My notes on Davies, W. (2017). Elites without hierarchies: Intermediaries,‘agency’and the super-rich. In Cities and the super-rich (pp. 19-38). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Who are the super-rich, and what do they want? This is the question which a thought provoking paper by Will Davies begins with and it’s one which has preoccupied me in recent years. Our statistical understand of the super-rich has increased in recent years but this increased knowledge leaves a range of sociological questions which need to be addressed:

What do they want to do with all that money, other than protect it, grow it and pass it on to their children? Do they want political power, and if so, of what kind and to what end? Or do they employ it culturally, to achieve their own modes of Bourdieusian distinction from the other 99.9%? (pg 2)

For a Millsian approach to elites, the question is which political, cultural or military  institutions are they gravitating towards in pursuit of power? For the Marxist approach, it’s a question of shared interests, their collective consciousness of them and self-organisation in pursuit of them in relation to other classes, as well as the tools of exploitation leveraged in this process. Davies agrees with Mike Savage that these aren’t necessarily the right questions, summarising his argument that we need to take money seriously as money (rather than assume it is waiting to be converted into power, with the assumption elites are intrinsically political) and must adequately describe capital before we can theorise it (rather than apply pre-existing categories to incomplete or outdated descriptions of our object).

What is this object? Is it a class? Is it a group? To what extent is it open or closed? To these challenges Davies adds another one: “the need to avoid wholesale methodological individualism, while recognising the deeply personal and individualised nature of the relationships and strategies that appear to structure the lives of the super-rich” (pg 3). Piketty’s contribution is to reorientate analysis way from the labour market and towards the family. But this is difficult because knowledge is partial and the super-rich is secretive. In order to addresses these challenges, Davies suggests we study intermediaries: agents working on behalf of the super-rich who represent their interests. By focusing on agency, in the sense of one party being contracted to represent the interests of another, it is possible to response to Savage’s challenges and move the study of the super rich forward.

He draws on Simmel’s account of money as a teleological vacuum, a pure means which extends beyond every possible use to which it can be put, connecting this to the ambitions of the super-rich. Piketty’s insight about the increasing importance of unearned wealth in the economy, as well as Dorling’s recognition of the professional classes now being subsumed into the 99%, yield a sense of the super-rich as breaking away. As he puts it on pg 6, “To break free of the bounds of culture, politics or technological limits becomes a teleology in itself, the same anti-teleology that Simmel identified as the metaphysical nature of money”. This is tied to a phenomenology of valuing money as “a state of arbitrariness, where money can be experienced as perfect liquidity, without friction” and “extreme form of negative liberty that lacks all normative restraint and relationship only to the future” (pg 16).

The problem of agency is key if we wish to avoid taking this analysis too far, with their insulation depending on the capacity of agents to represent the interests of the super-rich to the wider world. He summarises this as a theoretical approach on pg 8:

In this spirit, I want to propose a theoretical device which may help to shape a sociological approach to the super-rich – principle-agent problems. In particular, I suggest that we can think of the relationship of the super-rich to domains of power, culture and production as a series of principle-agent problems, in which they seek a form of representation which absolves them of the need to become involved in matters of public concern or controversy.

Principle-agent problems rest on the “paranoid methodological individualism” associated with game theory, with the primary challenge being to ensure the agent does not use their position to pursue their own private interests rather than those of the principle they are representing. Interestingly, this is the rationale for stock options for executives, theoretically encouraging them to act in pursuit of shareholder interest by making them a shareholder. But as Davies notes, the fact executive renumeration has risen more quickly than the stock market suggests it actually makes the agency problem worse.

This ties to a broader ambiguity about their position, as “symptoms of the deep-lying ambiguity surrounding the corporate form generally, which is neither a piece of private property nor a political association, but flips from one to the other as it suits” (pg 9). Training as professionals has been one solution but managers lack the monopoly over a specific domain of knowledge typical of professionals and their connection to the public interest is tentative and contestable. Techniques such as edit and credit rating were introduced to address this ambiguity but this introduce their own problem of agency, at least if the rating agency is paid by the company it rates.

This sociological reframing of the principle-agent problem “is a particular way of
representing the interface of politics and economics” (pg 11). If I understand him correctly, economics is insulated from politics by outsourcing normative evaluation to agents; capital can float free of controversy because the evaluation, justification and debate takes place at a distance through the mediation of ratings agencies, auditors, central bankers and policy makers. It is a form of “moral under-writing – declaring that activities are transparent and trustworthy, sometimes when they are not” (pg 15). The same analysis can be applied to the growth of family offices whose purposes is to “save super-rich families from having to engage in public situations (getting a child into a school, handling tax, booking a restaurant table, managing property) which may involve any form of antagonism” (pg 11). Whereas professionals once anchored capital in the public sphere, now they facilitate its escape.

He uses this to make the fascinating argument that the super-rich may benefit from further neoliberalisation, but it’s unclear how actively they are supporting it. Agency in this sense allows them to avoid becoming a class-for-itself, highlighting a micro-social disjuncture between the economic and the political which prevailing concepts of ‘neoliberalism’ are unable to capture. As a project it “required considerable solidarity and reflexive self-understanding on the part of capitalists and ideologues themselves, through think tanks, lobbying bodies, political parties, philanthropic networks” (pg 14). But if I understand correctly, its success has eroded the conditions which made the is possible while also making it less necessary than was once the case. In its place, we have increasingly complex webs of “non-hierarchical, non-exploitative dyadic contractual relations” (pg 15) which often overlap within super-rich networks in which intermediaries have become full members over the preceding decades. It follows from this that the problem is not wealth corrupting politics, as much as “how wealth is kept entirely separate from politics and public life, through strategic acts of delegation, where the delegate is also a delegator” (pg 15).

You’re with me all the time
I think I know you better than I did when we were hanging out together
What’s it like where you’ve gone?
Well, I can feel it, it’s ok, I know you can’t say
But you’ve been with me all day, I have to tell you
When it happened, I couldn’t cry for ages
But when it hit me, I fucking screamed like a lion in a cage
And, look, I fasted, I didn’t eat a thing for, like, a week
And I just walked across the heath in the rain
Spittin’ bars to the grass, and listenin’ to the cars skidding past
I thought life would get more real or something more fast
But it didn’t
When I look at your son, though
Life’s hidden meanings come to the front of my vision
And it’s weird, the way I see it right now, it’s so strong
I’d never be the person I’d become if you would never gone
Everything’s connected, right? Everything’s connected
And even if I can’t read it right, everything’s a message
We die so the others can be born
We age so the others can be young
The point of life is live, love
If you can, then pass it on, right?
We die so the others can be born
We age so the others can be young
The point of life is live, love
If you can, then pass it on

My sociological question after discovering the world of competitive Rubiks cube: how does one become a competitive Rubiks cube player? Is there an identifiable moral career in Goffman’s sense? There’s a vast internet subculture relating to this and I’m curious about the role it has play in enabling the competitive Rubiks cube world to coalesce. Here’s the video of the 2017 championship, watched 800,000 times:

Speedcubing is growing hugely, from twelve competitions in 2004 to 880 competitions in 2017. There’s a documentary Why We Cube that seems to explore the competitors but what about the spectators? Are they aspiring high level speed-cubers, curious spectators, people who’ve decided they don’t have the commitment or skills for speed-cubing?

If you’re here for the social theory or social media, please ignore this massively nerdy post. I’ve now read Marvel’s Secret Wars twice and there’s a few things I’m mystified by. Have I missed a big chunk of the storytelling? Or were these Chekhov’s rifles gone wrong: elements introduced into a vastly complex plot which Hickman didn’t have the time, space or energy to do anything about later?

  • How did Stephen Strange become the leader of the Black Priests?
  • What was the plan which adult Franklin and Valeria embarked upon in the closing stages of Hickman’s pre-SW Fantastic Four run?
  • What role did adult Franklin and Immortus/Kang play? They were seen in Captain America’s trip through time and then never came back
  • Who were soldiers the original Black Swan turned up with in New Avengers #1?
  • Where did the original Black Swan come from and what were his motivations? It was hinted early not there was a secret to be revealed and it never was.
  • What did Tony Stark actually do to make the world hate in him in the missing six months?

In the early stages this was the most gripping Marvel storyline I remember in 25+ years of reading them. But it added up to less than the sum of its part and I’m still slightly irritated by all the dangling plots points.

The International Journal of Social Research Methodology has a new blog and we’re seeking contributions. We’re hoping it can be a vibrant space in which emerging methodological debates can unfold, tentative ideas voiced for the first time and professional discussions held in a public forum. This recent post on complexity and health inequalities gives a sense of what we’re interested in, though we’re open to any suggestions you may have. Please get in touch via the contact form if you would like to discuss. Myself (social media editor) and Brian Castellani (co-editore) will work with you to develop the post.

My notes on Hudson, M. (2018). Ending technocracy with a neologism? Avivocracy as a conceptual tool. Technology in Society, 55, 136-139.

What does it mean to call someone technocratic? In this intriguing paper, Marc Hudson observes that the term is “thrown about as a term of abuse, but without a clear alternative other than ritual(istic) invocations of the need for citizens to be involved in decision making” (136). The common understanding of the term is clear enough, “derived from Greek words τέχνη, tekhn meaning skill and κράτος, kratos meaning power”:

Technocracy is commonly understood as a type of governing/administration where everything is built upon self-proclaimed fully rationalised (and ideally evidence-based policy) and methods, in which all decisions and actions claim to be based upon scientific and technological knowledge. (136)

But without an antonym, it’s hard to see what is at stake is using the designation and it muddies the war rather than clarifying matters. It is a term that almost always has negative connotations and is used near exclusively by critics of (what they define as) technocracy. A moralistic and pejorative term of this sort is likely to be dismissed by many of those who tend to be defined as technocrats, leading to the ironic state of affairs that it’s a framing which actually empowers those it intends to critique because “because it enables them to dismiss critics as merely moralistic” (136). Hudson therefore seeks an antonym purged of this moralism, able to demoralise claims about sustainability and position them as fully rational alternatives to the status quo. He lays out the case against technocrats on 137:

Technocrats are criticised as actors who – by preventing certain
ideas, values and their advocates entering the rooms where decisions
are being made – institutionalise epistemic injustice, and use
‘practicality’ as an intellectual baton

The core complaints about technocracy are familiar: the hubris of technocrats, their lack of accountability, their depoliticising effects. However it still leaves the question of the antonym of technocracy, with Hudson convincingly arguing that “the term democracy has become so emptied of meaning that on its own it does not act as an adequate antonym to technocracy”, even when qualified as monitory or deliberative (137). He considers a range of other possibilities: Luddism (rejected because of its pervasive, if inaccurate, connotations of technophobia), Holacracy (retaining the impulse towards control but channeling it through self-organised teams rather than a bureaucracy) and Permaculture (building stability through the modelling of natural processes, providing little vantage point from which to problematising technocracy). For this reason he reaches for a neologism:

With the existing possibilities inadequate, what is needed is a word that refers to a form of rule by capturing the importance of acknowledging irreducible uncertainty, ambiguity and uncontrollability, beyond the usual blandishments about a ‘risk society’. A word is needed which espouses cognitive humility, acceptance of limitations (something some policymakers struggle with – and the need for “clumsy organisations” to deal with wicked problems and super wicked problems. (137)
Avivocracy is intended to capture “the need for an acute awareness of the limitations of our ability not merely to see the world, but to control it” (138). It encompasses ”

the efforts of reflexive governance, adaptive governance, flux ontology, grassroots resilience, monitory democracy, transitions management (rightly understood) and
other ways of advocating reform of existing sclerotic and not fit-for-purpose institutions” (138). Democratising implications follow from this but it is a consequence rather than a cause with the weigh of avivocracy resting in an orientation to “the permanent, irreducible and escalating uncertainties of twenty-first century human civilisation” (138). If technocracy seeks to control, shut down or transcend these uncertainties, avivocracy seeks to cope with them and grow through them. It is not anti-technogical but rather suggests an orientation towards technology.

My notes on Hashemi, M. (2019). Bedouins of Silicon Valley: A neo-Khaldunian approach to sociology of technology. The Sociological Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026118822823 

This hugely original paper seeks to counteract what Morteza Hashemi sees as an excessive focus on technological development in accounts of Silicon Valley, looking beyond this macro-social (often Schumpeterian) approach to “the evolution of Silicon Valley as a technological, economic and institutional phenomenon” to the micro-social questions which are implicit within it (pg 2). This is undertaken through a contemporary rereading of Ibn Khaldun’s theory, originally applied to the “Bedouin tribes of his day” whose members Would “learn to face daily crises without fear” because “[f]ailure to do this would put at stake their very survival” (pg 2). This was part of a hugely complex theory of social change, produced in the fourteenth centre, until recently confined to historical work which sought to place it in context but increasingly being taken up by sociologists exploring its contemporary relevance and capacity to be applied to issues like modern technology and technological innovation.

Ibn Khaldun developed an empirically-orientated social theory which sought to “distinguish between the series of events and their deep meanings, trajectories and recurring patterns” (pg 3) through a rational mentality, a rejection of rhetoric and an empirical examination of events. An important concept was asabiyya (group feeling), which Hashemi notes is often misdefined merely as solidarity. It refers to the “mutual emotional commitment, moral obligation and unity”, arising from sustained interaction under harsh conditions, “transform a simple interdependency into something more than that”: it is a “social mechanism able to create a powerful and functional unit which can survive and flourish under inhospitable conditions” (pg 4). He outlines on pg 4 the contrast Khaldun drew between the Bedouins and city dwellers, as well as the social dynamics which flowed from it:

The Bedouins, living in the harsh conditions of the desert, had become both skilled and trained, and their religion magnified their strong asabiyya/group feeling. The city-dwellers, on the other hand, with their secure life inside the city walls were mostly inclined towards a luxurious lifestyle and the delights of civilization. This left their society fragile in the face of the attacks of the hardier Bedouins. The point is that once the Bedouins had conquered the cities and built their own empire they were soon themselves absorbed into the life of the civilized world, thereby losing their outstanding merits and qualities, including the essential element of asabiyya. Hence, they would in their turn be replaced by new tribes of Bedouin conquerors. His estimate was that each dynasty of Bedouin conquerors could survive up to four generations. After the fourth generation of rulers, the former Bedouins would have become so accustomed to the safe, sedentary life as to be in danger of a new invasion by another group of Bedouins.

Over time inherited tradition (which I assume encompasses institutions, as well as beliefs) comes be relied upon more than the achieved qualities of the group, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with emerging challenges. Hashemi strips away the underlying environmental determinism and retains this core “notion of a cycle in which risk-takers replace risk-avoiders” (pg 4). Training is central to this because it cultivates a certain kind of group with certain kinds of orientations towards risk. It involves the accumulation of aptitudes which Hashemi notes has affinities with Bourdieu’s concept of habits. Their difference is in moments of crisis and rupture where Bourdieu understood the habitus would fail in its action guiding capacity. In contrast Khaldun saw crisis as crucial for the development of the aptitudes. As Hashemi elegantly puts it on pg 6, “for Bourdieu the game almost stops when it comes to crisis, for Ibn Khaldun crisis is the very game”: it is the norm rather than the exception.

It is a conception with a collective focus, orientated towards how the group weathers the crisis and how they are changed in the process. If I understand correctly, it’s crucial to note this does not imply unity; some of these effects happen individually, forming group characteristics through aggregation, while remaining a collective process. Drawing on Sloterdijk’s work, Hashemi reads Khaldun as having identified two anthropotechnic systems, corresponding to the latter’s distinction between city-dwellers (relying on the institutions) and Bedouins (relying on themselves):

The one is the luxurious way of shaping life that entails externalization and outsourcing of some vital skills. The other system is about cultivating those skills and relying on one’s inner abilities. (pg 9)

As he goes on to write on pg 10, Khaldun’s social theory is deeply relevant to a world characterised by risk, ‘disruption’, uncertainty and change:

For Ibn Khaldun, hazard, destruction and catastrophe are not the only results of a crisis. Crises are human-made, but they also make human beings. Crises are training camps. They are the source of construction as well as destruction. In the words of Nietzsche, that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

He analyses the rise of the geeks in these terms, originally “an underground network of college students, university students and computer scientists who cared about the internet as an open and powerful infrastructure which can fundamentally transform aspects of our life” bound together by a shared marginalisation and a faith in the transformative possibilities offered by technology (pg 11). There are four elements to Khaldun’s conception of training which we can see in the ascendency of the geeks: “step-by-step training under conditions of hardship” (toiling in obscurity, in co-working spaces or incubators, without any guarantee of respite), “the power arising from the combination of Bedouin training and a charismatic leader who is an authority behind external law” (the role of the VCs or investors in transforming their fortunes), risk-taking (the constant necessary to avoid being superseded, the source of organisational renewal). I felt it was a shame the paper stopped here because the real force of this line of argument would be subsequent cycle of decline and challenge likely to be faced by the now ascended geeks. But it’s a fantastically original and thought-provoking paper which has left me eagerly anticipating a sequel.

My notes on Rowlands, I., Nicholas, D., Russell, B., Canty, N., & Watkinson, A. (2011). Social media use in the research workflow. Learned Publishing, 24(3), 183-195.

I was fascinated to stumble across this paper from 2011 which I’d somehow managed to miss in the past, reporting on a project funded by Emerald investigating social media use amongst academics. The authors reflect on what they see as a recent change in scholarly attitudes, noting that “[o]nce things change in the digital world they change unbelievably quickly. As they write elsewhere on pg 183:

Researchers appear to have moved from outright scepticism, to pockets of scepticism to virtually no scepticism at all. Whereas it was cool to rubbish social media three years ago, it now appears to be cool to listen and praise

The research used a survey sent through a number of participating publishers (Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Emerald, Kluwer, and CUP) supplemented by an e-mail to staff across UCL and delegates at the 2010 Charleston Conference. They received 4,012 responses out of nearly 10,000 invitations to participate, including publishers, librarians and university administrators. Responses were received from 215 countries and included 1,923 respondents who were actively using social media. These were compared to a contrast group of 491 researchers who had yet to use social media, with questions raised by the research further explored through a focus group, but the relevant methodological details for either group are confusingly absent from the paper.

They asked about eight categories of tool: social networking; blogging; microblogging; collaborative authoring tools for sharing and editing documents; social tagging and bookmarking; scheduling and meeting tools; conferencing; image or video sharing. What now seem like the most obvious examples of social media figure relatively marginally amongst their uses: 27% used social networking tools, 23.2% used imager video sharing tools, 14.6% blogged, 9.2% microblogged and 8.9% used social book marking services (pg 185). It’s interesting to note that 63% used tools in only one or two of the eight categories they inquired into, with a tiny few using 6 (2.6%), 7 (1%) or 8 (0.7%) (pg 186). Blogging/microblogging and Social networking/microblogging were the two most common pairings of tools by researchers. Interestingly, they found that men tended to have a stronger preference for LinkedIn over other social networking services and younger respondents preferred Facebook to LinkedIn.

They note that familiar brands dominate the lists within each category, what they describe as “generic, popular services” on pg 186, speculating that there might be a market niche for much specialised tools designed for academics in the future. It’s interesting to theorise about why this might be so: they are familiar, widely used, easy to pick up, come with an existing social network and have the promise of access to a much broader audience beyond that network. As they put it later in the paper, these are tools which are “generally very intuitive and require little or no third-party maintenance” (pg 191). As they put it on pg 194, researchers are demonstrably drawn to these tools and “it is worth investing time in these mass market tools as their research colleagues worldwide are committing to the same tools”. They stress this point again in the conclusion: researchers are “largely appropriating generic tools rather than using specialist or custom-built solutions and both publishers and librarians need to adapt to this reality”.

Scientists were the biggest users, something which they suggest can be partly explained by the team structures within which they work. It would be interesting to speculate whether these relatively minor divergences (e.g. 95% of earth science respondents vs 84% of social science respondents) might have been closed as digital social scientists have ‘caught’ up. Younger respondents were more likely to use microblogging, social tagging, and bookmarking, though they caution against age-based interpretations of social media uptake, suggesting that the significant difference is the “passion exhibited for social media by the young” rather than their choice of tools as such (pg 188). It’s important to meet people where they are and it might be more effective, as in their example, participating in Facebook communities than creating their own branded spaces.

To make sense of the implications for the research process, they identify seven stages while noting these are analytical constructs which simplify the messy reality of research: identifying research opportunities, finding collaborators, securing support, reviewing the literature, collecting research data, analysing research data, disseminating findings, and finally managing the research process (pg 190). Their findings provide some reason to believe that social media tends to  be used across these categories, rather than being confined to any particular one. Their findings on perceived benefits amongst these users are very interesting, presented on pg 192:

Social media was used to compliment existing forms of dissemination, rather than displace them. It was interesting that when it came to perceived obstacles, a lack of clarity over the precise benefits was most pronounced; while many early adopters discovered the benefits “through personal curiosity, and trial and error” the fact these weren’t clear to others hindered their possible adoption (pg 192).

Kicking myself I can’t make the date for this conference organised by Eric Lybeck:

Call for Papers (LINK)

Academics, Professionals and Publics:
Changes in the Ecologies of Knowledge Work

4 April 2019
University of Manchester, UK
Organiser: Eric Lybeck, Manchester Institute of Education
Contact: eric.lybeck@manchester.ac.uk

Keynote speakers:

Andrew Abbott, University of Chicago
Vivienne Baumfield, University of Exeter
Linda Evans, University of Manchester

A PARADOX: never in human history has the role of knowledge been as central to the organisation of our work, politics and experiences as in our 21st century globalized societies. Yet, we also find today a rising distrust in experts, academics and professionals amongst the public, politicians and, indeed, other experts in differentiated disciplinary and professional fields.

Are there historical precedents for the growing challenges to the authority of knowledge workers and professional expertise? Are there aspects of the way knowledge is presently organized institutionally, politically and publicly that causes these dynamics? What is – and, what should be the relationship between universities, their graduates and wider societies? Have we reached the limits of a particular set of functions – the education of increasing cohorts of students and professionals; the advancement of economically profitable technical innovations; social justice activism – or, are we destined to add more and more roles and structures to an already highly complex global university system?

This conference to be held 4 April in Manchester will assess the role of academics and professionals and the knowledge economy, in general, to reflect critically on the past, present and future of the academic profession within a field of professions (and other occupations) – taking stock of what has led to our present condition, while perhaps signalling a navigable course for the future.

Call for abstracts:

We encourage interested members of the academy (any discipline), professions and public to submit abstracts for consideration in the programme, which will take place across one day in concurrent panels, workshops and keynote speeches.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: the role of academic knowledge in professional education and practice; populist distrust of expertise; the role of think-tanks, consultancies and ‘non-academic’ forms of expertise; the changing role of knowledge in policy-making; histories of experts and professions, including artisan, trade and other occupational groups; economists’ and consultants’ role in law, education, science policy, etc.; professionals as public intellectuals; professionals, academics, students and political activism; professional services within university administration; academic work-life; sociology of higher education; inequalities of higher education and/or professional employment by race, class, gender, etc.; policy discourse and professionals as carrier groups; neoliberalism and professional expertise; individualisation vs. collective professional ethics; jurisdictional competition between and amongst professions; leadership and development; professional careers; crises of expertise, historical and present; the civic role of universities; rankings of universities and professional schools; international experiences of higher education and/or professional careers.

Please send 250 word abstracts to eric.lybeck@manchester.ac.uk before 15 February.

Further Conference Details:

Further details regarding the conference will become available early March. In the meantime, we encourage interested participants to arrange travel and accommodation for the morning, afternoon and evening of 4 April in Manchester. The main costs of the conference itself are funded by the Leverhulme Trust as part of the organiser’s early career fellowship, ‘The Academic Self: Changes in University Expectations Since 1800’. There may be a nominal fee requested to cover the costs of refreshments, which will be announced in March. We are also actively exploring facilities to support childcare and reduced fees for early career researchers and will have more news of this in due course.

Any questions or comments, including registration of interest for future email updates and news, can be directed to eric.lybeck@manchester.ac.uk

My notes on MacIntyre, A. (2018). Charles Taylor and dramatic narrative: Argument and genrePhilosophy & Social Criticism44(7), 761-763.

This short reflection by Alasdair MacIntyre, one of my favourite philosophers, concerns the intellectual legacy of Charles Taylor, undoubtedly my favourite. He stresses how the reputation of Taylor would have been ensured by his earlier work, establishing himself as both an historian of philosophy and a major contributor to important debates. But it was Sources of the Self and A Secular Age which took his work to a unique level:

Both advance philosophical theses and arguments, but theses and arguments that are put to very different uses from those characteristic of philosophical writing. The change is a change both in genre and in the relationship of author to readers. For Taylor’s theses and arguments find their place in a story which claims to be no less than that of our shared culture, a story of the transformations in how we have come to understand ourselves.

The first tells the story of how we have come to understand ourselves (the formation of our conception “of subjectivity, of reason as requiring disengagement from world and body and, in consequence, an instrumental stance, of the significance of the transactions of everyday life, of the sentiments, and of art understood as the natural expression of feeling”) and the second tells the story of how we have come to understand our relation to what is outside of ourselves and what this means for our orientation to our existence (“a sense of fullness, a sense of, at moments an anticipation of, what it would be to have our lives completed and fulfilled”). As MacIntyre puts it, these are unlike histories of any kind previously seen. Their historical detail has been addressed as a matter of critique but he argues these critics often miss the point:

What such critics have failed to recognize is that the only adequate critical and dissenting response to Taylor would be to construct or at least to gesture towards the construction of an alternative and rival narrative, one that accounted for all that Taylor accounts for and more, one that in addition explains why Taylor’s narrative advances a defective account of modernity and of secularization.

The point is a profound one. Most work in philosophy or the social sciences presupposes a vantage point of precisely the sort Taylor has explicated, a more or less systematic set of assumptions about the way we are, how we have come to understand ourselves and how this has unfolded throughout history. MacIntyre suggests recognition of this is Taylor’s greatest achievement and I agree.

It is a vantage point I’ve been drawn to since I first read his work over a decade ago and it’s one which has an inordinate value to me. Part of the fascination the late modernity literature held for me for so long was the promise of a similar vantage point, with the promise of being much more empirically grounded. I eventually came to the conclusion it wasn’t any such thing yet I still find myself drawn to the terrain Taylor has mapped out which sits so uneasily between philosophy, sociology and history.

My notes on Skeggs, B. (2019). The forces that shape us: The entangled vine of gender, race and classThe Sociological Review67(1), 28-35.

How do we make sense of the influence of Antony Giddens? The first page of his Google Scholar profile shows 149,243 citations with many more to be expected if one were inclined to dig into the long tale of his many publications. He defined the cannon for an entire generation of social theorists, offering an account of the ‘founding fathers’ which became a shared reference point. His structuration theory drew together diverse strands in a way which directly and indirectly exercised a great influence over the landscape of social theory for decades. He wrote the best selling textbook, now in its eighth edition, introducing sociology to successive cohorts of A Level students and novice undergraduates. He cofounded Policy Press which radically reshaped the terrain of social theory and introduced continental philosophy into the Anglophone theoretical mainstream. He was director of LSE, one of the leading research universities in the world. He was architect of the New Labour notion of the third way, exercising an enormous influence over the self-understanding of this government and its subsequent trajectory. However I find it hard to write this without thinking back to Tony Benn’s observation that “Anthony Giddens just hovers round trying to put an ideological cloak around whatever is being discussed”. This blistering critique from Bev Skeggs in a new paper made me think back to his comment:

I think sociology lost its critical edge when a nationalist, individualist, presentist analysis was offered by the likes of Giddens and Beck. Sociology became a source of legitimation, not a force of critique. We should never forget that Giddens was an architect of New Labour’s ‘third way’, an apologist for the institutional structures that enabled neoliberal policies to be implemented. Through his publishing enterprises Giddens has saturated sociology with this apologist perspective. Most sociologists encounter Giddens from A-level, often throughout their degrees. Giddens and Beck both proposed the denigration of class as a key unit of analysis for sociologists; yet, analysis of class can only be wilfully ignored by those with enough privilege to do so. The occlusion of attention to the processes, structures and forces that produce class (and gender, race, sexuality), i.e. those of capital, capitalism and colonialism, I would argue, was not a conspiracy but a complacency of the comfortable, a perspective of privilege.

Even if it’s a matter of political gossip, I feel we should take Benn’s remark seriously. To what extend did Giddens move across sectors in pursuit of political influence and what did this mean for the work he produced? The discursive armoury fashioned in his early 1990s work on late modernity surely provided all the instruments he needed to “put an ideological cloak” around whatever was being discussed in New Labour circles: an epochal, justificatory, exciting framing which lifted discussion out of the quagmire of politics and policy, making it seems as if history was whispering in the ear of those present.

Skeggs supports the call of Satnam Virdee, to which this essay was originally a response at the Undisciplining conference, for an end to this complacency and a return to the critique of ‘progress’, the question of ‘in whose interests?’, the reclamation of an historical frame of reference, the recognition of over-determination and the “the contradictions between race, class and gender”. If we reclaim the past in this way, rejecting what Mike Savage has elsewhere characterised as epochal sociology, it becomes easier to see how it continues on in the present. As Skeggs writes of financialisation and digital capitalism:

Rent seeking is a major form and force of capital value. Just think of digital companies who extract billions per year through rent, e.g. for cloud computing (Amazon), extracting rent through monetizing your personal data (Facebook), extracting rent though monetizing your search data (Google). Rent as profit is now a major force, existing alongside surplus value production from labour. Interest from debt (rent from money lending) is another source of expropriation that continues to expand as capital is reorganized through financialization (Lapavitsas, 2013). And technology labour platforms such as Deliveroo extract rent whilst also exploiting labour, and Uber extracts rent, exploits through labour and also generates interest on debt through car purchase. Connecting expropriation to exploitation is now more easily identified and absolutely necessary to understanding contemporary capitalism, and how it shapes our daily lives.

Classifications ossify and they circulate and undergo institutionalisation, becoming part of the order of things as “they are used by capitalists and their managers over time” and enforced through the actions of the state. As Skeggs cautions, “Never underestimate the power of managers and state officials to enforce difference”. In the absence of a historical understand, our conceptual apparatus will be ill-equipped to understand either the present or the future. We lapse into complacency because we lack the tools to see what is urgent, even if it is right in front of our face. Skeggs over evocative description of the analytical and political challenge our present conjuncture poses:

Devices beyond our control or even understanding are giving money and trade a life of their own. The world of finance is heavily invested in high frequency trading, which only algorithms that machine learn understand. Huge investments are made in block chain technology which even fewer people understand. These are the instruments that shape our daily lives, determine whether we can pay our bills, rent, mortgages, whether our national currency stays afloat and whether trading between nations can occur. Alongside deregulated political manipulation of the Brexit kind, there is a huge distribution of wealth upwards enabled by investment vehicles (and for the conspiracy theorists amongst you – Robert Mercer is key to both worlds). Repeating historical legacies, a huge amount of violence is lived by vulnerable populations, designated as disposable and deportable. People struggle to stay alive against militarization, against structural adjustment policies in the Global South and austerity in the Global North.

Recognising how historical conditions “enabled our existence as particular types of potential value, as property, as rent, as the lubricant of social reproduction that enables capital to continue its travels” is crucial if we wish to avoid remaining “entrenched in privileged provincial perspectives”. She ends with by asking how did sociology get so side-tracked and reflects on what it is for when so many crucial turnings have been missed:

How did we get so distracted? Why did sociology refuse to engage with the crucial anti-racist analysis of Cultural Studies, from Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Les Back, Erol Lawrence, Hazel Carby? Or the wonderful feminists from history: Catherine Hall, Anna Davin, Carole Dyhouse, Ann McClintock, Vron Ware and many more from History Workshop Journal? What happened to the resistance detailed by the historical studies of power? Do we know about the motley crew? The pirates, the many-headed hydra? The many refusals against becoming surplus and disposable? Or the struggles together as the working class recognizes that divide and rule only benefits those with power, that Satnam identifies. When sociology turned its back on the state, away from education and social policy into the world of legitimation, it lost its traction. All those battles between anti-racism and multiculturalism were overlooked.

There’s an interesting account in Tim Shipman’s Brexit book of how the Remain campaign constructed their war book. This contained the core message of the campaign, anticipated their opponent’s strategies and distilled the findings of their research. It was written over a number of months by the two lead strategists, condensing the outcomes of activity undertaken over a few months prior to this. It then guided their activity over many more months.

What struck me about this was the time horizons involved: around six months of work guiding around six months of action, if I’m remembering the dates correctly. Given the volatility of social life during this time, itself amplified by both campaigns, can it be assumed that enough will remain stable for the assumed time horizon of the war book to be viable? If strategy is a direction finder, helping us respond to changing conditions by selecting which direction to go in and which techniques to adopt to get there, working with an ossified strategy can be fatally undermining.

Could this be part of what went wrong for the Remain campaign? Does the increasing volatility of contemporary politics necessitate more agile forms of political strategy? Do these conditions make the intuition driven campaigning of someone like Donald Trump much more viable than it would otherwise be? Intuition is a powerful response to unpredictable circumstances, ensuring you always have a response to fall back on even if events entirely repudiate whatever expectations you’d formed.

I try new things, I shoot films on my phone
And I play them back when I’m alone, did that happen?
I walk around, trying to understand every sound
Trying to make my feet connect with every inch of ground
The sky flattens my cap, battens me down
Everything’s in its category, packaged in self flattering girls
Battle reality, it’s battle royale
Everyone is chattering, nothing is real, collect my salary
Cookin’ a meal, rice and vegetables, I exercise regularly
How that I feel, visceral melody, is this all that’s ahead of me?
I always thought that life would mean more to me eventually
I hate to think I’ll make it to 70, potentially 75
And realise I’ve never been alive
Spend the rest of my days regretting, wishing I could be forgetting

Thanks to Filip Vostal for pointing me towards this superb cfP:

Special Issue of Postdigital Science and Education

Call for Papers: Lies, Bullshit and Fake News Online: Should We Be Worried?

Link to Call for Papers

Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the alleged interference of Russia in that election, there have been increasing concerns that fake news in online platforms is undermining the legitimacy of the press, the democratic process, and the authority of sources such as science, the social sciences and qualified experts. The global reach of Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms has shown that they can be used to spread fake and misleading news quickly and seemingly without control. In addition to their power and reach, these platforms operate, and indeed thrive, in what seems to be an increasingly balkanised media eco-system where networks of users will predominantly access and consume information that conforms to their existing worldviews. Conflicting positions, even if relevant and authoritative, are suppressed, discredited or overlooked.

Should we be concerned? It is tempting to think that with the intense reporting on lies, bullshit and fake news, publics everywhere are facing a crisis of honesty and trust through calculated onslaughts on these values. However, the dissemination of false or misleading news, negative campaigns about disfavoured people or groups, and lies, scams and bullshit, is hardly new. Propaganda is an ancient art that has been disseminated through state-controlled media in modern times, through the theatre, games and festivals in ancient times, and through pamphlets and handwritten books before we used modern machinery to communicate on a mass scale. Propaganda was as much used in the French Revolution as it was in the Second World War and the Vietnam War, and both communism and fascism used revolutionary propaganda with some ferocity in the 20th century.

But perhaps there is something that marks out our times as having surpassed practices of deliberate misinformation in other periods. With most people now using online platforms, including social media feeds, as their main source of news, views, and evidence, we are led to ask: what is the difference between a lie, bullshit and a fake news story? Is it defensible to lie, bullshit or spread fake stories? Whom can we trust? How do online users distinguish the fake from the real, the truthful from the dishonest, and an authority from a propagandist?

For this special issue we are looking for papers from across a range of disciplines that focus on questions and conceptions of:

  • Lies, fakery and bullshit in modern social media
  • Epistemic trust and authority online
  • Epistemologies of ignorance – how these are created, produced and sustained
  • The role of digital and information literacies, and linguistic framing
  • The role of platforms in the dissemination of fake news, hoaxes and misinformation
  • The role of education and online platforms in addressing these issues and improving the health of public conversations.

More information in Guest Editors’ article Lies, Bullshit and Fake News: Some Epistemological Concerns.

Submissions

For further information and authors’ guidelines see Postdigital Science and Education.

Guest Editors

Alison MacKenzie, Queen’s University, Belfast, UK, A.MacKenzie@qub.ac.uk

Ibrar Bhatt, Queen’s University, Belfast, UK, I.Bhatt@qub.ac.uk

Important Dates

1 March 2019 – Deadline for extended abstracts (700-800 words) (submitted by e-mail to Guest Editors)

15 May 2019 – Deadline for full papers (submitted through online submission system)

1 July 2019 – Deadline for reviewer feedback

1 October 2019 – Final deadline for revised papers

Accepted articles are immediately published as Online First.

The Special Issue will be published in December 2019.

Organised by Dyi Huijg at London South Bank University:

The Critical Pedagogy HE Teaching Practice (CPHETP) Lab is intended for all of those who teach in Higher Education (from professors to graduate teaching assistants) and who seek to practically develop their HE teaching practice and, grounded in critical pedagogy principles, expand their teaching tools (e.g for group dynamics, teaching methods and ethics). Interested in theoretical and pedagogical reflections, the CPHETP Lab aims to be a hands-on space to explore one’s teaching practice; to try out, adjust, invent and to develop creative and participatory tools that we can employ in our seminars and lectures. As a spin-off of the Critical Pedagogy Project, the Lab seeks to draw inspiration from, among many others, bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope) and Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). In this first Lab we will, in the first half, explore our ideas and expectations around our HE teaching practice(s) and further Labs and, in the second half, explore one or more specific teaching tools.
 

There are no preparatory readings, but if you are not familiar with critical pedagogy then it is suggested to familiarise yourself beforehand. There is no registration fee, but please register via Eventbrite so that we know your name so you can access the building. Please feel invited to get in touch regarding disability related and other access needs and queries.

Date: Friday 25 January 2019

Time: 3-5pm

Location: Room 204, Keyworth Centre, London South Bank University

Address:  Keyworth Centre, Keyworth Street, London, SE1 6NG

Access needs: The building and room are wheelchair accessible. We will not use any audio-visual technology. Please get in touch to discuss any needs and queries you have.

Food & drink:  Not supplied, but feel free to bring your own.

Registration:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/cphetp-lab-critical-pedagogy-higher-education-teaching-practice-lab-tickets-54283381054

Contact: Dyi Huijg: huijgd AT lsbu.ac.uk

More info: Critical Pedagogy Project: http://criticalpedagogiesproject.com/