What am I trying to do with my research?

I recently had someone suggest to me that I was no longer an early career researcher. I was immediately resistant to the proposal in a way which suggested I’m quite attached to the category. I’m 9 months into my first lectureship which certainly looks like an ECR position but I’m 9 years since my PhD and I’ve done a lot during that time (including publishing 7 books, launching the top blogs in my field, organising literally hundreds of events and consulting internationally) which means I don’t feel like an ECR.

A wonderful weekend in Cambridge saying goodbye to Susan Robertson and Roger Dale (with whom I spent four deeply formative years as a postdoc in Cambridge’s Faculty of Education) has left me thinking about this transition in my career. I’ve often written these reflective posts in my nearly 20 years of blogging (and writing sentences like this makes me aware I’m rapidly approaching middle age). But they tended to ask a different question: what am I interested in? Instead of reflecting on my interests I want to write about what I’m actually trying to do with my research.

  • I want to develop strategies, techniques and resources which enable us to build a digital academic culture that provides a platform for intellectual communities. There are a range of emerging roles involved in this activity: blog editors, network coordinators, science communicators, digital engagement postdocs, social media trainers, academic micro-celebrities. Their activity is tied up with a radical transformation of the institutions which have previously platformed intellectual communities (scholarly publishers, learned societies, academic departments) is complex and ambivalent ways which we urgently need to untangle. We need to build networks of these groups in order to facilitate the articulation of collective projects. The community builders need to constitute themselves as a community, or at least a series of overlapping spheres. This means learning to more effectively grapple with the epistemological chaos of platform capitalism and the challenges of the accelerated academy. It means learning to use social platforms rather than live in them, as Mark Fisher once put it. But to use them in support of what Jana Bacevic has written about as a collective reclaiming of the social life of the mind. This means understanding how digital academic culture is becoming institutionalised within post-pandemic higher education (particularly with regards to the incorporation of platform metrics into research evaluation, as well as the still empirically obscure dynamics of convertibility between platform visibility, cultural capital and academic capital). But it also means actively leading (or at least steering) that implementation to the best of our ability rather than letting its unfolding be determined by the institutional priorities of university management, research funders, Big Tech firms and scholarly publishers. It means sustaining the learned societies in which decades of past academics have invested their gift labour while also helping them adapt to platformisation. It means diagnosing the platform university and the escalation of digital labour in a manner which is orientated towards constructive action within it such as building infrastructures for digital public engagement, collaborative cultures of scholarly reflection, scholarly cultures for digital listening, effective hybrid events and systems to address ubiquitous harassment. Furthermore it means finding personal ways to live with and use these platforms, as I wrote about in two volumes of Social Media for Academics. This includes simply enjoying them to cultivate a broader intellectual hinterland by inhabiting the attentiveness of other writes, as Les Back once put it.
  • I want to understand how ubiquitous digital technologies are transforming the parameters of self-formation and socialisation. My PhD research developed a conceptual framework of becoming who we are built around the idea that this fundamentally messy process can nonetheless be analysed in terms of distinguishable cycles of change and stasis. I’m interested in how smart devices (with which we exist in continual feedback loops) and the digital platforms we access through them (with user-facing interfaces of coordination tied to back-end infrastructures of manipulation) constitute a distinctive socio-technical system which intersects with existing sites of socialisation such as school and the family. This involves a subsidiary question of how to live well with contemporary technologies (i.e. how can we support digital flourishing?) but I see this as one which can’t be adequately answered without conceptual and empirical work concerning issues like platform literacy, technologically-induced accelerated and digital distraction. During the pandemic these mega-structures became newly central to the lives of a much wider pool of people (with the character of this reflecting pre-existing socio-digital inequalities) in a ‘big bang’ which acted as an accelerant to processes of change which were already underway. This is why it’s so urgent that we find ways to incorporate digital technology as constitutive elements in how we conceptualise things like personal flourishing, collective action and building communities rather than relegating them to peripheral status to be addressed through specialised modes of inquiry.
  • In the longer term I would like to understand the intersection between these two issues and what it means for education. If there is a fundamental shift underway in how people become who they are, as well as the society in which they do this, what does this mean for education at all levels? This involves recognising the peculiar dual role education has as a sector of social life which is itself undergoing socio-technical change while also helping people cope with those changes. It’s this duality which means education needs to be a site of radical reflexivity, as educational systems mediate social change in an transgenerational way while simultaneously being part of the changes which they are mediating. While the terminology of ‘civics’ is far from perfect it’s the language I’ve slipped into in order to begin to articulate the dynamics at work here, as socio-political and socio-economic transformation needs to be understood alongside the socio-technical. I’m increasingly convinced we have now left neoliberalism and have entered something worse, yet to be adequately defined because it has yet to take definite form. But what I’ve been writing about as post-neoliberal civics and then post-pandemic civics is an initial attempt to come to terms with the macro-social dynamics at work here. The broader project I see involves getting beyond this level and drawing together the previous two strands of my work into a practice-orientated sociology of educational change centred around the role of ‘the digital’ without being reducible to it.
  • The fourth area where I clearly have a project with my research concerns the role of social theory. While this was once the dominant strand of my research (and my intellectual identity) it’s fallen into the background in recent years but there are a few distinct areas I remain interested in which continue to inform the other things I do. The first is Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity as well as her wider body of work. I see her account of reflexivity as an enormously important research agenda with the potential to bridge the micro-social and the macro-social in an enormously powerful way but which hasn’t developed as a collective research agenda in the way I would have hoped. The second aspect concerns how we incorporate ‘the digital’ into social theory, overcoming the tendency to see it as a discrete object of inquiry undertaken by specialists. In contrast I have tried to argue that ‘platform and agency’ should have an equivalent status to ‘structure and agency’ in the sense that digital platforms are a nascent form of socio-technical structure which have an influence across all aspects of social life. Thirdly, I would like to help us find ways to teach theory more effectively, in the sense of supporting students to think with theoretical bodies of work rather than experiencing them as intimidating edifices to which they must adapt themselves. This includes how we communicate theoretical ideas through visual means, particularly the ‘aha’ moments of insight which are inherent to learning but often difficult to speak about coherently. This also means thinking about the platforms through which we conduct theoretical dialogue in order to counteract the reproduction of an aesethicised mode of theorising to be fought over rather than used. Finally, it means finding ways to cultivating the transparadigmatic literacy which enables students to see that distinct theoretical approaches nonetheless have common objectives, helping them understand the choices involved in theoretical work and leaving them better able to translate between distinct bodies of work.

There’s a wide range of associated issues which I want to address with my DTCE Research & Scholarship colleagues such as sustainable design, digital inequalities, ed tech futures, digital civics, media practice, higher ed policy, digital scholarship. Doing justice to these topics necessitates bringing people together across traditional institutional and intellectual silos e.g. the intersection between educational technology, education studies and digital sociology. There are a whole range of exciting opportunities to do this through the digital academic culture which is emerging post-pandemic and I’m hoping we can make a practical contribution to developing this through emerging modes of dialogue and collaboration.

When reading back on what I have written it is striking how much clearer the first two strands of research are than the latter two strands. The first could be framed as reflexive scholarship and digital academic culture. The second could be framed as personal morphogenesis and platform socialisation. These descriptions use terminology which not be immediately clear to some but they have meanings in my own work which I’ve articulated over many years. In contrast I find it hard down the latter two strands of work described here. Perhaps education & social change and the practice of social theory? These descriptions seem inadequate to me but they’re the best I have at present.

It’s interesting to compare this to my last two attempts at this exercise, undertaken in late December 2021 just after I started at the University of Manchester (and the month before I moved to the city) and in January 2020 when I was a postdoc at the University of Cambridge in September just before Covid-19 hit. I can see more continuity between my reflections pre-Covid and how I now see my work than I can with the latter document.

It occurred to me after writing this that my difficulty in producing a coherent narrative about my research agenda might actually be caused, at least in part, by my annual attempt to narrate what I’m working on. While the strange shape of my career is clearly a factor (i.e. I’ve been an active researcher since 2008 but only worked full time in a university from September 2020), as well as propensity towards what Emma Jackson calls ‘shiny new thing syndrome’, I can’t rule out the possibility that compulsive narration makes it hard for the object you’re narrating to stabilise.

Nonetheless I hope I’ve finally hit a clear agenda which links together my different interests in a satisfying and sustainable way. This was initially prompted by the fact that my University of Manchester staff webpage currently has a terribly out of date placeholder page which I wrote over a year ago. The fact I’m now keen to recruit PhD students makes it particularly important I have a clear statement of my work available on my official page. Furthermore I’ve needed to reorganise my blog for some time and a clear agenda gives me categories in which I can pile the 4000+ posts on here over the last ten years. But it’s also satisfying to be able to have a clear answer to the question ‘what do you do?’.

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