I saw a wonderful exhibition this weekend, collecting work by Alex Prager combining photography and film in intricately staged hyper-real scenes. The collection that has been playing on mind since seeing it is Face In The Crowd. If you click on the screenshot below, it will take you to the website where you can see the work:

Screen Shot 2018-07-30 at 13.50.27.png

The accompanying notes described how these are “dynamic tableaus where individual characters are presented in equally sharp focus, seemingly lost in their own internal conversations”. It reminds me of Hannah Starkey’s work in its fascination with how interiority plays out in social scenes, showing how private experience nonetheless has a public existence.

However I found the staging of the scenes troubling, as much as I recognise the intention behind them. It feels like the relationality is washed out, as if collectivity is exhausted by the artefact of the social situation. There’s a strange emptiness between inner and outer, with interaction reduced to staging such that the bonds of social life appear as little more than fragile constraints.

Each of these scenes is a collage of individuals rather than a collective, creating images which are sociological in their intention but not in their enactment. Individuals are either lost in the reality of their own lives or looking forlornly through the artifice of shared reality, as is the case with the red-haired woman in the image above. It foregrounds that artifice but also inflates it, losing track of how it functions as a collective tissue which knits together individual lives in the mundane interactions throughout the day.

It is scaffolding which often fades into the background, facilitating the relationality which is lost in these scenes. It is a deliberately stilted vision of the social, hugely succesful in its staging and producing an aesthetic which I find immensely unsettling.

Ever since I was a philosophy student, I’ve been interested in how we conceptualise individuals and groups. The two are connected in my mind because, if groups are composed of individuals, our concept of individuals is going to condition our concept of groups and vice versa. However discussion at this level of abstraction can seem remote from the real world. In fact this is what led me away from philosophy and into sociology when I encountered it as a masters student. But this wasn’t my rejecting a focus on concepts as much as a desire to see how those concepts operate in the world.

I was thinking of these issues again when reading Jana Bacevic’s From Class To Identity, a study of education reforms in former Yugoslavia. How we conceptualise agency is a key concern of the book from the outset at the level of its object (claims about groups are a crucial factor in educational reform) and its explanatory framework (claims about groups are crucial to explaining the link between education and conflict). For instance “linear, one dimensional or causal explanations” such as “educational discourses -> exclusionary identities -> war” make (inadequate) assumptions about agency while being “hardly helpful in the understanding of the dynamics between education and conflict” (pg 7). Agency is often left unexamined in such processes, particularly when researchers are examining trends at the macro-social level. From pg 9:

Consider, for instance, practices of military recruitment: going into the army (in countries without mandatory conscription) is frequently the choice of people who come from poor, discriminated or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. Knowing the ubiquitous (and at least partially causal) connection between education, income and social status, it is both reasonable and empirically sustainable to assume that these people also happen to have lower educational levels. But do they go to war because they are not educated? Or do they go to war because they are poor and marginalized, so enlisting may give them an opportunity to earn (legally or illegally) wealth, security, and status they could otherwise not hope to attain?

If we fail to recognise the role of agency in such dynamics, we render the political opaque. From pg 17-18:

In other words, instead of the teleological understanding of the political dynamics of the Western Balkans as progress towards European integration and away from the communist past, this book will aim to bring the political back into the analysis of policymaking. In this context, the notion of “political” is closest to the meaning in which theorists such as Chantal Mouffe (2005, 1993), Ernesto Laclau (1994), and Jacques Ranciere (e.g. 2010) utilize it (cf. Ruitenberg 2011, 98). This means understanding politics as a place of, and for, the challenging, contestation, transformation and deliberation of different ideologies related to what constitutes a good society, who should rule it, and how its benefits should be distributed.

Treating agency in the abstract is not a retreat from the political but rather a precondition for its adequate exploration. Claims about individuals and groups are fundamentally contestable, if not necessarily contested, constituting vectors through which political struggle is pursued. The success of such strategies leads their advocates to leave the stage, with the results of their scheming appearing to be self-evident and incontestable. But these deploy particular understandings of individuals and groups which exercise a causal influence through their embedding in policy agendas and organisational processes. From pg 19:

Rather than a self understood and “natural” part either of dealing with the communist legacy, or of European integration of the region, then, policy agendas and particular decisions are seen as fundamentally political, in the sense in which they actively engage in creating, constructing, defining, organizing, using and mobilizing, or, alternatively, suppressing, containing, manipulating and controlling particular political and group identities.

We face a challenge in distinguishing between these various claims about agency, the social processes through which they are rendered natural and the real properties and powers of agents in virtue of which they are able to pursue or contest such claims. Abstraction is crucial to meeting this challenge because it allows us to distinguish between individual/groups and the claims made about them. In part this is a matter of theoretical literacy, ensuring we have the vocabulary we need in order to draw these distinctions, preventing us from getting tied up in the discursive contest and letting the world which is being contested slip away from us. But it’s also concerned with the reality of the agents themselves, their characteristics and capacities, the contexts that have shaped them and how they’ve shaped those contexts.

Well over a decade ago, I was due to start a PhD in Political Philosophy looking at ideas of the individual within liberal thought. There are many reasons why I ultimately moved into a Sociology department instead, though my lack of regrets about this choice hasn’t stopped me occasionally wondering what might this thesis might have looked like. It occurred this morning when reading a collection of Bourdieu’s political writings (Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action) that one likely outcome would have been a subsequent study on liberalism’s difficulty with collectives. As Bourdieu writes, reproduced on pg 58:

Liberal philosophy identifies political action with solitary action, even silent and secret action, its paradigm being the vote ‘acquired’ by a party in the secret of the polling booth. In this way, by reducing group to series, the mobilised opinion of an organised or solidaristic collective is reduced to a statical aggregation of individually expressed opinions.

The difficulty posed by collectives concerns the empirical refutation of this often unstated principle. Actually existing collectives, with all their emergent mess, make it difficult to reduce group to series by methodological slight of hand. The noise and assertion which characterise them challenge us to treat them as collectives. But the broader edifice of liberal thought is dependent on melting collectives into aggregates:

Political action is thus reduced to a kind of economic action. The logic of the market or of the vote, in other words, the aggregation of individual strategies, imposes itself each time that groups are reduced to the state of aggregates – or, if you prefer, demobilised. When, in effect, a group is reduced to impotence (or to individual strategies of subversion, sabotage, wastefulness, go-slows, isolated protest, absenteeism, etc.), because it lacks power over itself, the common problem of each of its members remains in a state of unease and cannot be expressed as a political problem.

How should we conceive of the relationship between individuals and collectives? Much of what I’ve done in the last ten years is ultimately motivated by this question. This paper last year explored the biographical constitution of social movements under digital capitalism, arguing that ‘distracted people’ have much more inconsistent trajectories of participation, with implications for the emergent characteristics of social movements themselves:

Social movements often make an important contribution to the normative order within social life but how are their dynamics changing under conditions of social morphogenesis? It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. This chapters takes a novel approach to this question, exploring the technological dimensions of social morphogenesis and their consequences for the ‘distracted people’ who comprise social movements. Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives.

At some point I’d also like to pursue these issues at the level of cultural representation. For instance in the representation of mindless hoards posing a threat to the liberal order:

The relation between individuals and collectives plays out at many levels. My concern is to reclaim it as a meta-categorical feature of discourse, such that the connections between these different levels can be explored. I’m still rather far away from doing this, but at least the ambition is relatively clear to me now.

Watching this is enough to make me temporarily rethink my long standing hostility to ‘global brain’ speculation. It’s remarkable what beautiful order can arise in a purely aggregative way and it’s something I’ve tended not to recognise in my theorising of collectivity.

Second call for papersCSCW2016 workshop, February 28

Toward a typology of participation in crowd work

Deadline for paper submissions December 7

http://ttpcw.blogs.dsv.su.se/ <http://ttpcw.blogs.dsv.su.se/&gt;

The development of technologies and practices of broad public participation are changing the notion of the public. As the use of participatory and social media has become widespread in society and enabled a more collaborative information production, the potential for a transformation of production relations through crowd-based activities affect many aspects of life. There are new potentials for transformative developments in government, work life, science, and emergency response. However, these new platforms for participation have not solved many of the pre-crowd problems regarding participation, such as lack of representativeness and flawed deliberative processes. Therefore it is important and relevant to look at the power relations within crowd production and to examine how different tools handle participatory processes in the crowd. 

This workshop examines different types of participatory process, in crowd work such as crowdsourced policymaking, crisis management, citizen science and paid crowd work, among other, focusing on relations and power dynamics within and beyond the crowds. We welcome researchers from a diversity of disciplines and perspectives to formulate a typology of participation in crowd work. 

Typologies of participation

In the wider field of participation, in areas like participatory planning, design or participatory research, the power relations in the participatory setting are seen as central for the outcome of the participation. 

However, we haven’t seen a more structured overview of typologies of participation indicating levels of power and agency in the context of crowdwork. For this workshop, we therefore invite participants to look more closely at different types of participation within crowdwork, and at different levels of interaction. Possible sites of analysis could be the interaction between crowd workers, the participation in the work by different stakeholders, the potentially privileged levels of interaction with the data, or tensions in the agency of the crowdworkers in relation to the task.

What types of ontologies exist in different types of crowdsourcing contexts, and how do these ontologies reflect one or more epistemologies? How is this expressed in the relations between the crowd and the sourcer, or in how different interfaces and tools support different roles and different modes of crowd participation? What are the relations between different attitudes towards knowledge and the social relations in the crowdsourcing process? What are the implications for power relations between different modes of participation?

If we learn more about how participation in crowd work can be described in terms of power and relations, we might get a better understanding of how participation can be articulated, how different tools for crowd participation can be developed, and how the different perspectives and stakes in crowd work might be harmonized, or at least clarified.

Suggested subthemes and topics 

Controlling economic structures in crowd work

• Controlling levels of; access; transparency, secrecy, closeness, connectedness, alienation

• Relation between crowd work control dynamics and power relationships outside the technology framework.

• Differentiations in entry and exit points to the platform

Intersecting belief systems in crowd work

• Norms about crowds, collaboration and democracy 

• Balance between exclusive groups and democratic publics

• Stakeholders’ different cultural assumptions 

• Tensions between individual scoring systems and collective sharing processe

Community support in crowd work

• Communication needs within the crowd

• Available avenues of communication to support community 

• Apprenticeship models

• Relations between the crowd and the “sourcers”

• Navigating intersecting communities in crowd setting

• Relations between different types of stakeholders in the crowd setting

Going from crowd to public

• Publics as performative states; co-constitution an interdependence

• Ethics and power relations in crowd sourced research 

• The power relations between the designer/inventor and the crowd

• Quantified selves, data sources or co-researchers

Workshop activities

This one-day workshop will explore the topics in mini presentations and brainstorming sessions. The objective with the workshop is to develop a typology of participation in crowd work based on an overview of the field. Furthermore, selected contributions from the workshop will be considered for a special issue in a HCI journal.


Participants are selected based on their submitted position-papers.

The maximum length of a paper is 2,000 words. 

Deadline for submissions is December 07.

Send submissions and inquiries to: crowdtypologies@gmail.com <mailto:crowdtypologies@gmail.com>


The workshop builds on four earlier successful workshops: Back to the Future

of Organizational Work: Crowdsourcing Digital Work Marketplaces, Structures for Knowledge Co-creation between Organizations and the Public hosted at ACM CSCW 2014, The Morphing Organization – Rethinking Groupwork Systems in the Era of Crowdwork hosted at ACM GROUP 2014, and Examining the Essence of the Crowds: Motivations, Roles and Identities at ECSCW 2015. (2)

This workshop is organized by:

Karin Hansson PhD, the Department of Computer & Systems Sciences at Stockholm University. 

Michael Muller, PhD, the Cognitive User Experience group of IBM Research, Cambridge MA USA

Tanja Aitamurto, PhD, Deputy Director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the School of Engineering at Stanford University.

Ann Light, Professor of Design and Creative Technology at the University of Sussex and leader of the Creative Technology Group. 

Athanasios Mazarakis, PhD, Web Science at Kiel University. 

Neha Gupta, PhD student at the School of Computer Science, University of Nottingham, UK. 

Thomas Ludwig, Ph.D. student at the Institute for Information Systems at the University of Siegen, Germany.

More information about the workshop and the organizers can be found on the website: http://ttpcw.blogs.dsv.su.se/ <http://ttpcw.blogs.dsv.su.se/&gt;

Wish I could make this! Will follow up the references at a later date:

Please join us for the next in the Warwick Sociology Seminar Series on Wednesday 11th November at 5pm in room S0.11, Social Sciences Building.

“The Collective Subject as Enemy: The Public between Legal Fiction and Political Potentiality”

Dr Nina Power, University of Roehampton, Department of Humanities

The focus of my talk springs from two different conceptual approaches to a shared concern: that is how to think about collectives philosophically. At the same time, I want to approach the question of ‘mass’ subjects, where mass is understood as an elite term, a term of the state. I will examine the use made of the concept of the’public’ in public order policing and criminal law as well as discuss how philosophy has dealt with the same concept. I will examine how philosophy itself has dealt with collective political subjects, bringing in Balibar, Hardt & Negri, Sartre, Carol Gould and others to reflect on how the collective troubles both philosophy and the law.

The talk will be followed by wine, juice and snacks. All are welcome – do come along and join the debate!

You can find out more about forthcoming seminars in the series here: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/news/seminarsandevents/seminarseries&nbsp;