Updates from January, 2019 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 6:37 pm on January 31, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    For a whole range of reasons, I’m finding social media extremely tiresome at the moment. Hence I’ll just be here on my blog for the foreseeable future. 

    • landzek 7:53 pm on January 31, 2019 Permalink

      You are not allowed to take a break You are a social media theorist ! 🙂🙃😆

    • Mark 8:54 pm on February 1, 2019 Permalink

      I think too many would agree with you!

  • Mark 10:04 am on January 31, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Tony Lawson   

    The Cambridge approach to social ontology 

    My notes on Lawson, T. (2009). Cambridge social ontology: an interview with Tony Lawson. Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, 2(1), 100-122.

    Tony Lawson is a key figure in critical realism, leading the Cambridge Social Ontology group over twenty five years and playing a primary role in establishing the International Association for Critical Realism, as well as producing decades of work on social ontology and its relationship to economic thought. Originally a mathematician, I was intrigued by this interview’s insight that it was student activism which left him interested in economics, specifically the capacity of economic jargon to get in the way of political discussion. His bewilderment at ubiquitous economic modelling began as soon as he moved into an economics department, leaving him scathing in his critique of those who “are rather pedestrian in their approach to, and often very poor at, mathematics, though seemingly in awe of it, or perhaps in awe of mathematicians” (101). As he puts it, “there are limits to the uses of any specific form of mathematics” which economists seem largely unaware of. In other words, the uses and abuses of mathematics have been central to his work on social ontology, particularly the character of social reality which was obscured by techniques which sought no connection with it. This line of argument led him to connect with others in the nascent intellectual movement of critical realism:

    I produced stuff criticising economics from an explicitly realist perspective for ten years or so before coming across Roy. At some point, I discovered that a number of us were making similar or anyway related critiques of current social scientific practice, but situated in different disciplines. Margaret Archer was doing it in sociology; Andrew Sayer in human geography, and so on. Roy was doing a similar thing in philosophy and had the philosophical language. Eventually, we all sort of came together
    picking up especially on Bhaskar’s philosophical language—and the rest of his contribution, of course.  (102)

    However his interest in social ontology predates philosophical ontology. As he puts it on pg 102, “when I first came into economics at the LSE, my basic concern was that the methods we were taught presupposed a world of a sort very different to the one in which we actually seem to live”. These methods presuppose event regularities (if A then B), atomism (factors which operate uniformly in any context) and a non-processual social reality. The focus of this argument is upon the kind of reality presupposed, featured which can be concretely manifested in different ways as opposed to there being specific claims entailed by specific methods. It is paralleled by the question of what the world must be like for everyday social practices to work in the way that they do.

    It follows from his that one can’t build ‘up’ from ontological reasoning into empirical claims and substantive theorising. Its value is rather that it “helps avoid inappropriate reductionist stances and aids explanatory and ethical work” (104). This is why he stresses his primary interest is in ontology rather than critical realism, with the former leading him to the latter rather than being reducible to it. This encompasses philosophical ontology (“the practice of seeking to uncover shared properties of phenomena of a given domain”) and scientific ontology (“to explore the specifics of a phenomenon in a domain”). His work is tied up with the rejection of monism in economic method, described on pg 112:

    What I take to be essential to mainstream economics is the insistence that methods of mathematical modelling be everywhere and always employed in economic analysis. I emphasise the word ‘insistence’. It is this insistence that I reject wholesale. I do not, of course, oppose economists using or experimenting with mathematical methods, though I a m pessimistic about the likelihood of much insight being so gained. But I am opposed to the insistence that we must all use these, and only these, method
    s, that the use of these methods constitutes proper economics, that employment and promotion be restricted to those who use only mathematical models, that only modelling methods be taught to students, and so on

    The thing I found most interesting about this interview was his account of the Cambridge Social Ontology Group as a form of collective method, responding to the growing impersonality of the Cambridge Realist Workshop on Monday nights. The same people attend each time, with discussion focused around particular topics with continuity between the tweets. The focus of both is on questions rather than answers, though obviously the two cannot be separated. To what extent can this be seen as a method for doing ontology? The prevailing culture of the academy relegates organisation to a peripheral status but actually there are some fields of inquiry where it can function as a primary method in its own right. Getting this right is getting scholarship right, as opposed to initiating something which simply allows scholarship to be refined or transmitted.

    There’s a little aside on 107 which doesn’t really fit into the rest of these notes but which I don’t want to forget:

    I believe the emphasis on prediction in a world that is clearly open, is ultimately an aberrant form of behaviour that itself requires an explanation, probably a psychological one. In fact I am quite susceptible to the suggestion that, in many cases, the over-
    concern with prediction is something of a coping mechanism resulting from earlier traumas in life
  • Mark 8:32 am on January 31, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Sociology and anarchism 

    What a fascinating resource this is: Sociologists’ Knowledge of Anarchism Project. Thanks to Martyn Everett for passing it on.

    To explore sociologists’ knowledge about an alternate theoretical paradigm also concerned with society: anarchism. Sociologists tend to have an extremely variable familiarity with anarchist ideas—some who know a lot and others who know very little beyond crude, popular caricatures. This project engages with those sociologists who have substantial familiarity with, knowledge of, or experience with anarchism. The interviews will hopefully constitute discussion fodder for communities interested in sociology, anarchist studies, and anarchist movements.

    • juliegosling 9:22 am on January 31, 2019 Permalink

      immense reads  thank you Mark Julie 

      Sent from Samsung Mobile on O2

    • Mark 10:03 am on January 31, 2019 Permalink

      still not read it fully myself yet! looking forward to it

    • TheSociologicalMail 1:23 pm on June 21, 2019 Permalink

      Very interesting, I’ll have to look into it more!

  • Mark 10:02 am on January 28, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    The promise of university bureaucracy: academic neoliberalism as project rather than outcome 

    My notes on Nash, K. (2018). Neo-liberalisation, universities and the values of bureaucracy. The Sociological Review, 0038026118754780.

    It is too easy to frame neoliberalism in institutions as an outcome rather than a project. In this thoughtful paper, Kate Nash explores the space which this recognition opens up, the “competing and contradictory values in the everyday life of public sector organisations” which becomes apparent when we reject the supposition of “a fit between ideology, policy, political outcomes and practices” (178). Extending marketing competition into the university doesn’t automatically replace public goods, something which is important to grasp if we want to construct an adequate meso-social account of neoliberalisation. New Public Magement, as a theory of administration, might be explicitly opposed to bureaucracy but it is through a bureaucratic transformation that its tenets are woven into the fabric of an institution like the university. Nash begins her argument by revisiting Weber’s conception of the impartial promise of bureaucracy:

    I adopt Weber’s definition of bureaucracy as enacting an ‘ethos of impartiality’, treating individuals as cases according to strict rules of professional and technical expertise. Each person in an organisation should follow correct procedures to guard against making personal judgements; to avoid using the authority of their office to exercise power according to their own personal decisions, whims or alternative values (Du Gay, 2000; Weber, 1948). For Weber, famously, instrumental values, the means rather than the ends, come to predominate in a modern capitalist economy and we are all caught in an ‘iron cage’ of technical evaluations (Beetham, 1987, pp. 60–61; Mommsen, 1989, pp. 109–120). (179)

    However it is a mistake to regard bureaucracy as a totality, argues Nash, framing it as leading to the displacement of all values other than administrative efficiency. Rejecting this view allows us to distinguish between “different kinds of bureaucracy, that which undermines and that which supports education in universities” (179). It allows us to identify the values which marketisation entrenches (entrepreneurship and consumer choice) and find others to protect. The allocation of research funding (through the RAE/REF and individualised competitions) and teaching funding (through the student fees and student loans system) in UK universities reflects the entrenchment of these values. It is against this backdrop that collegiality, drawing on the analysis of Malcolm Waters, becomes interesting:

    Collegiality, he argues, is relevant to university life in that, firstly, as academics we understand ourselves to be experts in our different fields, and therefore as possessing insights into knowledge – scientific, of the humanities, of the arts – on which there are no higher authorities. As such, academics have a degree of expert authority; we expect, and to a large degree we maintain, our ability to ‘have the last word’ on what counts as a university education in our specialised disciplines through procedures of peer and student evaluation. Secondly, academics tend to think of the university as a ‘company of equals’. Where knowledge is ultimately what matters, other markers of status, wealth and power must be irrelevant. As Waters puts it, ‘if expertise is paramount, then each member’s area of competence may not be subordi- nated to other forms of authority’ (Waters, 1989, p. 955). Finally, Waters suggests that the value of ‘consensus’ is a norm of universities: only decisions that have the full support of the collectivity ‘carry the weight of moral authority’ (Waters, 1989, p. 955). (181)

    For Waters this is not necessarily a good thing, as collegiality brings closure i.e.the protection of insiders over outsiders, the defence of existing status against threats to it. This can make it appear to be a form of resistance to marketisation, but the intersection of the two can exasperate their existing problems e.g. superstar academics being able to exercise academic autonomy in a collegial mode, while others are left behind to aspire to collegial status (if I understand Nash’s point correctly). The fact that corporatism has displaced collegiality, to use McGettigan’s phase, doesn’t mean collegiality is a solution to the problem of corporatism.

    Even if the rise of audit culture and end of contractual tenure have dented academic autonomy, there is still an entrenched expectation that we “should be free to research, to publish and to teach ‘the truth’, however inconvenient or troublesome for university administrators, governments and civil servants, without fear of losing our jobs”. It has the associated expectation that we will develop this by “reading widely, with curiosity, developing capacities to think through different meanings of concepts, challenge fundamental assumptions, and design and use systematic methodologies, as well as to uncover facts through scholarship and empirical research” (182). Meeting this expectation requires temporal autonomy in relation to free time in which nothing is being produced that can easily be registered.

    Audit culture on Power’s account threatens this through twin processes: colonisation (transforming an organisation’s values through measuring its activity) and decoupling (the circularity of auditing which has paperwork produced for auditing as its sole object). The assumption underlying this is that “professionals cannot be trusted to do their jobs well; in particular, we cannot be trusted to deliver value for money” (183). However bureaucratic work is of the same kind and Nash draws attention to that we engage in outside of audit, including those activities which support education and resist abuses of collegiality and marketisation. Nash reminds us that “we should not see bureaucracy solely as marketising, nor only as imposed from above” (184). These are described by Nash as socialising bureaucracy:

    Socialising bureaucracy regularises collegiality in that it helps academ- ics communicate what counts as good teaching and learning, what counts as research and learning that is of academic merit, and what assumptions and biases should not be allowed to make a difference in these judgements. It regulates collegiality in that documents and procedures help set limits on academics’ discretionary judgements. (185).

    Against an exclusive focus on marketisation as a threat to education, Nash reminds us of those cases where professional power threatens it e.g. academics act in ways that serve  their own private interests rather than those of education. The first example she gives is formalisation of equal treatment where mechanisms ensure staff and students are assessed on the relevant grounds of academic performance and other criteria are excluded. The contractualisation of learning formalises the reciprocal expectations placed upon teachers and learners, mechanisms ensuring both parties have a working understanding of how the interaction will proceed.

    Socialising bureaucracy in this sense mitigates the pathologies of both collegiality and marketisation. Recognising the critiques which see these mechanisms as killing spontaneity and charisma, Nash asks how we could otherwise secure the value for teaching and learning for everyone in a mass higher education system which has expanded dramatically over recent decades? Nonetheless distinguishing marketing bureaucracy from  socialising bureaucracy is difficult in practice. Both can contribute to the intensification of work and be experienced as destructive of autonomy. Furthermore, one kind of bureaucracy can stimulate the other

    What’s particularly interesting for my purposes is Nash’s analysis of the grey area opened up between the two by intensified competition within and between universities:

    It includes dealing with the paperwork associated with the explosion of publishing, showcasing and promotion of academic work – from reviewing articles for journals and book manuscripts and editing journals to organising and publicising conferences and seminars; the bureaucracy of applying for and dealing with funded research, which can mean managing a team; designing, developing and publicising popular programmes and courses; reviewing new programmes for other Departments and universities; acting as external examiner for other universities; and writing references for colleagues and students. In virtually every case, these activities require hours of meetings and emails, as well as filling in forms, and they often require producing online as well as offline materials. In addition, there are also meetings, emails and paperwork associated with running a Department and a university as if it were a business: writing and re-writing ‘business plans’, ‘job descriptions’, ‘programme specifications’, ‘strategies’ to promote research, enhance student experience and so on (188)

    It strikes me that social media is part of this grey area but it also something through which much of the gray area is inflected i.e. it is an expectation in itself but also a way of undertaking these other activities. To use an example I talk about a lot: if social media makes it quicker to publicise seminars and conferences then why do we constantly assume it will be a net drain on our time? This seems like the theoretical framework I’ve been looking for to help make sense of the institutionalisation of social media within the university.

  • Mark 9:47 am on January 26, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , data politics, politics of big data   

    CfP: Political epistemologies of Big Data 

    I’m giving serious thought to this, as much as I’m trying to save money and travel less:

    Call for Papers for the Conference „Scraping the Demos“: Political
    epistemologies of Big Data

    Organizers: Research Group Quantification and Social Regulation
    (Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society) and DVPW Thematic Group
    “Internet and Politics. Electronic Governance”

    Date: 8-9 July 2019 (lunch-to-lunch)

    Conference location: WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Reichpietschufer
    50, D-10785 Berlin, Germany

    Responsible: Dr. Lena Ulbricht lena.ulbricht@wzb.eu

    The conference explores political epistemologies of big data. Political
    epistemologies are practices by which societies construct politically
    relevant knowledge and the criteria by which they evaluate it. These
    practices and criteria may originate in scientific, political, cultural,
    religious, and economic contexts. They evolve over time, vary between
    sectors, are inherently political and therefore subject to conflict. Big
    data is the practice of deriving socially relevant knowledge from
    massive and diverse digital trace data. The rise of digital technologies
    in all social spheres has enabled new epistemic practices which have
    important political implications: Political elites see digital
    technologies as sources of new and better tools for learning about the
    citizenry, for increasing political responsiveness and for improving the
    effectiveness of policies.

    Practices such as “big data analysis”, “web scraping”, “opinion mining”,
    “sentiment analysis”, “predictive analytics”, and “nowcasting” seem to
    be common currency in the public and academic debate about the present
    and future of evidence-based policy making and representative democracy.
    Data mining and web scraping, techniques to access information “hidden”
    behind the user interface of a website or device, seem to establish
    themselves as epistemic practices with political implications. They
    generate knowledge about populations and the citizenry which diverge in
    many ways from previous ways of “seeing” and constructing the demos.
    Data that is based on digital collection tools is often much more
    personal, it can relate different kinds of information and in many cases
    offer an improved predictive capability. Therefore, survey methods and
    traditional administrative data may lose influence on political
    epistemologies. To rely on big data means to rely on data sources that
    accumulate information without awareness of the concerned individuals.
    This epistemic shift can be observed in policy advice, government and
    administration, and political campaigning. Emerging research strands
    such as “computational social sciences,” “social physics,” “policy
    analytics”, “policy informatics”, and “policy simulations” strive for
    better evidence, more transparency and responsiveness in policy making
    and governments such as in the UK, or, as in Australia, have set up
    strategies of “open policy making”, “agile policy making” and “public
    service big data”.

    Political parties and advocacy groups use digital data to address
    citizens and muster support in a targeted manner; public authorities try
    to tailor public policy to public sentiment measured-online, forecast
    and prevent events (as in predictive policing, preemptive security and
    predictive healthcare), and continuously adapt policies based on
    real-time monitoring. An entire industry of policy consultants and
    technology companies thrives on the promise related to the political
    power of digital data and analytics. And finally, academic research
    engages in digitally enhanced computational social sciences, digital
    methods and social physics on the basis of digital trace data, machine
    learning and computer simulations. The political implications of these
    epistemic practices have yet to be examined in detail. Indeed, the rise
    of digital technologies in all social spheres may alter the relations
    between citizens and political elites in various ways: it could improve,
    impoverish (or simply change) political participation, policy
    transparency, accountability of political elites and, and decision-making.

    The aim of the conference is to bring together scholars from various
    related disciplines working on the topic, including, but not limited to:
    political communication, elections and party politics, science and
    technology studies, political theory, history, sociology and philosophy
    of science, critical data studies and computational social sciences.
    These fields of research have addressed various aspects related to
    political epistemologies in the digital age – but there have been only
    few opportunities to relate them, to compare similar practices in
    different fields (for example in public policy and in political
    campaigning) and to examine the broader picture in order to generate
    theories about the political epistemologies of big data, algorithms and
    artificial intelligence. Contributions can be both, conceptual or empirical.

    The conference is interested in research concerning the following
    questions and similar topics:
    •       What are the political epistemologies underlying the use of big data
    and related phenomena such as algorithms, machine learning and
    artificial intelligence in political contexts?
    •       Which scientific, political, social and economic practices make use of
    digital data and methods? How do these practices construct knowledge
    which is deemed as politically relevant?  By which
    (rhetoric/procedural/technical) means do these practices and the actors
    involved substantiate their claims to political relevance?
    •       What insights can we gain from the computational social sciences in
    relation to traditional social science methods when it comes to
    political behavior, public opinion, policy making etc.?
    •       How are digitally mediated political epistemologies related to other
    political epistemologies? How are they embedded in institutional
    practices and values?
    •       Which interpretive conflicts do we witness with regard to the
    knowledge produced and legitimized by digital technologies; which are
    its major challengers? In which ways do epistemic practices based on big
    data, compared to other epistemic practices, influence the chances for
    challenging political knowledge claims?
    •       How can we place political epistemologies in a historical or cultural
    •       What are the implications of digitally mediated political
    epistemologies for evidence-based policy making and for representative
    democracy? Which conceptions of participation, representation and good
    governance are embedded in the related practices? How do big
    data-related epistemic practices reconfigure democratic concepts? Do we
    witness a new form of technocracy?
    •       How should democratic societies shape and regulate big-data-based
    epistemic practices? Which contributions can we expect from algorithmic
    accountability, data protection and research ethics?
    The conference will provide academic reflections to current public
    debates about the state of democracy in the digital age, considering
    that in 2019 various elections take place in German speaking countries,
    at the level of the European Parliament and within the German federal
    states of Bremen, Hamburg, Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia, as well as
    in Austria and Switzerland (regional and federal level). The keynote
    will be held by professor Daniel Kreiss, the author of a seminal book
    about the use of data-related practices in political campaigning
    (“Prototype Politics” 2016). The conference will also include artistic
    interventions and a lab.

    The conference will offer childcare, will be video-recorded, and held in
    English. If the funding application is successful, the travel costs of
    paper presenters will be covered. The organizers plan on following up
    the conference with a publication project.

    Abstracts should make explicit on which theories, methods and, if
    applicable, empirical material the paper is based. Please send your
    abstract of 300-500 words until February 24 to the following address:

    Preliminary program structure
    8 July 2019
    14.00   Welcome address
    14.15   Keynote by professor Daniel Kreiss + discussion
    15.30   Coffee
    16.00   Paper presentations
    17.30   Lab and art exhibition
    18.30   Reception
    9 July 2019
    9.00    Paper presentations
    10.30   Coffee
    11.00   Paper presentations
    12.30   Paper presentations or panel discussion
    14.00   Ending

  • Mark 9:45 am on January 26, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    How Should STS Address Inequality? As a Subject, a (Dis)Value)? Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives 

    An absolutely fascinating 4S panel from Ana Vara and David Tyfield:

    2019 New Orleans Sept 4-7

    Open Panel 69: How Should STS Address Inequality? As a Subject, a (Dis)Value)? Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives

    In technoscientific times of huge and increasing inequalities that involve almost all aspects of social life, both within and between countries, questions regarding inequality seem unavoidable to STS scholars, both from an analytical and an ethical standpoint. Specifically, the roles of technoscience in conditioning how inequality is created and augmented, and the (possibly novel) nature of its impacts on trajectories of innovation and vice versa emerge as central concerns.

    STS has a long history of engagement with such issues. Since the early days of the field, the study of controversies (e.g. Nelkin) has highlighted the unequal distribution of risks and benefits in the development and implementation of many technologies, contributing to entire new fields of research such as environmental justice. Other topics related to inequality addressed by STS include working conditions, race, access to health, and gender. The study of the production of knowledge has also taken into account the differential status of knowledge according to its origin. While the study of ignorance is a relatively newer focus, with categories such as “undone science” by David Hess et al. targeting inequality quite specifically.

    However, in spite of its sustained concern, STS has not developed specific theoretical frameworks on inequality. This panel invites discussion of the possibility and desirability of the development of specific theoretical frameworks on inequality in STS, as well as how contributions from other disciplines can be accommodated. From an empirical perspective, this Panel encourages contributions on cases where this problematic issue is central in different ways.

    Ana Vara, National University of San Martín, Argentina
    David Tyfield, Lancaster University, UK


    The deadline for submissions at the conference website (https://convention2.allacademic.com/one/ssss/4s19/ or via https://www.4s2019.org/call-for-submissions/) is February 1st, 2019

  • Mark 9:58 am on January 25, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    The Politics of Big Data: Social Listening and Reclaiming the Future 

    From an interesting British Academy funded workshop last November:

  • Mark 3:08 pm on January 24, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , ,   

    Capturing the classroom: the Google Agenda 

    My notes on this report by Google Transparency Project 

    There are many reasons to be cautious about the educational ambitions of tech firms. If these firms seem likely to be the dominant actors of the global economy over the coming decades, how will shape the influence they exercise over education. To offer the most concrete example I can think of: if tech firms shape the curriculum for digital citizenship and digital safety, will they present themselves as sources of digital risk? I doubt it and it’s one of many reasons why their projects and initiatives need to be carefully scrutinised. Capturing the Classroom by the Google Transparency Project is an important contribution to precisely this agenda.

    It investigate how technology procurement has been upended in American schools, with “a rigorous and competitive process that carefully weighed factors including cost, usefulness and safeguards on children’s privacy” being radically transformed by Google “directly enlisting teachers to push their products into the classroom”. This has been undertaken through the recruitment of teacher evangelists and organisation of teaching summits (pg 2) with existing professional development budgets bearing the cost of helping teachers adapt to this new technological infrastructure. It is a process which “focused on teachers and their power to spread the word about Google’s classroom potential—all while bypassing the administrators that typically make decisions about technology and other educational tools” (pg 7). In some cases, the teacher trainers win consultancy contracts with no disclosure terms attached, echoing the established practice of Big Pharma offering paid speaking gigs to doctors in the expectation they act as advocates for their products.

    It has also sparked the proliferation of an ecosystem of blogs, resources and consultancies “among educators and administrators looking to cash in on school districts’ technology craze” (pg 12). In some cases, these businesses then work with other tech firms, creating a sustained mobilisation of big tech advocacy within education. Third party firms can place a distance between a teacher and Google, blunting the appearance of a conflict of interest.

    The authors draw the contrast to Coke and Pepsi’s ambition to produce customers for life by placing vending machines in every school. They suggest Google have already seen considerable success:

    Today, 25 million students worldwide use Google’s Chromebooks at school, 30 million teachers and students use Google Classroom, and more than 80 million people use G Suite for Education. (Pg 2)

    The success of their initiatives has inspired other firms to follow their lead, described on pg 5:

    Google isn’t the only technology company trying to push its products into the classroom. Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, as well as other device manufacturers and software developers, all have aggressive programs targeted at classrooms. Many, such as Amazon Inspire, Microsoft’s Certified Educator program19 and Apple’s Distinguished Educator program, take a page directly from Google’s playbook, also courting teachers and administrators with free trips, software and, increasingly, lucrative consulting gigs moonlighting for EdTech companies. (Pg 5)

    However they note that Google has a crucial advantage, in that it can offer hardware as loss leaders in a way that its competitors cannot. Many questions remain unanswered about the commercial significance of this, including whether student profiles built up in school are ‘switched on’ when students enter adult life (pg 7).

    • Patrick Ainley 11:32 am on January 28, 2019 Permalink

      This was – probably still is – Gove’s part of plan for schools in his frequent meetings with Murdoch!

    • Mark 5:56 pm on January 30, 2019 Permalink

      sure you’re right!

  • Mark 10:35 am on January 24, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , ,   

    Who are the super-rich and what do they want? 

    My notes on Davies, W. (2017). Elites without hierarchies: Intermediaries,‘agency’and the super-rich. In Cities and the super-rich (pp. 19-38). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

    Who are the super-rich, and what do they want? This is the question which a thought provoking paper by Will Davies begins with and it’s one which has preoccupied me in recent years. Our statistical understand of the super-rich has increased in recent years but this increased knowledge leaves a range of sociological questions which need to be addressed:

    What do they want to do with all that money, other than protect it, grow it and pass it on to their children? Do they want political power, and if so, of what kind and to what end? Or do they employ it culturally, to achieve their own modes of Bourdieusian distinction from the other 99.9%? (pg 2)

    For a Millsian approach to elites, the question is which political, cultural or military  institutions are they gravitating towards in pursuit of power? For the Marxist approach, it’s a question of shared interests, their collective consciousness of them and self-organisation in pursuit of them in relation to other classes, as well as the tools of exploitation leveraged in this process. Davies agrees with Mike Savage that these aren’t necessarily the right questions, summarising his argument that we need to take money seriously as money (rather than assume it is waiting to be converted into power, with the assumption elites are intrinsically political) and must adequately describe capital before we can theorise it (rather than apply pre-existing categories to incomplete or outdated descriptions of our object).

    What is this object? Is it a class? Is it a group? To what extent is it open or closed? To these challenges Davies adds another one: “the need to avoid wholesale methodological individualism, while recognising the deeply personal and individualised nature of the relationships and strategies that appear to structure the lives of the super-rich” (pg 3). Piketty’s contribution is to reorientate analysis way from the labour market and towards the family. But this is difficult because knowledge is partial and the super-rich is secretive. In order to addresses these challenges, Davies suggests we study intermediaries: agents working on behalf of the super-rich who represent their interests. By focusing on agency, in the sense of one party being contracted to represent the interests of another, it is possible to response to Savage’s challenges and move the study of the super rich forward.

    He draws on Simmel’s account of money as a teleological vacuum, a pure means which extends beyond every possible use to which it can be put, connecting this to the ambitions of the super-rich. Piketty’s insight about the increasing importance of unearned wealth in the economy, as well as Dorling’s recognition of the professional classes now being subsumed into the 99%, yield a sense of the super-rich as breaking away. As he puts it on pg 6, “To break free of the bounds of culture, politics or technological limits becomes a teleology in itself, the same anti-teleology that Simmel identified as the metaphysical nature of money”. This is tied to a phenomenology of valuing money as “a state of arbitrariness, where money can be experienced as perfect liquidity, without friction” and “extreme form of negative liberty that lacks all normative restraint and relationship only to the future” (pg 16).

    The problem of agency is key if we wish to avoid taking this analysis too far, with their insulation depending on the capacity of agents to represent the interests of the super-rich to the wider world. He summarises this as a theoretical approach on pg 8:

    In this spirit, I want to propose a theoretical device which may help to shape a sociological approach to the super-rich – principle-agent problems. In particular, I suggest that we can think of the relationship of the super-rich to domains of power, culture and production as a series of principle-agent problems, in which they seek a form of representation which absolves them of the need to become involved in matters of public concern or controversy.

    Principle-agent problems rest on the “paranoid methodological individualism” associated with game theory, with the primary challenge being to ensure the agent does not use their position to pursue their own private interests rather than those of the principle they are representing. Interestingly, this is the rationale for stock options for executives, theoretically encouraging them to act in pursuit of shareholder interest by making them a shareholder. But as Davies notes, the fact executive renumeration has risen more quickly than the stock market suggests it actually makes the agency problem worse.

    This ties to a broader ambiguity about their position, as “symptoms of the deep-lying ambiguity surrounding the corporate form generally, which is neither a piece of private property nor a political association, but flips from one to the other as it suits” (pg 9). Training as professionals has been one solution but managers lack the monopoly over a specific domain of knowledge typical of professionals and their connection to the public interest is tentative and contestable. Techniques such as edit and credit rating were introduced to address this ambiguity but this introduce their own problem of agency, at least if the rating agency is paid by the company it rates.

    This sociological reframing of the principle-agent problem “is a particular way of
    representing the interface of politics and economics” (pg 11). If I understand him correctly, economics is insulated from politics by outsourcing normative evaluation to agents; capital can float free of controversy because the evaluation, justification and debate takes place at a distance through the mediation of ratings agencies, auditors, central bankers and policy makers. It is a form of “moral under-writing – declaring that activities are transparent and trustworthy, sometimes when they are not” (pg 15). The same analysis can be applied to the growth of family offices whose purposes is to “save super-rich families from having to engage in public situations (getting a child into a school, handling tax, booking a restaurant table, managing property) which may involve any form of antagonism” (pg 11). Whereas professionals once anchored capital in the public sphere, now they facilitate its escape.

    He uses this to make the fascinating argument that the super-rich may benefit from further neoliberalisation, but it’s unclear how actively they are supporting it. Agency in this sense allows them to avoid becoming a class-for-itself, highlighting a micro-social disjuncture between the economic and the political which prevailing concepts of ‘neoliberalism’ are unable to capture. As a project it “required considerable solidarity and reflexive self-understanding on the part of capitalists and ideologues themselves, through think tanks, lobbying bodies, political parties, philanthropic networks” (pg 14). But if I understand correctly, its success has eroded the conditions which made the is possible while also making it less necessary than was once the case. In its place, we have increasingly complex webs of “non-hierarchical, non-exploitative dyadic contractual relations” (pg 15) which often overlap within super-rich networks in which intermediaries have become full members over the preceding decades. It follows from this that the problem is not wealth corrupting politics, as much as “how wealth is kept entirely separate from politics and public life, through strategic acts of delegation, where the delegate is also a delegator” (pg 15).

  • Mark 3:34 pm on January 22, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Are you interested in sociological fiction? 

    Are you interested in sociological fiction? Did you know there’s a new online home for it at The Sociological Review, edited by Ashleigh Watson? The first few pieces in our new section are online:

    See here for guidance about how to contribute to. We plan to have much more over the coming months and years.

  • Mark 7:33 pm on January 21, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Everything’s connected, right? Everything’s connected 

    You’re with me all the time
    I think I know you better than I did when we were hanging out together
    What’s it like where you’ve gone?
    Well, I can feel it, it’s ok, I know you can’t say
    But you’ve been with me all day, I have to tell you
    When it happened, I couldn’t cry for ages
    But when it hit me, I fucking screamed like a lion in a cage
    And, look, I fasted, I didn’t eat a thing for, like, a week
    And I just walked across the heath in the rain
    Spittin’ bars to the grass, and listenin’ to the cars skidding past
    I thought life would get more real or something more fast
    But it didn’t
    When I look at your son, though
    Life’s hidden meanings come to the front of my vision
    And it’s weird, the way I see it right now, it’s so strong
    I’d never be the person I’d become if you would never gone
    Everything’s connected, right? Everything’s connected
    And even if I can’t read it right, everything’s a message
    We die so the others can be born
    We age so the others can be young
    The point of life is live, love
    If you can, then pass it on, right?
    We die so the others can be born
    We age so the others can be young
    The point of life is live, love
    If you can, then pass it on

  • Mark 5:10 pm on January 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    How does one become a competitive Rubiks cube player? 

    My sociological question after discovering the world of competitive Rubiks cube: how does one become a competitive Rubiks cube player? Is there an identifiable moral career in Goffman’s sense? There’s a vast internet subculture relating to this and I’m curious about the role it has play in enabling the competitive Rubiks cube world to coalesce. Here’s the video of the 2017 championship, watched 800,000 times:

    Speedcubing is growing hugely, from twelve competitions in 2004 to 880 competitions in 2017. There’s a documentary Why We Cube that seems to explore the competitors but what about the spectators? Are they aspiring high level speed-cubers, curious spectators, people who’ve decided they don’t have the commitment or skills for speed-cubing?

  • Mark 12:13 pm on January 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Jonathan hickman, , secret wars   

    A few questions about Marvel’s Secret Wars 

    If you’re here for the social theory or social media, please ignore this massively nerdy post. I’ve now read Marvel’s Secret Wars twice and there’s a few things I’m mystified by. Have I missed a big chunk of the storytelling? Or were these Chekhov’s rifles gone wrong: elements introduced into a vastly complex plot which Hickman didn’t have the time, space or energy to do anything about later?

    • How did Stephen Strange become the leader of the Black Priests?
    • What was the plan which adult Franklin and Valeria embarked upon in the closing stages of Hickman’s pre-SW Fantastic Four run?
    • What role did adult Franklin and Immortus/Kang play? They were seen in Captain America’s trip through time and then never came back
    • Who were soldiers the original Black Swan turned up with in New Avengers #1?
    • Where did the original Black Swan come from and what were his motivations? It was hinted early not there was a secret to be revealed and it never was.
    • What did Tony Stark actually do to make the world hate in him in the missing six months?

    In the early stages this was the most gripping Marvel storyline I remember in 25+ years of reading them. But it added up to less than the sum of its part and I’m still slightly irritated by all the dangling plots points.

    • landzek 5:55 pm on January 20, 2019 Permalink

      I remember the secret wars and I remember my friend collecting all of them. I didn’t really read much past the first couple because they were too confusing. Lol.

      My friend committed suicide about three years ago by jumping a the cliff in Hawaii. Maybe he knew something.

  • Mark 11:56 am on January 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply

    Are you interested in blogging about social science methodology? 

    The International Journal of Social Research Methodology has a new blog and we’re seeking contributions. We’re hoping it can be a vibrant space in which emerging methodological debates can unfold, tentative ideas voiced for the first time and professional discussions held in a public forum. This recent post on complexity and health inequalities gives a sense of what we’re interested in, though we’re open to any suggestions you may have. Please get in touch via the contact form if you would like to discuss. Myself (social media editor) and Brian Castellani (co-editore) will work with you to develop the post.

    • Di Turgoose 4:47 pm on January 20, 2019 Permalink

      Hello Mark, articles under virtual issues eg Diaz De Rada’s article on survey non response is not accessible – there is a note saying only available until Nov 2016 Di Di Turgoose SFHEA Hawthorn Building Room 00.02 Tel: 0116 257 7281 [direct dial] Email: di.turgoose@dmu.ac.uk Co-Convenor Sexual Violence & Domestic Violence Network Visit our website at: http://www.svdv.org.uk DMU Institute for Research on Criminal, Community & Social Justice ________________________________________

    • Di Turgoose 4:51 pm on January 20, 2019 Permalink

      Hi Mark, please ignore last email – I have now re read your post and can see you were only referring to your new blog on the website Di

      Di Turgoose SFHEA Hawthorn Building Room 00.02 Tel: 0116 257 7281 [direct dial] Email: di.turgoose@dmu.ac.uk Co-Convenor Sexual Violence & Domestic Violence Network Visit our website at: http://www.svdv.org.uk DMU Institute for Research on Criminal, Community & Social Justice ________________________________________ From: Di Turgoose Sent: 20 January 2019 16:49 To: Mark Carrigan Subject: RE: [New post] Are you interested in blogging about social science methodology?

      Hello Mark, articles under virtual issues eg Diaz De Rada’s article on survey non response is not accessible – there is a note saying only available until Nov 2016 Di Di Turgoose SFHEA Hawthorn Building Room 00.02 Tel: 0116 257 7281 [direct dial] Email: di.turgoose@dmu.ac.uk Co-Convenor Sexual Violence & Domestic Violence Network Visit our website at: http://www.svdv.org.uk DMU Institute for Research on Criminal, Community & Social Justice ________________________________________

    • Mark 8:43 pm on January 21, 2019 Permalink

      No worries will still check it out though

  • Mark 11:52 am on January 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , technocracy, uncertainty   

    Why doesn’t technocrat have an antonym? 

    My notes on Hudson, M. (2018). Ending technocracy with a neologism? Avivocracy as a conceptual tool. Technology in Society, 55, 136-139.

    What does it mean to call someone technocratic? In this intriguing paper, Marc Hudson observes that the term is “thrown about as a term of abuse, but without a clear alternative other than ritual(istic) invocations of the need for citizens to be involved in decision making” (136). The common understanding of the term is clear enough, “derived from Greek words τέχνη, tekhn meaning skill and κράτος, kratos meaning power”:

    Technocracy is commonly understood as a type of governing/administration where everything is built upon self-proclaimed fully rationalised (and ideally evidence-based policy) and methods, in which all decisions and actions claim to be based upon scientific and technological knowledge. (136)

    But without an antonym, it’s hard to see what is at stake is using the designation and it muddies the war rather than clarifying matters. It is a term that almost always has negative connotations and is used near exclusively by critics of (what they define as) technocracy. A moralistic and pejorative term of this sort is likely to be dismissed by many of those who tend to be defined as technocrats, leading to the ironic state of affairs that it’s a framing which actually empowers those it intends to critique because “because it enables them to dismiss critics as merely moralistic” (136). Hudson therefore seeks an antonym purged of this moralism, able to demoralise claims about sustainability and position them as fully rational alternatives to the status quo. He lays out the case against technocrats on 137:

    Technocrats are criticised as actors who – by preventing certain
    ideas, values and their advocates entering the rooms where decisions
    are being made – institutionalise epistemic injustice, and use
    ‘practicality’ as an intellectual baton

    The core complaints about technocracy are familiar: the hubris of technocrats, their lack of accountability, their depoliticising effects. However it still leaves the question of the antonym of technocracy, with Hudson convincingly arguing that “the term democracy has become so emptied of meaning that on its own it does not act as an adequate antonym to technocracy”, even when qualified as monitory or deliberative (137). He considers a range of other possibilities: Luddism (rejected because of its pervasive, if inaccurate, connotations of technophobia), Holacracy (retaining the impulse towards control but channeling it through self-organised teams rather than a bureaucracy) and Permaculture (building stability through the modelling of natural processes, providing little vantage point from which to problematising technocracy). For this reason he reaches for a neologism:

    With the existing possibilities inadequate, what is needed is a word that refers to a form of rule by capturing the importance of acknowledging irreducible uncertainty, ambiguity and uncontrollability, beyond the usual blandishments about a ‘risk society’. A word is needed which espouses cognitive humility, acceptance of limitations (something some policymakers struggle with – and the need for “clumsy organisations” to deal with wicked problems and super wicked problems. (137)
    Avivocracy is intended to capture “the need for an acute awareness of the limitations of our ability not merely to see the world, but to control it” (138). It encompasses ”

    the efforts of reflexive governance, adaptive governance, flux ontology, grassroots resilience, monitory democracy, transitions management (rightly understood) and
    other ways of advocating reform of existing sclerotic and not fit-for-purpose institutions” (138). Democratising implications follow from this but it is a consequence rather than a cause with the weigh of avivocracy resting in an orientation to “the permanent, irreducible and escalating uncertainties of twenty-first century human civilisation” (138). If technocracy seeks to control, shut down or transcend these uncertainties, avivocracy seeks to cope with them and grow through them. It is not anti-technogical but rather suggests an orientation towards technology.
  • Mark 9:46 am on January 19, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , group behaviour, Ibn Khaldun, risk taking   

    Towards a neo-Khaldunian digital sociology: @morteza_hm on the Bedouins of Silicon Valley 

    My notes on Hashemi, M. (2019). Bedouins of Silicon Valley: A neo-Khaldunian approach to sociology of technology. The Sociological Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026118822823 

    This hugely original paper seeks to counteract what Morteza Hashemi sees as an excessive focus on technological development in accounts of Silicon Valley, looking beyond this macro-social (often Schumpeterian) approach to “the evolution of Silicon Valley as a technological, economic and institutional phenomenon” to the micro-social questions which are implicit within it (pg 2). This is undertaken through a contemporary rereading of Ibn Khaldun’s theory, originally applied to the “Bedouin tribes of his day” whose members Would “learn to face daily crises without fear” because “[f]ailure to do this would put at stake their very survival” (pg 2). This was part of a hugely complex theory of social change, produced in the fourteenth centre, until recently confined to historical work which sought to place it in context but increasingly being taken up by sociologists exploring its contemporary relevance and capacity to be applied to issues like modern technology and technological innovation.

    Ibn Khaldun developed an empirically-orientated social theory which sought to “distinguish between the series of events and their deep meanings, trajectories and recurring patterns” (pg 3) through a rational mentality, a rejection of rhetoric and an empirical examination of events. An important concept was asabiyya (group feeling), which Hashemi notes is often misdefined merely as solidarity. It refers to the “mutual emotional commitment, moral obligation and unity”, arising from sustained interaction under harsh conditions, “transform a simple interdependency into something more than that”: it is a “social mechanism able to create a powerful and functional unit which can survive and flourish under inhospitable conditions” (pg 4). He outlines on pg 4 the contrast Khaldun drew between the Bedouins and city dwellers, as well as the social dynamics which flowed from it:

    The Bedouins, living in the harsh conditions of the desert, had become both skilled and trained, and their religion magnified their strong asabiyya/group feeling. The city-dwellers, on the other hand, with their secure life inside the city walls were mostly inclined towards a luxurious lifestyle and the delights of civilization. This left their society fragile in the face of the attacks of the hardier Bedouins. The point is that once the Bedouins had conquered the cities and built their own empire they were soon themselves absorbed into the life of the civilized world, thereby losing their outstanding merits and qualities, including the essential element of asabiyya. Hence, they would in their turn be replaced by new tribes of Bedouin conquerors. His estimate was that each dynasty of Bedouin conquerors could survive up to four generations. After the fourth generation of rulers, the former Bedouins would have become so accustomed to the safe, sedentary life as to be in danger of a new invasion by another group of Bedouins.

    Over time inherited tradition (which I assume encompasses institutions, as well as beliefs) comes be relied upon more than the achieved qualities of the group, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with emerging challenges. Hashemi strips away the underlying environmental determinism and retains this core “notion of a cycle in which risk-takers replace risk-avoiders” (pg 4). Training is central to this because it cultivates a certain kind of group with certain kinds of orientations towards risk. It involves the accumulation of aptitudes which Hashemi notes has affinities with Bourdieu’s concept of habits. Their difference is in moments of crisis and rupture where Bourdieu understood the habitus would fail in its action guiding capacity. In contrast Khaldun saw crisis as crucial for the development of the aptitudes. As Hashemi elegantly puts it on pg 6, “for Bourdieu the game almost stops when it comes to crisis, for Ibn Khaldun crisis is the very game”: it is the norm rather than the exception.

    It is a conception with a collective focus, orientated towards how the group weathers the crisis and how they are changed in the process. If I understand correctly, it’s crucial to note this does not imply unity; some of these effects happen individually, forming group characteristics through aggregation, while remaining a collective process. Drawing on Sloterdijk’s work, Hashemi reads Khaldun as having identified two anthropotechnic systems, corresponding to the latter’s distinction between city-dwellers (relying on the institutions) and Bedouins (relying on themselves):

    The one is the luxurious way of shaping life that entails externalization and outsourcing of some vital skills. The other system is about cultivating those skills and relying on one’s inner abilities. (pg 9)

    As he goes on to write on pg 10, Khaldun’s social theory is deeply relevant to a world characterised by risk, ‘disruption’, uncertainty and change:

    For Ibn Khaldun, hazard, destruction and catastrophe are not the only results of a crisis. Crises are human-made, but they also make human beings. Crises are training camps. They are the source of construction as well as destruction. In the words of Nietzsche, that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

    He analyses the rise of the geeks in these terms, originally “an underground network of college students, university students and computer scientists who cared about the internet as an open and powerful infrastructure which can fundamentally transform aspects of our life” bound together by a shared marginalisation and a faith in the transformative possibilities offered by technology (pg 11). There are four elements to Khaldun’s conception of training which we can see in the ascendency of the geeks: “step-by-step training under conditions of hardship” (toiling in obscurity, in co-working spaces or incubators, without any guarantee of respite), “the power arising from the combination of Bedouin training and a charismatic leader who is an authority behind external law” (the role of the VCs or investors in transforming their fortunes), risk-taking (the constant necessary to avoid being superseded, the source of organisational renewal). I felt it was a shame the paper stopped here because the real force of this line of argument would be subsequent cycle of decline and challenge likely to be faced by the now ascended geeks. But it’s a fantastically original and thought-provoking paper which has left me eagerly anticipating a sequel.

  • Mark 12:27 pm on January 17, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , troll,   

    What happens when you meet a troll? 

    This is one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen on YouTube. I’d enthusiastically watch an entire web series built around this premise. There’s a whole research agenda waiting to be undertaken exploring the troll’s claim that he needed to be abusive in order to get noticed by Owen Jones.

    • landzek 1:45 am on January 18, 2019 Permalink

      That is very thought-provoking little short clip.

      What comes to my mind is why people think it’s more authentic the engagement that occurs face-to-face.

      For sure I can be more antagonistic in comments and online and things like that then I find myself ever capable of being in person. But I think personally that is because I don’t have any friends that enjoy the same kind of intellectual conversations that I do, and that if I did find people that I felt were in the same game, so to speak, I probably would be just as antagonistic face-to-face. But that’s just me because I find that I have to be nice face to face with people because they don’t understand the angle that I’m coming from they don’t understand various issues in the way or in the manner that I do. So I have to be nice I have to be accommodating for their limited understanding of the situation.
      It’s not patronizing to them but I have to be more allowing for them and their processes of thought and thinking and challenge them where they’re at in order for what we are talking about to challenge me also.

      But I don’t think it’s in authentic to behave in such a way online. I think it’s just that another type of authenticity. Perhaps

    • Mark 9:48 am on January 19, 2019 Permalink


    • landzek 5:51 pm on January 19, 2019 Permalink

      … but that being said, I never call people racist or insult people personally. So, maybe I’m from a different cut 😄

  • Mark 12:09 pm on January 17, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    The media must take responsibility for recent far right attacks on left wing journalists 

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