1. What cultural resources play a role in the lives of participants?
  2. How do they enable and constrain the commitments, projects and modus vivendi of participants? This constraint and enablement is mediated through internal conversation.
  3. Which cultural resources under which circumstances lead to personal morphogenesis? How do the former and the latter relate in leading to this outcome?
  4. Which cultural resources under which circumstances lead to personal morphostasis? How do the former and the latter relate in leading to this outcome?

These are the core questions I want to address through my data analysis. At present I have theoretical definitions of the concepts I’m drawing on here (developed from the work of Archer, Elder-Vass, Layder, Sayer and others) but my intention is to use the empirical case study (five interviews with 18 participants over two years) to elaborate upon these concepts in an iterative fashion. In a way my particular focus is the relations between the concepts.

Given the necessity of a conceptual architecture in explaining social outcomes, even though much or all of this is often tacit, it stands to reason that the empirical adequacy of those concepts is key to the explanatory utility. Yet even if we explicitly design a conceptual architecture, unless it is (a) relational (b) empirically adequate then it is going to be unhelpful when we use it in our attempts to explain empirical phenomena which are intrinsically relational. So the concepts have to be fleshed out and revised in dialogue with empirical data but so too do the relations between those concepts, otherwise modes of causation through which the empirical phenomena we’re attempting to conceptualise interrelate risk being occluded because our the range of objects and relations admitted within our conceptual architecture exclude to some degree the objects and relations we’re actually studying. We either exclude them entirely or impute characteristics to them conceptually because there’s no place within our framework for them.  It’s impossible to operate without some kind of conceptual architecture, a simplified map of the kinds of things we’re studying and the kinds of relations that obtain between them:

Even if someone claims they don’t have this, they do. If we’re capable of talking about X in a way which gets beyond a finite set of descriptive statements about X then we do so on the basis of some underlying conceptualisation of X, even if we remain blissfully ignorant of what these concepts are. Even descriptive statements themselves presuppose concepts (e.g. “describe what you see when you look up”… “the sky is overcast, it looks like it’s about to rain” ) in that they move from the particularity of the object being described to some general(ish) statement about the kinds of characteristics embodied by said object. However at this level, it’s not really architecture as such. Or at least not most of the time.

However when it comes to explanation, not merely describing X but offering some account of how X subsequently became Y, the architecture comes into play. In so far as that we’re offering an account of a transition, it necessitates some statement of the objects party to that transition, as well as the relations which obtain between them. It’s at this point that the conceptual architecture we’re working with becomes crucial. Imagine this is a representation of the process we’re studying:

If we try and explain the process depicted above in terms of the conceptual architecture depicted previously then a problem occurs. If the process under investigation involves objects of a kind we have no place for in our conceptual architecture and/or relations between objects which we have no conceptual account of then one of two things happens: the object and/or relation doesn’t enter into our explanation OR the process of explaining our empirical data leads us to impute or ignore characteristics to the objects/relations because we make sense of them in terms of concepts that are fundamentally incongruent with them.

I realise this all sounds very abstract. But the difficulty in talking about this kind of issue is quite interesting in its own right. There’s a general history of neglect within sociology when it comes to explanatory methodology. I’m not talking about methods, methodology or theory. I’m talking about the practice which links those things together in a reflexive way in the process of conducting social research. We all do it, we all engage implicitly with the meta-theoretical issues entailed by it and yet the lack of a clear and well-grounded discourse about how to do this is a major impediment to good social research. I think people obviously still do good social research in spite of this problem. 

Some of the reasons for the problem are pretty obvious. The weird attitudes towards social theory that’s way too common (at least anecdotally) is an issue, as unless people actually engage properly with theory they’re never going to get beyond the stage of seeing it as pointless abstraction. Conversely, theorists who do actually engage in pointless abstraction (also far too common) and particularly the pointless self-congratulatory obfuscation that can sometimes go hand-in-hand with this obviously doesn’t help. I think there’s also some really interesting historical reasons for this, in terms of the changing institutional structures and cultural significance of sociology inquiry, not to mention the way various antinomies of enlightenment thought have worked themselves out over the intellectual history of sociology. Definitely stuff I want to write about properly at some point. But more immediately, explanatory methodology needs to be made a part of research methods training.  

Michael Burawoy is president of the International Sociological Association and John Holmwood was recently elected president of the British Sociological Association from June 2012 onwards. In this dialogue recorded at the BSA conference in April 2012, they explore the challenges faced by public sociology in an age of austerity.

Part 1: Neoliberalism

Part 2: Higher Education

Part 3: Future of Sociology

Image courtesy of Kalina Yordanova

In a recent article  argued that economics has failed us but sociology has been unable to offer any alternatives. In this podcast I talk to Melanie Simms of Warwick Business School, who signed this group letter to the Guardian, about work sociology and its relevance to the big questions which Chakrabortty accuses the discipline of having no answers to. Explore some of these issues further in a special edition of Work, Employment and Society which is freely available until the end of May.

In this podcast I talk to Martin Weller, author of the Digital Scholar, about the changes which digital technology is bringing about within academia and where they might ultimately lead. It’ll be up on Sociological Imagination at the end of this week or early next week.

The word ‘blogging’ often has negative connotations. Yet blogging can be understood both as an output and as a platform. Many negative views about blogging are connected to a certain idea of what it is: a single author, using it as a forum to express their views to a world which, in my cases, isn’t particularly interested.

However this is only one kind of output which the platform can be used to publish. Increasingly, popular and successful blogs are taking on a new form: the multi-author blog.

This introductory session offer an overview of Multi-Author Blogging, examples of its successful use and advice on planning potential projects. If you’d like to register for the session, please use the form below. For more information about the Digital Change GPP see the website.

in the absence of a public space in which we can engage with one another in an attempt to discover and secure the common good, we fall back on private strategies to shore up both our material conditions and our sense of self. We try to tailor our personalities to become more competitive. We mange our moods and adjust our attitudes through a process of self-surveillance and voluntary intoxication that in its reach and effectiveness far exceeds the achievements of totalitarian government. Or we seek chemical oblivion, sudden enrichment thorough gambling or the narcosis of being well-known in conditions of deepening distress. Our energetic, even frenzied, preoccupation with the private self plays out as a civic listlessness. And even as the need to collaborate in the production of public goods grows ever more acute, the economy consigns an ever greater number of us to enforced idleness.

Dan Hind, The Return of the Public, Pg 7-8

Technologists also believe that publishing is transportable — anyone can be a publisher. All you need are some basic skills, access to a blogging platform, and some determination. While for certain forms of expression this can be true — this blog is an example — for a complex organism like an academic press or an academic journal, much more is needed, including people with the talent and experience to get it right. I may think I’m a good cook because I can occasionally prepare a surprisingly tasty meal on a Sunday night by following someone else’s recipe and using the right ingredients, but that by no means translates into my ability to create, finance, run, and manage a restaurant. If you’re a “cooking technologist,” you think all you need is an oven, pans, and ingredients.

IT Arrogance vs. Academic Culture — Why the Outcome Is Virtually Certain

Imagine a situation where homes had no kitchens and utensils were unavailable. We would all be dependent on cafes and restaurants to eat and, it follows, our idea of what it is to prepare food would be exhausted by those working in such a capacity within these establishments. Now introduce kitchens into homes and affordable utensils into shops. Suddenly we can cook meals at home. Obviously the quality of the infrastructure is lower and there’s less expertise. For the sake of the thought-experiment, assume kitchens and utensils appeared suddenly, to an extent profoundly disruptive of established practices of going out for every meal. The meals cooked at home would be of poor quality, probably pragmatically orientated and often imitating (poorly) the meals available in restaurants and cafes.

With time, hobbyists become more adept at imitating such meals and, as cooking becomes an everyday activity, new kinds of meals emerge because the practical intent behind cooking is no longer constrained by the economics of the restaurant. Then the utensils get ever better and cook books become a market in their own right, with expert guidance being commercially (and sometimes freely) available to anyone who wants it. The gap between the professional chefs and enthusiastic amateurs becomes ever narrower. Likewise, the vast majority of the populace becomes capable of cooking in a purely functional way, with a range of outcomes shaped by personal preference.People can even, god forbid, cook for each other. Those who put the effort in are able to cook very well.

None of this means that restaurants go out of business. But it does mean the economics of the restaurant business change profoundly. What was once, in the thought-experiment, a position of hegemony where everyone is reliant on the restaurant for all their meals becomes a position where the restaurant must offer some additional value vis-a-vis the meals people are able to cook at home. If everyone can cook in a way which is good enough for everyday purposes, the restaurant must offer something else. For a while, it might get by on the social convention that you don’t socialise or celebrate with meals at home. It might also get by on people either being unable to cook or choosing not to cook once they have that capacity. But once the infrastructure and the expertise is distributed widely enough, it simply has to innovate or its position will eventually become untenable. The fact the populace is able to cook for themselves doesn’t mean the restaurateur has no future, far from it. However if they spend this time arrogantly dismissing the pretensions of the amateur cooks rather than creatively redefining their role to take account of the fact they no longer have a monopoly on cooking then, frankly, they’re screwed and, more over, they deserve their fate.

2nd Creating Publics keynote lecture event with Rachel Pain

(University of Durham)

 Impacting   publics: striking a blow or walking together?

 Wednesday 16 May 2012, 14.00-16.00

Open University, Milton Keynes, Michael Young Building Meeting Rooms 1 & 2


The Creating Publics project was launched in March 2012 with the aim of innovating new ways of engaging publics in the on-going processes of social science research and public life.

For the 2nd Creating Publics keynote lecture we are delighted to welcome Rachel Pain (University of Durham).



14:00               Welcome and introduction: Jef Huysmans and Nick Mahony (CCIG)

14:10               Keynote lecture: Professor Rachel Pain (University of Durham)

15:00               Responses by Clive Barnett and Helen Arfvidsson (CCIG)

15:30               Q & A and collective discussion


The event will be followed by a drinks reception.

In the spirit of public experimentation that this project promotes, the event will be webcast live and accessible here.

Those viewing online will be able to post questions and comments, which will be relayed live to the event.

To register to attend in person, please email socsci-ccig-events@open.ac.uk

For further information on the event and more details on the lecture, please visit our website.

Studying gender and sexuality psychosocially: Dialogue across perspectives

Tuesday 15 May 2012, 10:00-16:40

The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA

Location: Michael Young Building 1,2 & 3

Map and Directions:



This event brings together people who are studying gender and sexuality from a variety of psychosocial perspectives. There have been a number of events recently considering ‘new femininities’, ‘sexualisation’, ‘girlhood’ and other related topics, but few have explicitly focused on what different theoretical positions have to offer these areas. These topics are of great psychosocial interest because the key tension throughout the work is that between structure and agency.

During this seminar a number of perspectives will be offered during the morning (psychoanalytic, phenomenological, Deleuzian, discursive, critical realist, etc.) in two panels of presentations. In the afternoon, two facilitated workshops will give attendees the chance to bring their own theoretical perspectives to bear on data in this field. Finally, responses to the day will be offered by some key writers in this area.


10:00-10:15       Introductions: Meg Barker and Ros Gill

10:15-11.45       Panel 1: Valerie Walkerdine, Jessica Ringrose, EmmaRenold & Gabrielle Ivinson

11:45-13:15       Panel 2: Mark Carrigan, Feona Attwood, DarrenLangdridge

13:15-14:00       Lunch

14:00-15:00       Workshop 1: Working psychosocially with participant data – led by Ester McGeeney

15:00-16:00       Workshop 2: Working psychosocially existing data – led by Laura Harvey

15:45-16:30       Responses: Ros Gill, Gail Lewis, Kesi Mahendran, Meg Barker

Registration: Please e-mail socsci-ccig-events@open.ac.uk if you would like to attend.

If you have any queries please contact Sarah Batt, Research Secretary,a.s.c.batt@open.ac.uk. Tel: 01908 654704.  Convenor: Meg Barker

Particular types of technology lend themselves to this digital, networked and open approach. Brian Lamb (2010) borrows the title from Errol Morris’ 1997 documentary to describe the kind of technology he prefers and thinks is useful in education as being fast, cheap and out of control. As with digital, networked and open, it is the intersection of the three that is the area of real interest. These three characteristics are significant for education in the following manner:

  • Fast – technology that is easy to learn and quick to set up. The academic does not need to attend a training course to use it or submit a request to their central IT services to set it up. This means they can experiment quickly.
  • Cheap – tools that are usually free or at least have a freemium model so the individual can fund any extension themselves. This means that it is not necessary to gain authorisation to use them from a budget holder. It also means the user doesn’t need to be concerned about the size of audience or return on investment, which is liberating.
  • Out of control – these technologies are outside of formal institutional control structures, so they have a more personal element and are more flexible. They are also democratised tools, so the control of them is as much in the hands of students as it is that of the educator.

Overall, this tends to encourage experimentation and innovation in terms of both what people produce for content services and the uses they put technology to in education. If someone has invested £300,000 in an eportfolio system, for example, then there exists an obligation to persist with it over many years. If, however, they’ve selected a free blog tool and told students to use it as a portfolio, then they can switch if they wish and also put it to different uses. [new paragraph] There are, of course, many times when this approach may not be suitable (student record systems need to be robust and operate at an enterprise level, for example), but that doesn’t mean it is never appropriate. Writing in Wired, Robert Capps (2009) coined the term ‘the good enough revolution’. This reflects a move away from expensive, sophisticated software and hardware to using tools which are easy to use, lightweight and which tie in with the digital, networked, open culture.

The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice (chapter 1)

Mike O’Donnell’s talk on “Charles Wright Mills and the (Continuing) Problem of Radical Agency” from the C Wright Mills session I organised at the BSA conference in Leeds. Will go up on Sociological Imagination once I’ve finished editing the session and gathering the related material I want to post up with it.

  1. Register for Twitter and find researchers to follow
  2. Engage with your network on Twitter
  3. “Why do you find Twitter useful as an academic?”
  4. The LSE’s list of academic twitter users
  5. Support, engagement, visibility and personalised news: Twitter has a lot to offer academics if we look past its image problem
  6. 100 Serious Twitter Tips for Academics
  7. 10 Ways Researchers Can Use Twitter
  8. Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities
  9. Exploring research networks on Twitter

Does anyone have any suggestions of additional resources I can add to the list?

I woke up this morning to a great feature (at 7:38am) on Radio 4 about the 75th birthday of the Mass Observation project. The project was founded in 1937 by a team of young researchers with the intention of creating an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. Both through professional observers and the large scale recruitment of respondents from the public, it aimed to capture the everyday with a particular kind of approach which, to the best of my knowledge, had never been attempted before. As Liz Stanley describes the approach in her book ‘Sex Surveyed’:

it saw research into any community or activity as an essentially collaborative activity, not necessarily in the details of being carried out but certainly in bringing together and using many different accounts in writing about such research. It also recognized that the informal aspects of research – just living and being in the context of study – could be as important in gaining knowledge as those activities defined as ‘research’ in the narrow sense. Relatedly, it made a fundamental distinction between obtrusive and unobtrusive research techniques and opted very firmly for the latter, eschewing direct questioning and instead focusing on ‘follows’ and ‘overheards’, in which interesting persons or groups were trailed, and overheard conversations were recorded in as much detail as possible. In doing so, it focused on ordinary life, on the rhythms and patterns of the ordinary at home’, which it argued remained largely unknown to social science research. (pg 20)

The obvious observation to make here is the extent to which the large scale uptake of social media affords new opportunities for such ‘follows’ and ‘overheards’. Furthermore the infrastructure for the participatory aspects of the approach have been radically transformed by social media: the logistical costs involved in soliciting and processing contributions from respondents have been radically reduced e.g. private blogs would clearly fit.

However what struck me this morning while listening to the feature on Radio 4 was the extent to which the ethos of Mass Observation was so ahead of its time and so congruent with the emerging ethics of social media. I don’t just mean this in terms of construing the research process in a collaborative way, although this is no doubt important. But in terms of what motivates people to respond and participate: not just the confessional but the possibilities for self-clarification and self-knowledge which participation in a project like this offers.

I’ve long been fascinated both by the Quantified Self movement and, if this isn’t a self-defeatingly awkward expression, my own lack of desire to participate in it despite my intellectual fascination with it. It’s the idea of “self-knowledge through numbers”… it just doesn’t do it for me. But the idea of a grassroots communal exploration of the possibilities which digital tools afford as technologies of the self  is very much the sort of thing I’m interested in. I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of a qualified self, for lack of a better term i.e. self-knowledge through words. What would it look like? The thought that struck me this morning was that my images of what ‘Mass Observation 2.0’ and Qualified Self would look like are actually very similar: a communal and participatory exploration of what it means to be human in the 21st century?

Digital content, distributed via a global network, has laid the foundation for potential changes in academia, but it is when the third element of openness is added in that more fundamental challenges to existing practice are seen, as I hope to demonstrate throughout this book. Let us take an example to illustrate this combination of a digital, networked and open approach, that of the life of a journal article.

The authors, let’s call them Frank and Sally, know each other through a combination of commenting on each other’s blogs, being part of the same network on Twitter where they share many of the same contacts and some email exchanges. Following a blog post by Frank on pedagogy for networked learning, Sally posts a long piece in reply. They decide to collaborate on a paper together and work in Google Docs to produce it. Sally gives a presentation about the subject to her department and shares the presentation on Slideshare. She posts the link to this on Twitter, and it gets retweeted several times by people in her network, some of whom comment on the presentation. Frank posts a draft of their chapter on his blog and again receives a number of comments which they incorporate into the paper. They submit it to an open access journal, where it is reviewed and published within two months. They both tweet and blog about the paper, which gets widely cited and has more than 8,000 views. As a result of the paper, they give a joint presentation in an open, online course on networked learning.

The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice (chapter 1)

Community Development Journal Plus – ePublishing as supplement to core journal

End user online survey of eBooks in Higher Education 

Sage encouraging and supporting the use of social media by their authors to reach a wider audience (see here and here)

The History Blogging Project – a case study worth looking at in greater depth for the report and perhaps trying to interview the author

Google Currents – I created a test account for Sociological Imagination which I  should go back to and have a proper play with at a later date

Course Smart – interesting ePublishing initiative worth looking at as a (mini?) case study

What fuels the most influential tweets – great analysis (and go through the original research) to substantiate a case about effective multimodal digital engagement for universities

Cambridge’s rather attractive approach to profiling research – I want to have a proper look at how this varies across universities, think about strengths and weaknesses, plus see how, if at all, these initiatives connect to wider ePublishing projects

Self publishing your own book is the new business card – what ideas does this hold for academic epublishing?

Mobile publishing tools – great round up of resources. are any of them relevant to epublishing in higher education?

NatCen Social Research, Sage and the Oxford Internet Institute will be launching our new network for methodological innovation at the end of May. The network will explore whether social science researchers should embrace social media and, if we do, what the implications are for our methods and practice? We know that social media tools are increasingly being used in social science research. The nature of these tools means that it is a fast changing environment, with new practice emerging all the time. Despite this, there is limited interaction of practitioners or synthesis of these methods; there are also few opportunities to reflect on the implications of social media tools for research participants, methods and ethics. Our network of methodological innovation will bring together academics, researchers and research stakeholders from all sectors. The aim is to develop a community of practice with members drawn from the cutting-edge of academia, market research and applied social research.

Our community will be launched with a 1-day conference at the end of May 2012 with four further knowledge exchange e-events and a closing event across the next 12 months. We are hoping to live stream our events to enable the participation of network members from across the UK and internationally. We will build a collaborative online platforms to co-create think pieces, blogs, practitioner guides and develop lively discussion forums.

To join the network you can email me directly, or follow this link to read more before signing up: http://www.ncrm.ac.uk/research/NMI/2012/socialmedia.php

We’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Kandy Woodfield
Head of Learning and Development