It’s difficult to read Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain and not be swept up in his infectious enthusiasm for the British cyberneticians. They were the fun wing of an approach which “emerged from nowhere as far as established fields and career paths were concerned” with the “cyberneticians and their projects were outsiders to established fields of endeavor” (55). Cybernetics had no social basis, as he terms it, something which was a strength in many ways. The radically open character of its intellectual inquiry clearly had a foundation in modes of academic sociality, such as the Ratio dining club described on pg 58:

Ratio was interinstitutional, as one might say. It did not simply elide disciplinary boundaries within the university; it brought together representatives from different sorts of institutions: people from the universities, but also medical men and physiologists based in hospitals and research institutes, including Walter and Ashby, and workers in government laboratories.

But this strength came hand-in-hand with the weakness of cybernetics, as Pickering describes on pg 59-60:

Academic disciplines are very good at holding neophytes to specific disciplinary agendas, and it was both a strength and a weakness of cybernetics that it could not do this—a strength, inasmuch as cybernetics retained an undisciplined and open-ended vitality, an ability to sprout off in all sorts of new directions, that the established disciplines often lack; a weakness, as an inability both to impose standards on research and to establish career paths for new cyberneticians left enthusiasts to improvise careers much as did the founders.

In this sense, we can see disciplines as a dual-edged sword. They are effective carries of tradition, ensuring insights, ideas and methods get reproduced from one generation to the next. But they do this at the cost of disciplining, with the perpetual risk that creativity and innovation are foreclosed by an adherence to inherited standards.

Is it possible to overcome this by developing nomadic movements within the conservative structure of disciplines? I’m prone to seeing the bias towards novelty within the contemporary scholarly ecosystem as a fundamentally negative thing, as much as I’m well suited to it in many ways. But an optimistic reading of it cold be that it mitigates the stultifying potential inherent in disciplinarity and ensures there is room for creativity which might not otherwise be there.

An interesting extract from Conflict In The Academy, by Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert. From loc 556-569:

As Wyn Grant has noted in reference to the history of the discipline of Political Science in the United Kingdom, ‘intellectual openness and tolerance of eclecticism has its merits, but if it is allowed to become too uncontrolled it can lead to a lack of rigour in the deployment of methodologies and techniques, which undermines the systematic comparison that the subject has to offer if it is to be distinguished from polemic or idle speculation’ (2010: 24). Similarly, English Studies appears to have been attempting to maintain this precarious balance between pluralism and innovation on the one hand, and coherence and continuity on the other. In reference to John Beer’s suggestion in the Senate House (SHD: 355) that five separate strands of scholarship had emerged in the Cambridge English Faculty (traditional, international, close reading, analysis of literature in social and cultural contexts and an alignment of the study of literature with more popular media), Bergonzi writes that In one sense such pluralism is admirable, a fine instance of the multiplicity of interests and the free play of minds which one expects in a great university. Yet not all approaches can easily coexist; choices may have to be made, and voices imply exclusions … What looks like desirable diversity from inside a subject can seem mere fragmentation and incoherence to those outside it, or not very securely within it. (1990: 16) Institutionalising and sustaining the coherence of disciplines within the humanities, which are by their very nature ‘fissiparous disciplines’ – inherently prone towards internal division, may involve far more selfconscious ‘disciplining’, in Leavis’s sense, than is necessary in the more commonly mono-paradigmatic sciences. Secondly, even though many of the theoretical

Does this adequately describe contemporary sociology? I think it does, at least in the UK. But the question that really interests me is how a changing infrastructure of scholarly communication, in which interventions happen across a variety of platforms with all the temporal multiplicity that entails, might change this picture. How does self-conscious disciplining happen? What are new ways for it to be enacted? What determines the efficacy of such attempts? These are all changing in ways which raise complex empirical and conceptual issues.

I really like this overview in Conflict in the Academy, by Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert, concerning the conflicting pressures towards discipline and innovation which afflict all disciplines. From loc 408-421:

We would like to suggest that the story of the MacCabe controversy ought to be placed within a broader account of disciplinary professionalisation, one which raises the question of what exactly a discipline is –a question much easier to answer in the so-called hard sciences than in the humanities. Is it, as Rorty (2006) has suggested, simply a matter of the ritualistic reading and referencing of one set of books rather than another, and the justifying of one’s claims to one community of practitioners rather than another, or does it point towards something more essential in method and content? One thing that appears clear is that disciplinary reproduction is unable to take place effectively without to some extent disciplining those who refuse to operate within its prescribed confines. Most of the time this disciplining (or what might otherwise be called ‘boundary policing’) happens in tacit ways through rewarding work that builds upon, and can be understood and judged in terms of, a discipline’s established corpus, and punishing that which does not. Such mechanisms help ensure a necessary focus to branches of intellectual endeavour and a coherence of aims and criteria of judgement which allow for the discipline to reproduce and extend itself in a recognisable form throughout time. However, operating simultaneously to this imperative of disciplinary reproduction, there is also an equally important countervailing pressure for disciplinary innovation and development, and such innovation often occurs through contact with, and importation of approaches from, other disciplines.

I like the use of mechanisms talk here, though I suspect I’m reading it in a much more CR-inflected way than the authors would intend. How do these mechanisms operate? How do they change? How effective are they? These questions track important changes at the level of scholarly communications which are key to my current research.

Earlier this week at Computational Social Science 2014, I heard Gene Stanley, an affable and rather polymathic physicist, reflect on his experience of collaborating with economists. He was concerned to make clear the different skill sets that physicists and economists bring to collaborative work, with each able to do things which the other can’t. But what really caught my imagination was his description of their divergent sensibilities. As I live tweeted at the time:

This is a topic that has intrigued me for a long time. One aspect of my PhD research which got slightly lost amidst the many other aspects was the aspect of self-selection involved in choosing a university degree. Obviously many other factors are in play here but I was curious about what, if anything, draws people towards certain subjects? Are certain kinds of people attracted to certain kinds of disciplines? Much of one thesis chapter was devoted to unpacking this claim. Leaving aside the limited scope of the data itself, it’s important to avoid imputing a uniformity to decision-making on these matters that manifestly isn’t the case. Many people have no feeling of being ‘drawn’ towards a discipline. Even amongst those who do, it is balanced by many other concerns (e.g. employability, location of university, grade requirements for the course, confidence in the subject matter) which are weighed up in a way that is clearly purposive but often far from being ‘rational’ in any abstract sense. Furthermore, many students simply acquiesce entirely to the advice of their trusted interlocutors or inflect their own preferences through the assumptions loaded into the advice of authority figures.

Another complicating factor is the opacity of the cultural system, particularly when we were are young. Our intellectual journeys are path-dependent, leading us to push against the limitations of what we encounter and search for intellectual variety, often without knowing exactly what it is we’re looking for. Peter Preston nicely captures how what can be a fundamentally messy process of intellectual engagement begins to consolidate through graduate school and into academic careers:

If one stands back from the day-to-day demands of professional routine, it becomes clear that an intellectual trajectory is not organised in advance, we do not begin by surveying the intellectual ground before deciding upon a line of enquiry; rather, as Hans-Georg Gadamer might put it, we fall into conversation; our starting points are accidental, our early moves untutored, they are not informed by a systematic professional knowledge of the available territory, rather they flow from curiosity; we read what strikes us as interesting, we discard what seems dull. All this means that our early moves are quite idiosyncratic, shaped by our experiences of particular texts, teachers and debates with friends/colleagues. Thereafter matters might become more systematic, we might decide to follow a discipline, discover an absorbing area of work or find ourselves slowly unpacking hereto deep-seated concerns. It also means that we can bestow coherence only retrospectively. This idiosyncratic personal aspect of scholarly enquiry is part and parcel of the trade, not something to be regretted, denied or avoided; nonetheless systematic reflections offers a way of tacking stock, of presenting critical reflexive statements in regard to the formal commitments made in substantive work.

– Peter Preston, Arguments and Actions in Social Theory, Pg 1

The process of pursuing graduate education and even an academic career necessitates continued self-selection, often through making choices which have increasingly pronounced disciplinary characteristics (though this is far from universally true). However it can also reflect social inertia, as people continue making choices which increase the opportunity costs of future exit while privately doubting whether academia is for them. My meandering point is simply to stress the complexity of this process – it’s inherently biographical, unfolding from iterated choices within an environment which entails a variable constellation of constraints and enablements each time, in a way which can’t be divorced from the context itself. The ideographic complexity of this process finds itself reflected in the kinds of intellectual biographies someone like Ray Monk writes (e.g. Oppenheimer, Russell, Wittgenstein) who deftly traces the multiplicity of ways in which the character of these thinkers and the character of their work co-condition each other within the context of an unfolding human life. Analysis with this level of detail obviously doesn’t scale but it’s important that we remember the complexity of the lived lives we’re abstracting from.

Which brings me to the topic I started with. Can we talk about the pleasures of disciplinarity? Can we talk about the things that thrill physicist and economists? I would certainly like to. As an accidental sociologist (and far from the only one) I’m very conscious of the what appeals to me about sociology. I’ve been also been aware recently of the ease with which I could have ‘discovered’ social psychology as a frustrated philosophy masters student in much the same way I ‘discovered’ sociology. This is Peter Preston’s point in the extract above. Where the pleasures enter into it is how these possible routes would have felt to me – would social psychology have fascinated and frustrated me in the way that sociology has? I suspect not. There’s a complex interplay of factors driving the pleasures we derive from disciplines and they are made all the more complex by the fact that we too are changing as we are socialised (and socialise ourselves) into disciplines. In other words, I think the different ‘thrills’ that physicists and economists derive from their work is in part simply a reflection of their having been trained to do that kind of work, though of course sustaining this training necessitated their co-operation (at the minimum) and more likely their growing commitment. So if there are not ‘physics people’, ‘economics people’ and ‘sociology people’ could there be potential physicists-to-be, economists-to-be, sociologists-to-be co-existing within the same person prior to the training which gives life to these peculiarly intellectualising ways of being-in-the-world? I suspect so, though probably not all at the same time. I’m aware of not having really answered my own question here. But I’m also aware of being entirely comfortable with that fact yet nevertheless wondering what it says about the peculiarity of my own intellectual socialisation (or perhaps simply my own peculiarity).

I don’t think this is a particularly meaningful statement. But it’s certainly an attention grabbing one. I encountered it earlier when Salon picked up on a post by Adam Grant on Psychology Today:

Why does the invisible hand want to slap you across the face?

Because it belongs to a douchebag.

That’s the conclusion, anyway, of aprovocative blog post in Psychology Today by Wharton professor Adam Grant making the rounds across planet internet.

But before all you econ majors get your demand curves in a twist, hear what the good professor has to say.

Citing research by Cornell professor Robert Frank, Grant makes the compelling case that economists are neither generous, nor cooperative. And that’s because they’ve swallowed one of Adam Smith’s main tenets: people act out of rational self-interest.

Emphasis here on the self.

In short: economists don’t feel bad about acting in their self-interest because — well — the economic theories tell them that they should be selfish.

This is the same Adam Grant who’s achieved an impressive degree of visibility at a relatively young age, not least of all because of the snappily counter-intuitive thesis propounded in his last book that ‘giving’ is a route to career success. As befitting the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton Business School*, his claim about economists is one grounded in empirical research:

Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell, believes that his profession is squashing cooperationand generosity. And he believes he has the evidence to prove it. Consider these data points:

Less charitable giving: In the US, economics professors gave less money to charity than professors in other fields—including history, philosophyeducation, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, physics, chemistry, and biology. More than twice as many economics professors gave zero dollars to charity than professors from the other fields.

More deception for personal gain: Economics students in Germany were more likely than students from other majors to recommend an overpriced plumber when they were paid to do it.

Greater acceptance of greed: Economics majors and students who had taken at least three economics courses were more likely than their peers to rate greed as “generally good,” “correct,” and “moral.”

Less concern for fairness: Students were given $10 and had to make a proposal about how to divide the money with a peer. If the peer accepted, they had a deal, but if the peer declined, both sides got nothing. On average, economics students proposed to keep 13% more money for themselves than students from other majors.

In another experiment, students received money, and could either keep it or donate it to the common pool, where it would be multiplied and divided equally between all participants. On average, students contributed 49% of their money, but economics students contributed only 20%. When asked what a “fair” contribution was, the non-economists were clear: 100% of them said “half or more” (a full 25% said “all”). The economists struggled with this question. Over a third of them refused to answer it or gave unintelligible responses. The researchers wrote that the “meaning of ‘fairness’… was somewhat alien for this group.

This raises the obvious question of causation: does economists make people horrible or are horrible people drawn to economics? Obviously, it’s likely to be a little of both. It seems glaringly self-evident to me that self-selection is at work in shaping the characteristics of people within different disciplines (not least of all because I have a few hundred surveys from my PhD that demonstrate precisely this). There is a sense in which it is meaningful to talk about ‘physics people’ and ‘english literature people’, though these are of course fuzzy folk typologies which barely meet the status of being an empirical generalisation. Where I think they become more plausible though, is in making sense of the mentalities likely to be found amongst professionalised members of disciplines i.e. though who keep on self-selecting all the way to grad school and beyond. So could we assume on this basis that the processes identified amongst economics students are likely to apply with a greater intensity amongst professional economists? Here’s what Grant suggests with regard to the former:

To figure out whether economics education can shift people in the selfish direction, we need to track beliefs and behaviors over time—or randomly assign them to economics exposure. Here’s what the evidence shows:

1. Altruistic Values Drop Among Economics Majors

At the very beginning of their freshman year, Israeli college students who planned to study economics rated helpfulness, honesty, loyalty, and responsibility as just as important as students who were studying communications, political science, and sociology. But third-year economics students rated these values as significantly less important than first-year economics students.

2. Economics Students Stay Selfish, Even Though Their Peers Become More Cooperative

When faced with choices between cooperating and defecting, overall, 60% of economics majors defected, compared with only 39% of non-economics majors. For non-economists, 54% of freshmen and sophomores defected, while only 40% of juniors and seniors did. The economists, on the other hand, did not decrease in defection significantly over time. Roughly 70% defected across the board. Non-economists became less selfish as they matured; economists didn’t.

3. After Taking Economics, Students Become More Selfish and Expect Worse of Others

Frank and his colleagues studied college students in astronomy, economic game theory, and economic development classes. Self-interest was a fundamental assumption in the game theory class, but had little role in the economic development class. In all three classes, students answered questions about benefiting from a billing error where they received ten computers but only paid for nine and finding a lost envelope with $100. They reported how likely they would be to report the billing error and return the envelope, and predicted the odds that other people would do the same.

When the students answered these questions in September at the start of the semester, the estimates were similar across the three classes. When they answered the questions again in December at the end of the semester, Frank’s team tracked how many students decreased their estimates. After taking the game theory course, students came to expect more selfish behavior from others, and they became less willing to report the error and return the envelope themselves.

“The pernicious effects of the self-interest theory have been most disturbing,” Frank writes in Passions Within Reason. “By encouraging us to expect the worst in others it brings out the worst in us: dreading the role of the chump, we are often loath to heed our nobler instincts.”

4. Just Thinking about Economics Can Make Us Less Caring

Exposure to economic words might be enough to inhibit compassion and concern for others, even among experienced executives. In one experiment, Andy Molinsky, Joshua Margolis, and I recruited presidents, CEOs, partners, VPs, directors, and managers who supervised an average of 140 employees. We randomly assigned them to unscramble 30 sentences, with either neutral phrases like [green tree was a] or economic words like [continues economy growing our].

Then, the executives wrote letters conveying bad news to an employee who was transferred to an undesirable city and disciplining a highly competent employee for being late to meetings because she lacked a car. Independent coders rated their letters for compassion.

Executives who unscrambled sentences with economic words expressed significantly less compassion. There were two factors at play: empathy and unprofessionalism. After thinking about economics, executives felt less empathy—and even when they did empathize, they worried that expressing concern and offering help would be inappropriate.

I recall encountering more work exploring this issue in the past and I really wish I’d saved the references. It also leads me to wonder if economists have a unusual proclivity for empirically studying themselves and, if so, what this says about the discipline in general and these findings in particular? As naval gazing as sociologists tend to be, they also seem to spend much less time studying themselves… at least until I persuade someone to part with the money that would allow me to spend my early 30s writing The Sociology of Intellectual Faddishness. Encountering Grant’s post has also left me wondering if I should do something more substantive with my PhD surveys, originally just an overly-elaborate preliminary to my sampling strategy, given that they shed light on this issue in an interesting way. The survey instrument I used measures style of reflexivity and they were distributed to the compulsory first year modules for English Literature, Sociology, Physics and Business students. For anyone interested, the results are discussed in the methodological appendix of Margaret Archer’s The Reflexive Imperative. 

*Writing this post also led me to discover that he’s only 4 years older than me, which is a piece of information now lodged in my brain that I’m not really sure what to do with.

There’s an interesting post on the CSIP blog by Michael Guggenheim. Along with Nina Wakeford, he’s convening Goldsmith’s new MA Visual Sociology. The strange formulation in the blog’s title stems from his desire to overcome the visual epithet, such that the terminology of ‘visual sociology’ could be confined to the past. There’s an interesting question here about how terminology can work to codify the stratifications within disciplinary knowledge systems:

Why then does this blog post speak of visual sociology in the past tense? Why not ask: What is visual sociology? (to follow up Noortje Marres’ “what is digital sociology” post?).

Short answer: Because we need to get rid of the “visual” as a denominator of the subdiscipline. By starting an MA in visual sociology I am guilty in perpetuating this unfortunate situation, but, I hope, we may also produce a new generation of students, who can then leave the visual behind.

As in the case of women’s studies, the denominator does not simply announce a subfield that stands next to any other subfield. There is not visual sociology and textual sociology. There is not men’s studies and women’s studies. Women’s studies emerged because disciplines such as history and sociology were men’s studies without saying so in the title. For the same reason, we have sociology, and a special subfield called visual sociology, because for whatever reason, sociology is assumed to be a purely textual discipline (the same situation applies to visual anthropology). “Visual” is considered to be strange, not really sociology, not really scientific, or it is simply forgotten.

In many other disciplines the same situation does not apply. There is no visual astronomy or biology or chemistry. A non-visual astronomy simply does not exist. What would astronomers do without producing visual traces of other stars, planets and galaxies?

It seems important to me that we distinguish the terminology of Visual Sociology (or Digital Sociology) from that of X studies. In each case, we can see an underlying tendency towards the diversification of the knowledge system, driven in part by the ideational arms race within which professional rewards go to those who can combine ideas in novel ways and disseminate them widely through frequent and well-placed publications. But the terminology of ‘Visual Sociology’ will tend to allow this diversification to be reincorporated into disciplinary knowledge systems whereas the terminology of X Studies will tend not to.

By this I simply mean that the work being done under the rubric of ‘visual sociology’ can more easily be related back to sociological work as such. The propositional content of Visual Sociology and, to invent a parallel for sake of argument, Visual Studies might be indistinguishable but the nomenclature of the former entails an orientation towards the beliefs, theories and practices which constitute the ‘parent’ discipline. This makes it more likely that the implications of Visual Sociology (the contradictions and complementarities which obtain at the level of ideas) for Sociology more broadly will actually be recognised, drawn out and argued for by the cultural agents whose activity is required for the reproduction or elaboration of the knowledge system.

In short there are three points which interest me here: (1) the ‘ideational arms race’ driving diversification, (2) the emergence of sub disciplinary specialisms and (3) the emergence of substantive areas of interdisciplinary inquiry. There’s an underlying structural process driving (1) which results largely from the incentive systems operating within the modern academy, as well as the technological reduction of friction which used to impinge upon the navigation of the knowledge system i.e. it’s easier to put elements together in novel ways if you can instantly find them through Google Scholar etc. So I’m proposing that (2) and (3) are socio-cultural trends which enable this diversity to be reincorporated into the knowledge system in different ways: one allows for disciplinary reincorporation whereas the other engenders disciplinary fragmentation.

If we accept that the ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Sociologist’ (see the letter to Laurie Taylor by Stephen Mugford reproduced below) and continually reinventing the wheel is a bad thing then these issues of how areas of inquiry are named become much more important than they might initially seem. Yet another recent addition to my list of post-PhD writing projects is to apply Margaret Archer’s often overlooked work on culture to the (re)formation of disciplines in the contemporary academy. In this post and a few others I’ve started to sketch the initial outlines for what this project will entail and I think it offers a powerful set of tools for untangling the complex interaction of structure, culture and agency in the reproduction and transformation of academic knowledge.


I listen to TA as a podcast, so timing and order can be a bit scrambled. So it was that only recently I heard one on ‘intoxication’ from 2012.

I’m writing to you because it provoked in me a serious concern about sociology today which I raise with you below, I hope collegially. (I trust not in some curmudgeonly way).

Brief background: You and I are pretty well age and disciplinary peers—I did my London Sociology Hons in 1968 and then went to Bristol with Michael Banton, Theo Nichols, et al, finishing writing my PhD while teaching sociology in NZ. In late 1974 I went on to the ANU where I stayed until late ’96. In the period ’79-’96 I was fairly heavily involved in crime and deviance studies, authoring and co-authoring  a range of papers on drug use and policy and also some on restorative justice. This took me into the American Society of Criminology where I met, or re-met in some cases both UK sociologists (Ian Taylor, Jock Young, Mike Presdee*, etc.) as well as US ones (Bill Chambliss, Jack Katz, etc.) Great fun and good times. Pat O’Malley and I organised a ripper session at one ASC on crime, excitement and modernity with Mike Presdee, Jack Katz, ourselves, etc. which was packed to the rafters….

[*I say re-met because Mike and I not only met in Australia, we also, I discovered, went to school together in Gloucester. A sad loss is Mike.)

So if I say that the material in the program was pretty familiar, you won’t be surprised. And of course, if you did not know the area well, it would be a good episode because it covered a lot of ground effectively, the speakers were nicely integrated, etc. I’ve done a fair bit of media work (professional video work, etc.) and I know TA is a well created series.

But what DID worry me, which is implicit in my title, is that I learned almost nothing. It is 20+ years since, for example, I co-wrote papers like:

  • 1994      P.T. O’Malley and S.K Mugford   ‘Crime, excitement and modernity’ pp. 189-211 in Gregg Barak (ed) Varieties of Criminology,  Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
  • 1993      Social change and the control of psychotropic drugs—risk management, harm reduction and ‘postmodernity’, Drug and Alcohol Review,  12: 369-375
  • 1992      P. Dance and S.K. Mugford   ‘The St. Oswald’s Day celebrations: ‘carnival’ versus ‘sobriety’ in an Australian drug enthusiast group’,Journal of Drug Issues, 22(3):591-606
  • 1991      With P. T. O’Malley   ‘Heroin policy and the limits of Left Realism’,  Crime, Law and Social Change: An International Journal,  15: 19-36.
  • 1991      P. T. O’Malley and S.K. Mugford   ‘The demand for intoxicating commodities: implications for the ‘War on Drugs’  ’,  Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict and World Order, 18: 49-75.

My point is not that these folks did not cite, or seem to know, these works. Rather, these pieces were part of a much larger corpus written by people like Presdee and Katz and others, which explored all the conceptual and theoretical issues that were raised in much the same way but the corpus as a whole seems to be completely missed.

And so all the (to me) familiar themes came out. Yes, antidrug use campaigners miss the pleasurable side of drug use. Yes, Bakhtin and carnival are relevant ideas. Yes, drug abuse is best described as the “the use of drugs I don’t use by people I don’t like”. Yes, getting written off is an ambiguous thing—fun but dangerous. Et cetera.  And all presented as if somehow this was new or surprising, when it had all been said before (and very likely before I and my mates said it too—we may equally be guilty of exactly the same problem.)

I would hope that after 20 odd years out of the game, I would hear something new, something that made me think, “Oh, wow” and not “Uh, huh.”  In other fields of enquiry things are moving apace. Leave aside the natural sciences with myriad breakthroughs (from Homo Floriensis to the Higgs Boson), cognitive science and psychology and their cognates are all rocketing along. Every time I listen to a podcast in one of these fields (and in some of them I am quite well read so this is not just a naïve effect) I hear new and intriguing stuff.  And there is some new stuff in sociology, especially around network research, where I DO get the wow effect.

It worries me, however, to hear people rediscovering things for the nth time and solemnly discussing them as if they are new. And I think that maybe what we see here is a real warning about the discipline. What do you think?

Maybe I am just suffering from ‘nostalgia aint what it used to be”? But I don’t think so.

Collegially yours,