Developing a research agenda consistent with Ikagai

I’ve thought a lot recently about what I want to do in the next stage of my research, most recently through the (surprisingly helpful) research performance review my employer requires every year. It’s clear to me I’ve spread myself too thin in the past and often got bogged down in projects I’m vaguely interested in which have swamped the things I really care about. It means I rarely do my best work and I constantly rush through projects because there’s always another deadline coming up. It’s also clear to me I like strategic development and this means that my administrative responsibilities are going to grow rather than shrink. Therefore I need to be much more selective in the next stage of my research career. This means doing less while also looking for mutual reinforcement between my research projects and my non-research responsibilities; in practice it’s led me to realise I need to develop an agenda which directly and indirectly contributes to the development of the MA I lead and the associated research group I co-lead.

Looking at it through a less pragmatic lens I want to do something which is useful, which makes a difference to the world in some verifiable way. The project I’m most proud of is Social Media for Academics purely because I’ve heard and read countless people say that the book has helped them develop a more purposive and enjoyable relation to social media. It’s helped people mitigate the problems they encounter in using these platforms as academics and establish more satisfying and sustainable relationships to it. But the project I’m found most intellectually satisfying was my PhD and the series of chapters on digital agency building on it in my first post-doc (on the verge of finally becoming a rather large monograph 9 nine years after I finished it). In this case because it provided me with a framework to think through existential questions which plagued me and developed a genuinely original way of thinking about emerging issues which I regarded as important. It wasn’t the best work I was capable of due to the aforementioned rushing but it nonetheless involved creating something new in a way which satisfied my intellectual curiosity. I don’t think Social Media for Academics satisfied my curiosity in any meaningful sense but conversely my work on digital agency was not in any discernible sense useful.

This suggests the possibility of an intersection between what satisfies my intellectual curiosity and what I can usefully contribute given my slightly odd skill set. I’ve been reading about the concept of Ikagai with a view to mapping out this possibility when deciding what comes next with my research. There are two things I’m relatively good at: thinking conceptually about the everyday context in which we use digital technologies and mapping out opportunities and challenges relating to their use in a way that helps others negotiate them in a practical way (at least in a professional context I’m familiar with). This suggests to me I could take a more conceptual approach to digital practice within higher education and use this to provide more nuanced and helpful support. In other words provide a much more robust foundation for Social Media for Academics and develop practical interventions on this basis. The problem is I’m bored of talking about social media practice, not least of all because I increasingly think we need less of it in universities. It’s increasingly in tension with my intellectual curiosity and no longer supported by a sense of mission.

The topic that would satisfy my intellectual curiosity is generative AI. There are a huge range of issues raised by it which I find fascinating. But does the world need another sociologist writing about this topic? I’m not sure it does. However universities need a mapping of opportunities and challenges related to the use of generative AI which helps other negotiate them in a practical way. Furthermore this would necessitate thinking conceptually about the everyday context in which they are used. It feels like I could do something useful related to training and policy-making concerning generative AI within universities, with a focus on practical engagements in applied contexts and supported by an ontological analysis of the underlying technology and a sociological analysis of the temporal asymmetry between its development and organisational capacities to institutionalise it.

This feels like something I could do which would be useful and interesting in a way which leverages the particular skills which I have. I’m not sure whether this means I should leave social media behind entirely or try to incorporate it into a broader project concerning the digital competences of academics in a rapidly transforming socio-technical environment. Perhaps my work with Phil Brooker on Python training for social scientists could be part of this broader project as well. But it feels clear to me that it has to be a project for the first time; pursuing one agenda that I do to the best of my ability rather than splitting my energy between lots of different things. Alternatively these might become more like non-research projects, things I actively try and promote but not develop in a research capacity, like my work in the critical realist community. There’s no need for me to decide this now but it feels useful to map out these thoughts in a long-form way while I’m having them.

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