In 1988 Pierre Bourdieu chaired a commission reviewing the curriculum at the behest of the minister of national education. The scope of the review was broad, encompassing a revision of subjects taught in order to strengthen the coherence and unity of the curriculum as a whole. In order to inform this work, the commission early on formulated principles to guide their endeavour, each of which were then expanded into more substantive observations concerning their implications.

One of these stood out to me as of great contemporary relevance for the social sciences in the digital university. Their principle considers those “ways of thinking or fundamental know-how that, assumed to be taught by everyone, end up not being taught by anyone”. In other words, what are the elements of educational practice which are integral to it and how can we assure their succesful transmission in training? These include “fundamental ways of thinking” such as “deduction, experiment, and the historical approach, as well as reflective and critical thinking which should always be combined with the foregoing” and “the specific character of the experimental way of thinking”, “a resolute valuation of qualitative reasoning”, a clear recognition of the provisional nature of explanatory models” and “ongoing training in the practical work of research”. It extends this discussion to the technologies used in practice:

Finally, care must be taken to give major place to a whole series of techniques that, despite being tacitly required by all teaching, are rarely the object of methodical transmission: use of dictionaries and abbreviations, rhetoric of communication, establishment of files, creation of an index, use of records and data banks, preparation of a manuscript, documentary research, use of computerised instruments, interpretation of tables and graphs, etc.

Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action, pg 175

This concern for the “technology of intellectual work” is one from which we could learn a lot, as well as the importance placed upon “rational working methods (such as how to choose between tasks imposed, or to distribute them in time)”. It maps nicely onto what C. Wright Mills described as intellectual craftsmanship. When we consider the technologies of scholarly production – things like notebooks, word processors, index cards, post it notes, print outs, diagrams and marginalia – our interest is in their use-in-intellectual-work. The technologies become something quite specific when bound up in intellectual activity:

But how is this file – which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of ‘literary’ journal – used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a file *is* intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished.

The Sociological Imagination, pg 199-200

If we recognise this, we overcome the distinction between theory and practice. The distinction between ‘rational working methods’, ‘technology of intellectual work’ and ‘fundamental ways of thinking’ is overcome in scholarly craft. The role of the technology is crucial here: if we suppress or forget the technological, transmission of these practices is abstracted from their application, leaving their practical unfolding to be something which has to be discovered individually and privately (“ways of thinking or fundamental know-how that, assumed to be taught by everyone, end up not being taught by anyone”). But places for discussion of craft in this substantive sense have been the exception rather than the rule within the academy.

Perhaps social media is changing this. It is facilitating a recovery of technology, now finding itself as one of the first things social scientists discuss when they enter into dialogues through social networks and blogs. But it also facilitates what Pat Thompson has described as a feral doctoral pedagogy:

Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQ, PhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis Whisperer, Doctoral Writing SIG, Explorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.

https://patthomson.net/2014/06/16/are-we-heading-for-a-diy-phd/Doctoral researchers 

There can be problematic aspects to this. But when it’s valuable, it’s at the level of precisely the unity of thinking, technology and activity which the commission advocated. Social media is helping us recover the technology of intellectual work and it’s an extremely positive development for the social sciences.

Wonderful quote by Edward Said featured on Corey Robin’s blog:

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

For an intellectual these habits are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.

http://coreyrobin.com/2015/04/20/the-avoidance-of-the-intellectual/

It reminds me of C Wright Mills on the responsibility of the intellectual:

As a type of social man, the intellectual does not have any one political direction, but the work of any man of knowledge, if he is the genuine article, does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his politics, in the first instance, are the politics of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality. In so far as he is politically adroit, the main tenet of this politics is to find out as much of the truth as he can, and to tell it to the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. Or, stated negatively: to deny publicly what he knows to be false, whenever it appears in the assertions of no matter whom … The intellectual ought to be the moral conscience of his society at least with reference to the value of truth, for in the defining instance, that is his politics. And he ought also to be a man absorbed in the attempt to know what is real and unreal.

The paradox is that we academic scribes are not always very sociable. We cling to the library like bookish limpets that, like Kierkegaard, find real human beings too heavy to embrace. We speak a lot about society but all too often listen to the world within limited frequencies. I am proposing an approach to listening that goes beyond this, where listening is not assumed to be a self-evident faculty that needs no training. Somehow the grey books written on sociological method do not help much with this kind of fine tuning. The lacklustre prose of methodological textbooks often turns the life in the research encounter into a corpse fit only for autopsy.

Les Back, The Art of Listening, Pg 163

I think there’s more to this than can be fairly ascribed to the limitations of ‘traditional’ scholarly communication. But I think these nonetheless play a significant role in contributing to the ‘unsociability’ of sociology. In part, it’s a matter of audience, with marginality arising from a turning inwards towards others like ourselves. If we’re communicating with a technical audience, it creates a tendency to drift towards ever more technical language. In doing so, norms surrounding ‘proper’ communication will themselves tend towards the obtuse and, with this, the starting point from which we drift becomes ever more mired in professionalised marginality.

When I say ‘technical language’ I mean specialised vocabulary in the broadest sense, those networks of terms and concepts which emerge in relation to specialised practices, deriving their meaning and purpose from connection to such skilled activity. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with technical language in this sense. It shouldn’t be avoided entirely nor could it be. But to use Les Back’s lovely expression, “we have to insist on having both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we write”. We should be relentlessly critical of our tendency to slide into jargon while nonetheless recognising the role that jargon can serve. Rather than seeing clarity and complexity as antipathetic, such that we struggle to distinguish between the accessibly simplified and the simplistically accessible, we should focus on the ways that technical vocabulary (complex) can be used to express precise claims succinctly (clarity) in a way which would otherwise be impossible.

What role does it serve beyond this? I can’t see that it serves any intellectual role and, as prone as I am to slipping into it myself, I’m determined to train myself out of the habits that 7 years of postgraduate education have inculcated in me*. It clearly serves a personal role though, as C Wright Mills makes clear in one of my favourite passages from his work**:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

In this sense I think we can see ‘academic writing’ as a dispositional complex which has been reinforced in three ways: status anxiety at the level of the person, restrictive norms about ‘proper’ writing at the level of academic culture and a narrow range of available media** at the level of academic institutions. These constraining factors will act in different ways and at different times but their emergent power over time mitigates against the possibility of forms of writing which aim “to document and understand social life without assassinating it”. This is on page 164 of the Art of Listening. There’s an even nicer formulation of this in an interview with Les Back here: “ways of writing about the social world that don’t assassinate the life that’s in it”. I think this expression is an example of precisely the virtues it advocates. It’s a phrase I’m simply not going to forget and it conveys its main claim with an immediacy which would be difficult to accomplish with a less literary mode of expression. 

In my paper about online writing I’m trying to think through the possibilities offered by blogging in terms of this diagnosis. I think there’s a real risk of academic blogging being ‘captured’ by professionalisation in a way which undermines the potentially transformative role it can play in relation to personal practice. But the possibilities for experimentation are hugely significant nonetheless. In an important sense, it’s a uniquely malleable medium, at least compared to monographs, edited books and journal articles etc. I need to figure out more precisely what I mean by ‘malleability’ here. I’m also including ‘micro-blogging’ within this scope, despite it being a term I’ve always hated. Partly to expand the scope of what I’ve been invited to write but also because considering Twitter could help flesh out my overarching argument. I’m very interested in the aesthetics of Nein Quarterly as an example of the innovative modes of expression that the radical brevity of Twitter can help give rise to.

*Including the habit of writing sentences, such as this one and many in the main body of the text, which I believe are called compound-complex sentences. Quite why I feel so compelled to do this, with the strangely undulating character it entails for my prose, continues to elude me but I’d like to know nonetheless.

**I don’t think this can be straight-forwardly applied to our present situation but the main thrust of the argument is still valid.

***Which are themselves narrow in terms of the expression they permit.

One of my favourite passages by C Wright Mills concerns the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility”. An “elaborate vocabulary” and “involved manner of speaking and writing” become props for a professional self-image which defines itself, in part, through the inaccessibility of the work being produced:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

This was written at a very particular point in time. Yet this trend has seemingly persisted, perhaps intensified, even though the particular circumstances of mid twentieth century american academia have passed. The confusion between what is simplified and simplistic persists, with new modes of intellectual expression leading many to conflate the two with a renewed vigour. It’s important to avoid overstating this case. Some readable things are superficial. Some simplified things are simplistic. Would anyone deny this? The point is to sensitise ourselves to where these boundaries fall. At what point does the pursuit of the former risk engendering the latter? Unless we’re clear about this, any activity tending in this direction will be left as a site of unbridled professional neurosis. So while I agree with Arlene Stein here, I think it’s only part of the picture:

I know from my work with Contexts that there are lots of sociologists who have very interesting things to say about the world. And in fact, they yearn to share their work with audiences beyond the academy, but they don’t know how to do so. That’s because they don’t know how to translate their work for different publics.

In recent years, more and more sociologists are making a case for the importance of doing “public sociology.” This discussion, while certainly important, has taken place largely at the level of theory, via the work of past American Sociological Association President Michael Burawoy and others.  Some of it is taking place among those who are engaging in digital sociology, if posts I’ve been seeing on such blogs as The Sociological Imagination are any indication.

Yet few, it seems, are focusing their sights on making sociological writing more engaging, and fewer still see this as central to the public sociology project.

We need to do all of these things simultaneously: reflect upon the work we do and the uses to which it is put; use new technologies as tools for research and communication; and value good writing–and teach others how to do it.

http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2014/02/c-wright-mills-public-sociologist.html

There’s a deficit of skills. There’s a corrosive culture, particularly in graduate school, which socialises trainee academics into unintelligibility. But there’s also something personal and biographical here which needs to be understood. The sacrifices people make to pursue this course of life. The efforts and energies they put into it and the things they forego as a consequence. These engender an investment in a self-presentation of specialisation which has enormous practical implications for their willingness to contort a communicative impulse into the alienated form impelled by the structures of the academy.

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

For sociology to be to be effective, especially beyond the academy, it must have literary ambitions. Mills’ assessment of the quality of the sociological writings of his time is damning. He argues that there is a ‘serious crisis in literacy’ in which sociologists are ‘very much involved’ (1959:239). Mills’ position here is an extension of his earlier attack on Parsons and Lazarsfeld, and is just as fierce in tone. He observes that ‘a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences’ (Mills, 1959:239), and adds that this style of writing has nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter. Mills explains the prevalence of this style, instead, in terms of a quest for status. He declares: ‘Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. And that, in turn, is one reason why they do not have the status they desire’ (Mills, 1959:240). This thirst for status is said to be driven by an underlying desire for the sociologist to achieve recognition as a ‘scientist’; something, he argues, that led to sociology written in clear and accessible prose (including, presumably, his own work) to be dismissed by many as mere journalism.

C. Wright Mills 50 Years On: The Promise and Craft of Sociology Revisited

What implications does social media have for this ‘serious crisis in literacy’? I’m thinking about this question for a book chapter I’m working on about para-academics and social media. I’m trying to argue that calls for digital scholarship to be ‘recognised’ should be treated cautiously because of the risk that the incorporation of digital outputs into the evaluative frameworks of contemporary higher education would risk distorting many of the aspects of digital scholarship which are most refreshing. I think academic bloggers enjoy a degree of freedom from the sorts of pressures which concerned Mills and, with sufficient ‘mainstreaming’, perhaps this could be threatened.

However I don’t want to overstate the case here, not least of all because I’m aware that unless I’m consciously ‘writing an article’ I tend to be rather lazy when I blog. So I’m not for a second suggesting that online communication represents an absolute avoidance of this tendency to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’. However when this does happen, I’d argue it is for entirely different reasons e.g. time pressure, seeing the medium as informal, seeing blog posts as provisional. Furthermore I think it confers an important freedom to experiment intellectually, reinforced by the concomitant liberation from any prior formatting constraints i.e. the freedom to write 20 words or 2000 as the situation demands helps with the iterative development of ideas.

This has made me think about how I approach my own writing though. I tend to see stylistic editing as a form of polishing, sometimes necessary but not something I particularly value or enjoy. However I’m increasingly uncomfortable with what I now see as an instrumental understanding of the value of improving my writing because, now I’ve thought about it, it seems obvious that  blogging could constitute an extremely rewarding forum in which to deliberately and reflectively work on your own writing. This is one of many things I think Mills would have approved of about blogging.

Imagine a burly cowpuncher on the long, slow ride from the Panhandle of Texas to Columbia University, carrying in his saddle-bag some books which he reads with absorption while his horse trots along. Imagine that among the books are some novels of Kafka, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and essays of Max Weber. Imagine the style and imagery that would result from the interaction of the cowboy- student and his studies. Imagine also that en route he passes through Madison, Wisconsin, that seat of a decaying populism and that, on arriving at his destination in New York, he encounters Madison Avenue, that street full of reeking phantasies of the manipulation of the human will and of what is painful to America’s well-wishers and enjoyable to its detractors. Imagine the first Madison disclosing to the learned cowpuncher his subsequent political mode, the second an object of his hatred…The end result of such an imaginary grand tour would be a work like The Sociological Imagination

By Edward Shils. The fact I’m only dimly aware of who he is makes me chuckle on behalf of C. Wright Mills.

John Holmwood’s talk “Sociology’s ‘moments’: C. Wright Mills and the critique of professionalism” 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.

Les Back’s talk ‘sociology’s promise’ 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.

There are two books Les mentions in the talk which are fantastic. I’ve been meaning to write reviews of them for quite a while actually:

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Z4yNnGJLHU8C&lpg=PP1&dq=radical%20ambition&pg=PR4&output=embed

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1ik9ZUywjcQC&lpg=PP1&dq=pamela%20mills&pg=PP1&output=embed

(edit to add: for some reason the embedding isn’t working. that’s a bit irritating)

The initial details for the panel I’m organising at the British Sociological Association annual conference next year, as part of the Theory stream, are starting to take shape: 

In March 2012 it will have been 50 years since the death of C. Wright Mills. In that time the world has changed beyond recognition: the Cold War ended, the Keynesian consensus broke down, a globalizing neoliberalism rose to the ascendancy and the internet began to transform human communication and culture. In recent years, with 9/11 and then the financial crisis, it seems that history has returned with a vengeance.

This panel will explore the relevance of C. Wright Mills’ ideas 50 years on, considering the value of his legacy and the resources his work offers to understand the rapidly changing social world of the 21st century.

  • Mark Carrigan, University of Warwick – ‘There’s no money left in the kitty’: austerity politics and the deficit of sociological imagination 
  • John Holmwood, University of Nottingham – TBC
  • Mike O’Donnell, University of Westminster – Charles Wright Mills and the (Continuing) Problem of Radical Agency
  • Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh – TBC

In this presentation I will explore the unfolding of austerity politics in the UK in terms of longstanding tendencies towards the narrowing of political and cultural horizons in political life. I argue that this trend can, at root, be understood in terms of a ‘deficit of sociological imagination’ in mainstream political discourse. While Wright-Mills felt able to write in 1959 that ‘the sociological imagination is becoming, I believe, the major common denominator of of our cultural life and its signal feature’, there has been a precipitous decline in its prominence and significance since he made this (perhaps overly optimistic) claim. I suggest that without sociological imagination ‘private troubles’ become connected to ‘public issues’ in ideological and one-dimensional modes which, in denying the possibility of alternatives, so too undercuts the feasibility of political agency for large swathes of the populace. I frame my arguments in terms of what I take to be the most egregious and radical manifestation of this tendency: the contemporary politics of austerity.

Abstract for panel on C Wright Mills at BSA Conference 2012

Tottenham Riots

So with London in flames for the third night in a row and, for the first time, disturbances spreading outside of the capital, the British population are asking the natural question – what the fuck is going on? The most frequent, as well as understandable, response to this question has been moral condemnation.

Yet calling these riots ‘lawless looting’ or ‘pure criminality’ isn’t explanation, it’s description. In the last 48 hours of being obsessively glued to coverage of events (on social media and traditional media) one of the things that’s stood out most to me is antipathy to the former response in favor of the latter. Many people seem to assume that attempts to explain the riots are tantamount to moral justification, as if recognizing causal factors beyond the proclivities of particular individuals involved – or a purported culture they share – erases responsibility for their actions.

In extreme cases this manifests itself in outright racism and classism but, in more moderate forms, it merely stands as a refusal to seriously engage with the severity of events. Rather than trying to understand how and why these riots are happening, it’s implied that they’re an inevitable consequence of the characteristics of those involved: given sufficient opportunity criminals will pursue criminal acts. Yet it would be a mistake to jump to the opposite extreme and argue that ‘austerity has caused these riots’, as if that’s all that needs to be said to explain the pretty much unprecedented scenes we’re all watching.

At root, this can almost be construed as a methodological dispute about the central sociological question of structure and agency: should an event like this be explained in terms of the action of people involved or in terms of wider social forces shaping that action? The obvious excluded middle is that it’s both: public policy at both a metropolitan and national level, as well as the wider political and economic environment within which that policy is enacted, has shaped the life circumstances which different groups within cities encounter on a day-to-day basis. A plethora of cultural changes, some driven by these policies and others relatively independent, have shaped how different groups experience, interpret and respond to these circumstances (not least of all the spread of social media and smarts phones, which have been central to the organization, coverage and clean up of the riots).

This might seem an overly abstract way of looking at such extreme events but these questions aren’t going to go away. Over the coming days, weeks and months we’re going to hear many suggested explanations of these events: breakdown of authority, youth unemployment, gang culture, failing educational systems, declining family structures, failures of multiculturalism, local government cuts, police cuts, declining educational opportunities, entrenched poverty etc. The right will invoke micro factors (some entirely accurate, others with a kernel of truth, many which are offensive nonsense) while the left will invoke macro factors (austerity, unemployment and disenfranchisement) and be condemned by the great and the good of the right-wing press for ‘point-scoring’ and ‘political opportunism’. Meanwhile, conspicuous by its absence, will be what C Wright Mills called the Sociological Imagination, the capacity to knit together the macro and the micro – the personal and the historical – through the recognition that:

“The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women. When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a person is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a person takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesperson becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar operator; a wife or husband lives alone; a child grows up without a parent. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”