In the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetics of impact. I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about the impact agenda, initially suspecting that it might open up opportunities for valuable activity to be recognised within the increasingly restrictive confines of the accelerated academy. I wasn’t alone in this. This is how Les Back described his own changing relationship to the impact agenda:
It is embarrassing to remember that some of us – at least initially – thought that ‘impact’ promised the possibility of institutional recognition for public sociology. Might the emphasis on relevance and engagement create a ‘public agora’ for sociological ideas of the kind described by Helga Nowotny and her colleagues?
Another President, this time of the British Sociological Association, had a very different view. John Holmwood warned in 2011 that it was “naïve” to think that the turn to impact would lead to an enhanced public sociology. Rather, he suggested in contrast that UK research would likely be “diverted into a pathway to mediocrity”. Surely not, I felt when I first read this piece. John you are being overly pessimistic! How right he has been proved to be.
Underlying this ambivalence is a tension between the impact agenda as a top-down imposition and a bottom-up expression of a desire to make a difference through research. This tension explains why, as John Brewer puts it, “Impact is at one and the same time an object of derision and acclaim, anxiety and confidence”. While it’s seen as innocuous within the policy evaluation community, it’s irrevocably tied up with the unfolding audit culture within higher education, particularly within the UK. It’s an imposition which seems liable to profoundly reshape working life, in unwelcome and unclear ways, but it also resonates, however vaguely, with a sense of what motivated the work of many people in the first place. I’ve always like Michael Burawoy’s description of this as the sociological spirit:
The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.
The impact agenda both reflects this spirit and is tied up in the apparatus which is crushing it. How could it not provoke ambivalence? My growing interest is in how this manifests itself at the level of discourse surrounding impact. Could the tendency towards what Pat Thompson analyses as heroic narratives of impact be in part a response to this underlying tension:
You know these heroic narratives – they are everywhere from nursery rhymes to popular films. It’s the knight on a white charger who slays the dragon, the cowboy who rids the town of lazy barflies, the cop who cleans up the burb and sends all those good-for-nuttin drug dealers and pimps to the big house.
There is a research version of this kind of narrative. You know them too I’m sure. The researcher/lecturer/professional rides into town – usually this is an impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people/ hopeless policy agenda. Through the process of intervention/teaching/participatory or action research/evaluation the impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people floundering around/hopeless policy agenda becomes improved/enlightened/empowered/transformed. Work done, the researcher/lecturer/professional simply has to write the paper and ride out of town.
These stories create a rather dangerous division between the hero/heroine and the saved. The hero/heroine knows and can do everything, and can do no wrong. Those to be saved know/can do nothing and are destined for a hopeless future until the hero/heroine shows up.
I realise this is more narratology than poetics but these perhaps constitute two distinct phases of an investigation. What are the structures of stories about impact? What do they share and how do they differ? What rhetorical devices are used in these stories? What linguistic techniques are used in talk about impact more broadly?
The tendency that fascinates me involves a perpetual oscillation from idealism to pragmatism. Impact is hailed as an opportunity to live a more authentic life as a researcher, change the world with your research and be a better human being. Plus this is the way things are now and you’d better adapt or you’ll be left behind. The invocations are at times explicitly ethical (right or wrong to do), supplementing the aforementioned moral dimension (good or bad to be):
- You have a responsibility to tax payers to ensure your research is put to use.
- You have a responsibility to knowledge to ensure your research leaves academic silos.
- You have a responsibility to society to ensure your research makes a difference.
At an event in Belgium at the start of December, I saw a senior figure in the UK impact community explain that academics who claimed not to ‘get it’ should be “ashamed of themselves”. The expression varies in its tenor and force but it’s usually there. But this is accompanied by a pragmatism with a similar range. From mild claims that being engaged will make you a better scholar, up to outright threats that you’ll be left behind and won’t be able to survive in the new academy unless you develop your impact skills.
When I raised this on Twitter, Penny Andrews made the fascinating suggestion that this oscillation between carrot and stick resembled a religious sermon in its tone. I think there’s a fascinating project which could be undertaken exploring this comparison at the level of the texts, as well as detailing the poetics and narratology of impact discourse* and situating them within an account of the accelerated academy.
*I don’t feel the slightest bit capable of doing this with a sufficient level of sophistication, but if anyone wants to collaborate please get in touch!
A compilation from Colin Chandler on pg 7-8 of Achieving Impact in Research:
- To have impact is to have a strong effect, to make a difference.
- By impact we mean the ‘influence’ of research or its ‘effect on’ an individual, a community, the development of policy, or the creation of a new product or service. It relates to the effects of research on our economic, social and cultural lives (AHRC, 2010).
- Impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy (RCUK, 2011).
- Impact … an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia (REF, 2011).
In advance of running my first impact and social media workshop on Tuesday in Ghent, I’ve been working through some of the literature on impact. One book that’s proving more thought-provoking than I expected is Achieving Impact in Research by Pam Denicolo. It’s an edited collection that emerged from a symposium in Warwick in 2012 that I wish I’d attended.
In the first chapter Colin Chandler makes a case that the impact agenda is part of a paradigm shift in how research is viewed:
I have many problems with this account. Viewed by whom? How does the perception match up with the reality? How has this been contested? Are all these points of transition part of the same process? In reality, it’s obviously the case that many factors are at work here.
But as a sensitising device, I find this table extremely useful. Much of the work I’ve been doing in the last year (distraction about my distraction book notwithstanding) has been about trying to understand how social media is implicated in the changing character of research and academic labour.
I saw a great talk yesterday, at the ESRC’s North West DTC, from Teela Sanders and Ruth Patrick about how to make an impact with doctoral research. I particularly liked this slide near the end, in which they suggested an incredibly diverse range of ways in which doctoral researchers (and others) could take action based on their research:
An interesting podcast produced at the Independent Social Research Foundation’s Workshop in Edinburgh earlier this year: https://soundcloud.com/isrf/2015-isrf-annual-workshop-social-science-as-communication (I can’t get it to embed it for some reason). I’m interviewed about social media a few minutes into the podcast.
I last saw this a couple of years ago but it really struck a nerve given decisions I’ve made over the past year. I want to do everything in my power to avoid being subject to these ridiculous systems:
It’s been ages since I last wrote an abstract and immediately found myself thinking “wow, I can’t wait to write this paper”:
Surviving Life in the Accelerated Academy: The Potential and Pitfalls of Digital ScholarshipIn recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the stress and anxiety of academic life. This developing discourse has an ambivalent relationship to digital technology: it has been facilitated by the uptake of blogging and micro-blogging amongst academics, yet social media and other digital technologies are involved in many of the facets of academic life that are seen as sources of stress and anxiety. This talk uses the notion of social acceleration to address the changes taking place within higher education, as well as the role of digital technology in their emergence and the difficulties they create for academics. It considers the significance of digital scholarship within this context, arguing that its institutionalisation will profoundly shape the conditions under which people aspire to be academics and to do academic work. I make the case that there is an emancipatory possibility inherent in the uptake of digital scholarship by academics but that this risk being lost, as a narrower managerialist conception of digital scholarship begins to take root within higher education.
This article by John Holmwood is worth reading:
There are few national systems of higher education that are immune from their effects, though their use is more extensive and systematic in some places, rather than others. They seem to have gone furthest in national systems with a high proportion of public universities, especially in countries with strong neo-liberal public policy regimes – for example, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. They are less extensive where national systems of governance are weaker – for example, the United States and Germany.
My purpose is not to describe the myriad forms of audit-by-metrics, or the national differences in ‘metric regimes’. Rather, I shall draw out two aspects in the development of ‘metric regimes’, which have particular significance for the discipline of sociology. The first is how the form of metric measurement favours particular disciplines over others. The second is the move from ‘co-production’ to ‘commercialisation’ in the construction of metric regimes.
This was the rather unlikely connection suggested in Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian article yesterday. I have massive respect for Wolff, who taught me as an undergraduate and is the only lecturer who has ever consistently held my attention, which left me taking this article more seriously than I otherwise might have. To be fair, he’s not talking about the ‘impact agenda’ as such but rather a broader tendency of which the ‘impact agenda’ can be taken to a bureaucratic and unlikable leading edge. His point is that there is a change taking place in the criteria by which ‘success’ is measured in academic careers. Furthermore, it is a change which is bringing activities motivated by private commitments, often done in private time without recognition, into the sphere of public assessment. In doing so, ‘academic success’ comes closer to life success. Or perhaps life success is being collapsed into career success. I’ll be pondering this for a while:
The final category is a recent innovation, by which I mean that it has crept in over the last 20 years. It goes by various names: knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, public engagement or impact. Specialists will shudder at my ignorance in lumping all of these together. To transfer knowledge is to take your research and apply it outside an academic context. Knowledge exchange is a less imperialistic version of the same thing, recognising that one might actually learn something oneself in the process. Public engagement can be roughly the same thing yet again, but perhaps with other people’s research rather than your own. As for “impact”, it seems to be whatever the research councils have decided it is this month.
This final category, however, reflects a quiet revolution in the way in which universities conceive of themselves and their contribution. Not so long ago, if you were a school governor, or edited a community newsletter, you kept quiet about it. Either it was regarded as entirely your own affair or, even worse, a distraction from the real business of research and teaching. Now it is public engagement. We seek it out, promote you for it, and crow about it on the university’s website. Cynics might think that it is the invention of web pages, and the need to fill them with something, that has made the difference. Or that it is encouraged only because universities are continually under pressure to demonstrate their “relevance”. But whatever the explanation, it is encouraging that a successful university career is now somewhat closer to a successful life than it once was.
Any feedback on this draft prezi for an upcoming talk would be much appreciated. Among other things I can’t decide if the background I’ve chosen is in bad taste or if it helps hammer home my point about the political context of both ‘impact’ and ‘social media’
This short position paper by John Brewer is really worth a read for anyone interested in these issues:
Several years ago I described the impact debate as a sheep in wolves clothing – meaning that I never thought it was going to be the problem it appeared on the surface. This was an unpopular view. Developments in implementing the impact agenda, particularly by HEFCE, have seen my view vindicated. But the unfortunate association of impact in recent times with cuts in higher education, leaves no intellectual space for positive engagement with the impact agenda.
Social Science and the Politics of Public Engagement
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Open University Camden Centre, 1 – 11 Hawley Crescent, Camden Town, London
In recent years new technology has begun to facilitate ever more novel forms of research practice across the social sciences. New opportunities for collaboration exist in an information environment that is being radically and rapidly restructured by digital communications. An increasingly digitalised culture increasingly produces ‘by-product data’ as an unintended secretion of everyday social practices while also dramatically reshaping the circulation of academic research within the wider world. Universities themselves are undergoing profound changes, some by deliberate design and others as unintended consequences of broader social changes originating elsewhere. Given such changes, it seems untenable to conceive of or enact ‘public engagement’ in a way which fails to account of the shifting grounds upon which those seeking to support particular versions of the public find themselves standing. The constitution of contemporary publics cannot be taken for granted nor can the stability of the context within which ‘engagers’ seek to act.
This event seeks to explore this unstable landscape through exploring a number of innovative projects which pursued novel forms of research practice while also being orientated towards those beyond the academy. Through a discussion of these projects, their methodological innovations and the publics that formed around them, the seminar will seek to shed light on emerging questions about the future(s) of social science, its contested politics and of its relations to emerging ideas and practices of public engagement. The event will address, amongst others, the following questions:
– In a post REF 2014 environment, what could and should a social science informed public engagement agenda be?
– How, specifically, might the social sciences intervene in and help shape the PE agenda in the next couple of years?
– How could social scientists collaborate, both with each other and with those innovating forms of PE in other domains, to re-make what PE means?
– How can a critique of institutionalized approaches to PE and impact be articulated with commitments to public activism, social justice, relevance and responsibility?
Keri Facer, Professor of Educational & Social Futures and AHRC Leadership Fellow for the Connected Communities Programme, based at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol.
Tim Newburn, Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at the London School of Economics.
Shamser Sinha, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Youth Studies at University Campus Suffolk.
More speakers TBC
Nick Mahony is Research Fellow and Co-Director Publics Research Programme, Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University. Nickleads the Creating Publics project which aims to ‘re-conceptualise public engagement with social science research in an age of emergent publics’. He is co-investigator on the RCUK-funded ‘Catalyst’ project and the ESRC-funded project ‘Making publics across time and space’. With Dr. Hilde Stephansen, he is also currently building a new OpenLearn website called ‘Participation Now’. At the heart of Participation Now is an evolving archive of contemporary participatory public engagement initiatives. The aim of this project is to support practitioners, researchers, students and citizens interested in new – participatory public engagement related – thinking, practice and innovation.
Mark Carrigan is a sociologist and academic technologist based at the University of Warwick. He edits the Sociological Imagination and co-convenes the BSA Digital Sociology and BSA Realism and Social Research groups. He is a research associate at the LSE’s Public Policy Group and was formerly managing editor of the LSE’s British Politics and Policy Blog. His research interests include sociological theory, methodology, biographical methods, longitudinal qualitative research, asexuality, sexual culture and digital sociology.
The higher education system is going through a period of profound change, with newfound opportunities opening up for the superstar professors to develop their brand through MOOCs, TV and cinema. Where will it all lead? Fortunately the renowned anthropologist Robin Dunbar has opted to show us the way through this minefield. In this series of videos produced by Guinness (HT Charles Knight) he has teamed up with the comedian Danny Wallace to… do something slightly depressing. It’s probably best I let Guinness explain the project themselves:
Friendships are a beautiful thing… but not if they’re left to wither away to nothingness.
Is sending your mates the odd tweet or giving them a call once in while enough? Science says not.
Getting together is what’s needed, seeing each other, doing stuff together…why is this? Well, because science says so.
A bold claim, yes, but Guinness have teamed up with Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University who’s research in this area has proven that men need to meet up physically and frequently to maintain their friendships.
Not only will this lead to stronger friendships but it will lead to a better, richer life. Again, this is science saying this.
So, to explain more and to help Robin put his science to the test Guinness enlisted the help of social commentator Danny Wallace and the effervescent Jonathan Ross.
Isn’t it great that academics have the chance to make an impact through an integrated marketing campaign? If only C Wright Mills were still alive so he could team up with Harley-Davidson! What well loved brand will you be seeking research sponsorship from?
Call for Presentations at SPA Workshop 2013: “Challenges and Innovation in Social Policy Research: Mixed Methodologies and Impact”
16th December 2013, Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics
In recent years, the use of mixed methods and methodologies in Social Policy research has become increasingly popular. Effective integration of quantitative and qualitative methods offers new opportunities for the potential and impact of Social Policy research. At a time when a growing number of Social Policy researchers are using mixed methods, it is important to reflect upon experiences and lessons from a period of particular methodological innovation. At the same time, the increasing use of blogs and social media has re-established the ‘public nature’ of Social Policy research and the importance and potential of communicating research outside academia. The impact agenda challenges Social Policy researchers to communicate research findings in an accessible and effective way without compromising their often inherent complexity. Given their active use of blogs and social media, Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers are particularly well-equipped to contribute to these developments and to collaborate with each other in fostering Social Policy research impact.
This workshop will explore questions surrounding mixed methods and methodologies of Social Policy research and the purpose and potential of Impact within such a context.
Based on feedback from the Social Policy Postgraduate community, this session has been developed to cover issues specific to Social Policy Postgraduate research experiences, research methodologies and impact. This Workshop will therefore cover:
1) Mixed Methods and Methodologies of Social Policy Research: Professor David Byrne will give a presentation on ’Mixed methods, methodology and the impacts of Social Policy Research: a challenge to simplistic explanations for a complex world’. Professor Byrne will focus on fundamental methodological issues to do with the nature of social causation and how these relate to the way in which Social Policy research can and should have an impact. Following this, there will be a series of presentations and a short panel discussion.
2) Impact – whose agenda and what for?: This panel session will consider our current definition and interpretation of impact in Social Policy research. Mark Carrigan, editor of the Sociological Imagination Blog and academic technologist, will explore what ‘impact’ can be taken to mean within the present context and discuss how social media tools provide unparalleled opportunities for researchers. Mark will show why problems with the ‘impact agenda’ should not discourage us from exploring how we can make a social and cultural impact using digital tools. Jane Tinkler and Sierra Williams, from the LSE Public Policy Group and members of the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog team, will look at research from the forthcoming ‘LSE Impact Book’ and present their experiences with impact and blogging. They will reflect on the relationship between impact and policy research and discuss the opportunities for Early Career Researchers.
Following this, there will be presentations and a short discussion on the following questions:
· Should or can we have a broader notion of impact in Social Policy research?
· Given the recent changes in media communication, what is the role of traditional media and new social media in facilitating the impact of Social Policy research?
The workshop will be organised in such a way as to facilitate a critical but encouraging environment for information sharing and learning amongst Social Policy Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers. A particular aim of the event is to look forward in considering how we might best maximise the utility of mixed methods social sciences research and impact in Social Policy research. The following questions will be considered:
· What opportunities and challenges do mixed methods and methodologies of social policy research present?
· How can mixed methods facilitate deeper and better understanding in different Social Policy domains?
· Can Social Policy research be communicated to a non-specialist audience?
· What is the scope of ‘public’ social policy research in informing and affecting the policy process?
We invite abstracts for papers and presentations on any of the questions outlined above. Priority will be given to presenters that draw on their own current research.
The organisers will give an option to presenters to use the pechakucha.org or bettakultcha.com format. These are relatively short presentations (6 minutes each) and are another engaging and innovative way to disseminate Social Policy research.
The workshop will be held at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics on Monday 16th December. A £6 registration fee will be charged for the workshop, refreshments and lunch. Places are limited but can be booked here. Please submit abstracts (300-400 words) to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please submit abstracts (300-400 words) to: email@example.com by 15th November 2013. Decisions on abstracts will be made by 22nd November 2013. A limited number of travel bursaries will be made available.
For further information please visit: http://spapostgraduates.wordpress.com/
An interesting post by Diane Coyle on the LSE Impact Blog offers a useful counterweight to those who engage in economist-bashing as a matter of reflex. Though I’m sure I’ve probably lapsed into this on occasion, it’s something which increasingly bothers me. The idea that ‘economics’ does nothing more than embrace political orthodoxy and/or sell itself as an ideological force to the powerful is simply bad sociology and it obscures a much more complex picture which I think it’s crucial for us to understand. Coyle usefully summarises the recent public history of economics in the UK, which sociologists could learn a lot from:
In the UK, the strong presence economists have in public debate about policies ranging from public service reform to monetary policy, HS2 to the Euro crisis, arguably stems from a media initiative launched in 1997, prompted by a cover story in The Economist: “The puzzling failure of economics.” Romesh Vaitilingam started the Royal Economic Society’s media initiative after that – I was then a journalist on The Independent, and was one of the economics writers he contacted. From then on, many economic researchers came to realise that there are some simple but essential lessons for disseminating research successfully – albeit still ignored by other academics.
For example, you have to use normal English, not professional jargon, to explain research. Statistical results require particularly careful explanation as not only the readers but also the journalists are often not statistically literate. You need to be aware of the constraints under which journalists operate, working to tight deadlines (especially in broadcasting), limited to at most a few hundred words, and above all pitching their story in competition with many other candidates. So there is a knack to explaining research in a straightforward, concise but not exaggerated manner, and this is why media training is one element of achieving impact.
The landscape of public debate has changed enormously since 1997, and blogs in particular have come to play a highly influential role in economics. Some of the best-known count as important media in their own right, including Paul Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal, or Marginal Revolution run by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok. There are in addition now a number of blogs that publish columns by a range of economists presenting the findings of their academic research – as in the highly influential VoxEU – or providing academics with a platform to provide informed comment on the issues of the day – such as Project Syndicate. Many academic economists, financial market participants, practitioners and journalists now blog and tweet. The online public debate about economics is consequently extremely lively, albeit also manifesting some of the negative aspects of the online world, including a tendency to over-simplify (140 characters is not much) and polarise into opposing ‘camps’.
In the context of economics this discussion seems to lead inevitably to the question of influencing economic policy. In an important sense I think the scope of sociological engagement can and should be much wider than this. Not least of all because the concomitant complementarity (where significant amounts of research in economics logically entail certain conclusions about economic policy) is far more marginal for sociological research. But I think this is a strength rather than a weakness, in so far as that it leads quite naturally (in my mind at least) to a minimalistic criterion for public engagement – sheer interestingness or ‘making the familiar strange’ perhaps? Though I obviously think there’s more to public sociology than public engagement.
As I wrote about earlier in the week, I’m in complete agreement with David Mellor’s argument that “we don’t need to debate public sociology anymore; we need to get good at it”. Coyle’s blog post points towards how much more practically orientated the response of UK economists to a loosely homologous set of circumstances has been. One thing that particularly struck me was the alliance building she points to between academic economists and ‘economics writers’. Are there self-identified ‘sociological writers’? If not, why not? I’m certain there must be active writers with undergraduate or postgraduate degrees who for whatever reason no longer identify as sociologists despite having their sensibilities shaped by the discipline. If so then it’s important to build productive relationships with them but also to understand what patterning, if any, there is in the dissipative tendencies exhibited by the intellectual identities of those who have studied sociology but no longer do so within a university.
According to Mike Savage’s Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940 there were 1,530 academic economists within the UK system in 2003-4 of which 57% were research active. In contrast there were 1,400 sociologists of which 63.1% were research active. Yet as Savage suggests, “if the ‘social’ disciplines of social anthropology, sociology, social policy, and social worker are grouped together, they become clearly the numerically dominant part of the social sciences, with over half of the core social science staffing” (Savage 2010: 131). The lack of ‘impact’ vis-a-vis economics here is puzzling and important to understand. My objection to facile invocations of the ideological role of economics to explain it stems largely from a belief that such ‘explanations’ are an obstacle to understanding what’s really going on here. There’s an element of truth to them but they simplify in such a way as to entirely obscure the practical differences of strategy and tactics which can be identified in how academic economics, in contrast to other social sciences, negotiates the public context within which it is embedded. I think there’s an awful lot that can be learnt here but that the response should not simply be to try and copy, say, the Royal Economic Society’s media initiative. I guess what interests me is that there seem to have been people outside academic economics working towards its popularisation in a way which does not seem to have been the case with other social science disciplines – I’d like to understand why this is the case, if I’m correct that it is, as well as how this ‘communicative gap’ can be bridged.
In this podcast from the LSE Impact Blog’s Social Science in the Public Sphere event, Tim Newburn talks about his involvement in the Reading the Riots project, which involved a collaboration with the Guardian to undertake research into the riots of August 2011 at a pace far beyond that which usually characterises academic social science. I’ve interviewed Tim about this in the past (podcasts here and here) and I find the project fascinating on a number of level. One thing that stood out to me in Tim’s talk, which I hadn’t realised prior to my interview with him 6 months ago despite having been glued to the Guardian’s coverage, is the interesting fact that the project has not produced any traditional academic publications. While, to his credit, Tim recognises the consequence this model of publication might have for junior colleagues who need peer-reviewed publications to build research careers, it nonetheless raises an important question of how publishing of this form compares to traditional forms of scholarly communication in the literal sense of making public.
The short answer is that the project’s findings enjoyed a visibility, generated an ‘impact’* and sparked debate to a degree which would have been impossible for research published through traditional channels. The resources and skills which an organisation such as the Guardian is able to bring to bear on a project of this sort (and likewise the BBC with the Great British Class Survey in the second talk at the LSE event linked to above) give a purchase to public scholarship which ensures that it is genuinely ‘public’ in a way that is radically different from much of what is traditionally seen as falling into this category. Perhaps this fact explains some of the criticism that, in particular, the Great British Class Survey attracted?
Obviously a model such as Reading the Riots isn’t easily scalable but Tim raises the interesting point that organisations like the Guardian see projects of this form as part of exploring their future role within a changing media landscape. The long term changes taking place within academia in many ways parallel those which are playing themselves out within the news media and, as the Reading the Riots project illustrates, journalists and news organisation bring hugely valuable things to potential collaborations. It would be interesting to think about what such collaborations might look like beyond ‘headline’ studies such as Reading the Riots and the Great British Class Survey. Is there a middle ground between individual academics working with individual journalists and the sort of large scale collaborative projects which are discussed in the LSE’s event? It seems obvious to me that media collaboration of this sort are a hugely important part of the likely future direction of public scholarship but I’m far from clear in my own mind about what this would look like in practice.
*Though whether it will count as a demonstrable impact for the REF is a question that is discussed in the second half of the podcast. What limited support I have for the concept of ‘impact’ rests on the extent to which, if at all, it recognises and incentivises public scholarship.
In this interview I talk to Les Back about the opportunities for sociology in a time of crisis. He argues that there has never been a greater opportunity to rethink the craft of sociology than there is at present. He’ll be speaking on these themes at the first BSA Digital Sociology event in a couple of months time. Follow us on Twitter or e-mail me if you’d like to be kept informed about the event.
- Though it is a hugely exciting trend, the growth of digital research methods risks becoming a narrow specialism. It is crucial that we don’t fall into the digital dualist trap of assuming that ‘online’ and ‘offline’ constitute distinct realities, as doing so profoundly misrepresents both the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. Rather than see digital research methods as a specialism, we can more usefully construe them as expanding the research repertoires of sociologists to adequately equip us for researching a social world where digital technology is ubiquitous.
- The growth of computational methods are particularly exciting, however they pose a particular risk that we become preoccupied with technique. New technical opportunities naturally invite questions of what we do with them and why. The exploration of such techniques must be anchored in a renewed and reflective dialogue about the nature and ends of sociological practice. Preoccupation with computational techniques risks fuelling a much broader transition from mode 1 to mode 2 knowledge production within the academy and threatens the sustainability of sociology as a discipline.
- In doing so, we grant digital sociology a much needed existence over and above digital methods. Digital sociology can be construed, in the broadest terms, as an exploration of the opportunities which digital tools afford for rethinking sociological craft. Creating and refining new tools for research constitutes one element of this. So too does the empirical study of the broader digital turn which has led to the possibility of such tools existing, as well as transformed the nature of the social world which they are subsequently used to study. But digital sociology can, at least potentially, mean something which both encompasses these elements and moves far beyond them.
- One obvious possibility to this end is to consider the implications of digital tools for the communication of sociological knowledge, as well as the aforementioned focus on its production. Assuming that ‘impact’ is here to stay, it becomes necessary to ameliorate some of its more deleterious effects by engaging with this transformed institutional climate in a specifically sociological way. Refusing to explore the possibilities which digital tools afford for communicating sociological knowledge (in a way which generates an ‘impact’) carries the risk that the specifically sociological dimensions of such knowledge, as well as the autonomy with which such communication is carried out, are eroded to an ever great extent.
- The communication of sociological knowledge has been systematically undervalued, as opposed to its production. The communicative possibilites which digital tools afford will not be used to their full potential unless the communication of sociological knowledge is seen as carrying equal importance as a scholarly activity – applying as much to teaching as it does to ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’ using digital tools.
- If communication of sociological knowledge comes to be valued in a widespread way, it holds out the possibility of rethinking the public role of the sociologist. There is a greater public appetite than ever before for social scientific knowledge – witness the continual presence of social science books (usually written by journalists) in best seller lists or the millions who watch TED videos (etc) or follow iTunes U courses. However construing public engagement entirely in such terms misses the point – it turns public engagement into a specialism defined by the superstar academics it can produce at this level. Yet the availability of free, easy, instantaneous publishing and communication tools enables such activity to be a potentially everyday occurrence for sociologists. ‘Narrowcasting’ about a specific research area to what can potentially be an extremely small group of interested individuals is no less important than broadcasting to an audience of millions and it should be seen as such. The key claim is that (a) communicating sociological knowledge carries equal scholarly weight to its production (b) this communication should not be construed in instrumental terms.
- As John Holmwood has put it, “Sociology is a discipline that has to be ‘achieved’, or continually re-invented, in new circumstances.” – Digital Sociology in the broadest sense addresses the question of what such reinvention could or should mean in new circumstances where the content of this ‘newness’ is defined largely by the digital.