A rough draft of a new intellectual biography

I’m digital sociologist based in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, where I lead activities within the Culture, Politics and Global Justice Cluster and work as an embedded researcher within the Digital Learning Working Group. I direct the Post-Pandemic University project which is an international network comprising an online magazine, podcast hub and conference series. I’m the author of Social Media for Academics, published by Sage and now in its second edition. My forthcoming books The Public & Their Platforms (with Lambros Fatsis) and Post-Human Futures (with Douglas Porpora) explore the implications of digital platforms and emerging technologies for public scholarship and human personhood respectively. I’m currently working on a short book Post-Pandemic Scholarship which explores how Covid-19 is transforming knowledge production, as well as an edited volume Building the Post-Pandemic University (with Hannah Moscovitz, Michele Martini and Susan Robertson) which brings together cutting edge scholarship about how universities are being reshaped by this crisis.

I jointly lead a number of research networks which explore related issues: the British Sociological Association’s Digital Sociology group, the Society for Research Into Higher Education’s Digital University Network, the Accelerated Academy project and the Programming as Social Science network. I jointly edit the Critical Realism Network with Dave Elder-Vass. I’m an active member of the Centre for Social Ontology, an associate member of CHERE at Lancaster University, a research associate in the Public Policy Group at LSE and a Fellow of the RSA. I’m involved in a range of publications, as associated editor of Civil Sociology and editorial board member of Applied Social Theory, Digital Culture & Education, Discover Society and the Journal of Digital Social Research.

I was The Sociological Review’s first Digital Engagement Fellow where I led the development of their world leading online platform, as well as having been editor of the LSE’s award winning British Politics & Blogs and The Sociological Imagination. I’m widely recognised as a leading expert on the role of social media within higher education, with regular invitations to speak on these issues internationally. I’ve also consulted for universities, publishers, journals and learned societies. My research revolves around a number of interconnected themes, which I approach as a social theorist informed by my work as a digital practitioner over the last decade:

  1. Platform and Agency: Digital platforms should be understood as socio-technical infrastructures through which emerging technologies (smart devices, machine learning, algorithms) intersect with the everyday lives of human agents, necessitating practical reasoning concerning which platforms to use, how to use them, when to use them and how to establish boundaries around their use. This interface between platform and agency intersects with, though is irreducible to, more recognisable dynamics of structure and agency. This poses conceptual, methodological and practical questions which are at the heart of my work. Through this problematic we can gain traction on the many intersecting processes of digital changes which can be empirically identified in the contemporary social order, not least of all with the radicalised dependence upon digital platforms which emerged with the Covid-19 pandemic. I am intensely interested in how public discourses concerning technology (‘hypes’, ‘bubbles’, ‘viral’ content) shape how people relate to innovation, as well as how digital sociology can recognise these dynamics without becoming embroiled within them. I believe digital technology is not an impersonal force to which people either adapt or fail to, but rather a cluster of processes happening with, through and to people.
  2. Digital Scholarship: These empirical, methodological and theoretical questions have serious ramifications for the craft of scholarship: digital transformation is not only ‘out there’, but also impacts how we do research ‘in here’. This has involved a focus on the practical reasoning involved in the use of digital platforms for scholarship, as well as how this is constrained and enabled by the institutionalisation of these platforms. I’m particularly interested in the public pedagogies through which user cultures develop within academic communities, as well as how these are influenced by the dynamics of career advancement within an increasingly platformized academy in which accelerative pressures are ubiquitous. I’m deeply sceptical of fashionable notions of the ‘slow professor’ and ‘slow scholarship’ while recognising the need for normative frameworks which can guide us in seeking to exercise agency over an increasingly pathological environment for scholarship. I’m committed to developing user cultures for platforms within higher education which maximise their creative and collegial potential and resist the tendency to intensify competitive individualism. This is a theoretical project but also one I pursue as a public commentator and digital practitioner. I’m particularly interested in developing new forms of training and collaboration which expand the technological reflexivity and increase the platform literacy of the academic community.
  3. Post-Pandemic University: The radical dependence upon digital platforms which the pandemic has engendered within universities lead me to believe these questions are more urgent than ever. What I had assumed to be a gradual transition towards the normalisation of digital scholarship was instead an overnight process in which we all became digital scholars as a result of what I understand as crisis platformization. Even though a partial return to established ways of working seems on the horizon, I believe we have now entered a digital-by-default university in which the burden will increasingly be placed upon face-to-face activities to justify themselves. I’m committed to practical interventions through which we can develop transdisciplinary and transnational research communities beyond the established coordinates of the pre-pandemic university. This entails reflexive knowledge production in which we experiment with routines for co-ordinating and synchronising intellectual engagement as part of a broader project of building a social infrastructure for scholarship which is grounded in the relational goods of research communities and resilient in the face of managerialist imperatives. Through this means I believe we can develop post-pandemic imaginaries which can provide a powerful analytical perspective on the unfolding dynamics of the pandemic university, as well as orientate our projects towards institutional reconstruction as we move beyond it. I’m fascinated by what I think of as the post-pandemic horizon, while remaining wary about the dangers of what Mike Savage calls epochal theorising.
  4. Critical Realism: I use critical realism as the meta-theoretical scaffolding for my work, with a particular commitment to the realist social theory of Margaret Archer supported by the philosophical anthropology of Harry Frankfurt, Alistair MacInytre and Charles Taylor. However I see this scaffolding as a mechanism through which I can have constructive dialogues with other intellectual currents such as neo-pragmatism, ANT, philosophy of technology and media theory. As someone who has been actively involved in the critical realist community for over a decade, I see it as suffering from an excess of under-labouring which has given rise to an overly-abstract and sometimes esoteric edifice that constraints the realisation of its immense intellectual value. I’m interested in steering critical realism towards a more applied focus, as well as increasing its accessibility and encouraging a more outwards-facing character. This reflects a broader interest in the practice of social theory, driven by a particular enmity for avant-garde theorising and a commitment to theoretical practice as conceptual reflexivity. I believe there’s a role to be played by general social theory but it should be limited to intellectual craftwork orientated towards supporting knowledge production, as well as concept wrangling i.e. organising, reviewing and refining the production of concepts. I see my contributions to critical realist theorisations of personal morphogenesis and psychobiography in this spirit. I’m deeply committed to understanding the social life of theory and I’ve been deeply influenced by Jana Bacevic’s work in how I understand this undertaking.

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