In defence of thinking in a speculative way

Following on from ruminating about moving into a mid career phase of my research, I’ve been thinking about how I tend to think. This immediate and habitual folding back on myself is a recurrent part of it; I enjoy my symptom, as a high profile sociologist once publicly said of me. It wasn’t intended as a compliment but it’s undoubtedly true and I don’t see anything particularly wrong with it. The other recurrent part of it is that I’m a speculative thinker; conjecture comes naturally to me and it’s often what gets me excited. It’s a style of thought well suited to a personal blog but it’s a chicken and egg question as to which came first. I like throwing out ideas and propositions, playing with them and seeing where they lead.

For someone who was never in academia full time, as a grad student or staff member, until late 2020 I think it’s fair to say I’ve got a lot done. I’ve tended to share my speculations on this blog, develop them further if I interest myself sufficiently, before occasionally carrying them into more formal arenas in a scatter gun process that has nonetheless producing something akin to 4 research agendas of varying coherence over the fifteen years, since I started my part-time PhD in 2008. So being speculative in this sense hasn’t damaged my research productivity, even if it might have made the outputs less systematic than they might otherwise be. I’ve often felt I ought to be more systematic and the fact that the person with the biggest influence over my work also happens to be the most systematic thinker I’ve ever known has tended to compound that. But until the last six years, I had a diffuse sense this was just my style of thought and it came with virtues as well as vices.

I’m a natural conversation starter (well intellectually speaking at least) and I’ve played a significant role in the formation of a number of fields and sub-disciplines. I like jumping to potential conclusions and then tracing the steps back in order to see where it gets us, as with ‘the accelerated academy’, ‘the morphogenic society’, ‘the post-pandemic university’ and other thought objects which have littered my mind over the last decade. I tend to work intuitively and perceive something which I then spend time trying to elaborate in an iterative way, possibly putting too much emphasis on expositional clarity and too little on interrogating the assumptions I’m making. I’m prone to lose interest in a topic once I’ve articulated it in a way which satisfies my initial curiosity. I’m prone to throwing out speculative propositions underinformed by research literature which I only ever intend speculatively, but which I realise sometimes carry more weight than they deserve because of the epistemic privilege I enjoy as a beardy white middle class man who speaks confidently with long words.

I didn’t used to feel like a dilettante. But I’ve internalised this sense in recent years, reflecting the experience of suddenly finding fixed-term contracts unbearable (and having to fit a bizarre CV into a coherent narrative), detesting the process of peer review in journals, moving between disciplines and dealing badly with the intellectual insecurity of someone I was close to. There are dangers involved in my style of thinking but there are also important things that it opens up which imposing a narrower and systematic style would shut down, even if I were psychologically able to fit myself into the boring grey box of being a ‘rigorous thinker’. I’m proud of what I’ve done in my career so far and I refuse to apologise any more for the underlying style in the manner I’ve been silently doing over the last six years. I have much more awareness of how this style intersects with epistemic justice and citational politics than I did previously, but that’s a moral-existential challenge for myself rather than a methodological or intellectual inditement about what I think is the fundamentally creative and generative way in which I approach my work.

I’m telling myself this in part because Platform and Agency: Becoming Who We Are In a Digital World might not be the perfectly systematic magnum opus which someone else might have written. But it’s also a substantial theoretical monograph which brings together 15 years of consistent work in one reasonably coherent text. The slightly angsty tone of this post reflects my growing realisation that it’s taken six years longer than it needed to because I had a creeping collapse in my intellectual self-confidence over this time. In that sense this post is interrogative and therapeutic but I’m sharing it here because I enjoy my symptom and I enjoy sharing my speculations. Hopefully people might in turn enjoy the book when I finish turning this (nearly) first draft into a final form which is ready for the publisher. Though of course that will leave me having to confront the question of whether I plan out a systematic agenda for the next phase of my research or just follow my interests, with the benefit of a secure academic position.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.