A provisional reflection on where I’ve got to six years after my PhD and where it is I want to go with my research over the next six years
There are a wide range of topics I have worked on in the last decade: online communities, social movements, digital scholarship, realist social theory, the transformation of higher education, the rise of ‘big data’ and celebrity streaming are a few examples. What they all share is an intersection between digital platforms and human reflexivity that produces conceptual, methodological and practical problems which I believe are (a) socio-culturally urgent (b) theoretically interesting (c) demanding new modes of scholarly practice. I’m interested in practical reasoning in the lived experience of those engaging with platforms as actors within social life, as well as its nascent psychoanalytics and their codification into the hyper-reflexive expert systems of late modernity. There is a deep tectonic shift underway within human culture, which the accelerated pace of our experience makes difficult to dwell on and the distracted character of our agency makes it difficult to see clearly. I see studying platformisation as the latest frontier in a much more established project of analysing social change, as well as the reflexive management of the novel demands these changes impose upon scholarly practice. My own experience of the internet being necessary rather than contingent to my own bildung has left me preoccupied to my core with the role of digital technology in establishing the parameters of our self-formation. Everything I do ultimately relates to this one question, directly through a range of empirical topics within this domain or indirectly through the practical or theoretical challenges its study imposes upon those seeking to analyse this ever more socially and culturally urgent issue.
I see these questions through the lens of two theoretical perspectives, symbolic interactionism (particularly Ken Plummer and Erving Goffman) and critical realism (particularly Margaret Archer and Andrew Sayer’s work) which between 2008 and 2014 I sought to combine through two parallel projects: a multi-methods case study of the asexual community and a qualitative longitudinal experiment in sociological anthropology. I’m interested in the resources which both have for making sense of a social world which is rapidly transforming, largely through the emergence of a heterogenous range of non-human actors (algorithms, machine learning systems, personal analytics, persuasive apps etc) which progressively complicate the practical reasoning required of all of us as we make our way through the world. Under these conditions there is an ontological challenge to human agency which I’ve sought to understand and this thread runs through my preoccupation with ‘the digital’. My work with the Centre for Social Ontology between 2014 and 2020 has been focused on the conceptual issues entailed by these developments. To the limited extent this change is technology driven, it also exploit the socio-infrastructural tensions of late modernity. My aforementioned phd was a critique of the work of Giddens and Bauman on a methodological level, arguing the conceptual instruments it produced were of limited utility for qualitative research, while attempting to preserve their insights through a longitudinal project supervised by Margaret Archer and performing an extended study of the undergraduate cohort she had empirically studied a number of years earlier: with the financial crisis being the exogenous shock which radically changed the lifeworld of young people in the intervening years.
Not only did Giddens and Bauman not theorise this, I argued there were specific technical issues at the level of social ontology which left them profoundly ill-equipped to even recognise, let alone theorise, this changes in their full complexity. This was problematic given the popularity of their work, which I discovered at the level of citation to be a unifying thread through a rapidly fragmenting sphere of sociological knowledge production, as well as the frequency with which it is used to thematise qualitative research to the determinant of theorising it. There’s a diffuse qualitative illiteracy which pervades the epochal theorising which gripped British sociology in the 90s and 00s and I’m interested in grappling with its methodological, theoretical and practical complexity because there’s something of value which risks being lost. I see it as the opening move in an analytical movement which should be a unifying expression of sociological theory, in full recognition of epistemic fallibility on the one hand and a fear of cultural modishness on the other. It’s a difficult but far from impossible terrain to explore and I’m interested in how we do this. My PhD was a first attempt to do this and I feel ambivalent about the document because I had imagined I could answer this question, even if I subsequently realised that this if anything is my life’s work.
The Platformisation of Social Life
There are a number of conceptual debates I want to intervene in because they are connected to what I perceive as fundamental difficulties encounters in sustaining a mode of epochal analytics which is not (a) modish in a way which leaves it saturated with the elite common sense of techno-scientific capital (b) qualitatively sensitive to the shifting texture of first person experience without being methodologically confined to it. For example I want to argue that critical realism lacks an adequate theory of embodied social interaction and I increasingly see this as the thread which links Margaret Archer’s groundbreaking work on reflexivity to the residual Marxist inflection of critical realism which characterises the tenor of this scholarship. My forthcoming book The Distracted People of Digital Capitalism investigates the socio-political life of contemporary capitalism through an analysis of our relationship with smart phones and everything we access through them. I’m also currently developing my PhD into the book Becoming Who We Are: Platform Capitalism and Personal Morphogenesis which updates my theoretical and methodological account to reflect the range of my empirical interests. This will eventually lead to two paired books: Platform and Agency and Platform Life: Human Agency and Epochal Change that jointly develop an original approach to the (reflexive) study of epochal change through a dialogue between platform studies, critical realism, modernisation theory and philosophical anthropology.
In this sense my approach is fundamentally philosophical. I did an undergraduate degree in analytical philosophy at the UCL and found it immensely frustrating. Reasoning that the problem was analytical philosophy, I then undertook a masters in philosophy at Warwick only to discover that continental philosophy was equally irritating in a different but parallel series of ways. An optional module I took led my Margaret Archer and Michael Luntly led me into social theory and I found the closest thing I have to a natural terrain. My approach to that has been profoundly shaped by Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre and Harry Frankfurt on the one hand and Richard Rorty on the other. The former left me fixated on the shape of a human life as a natural object which can be studied in a methodologically viable way but almost always isn’t. The latter left me with a sensibility in which I can’t help but be ironic about that process, in the sense that I can’t my theoretical scholarship is deeply self-interrogatory in ways which give it a valence and orientation which only expresses itself orthogonally in my working life but which is always there. As much as I hate to write it, John Rawls was also a profound influence in the peculiar sense that I became fixated on it as a masters student and devoted myself to explaining why I found it so problematic, through every essay and my dissertation. I include it here because it embodies a mode of philosophy agency which I think is a terrible waste of conceptual skill and an obstacle to solidarity generating collective discussion. It was also a gateway drug to the philosophical anthropologists as I became aware it is deeply yet subtly relativistic in a way that has major political and cultural consequences. The work of Chantelle Mouffe was a transitional point when I forewent a planned Political Philosophy PhD (looking at the transformation of ideas of the individual in liberal thought) in order to move into a social research MA and the aforementioned PhD with Margaret Archer. In the coming years I want to go back to my philosophical roots in order to deepen my engagement with the broader network of thinkers inspired by those who have had the greatest influence on my work.
The Transformation of Academic Practice
It was during this time that I conducted a masters dissertation project and larger research project on (a)sexuality and sexual agency alongside my PhD project. It left me committed to sociological research as an empirical enterprise but with philosophical motivations. In this sense I’m deeply committed to Daniel Chernilo’s conception of Philosophical Sociology and Robert Frodeman’s sense of the Feral Philosopher but with a sense of academic practice as something micro-foundational in higher education. I want to study it in its conceptual, methodological and practical complexity with a view to understanding how it can operate better, as well as more solidaristically, in increasingly difficult social and political contexts. I’ve tried to contribute to these debates through Social Media for Academics (now in its second edition) and a forthcoming co-written book with Lambros Fatsis The Public and Their Platforms with a view to understanding how digital practice might need to change. I’ve written about these issues in publications like The Chronicle, LSE Impact Blog and Times Higher Education because these are practical matters for the academic community which are too urgent to be confined to the glacial pace of academic journals. I’ve become much more cautious about social media as I’ve seen its institutionalisation unfold within higher education and I’m committed to intervening in political and policy discussions about this, building on my work as a trainer and consultant over the last ten years.
I’m developing a research program with Steve Watson on institutional entrepreneurship within educational institutions, with significant ontological and organisational components. How is academic practice changing? How should it change? How do we change it? What barriers are there to these ambitions? I run the Accelerated Academy event series with Filip Vostal in which we have explored these and related issues, with a particular focus on the changing conditions for agency within the sector. I’m interested in creative practice and have run experiments with Jenny Thatcher on sociological walking, board games as methodology design and graphic social science. I’m interested in how this ethos can be applied to social theory, with regards to how it is taught, read and valued as well as what this mean for how it circulates. I organised the first Cambridge Social Theory Summer School in 2017 with Jana Bacevic and am planning work exploring how theory can be communicated multi-modally as well as its implications for pedagogy.
I’ve worked extensively as a practitioner in higher education and with journals, publishers, charities and funders outside of it consulting, coaching and training academics in their engagement with digital technologies. This is something I’ve tried to pursue in a sustained reflective dialogue between theory and practice, much of which is captured in real time on this blog over the last ten years. I’ve theoretically and institutionally explored the ‘digital upskilling‘ needed to adapt to changing circumstances and how this relates to the creative agency of academics. This includes the Programming as Social Science network I convene with Philip Brooker and co-foundin the BSA Digital Sociology group which I still co-convene. I’ve edited special sections of Discover Society on Digital Futures and the Politics of Data (Science), with a particular focus on the challenge these developments pose for scholarly practice. I conducted a series of interviews for the LSE Impact Blog on the Philosophy of Data Science and the Politics of Data motivated by similar concerns. What excites me about being in an education department is what a natural space it is for working at this intersection, performing ersatz natural experiments in intellectual life through the construction of assembly devices and theoretically reflecting on their outgrowths.
The Digital Sociology of Higher Education
The two unifying threads in this diffuse project are the platform university (see this special issue of Discover Society for an overview) and critical realism. The former provides an empirical object for a rich theoretical and practical debate I’ve profoundly enjoyed organising with Susan Robertson and Janja Komljenovic. We have an edited book planned and further conferences. The latter provides the meta-theory through which I’m trying to knit together these conceptual, political and practical concerns into a systematic approach which anchors what at present feels to me like a diffuse set of issues. I’m working with Peter Francis on mapping out a critical realist ontology of platforms, with particular reference to educational systems. I’m planning a book on The Platform University and Knowledge Production which draws together these interests in a sustained way. In this I’m utterly indebted to the groundbreaking work of Jana Bacevic whose conceptual innovation has cleared away the philosophical detritus which was making it difficult to sustain a discussion which simultaneously operated in these different modes. Its given me the philosophical resources I need to understand the practical questions which have gripped me for my entire career without losing their practical dimensions. The other contributing factor to how I approach these issues is critical realism and I’ve become increasingly committed to developing its ramifications in its meta-theoretical and practical dimensions with a particular view to understanding the transformation of education systems and the problems they give rise to. This includes a working group based at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge and a book series exploring these issues. Through these projects I see myself as contributing in the longer term towards a Digital Sociology of Higher Education which is still chronically underdeveloped.
Education is increasingly essential to how I see the ontology and epistemology of social life. As someone convinced about the biographical foundations of social order, the developmental significance of education in such different ways across an increasingly blurry demarcation of life stages is so obvious to me that its (relative) philosophical neglect is a curious puzzle. If my agenda up until now has been defined by diagnosing an epochal shift and the transformation of educational practice then what now drives me is a desire to understand how educational practice is and should adapt in the face of social and political change. Steve Watson and I are developing an agenda of post-neoliberal civics which explores theory and practice in education, including its institutionalisation in universities of great significance to the regional and national political economy. This tries to draw together a range of debates in cybernetics, philosophy of agency, public engagement and civil sociology into a programme which addresses challenges such as platform literacy, political education, academic trade unionism and community organising. In the broadest sense I’m interested in education’s changing role within a post-neoliberal order and what this means for theory and practice. It’s an astonishingly rich and urgent area of inquiry and this is where my longer term work intends to go, building on the theoretical and empirical work described earlier.