as Susan Halford and Mike Savage point out in an upcoming paper, the most prominent public intellectuals at present are those whose work is profoundly and radically empirical. Are these a hold out of the legislator role? A mutation of it? Or something else entirely?

    What Davies raises points to a broader problem facing the contemporary intellectual: in a fact-saturated environment, how can the authority of the facts offered by intellectuals be underwritten? Without facts, how can academic speech differentiate itself from conjecture, speculation or polemic? This question can be asked at a certain level of abstraction about ‘the intellectual’ as such, but it can also be asked much more mundanely about each and every instance of academic speech on societial matters made on social media. Should it be understood as a professional pronouncement? If so, is it authoritative and what is the basis for this authority?

    I wonder if the prominence of Will’s own analysis of Brexit could be an interesting case study in addressing these questions. Its authority wasn’t grounded on facts but insight. A timely and well-articulated  intervention at a point where received wisdom had been overturned and there was a pervasive sense of “what just happened?”. Can speed, insight and articulacy provide a grounding for the intellectual role under contemporary conditions? 

    What he says about the transition from facts to data is interesting:

    The promise of facts is to settle arguments between warring perspectives and simplify the issues at stake. For instance, politicians might disagree over the right economic policy, but if they can agree that “the economy has grown by 2 percent” and “unemployment is 5 percent,” then there is at least a shared stable reality that they can argue over

    The promise of data, by contrast, is to sense shifts in public sentiment. By analyzing Twitter using algorithms, for example, it is possible to get virtually real-time updates on how a given politician is perceived. This is what’s known as “sentiment analysis.”

    But I find this most plausible as a statement about shifting epistemological  fashions amongst powerful groups. The endemic methodological limitations of these approaches will generate confusion, uncertainty and conflict as they come to be relied upon ever more. It is this resulting mess that provides an opening to intellectuals to, as it were, turn private confusion into public issues.

    Will’s comment in response to this is really worth reading. I’ll blog more about this tomorrow:

    Thanks for your generous comments, Mark. As far as my own Brexit writing was concerned (the wide citation/sharing of which was a shock to me), I think that a kind of interpretive pragmatism has its own useful role during times of upheaval. All I did in blogging about Brexit was to point out some things that were quite clearly the case, and had been clearly the case for some time before the crisis struck. I think part of what people valued about that was it offered reassurance that interpretation and understanding were possible, if we just remain reasonably calm. Obviously that’s not as politically energising as reports of emergency or conflict, but it’s no less so than the presentation of ‘facts’. In that respect it’s an ‘interpreter’ role, but one which partly seeks to remind people of things they already instinctively know, sense or can imagine. At times when the world seems to be changing very rapidly (engulfing methodology and epistemology with it), there is value in narrating the conditions of change, which themselves are likely to be quite long-standing and recognisable to many.

     
    • willdavies 9:36 am on January 31, 2017 Permalink

      Thanks for your generous comments, Mark. As far as my own Brexit writing was concerned (the wide citation/sharing of which was a shock to me), I think that a kind of interpretive pragmatism has its own useful role during times of upheaval. All I did in blogging about Brexit was to point out some things that were quite clearly the case, and had been clearly the case for some time before the crisis struck. I think part of what people valued about that was it offered reassurance that interpretation and understanding were possible, if we just remain reasonably calm. Obviously that’s not as politically energising as reports of emergency or conflict, but it’s no less so than the presentation of ‘facts’. In that respect it’s an ‘interpreter’ role, but one which partly seeks to remind people of things they already instinctively know, sense or can imagine. At times when the world seems to be changing very rapidly (engulfing methodology and epistemology with it), there is value in narrating the conditions of change, which themselves are likely to be quite long-standing and recognisable to many.

    • lenandlar 12:33 pm on January 31, 2017 Permalink

      A space in the next iteration of social media for academics to get a bit political? Social media is an excellent space for this sort of activism and influencing isn’t it?

    • Mark 11:12 pm on January 31, 2017 Permalink

      Much appreciated, thanks Will. I’ll get back to you properly tomorrow but in the meantime will add this comment into the original blog post to ensure no one misses it.

    • Mark 7:56 pm on February 3, 2017 Permalink

      I try a bit! The publisher talked me out of focusing on it in the way I’d initially planned to though.

    • Aron Adams 5:08 am on July 14, 2018 Permalink

      Heuro is the social learning platform, where people around the world come together to learn, create, connect and share knowledge, information and ideas with like-minded individuals and to have the best intellectual and creative experience.

      Our vision is to make the world more intellectual an creative, we believe that in future we will be doing the intellectual and creative jobs in the automated society, for which we are serving as a platform where people interact with knowledge, information, ideas, feedback and tools designed to cater the intellectual and creative needs of the user to collaboratively nurture and grow the intellection and creativity of the self and the community as a whole.

      Serving the curiosity and creativity:

      Heuro as a social media platform provides instant gratification to your curiosity and creativity with the following tools

      – Organised Feed:
      Heuro provides the latest knowledge and information from different news and blogs publishers in organised way and which expand your diverse knowledge and information.

      – Research
      Knowledge search for your curiosity, as search results are organised in systematic manner (Wikipedia to blogs to academia to books) to deepen your knowledge about any topic.

      – Instant Notes:
      Capture your instant ideas and information in one click and share them to your favourite notes app.

      – Mobile Blogging:
      Publish and share your articles, papers and essays anytime anywhere with your mobile phone and document your intellectual and creative life.
      Heuro as an educational app

      Heuro can be a perfect tool for education as well by becoming the virtual class room, where students can learn, research, make notes and further write an article or essay and then tag the article created by the teachers or students and other students can favourite that tag to read all the articles of that tag and also teachers and students can give their feedback anytime anywhere which gives the collective learning experience.

  • Mark 9:01 am on January 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    “Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead”: Placing the technology sector in social and economic history 

    I’m currently reading Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God, a remarkably prescient book published in 2000 which has a lot of insight into contemporary cultures of technological evangelism. The book is concerned with what Frank sees as a transition in American life from a form of populism predicated on cultural reaction to one grounded in the worship of the market. It’s possible I’m primed to see this analysis as prescient because I’m working my way backwards through his books and One Market Under God contains the seeds of an analysis that he developed over the next sixteen years.

    Nonetheless, I think we can learn much about our present circumstances by looking back to this transitional point in the roaring 90s which saw the origin of the rightward turn of social democratic parties, mass digitalisation and the first Silicon Valley gold-rush. What I’m increasingly preoccupied by is how these events were intimately connected. In other words: how do we place the ascendancy of the technology sector in social and economic history? To my surprise, Thomas Frank’s book actually addresses this question more straight-forwardly than any other I can think of apart from Platform Capitalism, though of course many accounts address these issues without systematically investigating them.

    Despite the 1990s being hailed as an era of democratisation driven by a booming economy, Frank insists that we recognise that “The booming stock market of the nineties did not democratize wealth; it concentrated wealth” (loc 1973). But this chimera of continually ascending stock prices, grounded in the rampant speculation of the dot com boom, helped license an ideological transition that Frank describes on loc 2027:

    both parties came around to this curious notion, imagining that we had somehow wandered into a sort of free-market magic kingdom, where ever-ascending stock prices could be relied upon to solve just about any social problem. Now we could have it all: We could slash away at the welfare state, hobble the unions, downsize the workforce, send the factories to Mexico—and no one would get hurt!

    The ideological work involved in maintaining we had entered a new era of perpetual growth, beyond boom and bust, relied upon the mystique of the internet. It heralded the dawn of a new world, the end of old certainties and a constant horizon of possibility to be invoked in the face of those exhibiting an anachronistic scepticism. From loc 1659:

    And yet, since the moment the Internet was noticed by the mainstream media in 1995, it has filled a single and exclusive position in political economy: a sort of cosmic affirmation of the principles of market populism. “Think of the Internet as an economic-freedom metaphor for our time,” wrote bull-market economist Lawrence Kudlow in August 1999.45 “The Internet empowers ordinary people and disempowers government.” And we were only too glad to do as Kudlow instructed us, to think of it in precisely this way. In fact, so closely did the Internet and market populism become linked in the public mind that whenever a pundit or journalist mentioned the Web, one braced oneself for some windy pontification about flexibility, or the infinite mobility of capital, or the total and unappealable obsolescence of labor, government, and any other enemy of the free-market enterprise.

    Somewhat more prosaically, the companies of Silicon Valley became emblems of a new anti-elitism, with the old formalities of corporate life being replaced by a hierarchical ethos that lionised the entrepreneur for their authentic living, often expressed in ‘working hard and living hard’. The practice of paying stock options in lieu of wages became a cypher for shareholder democracy, an idea which was seized upon as legitimating what were in reality vicious attacks upon the security of labour. However as Frank points out on loc 2063, the reality of this in Silicon Valley was presented misleadingly as a sign of a brave new workplace culture rather than a familiar self-interest:

    It may have been fun to imagine what these enchanted options could do in the service of economic democracy, but in point of fact their powers were almost always directed the other way. Options did not bring about some sort of “New Economy” egalitarianism; they were one of the greatest causes of the ever widening income gap. It was options that inflated the take-home pay of CEOs to a staggering 475 times what their average line-worker made; it was options that made downsizing, outsourcing, and union-busting so profitable. When options were given out to employees—a common enough practice in Silicon Valley by decade’s end—they often came in lieu of wages, thus permitting firms to conceal their payroll expenses and artificially inflate the price of their shares, pumping the bubble still further.17 Options were a tool of wealth concentration, a bridge straight to the nineteenth century.

    What seems hugely important to me here is the recognition that the vast concentration of wealth that took place in the 1990s was deeply tied up, structurally and culturally, with the first wave of mass digitalisation brought about by the dot com bubble. The nature of that entanglement still isn’t as clear to me as I would like, but I’m increasingly confident in my claim that the analysis of digitalisation needs to be an integral part of the analysis of capitalism from the 1970s onwards.

    As important as economic history is though, it’s crucial that we also understand the cultural dimensions to this process. What I really like about Thomas Frank is his commitment to taking business bullshit seriously. From loc 1787:

    It is worth examining the way business talk about itself, the fantasies it spins, the role it writes for itself in our lives. It is important to pay attention when CEOs tell the world they would rather surf than pray, show up at work in Speedos rather than suits, hang out in Goa rather than Newport, listen to Stone Temple Pilots rather than Sibelius. It is not important, however, in the way they imagine it is, and for many Americans it is understandably difficult to care very much whether the guy who owns their company is a defender of family values or a rave kid. But culture isn’t set off from life in a realm all its own, and the culture of business in particular has massive consequences for the way the rest of us live.

    Our contemporary discourse of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ was nurtured in the business commentary of the late 1990s. By examining its origins, we can see the political context of this way of thinking and speaking about technology much more transparently than is the case if we examine contemporary instances of it. To close with a quote from Peter Schwartz, quoted on loc 1321:

    Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead. Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life. It’s the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead.

     
    • Martha Bell 8:09 pm on January 31, 2017 Permalink

      Great post.

  • Mark 11:05 am on January 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    On Social Acceleration 

    Earlier on this month, Hartmut Rosa gave a fascinating lecture at the LSE, marking the launch of this new book on the Sociology of Speed. It’s a great overview of his theory of acceleration, but it also included some things I hadn’t encountered before:

    1. His intellectual trajectory was shaped by encountering Charles Taylor’s work while at the LSE for two terms at the age of 23. I knew Taylor was a huge influence, given Rosa’s PhD was devoted to his work, but I hadn’t realised how linked to speed his interest was. As he describes it in the lecture, he was fascinated by Taylor’s focus on the role of strong evaluations in structuring how people orientate themselves to their lives but felt it lacked an important temporal dimension. Evidently, people often address the urgent rather than the important, suggesting temporal constraints subordinate ultimate concerns to practical considerations. My reaction to reading Taylor as a philosophy student was an overwhelming desire to sociologize his work, something Rosa does with an astonishing degree of systematicity, though of course there are alternative ways we could approach this task. Consider Doug Porpora’s wonderful Landscapes of the Soul.
    2. I recall the ‘contraction of the present’ from Social Acceleration but I’m unsure if it is the framing that has changed or my response to it. Rosa’s argument is that patterns of association and social practices change at an increasing rate. This means that the “decay rates of knowledge increase”: the purchase of our knowledge about the world and how it works degrades at an increasing rate because the reality of that world and how it works undergoes change at an increasing rate. The period of stability when “you know how the world works, who is where and how one does things” is contracting. If one accepts this claim, it has huge ramifications for how we engage with the idea of “information overload”. There’s a temporal dynamic to the overproduction of facts which is too little analysed.
    3. I like his description of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life as mysterious. We respond to this challenge by attempting to speed up life, seeking more episodes of action per unit of time. We multi-task, speed up each action and try to eliminate pauses and intervals. I like his example of taking the last possible train to an event, in order to avoid waiting once there. This is something I do entirely habitually, such that I rarely even consider allowing for contingencies unless there’s some reason to expect them. But when it goes wrong, the time saving action gets revealed as a false efficiency. There are so many examples like this, where what feels like saving time in fact costs us more time at some unpredictable point in the future. I’d like to hear more from Rosa on the ‘mysterious’ character of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life because I think it suggests something important about chronoreflexivity: the limited scope of how we orientate ourselves to time & the way in which habitual orientations circumscribe considered decision making about efficiencies.
    4. He offers the useful trajectory of the downwards escalator which I don’t recall encountering before. This is a metaphor for how we find ourselves compelled to “run faster and faster to keep pace with the world”. Rosa suggests we stand on a downward escalator relative to every system we’re embedded within and that we stand on many overlapping escalators. Furthermore, “functional differentiation increases the number of escalators on which we stand”, proposing that this issue can be placed at the heart of sociological analysis. Every change within each system necessitates action from us in order to cope. As Rosa puts it “we have to run faster and faster, on more and more escalators, just to stay in place” and the “feeling that time is scare commodity” leads us to seek faster technologies. What Ruth Müller describes as anticipatory acceleration in the context of careers could be extended into a general theory of the relative autonomy of agency vis-a-vis temporal structures i.e. when the necessity of ‘running faster and faster’ becomes sufficiently engrained, we begin to accelerate in an open-ended way as a taken for granted approach to life. I’m very interested in the cultural role played by productivity discourse, life hacking etc in encouraging and consolidating such a response to the world. Plus technology is embedded in this discourse at the cultural level (it’s a central focus of discussion) and the agential level (the solutions offered are often technological).
    5. He stresses that we are not just victims of the speed logic, identifying how it is tied to our notion of freedom. Drawing on Blumenberg, he stresses how death comes too early, before we have completed the world and the possibilities it offers for us. The fast life on this view represents the full life. This is a familiar argument of Rosa’s but I’d previously read it as an inditement of acceleration, rather than an analysis that is appreciative of the promise while remaining sceptical about its viability
    6. He has a greater emphasis upon what has not speeded up than has previously been the case. He talks about five dimensions of deceleration: natural and anthropological limits, cultural practices that could speed up but haven’t, territorial zones insulated from speed up, segmental pockets of deceleration under pressure to speed up and intentional deceleration. This latter category is one which fascinates me and am writing about as ‘triaging strategies’ used to cope with acceleration. As Rosa describes it, these strategies pursue “slow down in order to keep up the high pace of life”. They are ways to cope with acceleration rather than challenges to the temporal structures of digital capitalism. He also recounts being told that the average speed of traffic in London has been going down for decades, representing an example of collective slow down as individuals seek to go fast. He claims that these five dimensions of deceleration are either residual or reactions. He argues there’s an asymmetry between deceleration and acceleration, grounded in the different mechanisms producing each.

    These ideas made me think of one of my favourite genres of YouTube videos:

     

     
    • Martha Bell 7:57 am on February 1, 2017 Permalink

      Brilliant post, thanks.

    • Mark 7:56 pm on February 3, 2017 Permalink

      thanks Hartmut!

    • Stephen 12:15 pm on February 24, 2017 Permalink

      A good video with the slides in parallel.

      Living in times of acceleration

  • Mark 8:57 am on January 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The Importance of Business Culture 

    From One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, loc 1787:

    It is worth examining the way business talk about itself, the fantasies it spins, the role it writes for itself in our lives. It is important to pay attention when CEOs tell the world they would rather surf than pray, show up at work in Speedos rather than suits, hang out in Goa rather than Newport, listen to Stone Temple Pilots rather than Sibelius. It is not important, however, in the way they imagine it is, and for many Americans it is understandably difficult to care very much whether the guy who owns their company is a defender of family values or a rave kid. But culture isn’t set off from life in a realm all its own, and the culture of business in particular has massive consequences for the way the rest of us live.

     
  • Mark 10:09 pm on January 28, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , dot com bubble, prophets, pundits, ,   

    The Banal Bullshit of Thomas Friedman 

    From One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, loc 1395:

    Friedman was in some ways the very embodiment of market populism at flood tide. As the intellectual life of the decade came to resemble a race among popular financial commentators to win for themselves, through a sort of cosmic optimism about all things dotcom, the title of most enthusiastic pundit, Friedman was the blue-ribbon boy. He wrote as though his thoughts were somehow pegged to the insanely rising Dow, as though each advance on Wall Street was a go-ahead for a new round of superlatives and hyperbole. Friedman topped them all: Yergin, Kelly, Schwartz, Wriston, or even the cyber-ecstatics at Wired magazine.

     
  • Mark 8:40 pm on January 28, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , David Irving, Denial, fact, , post-fact, , , reality, , , ,   

    Denial and the Antinomies of (Post)Truth 

    Rarely can a film have been as timely as Denial. It tells the story of the libel action the holocaust denying historian David Irving took against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, alleging that she had damaged his professional reputation as a historian by claiming he had wilfully distorted evidence. The film recounts the events leading up to the trial, before focusing on the trial itself and ending with the judge’s ruling that:

    Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism…[4][65] therefore the defence of justification succeeds…[5] It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.[66]

    The film seems remarkably salient at a time when the liberal punditry seems to have uniformly endorsed the notion that we have entered a post-truth era, concisely defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“. The importance of truth, the urgency of fighting for it, runs through the film and is explicitly invoked in the framing of it as a cultural product, as Rachel Weisz makes clear here: “It’s a true story, it’s a fight for truth and justice“.

    The writer David Hare expands on this point in the same clip, explaining how “it’s not based on a true story, it is a true story … the words from the trial are the exact words. I don’t attribute to David Irving any line that he is not on record as having said, everything he says, we know he said“. It was great to discover this because I found the trial scenes riveting, though found it hard to wonder if the whole thing would have worked better on stage. The film seems to have underwhelmed critics, rather unfairly from my point of view, perhaps suggesting it was motivated by a commitment to realism of a sort liable to prove underwhelming on the big screen. However what struck me most about the film was the epistemological confusion underlying it, something which I think reflects a lot about the contemporary discourse of ‘post-truth’ and its limitations.

    The avowed realism of the film obscures the inevitable cuts that the constraints of story telling necessitate. Irving had sued another historian at the same time, though the case did not go to court. He threatened a further historian with libel if passages concerning him weren’t removed from an upcoming book, prompting an American edition to be published with them but their erasure from the British edition. My point is not to criticise the film for excluding these details, despite their obvious relevance to the story, as much as to highlight the exclusions inherent in narrative. Likewise, with the court case itself, where the selection of a few incidents from a long trial were expertly used to dramatic effect. Again, these aren’t criticisms, just a reminder that even factual narratives (a term I prefer to ‘true story’) inevitably entail selecting from the pool of available facts, within the (media and genre specific) constraints of effective story-telling.

    Much of the film can be read in terms of rallying forces for a defence of truth. The drama of the film rests on success in this endeavour, after overcoming much initial adversity. But framing the hard-drinking, hard-thinking Scottish barrister as a hero sits oddly with the commitment to truth in the film. After all, he’s lionised for his rhetorical skills, his capacity to pick apart the authority of Irving in a performatively compelling way. His most succesful tactics have nothing to do with the presentation of evidence, but rather involve getting under Irving’s skin in order to unsettle and undermine him. The concern here is not truth but persuasion. Specifically, the persuasion of a solitary judge, after Irving the litigant was persuaded to dispense with the jury because both sides agreed that the common folk could not be trusted to adjudicate on the truth when the relevant facts were as complex as they were in this case. Furthermore, the only thing that ensures the barrister is not cast as a mercenary is his deep commitment to this truth. This is slowly established over the course of the film, with Lipstadt eventually discovering that this is not just ‘another brief’ for him after all.

    What made this film impressive to me was the way in which it explored the mechanics of persuasion in court, specifically how it was established convincingly that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence in order to establish the case for holocaust denial. In other words, it concerned the discursive machinery through which facts are consecrated and rendered socially efficacious. The apparent narratological inevitably of this being accompanied by a paean to truth speaks volumes about what has come to be accepted as ‘post-truth’. We might speak more accurately of post-fact. This is how Will Davies framed it in a New York times essay:

    Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

    But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

    For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

    The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

    As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html?_r=0

    The declining efficacy of facts is understood to be problematic because it undermines appreciation of truth. But reality always permits of multiple characterisations. As Roy Bhaskar put it on pg 55 of Reclaming Reality, “facts are things, but they are social not natural things, belonging to the transitive world of science, not the intransitive world of nature”. Facts are produced through interventions in the world, drawing on the labour of others and applying conceptual tools we rarely built ourselves. This is why a serious discussion of someone like Irving cannot avoid interrogating his proclaimed status as a professional historian, what this means and how it should shape our assessment of his capacity to marshal facts in authoritative ways. Indeed, this was crucial to making the case against him.

    But if we see facts as self-grounded things, already made and waiting in the world to be discovered, it becomes difficult to acknowledge this. This might not matter when ‘our’ facts are socially efficacious, happily endorsed by all those we encounter and reflected back to us as common sense in the culture we engage with. But when these start to break down, the construction of ‘truth’ faces a fundamental tension: if facts are given then conflict over them must in some way reflect non-factual considerations, but if non-factual considerations consistently influence ‘matters of fact’ then facts cannot be given. This creates a crisis when we reach a situation in which facts have been ubiquitously weaponised. As Davies put it, “If you really want to find an expert willing to endorse a fact, and have sufficient money or political clout behind you, you probably can”.

    This inconvenient truth could be ignored as long as there was a consensus in place. One which has now broken down, with the apparent mystery of our ‘post-truth’ era going hand-in-hand with a profound mystification of the political dimensions to how the consensual era of ‘truth’ preceding it was established. My point in writing this isn’t to preach constructionism. I share the ethos of Bhaskar’s book, one of the most powerful works of philosophy I’ve read: reclaim reality. Reclaiming reality involves recognising the reality of social construction, but resisting the dissolution of ‘truth’ into this. Figures like Irving thrive in the space opened up by the antinomies of (post)truth. If we reclaim reality, we can starve them at an epistemological level, before defeating them at a political level.

     
  • Mark 1:55 pm on January 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Strielkowski,   

    The Sociology of Predatory Publishing 

    In a recent article on Derivace, Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal reflect on the case of Wadim Strielkowski, whose over-enthusiastic game playing was the subject of extensive debate within the Czech academy. There are many factors which have, as a whole, led his prolific rate of publication to be regarded with deep suspicion, such as the self-publication of his monographs, typos in his journal articles, extensive recycling between papers and a continuously rotating cast of co-authors:

    Strielkowski, then a junior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, first attracted the attention of colleagues in early 2015, when it was discovered that he had published 17 monographs and more than 60 journal articles in just three years. It is probably not surprising that a number of these texts were published in a rather unconventional way: Strielkowski’s monographs, with one exception, were in fact self-published and self-illustrated, even though each appeared to have been published by the Faculty of Social Sciences. A substantial amount of his articles were published in journals that could be described, following Beall’s terminology, as “potentially, possibly or probably predatory”. Since many of his articles were skilfully placed in dubious journals that were featured in SCOPUS or even in the Web of Science’s databases, they were recognised by the Czech evaluation system as research outputs. As a result, Strielkowski’s employer was awarded the appropriate amount of funding, and Strielkowski himself, according to the Czech media, received bonuses to his salary as a result.

    https://derivace.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/predators-and-bloodsuckers-in-academic-publishing/

    What makes his case interesting is how skilfully these articles were placed. As the authors note, a substantial number of his articles were placed in journals that could be described as “potentially, possibly or probably predatory” while nonetheless being included in relevant indexes which meant they counted as research outputs for formal evaluation, with all the advantages that entails. Not only was he skilfully navigating the publishing environment to facilitate his own rapid ascent, he made a business out of helping others do the same thing:

    In addition to being a prolific author, Strielkowski also happens to be a globetrotting entrepreneur. Through his companies, he has offered courses on how to publish in academic journals, with special emphasis on SCOPUS and the Web of Science. Participants primarily hailed from the countries of the former USSR; if they paid conference fees, they were guaranteed publication of their text(s) in one of the journals that Strielkowski himself (used to) publish and which Beall monitored until January 2017 (such as Czech Journal of Social Sciences, Business and Economics, and International Economics Letters). For those ready to pay €3,000, Strielkowski, referring to himself as “professor” and “Vice-Chancellor”, even offered academic degrees. His Prague University of Social Sciences and Humanities Ltd. offered not only MBAs (apparently without an accreditation in the Czech Republic) and postdoctoral positions one had to pay for, but also a “MAW” degree, which stood for “Master of Academic Writing”.

    https://derivace.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/predators-and-bloodsuckers-in-academic-publishing/

    The case is a fascinating one because it illustrates how metricised evaluation and predatory publishing cannot simply be regarded as imposed from outside, leaving academic victims with no choice but to adapt or be left behind. Strielkowski is an extreme example but his case illustrates how the opportunities these systems create for advancement are drawn upon and engaged with knowingly by scholars, in a way that is always implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) orientated to the others embedded within them.

    We do not simply ‘internalise’ these imperatives or find ourselves moulded to become ‘neoliberal subjects’. The exercise of agency to be found here is varied, complex and confusing. Denunciations of individual cases, which I don’t think Luděk et al are doing in this case, doesn’t help matters. I’d argue that what often understands itself to be theorisations of such cases, invoking the idea of the neoliberal subject etc, in reality more often represents a thematisation of them.

    How do we counter this though? At one point, the authors write of Strielkowski’s papers that “they have hardly any readership to speak of to notice such a statement in the first place”. Similarly, when I read this article, the second thing I looked at after Strielkowski’s personal website was his Google Scholar profile, immediately noting that he has relatively few citations for someone who has published so prolifically, with a majority seeming to be self-citations. I wonder if there is an element of bad faith in finding reassurance in such things, an invocation of readership and citation as a quality threshold, when we know that the systemic problems preclude the reliability of such standards? I wonder if this represents a unacknowledged attempt to evade the vertigo of the accelerated academy:

    I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

    From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

    We have more room for manoeuvre then we acknowledge. Strielkowski’s game playing represents what Ruth Müller calls anticipatory acceleration taken to an unprecedented extreme: mindlessly speeding up the rate of publication in pursuit of competitive advantage within an overcrowded field. But if Trump academics are in the ascendancy, we’re liable to see more of this. The system is fucked and all the evidence suggests it is becoming more so with each passing year.

    We need a honest account of our investments within the system of scholarly communication, building from the basic constraints which the requirements of pursuing an academic career impose. Looking at extreme cases like Strielkowski can help us doing this, by providing prompts to elucidate our assumptions and concerns about scholarly publishing that we might not otherwise feel the need to put into words.


    On a related note:
    (click through for the whole thread)

     
  • Mark 4:45 pm on January 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    CfP: Public sociology and the role of the researcher 

    Very pleased to be keynoting this fantastic BSA PhD conference in a couple of months:

    What is the role of the researcher outside the academy? This event invites Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers to innovate and critically reflect on three related areas of public sociology: academic activism, public engagement, and participation and co-production. It encourages researchers to articulate and address diverse challenges, such as neutrality, networking, and whether activism can be considered a form of public engagement.

    This event includes a keynote lecture from distinguished speaker Dr Mark Carrigan, Digital Fellow, The Sociological Review, presentations by invited speakers, a film created using participatory methods, a participatory session, and the chance to network and discuss work with fellow researchers. The aim is to provide an environment in which participants have the space to be questioning, to have a lively exchange of ideas, and to be inspired to explore the potential of these ideas in their own research.

    Call for Abstracts and Posters

    We would like to invite Postgraduates to take part in a five-minute PechaKucha presentation and/or a poster presentation: the call for abstracts is now open. Given the brevity of the presentations, abstract submissions should be no longer than 200 words. Abstracts for presentations are due on 24 February 2017 and poster confirmation is needed by 1 March 2017. There are small prizes for the best poster and the best presentation.

    Oral presentations and posters may cover any aspect of Public Sociology, including, but not limited to:

    • dissemination of knowledge beyond academia;
    • participatory research methods and challenges;
    • positionality of the researcher and relationships of power;
    • approaches and practice in the co-production of knowledge;
    • academic activism.

    Competitions

    Participants are encouraged to submit a poster for a poster competition, which will be judged by the conference organisers. All posters will be accepted. Please contact the organiser for details.

    There will also be a small prize for the best PechaKucha/Standup presentation, selected by a ballot of the conference participants.

     
  • Mark 3:28 pm on January 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    pirate philosophy in (and for) the digital university 

    https://soundcloud.com/mark-carrigan/pirate-philosophy-scholarly-publishing-and-post-capitalism

    Some notes on Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy, a book I found more thought-provoking than any I’d read in some time. The podcast above is an interview I recorded with him a couple of months ago. 

    1. The forgetfulness of technology which critics like Stiegler argue afflicts contemporary thought also applies to the narrower world in which such criticisms are made. Theorists and philosophers, as well as academics as a whole, have “forgotten and repressed the technologies by which their own work is not only produced, published and distributed but also commodified and privatised (not to mention controlled, homogenised, and standardised) by for-profit companies operating as part of the cultural industries” (p. 12). This forgetfulness could, I suggest, be read as a corollary of what Bourdieu called skholḗ, the condition of distance from the world, an escape from it necessary in order to think it. If the conditions for skholḗ are being systematically undermined within the accelerated academy, an orientation to systems of production, circulation and engagement represents a central vector of reengagement with the world.
    2. We need criticality rather than paranoia, to invoke Sasha Roseneil’s useful distinction, with Hall’s theoretical commitments often inclining him to the former register rather than the latter. Criticality in this sense entails a practical “emphasis on the potentiality of the present, in all the complexities of our implication in its creation and re-creation” in contrast to a register of paranoia in which analysis is inflected through the sensation that things are bad and getting worse. As I understand the notion of paranoia here, it reflects a fundamental intolerance of ambiguity and ambivalence. What is at stake is recognise the positive and negative inherent in our condition, holding both in the same frame while looking towards the potentiality of the present and the ameliorative possibility latent within it for our collective future. This leads us to construct a world of perpetual co-option and insidious normalisation, with regression and retrenchment lurking behind every putative gain. My claim is not that Hall falls into this, the enormous array of innovative and practical projects he’s collaborated on reveals this not to be true, but rather that his analysis does.
    3. The way Hall critiques what he sees as “philosophical complacency and thoughtlessness” in reengagements with these systems, characterised by “predefined – and sometimes only superficially understood – ideas of copyleft, Creative Commons, open access, and open source and of the differences between them” (p. 12-13) seems unfair to me. He recognises the performative contradiction in making such a critique within a physical book published by a university press. Yet this contradiction seems tellingly under-theorised, a tension that remains on the level of the singular individual to be recuperated through piratical acts of surreptitious open distribution, rather than something which informs the overarching account of the place of the academic as cultural producer within the digital university. These faltering, perhaps thoughtless, steps towards a reengagement with the world reveal the entanglement of these figures within precisely the same systems that he (and myself) operate within. I want to theorise degrees of entanglement, ranges of co-option, which I think remains impossible unless we draw on other conceptual resources.
    4. These systems of production, circulation and engagement have individualism encoded into them. Hall resists “a theory that could be too easily sold, blogged, and tweeted about as my original work, intellectual property, or trademark” which would serve to “reinforce my own expertise and position in the academic marketplace, and thereby gain advance in the struggle for attention, recognition, fame, authority, and disciplinary power” (p. 19). But there’s an suppressed voluntarism implicit within this, as if the ascription of authorship reflects nothing more than the aspirations of an individual to claim that authorship, rather than being a systemic feature of the digital university. This can be evaded, but it can’t be avoided.
    5. Reclaiming this agency serves a crucial analytical function if we are to explain how “the requirement to have visibility, to show up in the metrics, to be measurable, encourages researchers to publish as much and as frequently as they can” (p. 30). But we need to reintroduce the agency of others at the same time as reinscribing our agency in the analysis. Not in the sense of the liberal individual, but rather as the quotidian subject. The living, sleeping, hoping, dreaming, embodied person who gets up every day and sometimes gets bored. This is the agency which academics are often so blind to, the person who performs an occupational role within an organisation, an employee in relation to employers, whose relationality extends far beyond the job they take too seriously.
    6. Claiming we should avoid paranoia should not license naïveté. There are hugely important questions we need to ask about digital capitalism’s transformation of the university, see for instance Hall’s discussion on page 34-37. My point is that we should be precise about the mechanisms through which their influence operates, the implications for scholarly practice and the transformations taking place. No one account can do everything, but even if we’re remaining at a certain level of abstraction, we should try and lay the groundwork in a way amenable to future investigation. My claim is that the largely absent agents within Hall’s account leaves technological change framed as an intrusion from ‘outside’, engendering a tendency to slip into the register of paranoia. This tendency is one that engaging with Jana Bacevic’s work has left me newly aware of.
    7. Academic authority is undergoing a profound change within the digital university. The image of the lone scholar motivated by a “desire for pre-eminance, authority, and disciplinary power” (a quote from Stanley Fish) who seeks to “make an argument so forceful and masterly it is difficult for others not to concur” (p. 58) seems obviously antiquated. Yet the academic scene is dominated by over-producing figures who have come to represent brands in their own right. We’ve seen a transition from authority grounded in mastery to authority grounded in dominating the attention space. My point is not to suggest the former was a simple matter of intellectual merit, far from it, rather a transition from authority being a matter of meeting socio-epistemic criteria to authority being a matter of socio-epistemic efficacy. Nonetheless, as Hall points out on page 64, the book lingers on as something which grounds this authority. Could the book be seen as a transitional object, to which academics feel a fetishistic attraction, while we make a transition from the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy to the Facebook Universe’ as Hall put it in the interview?
     
  • Mark 11:10 am on January 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Out trolling the trolls 

    I’ve just finished reading the excellent This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips. It offers fascinating insights into the evolution of ‘trolling’ as a practice, leading from its original form of sub-cultural self-identification to the diffusion of the label across the entire spectrum of online activities deemed to be anti-social. Her overarching thesis is that trolling is framed as an aberration relative to the mainstream culture, when in fact it represents the logic of that culture taken to its extreme. Trolling only makes sense against a background that facilitates it, such that trolls should be read as an inditement of contemporary culture rather than a threat to it. This diagnosis is most acute when it comes to broadcast media, with trolls expertly hacking the media for their own amusement in a way that takes advantage of the media’s propensity for those very things (misleading information, lack of understanding, morbid preoccupations and a deep need for attention) which trolls are seen as embodiments of.

    Her operationalisation of ‘troll’ as a self-identity is an important part of the book. The problem I have with the contemporary use of troll is that it subsumes a wide range of behaviours into a singular pathologised description. To point this out is not to defend any of these behaviours, only to remind that we should not assume people do similar, or even the same, things for the same reasons. The diversity of trolling behaviours gets obliterated by the seemingly straight-forward designation of ‘troll’, something which I suspect many people now think they unproblematically recognise when they see it. But underlying ‘trolling’ we might find the urge to incite and manipulate for amusement (i.e. ‘troll’ in the self-identifying sense), online activists who see themselves as fighting a culture war through their keyboards, outpouring of hatred reflecting a generalised contempt for other human beings, the desperate externalisations of someone unable to cope or any number of other things. We need to recognise this variety at an ontological level while nonetheless remaining attentive to the epistemological and methodological problem of how, if at all, we are able to read back ‘offline’ motivations from ‘online’ behaviour.

    Towards the end of the book, Phillips talks about her experience of out-trolling trolls. She recognises that this runs contrary to familiar advice “don’t feed the trolls”, something which I’ve always found to work just as well as face-to-face as on the internet:

    This strategy—of actively trolling trolls—runs directly counter to the common imperative “don’t feed the trolls,” a statement predicated on the logic that trolls can only troll if their targets allow themselves to be trolled. Given that the fun of trolling inheres in the game of trolling—a game only the troll can win, and whose rules only the troll can modify—this is sound advice. If the target doesn’t react, then neither can the troll.But even this decision buys into the trolls’ game. The troll still sets the terms of their target’s engagement; the troll still controls the timeline and the outcome. (pg. 160)

    I don’t quite follow the reasoning here. A refusal to engage only leaves the troll in control in a formal sense of the term. In practice, there isn’t a timeline or an outcome, with an enormous caveat I will get to later in the post. Instead, she details a strategy of out-trolling the trolls, performing an earnest response to their attempts at engagement in a way which reveals their own investment in trolling.

    The dynamic shifts considerably if the target counters with a second game, one that collapses the boundary between target and troll. In this new game, the troll can lose and, by taking umbrage at the possibility, falls victim to his or her own rigid rules. After all, it’s emotion—particularly frustration or distress—that trips the troll’s wire. In most cases, the troll’s shame over having lost, or merely the possibility that he or she could lose, will often send the troll searching for more exploitable pastures. I frequently utilized this strategy in my own dealings with random anonymous trolls, particularly on my quasi-academic blog. (pg. 160)

    I’d like to have seen more example of what she means here but I find it an intriguing idea. As I understand it, her notion of ‘trolling rhetoric’ entails seeking to provoke another person to express their concerns in a way deemed to be excessive, revealing what is taken to be their over-investment in their online activity. Underlying this is a belief that “nothing should be taken seriously, and therefore … public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity” are seen as a “call to trolling arms”, with the ensuing trolling often understood in an explicitly pedagogical way. The lulz enjoyed through this represent a “pushback against any and all forms of attachment” but, as she notes, trolls themselves are deeply attached to lulz (p. 25). There’s a power in revealing this attachment, inciting trolls to perform it through the very rhetorical strategies through which they seek to dominate others. Ignoring them leaves the troll unmoved, engaging in this way reveals the deep paradox at the heart of their behaviour.

    Phillips recognises how contentious such a strategy can appear, honestly recounting her own ambivalence about the possibility. It nonetheless has a certain appeal though, specifically the idea that we might “troll better, and to smash better those who troll us”But there are two huge caveats to its employment in the academic context within which and for which I’m writing. Firstly, how would university departments and communications offices respond to examples of ‘out trolling’? The evidence we have suggests not very well. Secondly, do we have any reason to assume that those who are increasingly targeting academics online represents trolls in this self-identified sense? I think the argument offered by Phillips is deeply plausible but suspect it only holds true for those who share this sub-cultural identity. Those who, for instance, see what they do as activism are much less likely to be moved by it and engagements of this could be deeply counter-productive.

     
    • anacanhoto 11:31 am on January 26, 2017 Permalink

      Building from the idea that different people may do the same thing – troll – for different reasons, maybe the way to handle trolls will vary depending on those reasons?!

      For instance, I remember an interview with James Corden, where he said that he used the ‘kill them with kindness’ approach to dealing with people that criticised him on Twitter.. but I doubt that would work for everyone. Likewise, there was someone who found out who one of her trolls were (someone making very lewd comments), and contacted his mother on Facebook.

    • Mark 6:04 pm on January 29, 2017 Permalink

      Yep I agree, which makes the ultimate ambition of this project to offer evidence-based guidance for handling trolls a bit challenging…

  • Mark 9:07 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The Launch of the Digital Geographies Group 

    I’m very excited that the Digital Geographies working group of the Royal Geographical Society is now up and running. Find out more on their website here.

    Our aims are to:
    • Provide a platform and intellectual community for geographers to engage in discussions of the digital and geography
    • Help stimulate and deepen critical engagement and conceptualisation of the digital, both within Geography and beyond
    • Offer a focal point within Geography to showcase the relevance of geographical research in contemporary discussions of the digital
    • Nurture discussion of how digital technologies are changing the methods of geographical research, scholarship, teaching, writing and impact work
    • Develop links to other disciplines, networks and practitioner communities related to “the digital”
     
  • Mark 7:49 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    trying to write when you’re triaging 

    In the last couple of weeks, I’ve started blogging again at a rate I haven’t in a number of years. The reason for this is to try and abate a growing problem with my writing.

    In the last year or so, I’ve found myself feeling increasingly overloaded and lacking mental bandwidth to a degree I hadn’t experienced previously. The result has been that my writing had started to feel stilted and difficult, largely because it was unavoidably reduced to the status of ‘task’ to be ticked off a list.

    This leaves writing as an externally-orientated process. It becomes an obligation to be fulfilled. An action to be completed in order to meet an external requirement. Whereas writing has only ever worked for me as an internally-orientated process, clarifying what I think through the process of expressing my inchoate thoughts: thinking-through-writing.

    When externally-oriented, I find myself preoccupied by word counts, deadlines and the other things I have to do. When internally-orientated, I don’t ‘find myself’ at all because I’m just writing.

    The problem has it origins in choices that I’ve made. For instance, there were 39 events that I organised, facilitated and/or spoke at last year. This now seems obviously incompatible with writing in the way I aspire to. I’ve been reevaluating my priorities and trying to change things to reflect them.

    In the meantime though, simply setting aside time each day in order to blog is helping a lot. But sorry if you’re one of the many people I owe writing to. I’m getting there. Promise.

     
  • Mark 5:05 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Eric Schmidt’s Predictions for the Next Decade 

     
  • Mark 4:20 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    some thoughts on the poetics of impact 

    In the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetics of impact. I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about the impact agenda, initially suspecting that it might open up opportunities for valuable activity to be recognised within the increasingly restrictive confines of the accelerated academy. I wasn’t alone in this. This is how Les Back described his own changing relationship to the impact agenda:

    It is embarrassing to remember that some of us – at least initially – thought that ‘impact’ promised the possibility of institutional recognition for public sociology. Might the emphasis on relevance and engagement create a ‘public agora’ for sociological ideas of the kind described by Helga Nowotny and her colleagues?

    Another President, this time of the British Sociological Association, had a very different view. John Holmwood warned in 2011 that it was “naïve” to think that the turn to impact would lead to an enhanced public sociology. Rather, he suggested in contrast that UK research would likely be “diverted into a pathway to mediocrity”. Surely not, I felt when I first read this piece. John you are being overly pessimistic! How right he has been proved to be.

    https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/on-the-side-of-the-powerful-the-impact-agenda-sociology-in-public.html

    Underlying this ambivalence is a tension between the impact agenda as a top-down imposition and a bottom-up expression of a desire to make a difference through research. This tension explains why, as John Brewer puts it, “Impact is at one and the same time an object of derision and acclaim, anxiety and confidence”. While it’s seen as innocuous within the policy evaluation community, it’s irrevocably tied up with the unfolding audit culture within higher education, particularly within the UK. It’s an imposition which seems liable to profoundly reshape working life, in unwelcome and unclear ways, but it also resonates, however vaguely, with a sense of what motivated the work of many people in the first place. I’ve always like Michael Burawoy’s description of this as 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.

    http://burawoy.berkeley.edu/PS/ASA%20Presidential%20Address.pdf

    The impact agenda both reflects this spirit and is tied up in the apparatus which is crushing it. How could it not provoke ambivalence? My growing interest is in how this manifests itself at the level of discourse surrounding impact. Could the tendency towards what Pat Thompson analyses as heroic narratives of impact be in part a response to this underlying tension:

    You know these heroic narratives – they are everywhere from nursery rhymes to popular films. It’s the knight on a white charger who slays the dragon, the cowboy who rids the town of lazy barflies, the cop who cleans up the burb and sends all those good-for-nuttin drug dealers and pimps to the big house.

    There is a research version of this kind of narrative. You know them too I’m sure. The researcher/lecturer/professional rides into town – usually this is an impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people/ hopeless policy agenda. Through the process of intervention/teaching/participatory or action research/evaluation the impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people floundering around/hopeless policy agenda becomes improved/enlightened/empowered/transformed. Work done, the researcher/lecturer/professional simply has to write the paper and ride out of town.

    These stories create a rather dangerous division between the hero/heroine and the saved. The hero/heroine knows and can do everything, and can do no wrong. Those to be saved know/can do nothing and are destined for a hopeless future until the hero/heroine shows up.

    https://patthomson.net/2013/04/08/please-not-a-heroic-impact-narrative/

    I realise this is more narratology than poetics but these perhaps constitute two distinct phases of an investigation. What are the structures of stories about impact? What do they share and how do they differ? What rhetorical devices are used in these stories? What linguistic techniques are used in talk about impact more broadly?

    The tendency that fascinates me involves a perpetual oscillation from idealism to pragmatism. Impact is hailed as an opportunity to live a more authentic life as a researcher, change the world with your research and be a better human being. Plus this is the way things are now and you’d better adapt or you’ll be left behind. The invocations are at times explicitly ethical (right or wrong to do), supplementing the aforementioned moral dimension (good or bad to be):

    1. You have a responsibility to tax payers to ensure your research is put to use.
    2. You have a responsibility to knowledge to ensure your research leaves academic silos.
    3. You have a responsibility to society to ensure your research makes a difference.

    At an event in Belgium at the start of December, I saw a senior figure in the UK impact community explain that academics who claimed not to ‘get it’ should be “ashamed of themselves”. The expression varies in its tenor and force but it’s usually there. But this is accompanied by a pragmatism with a similar range. From mild claims that being engaged will make you a better scholar, up to outright threats that you’ll be left behind and won’t be able to survive in the new academy unless you develop your impact skills.

    When I raised this on Twitter, Penny Andrews made the fascinating suggestion that this oscillation between carrot and stick resembled a religious sermon in its tone. I think there’s a fascinating project which could be undertaken exploring this comparison at the level of the texts, as well as detailing the poetics and narratology of impact discourse* and situating them within an account of the accelerated academy.

    *I don’t feel the slightest bit capable of doing this with a sufficient level of sophistication, but if anyone wants to collaborate please get in touch!

     
  • Mark 4:53 pm on January 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Pascalian Meditations on the Digital University 

    1. Does the situation of skholḗ still obtain in the accelerated academy? This is what Bourdieu described as “the free time, freed from the urgencies of the world, that allows a free and liberated relation to those urgencies and to the world” (p. 1). This condition was always unevenly distributed, its ubiquity apparent only relative to one’s own elite status within similarly elite institutions, allowing practicalities in here to pass unnoticed and those out there in other institutions to evade recognition. The organisational sociology of skholḗ seems implausible, suggesting the distance is between the institution and the outside world, rather than within the institution itself. There are many changes in the university which have undermined the experienced situation of skholḗ but the one which interests me most is automation. In so far as support staff have been replaced by digital technology, meeting the practical demands of professors now entails their own participation in what Craig Lambert calls ‘shadow work’ (i.e engaging with automated systems) rather than delegation to those within the institution whose role it is to handle practicalities. I’m still relatively new to Bourdieu’s work on universities but thus far, it’s hard to avoid the impression that he sees universities as exclusively populated by ‘professors’ and ‘students’ (see for example p. 41).
    2. If the scholarly vocation involves a form of learned ignorance, in which “base calculations of careerist ambition” are systematically excluded, scholarly blogs and tweets which address professional issues become a crucial site of struggle over shared identity. The lived frustrations of pluralistic ignorance, as well as the more mundane challenge of what to tweet/blog about and the fact this generates traffic, generates a tendency for academics to blog about their own practice. This reclamation of scholarly craft must proceed within strict boundaries, lest it be accused of advocating careerism. I was fascinated by someone who felt the need to comment on sociological imagination that they found some career advice I linked to ‘disgusting’ because it represented the ‘neoliberal subject’. The discursive tendencies of academics who have taken to social media represent a challenge to the disavowal of the practical which, argues Bourdieu, should be seen as partly constitutive of the scholarly field. But perhaps this represents a form of “making explicit what ordinarily remains implicit” (p. 37) which opens up the professional socialisation process to those excluded from it.
    3. Are we seeing the emergence of an organic reflexive sociology of the digital university? It seems to me that we are but we should add a crucial caveat about its organic character. It necessarily reproduces the illusio of its players, with even the most sophisticated accounts taking the stakes of the academic game as a given. This is why arguments about ‘careerism’ and the coverage of ‘ex-academics’ prove so richly divisive. This is when the stakes of the game are seen to be susceptible to challenge, even by those who are party to them, opening up contrasting possibilities that this is just a game that we are playing and furthermore it is a game that we can elect to leave. This mechanism produces systematic blindspots, leading what might otherwise be communally empowering reflections on shared conditions into meandering and myopic alleys which permit of little practical development. There are cultural forms which circulate successfully under these conditions which it is valuable to critique on this basis e.g. the slow professor. The politics of advice in academic social media are complex and little scrutinised.
    4. Social media can prove alluring for the scholar because of the “excessive confidence in the powers of language” which plague them (p. 2). It offers an imaginative recuperation of the “apartness from the world of production” that is experienced as “both a liberatory break and a disconnection, a potentially crippling separation” (p. 15). The combination of a vaguely defined audience on to which one can project and architecture of platforms which encourage contention provides a perfect forum in which those who “regard an academic commentary as a political act or the critique of texts as a feat of resistance, and experiencer revolutions in the order of words as radical revolutions in the order of things” can act out their political ambitions on a safe and inconsequential stage of their own making (p. 2).
    5. Until perhaps they confront those from adjacent fields, their movements similarly inflected through comparable processes of digitalisation. What happens when scholars meet journalists? What happens when they meet policy makers? What happens when they meet their own students? What happens when they meet ‘trolls’? How do these increasingly everyday encounters provide opportunities for the reproduction or transformation of their investment in the scholarly field? The sociology of such boundary encounters is much more complex than tends to be acknowledged. What seems clear to me is that accounts of social media as democratising the academy in relation to wider society fail to capture what is going on here.

     

     
    • Benjamin Geer 6:25 pm on January 24, 2017 Permalink

      “Does the situation of skholè still obtain in the accelerated academy?”

      This is a great question. Maybe an answer could go something like this, focusing on the distinction between scholastic thinking and practical sense: When I’m sitting at my desk, reading about bullfights (which I know only from books, having never seen one), I have considerable distance from the urgencies of the world of bullfights. Even if I only have ten minutes to read about bullfights while preparing a lecture I have to give in an hour, I’m still treating the bullfight as an object of scholastic contemplation. It’s not me fighting the bull. But if my colleague walks in and announces that he’s just published an article in that journal I’ve always wanted to publish in, and which has always rejected my submissions, and I’m overwhelmed with jealousy, I have no such distance. My reaction comes from my practical sense. The accelerated academy reduces the amount of time available for skholè, but that reduced time can still be time spent in a scholastic relation to the object of study. But how little time can we get away with? What happens to academics when they no longer have time to read?

    • Mark 9:36 pm on January 24, 2017 Permalink

      Thanks Ben, that responses makes a lot of sense to me in terms I’ve been writing about as cognitive triage. So we’re talking about objective conditions (a preponderance of time & a relative autonomy in its deployment) and subjective conditions (establishing a relation of attachment to the object of study), right? Your point is that an erosion of the former doesn’t necessarily preclude the latter. But is there a tipping point at which it starts to render it so peripheral that it largely becomes impossible?

    • Mark 9:40 pm on January 24, 2017 Permalink

      And does this preclude scholarship? Or are there other forms of engagement which can produce knowledge which are congruent with the temporalities of the accelerated academy?

      Take this brief exchange, which I’ve found illuminating, much as I found two hours of reading this afternoon illuminating. I’m not sure they can be compared or what the rubric for a comparison could even be. But they seem obviously distinct, even if I can’t specify the basis of the distinction.

      The question underlying this is whether social media by academics, in a context of institutional acceleration, necessarily erodes skholè. Or can social media also prove adaptive, offering faster & iterative forms of engagement which allow knowledge production without detachment. The ethos of the pirate sociologist perhaps: https://markcarrigan.net/2016/11/03/towards-a-pirate-sociology/

    • Benjamin Geer 11:07 pm on January 24, 2017 Permalink

      “So we’re talking about objective conditions (a preponderance of time & a relative autonomy in its deployment) and subjective conditions (establishing a relation of attachment to the object of study), right?”

      Yes! Your habitus is adapted to the kinds of thinking that go on in your field. They’ve become second nature for you. So you can turn on that kind of thinking any time, even for a few minutes, just as a skilled pianist can sit down any time, at any piano that happens to be handy, and play. But to acquire that habitus, you have to go through a long, gradual process of adaptation and integration into a field, which in academia means spending a lot of time reading about and thinking through ideas and problems that are considered important in your field. I think that in the humanities and social sciences, the main time when people get to do this is during their PhD. But if time for reading and thinking becomes very scarce after the PhD, what happens? Perhaps people’s academic habitus is durable enough to allow them to keep repeating the same patterns in teaching and writing, year after year. But original thinking, or serious engagement with other people’s original thinking, must become very hard to do.

      “Take this brief exchange, which I’ve found illuminating, much as I found two hours of reading this afternoon illuminating. I’m not sure they can be compared or what the rubric for a comparison could even be…. The question underlying this is whether social media by academics, in a context of institutional acceleration, necessarily erodes skholè. Or can social media also prove adaptive….”

      I’m guessing that it depends on the objective relation between the people involved. Today I got an email announcing the latest issue of a journal I’ve published in, and as usual I had absolutely no interest in any of the articles. Whereas when I saw the title of this blog post, I was immediately interested, and in the post you brought up a lot of things I care about. I’m guessing that these shared preoccupations reflect a homology between our positions in academic fields. Given that sort of objective relation, I think you can have a great interaction with someone, whether it’s in person, via email, or on social media. On the other hand, getting trolled, or just subjected to everyone’s relentless self-promotion, clearly isn’t going to do you any good. What I look for on social media is people who are exploring things I’m exploring, trying to go in directions that I want to go in. Then I think there really is value to an interaction that’s faster and less formal than academic publishing. In a format like this, we can compare possible ways of thinking about a problem, without having to wait three years for the peer-reviewed article or book.

      I feel like social media aren’t really designed to facilitate these kinds of connections. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out who to follow on Twitter, and Twitter’s suggestions of academics for me to follow usually aren’t much help. I could imagine a social media platform that does something like the analysis in Homo Academicus, where Bourdieu identifies a whole group of scholars like himself who, at a particular historical moment, had similar positions and career trajectories. But then I’d worry about it selling my data…

    • Mark 12:49 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink

      “What I look for on social media is people who are exploring things I’m exploring, trying to go in directions that I want to go in. Then I think there really is value to an interaction that’s faster and less formal than academic publishing. In a format like this, we can compare possible ways of thinking about a problem, without having to wait three years for the peer-reviewed article or book.”

      I couldn’t agree more with this but it’s a theoretical question that interests me. Do you see this as a matter of habitus? Because for me this seems archetypally a matter of reflexivity…

    • Benjamin Geer 10:52 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink

      “Do you see this as a matter of habitus? Because for me this seems archetypally a matter of reflexivity…”

      I think it’s both. In Homo Academicus, Bourdieu argues that in the 1960s, young academics whose professional aspirations were based on the old mode of academic recruitment were surprised and angry when it didn’t work for them. The shock of this hysteresis of habitus led them to question the previously taken-for-granted social structures of academia, and then those of society at large, and some of them then became leaders of the mass uprising of May 1968. I take this to mean that a person’s habitus and social trajectory can predispose them to become more reflexive.

      You and I both have unorthodox career trajectories. We occupy peripheral positions in the landscape of academic institutions, in sort of no-man’s-land between the worlds of research and of applied technology. Simultaneously insiders and outsiders, we have an intuitive feel for how academia works, but we lack the total investment (illusio) of those who occupy dominant positions. I think sort of position is ideal for developing reflexivity. Bourdieu studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, but as the son of a provincial postman, he felt like an outsider there. However successfully he adapted and gained access to the centres of academic power, his trajectory would never be the same as that of someone whose parents were normaliens. This experience of being different no doubt had a lasting effect on his habitus, helping him to gain the reflexivity needed for a study like The State Nobility.

    • Benjamin Geer 10:56 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink

      *in sort of no-man’s-land

      *this sort of position

    • Mark 6:09 pm on January 29, 2017 Permalink

      I see what you’re saying but the impression I’ve got from reading the Pascalian Meditations thus far is that Bourdieu conceived of the university as consistently solely of students and professors. He may have had conditions which were epistemically conducive to understanding the rules of the academic game, but does that necessarily entail a comparable insight into universities as organisations? I’m not sure if I’m being unfair, but it’s the thought I keep coming back to & relates to what you’re saying about our respective positions as people who are not students, professors or researchers in the straight-forwardly post-doctoral sense.

    • Benjamin Geer 9:00 pm on January 29, 2017 Permalink

      “does that necessarily entail a comparable insight into universities as organisations?”

      I don’t think it does. Although I think Bourdieu’s initial trajectory has something in common with ours, his experience of universities was also very different, and not just because he ended up in a dominant position in his field. For one thing, I think French universities in the second half of the twentieth century enjoyed greater institutional autonomy, and were more firmly under the control of professors, than universities in most other parts of the world. Perhaps struggles between administration and professors weren’t as big a part of his experience as they are of ours. And France hadn’t (and still hasn’t) introduced precarious, low-wage academic employment on a large scale, as the US has, or subjected academics to anything like Britain’s REF.

      Bourdieu was definitely concerned with threats to the autonomy of academic fields, including ‘the more and more frequent recourse of university research to sponsorship, and of the creation of educational institutions directly subordinated to business’ (The Rules of Art, 344-45). He explored some of this in The State Nobility, but that book is mainly about individuals’ academic careers, and about the field of academic institutions, rather than about considering each institution as a field in itself. His response to these threats was to call for cultural producers to engage in a collective struggle for ‘power over the instruments of production and consecration’, and I think that’s more relevant than ever. In his day, that meant things like creating his own academic journal. Today I think we need to do much more, and I think projects that seek to transform the economics of academic publishing, like the Open Library of the Humanities, are part of that.

      I think it’s important not to limit Bourdieu’s theoretical tools to the ways in which he himself used them. It’s tempting to get frustrated with him for not being interested in some of the things we’re very interested in today. But it’s inevitable that his horizons were different from ours. We can ask a lot of questions about reflexivity and autonomy that he never asked, and that’s as it should be. It could be very interesting to try to find out what sorts of habitus and social trajectories are likely to give people insight into universities as organisations.

    • Benjamin Geer 9:30 pm on January 29, 2017 Permalink

      A further thought: in The State Nobility, the people who don’t succeed in their academic careers end up as schoolteachers. Bourdieu emphasises that the division between those who succeed and those who fail is often arbitrary, but he doesn’t envisage any academic future for the rejects. All they can do is try to convince themselves that they’re content not to do research anymore. But now there seems to be a greater variety of non-academic or quasi-academic positions in and around universities, occupied by people who, in one way or another, are turning their knowledge of academia to their advantage. A lot of this seems to involve various kinds of servile roles (such as selling advice about how to game the system in order to succeed as an academic). But I’m wondering whether it’s possible for such a position to lend itself to autonomous research. In particular, if nobody expects you to do research at all, you’re under no pressure to publish, and this might make it possible to do certain kinds of ‘slow’ research that would be more difficult for others to do. And getting back to your theoretical question, what would make someone in such a position want to do something like that, while others don’t?

    • Mark 8:04 pm on February 3, 2017 Permalink

      That’s exactly why I’ve been interested in alt-academic careers since I first came across them (as well as the practical concern of being fairly sure I wanted one) – what I’m now realising is how theoretically significant this is for academic labour and academic self-conception. An obvious empirical question: do alt-academics seek to consecrate their research as research? If so, how do they do this?

    • Mark 8:05 pm on February 3, 2017 Permalink

      So you think it’s a matter of focus in a given context? That fits very nicely with Margaret Archer’s critique of Bourdieu which I think is pretty much uniformly misunderstood. Her problem isn’t with the sociology as much as the unthinking transposition of it from a very particular kind of centralised and relatively stable structural context.

    • Benjamin Geer 11:01 pm on February 5, 2017 Permalink

      ‘So you think it’s a matter of focus in a given context?’

      Yes, and I think that in general, as insiders in any context, we’ve internalised certain assumptions about what sorts of things are important in that context. That’s part of our insider’s habitus. For Bourdieu, reflexivity in social science requires a constant, conscious struggle against our habitus. We need all the objectifying tools that social science has to offer, such as ethnography and statistics, to make gains in that struggle. He used those tools to gain some reflexivity about the academic world he had been initiated into, but his reflexivity had limits.

      I think one striking example of this is his relative neglect of the topic of religion. Despite having developed field theory through an engagement with Weber’s ideas about religion, and despite using all sorts of religious metaphors (‘consecration’, ‘theodicy’, ‘prophecy’, ‘heresy’), he didn’t pay much attention to religion itself in his research. I have a suspicion (though no direct evidence) that this was because, like many French intellectuals of his generation, he assumed that religion was a spent force, one that had become nearly irrelevant. It must have been easier to hold that view in France than in many other parts of the world, especially at that time, and perhaps if he were alive today, he would see things differently.

      I used to read a lot of critiques of Bourdieu, but I ended up finding it a tiresome activity, because they nearly always turn out to be arguing against straw men, and usually it’s clear that the authors have read very little of what Bourdieu actually wrote. I suppose that many have read a bit of Bourdieu for the sole purpose of dismissing his ideas, ‘as a shortcut towards visibility more convenient than producing work of their own’, as he says in Pascalian Meditations (in the section ‘Digression: a critique of my critics’). I’ve just had a quick look at Archer’s critique in Making our Way Through the World, and it seems to be based on a common caricature of the concept of habitus, which Bourdieu rejects in that same passage, and which takes habitus to be a ‘monolithic’, ‘immutable’, ‘inexorable’, and ‘exclusive’ principle. I rather think Bourdieu saw habitus merely as a guide to improvisation, much as a song is a guide to a jazz musician’s improvisation. It makes certain things more likely and other things less likely, and provides ready-made categories that can be used to make sense of new situations, but in no way does it rigidly determine thought or action.

      About the consecration of the work of alt-academics, this just occurred to me: perhaps in the old days, academics whose work was too heterodox (e.g. because they didn’t fit neatly into any academic field) would simply be ejected from academia. Or if they were very lucky, like Bourdieu, they might be able to cross over from one field to another (from philosophy to sociology in his case). But nowadays, they might also get a ‘second chance’ in alt-ac jobs. If those jobs really tend to be populated by such individuals, and if they still want to do research and publish, it stands to reason that they would need to engage in a struggle over the means of consecration. The question of how they do it is a good empirical question.

    • Mark 7:12 pm on February 6, 2017 Permalink

      that’s very interesting, thanks. I’m certainly becoming much more open-minded since engaging with Pascalian Meditations.

      I wonder if the key problem is how to avoid the research being construed as effectively a hobby. the desire to avoid playing the game of seeking high-status journal publications is definitely one factor in the alt-academic discourse but, without this consecration, what’s the status of the work that’s not being written up? I wonder if it would be as straight forward as simply asking self-identified alt-academics about how they see their research & analysing their construction of the problem?

    • Benjamin Geer 9:28 pm on February 6, 2017 Permalink

      ‘I wonder if it would be as straight forward as simply asking self-identified alt-academics about how they see their research & analysing their construction of the problem?’

      I think that would definitely be a place to start. Bourdieu placed a high value on understanding the author’s point of view: what were the alternatives the author faced? In his examples of revolutions in fields, he often talks about authors who were confronted with a field divided into two opposing camps, and who rejected both of them. I’m wondering whether a refusal to choose between ‘high-status journal publications’ and ‘work that’s not being written up’ could lead to new forms of research and consecration.

      Personally I want to keep publishing, but since I no longer need to care about how a publication looks on my CV, and since I don’t think aggressive peer review adds much value, I don’t care how high-status the journal is. It’s more important to me that it’s an open-access journal and doesn’t make me wait a year for a decision, and it’s even better if it’s interdisciplinary. My feeling is that the consecration that matters happens after publication in any case, if it happens at all.

      I would also like to reclaim the respectability of doing work as a hobby. In historical terms, all scientists did research as a hobby until very recently. Today, someone like Charles Darwin wouldn’t be able to spend thirty years working on the theory of evolution before publishing it, because no institution would fund him for that long. He was able to do it because he was independently wealthy, and science was a hobby for him. But perhaps alt-ac careers offer another way to do science as a hobby, and thus to escape the pressure to publish quickly.

    • Mark 9:54 pm on February 17, 2017 Permalink

      But I’ve had the argument put to me that the questions which can meaningfully be investigated as a hobby are not the meaningful questions. There’s something self serving and dismissive about this but I’m worried there’s also an element of truth to it.

    • Mark 9:55 pm on February 17, 2017 Permalink

      I wonder if consecration within the market place of ideas is (unfortunately) most likely to emerge under these circumstances. Your work is taken seriously if it can garner engagement by others (particularly outside of the academy) even if it lacks formal consecration within it.

    • Benjamin Geer 8:39 am on February 18, 2017 Permalink

      “the questions which can meaningfully be investigated as a hobby are not the meaningful questions”

      The history of science shows that this is not true. I’ve mentioned Charles Darwin, all of whose scientific work was done as a hobby. Some other examples are Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, Henry Fox Talbot, and Ada Lovelace.

      “I wonder if consecration within the market place of ideas is (unfortunately) most likely to emerge under these circumstances.”

      One doesn’t need to be a salaried researcher to publish in scientific journals. Albert Einstein published his groundbreaking papers during his seven years as an employee of the Swiss patent office.

    • Mark 10:24 am on February 20, 2017 Permalink

      But it’s telling that all those examples are historical: we might see professionalisation, disciplinary specialisation & the fragmentation of the knowledge system as regrettable. But they are, I think, all barriers to what you’re saying being possible now.

    • Mark 10:25 am on February 20, 2017 Permalink

      Btw it occurs it might be nice to compile our exchange into a new blog post and see what people make of it. It would be interesting to get the perspective of wider alt-academic community on these issues.

    • Benjamin Geer 10:44 am on February 20, 2017 Permalink

      “But it’s telling that all those examples are historical: we might see professionalisation, disciplinary specialisation & the fragmentation of the knowledge system as regrettable. But they are, I think, all barriers to what you’re saying being possible now.”

      I think it depends on what kind of research you want to do. If you need a particle accelerator, you probably have to be a professional scientist. But in the social sciences and humanities, a lot of research is done with nothing more than a PhD plus time, thought, publicly available data, and a bit of computing power. Time seems to be the scarcest resource for academics. I actually have more time for research now, with an alt-ac job, than I had when I was a Visiting Assistant Professor.

      I think it’s important to distinguish between academic fields and academic institutions. Perhaps the biggest barrier to what I’m suggesting is the illusion, promoted by academics and academic institutions themselves, that having an academic position equals participation in an academic field. I think this is a bit like when priests say that there is no salvation outside the Church.

      “Btw it occurs it might be nice to compile our exchange into a new blog post and see what people make of it.”

      Definitely!

  • Mark 7:32 pm on January 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , ,   

    Social media for academics and the increasing toxicity of the online ecology 

    In the last few months, I’ve begun to seriously plan a much more sophisticated follow-up to Social Media for Academics, investigating the implications of social media for academic labour. A crucial aspect of this, which seems likely to become much more so with each passing year, concerns the toxicity of many of the online environments in which academics are participating. If academics increasingly find themselves expected to use social media as a means of demonstrating engagement or at least signalling engagement-willingness then the toxicity of these environments will become an increasingly central labour issue.

    My fear is that we will have the worst of both worlds. Academics will be coerced outwards into these online environments under the sign of ‘impact’, while finding themselves blamed if anything they do online attracts disapprobation for their employer. It’s easy to imagine how the moralism we see lurking beneath the impact agenda (those who claim not to ‘get it’ should be ‘ashamed’ as I recently heard an extremely senior person say) could find similar expression in managerial expectation of social media use. On our present trajectory, the likely outcome will be an individualised one: take responsibility for your own engagement and take the blame if you bring about any perceived damage to the corporate brand. This problem is compounded because, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it “the risks and rewards of presenting oneself “to others over the Web using tools typically associated with celebrity promotion” (Barone 2009) are not the same for all academics in the neo-liberal “public” square of private media.” Far from counteracting exclusion in higher education, social media for academics is amplifying the risks for those already marginalised.

    As an example of how this is developing, consider this dispiriting reflection on being an academic video blogger on YouTube which Philip Moriarty passed on to me:

    One of the main reasons why I think the promise of YT as a place where intelligent life might flourish is failing is the well-documented level of trolling and hatred that permeates the site, and which threatens to silence any but the most obnoxious or innocuous voices. I stopped making regular videos a couple of years ago when the vitriol I was receiving for having the temerity to make unpopular content spilled over into my personal life. In addition to receiving the usual grammatically-challenged insults and thinly-veiled threats the university I was working at was also contacted several times by folk demanding my removal. Eventually these ‘downsides’ to being an academic on Youtube outweighed the benefits and I gave up making public videos entirely.

    And it isn’t just me. Over the past three years I have known four other academics leave Youtube for reasons very similar to my own. These were folk who were similarly motivated to bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’, between universities (which are often seen as elitist) and the wider world represented on social media. These people wanted to contribute their knowledge and also to learn from the contributions of others. They wanted to find ways to speak and to listen in ways which were more inclusive, and which the diverse communities on Youtube seemed to be able to offer. These fine people, like myself, became disheartened by the inability of YT to foster anything but the lowest common denominator, the most clickbaity, the most provocative, the most crudely entertaining, and the failure of the platform to support those who wanted to raise the bar.

    Some might say (and indeed have said) that this toxicity is just a natural part of the online ecology and we should grow a thicker skin, or not feed the trolls, or any of the other platitudes that are trotted out to excuse bad behaviour, but I don’t think that’s good enough. When the comment section under a video is two thirds insult or threat then the value of that comment section drops to zero. No one with anything to contribute wants to be part of it. When you have to wonder if your latest video will prompt some faceless anti-intellectual gonk to contact your employer then the chilling effect takes hold and you censor yourself, (God forbid you should talk positively about feminism, or BLM, or the representation of women in video games). The number of eyeballs on the site might increase but the I.Q. of the site goes down.

    https://medium.com/@fredmcv/intelligent-life-on-youtube-aa46f4404861#.37wdwagtp

    The architecture of these platforms militates against their sustained pedagogical use. It might be that, as Pausé and Russell put it, “Social media enables scholarship to be publicised more widely within the  academy,  and  in addition to that, it enables  scholarship to become part of broader  social conversations”. The problem is that the incentives of these platforms have over time proved to be generative of a dialogical toxicity which tends to be obscured by the high-minded rhetoric of public engagement. The promise that social media might “bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’” is proving to be rather misleading. A large part of my new project will be exploring the implications of this at the level of the institutional politics of the university, with a particular focus on what it means for academic labour.

    The role of social media for academics discourse in obscuring these issues, mystifying the complex politics of social media in the university through breathless reiteration of the individual benefits to be accrued through engagement, means it will be a central object of critique for the project. But I want to avoid slipping into utopian/dystopian, pro/anti framings of social media for academics. I still believe in its scholarly importance and it’s capacity to inculcate solidarity and (in limited ways) flatten hierarchies. There’s a great example of the latter in this paper by Pausé and Russell which I’m otherwise pretty critical of:

    Accessibility means individuals who are not academically trained are able to  learn  about  a  field  of  research  and  contribute  to  it,  bringing  their  own  ideas  and  experiences  to  the  table.†    And  accountability  has  enabled  greater  criticism  of  the  process  of  scholarship  and  research.    Through  connecting  on  social  media,  marginalised  people  have  been  able  to  gather  sufficient  force  to  challenge  the  conventions  of  research;  to  insist  on  an  intersectional  perspective.    The  lived  experience  of  a  Māori  woman  living  in  Aotearoa  New  Zealand  can  challenge  the  theorised understanding of an academic.‡ People have objected to being studied, and  have demanded the right to participate in framing the discussion.  For example, the  Health  at  Every  Size®  (HAES)  movement  has  largely  been  led  by  advocates  from  within  what  is  known as  the  Fatosphere  (Harding,  2007),  prompting  research  that  questions the basic assumptions made about the relationship between body size and  health by health scholars and those working in the health field. This both challenges  and enriches scholars’ research.  There is now a rich empirical literature on the efficacy  of HAES (Burgard, 2014).

     

     
    • lenandlar 8:20 pm on January 23, 2017 Permalink

      Mark random thought and I still need to get and read your book but something I noticed over recent past is academics reclaiming and having their own space instead of using free social media space for their content. Would you or did you speak to the issue of content ownership in social media or is that even an issue. (Saw you migrated your WP blog to your own space recently)

    • Bill 7:40 am on January 24, 2017 Permalink

      Is this an opportunity for online “learning & engagement” to move to a new platform? And by platform I don’t mean a different YT but perhaps a different engagement philosophy needing to evolve. To allow those who wish to participate critically and robustly but constructively to be included and those who do not, to be excluded? It may be ideal to welcome everyone however this appears to not be realistic (currently) and,an alternative route is required. Allowing the town to engage with the gown should not be discouraged but perhaps some coercion in behavior and admission is needed..

    • Mark 12:42 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink

      Very tangentially but I want to do a proper section on it in volume 2!

    • confrep (@confrep) 12:31 pm on January 26, 2017 Permalink

      Thanks for including some of my piece on Medium in this post. I think it’s such a shame that the apparent promise of social media platforms like Youtube to act as a vehicle for pedagogy seems to be being squandered.

      I’d also say that I think the problem is getting worse. In the seven years that I spent making videos I certainly saw the culture degrade in that sense (although not in a linear way; there was a brief period about 4 years ago when it seemed to improve for a while). I’m guessing this is due to a number of factors including changes to the platform itself (the algorithm that presents videos to users, the way that subscriptions work, the disaster that was Google+), and the fact that most users now move seamlessly between platforms, each with their own etiquette and customs, adding to the difficulty of a coherent culture. When commenters are coming to the same video directly from both LinkedIn and 4Chan there’s pretty much bound to be a clash.

      On a separate point, most universities seem unprepared to deal with the fallout from conflicts or troll attacks against academics. Not all of them even have social media policies and administrators often have little experience of how to handle issues arising from this form of ‘impact’. When my own university was contacted (three times) by people who wished to complain about my online activity I found myself having to explain how comment sections worked, what ‘doxing’ meant, and why I couldn’t just ring up Youtube and ask them to tell abusers to be nice.

      To this extent I think a large part of the onus is on institutions to be better informed about social media and have systems in place to both prepare their staff for likely negative engagement and also to handle (usually vexatious) complaints when they inevitably arise. I’m written a little more about this here http://confrep.com/blog/?p=100

    • Mark 8:00 pm on February 3, 2017 Permalink

      I couldn’t agree more! Could we chat via e-mail?

  • Mark 6:04 pm on January 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , ,   

    “Scholar? Nah, I’m a grants factory…” 

    From The Research Impact Handbook, by Mark Reed, loc 1575:

    Andrew Derrington, in The Research Funding Toolkit , tries to help by conceiving of research as a “grants factory”, in which researchers churn out proposals dispassionately on a production line, starting work on the next proposal as soon as the last one is submitted, and accepting the odds that if your work is any good, then eventually one will get funded. Whether or not you are able to detach yourself from your work to that extent (I’m not sure I can), I think that there is something to be said for just picking yourself up and carrying on, no matter how bad your failure.

     
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