On pg 106 of their Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? Simon Winlow and Steve Hall describe the changing realities of work, as more and more jobs become “non-unionised, low paid, short-term, insecure and part time”:

We should also note that few of these jobs enable workers to construct and maintain an image of themselves as socially valuable (Winlow and Hall, 2006, 2009a; Southwood, 2011; Lloyd, 2012); in fact, many of these McJobs (Ritzer, 1997) communicate the exact opposite: the low-level, low-paid service worker is seen as disreputable, exploitable and untrustworthy, the homo sacer of the post-political order, waiting tables, flipping burgers and sweeping rubbish. These are fundamentally insecure and alienating jobs. The people who have these jobs do not want to retain them beyond the obvious and pressing need to earn enough money to pay for their immediate living expenses (Winlow and Hall, 2009a). Most of the positive symbolism associated with traditional work has already been stripped away. They do not cling to and seek to defend an image of themselves as fast food workers, call centre operatives, cleaners, supermarket shelf stackers or factory box-packers.

This is the context in which I’m interested in contemporary discourses of ‘craft’. As anyone who’s followed my work will probably have noticed, I’m drawn to these ideas because they seem to promise a bulwark against alienation. For instance in higher education, I’ve long seen the idea of ‘craft’ as a way of experientially reclaiming the pleasures of scholarship in an institutional context which increasingly hinders, if not outright obliterates, such internal goods.

But are these residual pleasures mere consolation prizes against a background of exploitative precarity and communal diminishment? Increasingly, I wonder if they are but the theoretical challenge as I see it lies in recognising the reality of these internal goods while nonetheless being critical of their cultural deployment in the creation of a new ethos of work.

Can we see the notion of ‘craft’ as something that is developing alongside, indeed implicated in, the stripping away of traditional bases of working identity? On the one hand, for example the elaboration of the role of barista into that of cultural producer able to meaningfully express oneself through latte art (etc), goes hand-in-hand with the normalisation of part-time labour and zero hours contracts in the hospitality sector. On the other hand, craft micro-production and the opportunities for micro-enterprise are being embraced alongside the decline of secure employment, the growth of underemployment and the still expanding phenomenon of forced freelancing.

To explain away the real pleasures people take in these ‘crafts’ is problematic. But we need to avoid a dichotomy in which we take their accounts of craft pleasure at face value or we reject them in the name of being ‘critical’. What interests me is how the discourse of ‘craft’ increasingly organises the pleasures and dissatisfactions of contemporary labour, giving cultural form to “I am” statements* about one’s working life in a context where structural trends had made such statements less tenable in precisely the way Winlow and Hall suggest.

The notion of ‘craft’ also finds itself employed as part of a macro-economic narrative in which the harms of structural unemployment, particularly that led by technology into the previously secure professions which are themselves subject to longer-term trends toward deprofessionalisation, can be offset by the imperative towards craft production. There’s a kernel of truth here but only a kernel. The idea that mass unemployment can be offset by the expanding ranks of Etsy craft sellers is obviously absurd. But it’s another vector through which ‘craft’ can be used to effectively romanticise exploitation and abjection.

So on level, I increasingly find myself opposed to the notion of ‘craft’, despite this being an idea which I’ve gone on about for years to anyone who’ll listen to me. On another level, I’m still drawn to it as a way to organise my own experience, something which I think is ripe for informal autoethnography. There’s also a critical potential in the notion of ‘craft’ which I think shouldn’t be lost and that’s why we need to avoid dispensing with it entirely. What I mean here is captured incredibly forcefully by Akala after his freestyle in this video: ‘the craft’ is something which transcends marketing and commerce, something basically irreducible in any arena of human activity and a site upon which excellence can be achieved:

*This is an expression I heard on a radio call in show i.e. “I am an X”. I wish I could remember which one because I’d love to cite this properly.

‘Networking’ is a horrible term.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who hates it. It  nonetheless refers to something important, albeit perhaps pervasively misunderstood. The usual connotations of the term ‘networking’ are insincerity, instrumentalism and general creepiness. There have been a few occasions when I’ve been conscious of being ‘networked’ by someone else in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable. It’s worse when someone is really good at it, projecting enthusiasm for their encounter with you while nonetheless failing to engage with anything you’re actually saying: smiling plausibly while looking over your shoulder to check if anyone more useful has entered the vicinity.

In fact I think ‘useful’ is the key term to understanding the problem here. If you see ‘networking’ in terms of people being ‘useful’ to you then it will be a soul-destroying activity. You’ll either succeed in building a collection of ‘useful’ people around you (and destroy your soul in the process) or your confidence will be crushed by the feeling you’ve pervasively failed to do things properly (though your soul may very well be intact).

Rather than ‘useful’, we should think in terms of ‘interesting’: arousing curiosity or interest. Who do you find interesting? What do you share with them? What differences and commonalities are there in how you approach a shared interest? Setting out to build a network of people you hope might one day be useful to you is creepy and disturbing. Approaching academic life with the intention of having as many friendly conversations as you can with people who share your interests is incredibly rewarding. Plus social media takes so much of the awkwardness out of it. But that’s an entirely different post.

There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic blogging. It’s a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

Furthermore, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it.

A really fascinating reflection by Rob Kitchin on ten forms of academic writing beyond scholarly papers and booksfiction, blog posts, newspaper op eds, email correspondence, policy papers, policy consultation, a television documentary script, powerpoint slides, academic papers, and grant application. What makes this so interesting is that all of these were deployed in relation to the same topic, feeding into each other in the process.

An absolutely beautiful snippet from Brain Pickings: the letter of advice W.E.B. Dubois wrote to his teenage daughter when she went away to school in England.

Dear Little Daughter:

I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has worn off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly.

Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.

Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.

Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.

Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.

I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.

Lovingly yours,

Papa

https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/02/23/w-e-b-du-bois-yolande-letter/?mc_cid=4559a30cf8&mc_eid=4a88406b25

Recent years have seen the proliferation of what I tend to think of as mini-mongraph formats. In their new book on interdisciplinarity, Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald offer a really nice account of the promise of these formats:

The Pivot format is produced within a distinctive (rapid) temporal horizon, and offers a particular length (mid-way between the long journal article and the usual scholarly monograph). We, when writing this volume, were interested in exploring what those constraints would do to our modes of argument, to the register of our writing, and to the kinds of material with which we engaged. The book works with, and mixes up, different kinds of ‘data’ and evidence, and employs diverse styles of argument. Our hope is that the volume functions as a provocation that carries a particular tone –one slightly different from the usual ‘voice’ of a peer-reviewed journal article (from whichever discipline), or of a heavily footnoted research monograph.

I share this sense of their promise. But I also worry that such formats are a function of the acceleration of higher education: an attempt to preserve something akin to a monograph when many rarely, if ever, feel able to read a more traditionally sized monograph in full. 

I love this description by Neil Gaiman of his experience of imposter syndrome early in his career, quoted in Presence by Amy Cuddy:

I would have this recurring fantasy in which there would be a knock on the door, and I would go down, and there would be somebody wearing a suit not an expensive suit, just the kind of suit that showed they had a job and they would be holding a clipboard, and they’d have paper on the clipboard, and I’d open the door and they’d say, “Hello, excuse me, I’m afraid I am here on official business. Are you Neil Gaiman?” And I would say yes. “Well, it says here that you are a writer, and that you don’t have to get up in the morning at any particular time, that you just write each day as much as you want.” And I’d go, “That’s right.” “And that you enjoy writing. And it says here that all the books you want they are just sent to you and that you don’t have to buy them. And films: it says here that you just go to see films. If you want to see them you just call up the person who runs the films.” And I say, “Yes, that’s right.” “And that people like what you do and they give you money for just writing things down.” And I’d say yes. And he’d say, “Well, I’m afraid we are on to you. We’ve caught up with you. And I’m afraid you are now going to have to go out and get a proper job.” At which point in my fantasy my heart would always sink, and I’d go, “Okay,” and I’d go and buy a cheap suit and I’d start applying to real jobs. Because once they’ve caught up with you, you can’t argue with this: they’ve caught up with you. So that was the thing in my head.

There’s an interesting discussion of craft in the book about Apple’s lead designer Jony Ive I’m currently reading. It describes his early consultancy career and his deep discomfort with the self-marketing necessary to thrive in this environment, as well as the design compromises that are often required when the whims of a client are paramount. It’s not exactly a deep-thinking book, definitely on the frothier end of the massive pile of business books I’m working my way through at the moment, but it makes an extremely plausible case about Apple actually being an extremely liberating environment for someone like Ive because it freed him from the constraints of consulting. For a select few, working for a tech giant can be liberating – doing things well for their own sake becomes possible – much more so than self-employment and/or mutual ownership of a practice. From page 60 of Jony Ive:

Another factor was undoubtedly that Jony was frustrated with consulting. He had achieved what many designers dream of: a successful practice with a lot of freedom. But consulting also restricted his ability to truly make an effect. ‘Working outside a company made it difficult to have a profound impact on product plans and to truly innovate,’ he said. 53 In most cases, by the time his commissions had been accepted, many of the critical decisions had already been made internally. Jony had come to believe that to do something fundamentally new required dramatic change from within an organization. ‘While I had never thought that I could work successfully as part of a corporation – I always assumed that I would work independently – at the end of this big programme of work for Apple, I decided to accept a full- time position there and to move to California.’

I just came across this series of videos in which Aesop Rock explains the backstory to his album Skelethon. I’m struck by the thought that there’s no piece of creative work I care about that wouldn’t leave me interested to hear such a story about it. Particularly when it has this degree of granularity, offering an account of the work as a whole through stories about its component parts.

On a slightly mundane level, it gives context to the things I get stuck in my mind. As with this lyric from Crows 1, which I’ve had reveberating around my brain for the last few days for reasons I didn’t completely understand:

Now let me slow this whole shit down for all you half-goat cowards
I’ll even grit my teeth for you
I am so completely off the god-damn grid it’s not a question of addressing me
It’s “what do these symbols under the dresser mean

http://genius.com/Aesop-rock-crows-1-lyrics

I still don’t completely understand the lyrics. But the account in the video has deepened my appreciation of them in a way I find interesting. It’s given them depth through providing a context that was lacking. I understand what Crows 1 is about as a whole and this fleshes out the song in a way which enhances rather than detracts from the resonance which has continually drawn my attention back to the lyrics in recent days.

I know the Zotero connector did something similar but I can’t get over how neatly this works in ReadCube. The pop up bar at the bottom appears whenever you open a PDF on the website of a participating publisher. To do my current literature review, I’m going through this process on my laptop and then when I open Readcube on my iPad, they’re all immediately synced with full bibliographical details and ready to read away from my laptop. The software has many other virtues but this is the first time I’ve ever experienced finding academic literature to be as seamless a process as writing a blog post or scheduling a tweet is for me. I hadn’t realised quite how much of a hassle I’d subliminally come to regard as being an unavoidable part of finding, reading and filing journal articles.

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This looks really interesting. If I had less on in June, I’d be tempted to submit a paper for this in order to try and develop some of my thoughts on design fiction and sociological writing:

Biography and/as Experimental Fiction

5 June 2015
Goldsmiths, University of London
Richard Hoggart Building, Room 137

This one-day conference deals with intersections of biography and/as experimental fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. While for scientists an experiment is a common way of proving or disproving a hypothesis and thus of arriving at certainties, fiction writers have long been demonstrating that literary experiments tend to have the opposite effect: they open up alternative and multiple ways of reading and pose new epistemological challenges. Similar experimental tendencies can be identified in 20th and 21st century biography, which has seen a proliferation in narratives that disrupt conventional generic expectations and question, or even satirize, traditional modes of representation, often overtly crossing over into the domain of fiction as they tell a historical character’s story. From Woolf’s and Stein’s modernist experiments in biography to Amia Lieblich’s Conversations with Dvora written as imaginary dialogue, from A.J.A. Symons’s meta-biographical Quest for Corvo to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s self-searching Autobiografía del general Franco and Janice Galloway’s typographically conspicuous biofiction of Clara Wieck Schumann, writers have extended the range of the biographical through formal innovations commonly associated with the fictional mode. If experimentation has been a staple diet of fiction writers and a defining criterion of much canonical fiction for centuries, the “battle for ‘experimental’ biography”, Carole Angier argues, “has to be fought anew in every generation” as positivist Victorian values prevail to this day (The Arvon Book of Life Writing 58).

This conference will look at narratives about historical characters that constitute innovative explorations of biography’s formal possibilities in their respective cultural and historical contexts. We welcome papers that explore the insights generated by such texts, consider what is gained by specific biographical-fictional experiments and where – as experiments are sometimes prone to – they fail or fall short.

Organisers:
Dr. Julia Lajta-Novak, University of Salzburg
Prof. Lucia Boldrini, Goldsmiths, University of London

Keynote speakers:
Janice Galloway
(Scottish novelist, librettist, poet, author of short fiction)
Prof. Max Saunders
(Director of the Centre for Life-Writing Research, King’s College London)

Please email your abstract (250 words) + brief CV and academic affiliation to Julia.Lajta-Novak@sbg.ac.at by 13 April 2015.

Delegates will be informed whether their paper has been included in the programme by 16 April 2015.

We plan to publish selected papers from the conference.

Attendance will be free of charge. Light refreshments will be provided.
Programme, travel and registration information will be published at
http://www.gold.ac.uk/ecl/events/biography-and-as-experimental-fiction/.

For the last couple of days, I was in Edinburgh taking part in Time Without Time. It was a great event and I’ll probably blog more about it next week. The second day was very different from the usual academic events I go to. This picture probably conveys how this is so:

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The experience left me thinking about ‘creativity’ in the broadest sense. These are the two thoughts I’m playing with:

  1. Creativity can usefully be understood as incorporating an apophatic dimension: involving “removing obstacles (mainly thinking, decision-making processes) which prevent the spontaneous emergence” of novelty.
  2. Creativity relies on non-linearity even if the process of creation itself might incorporate some linear elements.

With the exception of the Digital Sociology conference in New York last month, I can’t remember ever having come away from an event so full of ideas. Hence my desire to understand why spending the day (literally) playing has had this effect.

The idea that a part 2 to yesterday’s post would be less rushed seems rather naive in retrospect. Feeling rushed in the morning is different to feeling rushed in the evening but it is nonetheless feeling rushed. Much of my motivation for the Accelerated Academy project comes from a desire to understand this aspect of my daily experience in a sociological way. It’s not quite linking ‘personal troubles’ to ‘public issues’ however because I’m aware that I like speed. Much like the experience of rushing reflects something more than my own psychology, so too do the pleasures which can be taken in acceleration. Here are some suggestions about what they are:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

I think this conveys the feeling I’m trying to conceptualise more effectively than I can using the abstract words which are the only tools too many years of higher education have equipped me with:

It’s a feeling that provokes ambivalence but does so in a way that can be thrilling. C Wright Mills once wrote that “My plans have always exceeded my capacities and energies”. This is a sentiment that resonates with me in the sense that it describes my own experience. But I think there’s more to it than that. There’s some latent moral force to this resonance, as if part of me thinks that a life of which this was not true would be in some sense a life wasted. I’m not sure if I believe this reflectively but something in me endorses it nonetheless. Part of me believes that a failure of one’s plans to exceed one’s energies would point to a failure of imagination, an inability to keep pace with the possibilities for creative activity afforded by digital capitalism.

I find myself fantasising about working on one thing at a time. If I play the game, mark myself out in the right way then I could win funding and immerse myself in one project. But I’m not sure I really want this. I may think that I do but all the evidence I have suggests that at the first sign of frustration or boredom, I would seek out new distractions to which I could commit myself, justifying this as structured procrastination – perhaps we are veering into individual psychopathology after all… more to the point though, even if I did this and committed myself to it, would it be possible any longer? The schemes I’d be applying to demand impact strategies which presumably have to be put into practice. There is monitoring and assessment, consultation with mentors and demonstration of progress. The Rortyean image of unstructured immersion in creative work reveals itself once more to be a fantasy, at least under present circumstances.

The further problem is that, as Ana Canhoto pointed out in a comment on part one, Rorty’s image of slow academia is still the one held by many non-academics. Friends, family, partners fail to understand the relentless pressure to do more, ascribing situational demands to individual pathology (and perhaps this leads to a tendency for all three groups to be composed heavily of other academics). The three most desirable jobs in Britain are author, librarian and academic. It would be interesting to know how much respondents to this Yougov survey know about the conditions of working life faced by authors, librarians and academics. Perhaps authors are free – if social media is my most practical escape hatch then being a writer is my most desirable one – in the way that only the truly precarious can be, with it becoming effectively infeasible to live full time as a (non-superstar) author, all the more so if one has dependants. Is it a desirable freedom?

In many ways, I’m probably as free as I’m going to get right now. The problem is that embracing that would mean stasis. It would mean wanting to hold things in their current place. It would mean foregoing the pleasures of acceleration. It would mean, crucially, investing myself in circumstances that are by their nature transitory. This is the dilemma of acceleration: any resting place we find, any point of respite from speed, by its very nature cannot be assumed to be anything other than temporary. The stable career trajectories, as well as their associated life narratives, which Richard Sennett announced the end of in the early 90s involved a different temporality: a slow and steady movement through life (and the firm). Could acceleration be something that we seized upon as an alternative? Defining ourselves through perpetual motion, identifying with going somewhere even when the ‘somewhere’ perpetually shifted?

In part 3, I’ll talk about social media and craft, given that this is what my talk was originally intended to be about.

A note to self as much as a post for other people:

  • Through Design Fiction (e.g. Zero Hours)
  • Through Social Fiction (e.g. Low Fat Love)
  • Through Visual Journalism (e.g. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt)
  • Through Visual Biography (e.g. Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City)
  • Through Graphic Novels (I lack examples of this – I’m also aware the distinction between ‘graphic novels’ and ‘visual biography’ and ‘visual journalism’ may be so fine grained as to be pretty meaningless)
  • Through Photography ( e.g. Art Sexual)
  • Through Philosophical Biography (e.g. Wittgenstein, The Courtier’s Heretic)
  • Through Creative Non-Fiction (e.g. Zeitoun, Venkatesh’s work)
  • Through Film (e.g. Rufus Stone)
  • Through Theater (e.g. the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit) [thanks Helen!]
  • Through Video Games (e.g. Celiac Sam)
  • Through Buzzfeed Style Lists (e.g. this)
  • Through Walking Tours (e.g. the superb tour of Manhattan given by an urban sociologist at the 2015 Eastern Sociological Society conference)
  • Through Podcasted Dialogues (e.g. the Promise of Sociology in 2015)
  • Through Filmed Dialogues (e.g. British Sociology since 1945 or this dialogue between Carol Smart and Jeffrey Weeks)
  • Through Stand Alone Prezis & Slideshare (e.g. I’ve never given this as a talk in person or intended to)

I’ll expand this properly at a later date when I have more time. Any further examples much appreciated though!

That’s the challenge I’ve set myself for the next three months. The remaining sections of Social Media for Academics exist in embryonic form within this wallet. Each of the cards has an idea or theme written on it, functioning as a prompt for what I’m guessing will be 300-1000 words of writing. As well as pulling together the near finished chapters in order to send them off to my editor, I’ll be aiming to do 1000+ words per day from these cards. The wallet will be going with me everywhere I go (in the next month: Manchester, New York, Dubrovnik, Oxford, London x 2, Edinburgh, Manchester) to ensure that I get plenty of writing done while I’m travelling. I don’t normally travel this much and I was concerned it would break my writing rhythm. Whereas now I’m confident I’ll actually get a lot done. There’s going to be a weird combination of structure & minimalism in how I’ll be writing (a wallet & an iPad with no laptop in sight) that I’m actually quite looking forward to.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 21.02.25

As I wrote earlier this week, I’m really taken with my Artefact Cards. I’ve only had them for a week and I’m already convinced they’ll be a permanent part of my writing life. There’s a subtle permanence to the cards which lends a really useful sense of fixity to the ideas inscribed upon them. It really does feel like the rest of my book is contained in this wallet.

I finally received my Artefact Cards last week and I love them. They were a pain to get hold of due to a spectacularly inept delivery company but Artefact soon rectified this when I e-mailed them to complain. They’re probably only likely to appeal to those with a real stationary problem but if you too find yourself fixated on Moleskine notebooks and their ilk then I suspect you will like them every bit as much as I do.

The idea behind the cards is to materialise ideas. This is a concept that appeals to me immensely. One of the weirdest experiences of my life was the first time I printed out my PhD thesis. Suddenly the ethereality which had recurrently seeped into every part of my life over the past six years was transmuted into a thing… it was just some stuff that I had written. This was a more intense form of a feeling that I often get when writing. Getting the words out into the world, giving them a form, somehow makes my mind feel lighter, even if that form is digital. The idea becomes something ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’, with a definite form rather than a potential range.

The card themselves are designed to “help you craft better ideas, create new idea combinations by moving, shuffling, stacking, dealing and matching them”. In essence they’re just blank playing cards, with a look and feel which has obviously been the subject of much thought, which can be filled using the supplied Sharpie. They’re perhaps slightly overpriced but it’s hard to begrudge an individual creator this for a product that so much love has clearly gone into.

I’m already finding them immensely useful. In the cards below are the talk I’m giving at the Digital Sociology conference in New York in a couple of weeks. I recorded everything I wanted to say on its own individual card. I’m now going to arrange them in order to draw out clusters, perhaps discard a few and then write the talk using these cards as prompts. In this sense, it allows me to organise my ideas in a more systematic way without sacrificing the writing-to-see-what-happens approach which I prefer. I’m sure some of the prompts will be discarded, others will be rethought and all of them will exceed the limits of what I placed on the card itself.

IMG_0099

In the past I’ve blogged about this in terms of non-linear creativity. I’ve always struggled to write and think in a linear way. I find it difficult to develop ideas sequentially and planning pieces of writing just doesn’t work for me. I often don’t completely know what it is I’m trying to write when I start the process. Assuming I’ve previously baked ideas in the unconscious mind the kind of writing I enjoy most is quasi-automatic. I prefer to write in fragments and piece them together, with the overall structure being something that emerges through this process:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outline, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

I find this immensely enjoyable and blogging is the apotheosis of it for me. However in the last couple of years, I’ve taken this too far and I’m trying to reintroduce structure into the process. Overly-enthused by the discovery that I can write pretty endlessly about subjects that I’ve thought a lot about, I submitted a series of journal articles that were basically 7000 word blog posts. The responses weren’t actually that bad but they were uniformly requests for major revisions and the experience made me realise that I need to introduce much more discipline into my academic writing and this is what the Artefact Cards seem to be helping with already. I need to develop ideas in a more sustained way, producing more tightly argued and well integrated scholarship, without sacrificing the creative side of the process that I enjoy so much. In other words, I have lots of ideas but I need to learn to develop them much more systematically in order to produce journal articles of the standard which I’d like to.

I’m convinced that the Artefact Cards will prove very helpful in this respect. They introduce another step in the planning process before any kind of writing has taken place: rather than having the ideas churning in the back of my mind, it’s possible to get them out into a physical form where they can be sifted, shuffled and sorted. Here are some other ways I’m using them:

  1. I’m setting myself 500 word writing assignments for Social Media for Academics. I’m going through the book as it currently stands and recording every idea I have about something that should be added in. I’m going to take some of the ensuing cards in my wallet whenever I travel so that I can do brief bits of focused writing on my iPad on the train.
  2. I have close to 100 cards now which record every idea I have about the acceleration of higher education for the project I’m doing with Filip Vostal. I did hit exhaustion point with the cards and that was interesting. I had a very definite sense that “this is everything I think about this subject” and I’ve had no further ideas since (whereas with others, ideas keep occurring to me). It’s presented me with the limitations of what I have to say about the subject but also left me with a more clearer sense of what I do want to say, even if it’s not quite as expansive as I thought it was. I’m going to use these cards to do some prompted blogging on accelerated.academy, consult them when planning the conference and use them as a source of ideas in the writing we’re doing.
  3. I have a stack of cards for the large post-doc project that is starting to take shape in my mind. This is much more provisional and I only have 20 or so cards thus far. This has left me aware of how much more work I need to do because the ideas on the cards are very general. I’m going to try and develop these in clusters: going from an idea like ‘cognitive triage’ to develop many other related notions. I plan to add to these over time and hopefully by the time I start putting together a grant application at the end of the year, I’ll have a much more concrete sense of the planned project than I do at present.

These are just a few ideas I’ve had in less than a week of owning the cards. I’m sure I’ll have many more. Though I’ve almost finished a £36 box of cards since then, it’s been a really useful experience and left me with a much greater degree of purchase upon the projects I’m in the process of developing. I doubt this intensity of usage will be the norm but I’m certain that Artefact Cards will be a regular part of my working life from this point onwards.

The denial of what Ben Agger calls ‘authoriality’ in sociological texts helps explain why concerns about the character of sociological writing have figured so prominently in recurrent anxieties about the status and future of the discipline. Its suppression involves a certain kind of self-presentation for sociology, as individual sociologists frame their work in a way which systematically occludes their involvement in it. When authoriality is suppressed we are left with little sense of how sociologists figure in sociological writing: the path which has led them to write this piece, the purposes it serves and why it matters to them. This reinforces the ‘axiological neutrality’ so integral to a certain understanding of scholarship in which scholarship and commitment are understood as antipathetic. In this mode of scholarly production the objectivity and rigour of what is produced is seen to be threatened by the values which motivate that production. In this sense we can see that sociological writing is irrevocably tied up in the process of professional socialisation: learning to write in the ‘proper’ way is integral to becoming a sociologist. The corollary of this is that concerns about the purposes and ends of sociological inquiry, as well as what it means to be a sociologist, recurrently lead those who see a crisis (coming or otherwise) in sociology to contest the dominant understanding of how sociologists should write.

Sociological writing sits at the intersection between “the normalizing pressures of careers” and the “originating moral impetus” which in many cases leads people towards sociology in the first place. It is through negotiation between the two that “the original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better worlds” begins to be “channelled into the pursuit of academic credentials” as Michael Burawoy once put it. This is why attempts to reclaim the former so often lead to the impulse to rethink the latter: sociological careers largely advance through writing. Perhaps the most famous critique to this end comes from C. Wright Mills whose repudiation of the sociological establishment of his time went hand-in-hand with a critique of how sociologists were socialised in a way that reproduced that establishment and its relation to the broader social and political context:

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 conflation of readability and superficiality persists in present circumstances. Part of the difficulty which blogging poses for sociologists (and for academics more broadly) lies in this pervasive failure to distinguish between material that is accessibly simple and that which is simplistically accessible. Blogging readily lends itself to both and can often blur the boundary between them such that ‘academic blogging’ can seem to corrupt the ‘academic’ through proximity to ‘blogging’. The analysis of Mills was rooted in a particular time and place, reflecting upon tendencies specific to that environment, such that it would be a mistake to simply project them on to the present contexts within which sociologists write. Its value is in reminding us of the ways that sociological writing and its (in)accessibility are woven together in the formation of professional identities: it is not simply a matter of who sociological writing is for but also of who it isn’t for.

The commitment involved in pursuing graduate education is an important biographical dimension to how these identities form and how sociologists come to write. These efforts and energies, as well as the things foregone as a result, can work to engender an investment in a self-presentation of specialisation which, often unwittingly, contributes towards the marginality of sociological contributions in the ‘marketplace of ideas’. Once answer to this problem can be seen in David Beer’s notion of ‘punk sociology’. Treating punk music as a cultural resource to be drawn upon in rethinking and reinvigorating the communicative styles and strategies of sociologists, Beer points towards a broader understanding of writing which incorporates many of the possibilities which social media affords for communicating within and beyond the discipline. Beer talks of punk sociologists who “communicate widely, with various audiences, and the work they produce is direct and incisive, whilst still being lively, nuanced, and layered”. These will vary, eclectically and enthusiastically, because sociologists working in this manner will “will look to exploit the opportunities for communication that are available and will respond to these opportunities”. His point is not simply to sustain optimism in the face of ‘Sociology’s misfortune’ but to respond to this broader context of retrenchment and constraint in a genuinely creative way. He paints a vivid picture of the diversity which characterises the working patterns of the punk sociologist:

“One day the punk sociologist is writing a blog post, the next they are working on an audio podcast, the next they are creating posters, the next they are making short films, the next they are curating content. They gather, uncover, and generate insights through their sociologically sensitive trawling of the social world, using the things they find to illustrate and enliven sociological topics (using anything from art, to film, to advertising, to photography, to web visualizations, to flyers they get through their front door, to guidebooks – the options are limitless). Books and journal articles will still matter; they are still likely to be the bedrock of academic communication. But the punk sociologist looks to use these traditional forms of communication in unusual and maybe even subversive ways, and then looks to build on this work through other forms of communication and through other media. The debates on open-access publication, escaping the paywalls that limit communication, create new questions for academic publishing and communication, the punk sociologist is likely to be working around the edges of what is possible and exploring the reach of their means of communication anyway.”

We don’t have to accept Beer’s notion of ‘punk sociology’ to be able to take something from the vision he’s outlining here. His case is a proposition about how sociology could thrive under present circumstances: “sociologists need to be bold, to be outspoken and daring, to take risks, and to, on occasion, be audacious”. My point is not that we should all become ‘punk sociologists’ (though I personally find the notion appealing) but rather that a turn towards digital engagement, perhaps as part of a broader move towards a Digital Sociology analogous to the Digital Humanities, must be accompanied by some explicit dialogue about the ends served by such engagements. In doing so, we effectively recast the risks social media undoubtedly poses into opportunities for us to rethink sociological craft in a way that ensures the viability and vibrancy of the discipline within a social and intellectual context likely to become ever more challenging.

  1. How do norms emerge ‘online’ and is this different from how they emerge ‘offline’? What does this tell us about the ‘online’/’offline’ distinction?
  2. Is “all science becoming data science” and, if so, why is this happening?
  3. Is it possible to visualise theory in a manner akin to how we visualise data? Should theory visualisation be a specialisation comparable to data visualisation?
  4. Are voluntary self-trackers contributing to the normalisation of a socio-technical mechanism that begins to look extremely sinister when applied in work places?
  5. Is it possible to empirically demonstrate that higher education is ‘speeding up’? What are the consequences of this for scholars working under these conditions and how are they contributing to this acceleration? What are the implications for the possibility of scholarship itself?
  6. Can we do a ‘sociology of thinking’ that doesn’t just conjoin psychology and sociology but instead retrieves what is lost by the disciplinary division itself?
  7. What is social theory for and what do social theorists think it is for?
  8. So what is Digital Sociology exactly? What is it for?
  9. How, if at all, do we need to rethink public sociology to take account of social media?
  10. How are social movements changing in a digitalised environment and how, if at all, should this lead us to rethink how we conceptualise and study them?
  11. What does it mean for a person to change? Should we incorporate this into sociological explanation and, if so, how do we do it?
  12. What does realist social theory have to offer the social sciences?