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  • Mark 8:18 am on May 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , groups, individuals, , ,   

    The Politics of Agency 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Mark 12:55 pm on March 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: aggregates, , , , , , groups, , ,   

    Pierre Bourdieu, liberal thought and the ontology of collectives 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Dave Ashelman 2:22 pm on March 4, 2017 Permalink

      My lack of scholarship on what I call “dead French philosophers” is something that I freely admit to. Coming from American sociology, it’s not something that we have a lot of exposure to. A current colleague of mine is deep into Bourdieu and has turned me on to some of his benefits (albeit, I do not agree with everything he says – yet). Since Bourdieu however, others I’ve read have had this same critique. My own work on Neoliberalism as a social movement seems to be supported by the Bourdieu idea, and there have been many since who have had the same critiques.

      Which brings me to the importance of Sociology understanding how economics and neoliberalism works. I went and got a Master’s degree in economics solely so I could learn how economics works, especially under neoliberalism. It was hard work, and there was a lot of math (which luckily I’m good at), but it was worth it. Sociology too often writes about economic conditions without a basic understanding how economics works. And I see a lot about neoliberalism within a Neomarxist framework without any acknowledgement of the deep roots between economics and neoliberalism.

      Both neoliberalism as a social movement and economics as a discipline think in aggregates. Homo Economicus, the basic unit of economic analysis today, has no social location. It has no gender, race, class, or anything else “social.” In both economics and neoliberalism, Homo Economicus is a purely rational actor, and society is made up of an aggregate of purely rational actors. This is still taught in economics courses around the world today. And if it sounds a bit Weberian, it is: the main founder of the neoliberal social movement, von Mises, praised Weber’s Rational Action Theory, as did Karl Popper, another founder of the neoliberal social movement. Nicholas Gane also wrote about this in his 2014 paper: “Sociology and Neoliberalism: a Missing History” (Journal of Sociology Vol 48(6).

      Sociologists should also read Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” to understand how neoliberalism sees collectivism. For the Neoliberal social movement, ANY form of collectivism – including democracy, is bad (remember Homo Economicus). Hayek specifically called for economic systems to supersede ANY other forms of organizing society. Friedman did the same. Karl Popper developed his methodologies to specifically turn this dogma into “science” to make it more palatable to politicians (like Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet). Today, neoliberal ideas permeate our culture on all levels beyond just the economic.

      So Bourdieu was on to something – collectivism is bad, and aggregates are good in the neoliberal mindset, and it has become a set of cultural practices. You’ve sold me more on Bourdieu. Thank you.

    • jayspencergreen 2:27 pm on March 4, 2017 Permalink

      Is Bourdieu discussing Sartre there, because the descriptions are practically identical to the account of group-individual relations that Sartre explores in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (and, in relation to elections, in his essay “Elections: A Trap for Fools.” It’s a fascinating field that I don’t think is necessarily limited to political philosophy (or sociology). My reading has taken in Mancur Olsen, Colin Crouch, Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom, purely on foot of reading Sartre. I shall have to check the PB essay too. 🙂

    • Mark 4:52 pm on March 8, 2017 Permalink

      Not explicitly but I noticed the same thing! I guess the distinction doesn’t belong to Sartre but Bourdieu seems to be using his language there.

      What would you recommend from the authors you mention? I know Colin Crouch quite well but I’ve never read the others.

    • Mark 4:53 pm on March 8, 2017 Permalink

      You’re welcome – I’ve only recently become sold on him myself!

      Not for the first time, you’ve left a blog comment which I think deserves to be a blog post in its own right.

  • Mark 2:32 pm on November 30, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , groups   

    Toward a typology of participation in crowd work 

    Second call for papersCSCW2016 workshop, February 28

    Toward a typology of participation in crowd work

    Deadline for paper submissions December 7

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

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

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

    Typologies of participation

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

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

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

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

    Suggested subthemes and topics 

    Controlling economic structures in crowd work

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

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

    • Differentiations in entry and exit points to the platform

    Intersecting belief systems in crowd work

    • Norms about crowds, collaboration and democracy 

    • Balance between exclusive groups and democratic publics

    • Stakeholders’ different cultural assumptions 

    • Tensions between individual scoring systems and collective sharing processe

    Community support in crowd work

    • Communication needs within the crowd

    • Available avenues of communication to support community 

    • Apprenticeship models

    • Relations between the crowd and the “sourcers”

    • Navigating intersecting communities in crowd setting

    • Relations between different types of stakeholders in the crowd setting

    Going from crowd to public

    • Publics as performative states; co-constitution an interdependence

    • Ethics and power relations in crowd sourced research 

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

    • Quantified selves, data sources or co-researchers

    Workshop activities

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


    Participants are selected based on their submitted position-papers.

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

    Deadline for submissions is December 07.

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


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

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

    This workshop is organized by:

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

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

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

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

    Athanasios Mazarakis, PhD, Web Science at Kiel University. 

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

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

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

  • Mark 7:34 am on March 25, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , groups, lowry, , ,   

    The Social Ontology of L.S. Lowry 

    Series (source)


    Gathering (source)


    Aggregate (source)


    Audience (source)


    Crowd (source)


    Group: (source)


  • Mark 8:08 am on March 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: groups, ,   

    Groups: Challenges for Contemporary Political Philosophy 


    Challenges for Contemporary Political Philosophy

    University of Rennes 1, November 19-21, 2014 

    Call for Papers

    Groups matter in political philosophy, most would now agree – but precisely how they matter is contentious. Group-related issues emerge in various contexts of debate: the redressing of past or current injustices suffered by ethnic or cultural minorities; the nature and scope of group rights; the appropriate treatment of a certain specific identity/cultural/ethnic group. Less prominent, though, is a comprehensive analysis of groups as both agents and objects of social policies.  This is the aim of our conference.

    What challenges are posed to social, moral, or political philosophy when addressing a collection of individuals who act or are treated in a collective way?  Answering this involves consideration about how institutions should treat groups, but also of the normative implications of taking groups as possible social agents, when acting either in vertical relations with the state or in horizontal relations with other groups (or individuals). This conference aims to bring together scholars from a large range of disciplinary backgrounds, from social ontology to sociology and anthropology, through ethics and normative philosophy, in order to explore these questions from both theoretical and practical perspectives. We hope to combine questions about the nature of groups, and their social and political impacts, with attention to the particular, pressing normative questions to which the negotiation of group-related issues gives rise.

    Invited speakers: Lawrence Blum (Boston University), Catherine Colliot-Thélène (Université de Rennes 1), Vincent Descombes (EHESS), Tariq Modood (University of Bristol).

    We invite paper proposals along the following lines:

    Methodological and Ontological issues

    • What specific questions, if any, does the existence of groups pose to a theory of justice, or a theory of recognition, or a theory of democracy?
    • Why should groups matter in moral, social, or political, philosophy– and if they do, what kinds of group?
    • Should we consider groups as significant units of analysis of the social world, or should we operate with more dynamic concepts of group formation?
    • How and why are groups constructed entities, but nevertheless normatively relevant ones?

    Normative and Political issues

    • What kinds of theory, principles or norms might political thinkers propose in order to tackle the particular questions which groups pose?
    • How is the specific moral status of groups staked out: for instance, (how) can they be attributed with moral responsibility?
    • Should we strongly differentiate between different types of group — on the ground that it entitles them to variable claims for differential treatment, or differentiated group rights?
    • Do recent proposals for renewing theoretical frames in political philosophy, such as participative democracy or cosmopolitanism, offer new paths for appreciating the role and function of groups in political theory?

    Paper proposals of max. 1000 words should be sent by April 21, 2014, to

    Notification of acceptance will be sent by the end of May.

    Proposals may be sent in English or in French.  However, the working language of the conference will be English.

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