The ladder of abstraction

Over the last few years I’ve often found myself using the phrase ‘ladder of abstraction’ to describe my own movement from philosophy to social theory to qualitative sociology and on to education. It reflects two bifurcations in my experience which have bothered me intensely at different points in my career: the split between activism and philosophy which was alleviated by discovering social theory, as well as the split between my work as a theorist and as a practitioner which was alleviated by moving into education. My experience was that sociologists tended to see my work as a social media practitioners (doing hands on digital comms work, training others to do comms work, supporting this work through my writing and consulting on digital strategy etc) was at best a distraction from my real work. Whereas I still to this day believe I learned more about digital media from years of managing large Twitter accounts and academic blogs, not to mention the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with academics all over the world over the years, than I have from academic literature. Though of course I don’t meant to suggest this is a zero-sum matter in which value can only be found in practice. In fact my point is how intellectually enriching an interplay between them can be, at least if you’re reflective about what you’re doing and regularly analyse it in long form ways that are theoretically inflected.

In contrast I found that people in Education immediately got why I was doing this work and wanted to continue doing it. In fact over time the division between the two has been bridged in mind, so that it seems straightforward to say that I’m interested in ontological questions about how digital platforms are reshaping the parameters of human life while also being interested in questions of policy and practice about how these processes are unfolding within higher education and the challenges being created by this. By moving down the ladder of abstraction I’m not rejecting theoretical work or asserting the primacy of practice. But I am saying that I want to be closer to practice, ascending the ladder of abstraction in ways which reflect and respond to concerns which arise at the level.

For other people this might be rather different which leaves me wondering about the ladder of abstraction as a form of biographical trajectory, albeit one which figures most explicitly within the academy. What happens when people who are otherwise close are moving in different directions on the ladder? I think this expresses itself in tensions at the level of interests, curiosity and sensibility but underlying it is a fundamentally different orientation towards abstraction and practice.

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