Notes for The Practice of Public Sociology

It can seem obvious that there’s some relationship between social media and public sociology. After all, these are platforms which offer free, instantaneous and immediate access to audiences ranging from the tens of millions to the billions. However unpacking the relationship between social media and public sociology requires we be careful about exactly what we see social media as allowing us to do. Social media platforms allow us to publish in a way that bypasses traditional intermediaries. It facilitates new forms of multimedia engagement. It allows us to do this with an immediacy which couldn’t be further removed from the time-consuming process of traditional scholarly publishing.

However this isn’t necessarily doing public sociology. Communicating sociological ideas doesn’t entail that anyone hear or responds to them. We can publish work without necessarily making it public. Being clear about the sense in which we’re trying to do public sociology is crucial if we’re going to take advantages of the opportunities it offers us. In our current climate, universities are expecting academics to embrace social media to indicate their capacity for impact, creating a risk that we embrace these platforms without any clear purpose in mind. Without serious thought, there’s a real possibility that, as Bourdieu once put it, we confuse “verbal sparring at conferences for ‘interventions’ in the affairs of the polis”.

An obvious question then: for what sort of purposes might we use social media as public sociologists?

  • As an extension of traditional public sociology: using social media to try and enter into public conversations, increase the influence of sociological ideas and ensuring sociological findings are prominent within public debates. I paraphrased John Holmwood’s keynote at the BSA a few years ago as advocating that we “occupy debate and make inequality matter”. This has traditionally been through writing books for a wider audience, opinion columns in newspapers and making appearances on national media. Social media can support this activity by making sociologists more easily discoverable by journalists and producers. It’s also extending the range of online outlets, with newspapers and magazines having large digital sections and new online-only publications opening up which specialise in academic content. But it creates new opportunities for narrow-casting rather than broadcasting, connecting with specific audiences who might previously have been marginalised within mainstream media. For this reason, writing for specialised blogs and engaging with niche social media forums can be an effective form of traditional public sociology if the publics you want to engage with are pre-constituted and specific.
  • As an extension of organic public sociology: working in a scholar-activist capacity with groups, organisations, campaigns and movements. Social media offers new ways of identifying and beginning to engage with groups, it offers new ways of supporting groups (albeit ones that might often blur into the category of traditional public sociology) and it offers new ways of making this activity visible within the academy in a way that might draw others into their remit. Social media is changing how such groups can come together, particularly in their initial stages, by offering new opportunities and challenges for assembling similarly-concerned people in time and space. But the very fact of these changes also transforms the relationality of how digital public sociologists engage with them over time. Though we should of course be wary of overstating the point, with the risk that we license a lapse into slacktavism.

There are important new challenges public sociologists face in both cases. Traditional public sociology may be easier than ever but it creates the problem of being heard above the noise. How do we ensure that our attempted interventions have an effect? Existing academic platforms like The Conversation, The Sociological Review, Discover Society and the LSE Blogs serve a purpose here by pre-assembling a public and mediating engagements with them. It can be difficult to assemble your own audience, unless you invest a lot of time and energy in regularly engaging on social media, have a pre-existing reputation to leverage or are seeking to communicate with a very specialised public. Learning about platforms like these helps you identify which, if any, seem right for your purposes. They all offer clear guidelines about how to submit material and are edited by people who are used to working with academics in this capacity.

Organic public sociology may be more visible but with this too comes hazards. When it is informed by our own research, the gap between researcher and researched narrows precipitously. For instance, my own experience of researching asexuality was that I very readily got drawn into doing media and campaigning work as an ally. But this also meant that many people in the asexual community were reading and engaging with material I was sharing online, as well as sometimes criticising it. In one case, this was a really informative critique that changed my mind on a specific issue. In another, it was a quote taken out of context which got circulated widely on Tumblr. These are examples of new challenges which we’re not trained for and we need to consider carefully

There’s a risk that the style of communication we’ve all been traded in proves utterly ineffective for digital public sociology. 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. If that work is now accessible then it holds this writing up to scrutiny. It may seem absurd, it may provoke offence but it’s perhaps much more likely to simply fail to gain any purchase and leave us talking amongst ourselves.

We also need to be careful about the climate within which we’re trying to do digital public sociology because it’s so dominated by a competitive individualism in which people are seeking to win attention for their work. The problem is that winning attention for your work doesn’t take place in a vacuum. As the digital anthropologist Melissa Gregg puts it, “even uniqueness starts to sound the same when everyone is trying to perform”. If everyone is seeking to build an audience and stand out from the crowd then the challenge of achieving these aims spirals ever upwards, excluding ever more people from the process in gendered and classed ways while this subordination is masked by the powerful rhetoric of openness.

To give one example of trend, George Veletsianos found in a study of educational tweeters that “the top 1 percent of scholars have an average follower base nearly 700 times that of scholars in the bottom 50 percent and nearly 100 times that of scholars in the other 99 percent” (loc 1162-1708). Rather than undermining old hierarchies, social media supplements new ones, with complex emergent effects: sometimes allowing the already celebrated to quickly amass a social media following or to allow those with a big social media following to translate this into academic capital. This is part of the reason why I think community-orientated platforms such as The Sociological Review and Discover Society are likely to prove so important in mitigating the ‘celebrity’-generating effects of social media.

But hopefully if we focus our discussion of digital public sociology on specific aspirations, projects and publics then we can negotiate these institutional difficulties. There are real opportunities here but also profound challenges.

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.

In my talk at the Digital Sociology conference in New York in February 2015 (available online here) I explained my enthusiasm for the new possibilities afforded by social media for doing research in real time with communities. These are the two examples I’m familiar with but I’d like to know about any others that exist.

  1. Every minute of every day was an experiment in ‘real time ethnography’ undertaken by Les Back and others at Goldsmiths. You can read about it here. Unfortunately the project’s website is no longer online because it was hosted on Posterous website. This is sad and highlights some of the risks involved in relying upon commercial problems.
  2. The Barrio Ed Project is a “digital, participatory research project on Comunidades Latinos & EdReform”. You can read more about it here.

One potential constraint upon these projects is the absence of a pre-existing audience. In some cases this won’t be a problem but in others I expect it will be and interesting work will be done that would benefit from a much wider audience. The life cycle of any project makes it difficult to gather an audience purely for that project. Obviously an audience doesn’t constitute a public but in many cases the project might benefit from a public and an audience.

Given that the original idea for SociologicalImagination.org was a platform for public sociology, I’d love to open it up for use by research projects if it would be helpful. The twitter feed has almost 17,400 followers and the blog gets 1000-3000 page views per day so there’s a significant audience already in place. I’m not sure exactly how this would work in practice but if you’d like to discuss it further then please do get in touch. My e-mail address is mark AT markcarrigan.net.

dlI’m really looking forward to Deborah Lupton’s book on Digital Sociology which is due to be released next year. There’s a extract from the introduction on her blog which gives a helpful overview of the pre-history of digital sociology, focusing in particular on the way in which subdisciplinary boundaries had tended to fragment sociological inquiry into digital phenomena. This is a situation which is now thankfully changing and, as Deborah observes, it has important implications for sociological practice more broadly. This is something I’m planning to explore over the next year or so in my currently somewhat stalled Digital Public Sociology project. This is Deborah’s overview of the emergence of Digital Sociology and you can read the article in full here:

 In recent years interest in digital society finally appears to be growing in sociology, and the term ‘digital sociology’ has recently become used more frequently. The first journal article published to use the term ‘digital sociology’ of which I am aware was by an American sociologist in an American journal (Wynn 2009). In this piece Wynn outlined various ways in which digital technologies can be used both for research purposes (using digital devices to conduct ethnographic research, for example) and in teaching.

Digital sociology as a term and an endeavour is most commonly found in the British context. At the end of 2012 the British Sociological Association approved a new study group in digital sociology which held its first event in July 2013. Goldsmiths, University of London, offers the first masters degree in digital sociology. The first book with this title was published in 2013 (Orton-Johnson and Prior 2013), a collection edited by two British sociologists featuring contributions predominantly from other sociologists located in the UK and continental Europe While digital sociology is still not a term that is used to any obvious extent by American sociologists, the American Sociological Association now has a thriving section entitled ‘Communication and Information Technologies’ that incorporates research on all things digital. In Australia as well digital sociology has not been used very commonly until very recently. A breakthrough was achieved when two sessions under the title digital sociology were held for the first time at The Australian Sociological Association’s annual conference in November 2013.

… What is notable about digital sociology as it has recently emerged as a sub-discipline, particularly in the UK, is not only the focus on the new technologies that have developed since the turn of the 21st century, but also the development of a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach that incorporates this reflexive critique. Digital sociology is not only about sociologists researching and theorising about how other people use digital technologies or focusing on the digital data produced via this use. Digital sociology has much broader implications than simply studying digital technologies, raising questions about the practice of sociology and social research itself. It also includes research on how sociologists themselves are using social and other digital media as part of their work

http://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/the-emergence-of-digital-sociology/

Sociology is a damaged brand, associated with a particular kind of politics and with particular sorts of social interventions. These remain controversial. But a damaged brand is still a brand. People who are attracted to these causes are not put off by the fact that sociologists have a narrow range of political preferences, a range with a narrow spectrum on the Left. Indeed, this may be a significant part of the attraction to sociology: it delivers a consistent message. Sociology has successfully occupied a particular niche in the larger arena of policy debate. It has identified itself with ‘social justice’ understood as the removal of various kinds of social inequality. Sociologists can claim expertise on these topics: not the exclusive, authoritarian expertise of ‘science’, but the expertise that comes from possessing facts that originate from stable and acknowledged fact-producing methods. Sociologists will not be regarded as ‘honest brokers’ in these discussions, but they will be expert participants with a point of view legitimated by their connection with the groups for which they speak.

Stephen Turner, American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal, Pg 115-116

It was interesting to follow the #BritSoc14 tweeting last week. The quality and quantity of the live tweeting was quite striking relative to previous conferences. Not surprisingly, it was the digital sociology sessions that provoked the most live tweeting. If Twitter is a reliable guide, which it probably isn’t, digital sociology seemed to be one of the most high profile topics at the conference. I was a bit dismayed to have missed the session I organised on Digital Public Sociology but thankfully Huw Davies recorded the talks:

I’m not sure if ‘Digital Public Sociology’ is a useful expression. But it’s how I’ve come to think of a topic that’s been one of my main interests ever since the first year of my PhD when I encountered Pierre Bourdieu’s public sociology at the same time as I was starting to see the academic relevance of blogging (which had long been a fairly directionless hobby of mine). There was a great day at Warwick, organised by Michelle Kempson and Lucy Mayblin, called the Politics of Sociology which helped connect these things in my mind. But I’m finding ‘digital public sociology’ useful because it’s the first time I’ve been able to articulate my interest in a way that doesn’t feel reductive, having formerly found myself saying rather sheepishly “er I’m interesting in sociologists blogging and tweeting and stuff”.

Edited to add: the disparity in the stats between the three talks is really striking. I hadn’t actually thought about the running order (I just added them in the order I uploaded the files) but it does seem as if Deborah’s talk is much more visible as a consequence of being first in the playlist.

With the 2014 Volume, the Berkeley Journal of Sociology will focus its efforts on writing a “history of the present.”  The journal will no longer publish academic research articles. Instead, we seek compelling essays, insightful commentaries, critical analyses, and topical symposiums on the most pressing political and cultural issues of the day. Our aim is to provide critical perspectives from the social sciences on public debates and current events with an orientation toward social and political engagement. We seek to transform our longstanding graduate-run academic journal into a print and online magazine sourced by a global graduate community with wider relevance. The BJS is re-imagining the purpose of a publication that emerges from within the academy, but which does not take the discipline of professional sociology as its aim. We seek new audiences across new platforms to firmly root sociological knowledge within society, for society.

We believe there is a need for creative translation and wider circulation of the knowledge we are producing as graduate students of the social sciences on politics and culture today. We seek to broaden the interpretive range, imaginative scope, and prospective application of our research to ongoing political struggles, emerging cultural trends, and possibilities of alternative futures.  We are not content to be relegated to the sidelines. The point, after all, is to change the world. The task before us is to arm our critiques with power. This is a call to join a proper conspiracy whose aim is not only to critique, but to intervene; not only to intervene, but also to shift the terrain beyond the internal debates of the academic field.

The BJS seeks to open up a space to re-compose social research into a range of written forms, unobstructed by technical jargon and unconstrained by formalistic rigidity. Through its online-first approach the journal seeks to redistribute its material across sources and publications, in the alternative and popular press. Toward that end, BJS is accepting the following kinds of submissions on topical issues or debates:

  • research essays: open to interpretation.

  • commentary: social scientific assessments of events, journalistic reportage and public discourse; critiques of recent reports by state agencies, think-tanks, NGOs, foundations, polling agencies, etc.

  • conversations: interviews with traditional or organic intellectuals on topical subjects and debates.

  • field memos: ethnographic dispatches from graduate researchers; elaborations of experiences in the field as they relate to contemporary social struggles, crises, cultural or political debates.

  • photo essays: from a site of research; sociological critiques of art or visual culture.

  • book reviews (joint or solo): social scientific assessments of recently released trade books; reviews of academic books relating to contemporary events or debates.

  • debates:  The journal will be running video and transcripts from UC Berkeley’s Public Sociology Initiative. We invite similar debates or symposia on contemporary politics and culture, in the flesh or virtual.

Submissions are due by June 1st and may be sent as email attachments to submissions@berkeleyjournal.org and will be subject to a review among Berkeley graduate students in the social sciences. We also invite proposals for forums comprised of a number of contributions around a single topic. Proposals for forums should include a brief description of the project and information about the authors, including contact info, and should be submitted by April 1st to submissions@berkeleyjournal.org. All journal content will be published under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

The Berkeley Journal of Sociology is a graduate student-­run journal that has been in publication since 1955. Archived articles can be found on JSTOR.

What does ‘public sociology’ entail in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress? What affordances and constraints do these tools entail for the task of “taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fibre”? What implications do these tools have for the relationship between the public and private in the occupational biographies of individual sociologists and, through aggregation and collective organisation, the discipline as a whole?

Short articles (1000 to 4000 words) are sought for an open access edited book which explores conceptual, methodological or practical aspects of Digital Public Sociology. If you would be interested in contributing then please send an abstract of 200 words or less by December 31st 2013. The final articles would be needed by March 31st 2014, with the intention of launching the collection in the summer of 2014. Please send abstracts (or questions) to mark@markcarrigan.net.

(If you’re only just seeing this then the abstract can be really short. But if you’d like to be part of the project then I would really appreciate it if you could send me something today)

What does ‘public sociology’ entail in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress? What affordances and constraints do these tools entail for the task of “taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fibre”? What implications do these tools have for the relationship between the public and private in the occupational biographies of individual sociologists and, through aggregation and collective organisation, the discipline as a whole?

Short articles (1000 to 4000 words) are sought for an open access edited book which explores conceptual, methodological or practical aspects of Digital Public Sociology. If you would be interested in contributing then please send an abstract of 200 words or less by December 31st 2013. The final articles would be needed by March 31st 2014, with the intention of launching the collection in the summer of 2014. Please send abstracts (or questions) to mark@markcarrigan.net.

Plenary: The Social Life of Digital Methods

Deborah Lupton, Evelyn Ruppert, Noortje Marres, Mike Savage and Emma Uprichard
Friday 25 April 2014. 13:30-15:00

As an inaugural conference session for the BSA Digital Sociology study group, we propose a round table discussion exploring digital methods and their implications for sociological research. Our theme would follow a recent special issue of Theory, Culture & Society discussing the ‘social life of methods’ which has attracted much attention and discussion.

We expect the proposed roundtable would cover a diverse range of topics under the broad theme  of the ‘social life of methods’ including the ‘crisis of empirical sociology’, the significance of ‘big data’, the history of sociological methods, the digital  turn in social life and the problems and prospects for a critical social science under contemporary  circumstances. In doing so, our proposed session would not only address the conference theme of ‘changing society’ but do so in a way which explores how the repertoires of social research are both shaping and being shaped by these broader changes within social life.

An Invitation to Digital Public Sociology

Sarah Burton, Mark Carrigan, Jessie Daniels and Deborah Lupton
Date/Time TBC (there was a clash)

This session asks what ‘public sociology’ entails in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress. What affordances and constraints do these tools entail for the task described by Michael Burawoy of “taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fibre”? What implications do these tools have for the relationship between the public and private in the occupational biographies of individual sociologists and, through aggregation and collective organisation, the discipline as a whole? In addressing such questions it seeks to draw out the continuities between the emerging field of digital sociology and the longer-standing concerns of public sociology. In doing so it addresses the claim made by John Holmwood at the previous year’s conference that the task of sociology in an age of austerity is to “occupy debate and make inequality matter” and argues that the digitalisation of social life entails profound challenges and opportunities for sociological inquiry.

Quantified Self and Self-Tracking: Data, self and health

Farzana Dudhwala, Deborah Lupton, and Karen Throsby
Date/Time TBC (there was a clash)

This panel has been arranged by the newly formed Quantified Self Research Network which was established in September 2013 in order to bring together scholars who are interested in understanding the development of self-tracking devices and techniques. This event will comprise of a panel of three speakers who will offer empirical or theoretical insights which will help to set the agenda for this new area of sociological study.

Although individuals and populations have been subject to statistical measures for more than a century the potential for quantification has increased dramatically in recent times. Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the contemporary quantification of the self is the extent to which individuals are encouraged, and often willing, to quantify themselves and engage with the analytical potential this enables.

We take quantified self in a broad sense to refer to the (semi-)formalised movement and community which has built up around the use of, and sharing of ideas on, commercial self-tracking devices and technologies. In addition we are also interested in those techniques and practices which are used by clinicians and patients to monitor health and the myriad ways in which our bodies and activities are monitored without our direct participation.

The impacts of quantification of bodies and practices on individuals will be explored from a number of different perspectives in order to unpick the social and ethical consequences of quantification as well as explore the professional and personal practices which enable it.

What does ‘public sociology’ entail in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress? What affordances and constraints do these tools entail for the task of “taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fibre”? What implications do these tools have for the relationship between the public and private in the occupational biographies of individual sociologists and, through aggregation and collective organisation, the discipline as a whole?

Short articles (1000 to 4000 words) are sought for an open access edited book which explores conceptual, methodological or practical aspects of Digital Public Sociology. If you would be interested in contributing then please send an abstract of 200 words or less by December 31st 2013. The final articles would be needed by March 31st 2014, with the intention of launching the collection in the summer of 2014. Please send abstracts (or questions) to mark@markcarrigan.net.

What does ‘public sociology’ entail in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress? What affordances and constraints do these tools entail for the task of “taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fibre”? What implications do these tools have for the relationship between the public and private in the occupational biographies of individual sociologists and, through aggregation and collective organisation, the discipline as a whole?

Short articles (1000 to 4000 words) are sought for an open access edited book which explores conceptual, methodological or practical aspects of Digital Public Sociology. If you would be interested in contributing then please send an abstract of 200 words or less by December 31st 2013. The final articles would be needed by March 31st 2014, with the intention of launching the collection in the summer of 2014. Please send abstracts (or questions) to mark@markcarrigan.net.