They just express it in a very different way:

“Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”)


As Becker has written elsewhere, enlarging the end-credits metaphor, “A ‘world’ as I understand it consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. . . . The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.”

I’m reading Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory. It’s very good. However the vocabulary is frustrating me for the kind of reasons I discussed here. Take this example:

Conceived in terms of drive, networked communications circulate less as potentials for freedom than as the affective intensities produced through and amplifying our capture. (pg 31)

I’m fairly certain I understand what she means by ‘capture’. What I don’t understand is how ‘practices’ can be said to ‘capture’ us. Is there anything more to this concept than the claim that certain ways of using specific technologies will tend to inculcate a peculiar form of passivity that has important ramifications for the possibility of emancipatory politics? We could be said to become trapped, stuck or ensnared by such ‘practices’ but I don’t think we’re captured by them. Capture implies a captor but no such claim is being made. It may seem a pedantic point but this tendency to write as if “things just happen without anyone doing them” (to use Howard Becker’s phrase) really bothers me. It seems to shut down precisely the space of questions which I think critical theory should surely be trying to open up.

One of many useful discussions in Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists concerns ‘pluralistic ignorance”. He argues that this social psychological effect manifests itself in academia in relation to writing. Academic writing is a private and isolated endeavour, in which adversity (rejections by journals, lacerating criticism, endless requests for revision) are dealt with in isolation. The proliferation of journals, writes Becker in 1983, means that every point of view can ultimately find a home. So the public markers of difficult (i.e. going unpublished) diminish at the same time as private difficulties remain or may even increase, as the proliferation of journals goes hand-in-hand with a pluralisation of standards, meaning that navigating the submission process becomes a more complex and less predictable task. This results in a state of affairs where “Everyone thinks that everyone else is getting it done” and “They keep their difficulties to themselves” (pg 21). The privatised character of the process means that “sociological writers do not develop a culture, a body of shared solutions to their shared problems” because no peer group has the same problem (pg 20). In its absence, the tendency is to assume that everyone else copes with writing without problems. 

It’s in this context that I find ‘craft’ so interesting. In a descriptive sense, I think of ‘craft’ as encompassing the practical activity involved in creative production. So it’s all the practical embodied things involved in academic writing, as well as the order in which they fit together into a sequence. The concept provides a normative standard, in the substantive perspective it offers from which to critique instrumentalism, but there is also a normative dimension to the practices designated by the concept. To engage with craft involves an encounter with standards inherent to the practice, though of course our acquaintance with those standards is fallible and constrained by our circumstances. I like Richard Sennett’s account of this: 

Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labour; it serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship. In all these domains, craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself. Social and economic conditions, however, often stand in the way of the craftsman’s discipline and commitment; schools may fail to provide the tools to do good work, and workplaces may not truly value the aspiration for quality. And though craftsmanship can reward an individual with a sense of pride in work, this reward is not simple. The craftsman often faces conflicting objective standards of excellence; the desire to do something well for its own sake can be impaired by competitive pressures, by frustration, or by obsession.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, pg. 9

Assuming you accept the coherency of ‘academic craft’, variegated in terms of disciplines and traditions, it becomes increasingly curious that there’s no “body of shared solutions” of the form invoked by Becker. Tricks of the Trade* might be passed on by supervisors or within networks of friends and colleagues. But there’s a striking absence of a public stock of knowledge, a common culture orientated towards practical affairs that is tied in with professionalisation. I think something of this is captured in the notion of ‘professional socialisation’ but that this framing is a symptom of the problem rather than a potential solution to it. I think it also inevitably enters into training in methods and methodology, with questions of technique coming closest to the more everyday conception of ‘craft’. But it still seems there’s something rather major that is conspicuous by its absence.

The prominence of ‘craft’ in professional consciousness is inversely proportional to pluralistic ignorance of the sort Becker describes. The more people talk about the practicalities of doing writing, the less room there is for the assumption that everyone else finds it easy and one’s own difficulties are unusual. But discussions of writing will tend to be marginal in traditional modes of publication. There are only so many books about writing that social scientists are ever going to produce. There are only so many books about writing that social scientists are every going to buy. Likewise I suspect that market forces will tend to push these towards the lowest common denominator, though of course there are many exceptions to this.

However the academic blogopshere and the academic twittersphere, to use two terms I hate, seem obviously amenable to these discussions. They create a space for them that was previously absent. Furthermore, the market constraints which perhaps mitigate against discussions of craft in traditional publishing** could be said to encourage it in a way in the space of academic blogs. My experience on this site and has been that discussions of writing, professional practice and higher education tend to attract much more attention online and they circulate further on social media. The influence of these ‘market forces’ on academic blogging is a complex issue, representing a problem in many ways, but I think this is one way in which they can be helpful. To anyone trying to build an audience for a blog, it creates an incentive for them to reflect on scholarly practice in a way they might not otherwise. In this sense, I think that the academic blogosphere might involve a tendency to go against the grain of a broader trend within social science that C Wright Mills was fulminating against over half a century ago:

Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist: let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of craft. Stand for the primary of the individual scholar; stand opposite to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.

C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 224

*To use another catchy term of Becker’s. He has a knack for them.

**This is a completely speculative idea that only occurred to me when writing the post.


really like Steve Fuller’s arguments about ‘improvisation’. He rehearsed them yesterday in a post for Sociological Imagination about the originality of conference keynotes:

For about ten years now, I’ve been arguing about the benefits of improvisational performance in academia, not simply as an experience for the audience but more importantly as a way of getting ‘experts’ and ‘luminaries’ to speak unguardedly on what they think about a topic on which they have established a reputation. Indeed, this is how I believe that academics might earn some entitlement to being called ‘intellectuals’. But increasingly I also think that this skill might be vital to the future of the university as a clearly branded institution in a world where just about anything is a ‘knowledge producer’ by default.

More specifically, public academic speaking might serve as a living moment of intellectual experimentation, not simply a reproduction of past thoughts. This means that improvisation should be taught to aspiring academics – and if you think that ‘teaching improvisation’ is an oxymoron, then you know nothing about performance, regardless of all the Judith Butler you’ve been force-fed. (Maybe I’m wrong but invocations of ‘performativity’ in an academic talk’s title is usually a dead zone for intellectual engagement – unless you like to hear about non-humans ‘performing’!)

It reminded me of this experience I had a couple of years ago. I had a talk planned for a conference (albeit only some bullet points in notes on my iPhone I wrote on the train to London) but decided to talk about something else because the talk prior to mine was so thought provoking. I’m not sure about the quality of the presentation but, at least subjectively, it was peculiarly enjoyable to get up and elaborate a line of thought on the fly:

I really dislike using slides. If someone has invited me to talk then I feel obliged to use slides. Much of my antipathy towards slides (beyond the fact that I’m bad at producing them) stems from how difficult I find it to improvise with them. I enjoy presenting most when I have the equivalent of index cards on my iPad – a short series of grouped bullet points. This reminds me what I’m intending to say but usually means I improvise about how and when I say it. On some occasions, it doesn’t work. If someone has gone a bit wrong prior to the event then the lack of planned structure amplifies my situational anxieties and incapacities. But when it does work, I’m a much better speaker if I just stand up and chat.

Blogging represents another form of improvisation. I thought earlier “I want to write something in response to Steve’s post yesterday”. I didn’t know until I started writing exactly what I would find myself writing. Reflecting on it, it’s not a particular surprise in this case. The influence of Fuller’s concept of ‘improvisation’ on me has largely been about public speaking, so it’s not unexpected that a blog post about it has turned into one considering public speaking. But many blog posts are a surprise. I discover a new idea or a new theme when writing. Or I find a new way of looking at a familiar idea. In this sense, I see ‘improvisation’ as intrinsically linked to what I think of as ‘non-linear creativity’:

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 outine, 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

So while I think Fuller’s argument could sound trivial to someone determined to be critical of it, such that it’s concerned primarily with entertaining audiences, it’s actually much more significant than that. There’s immense creative importance in the capacity to think on your feet or, as Nietzsche might put it, to write on your feet

Not with my hand alone I write:
My foot wants to participate.
Firm and free and bold, my feet
Run across the field – and sheet.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Prelude in Rhymes: 52

I don’t think ‘improvisation’ and ‘creativity’ are co-extensive. But I do think that an intellectual environment hostile to improvisation will tend to constraint creativity. If we don’t have space to experiment, to improvise on the spot, it’s unlikely that we’ll have much space for creativity. We may be perfectly free to create but the forms we produce will be familiar and routine. If we have room to improvise then we’ll be better able to cope with what Howard Becker describes as the ‘chaos’ involved in writing:

You can’t deal with the welter of thoughts that flash through your head when you sit at your keyboard trying to think where to begin. No one can. The fear of that chaos is one reason for the rituals that the students in my seminar described. First one thing, then another, comes into your head. By the time you have thought the fourth thought, the first one is gone. For all you know, the fifth thought is the same as the first. In a short time, certainly, you have gone through your whole repetoire. How many thoughts can we have on one topic?

Howard Becker, Writing for Social Scientists, Pg 55

Improvisation makes this chaos into a virtue. It licenses us to jump headfirst into the flux and see what has happened to us once we emerge from it. In the absence of improvisation, the creative flux becomes a problem. It becomes something to discipline through routine and repress through ritual. It means the most live moments of creative production are approached in a way which, to paraphrase Les Back, seeks to assassinate the life within them.

There’s a really nice post on Jon Rainford’s blog which talks about Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists and its potential lessons for bloggers:

This second edition examines some of the changes in technology in the twenty years since it was first published, especially in terms of ways in which computers have enhanced the ability for drafting and rearranging ideas and the reduced permanence of the text that is churned out, allowing for writers to take more risks with what they put into being. This, combined with some of his lines of argument about the value of sharing and discussing writing lead me to thinking how the rise of blogs have changed the game even further since 2007.

Becker uses a lovely phrase in chapter three. He says  ‘A thought written down is stubbon, doesn’t change its shape and can be compared to thoughts that come after it’ (p.56). For me, this forms the crux of why I am finding blogging so valuable for my writing, it allows me to commit those ideas to writing and to share them with other people, not only my close academic network, but more widely. It allows me to ask questions, to float partially formed thoughts and to help develop the thinking by continuing to write about them. This is what many academics have down for years in letters and through discussions so why, in some cases is there a resistance to blogging still by some people?

Becker poses a possible reason why, he says ‘There’s something that I think many of us believe: talking about work is less of a risk than writing about it. In part it’s because no one remembers the ideas you speak.’ (p.118). I wonder if it is an extension of this argument that keeps the discussions in private opposed to in the open on a blog. Maybe if you do not make public your partially formed ideas, people won’t remember all the wrong turns you took, after all, your audiences only want to hear the perfectly formed ideas, not those provisional ones, right?

I love the description of a thought that “doesn’t change its shape” once written down. I’ve become aware of myself in the last few months as someone who thinks-through-writing and this is integral to it. Thoughts in my mind feel formless and inchoate until I’ve externalised them in speech or, better yet, writing. When discussing things I find interesting or writing about them, it’s sometimes a surprise to me what comes out – it’s obviously  not something which emerges ex nihilo but until I’ve externalised the thoughts in my head they’re only really potential thoughts. Or something like that… in my more pretentious moments I think that I’d like to write a phenomenology of blogging at some point. I recently encountered a great passage by Nick Crossley talking about the phenomenology of typing and it seems a logical next step to extend this into a phenomenology of writing with a keyboard. In fact the discussion of the physical process of typing seems oddly lopsided without it (not a criticism of him given that this makes perfect sense in the context of the article) – the emphasis in the extract was added by me:

It is not only my own body that I “know” in this way, moreover. I have a pre-reflective sense or grasp on my environment, relative to my body, as is evidenced by my capacity to move around in and utilize that space without first having to think how to do so. Our relation to technological objects, such as word processors, provides an interesting illustration of this. I can type and to that extent “I know” where the various letters are on the keyboard. I do not have to find the letters one by one, as when I first bought the thing. My fingers just move in the direction of the correct keys. Indeed, when I am in full flow, I seem actually to be thinking with my fingers in the respect that I do not know in advance of typing exactly what I will say. It is not just that I do not need to think  about where the keys are, however. The break with reflective thought is more severe than this. I could not give a reflective, discursive account of the keyboard layout. I do not “know” where the keys are in a reflective sense and to make any half decent attempt at guessing I have to imagine I am typing and watch where my fingers head for when I come to the appropriate letter. The type of knowledge I have of the keyboard is a practical, embodied knowledge, quite remote and distinct from discursive knowledge. It is “know-how,” in Gilbert Ryle’s sense, not propositional knowledge-that.

– Nick Crossley, The Phenomenological Habitus

Underlying this interest is my conviction that an understanding of the practice of writing cannot be divorced from an understanding of the tools with which one writes. This is a point well made by Evan Selinger in a short essay on Nietzsche’s adoption of the typewriter later in life:

In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Kittler contends that in order to understand how Nietzsche coped with myopia, it is crucial to grasp the import of him by buying a typewriter: a Danish model invented by Hans Rasmus Johann Malling Hanson. Given the lack of philosophical precedent, Kittler characterizes Nietzsche as the “first mechanized philosopher,” and argues that integrating the typewriter into the writing process facilitated several changes to the act of writing itself, profoundly impacting Nietzsche’s thought and style.

Kittler stresses how typewriters alter the physical connection between writer and text.  Unlike the visual attention that writing by hand requires, the typewriter made it possible to create texts by exploiting a blind, tactile power that can harness “a historically new proficiency: écriture automatique.”  Given the report of a Frankfurt eye doctor, which stated that Nietzsche’s “right eye could only perceive mistaken and distorted images,” and Nietzsche’s own claim to find reading and writing painful after twenty minutes, we can appreciate why he would turn to a writing device that could be operated simply by pressing briefly on a key—a key that doesn’t even need to be looked at.  Indeed, the Malling Hanson was specifically designed to “compensate for physical deficiencies” by having the capacity to “be guided solely by one’s sense of touch.”


Kittler cites a poem that Nietzsche wrote about the Malling Hansen in 1882.  Translated, it states:


By comparing “the equipment, the thing, and the agent,” Nietzsche appears to demonstrate his awareness that “authors” do not generate thoughts that transcend their material culture.

The last line seems like something of an overstatement but it nonetheless expresses something quite profound about the role of ‘tools’ in the creative process.

I came across this interesting little post on Becker’s site earlier this week. It’s worth a quick read for anyone interested in youth studies and/or Becker’s work. HT Kip Jones for the video of Becker playing at an ASA conference.

Everyone (at least everyone above a certain age) knows–it is no more than common sense–that, in every historical era, “youth” cause all, or certainly most, of the troubles of the world. They have no respect for tradition or authority, they do things which harm them physically and, especially, mentally: alcohol and drugs, but also (depending on the era) spending too much time at the movies, watching television, or playing computer games. They take too many chances. They aren’t prudent. They are always a major pain in the ass and it is because of them that our country and the whole world are going to hell. […]

Young people usually get blamed for society’s troubles. (Said it before, I’ll say it again. Can’t say it too often.) Students don’t work hard enough. That’s why they don’t learn what they should. Yes? Maybe not. Maybe teachers and schools don’t teach properly. Maybe that’s why students don’t learn what someone wants them to.

* * *

Try that out in some area you know about. I did, with this result. Older jazz players complain that younger players “don’t know any tunes,” that is, the tunes the older players grew up playing and regard as the minimal repertoire a literate player must have. It’s true, the younger players often don’t know all those songs, and that makes trouble when a hastily assembled musical group has to perform without rehearsal.

* * *

Older players, however, don’t know the more complex compositions younger players grow up on. But, since older players have more control over employment and performance opportunities, this makes less trouble for collective performances. The older players needn’t know the newer compositions. They can just say “No, we won’t play that.”

* * *

Symmetry: Both groups “don’t know any tunes,” so you can’t use that observation as a “fact” that explains what’s wrong with younger players and why the music business is going to hell.

* * *

Symmetry pays off in a better understanding of the situation, which is good whether you are a sociologist trying to understand social organization, a musicologist trying to understand the development of a musical genre, or a jazz player trying to get along in the world of contemporary jazz.

* * *

“Youth” is a relational term. It doesn’t describe a stable characteristic of someone or some group. It tells you where that person or group stands in relation to some other people or some other group. “Youth” are older than “teenagers” but younger than “adults.” That’s a possible meaning. But this innocuous relational description carries other, less innocent, less symmetrical, and less neutral overtones we should be wary of.

The relation of people like us–researchers in the social sciences–to the people we gathered data on and wrote about was beginning to worry us all. We had left behind the innocence of being happy when we used the tricks we had been taught, and continued to teach to our students, to “get access” and “gain rapport.” We rejoiced at our good fortune when people were willing to share their experiences and secrets with us, things they might have preferred the whole world not know about. We were proud of our ability to be “one of the boys” (or girls).

By the 1970s we all knew this relation was not so innocent as all that. What were the terms of this one-sided giving of information? Did we give anything back? Was the exchange as unequal as it seemed to be when we took a good look? Were we exploiting our superior educations and class positions to take advantage of innocent people? The answers weren’t obvious. Some people said that we gave, in return for data, our undivided attention and our caring acceptance of their lives, however unsavory those might seem to middle-class people who hadn’t achieved our level of “insider” understanding. Others thought that our research could lead us and others, perhaps people in positions of power who could undertake effective interventions, to an understanding that might improve the lives of the people who gave us our data, and so allow us to pay back their acceptance and even trust.

– Howard Becker, The Last Seminar, In Crime, Social Control and Human Rights: From Moral Panics to Denial – Essays in Honour of Stanley Cohen, edited by Christine Chinkin, David Downes, Conor Gearty and Paul Rock

I found this reflection by Howard Becker (a very grateful HT to Lambros Fatsis who realised how interesting I would find this & kindly e-mailed it to me) extremely helpful for a line of thought I’ve been pursuing recently. Becker’s chapter, like the blog post and conference presentation I’ve done on this, responds to Stan Cohen’s weird story of the Last Seminar in which research participants ‘invade’ the campus to take their revenge on the hubristic researchers. One of many things I found useful about Becker’s chapter is the way in which he historicises the issue Cohen explores, situating it in time and space in order to make sense of the narrative “exposing in a raw and undisguised form the tensions that might exist in these relations we talk about so easily from the comfort of the Senior Common Room“. He also offers a useful corrective to the incipient victimology that might ensue from universalising the relation depicted in Cohen’s story by recounting his own experiences of having research participants of ‘equal’ or ‘higher’ social status to himself.

What has really piqued my curiosity though is this sense of the 1970s as a time of shifting languages of research ethics and participation. From the perspective of someone who was trained in qualitative social research in the late 2000s Cohen’s story had a curiously anachronistic quality to it. Not so much that the moral of the story wasn’t comprehensible or agreeable (it was on both counts) but simply that it seemed like ethical common-sense. So what I’m interested in now is whether it’s possible to do a periodization of changes in the language of research ethics and participation. I’d be very grateful for  reading suggestions if anyone has encountered work that falls into this category. I’m (slowly) writing a paper and a book chapter about the way in which social media is transforming the landscape of social research (particularly vis-a-vis sustaining relationships with research participants and research communities) and it seems it would be remiss to only look at these shifts prospectively rather than, as Becker does, retrospectively.