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).

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.

My notes on Al-Amoudi, I. (2018). Management and dehumanisation in Late Modernity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 182-194). Routledge.

What does it mean to talk about work as dehumanising? In this insightful paper, Ismael Al-Amoudi identifies a number of senses in which management practices can be dehumanising:

  1. The “oppression or denial of human flourishing” such that “we cannot be fully human in organisations and societies that repress the development of specifically human powers” e.g. “our capacity for instrumental, moral and aesthetic reasoning”, “our capacity to feel and express refined emotions and our crucially important capacity to act out of love and solidarity” (pg 182).
  2. The “dehumanisation of subalterns” regarded as”lacking characteristic human traits and are thus denied basic human rights” (pg 182).
  3. Those “dehumanisation processes” which involve “the replacement of human activity by automated processes of production and organisation operating differently from human reflexivity and sense making”, as in “humans being increasingly replaced by ‘intelligent’ machines and governed by information systems” (pg 182).

He cautions that ‘dehumanisation’ is a polysemic term and thus these senses might overlap in practice. It is a term that can easily be used in imprecise ways which inject confusion in debates. Furthermore, it has often be used to justify what should not be justified and promises an easy sense of moral security. As he puts it, its “heavily value-laden” character is both “worthy and dangerous” (pg 183) but it’s one should persist with when the alternative is a technocratic outlook which gives no pause for what makes the human valuable. While the human is always open to contestation, affirming it provides a normative foundation upon which such contestation can take place. In this sense, it’s an important resource for critical social science.

These are not new considerations, even if they’ve often been framed in terms of other than dehumanisation. Weber’s account of bureaucracy in which “[h]uman persons were increasingly subject to forms of rational-legal authority” both “in terms of limiting the range of legitimate actions” and “restricting human interpretations, emotions and bonds” cast dehumanisation in the first and third sense as the telos of bureaucracy (pg 185). Virtues like “efficiency, calculability, predictability and control”, the “fundamental tenants of professional management and science”, found their origin in bureaucracy with all their dehumanising consequences. However what has changed, suggests Al-Amoudi, is the concern of management to obfuscate this process and mask its consequences.

He goes on to consider how declining employment security then the decline of the welfare state have contributed to a situation in which “it becomes impossible to formulate coherent life projects” where increasing numbers of young people “have so little certainty a few years ahead about their social and economic conditions that they are unable to start a family or even make meaningful friendships” (pg 187). Even those who have a job might feel it shouldn’t exist, as in David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs’ concepts, with all this implies about their capacity for fulfilment and happiness when work figures so prominently in their life. Voice and exit which might have been plausible responses in an earlier period are increasingly denied, with important consequences for the form which resist to dehumanisation might take. In some cases this results in violence which is widely deemed to be shocking, but this violence is a response to more insidious forms of violence which can be found within the labour process. He draws on Mbembe’s account of necrocapitalism and cites examples such as “workers in sweatshops, indigenous populations displaced and sometimes massacred for their lands, unjust wars beneficial to what President Eisenhower termed ‘the military-industrial complex” which indicate how violence at less exceptional and more generalised outside the global north.

Al-Amoudi argues that attention to dehumanisation serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows us to distinguish between forms of violence which are ethically problematic and those which are not i.e. “when those involved in violence see their human powers wither rather than flourish” or “when it negates human dignity” and “recasts victims as less human than perpetrators” (pg 188). He cites the example of a boxing match here but I’m not convinced about the general point, as I’m struggling to think of workplace cases where violence might be acceptable. Furthermore, one could easily make the case that the warlord flourishes in his exercise of violence, even though it remains reprehensible. Secondly, focusing on dehumanisation lets us “examine the social conditions of such violence and, when appropriate, to criticise them” (pg 188). He then moves onto a prospective mode to consider what ‘smart technologies’ might mean for dehumanisation, asking a number of important questions:

  1. Who will own the robots in the factories and the algorithms upon which our devices depend? What new forms of exclusion and subalternity will develop?
  2. What effect will increased workplace competition driven by smart technology have on our willingness to accept technological enhancement of human beings? What human powers might be extended and which might be lost?
  3. What inequalities will develop between humans and transhumans? What forms of organisation could help mitigate these inequalities?
  4. How will our interactions with robots change how we interact with other humans?
  5. What threshold will machines have to reach in exhibiting signs of humanity for us to be willing to respect their rights?

One crucial theme in the chapter is the relationship between management studies and management practice. He cautions that “the vast majority of management and organisational studies to date ignore the historically contingent cultural and social structures within which managerial groups operate” producing  “an historical vision of human organisations” and a “dangerous fantasy of humanity without without a history” (pg 190).

My notes on Lazega, E. (2005). A Theory of Collegiality and its Relevance for Understanding Professions and knowledge-intensive Organizations. In Organisation und profession (pp. 221-251). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

I came to know Emmanuel Lazega over the last five years through my involvement with the Centre for Social Ontology. I initially found his approach difficult to follow, simply because it was quite different from anything I’ve been exposed to previously, but in recent years I’ve begun to understand it and see it as hugely important. Much of his recent work concerns “[c]omplex tasks that cannot be routinized” and the role they play in “professional and knowledge intensive work” (pg 1) and its relationship to bureaucracy. He is interested in the competition between these two trends, collegiality and bureaucratisation, understood as modes of rationalization which are by their nature in tension. This defines a “theoretical continuum between bureaucracy and collegiality” on which organisations can be located empirically, highlighting their co-existence in compound form within actually existing organisations. In doing so, he breaks from Neo-Weberian theories which identify formal characteristics obtaining to different kinds of organisations (collegial, bureaucratic, monocratic) and instead develops a multi-level approach that looks at “the individual, relational and organizational levels at the same time” (pg 2). He begins with the strategic rationality of actors and builds upwards, as described on pg 2:

Such an approach assumes that individuals have a strategic rationality. It looks at members as niche seeking entrepreneurs selecting exchange partners, carving out a place for themselves in the group and getting involved in various forms of status competition. From this conception of actors, it derives the existence of generic social mechanisms that are needed to sustain this form of collective action, in particular that of generalized exchange, lateral control, and negotiation of precarious values. It is rooted, first, in the analysis of the production process
and task-related resource dependencies; and, secondly, in the analysis of derived governance mechanisms. The latter are theoretically derived from the notion of relational investment.

On this view collegial modes of organising provide solutions to problems of collective action amongst peers i.e. people who are formally equal in power. Such collaboration is a prominent feature of knowledge-intensive organisations, raising the question of how “organizations without permanent bosses and followers, in which all members ultimately have a formally equal say in running operations or exercising control, are able to operate” (pg 2). Examples of where such collaboration can be found include “corporate law firms, engineering and technology firms, architecture firms, advertising agencies, medical wards, consulting firms, investment banks, scientific laboratories, religious congregations, and many other organizations bringing together recognized experts” (pg 2). HHow is agreement reached without resort to coercion in such organisational forms? How is quality ensured without command and control? How does innovation happen without it being directed hierarchically? How does the organisation adapt to legal, technological and social change? As he summarises on pg 18: problems include “getting, organizing, and doing work; maintaining quality; distributing income; preserving unity; reproducing workers; controlling deviance; and balancing continuity with change”.As he puts it on pg 11 “[u]nable to pull rank on peers, members of collegial organizations need decentralized controls”. If I understand him correctly these are just some of the collective action challenges which are generically faced by collegial modes of organisation. However an adequate account of how this operates empirically must recognise the dimension of power, defined on pg 5:

Power is defined as the ability of individuals or groups in the organization to impose their will on others as a result of resource dependencies. In the case of collective action among peers, however, such dependencies are often less permanent and more complex than in bureaucracies. Power is shared, then aggregated upwards to be exercised simultaneously by several positions in a `polycratic’ system. There are also norms concerning this exercise, especially for legitimization of inequality and justification of acceptance of inequality.

Social ties within the collegial organisation facilitate access to resources like good will, advice or friendship that may directly or indirectly have ramifications for the production process. For Weberians these have been seen as “particularistic obstacles to efficient collective action” and consequentially their significance in “help[ing] members cooperate and exchange, monitor, pressure, and sanction each other, and negotiate precarious values” has been missed (pg 5). These are the context within which the strategic rationality of actors plays out, giving rise to generic mechanisms which characterise the operation of social discipline within collegial organisations. This is the point where I start to feel a bit out of my depth so please take these notes with a pinch of salt:

Niche seeking involves the partial suspense of calculative behaviour, producing a ‘bounded solidarity’ in which co-operation can occur without the expectation of immediate reciprocity. Niche seeking produces a proto-group structure which makes it easier for members to access the resources they need (commitment to work together, professional advice, personal support – pg 8) for co-operation and work together in pursuit of a shared objective or cluster of objectives. It can be threatened by status competition which is an endemic tension within collegial organisation, as forms of co-operation (e.g. ‘brainstorming’) depend on the suspension of status for their efficacy but also often require the intervention of someone (usually of higher status) to draw it to a close and define where it goes. If I understand correctly, the problem is one of collective interests (sharing information and experience as much as possible) clashing with individual interests (stressing their own knowledge and experience in order to increase their standing vis-a-vis their peers). The nature of interaction means members compete over the capacity to define the terms of their interaction while collective action requires a converging definition of the situation in order to be succesful. The niche is where this tension can be temporarily and precariously resolved, mitigating the problem of status competition but remaining continually threatened by it.

It is important to stress that status in Lazega’s sense is multidimensional, “not only based on seniority and money; it has a particularly strong dimension of prestige, of symbolic recognition of a member’s contribution, and of ongoing critical judgements about members’ quality” (pg 16). Formal equality constrains the forms which status competition can take and means it unfolds through all manner of routes, including the deployment of the notion of collegiality or professionalism (and attendant ideas) for personal advantage within the organisation:

This implies that informal authority of members with status is based not only on control of all sorts of resources (important clients, workforce, day-to-day operations, technical competence, experience), but also on their capacity to manipulate relationships to create consensus, on their firm-specific strategic culture. By this I mean a political know-how allowing them to be players in a power game deemphasizing unilateral impositions of strength and encouraging learning and mutual prescription in negotiations. This requires a capacity to share with others a certain code of collegial relations and an ideology of collegiality (Frischkopf 1973)–that is, a certain conception of professionalism. For example, the mix of an adversarial and pushy professional culture, on the one hand, and of personalized and unobtrusive lateral control, on the other hand, are not always easy to combine for partners in a corporate law firm. This also requires rhetorical manipulation of an ideology of collegiality in debates about professionalism, especially when members with market power try to pressure others for consensus around their own conception of professionalism.

Lateral control regimes reflect the challenge involved in ensuring compliance, without the exercise of hierarchical relations. If I understand him correctly, collegial organisation tends to preclude formal command-and-control as well informal conflicts likely to destroy bounded solidarity. This is why informal interventions “in order to curb behaviour perceived to be unprofessional or opportunistic”  become so important, motivated by restoration of flow of resources which the problematic behaviour is seen to have impeded. These “start with convergent expressions of normative expectations, unobtrusive and unsolicited advice and the spread of gossip” before escalating (pg 12).

My notes on Woodcock, J. (2018). Digital labour in the university: understanding the transformations of academic work in the UK. TripleC, 16(1), 129-142.

This important paper by Jamie Woodcock sees to rectify the lack of application of ways of analysing work to the work conducted within the university. His main focus is on the introduction of new management techniques and the introduction of digital technologies, exploring the entanglement between the two. This requires taking the role of information in Labour seriously, acknowledging it predates contemporary digital technologies, as can be seen for instance in Taylorism. If we recognise how information is used for control and production, it becomes easier to see how the emancipatory potential apparently found in digital technology actually gives rise to its opposite:

New technologies have reduced paperwork and increased the pace of tasks, in effect augmenting the labour process by automating parts of it, and there have been increasing applications of technology for supervision and control. For example, Bain et al. (2002, 3) previously noted that it is now ‘feasible to attain total knowledge, in “real time”, of how every employee’s time was being deployed, through the application of electronic monitoring equipment.’

Woodcock goes on to consider the two functions universities have served: knowledge production and teaching/training. In the UK these institutions are formally at a distance from the state yet dependent on state funding, as well as increasingly under pressure to collaborate with the private sector. We must understand the imperative for “control over and improving the effectiveness of academic labor” against this background. Academic work lacks the measurability on which information-led control depends but this is a problem which digital technology can solve, “creating more opportunities for the generation, capture, and analysis of data” and allowing the kids of ‘quantified control’ described by Roger Burrows et al.

This is most apparent in citations leading to a situation in which it is “not enough to simply produce an academic output – for example, a journal article – but that output itself has to be measured along a variety of metrics: the quality of the journal in which it was published, the number of times it has been cited (in where the citing paper was published), and so on”. But the rankings produced through such a process extend beyond matters of ‘outputs’. These metrics function in place of the “dictatorial and electronically enabled forms of control and surveillance” which can be found in other work places, with the “creative dimensions of academic work (the need to produce new and meaningful ideas, or to provide up to date and relevant teaching), along with the classic problem of the indeterminacy of labour” making these more direct forms of control unfeasible.

Social media is changing the orientation academics have to their ‘outputs’/, as it promises to be a vehicle for attaining the wider audience (outside of the discipline and/or outside of the university) which has often been an ambition of academic authors. But in doing so, it leaves them bound into an increasingly well understood attention economy. Digital technologies more broadly are coming to mediate between students and teachers, from the intensified communication which e-mail engenders through to the pressure to create supplementary learning materials to share online and the implications which lecture capture has for face-to-face interaction with students. Finally the instruments used by academics are changing. As Woodcock describes it, “The historical image of the academic working in dusty offices or libraries is increasingly giving way to that of a person typing away on a laptop, whether at home, an office (possibly shared), or a coffee shop with wifi.” He suggests this is giving rise to a platform university:

One of the interesting dynamics that this introduces, as opposed to the analogue resources of the physical library, is a physical decoupling of the instruments of academic work from a geography of the university. In this sense, the university becomes more like a platform – allowing access to institutional subscriptions, email accounts, and other online resources, that do not require a worker to physically be present within the university itself.

What’s important to grasp is the ambivalent character of these tools, how the “relative freedom of being able to use digital tools to engage with teaching, research, and administration to engage with the university from wherever” also goes hand-in-hand with the “the possibility of greater precarisation and outsourcing via a platform mode of organisation”. He includes a useful table discussing the impact of digitalisation on different aspects of academic work:

He suggests Operaismo provides useful resources for making sense of how we can resist these changes, relying on the distinction between technical composition (“the labour process, the application of technology, management strategies, and the conditions of the reproduction of labour power”) and class composition (“the practices, traditions, and forms of struggle, something that is itself continually in a process of re-composition”). He cites Roggero’s notion of ‘blockages’ created by the pressures attendant upon the technical composition. This is a similar argument to the one Filip Vostal and I have tried to make about acceleration and the difficulties it creates for collective action. Their result is that “sustained struggle within the university has become limited, giving the impression that not much is currently happening on the terrain of workplace struggle”.

He suggests that workers inquiry can provide a response to this, observing that rather “than watching the new digital tools being used to further the precariousness and alienation of academic work, they can be adapted and modified to fit a project for a very different kind of university”. Collaborative inquiry into shared conditions can provides a means to better understand their contours, suggest new ideas and experiment with new forms of organisation. I wasn’t entirely sure whether he’s suggesting this as a method of inquiry with precarious workers outside the university, other workers within the university, entirely by academics or all three. But it’s an exciting idea nonetheless.

My notes on Philip Cooke (2018) Generative growth with ‘thin’ globalization: Cambridge’s crossover model of innovation, European Planning Studies, 26:9, 1815-1834, DOI: 10.1080/09654313.2017.1421908

Since moving to Cambridge in July 2017, I’ve become fascinated by the transformation underway within the city and what it reveals about the political economy of the UK. This paper by Philip Cooke argues that Cambridge is in a state of growth comparable to Silicon Valley (on a larger scale) and Israel (on a small-country scale). In 2017 there 4330 technology firms in the city, employing 59,102 people and generating £11.1 billion revenues in the previous year. This includes five firms worth more than £1 billion in an area which has the highest concentration of Nobel prizewinners in the world (pg 1816). The benefits of regional clusters have tended to be couched in terms of knowledge-based interactions taking place on a local level and lowered transaction costs between firms. However Cooke is concerned by the process through which clusters diversify and come to constitute a cluster-platform. From pg 1817:

This takes a specific meaning of ‘platform’ metaphorically comprising ‘boards’ or ‘planks’ that give strength to different but related elements which may be mounted upon it. This is different from the more specialized idea of a ‘technology platform’ such as a smartphone Appstore. Here, the variety of applications is specialized at the App-level but diversified at the device level.

The “crossover potentiality” which characterises a cluster-platform has radical economic consequences. It is built on three features: (1) world class university research providing “cognitive raw materials … at the leading edge of problem definition” and dedicated research centres which can solve problems early (2) global corporations with specific needs able to enter into long-term relationships with ‘knowledge suppliers’, providing the grounds for SMEs to flourish (3) internationalisation which facilitates the rapid diffusion of innovation outside of the country of origin. These factors have allowed the existing high-tech cluster of Cambridge to evolve into a “diversified cluster-platform”.

One of the striking features of it is the preponderance of “many micro-sized firms in all sectors” (pg 1818). Cooke argues that a much higher potential for innovation comes with this structure, citing examples such as “algorithms designed for turbulence in rivers transmuted into AI for currency trading, which, in turn, mutated into cybersecurity forensics” (pg 1819). What makes these ‘cognitive crossovers’ possible? They can’t be controlled by a single corporate actor but capital accumulation at this advanced stage depends upon them. There are five main forms which relationships between Cambridge firms and external firms take: partnership, commissions, ownership, acquisition and alliances (pg 1828).

They also depend upon a macro-social context which is heading in the other direction. Unfortunately, the reliance on highly skilled labour, particularly from outside the EU where majors in emergent disciplines and design engineering approaches are more common, places “the cluster-platform in head-to-head disagreement with the U.K.’s populist anti-immigration regime associated with the Brexit debâcle”. Risk finance is in shorter supply, though this was helped by quantitative easing and low interest rates (pg 1821). Furthermore, continued research funding is necessary, particularly “‘flexible research funding’ that furthers and fosters :‘knowledge at interfaces’ (‘crossover’) types of interdisciplinary research profile to evolve along multiple inter-dependent research pathways” (pg 1822). This is one reason why a university like Cambridge has begun to sell its own bonds, described on pg 1822:

In the U.K., the Bank of England currently buys bonds issued by some universities, including Cambridge. The largest university bond was a £350 million issue from Cambridge in 2012 with a maturity date of 2052. Such bonds are sold to finance university research and teaching – deemed officially to make a material contribution to the U.K. economy.

Furthermore, private funds like Cambridge Innovation Capital and institutional actors like University of Cambridge Enterprise have placed the UK at the top of league table for university venture funds. The latter has administered deals “involving 11 companies that were sold or stock exchange listed with a combined value of £1.3 billion”, owning their own IP and incubated with support within the university. Much of the capital for initial investments has come from the Gulf and Asia (pg 1822). The University of Cambridge Enterprise offers seed capital, consultancy and IP advice to university spin offs (pg 1823). These operate alongside what Cooke describes as “‘associational’ agencies that support cluster-platform growth” (pg 1827). He cites the example of the CleanTech boom in Cambridge, with “one hundred cleantech firms of which 25% had in 2016 been ranked in the U.K.’s top 50 cleantech firms” (pg 1826), illustrating how incubation activities support nascent areas of specialisation which feed into the broader platform-cluster. I’m particularly interested in the micro-sociology of the events such agencies run, such as the example given on pg 1831:

To support the sharing of specialist knowledge and further development of the sector, the Regional High Value Design Group held an October 2016 networking seminar event at Cambridge’s Granta Science Park about the crossover between aerospace, automotive engineering and healthcare. Forward Composites (materials science) reported on operations in the aerospace, defence, automotive and motor sport sectors. Crossover presentations from advanced combustion engine designer Cosworth Group of Cambridge, now a leader in the transfer of motorsport electronics technologies into adjacent markets were made. Other presentations linked AEC SELEX, part of the Italian company Finmeccanica Leonardo, one of the world’s largest defence and homeland security technology companies and the largest Italian investor in the U.K., to identify areas where SELEX’s expertise can be used to keep people alive in a different setting, in the healthcare sector.

Platform clusters fuel “a host of innovative applications that sound like hype but are actually being innovated in cascades of technical change that seem highly likely to have prodigious social and economic impact” (pg 1829/1830) with past populist backlashes suggesting the “the implications for famine, unemployment, migration and war could be truly apocalyptic” (pg 1830). It is tied up in the emergence of a ‘thin globalization’ which sees vast areas shaped from a few “command posts” (pg 1816). This has to be understood against a background of rising global turmoil, described on pg 1831-1832:

Today, geopolitically, the world is in turbulence, with threatening climate change, wars in the Middle East, mass migration from war zones into Europe and the U.S. caused partly by starvation and economic inequality as well as desertification and poor water resources related to climate change. There are many more problems connected to ageing populations and disease that put pressure on health and social care.

Cooke suggests that platform-clusters herald the end of big corporate r&d conducted in a linear way, instead giving rise to decentralised approaches suitable to complex problems.

My notes on Maccarini, A. M. (2018). Trans-human (life-) time: Emergent biographies and the ‘deep change’in personal reflexivity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 138-164). Routledge.

One of the interesting features of the recent Centre for Social Ontology project on defending the human has been the realisation that many in the group are entirely open to the idea of trasnhumanism even while rejecting the notion of posthumanism. Andrea Macacarini draws the useful distinction between a post-human society (the radically other autonomous subjects, originally human or otherwise, as well as the ensuing social order emerging from them)and the trans-human change of human beings (transhumanization = processes through which an enduring and significant transition in human nature occurs, expanding their capacities and characteristics beyond the current species average), with the potential for each being found in two groups of phenomena: the inner transformation of humans through deep relationships with emerging  technologies and the development of non-human and non-living entities which come to exhibit an apparently autonomous subjectivity. They are inevitably related in practice but need to be distinguished in principle because of the different relations they entail between (a) the relationship of human beings to emerging technological agents (b) how the character of human beings are changed by those relations. They lead, as Macacarini puts it, to a “criss of the idea of a human subject” with unique characteristics able to realise species-specific outcomes (pg 139).

His concern is with  “conceivable forms of human enhancement that could lead to change  human beings with respects to their species-specific features” in a way “affecting their self-awareness, self-understanding, and lifestyle”. However most account of these possibilities “begin with technological advancements and then work their way through the possible meanings, consequences, required adaptations, and side effects of such technical tools and developments on culture, society and human beings”. This means that social and cultural analysis is restricted to the consequence of these facts, as opposed to a sociological approach which entails treating “the post-human phenomenon as a fully social and cultural fact” i.e. the prior social and cultural factors which allow these technological developments to have the impact which they do (pg 140). He argues that we can identify prior social and cultural trends which anticipate transhuman tendencies, finding their expression in technological change but with origins that precede it. As he puts it, “deep change is taking place, building persons who conceive of themselves as ‘differently human’, and thereby come to perceive the ‘trans-humanizing’ techniques as desirable tools to fulfil their needs”. Doing so helps us move beyond the choice of siding with either “enthusiastic post-humanism or with worried humanist” whose concerns, as well as the space between them, “constitute the core matter of many studies” (pg 142).

He astutely identifies a ‘messianic hope in technology driven trans-humanization” underpinning “a hidden assumption, namely that post-human persons will represent the accomplishment of humans best dreams” (pg 144). This explains a certain optimism in the literature in response to problems he categorise as equality, collective survival and ontological dignity because post-humans are quietly assumed to retain and express the best of the human. Beyond the cognitive achievements and physical attributes of trans-humans what can we expect of their moral dispositions, deep identity and self-understanding? He makes this interesting methodological suggestion that the only way to address these questions is to “look into what humans are currently looking for when they seek self-enhancement, and why humans would want to become enhanced themselves” (pg 144).

He explores this through the notion of the biographical scheme, relevant because it is a point of intersection where structure and cultural condition the unfolding of the life-course. Biographical schemes organise our experience of temporality, integrating our activity and experience over time into a coherent whole which links our inner experience of time through to time in our relations with others and on to the outer sense of history unfolding. He discusses a number of temporal transformations which might contribute to this: social accelerationtimeless time (beyond human experience e.g. computing), no waiting culture (the immediacy of current concerns fade into a continuous present: “the quest for achieving well-being by overcoming temporal limits” as he puts it on pg 153), performance culture (ever increasing temporal efficiency). Under these conditions “human beings are increasingly requested to develop rapid decision making, an enhanced capacity for computation ,management of emotions, simultaneous consideration of many factors, the capacity to work and make good decisions under pressure, the aptitude for team work, creativity in looking for fresh solutions, and more” (pg 150). Coping with these pressure might be contingently compatible with transhuman enhancement, constituting a vector of change because these enhancements are liable to change the conditions e.g. by increasing the experienced competition which led people to use cognitive enhancers in the first place.

But what does this mean for human being? Macacarini draws on Archer’s conception of reflexivity over the life course, in which the necessity of selection (from available opportunities, as much as they might vary between people and across time and place) inevitably gives shape to a life as the accumulation of past-choices increasingly constraints future choices as the biological lifecourse unfolds. But this relies on the assumption of sequential experience (challenged by timeless time), locality (robotics and virtual reality), rhythmicity (challenged by performance culture and acceleration), irreversibility (challenged by emerging technologies such as anti-ageing innovations) and self-transcendence (challenged by longer lives and the experienced change of the social institutions through which self-transcendence was sought). If these changes are leading to a transhuman way to inhabit time then what does it mean for the ideals of living which intermingle with our approach to making our way through the world? He suggests the growth of “individuals who strive to ‘totalize’ themselves and to swallow as many simultaneous possibilities of action and experience as possible, rejecting any definite shape or enduring commitment” through their rejection of the necessity of selection (pg 159).

My notes on Burawoy, M. (2017). On Desmond: the limits of spontaneous sociology. Theory and Society, 46(4), 261-284.

The work of Matthew Desmond has won enormous acclaim in recent years, with Evicted being a book I recommend to anyone keen to understand the relevance of contemporary sociology. While recognising his talents as an ethnographer and writer, in this paper Michael  Burawoy takes issue with the methodological approach advocated by Desmond, arguing that it represents a form of what Bourdieu called ‘spontaneous sociology’: a return to the naive empiricism of the Chicago school era that confines truth to the field site, presented in the guise of a theoretical revolution. Desmond has made the case that ethnographic practice reminds mired in substantialism, being left behind by what Andrew Abbott describes as a ‘quiet revolution’ in the social sciences: a relational turn which overcomes a dominant tendency where “the object of study is confined to isolated places, bounded groups and homogeneous cultures” as Burawoy summarises the case against substantialism on pg 263.

Nonetheless, Burawoy argues that Desmond struggles to identify examples of substantialist ethnography, with this purportedly dominant approach servicing to obscure the distinction between what Burawoy sees as the two forms of relational ethnography: “empiricist transactional ethnography and a theoretically-grounded structural ethnography” (pg 263). The former’s rejection of prior theory and comparison (the first seen as getting in the way of a pragmatic ontology of the field site by leaving the analyst bogged down in theoretical debates, the second as inevitably involving groups or places and thus substantialism) render it unable to grasp “forces beyond the field site that can only be explored with theoretical frameworks and comparative logic” as in structural ethnography (pg 263). Not only are the effects of wider structures circumscribed by this methodological stance, it goes hand-in-hand with a slide into “old style inductive ethnography in which sociological insights emerge spontaneously from the data”. As Burawoy continues on pg 264:

As a follower of Bourdieu, Desmond insists on the importance of constructing a scientific object that breaks with common sense. Yet his own ethnographies, far from breaking with the common sense of his participants, faithfully reproduce it. His objects of study, such as eviction, spring directly from the experience of his subjects, so that his work exemplifies what Bourdieu et al. (1991, p. 38) condemn, namely a hyperempiricism that abdicates the right and duty of theoretical construction in favour of spontaneous sociology. Paradoxically, the spontaneous sociology of Evicted makes it highly effective as a public sociology of exposé, but it comes at the cost of a critical perspective that would break with common sense and generate convincing policy proposals.

This slide follows from the rejection of comparison and past theory, falling back on the “the inductivist view that the field reveals insights in and of itself without explicitly engaging relevant literature, which is either dismissed as wrong-headed or ignored”: the ethnographer “mimics the experiences of those he studies” because the resources to facilitate an epistemological break (from common sense) in the construction of the research object have been discarded (pg 266). If I understand him correctly, Burawoy is concerned with the scholarly practice which makes this break possible. If you limit truth to what emerges from the field site then how do you ensure a distance from common sense? I’m not sure if Burawoy is saying it’s impossible but it’s certainly difficult. As he puts it on pg 276, “Desmond departs from Durkheim and Bourdieu for whom prior theorizing is essential for an epistemological shift, a shift from spontaneous sociology to scientific sociology”. In this sense, he’s saying Desmond’s approach runs counter to Bourdieu’s in spite of his invocation of it. He goes on to offer a clear summary of Bourdieu’s approach on pg 277:

Bourdieu’s epistemological break is based on a two-fold truth—the truth of the participant and the truth of the scientist between which there is an unbridgeable divide. That is to say, participants cannot connect their own world to the scientific understanding of the sociologist. In the game metaphor Bourdieu often deploys, players develop a commitment (illusio) to a taken-for-granted set of all absorbing and incontrovertible principles (nomos) governing the play of the game—while the scientist observing the game from without can see the conditions that make the game possible, conditions that are invisible to the players.

It follows from this that Bourdieu is “skeptical of participant observation, as it only reveals a partial truth, the subjective truth of the participant, unable of itself to reach an objective truth” (pg 278). Objectivity necessitates distance from the field site of precisely the sort which Burawoy claims Desmond’s approach precludes.

In the final part of the paper, Burawoy compares the Bourdieu’s public sociology to Desmond’s. The former was predicated on an “epistemological break with the epistemological break” that “establishes the conditions for a public sociology, a sociology that engages the public”, something which the insistence on distance from subaltern common sense had previously precluded (pg 279).The latter involves a “synergy of public and professional sociology, each bolstering and inspiring the other”, seen in Desmond’s scientific follow ups to Evicted and his copious scholarly end notes coupled with huge dissemination through popular media (pg 280). Unfortunately, argues Burawoy, it leads to poor policy sociology, producing recommendations which fail to grasp the broader dynamics in place. He writes on pg 281 of the wider social forces which “are invisible in Desmond’s account—forces that have to be unveiled and tackled if there is to be any solution to the housing problem”.

His objection is that “Desmond’s public sociology, important as it is, is limited to an exposé of the lived experience of housing insecurity”: it can’t get beyond the field site and hence is restricted to disseminating the common sense that is found there. This serves a purpose but it is a limited one. Burawoy ends with a call that resonates with me, stressing on pg 282 that the ‘underlying dilemma of ethnography’ is one of broader importance when the academic workplace is under threat: how do we relate to those we study?

Especially today, when the academic work- place is threatened by forces beyond, the underlying dilemma of ethnography—that we are part of the world we study—is pressingly germane to all social science and the academic world more generally. So we have to develop an understanding of our relation to those we study. We cannot confine ourselves to processes within the field site but must recognize how they are tied to the past and thus to the future, as well as to social forces that establish their conditions of existence. We cannot broach these problems without inherited bodies of knowledge—theories—that we continually reconstruct. That is what gives meaning and distinctiveness to sociology.

Reflecting on this a day later, I feel I should stress how much I like Matthew Desmond’s work. I regret the slightly click-baity header I gave these notes, though it does seem appropriate for the point Burawoy is making in his critique of Desmond’s cultivated atheoreticism. It would also be interesting to link up the argument Burawoy is making here to the critique Archer and Donati make of Mustafa Emirbayer’s relational sociology, as there’s a lot of overlap.

My notes on Yuill, S. (2005) Programming as Practice in J. Gibbons and K. Winwood, eds., Hothaus Papers: perspectives and paradigms in media arts, Birmingham: ARTicle Press.

What does it mean to program? In this intriguing paper Simon Yuill takes issue with responses to this question which reduce programming to a technical practice, reduced to its relationship to computer technology. He observes that the term derives from the Greek programma: ‘pro’ (coming in advance) and ‘Gramma’ (mark or line) meaning “a set of marks that ‘comes in advance’, anticipates and provides for something”. It’s a “form of mark-making that encodes and guides processes of production” sharing a common form with “architectural plans, music notation and textile patterns” (pg 87). In doing so, they also express aesthetics and new notional systems have been developed in order to facilitate aesthetic innovations. In this sense, if I understand him correctly, there’s an unavoidable relationship between the ‘programmatic practice’ and the cultural activity of which it is part. The notation itself can indicate technical possibilities which feed back into practice, as makers seek to realise a potential indicated by a notation system.

Programmatic practices record and communicative the assembly process of a cultural item, enabling that process to be “shared and communicated to others” (pg 88). As he puts it, “Where once craftsmen and architects would design directly into the artefacts they were creating, the introduction of programmatic practices enables designs to be produced in one location to be sent elsewhere and realised by other people”. For instance “Ibn Muqlah’s scripts were originally designed to facilitate the creation and use of written documents within the large bureaucratic system of the Abbasid empire” with their modular composition (I didn’t quite understand this: “the forms of letters were encoded according to a modular proportion based on a single dot”) “designed to increase reliability and ease of reproduction” so as to facilitate “transference of designs across distance and their continuation in use over time”. He uses the lovely expression, “the abstraction of design and plan from its realisation in any given medium” to conceptualise the possibilities opened up by this system of notation, including moving designs between media (pg 90).

The distance this affords and the reflection it encourages enables increasing complexity, though the artefact remains marked by the programmatic system on which it depends. He makes the fascinating observation that this underwrites structural distinctions, as occupational relations within organisations are determined by differing relationships to the programmatic systems e.g. “an architect and a builder, a composer and a performer, a designer and a weaver” (pg 88). This enables practices to spread, facilitating innovations to be communicated and standardised. As a corollary of this certain modes of encoding can come to be marked as legitimate, identifying a practitioner as an insider rather than an outsider or as belonging to a movement with a particular set of commitments. It is a deeply social process, by definition orientated towards others, not least of all because “encoding a process in an externalised exchangeable form” makes it possible for “that process to be inspected, analysed and critically reviewed” (pg 89). It also facilitates a movement “from poesis to praxis, from the immediate task of making to a more critically aware, self-reflexive interrogation of that task” (pg 89)

I found this article enormously thought-provoking, with its underlying argument being that “programming is not unique to computing” (pg 93) and that we miss the continuities which computer programming share with other forms of art practice if we fail to recognise this. New media facilitate an intensification and acceleration of programming practice, rather than marking a break with pre-existing forms (pg 94). Furthermore, the distinction between creators and users is breaking down due to the immense reactivity of the medium itself: the endless possibility for modification is not new but the ease and speed of modification is. This leaves us, Yuill argues, confronting programming as a site of ongoing production rather than the production of discrete artefacts. He ends by considering the new understandings of creativity and forms of creative practice these affordances might open up, liable to be missed if we remain fixated on the ‘technical’ character of programming. Much as other forms of programmatic practice are embedded in social structures, what is computer programming making possible and which of these possibilities are being realised?

My notes on Andrejevic, M., Hearn, A., & Kennedy, H. (2015). Cultural studies of data mining: Introduction, European Journal of Cultural Studies 18(4-5), 379-394

In this introduction to an important special issue, Mark Andrejevic, Alison Hearn and Helen Kennedy that the ubiquity of data infrastructure in everyday life means that “we cannot afford to limit our thinking about data analysis technologies by approaching them solely as communication media” and offer a list of questions which we need to address:

what kinds of data are gathered, constructed and sold; how these processes are designed and implemented; to what ends data are deployed; who gets access to them; how their analysis is regulated (boyd and Crawford, 2012) and what, if any, possibilities for agency and better accountability data mining and analytics open up. (pg 380)

This creates a problem for cultural studies because data mining challenges established forms of representation, “promising to discern patterns that are so complex that they are beyond the reach of human perception, and in some cases of any meaningful explanation or interpretation”. It is not “not only a highly technical practice, it also tends to be non-transparent in its applications, which are generally privately owned and controlled”. It poses an ontological challenge to cultural studies, as well as epistemological and methodological ones. In the absence of access to the products of data mining, the authors suggest cultural studies is left theorising their effects.

If we approach data analysis technologies as communicative media, we miss a “shift away from interpretive approaches and meaning-making practices towards the project of arranging and sorting people (and things) in time and space” (pg 381). Data mining isn’t undertaken to understand the communication taking place, as much as to “arrange and sort people and their interactions”. They suggest that recent developments in social theory mirror this changing reality (pg 381-382):

Perhaps not coincidentally, recent forms of social and cultural theory mirror develop- ments in big data analytics; new materialism, object-oriented ontology, post-humanism and new medium theory – all of which are coming to play an important role in digital media studies – de-centre the human and her attendant political and cultural concerns in favour of a ‘flat’ ontology wherein humans are but one node, and perhaps not the most  important, in complex networks of interactions and assemblages. Thus, analysis of the circulation of affects and effects rather than of meanings, content or representations, con- nected as they are to human-centred forms of meaning-making, has become a dominant trope in some influential current approaches to media. Such analyses tend to fashion themselves as anti-discursive in their rejection of a focus on representation and cognition and their turn towards bodies and things in their materiality (rather than their significa- tion).

They make the compelling argument that to “remain within the horizon of interpretation, explanation and narrative” can be a “strategic critical resource in the face of theoretical tendencies that reproduce the correlational logic of the database by focusing on patterns and effects rather than on interpretations or explanations” (pg 382). The promise of these new approaches to correct an excessively discursive focus risks an “over-correction” and a “view from nowhere” in which “the goal of comprehensiveness (the inclusion of all components of an endless network of inter-relations) tends towards a politically inert process of specification in which structures of power and influence dissipate into networks and assemblages” (pg 383). Pushing beyond human concerns too easily leads to ever more specific analyses which collapse the substance of interactions into their effects, leaving us with “no way of generating a dynamics of contestation and argument in a flat ontology of ever proliferating relations or objects” (pg 384).

This is not a claim that there is nothing beyond culture, but rather a reminder that invoking this beyond is intrinsically cultural and a call for “an interrogation of the embrace of a post-cultural imaginary within contemporary media theory” (pg 384). This imaginary often obscures the political economy of data infrastructure, compounding the existing tendency for the ‘virtual’ character of digital phenomenon to distract from their socio-economic materiality; for all their opacity, complexity and power they are just another phase in the technological development of human civilisation (pg 385). When we recognise this in becomes easier to reject the “celebratory presentism” and remember that “technological forms, and the rhetorics and analytic practices that accompany them, do not come from nowhere – they have histories, which shape and condition them, and inevitably bear the marks of the cultural, social and political conditions surrounding their production and implementation” (pg 385). They end this wonderful paper with a call to action which I’d like to explore in the digital public sociology book I’m writing with Lambros Fatsis (pg 393):

We need to develop new methodologies and new intellectual and critical competencies to tackle the embedded assumptions buried in the code and their political and cultural implications. Our ability to accomplish these things will require more than isolated scholarly effort; collaborative, politically engaged activist sensibilities will no doubt be required in order to push past the privatized digital enclosures and open up access to the algorithms, analytics, distributive regimes and infrastructural monopolies that are increasingly coming to condition the contours and substance of our daily lives.

My notes on Phelan, S., & Dawes, S.  (2018, February 26). Liberalism and Neoliberalism. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Ed.   Retrieved 18 Dec. 2018, from

Liberalism and neoliberalism are nebulous categories, used in different ways to identify and disassociate from other identities. Liberalism has long been the hegemonic common sense of communications research while also being the explicit opponent for critical communications researchers, for whom it is a value system inseparable from capitalism. Neoliberalism in contrast is often seen as an antagonistic for both mainstream communications research and critical communications research. But it is complicated by some on the left collapsing the distinction them while some neoliberals are hostile to liberalism, seeing it as a front for left-wing values which are hostile to the free-market economy. The disagreement within these categories makes their meaning even more complex. For instance liberalism have been divided over matters such as the basis for autonomy, the significance of property rights and the legitimacy of state intervention, with the authors suggesting that ‘neoliberalism’ can be understood as “as a mark of difference from the political and ideological heterogeneity of the liberal tradition”  now that a particular form of liberalism has become dominant. As the authors caution, “[l]ike the concept of liberalism, neoliberalism is therefore best theorized as a heterogeneous concept—the name for a cultural formation and ideology that escapes easy definition, because of its capacity to adapt to the political context and appropriate the fragments of other political ideologies and discourses”.

These nuances matter because they define the context in which the role of communications in social life are understood and politically evaluated. Conceptual distinctions have knock-on effects in political debates:

As many scholars have argued (Baker, 2002; Curran, 1979, 1991; Curran & Seaton, 2003; Keane, 1991; Thompson, 1995), the liberal theory of press freedom makes a series of unconvincing assumptions about the status of the press as an expression of public opinion, agency of information, and independent watchdog on power. Because liberal theory conflates freedom of the press with the commercial freedoms of media owners, freedom from state regulation fails to protect the press from the negative effects of market competition and the need to cut costs and boost profits. It also allows media owners to pursue their own private interests (i.e., their speech rights are privileged over all others), and use their power to steer public policies in a market-friendly direction, thus granting them even greater political power in the name of press freedom.

Another example is the tendency of some to collapse the distinction between liberalism/neoliberalism and what this means for our capacity to grasp the ‘safe space’ debates surrounding universities:

Nonetheless, the historically dominant journalism identity in Anglo-American media cultures and elsewhere (Hallin & Mancini, 2004) continues to be defined by a more open-ended liberal and Enlightenment commitment to the principles of press freedom and free speech, which cannot be reduced to the status of a “neoliberal” commitment. This perspective holds out the hope of reclaiming the idea of press freedom from the excesses of its corporate and marketized appropriation, and a first amendment absolutism that delights in ridiculing the “political correctness” of progressive liberals. It also highlights the need for radical normative and ethical alternatives to the liberal tradition (Freedman, 2014), not to renounce the principles of press freedom and free speech as such (they are never absolute principles (O’Neill, 2002; Street, 2001), but rather to recognize their manifestation in symbolically violent and racist forms that (willfully) annihilate the speech rights of different groups (Dawes, 2015). The urgency of these issues has been captured in recent debates about the need for “safe spaces” on university campuses in the United States and elsewhere, sometimes in opposition to journalism’s assumed authority to report on public events. Left activists interrogate journalism’s liberal universalism, because of its capacity to misrepresent and stymy the political agency of different groups, and misrecognize its own gendered and racialized biases. Conversely, some left-liberals—who might otherwise be sympathetic to activists’ political demands—question the seeming opposition to liberal free speech conventions (see Cooper, 2015; Read, 2015), voicing a critique that takes a more derisory, and sometimes repugnant, form in right-wing and libertarian discourses. However they are approached, these political disagreements are unlikely to be illuminated by analytical frameworks that collapse the distinction between liberalism and neoliberalism.

These political debates in turn influence how conceptual distinctions are contested, as in “the theoretical disputes between media and communication scholars who embraced post-structuralist, post-modernist, and post-Marxist theories, and those who retained a fidelity to Marxist theory” with one side criticising “what they saw as political economy’s tendency to see media, culture, and discourse as epiphenomena of economic processes, ultimately of secondary importance to an analysis of capitalist mechanisms and institutions” and the other critiquing cultural studies “for spawning its own form of analytical reductionism, where “everything” seemed to be explainable as text or discourse” . The authors end by making six suggestions for future communication scholarship working with the concepts of liberalism and neoliberalism:

  1. “First, contemporary critiques of neoliberalism need to avoid simply rehashing an older critique of liberalism, as if neoliberalism signified nothing other than a revival of a 19th-century free market or laissez-faire ideology (Foucault, 2009). Instead, we need to better grasp the political, economic, cultural, and historical specificity of neoliberalism, including its status as a critique of progressive left-liberal discourses and identities”
  2. “Second, researchers need to be alert to the ideological paradoxes and contradictions of neoliberal regimes (Freedman, 2014), including the potential discordances between different neoliberal theories”.
  3. “Third, the concept of press freedom offers one especially important illustration of the cultural politics of how (neo)liberal signifiers are differently articulated and institutionalized. Different scholars have noted how the concept of press and media freedom has been neoliberalized (Dawes, 2014a; Fenton, 2011; Phelan, 2014). The shift is symptomatic of how neoliberals have hegemonized the language of freedom, naturalizing a negative conception of it that can be deeply hostile to the notion of the state as an enabler of positive versions. Nonetheless, the historically dominant journalism identity in Anglo-American media cultures and elsewhere (Hallin & Mancini, 2004) continues to be defined by a more open-ended liberal and Enlightenment commitment to the principles of press freedom and free speech, which cannot be reduced to the status of a “neoliberal” commitment.”
  4. “Fourth, the question of press freedom prompts general reflection on the condition of liberal democracy in neoliberal regimes (which in turn calls to mind authoritarian forms of neoliberalism that depart from narratives that universalize a liberal democratic transition from Keynesianism to neoliberalism).”
  5. “Fifth, we need to better illuminate how both liberalism and neoliberalism are articulated as signifiers of political identification and antagonism.”
  6. “Finally, communication and media scholars can potentially enrich the wider interdisciplinary literature on neoliberalism by clarifying its status as a mediated and mediatized phenomenon”

My notes on Paolillo, J. C. (2018). The Flat Earth phenomenon on YouTube. First Monday, 23(12).

Even if the resurgent belief in a flat earth remains a marginal phenomenon, it is fascinating for what it reveals about YouTube. In this paper John C. Paolillo documents the emergence of this YouTube community and the issues which preoccupy them. This involved producing a database of flat earth videos:

To identify Flat Earth videos, channel and video metadata was collected in a manner similar to prior studies (Cheng, et al., 2008; Paolillo, 2008). Firefox together with the GreaseMonkey add-in was used to run a user script collecting video and channel IDs from the YouTube public developer API. The script communicated with a PHP/PostgreSQL backend to store the IDs. For each channel three standard “playlists” were retrieved: uploads (videos belonging to the channel), likes and favorites (videos marked as such by the channel owner) [9]. Standard recursive crawling was applied: liked and favorited videos were used to identify new channels, whose playlists were retrieved, etc. [10] Crawling was done in multiple passes from July 2015 to January 2017, each time feeding in additional channels discovered via searching and browsing YouTube.

Two features I find particularly interesting are their hostility towards celebrity entrepreneurs and scientists, as well as public or private institutions like NASA or SpaceX who conduct publicity campaigns and the features they share with wider conspiracy culture, such as the invocation of popular culture dystopias and the notion of ‘red pilling’. These express themselves in a fixation on the epistemic status of their own claims and those of their opponents:

Flat Earth videos have an overwhelming preoccupation with epistemic status: lies, truth, proof, debunking, hoaxes, fakes, revelations, evidence, shilling, etc. all figure heavily in Flat Earth videos. Such an emphasis on knowledge requires that they present a basis from which to cast doubt on a round Earth (the “Globe Model”). The challenge is significant. Flat Earth belief only awkwardly reconciles with modern technologies like rockets (33), communication satellites, the Global Positioning System, the ISS (24), and interplanetary probes.

A whole range of strategies are deployed in the face of these challenges: “citation of religious or secular historical texts, reproduction of video evidence, experimentation and observation, mathematical analysis, speculation, bald contradiction, and ad hominem argument”. These are used to undermine established scientific authorities with the “Flat Earth Model” offered as a viable solution to what is presented as a debunked “Globe Model” (though as Paolillo points out, ‘model’ here is used in a diffuse and non-scientific sense). The material published by agencies like NASA and SpaceX is seized upon in the interest of correcting their claimed distortions. But these are supplemented by counter-experiments, driven by a radical empiricism, in which “viewers are told to not trust anything beyond their direct experience”. The failure of amateur experiments intended to establish the curvature of the earth are taken as proof of the flat-earth phenomenon. These are supplemented by appeals to authorities like engineers, military officers and airline pilots, used strategically to undermine other members of these groups who support the “Globe Model”.

Would we have seen the resurgence of flat earth belief without youtube? Their videos use genres such as vlogs, screencasts, interviews and documentaries, suggesting a deep engagement with the affordances of the platform. These are often accompanied by effective clickbait, competition between video producers, established memes such as ‘red pilling’ and invocation of fictional dystopias which all suggest a community well adapted to the attention ecology of the platform. Paolillo identifies this competition between flat-earthers for attention early on in the paper but doesn’t really develop the point. I wonder if the attentional darwinism of YouTube is as much an explanation of this resurgence as the material itself, which Paolillo explains in terms of a social psychology of stigma as more people are tarred by assocation with flat earth and thus acquire a stake in defending it. It provides an environment in which certain themes are liable to thrive (an overturning of established authority, revelatory esotericism, a radical empiricism perceived to be liberating etc) if packaged together in a way which takes advantage of the affordances fo the platform. What really interests me is the entrepreneurship of the YouTubers within the flat earth community, as well as how techniques spread between them and competition drove innovation.

My notes on The Shifting Rhythms of Academic Work. On Education. Journal for Research and Debate, 1(3)

In this short paper Fabian Cannizzo takes issue with an assumption he (plausibly) suggests underlies the vast majority of critical higher education literature, namely that “broad social transformations to the policy and organisational infrastructure of global academia have a deterministic relationship with academic work temporalities” (pg 1). This means that well established changes to the character of academic work are  taken to produce unavoidable effects for academic staff, leaving analysts for instance reading back time pressure from expanding expectations (a perception he says is near universal amongst critical higher educations scholars). This reflects the absence of a diachronic analysis because when “conceptualised synchronically as part of a social structure of power relationships, temporality is reduced to a factor of structure itself” (pg 3). The qualification “as part of” does most of the work here but it’s a really interesting point to make nonetheless.

By denying that “neoliberal and managerial interventions into the organisation of academic life have systemic, logically-inferable influences over the temporal experience of academic work” (pg 1), he opens up the space through which the empirical relationship between systemic transformation and scholarly experience can be properly scrutinised. This makes its easier to recognise the performativity involved in scholarly characterisations of the scholarly field, with dichotomies of slow and fast work being normative characterisations through which “academic work routines and control are contested and legitimated” (pg 2), as well as the complexity of how injunctions by management are taken up by agents. His point about productivity culture here is an important one, observing in relation to the collegiality of academic blogging alongside their role for profile building and Shut Up and Write Groups with their seemingly strong focus on productivity that “these spaces allow for agentic experimentation with different rhythms, paces, senses of pressure and relief, social and technological infrastructures” (pg 3). This is precisely what is opened up when we move away from an opposition in which “the ‘fast’ times of productivity, media and economics are juxtaposed to the ‘slow’ times of thinking, learning and crafting” to instead focus on the temporal agency of academics themselves (pg 3).