Updates from April, 2017 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 3:58 pm on April 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The transformation of academic writing and the challenge of ephemera 

    What does social media mean for academic writing? Most answers to this question focus on how such platforms might constrain or enable the expression of complex ideas. For instance, we might encounter scepticism that one could express conceptual nuance in 140 characters or an enthusiasm for blogging as offering new ways to explore theoretical questions beyond the confines of the journal article. However these discussions only rarely turn to writing in a more biographical sense, as a recurrent activity which is both personally meaningful and professionally necessary.

    Social media is certainly offering us more occasions for writing. The most obvious form this takes is the personal blog, providing one with a platform for exploration whenever we are taken by the feel of an idea worth exploring. However I suspect that many academics who sustain a personal blog do so because it serves a purpose prior to writing, serving as a common-place book or ideas garden. In such cases, the time spent blogging serves as a preparation for writing, even if it is sometimes an oblique one. There is no necessary tension here between blogging and writing, even if sometimes the former can hinder the latter, for instance when the familiarity of the blog draws us away from more formal writing that might not be going well.

    What about online writing that doesn’t serve this preparatory function? In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the challenge of ephemera increasingly confronting academics. I mean ephemera in the literal sense of “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time”. Long-established examples include book reviews, newsletter articles and short pieces in magazines. With the growth of social media, we are seeing a rapid expansion in opportunities to produce such ephemera. Multi-author blogs and online magazines will often be sources of invitations to write, as well as offering opportunities for this to qualified parties who are seeking them out. Such writing rarely constitutes much of a commitment in its own terms. One of many reasons I enjoy writing of this sort is that the usual temporal horizon rarely exceeds a few hours work. For instance, it might take a while to read a book for review but not to write the review itself.

    To call ephemera a ‘challenge’ may be misleading. In many ways, I remain convinced this is an opportunity, for the enjoyment of intellectual richness and diversity at the level of both individual scholars and scholarly communities. But unlike blogging in the preparatory sense discussed above, it can often take away from time and energy available for ‘real’ writing. The number of opportunities can itself prove problematic, as invitations and inclinations lead to over-commitment in the face of this abundance. For instance, in the next couple of weeks, I’m supposed to write an article for a magazine, a book review for a blog symposium, a blog post for a newspaper and a piece of sociological fiction for a zine. If I’m being realistic, it seems unlikely I’ll complete them all and thus the writing that was chosen rather than invited is likely to fall by the wayside. Though I think it’s a shame that I experience this as in some sense a distraction, despite my enthusiasm for the planned pieces. Much of this is related to journal articles, as things I should be writing but feel little inclination to, leaving it hard not to see a distance from academia as involving a gain rather than a loss of intellectual freedom.

    A subsequent conversation made me think back to Richard Rorty’s remark about universities enabling one to “read books and report what one thinks about them”. Is the promise of ephemera a matter of keeping in touch with this aspiration within a university system which militates against its realisation?

  • Mark 9:46 pm on April 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    things I’ve been reading recently #34 

    • Making Sociology Public by Lambros Fatsis
    • Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
    • Filling The Void by Marcus Gilroy-Ware
    • What is the Future? By John Urry
    • The Existentialist Moment by Patrick Baert
    • Slowness by Milan Kundera
    • The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson
    • The Making of the Indebted Man by Maurizio Lazzarato
    • Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries
  • Mark 3:05 pm on April 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Anthem for a Planet’s Children 

    Though we are all related through common ancestry
    Still, some of us are fated by where or what we be.
    We could not choose our birthplace, our gender, race, or creed
    We’re praiséd, loved, or hated for every word or deed.

    Because we all are sisters or brothers, through and through;
    No one should try to twist us, or tell us what to do.
    We are our planet’s children: we each deserve our say;
    And everyone is equal to go in their own way.

    Beware of those who chide us, and Unity despise:
    They only would divide us, by spiteful deeds and lies
    Our future is together, our past is reconciled;
    We’ll join our hands in friendship: we cannot be reviled.

    Transcribed from Cooper Boyes Simpson album, “Coda”, words possibly written by Lester Simpson?

  • Mark 2:58 pm on April 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Jeremy Hunt, Tories   

    The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song 

  • Mark 1:37 pm on April 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The ennui of the academic celebrity 

    In Solar, by Ian McEwan, we encounter the weary figure of Michael Beard, the nobel laureate and serial womaniser who has long lived off his early contribution to theoretical physics. By the time he approaches his 60s, he is a chaotic and directionless man, nonetheless ubiquitously affirmed within the academy and beyond:

    He held an honorary university post in Geneva and did no teaching there, lent his name, his title, Professor Beard, Nobel laureate, to letterheads, to institutes, signed up to international ‘initiatives’, sat on a Royal Commission on science funding, spoke on the radio in layman’s terms about Einstein or photons or quantum mechanisms, helped out with grant applications, was a consultant editor on three scholarly journals, wrote peer reviews and references, took an interest in the gossip, the politics of science, the positioning, the special pleading, the terrifying nationalism, the tweaking of colossal sums out of ignorant ministers and bureaucrats for one more practical accelerator or rented instrument space on a new satellite, appeared at giant conventions in the US – eleven thousand physicists in one place! – listened to post-docs explain their research, gave with minimal variation the same series of lectures on the calculations underpinning the Beard-Einstein Conflation that had brought him his prize,awarded prizes and medals himself, accepted honorary degrees, and gave after-dinner speeches and eulogies for retiring or about-to-cremated colleagues. (pg. 14)

    This is a man who enjoys celebrity, “in an inward, specialised world”, leaving him able to drift “from year to year, vaguely weary of himself, bereft of alternatives” (pg. 14). He remains blissfully ignorant of the post-docs who work with him, neither having the inclination nor the energy to learn to differentiate them. He reasons that it is “better to treat them all the same, somewhat distantly, or as if they were one person” rather than “insult one Mike by resuming a conversation that might have been with the other, or to assume that the fellow with the ponytail and glasses, Scots accent and no wrist string was unique, or was not called Mike” (pg. 20). It was only after half a dozen trips to his research centre that he realised that the same post-doc had acted as driver each time. As he awaits the end of his fifth marriage, he relies on the incoming mail to offer him escape from the peculiar turgidity that privilege has brought to his life:

    After morosely clinging to stupid hopes, he began to watch the post and emails for the invitation that would take him far away from Belsize Park and shake some independent life into his sorry frame. About half a dozen a week arrived throughout the year, but so far nothing had interested him among the inducements to give lectures on the shore of a plutocratic north-Italian lake, or in an unexciting German schloss, and he felt too weak and raw to discuss the Conflation before one more colleague-crowded conference in New Delhi or Los Angeles. He had no idea what he wanted, but he thought he would know it when he saw it. (pg. 22-23).

    He often felt he had “coasted all his life on an obscure young man’s work, a far cleverer and more devoted theoretical physicist than he could ever hope to be” (pg. 50). Ironically, it was this very talent and devotion which led him to become the middle man plagued by “a certain mental deficiency, an emptiness, a restless boredom” that could only be obscured “by the daily round or sleep” (pg. 49). His intellectual engagement now more often entailed flipping through the Scientific American, perpetually distracted by his “lifetime’s habit” of being “inconveniently watchful for his own name” (pg. 49).

  • Mark 12:08 pm on April 28, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    What is a research technologist? 

    I described myself as an ‘academic technologist’ for a number of years. During my part-time PhD, I’d drifted into a number of roles which felt connected but which were difficult to summarise: training people to use NVIVO, writing digital scholarship resources, advising on CAQDAS strategy for research projects, running workshops about social media and maintaining social media feeds. Since then I’ve ceased to use the description, in part because I got sufficiently sick of talking about NVIVO that I resolved never to approach the topic again, but also because the term didn’t really seem to have much purchase. I rarely felt people understood what I meant by it. But unlike ‘digital sociologist’, their lack of understanding wasn’t coupled with some degree of interest in finding out.

    Perhaps research technologist would have been a better term. This is what Andy Tattersall uses in a thought-provoking essay at the LSE Impact Blog. He identifies a strange lacunae which has also long-fascinated me: a proliferation of digital tools emerging from outside the academy, increasing numbers of technology startups focused on the academy, strategic investment in tools and platforms by institutions but specific features of academic labour which are hindering uptake:

    Whilst this work is a great help to those aware of it, the reality is a majority of academics are either unaware of or unwilling to engage with the myriad tools and technologies at their disposal (beyond social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, ResearchGate, etc.). There are several reasons for this: workload and deadline pressures; fear of technology; ethical implications around their use and their application, especially when it comes to third party software; or too much choice.


    I’d add to this that their engagement with social networking sites is inevitably shaped by the conditions of academic labour in ways which can prove detrimental. The research technologist, on Tattersall’s account, emerges to mediate between different stakeholders in these transformations and to help academics negotiate these changes in an effective way:

    But with so many tools available, how do academics navigate their way through them? How do they make the connection between technology and useful application? And who helps them charter these scary, unpredictable waters?


    The parallel he draws is with the learning technologist: “this group of centralised, university-educated professionals help drive teaching innovations that are underpinned by technology”. As he describes the practical activity performed in such a role:

    It would support research and its dissemination in the use of video, animation, infographics, social media, online discussion, mobile device use, and social networks, to name just a few technologies. The learning technologist applies pedagogical reasoning for their technology choices, and the research equivalent would need to assess the same considerations. Not only that but good communication skills, information literacy, and an understanding of data protection, ethics, and what constitutes a good technology – and how it can be applied to a specific research setting in a sustainable and timely manner – are all essential. For example, the use of video to disseminate research around speech therapy would potentially be more useful than an infographic. In the same way, an infographic published in a blog post might be a better way of conveying the results of a public health project.


    On this understanding, I could easily be described as a research technologist who specialised in disseminating sociology. I have a broad acquaintance with the discipline, understand its different intellectual currents and am very familiar with the sociological sensibility that unites much of them. Someone operating in this role might step in to do the dissemination work on behalf of an individual or a project. But the intellectual familiarity also facilitates their entering into the project, in a relatively narrow capacity, in order to support and guide this activity. The point is not only to undertake the activity, it’s the capacity to work with researchers as they do this and to understand the practical challenges they face over and above the technology itself:

    The reason why in-house support could benefit the practice and dissemination of research is that researchers are very pressured for time, and often don’t know what they need regarding research technologies and especially dissemination. Secondly, when they do know what they want, they often need it “as soon as possible”. These two problems are more solvable within the department, especially as researchers often don’t know where to go for specific help. The research technologist would be a designated, focused role, embedded within the department. They’d be a signpost to new ways of working, problem solving and, most importantly, be able to consider all issues of ethics and/or compliance when passing on advice.


    This involves a familiarity with the issues encountered in technology use, rather than simply the tool or platform itself. Andy’s example of guiding researchers through the experience of dealing with hostility and abuse on Twitter is an excellent example. I really like his vision of “a kind of ‘Swiss Army knife’ professional, who can exploit the burgeoning number of opportunities afforded by the many new technologies out there” but I suspect I’ll still continue to call myself a digital sociologist for the time being.

    Here’s a really interesting presentation by Matthew Dovey about the emergence of this role and the purpose it serves:

  • Mark 1:22 pm on April 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Marshall Berman on Jaytalking 

    Marshall was a jaytalker and jaywriter, which, for him, meant “to talk back; to talk against the lights; to talk outside the designated lines; to talk like our great American Blue Jays, small birds who emit loud and raucous cries that no one can ignore.”


  • Mark 1:05 pm on April 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , foucualt, , patrick baert, , sartre, , ,   

    Will social media lead to the return of the general intellectual? 

    In his detailed study of Sartre’s rise to prominence as an authoritative public intellectual, Patrick Baert argues that the general intellectualism embodied by Sartre depended upon social conditions which no longer obtain. Such intellectuals “address a wide range of subjects without being experts as such” and speak “at, rather than with, their audience” (pg. 185). In doing so, they depend upon a broad support for intellectual life within society alongside a concentration of cultural and intellectual capital within a small elite. Without the hierarchy this gives rise to, one in which enough of the subordinate are invested, it cannot be tenable to pronounce with such perceived authority across such a broad range of subjects. This hierarchy is manifested both in educational institutions but also in the disciplines from which such general intellectuals emerge. However general intellectuals are not dependent upon these institutions, instead being able to leverage their authority into income from the media (non-fiction, print journalism, broadcast media) and often being able to rely on family wealth. The authority invested in their discipline, alongside “the confidence of the right habitus and an elite education” mean “they can speak to a wide range of social and political issues without being criticised for dilettantism” (pg. 185).

    What led to their decline? Baert identifies numerous intellectual factors, including the emergence of theoretical movements which “questioned, if not undermined, the erstwhile superiority of philosophy over other vocabularies” (g. 185). The professionalisation of the social sciences facilitated the challenge of claims by philosophers about the social world which were effectively just bad sociology. Their expansion meant that there were now subject experts in areas upon which philosophers used to make pronouncements, implicitly or explicitly casting such outpourings of opinion as inadequate. Much as the authority of philosophy was undermined from within, so too was educational authority eroded from without as mass higher education contributed to a softening of the disjuncture between educational elite and the population at large. As Baert puts it, “with higher education also comes a growing scepticism towards epistemic and moral authority, an increasing recognition of the fallibility of knowledge and of the existence of alternative perspectives” (pg. 186). The declining acceptability of speaking at such public audiences was compounded by the erosion of the deferential attitudes which had previously characterised the media. Indeed, over time the media came to include subject experts who felt competent challenging the lauded experts.

    Baert suggests that social media further intensifies this trend. He recognises that gatekeepers still exist online and that most bloggers have little audience. But nonetheless he argues that “the technology has made a difference, once which surely has further lessened the likelihood of authoritative public intellectuals” (pg. 186-187). In the place of such generalists, we see expert public intellectuals who resemble what Foucault described as the specific intellectual. Such figures “draw on their professional knowledge, whether derived from their research in the social and natural sciences, to engage with wider societal or political issues that go beyond their narrow expertise” (pg. 187). Their capacity to exert an influence rests on “intellect and acquired knowledge, and mastery of the inductive technology (observational skill, statistical methods, lab machinery etc.) to acquire or verify that knowledge” (pg 187-188). Dialogical public intellectuals often draw on the affordances of new technology to “get their message across” and position themselves against those who rely on traditional media, “emphasising how the new technologies permit frequent and intense interaction” (pg. 189). In doing so, they embody a prior trend towards more iterative and dialogical forms of engagement, constructing themselves as learning from their public while the public learn from them.

    It’s striking how much less detailed Baert’s description of the latter category is compared to the preceding two. Indeed the only figure named is Michael Burawoy, in relation to his plea for public sociology rather than his performance of it. This intellectual self-presentation is something which investigation might reveal to be a self-marketing strategy for intellectuals seeking to stake out ground within an increasingly competitive marketplace of ideas, within which social media has removed barriers to entry while also generating a whole new arena of interaction through which to cultivate a relationship with one’s hoped for audience. To be fair to him, Baert perhaps recognises this, stressing that “the situation is often more complex than the bloggers themselves tend to acknowledge” and point out they will often continue to write for newspapers and magazines etc (pg. 189). But how seriously this claim to dialogical interaction should be taken is an empirical question. How much does this interaction shape their views? How much of this interaction do they respond substantively to? How long do they spend each week engaging in such interaction? Without substantive interaction, this dialogical relation is in part imagined, a constructed audience reproduced in the mind and reality through limited interaction with a small subset of it.

    My suggestion is that social media is far more hospitable to the conditions of the general intellectual than Baert suggests. The intellectual self-presentation of the dialogical scholar, orientated towards extending their network and cultivating their online audience, represents a strategy conducive to success in the attention economy if they can balance this time-demanding pursuit with the exigencies of their day job. The increasing reliance of journalists, particularly freelancers, on social media for networking and research mean such figures will inevitably be invited to contribute to features and discussions beyond their area of expertise. Even if the dialogic public intellectual has a self-understanding grounded in circumscribed expertise, their digital footprint will inevitably push beyond this and lead others to tempt them still further.

    In a way, this post is the latest part of an extended conversation with myself about whether to say ‘yes’ when I get asked to contribute to features on subjects I have opinions about but no expertise. To name some recent examples: selfie culture, conspiracy theories, algorithmic culture, hipsters, the meaning of tolerance. With one exception, I’ve always said ‘no’, largely out of caution. It’s possible there has been a misunderstanding, such that someone infers the existence of a trajectory of research from one blog post on a topic whereas actually that single blog post represents the sum total of my engagement. It’s also possible they’re made in relation to a university affiliation, something which I’m certain is the case with those last minute e-mails explaining the journalist has an imminent deadline and needs an expert quote taking an agreed stance to complete a nearly finished article.

    But I suspect something more is going on, in which the price of admission to public platforms has changed from expertise to a capacity for cogency, a quickness in response and the willingness to comment. The invitations are there for generalists emerging from the academy, liable only to grow if they pursue even the most basic strategies of visibility and connection through social media. The rewards are there, in so far as such activity can be plausibly glossed as public engagement potentially generative of impact. The costs potentially faced by generalists are weak from within the academy, liable to be restricted to those who have an extremely high profile and thus counteract the anonymity of abundance or those who inadvertently provoke a controversy with ill-thought out statements on controversial topics that lead them to be held to account. Under such conditions, the reflexivity of the individual intellectual becomes key, something unlikely to change when the academy remains as fragmented as is currently the case.

    What it means to be an intellectual is changing in an age of social media and we’ve yet to really get to grips with what this means.

    • Dave Ashelman 3:16 pm on April 27, 2017 Permalink

      This was a very enlightening article, but for me, enlightening beyond the obvious. I was just discussing with a colleague this week about how we know Ph.D. students who have never read a philosophy book, or taken a philosophy course, raising the question: what does the “Ph.” stand for in “Ph.D.” in today’s academy?

      I also had a discussion last week with my department chair, reminiscing about our undergraduate days when we were required to take “Ethics” courses in the philosophy department; and that today’s “ethics” barely reaches beyond the research realm. We tell human subject researchers that it’s wrong to abuse human subjects, but we never tell them “why” it’s wrong. That is an answer that only a background in metaphysical ethics can give; and we don’t teach it anymore.

      I do think our specializations are important – in a generalized (philosophical) way, and one that needs to be critiqued by “the publics” (using Borowoy’s words). There are two main reasons for this (in addition to the “Ph.” part of the “Ph.D.”):

      First is that I was asked by the Canadian Parliament to give testimony on policy prescription on addressing a severe precarious labour problem in Canada. In addition to my advanced degrees in Welfare Economics, and Labour History, my dissertation is specifically on precarious labour (temp and contract labour specifically). I would consider myself (as others have) an “expert” on the subject matter. However, I am NOT an expert on policy prescriptions or political science. I refused to give my “expert advice” on policy prescriptions because as a Sociologist, my discipline confines me to exploring, describing and explaining problems – not offering solutions that may (or may not be) politically and economically unfeasible. I deferred that answer to those who are more experienced than I in the subject matter, with the recommendation that the solution to the problem should be open to public debate. I personally needed to be humble enough to admit (in public) my shortcomings.

      Second is a conversation that I had a few years ago with a prominent Canadian sociologist where we were talking about the difference between Canadian and American Sociology – which are two completely different beasts. His answer was a bit striking: that American Sociology is more of a profession, while Canadian Sociology is more of a craft.

      When I think “craft,” I think “art.” Some art requires special skills (like Carpenters or theater actors); some do not (like finger painting). What do we want as a discipline? Do we want a Sociology that is based on the Philosophy of Science, or one that is based on aesthetic art? If it is the latter, then we will automatically stop asking the important philosophical questions that engage society. If the answer is the former, then we have to realize that science is about progress, and not perfection; that science necessarily stands on the cusp of what is known, and what is not known. And we have to be okay with not knowing sometimes, with the open mind of continuing to explore.

      This is what this posting invokes for me, and I think it is a worthy discussion to have in the academy.

    • Mark 8:04 pm on April 30, 2017 Permalink

      I think I see where you’re coming from but does it not assume the purpose of public interventions is to provide answers? Whereas if asking the right questions can be a useful public intervention then the generalism I (think I’m) espousing can be legitimate.

    • Dave Ashelman 10:44 am on May 2, 2017 Permalink

      Yes. And I agree with you in principle. The first person I think of when I think of a “general intellectual” is Rene Descartes. Of course many followed in his footsteps since, but I think few match the wide ranging and public contributions that Descartes made from Philosophy to Mathematics. We could use a few more Descartes in the worldMarx was the same way; who dabbled in Algebra, Ecology, and Chemistry. We don’t think of Marx in those terms however, and forget about Marx’s contributions to Ecology – which was significant for his time.

      I think overall however, my point is that there should to be a balance stricken. Descartes was not a master at Chemistry, and Marx was not a master at differential calculus. I think both would be humble enough to acknowledge their limitations. Before I majored in Philosophy as an undergraduate, I studied Physics and Chemistry. I feel comfortable talking about those things in a generalized way. My advanced degrees are in Economics and Sociology. But I would not feel comfortable talking about Anthropology, or Paleontology. If I wanted to engage those areas, then I would get training in those areas – the same way Marx got training in Algebra before he engaged it.

      I received my education in the U.S. and Canada, but I was raised in a non-western tradition. What I’ve noticed is that the west likes to think in black and white (either/or) terms. The world is filled with such wonderful colors, that it would be a shame to only notice black or white. There’s a balance in this topic. Humility in my tradition, is recognizing both your strengths and limitations. We could all use a little more humility in understanding the variety of colors that exist. My point is simply: balance.

    • Mark 5:27 pm on May 6, 2017 Permalink

      But I think balance is something that it might be possible to pursue through engaging outside your areas of expertise. Or rather I’m interested in what the underlying capacities necessary for this to be true would be.

    • Dave Ashelman 2:45 pm on May 8, 2017 Permalink

      I think we are on the same page, but have different methods for achieving this. I agree that balance will come from engaging outside of one’s specialty. However, what does that engagement look like? Does it look like as it is now, where people who have no idea what they are talking about engage a subject matter, or does it look like humility; where a person acknowledges their lack of knowledge, and then engages people who know more about a subject matter in order to learn about it before pontificating?

      This was the entire reason behind my getting another MA in Economics. How could I possibly be a sociologist talking about western economy, if I had no idea how the economy even works? Since my learning economics and finance, I’ve seen other sociologist try to explain the economy, and be completely wrong, passing off bad information as true.

      Yes, we need to engage outside of our specialties, but we have to learn about those things outside of our specialities first – before we can publicly engage them. And that take a certain amount of humility in understanding our own personal shortcomings of knowledge.

      So we agree with the ends – but perhaps have differing ideas on the means; which is fair enough, and making me enjoy this dialogue more.

    • Mark 2:11 pm on May 9, 2017 Permalink

      I think we’re in complete agreement actually!

  • Mark 11:36 am on April 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , cars, driving,   

    The Conspiracy of Cars 

    From What is the Future? by John Urry, loc 2554-2570:

    This car-based suburbanization is neither natural nor inevitable, and in the US partly stems from a ‘conspiracy’. Between 1927 and 1955, General Motors, Mack Manufacturing (trucks), Standard Oil (now Exxon), Philips Petroleum, Firestone Tire & Rubber and Greyhound Lines conspired to share information, investments and ‘activities’ to eliminate streetcars from American cities. They established various front companies, especially National City Lines, which during the 1930s bought up and then promptly closed at least forty-five electrified streetcar systems (Urry 2013b: ch. 5). These cities lost their streetcars and came to depend upon petrol-based cars, trucks and buses for moving about.

  • Mark 1:07 pm on April 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    What is a wonk? 

    What is a wonk? It’s a deceptively simple question which it’s worth us attending to. This is the answer given in an excellent Baffler essay by Emmett Rensin:

    What, after all, is a wonk? It is not the same thing as an expert, although those are tedious as well. In a 2011 interview with Newsweek, Ezra Klein explained that he gave Wonkblog its name (and accepted the moniker himself) in an “effort to denote that we’re doing something a lot different by covering Washington through a policy lens.” This fits well with what Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Morgan meant when he introduced the term into American political vernacular back in 1992 by applying it to then-candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore: they were politicians, to be sure, but ones with a “preference for arcane policy details over back-slapping and baby-kissing.” Jacobin editor-in-chief Bhaskar Sunkara, in a 2013 essay for In These Times, gave the term a less charitable reading, but the essence is the same. The wonk, he wrote, is a “technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.”


    The wonk is defined “by his devotion to the churning irrelevant details of a game that ordinary people watch to see who actually wins and loses”. Rensin makes a powerful case that the wonk is an over-privileged super fan who wishes nothing ever change lest they have to learn the rules of their favourite game all over again:

    It was better before they tried to make it so accessible to newbies, they were better before they went mainstream, the real game got lost when they made all those stupid changes to the rules. The wonk’s essential function in technocracy is to explain (they are always, always explaining): why History is Over, why justice is not possible, why evil can’t win and you can’t win either, how a little fix here and there is all we can really hope for. The futility of all of this does not discourage the wonk. The point is that they’re interested, that they’re searching. They’re more interested and more searching and more obsessed than you’ll ever be, poser.


    What defines the wonk is not their concern but their concern for what is. Where are they situated though? My first reaction when reading this essay was to wonder about differentiation, with the wonk living and breathing the reality of the field within which they work. But there have always been people defined by their occupations.

    What’s different about the wonk? Does it reflect an increasing degree of cultural autonomy, such that one can have an identity and lifestyle built solely in terms of the field they work within? Or a newfound inclination to so exhaustively construct a sense of identity around work? Or is it something about the intersection between fields, with wonks existing at the interface between politics, media, think tanks and academia? Is wonkish-ness a form of subcultural capital (to use Sarah Thornton’s concept) operating at this intersection? Who values wonkishness other than the wonks themselves? Finally, what are we to make of the rise of the higher education wonk? What does that say about the university system?

  • Mark 12:35 pm on April 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    “We are already in a position where we have to engage with digital media” 

  • Mark 9:51 am on April 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Call for Papers: The Journal of Repressive Social Theory 

    In recent years, calls for a reconsideration of critique, its place and value, have multiplied. The proposition that critique has run out of steam took on a new urgency with the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The doxa of progressive academia has found itself repudiated by these events, as conceptions of the social world universally assented to within the left-liberal academy have been revealed as phantasmic remainders from an older period of capitalist development.

    This new journal calls for a reorientation of social theory towards the reality we now reluctantly confront. Regressive times call for a repressive social theory, attuned to the contracting horizons of public life and the death of progressive futures into which we once invested so much. Contributions for this inaugural issue might include:

    • Nationalist populism and the challenge it poses for democracy
    • The inadequacy of leftist critique in the face of reactionary class politics
    • The difficulty of persuading people they should listen us to when we say things
    • How irritating we find it when people don’t agree with the things we say
    • The professional anxieties lurking behind the twists and turns of our run-on sentences
    • The necessity that our words become more obscure and our run-on sentences longer to cope with the spiralling complexity of late neoliberalism
    • The value of critique as the temporal horizon of viable employment within the critical social sciences contracts
    • The performativity of criticality and how it no longer makes us feel better about the world or ourselves

    At this stage, we invite titles and abstracts from potential contributors to the first issue. Final contributions should be between 8000 and 10000 words, articulated in a suitably dense and impenetrable style. Please e-mail TheFutureIsNotWhatItUsedToBe@Gmail.com to informally discuss a contribution.

  • Mark 6:51 pm on April 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Too busy to care for your cat? 

  • Mark 6:49 pm on April 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens 

    This is the fifth of Walter Benjamin’s thirteen rules for writing. I would love to know more about what this meant in practice to him. How often did he record his ideas? Where did he record them? How did their quantity and quality wax and wane in different circumstances? My conviction that blogging constitutes a technology of scholarly attentiveness rests on its capacity to habituate this practice.

  • Mark 5:37 pm on April 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Sociological Fiction Zine 

    Such a great project. Going to try and think of something to contribute to this:

    All sociologists write stories – Game & Metcalfe, Passionate Sociology

    The relationship between fiction and sociology is as old as the discipline itself. Sociological fiction is receiving increasing attention of late – see The Sociological Review’s blog series on sociology and fiction, and Patricia Leavy’s work with the social fictions series. As I’ve raised recently, parallel threads run between contemporary sociological and literary methods, their subject matter, and their critical approach. Fiction and sociology can do more than reciprocally illuminate understandings of social life. Sociologists can bring sociology not just to fiction, through sociological readings of fictional texts, but into fiction as writers.

    I’m seeking submissions of fiction writing that strives to do just that. Bring sociology into fiction. Creatively enliven the sociological imagination. Tell a story.

    The first volume of So Fi, a sociological fiction zine, is accepting pieces up to 1000 words until May 31, 2017.

    Send submissions to ashleigh.watson@griffithuni.edu.au.

  • Mark 5:20 pm on April 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    “I was being a complete asshole to people for nothing more than scoring points to look good inside an echo chamber” 

    A really fascinating discussion between Kristi Winters and The Wooly Bumblebee (HT Philip Moriarty). The latter’s experience could be seen as a model for de-radicalisation in the more toxic spaces within social media. An important reminder that platform incentives might encourage this behaviour but they don’t necessitate it. Furthermore, just because someone has come to act a given way doesn’t mean they will always act that way.

  • Mark 1:39 pm on April 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Social Morphogenesis: Five Years of Inquiring Into Social Change 

    Postmodernity. Second modernity. Network Society. Late modernity. Liquid modernity. Such concepts have dominated social thought in recent decades, with a bewildering array of claims about social change and its implications. But what do we mean by ‘social change’? How do we establish that such change is taking place? What does it mean to say that it is intensifying? These are some of the questions which the Social Morphogenesis project has sought to answer in the last five years, through an inquiry orientated around the speculative notion of ‘morphogenic society’.

    In this launch event, contributors to the project discuss their work over the last five years and the questions it has addressed concerning social change. The day begins with an introductory lecture by the convenor of the project, Margaret S. Archer, before a series of thematic panels presenting different stands of the project. It concludes with a closing session in which participants share three issues the project raised for them, as well as a general discussion.

    At the end of the day, there will be a wine reception to which all participants are invited. There will also be an opportunity to purchase discounted copies of the books from Springer.

    Book here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/social-morphogenesis-five-years-of-inquiring-into-social-change-tickets-33813890256

    Ismael Al-Amoudi
    Margaret S. Archer
    Mark Carrigan
    Pierpaolo Donati
    Emmanuel Lazega
    Andrea M. Maccarini
    Jamie Morgan
    Graham Scambler (Chair)

    More speakers to be confirmed.

    The Social Morphogenesis project was funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation through six years of support for the Centre for Social Ontology. This support was generously extended to enable this book launch.

  • Mark 6:23 pm on April 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    In defence of ‘curation’ 

    The term ‘curation’ has got a bad press in recent years. Or rather the use of the term beyond the art world has. To a certain extent I understand this but I nonetheless always feel the need to defend the term. There are a few reasons for this:

    • In a context of cultural abundance, selection from variety becomes important within a whole range of contexts. Inevitably, it is something most people within these contexts will do most of the times. But ‘curation’ is becoming a specialised activity, even if detached from a specific social role.
    • I’m prone to thinking of what I do, at least some of the time, as curation. I spend quite a lot of time each week sorting through mailing lists, newsletters, websites, blogs and social media to identify relevant content for The Sociological Review’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. This is 46 social media posts per day. I’ve also shared something on Sociological Imagination daily for almost seven years. I don’t particularly care what anyone else calls it but, as far as I’m concerned, doing it effectively is a skilled activity and ‘curation’ is the term I’ve taken to using.
    • The modern sense of the word ‘curation’ rests on a specific set of institutional arrangements which are themselves relatively recent. The word has a longer history, emerging from the Latin curator (“overseer, manager, guardian“) and what many construe as a misapplication could just as easily be taken as a further shift in its use. Language is dynamic and the anti-‘curation’ rhetoric is an attempt to police its change, albeit not a particularly significant or pernicious one.

    Ultimately, I don’t care if people reject this use of the term ‘curation’. I do care if people reject what the term ‘curation’ comes to designate. I don’t dispute it is often used in a vacuous way, but it is not always used this way. It is nebulous and modish but the terms which emerge in relation to socio-cultural transformations often are.

    It’s the socio-cultural changes which interest me, the abundance digitalisation is giving rise to and the epistemic fog which emerges as a result. To talk of ‘curation’ is a facet of that conversation and if people want to reject its use, I hope they’ll offer an alternative language for talking about selection from abundance as an institutionalised function within digital capitalism.

  • Mark 5:32 pm on April 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Using graphic novels to communicate your research 

    Manchester Digital Laboratory
    Thursday 8th June 2017

    The Sociological Review Foundation is delighted to announce our forthcoming workshop using graphic novel methods to present social research.

    We invite applications to take part in a Graphic Novel Workshop with Tony Lee. If your research involves incorporating graphic methods or you are simply interested in doing this to present future research, this workshop will be of interest to you.

    Workshop Format
    · Introduction on graphic novels: how the medium works, different genres, how they’ve changed and the design & production process
    · Story telling through graphic novels: how to develop the story, what works and what doesn’t, constraints of the medium etc
    · Delegates introduce their ideas for graphic novels and get feedback
    · General discussion & advice about next steps

    This event is FREE but places are limited to 25 people.

    This event is brought to you by The Sociological Review Early Career Researcher Board. We welcome applications for this workshop from people in all stages of their careers. However, should we receive significantly more applications than available places – priority will be given to ECRs and PGRs.

    Application deadline is 17.00 GMT, Monday 2nd May 2017. Please ensure to outline your research interests in the relevant section.

    Apply here: https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/events/using-graphic-novels-to-communicate-your-research.html

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