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

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

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

Brendan Halpin just linked to this on my last post. It’s my new favourite xkcd:

Sociology seems to produce a number of co-existing and mutually exclusive (semi) paradigms which continually split and re-form in different combinations. Those who are committed to the idea of the necessity of a ‘theoretical core’ frequently argue that such a situation represents a moment of synthesis, a moment that requires the development of a unified frame of reference representing structure and agency as presuppositional categories (as argued, for example, by Parsons,Alexander, Habermas, Giddens,Archer, Scott, etc.). The fact that an accepted synthesis never comes and that each new attempt gives rise to further critique suggests that ‘synthesis’ is one of the moves that gives rise to new splits and forms and is not, therefore, a resolution

I think the argument made here by John Holmwood is very important. My instinct is to support open access, though I think the scale of its ramifications are sometimes overestimated, however there has often seemed to be a degree of inattentiveness to economic and political context within which these arguments are being made:

For many commentators, open access to data and academic publications will bring clear public benefits, facilitating better public debate and allowing different kinds of elites to be held to account, whether they be political elites, policy makers or other kinds of experts. The case for open access appears overwhelming where the research is publicly-funded. Why should the public be denied access to that research by the high subscription pay-wall of journals? And, indeed, aren’t most academics interested in the widest dissemination of their work?

This argument confronts a paradox. The push to open access occurs in the context of dramatic reforms to universities that stress that higher education should not be seen as a public benefit, but a private investment in human capital for which the beneficiary should pay (and should pay above its costs once fees are allowed to rise above the current fee cap). Indeed, the Minister for Universities and Science seeks a more efficient and diverse system in which for-profit providers will play a larger part, and even envisages a change in the corporate form of the university to facilitate greater engagement with private equity investors. It seems that a paywall is to be removed, at the same time as new paywalls are under construction.

Once the common factor of commercialisation is teased out the paradox disappears. One of the main drivers of open access is to make academic research more easily available for commercial exploitation, especially by small and medium enterprises. In this context, it is significant that the licence under which open access should function is CC BY which enables commercial exploitation and reuse in any form. The consequence, for the natural sciences, or any other research with a directly exploitable commercial idea, is to bring the underlying research under the protection of Intellectual Property Rights.

All of this is part and parcel of the impact agenda whose primary economic purpose is to shorten the time from idea to income. Here we are witnesses to an inversion of previous science policy inaugurated by Lord Rothschild in the 1970s that was concerned with publicly funded research and advanced the idea that, where there was a private beneficiary, the beneficiary should pay. Now it seems that there should be no research undertaken without a beneficiary, but that beneficiary does not pay.

But what of the humanities and social sciences? Surely, here the situation is different? First, let it be noted that the very commercialisation of the university itself will have the consequence of dividing the higher education system between a small number of elite universities and others subject to the pressures from for-profit providers. This will include the ‘unbundling’ of their functions (also involving the separation of research from teaching), as described by Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor of Pearson (and former member of the Browne Review), in a recent publication for IPPR . In this context, open access – especially MOOCS (and the online curriculum of Pearson) – provided by ‘elite’ universities is the means of undermining the conditions at other institutions and providing a tiered educational system that reinforces social selection to elite positions. This is the context in which Mike Boxall of PA Consulting Group speaks of a sector divided among ‘oligarchs, innovators and zombies’.

Equally significant, is that the argument for unbundling (some) universities is the claim that research is increasingly taking place outside universities. In the case of the social sciences, this is research undertaken by ‘think tanks’ and commercial organisations. It is here that access to ‘big data’ provides commercial opportunities. Open access is an opportunity to amalgamate data from different sources, develop techniques of analysis under patent, and re-present data, and the means of checking any analysis using it, behind a new paywall. Significantly, the recent ESRC call for a What Works Partnership in Crime Reduction specifies that the products of the research need not be under CC BY, but under IPR arrangements.

There’s an ongoing argument here about the nature of sociology. Having initially been rather rude, Max Parkin offered what I thought was a perfectly reasonable response which I thought I’d reproduce here because, leaving aside the needless unpleasantness, it’s turned into an interesting discussion.

Sociology is not art. It has nothing to do with art, nor with literary crit, nor with French eumerdification. It isn’t about preserving anything in aspic. It’s about trying to make the discipline cumulative and not just continually revolutionary. Revolutions don’t emerge from eumerdification. If the core concerns of sociology are constantly changing, that’s a problem. For me, the core concern of sociology is the problem of order – and not just for me but for every sociologist whose work I have admired from the classics to Lockwood. But who reads – who among the current young generation has even heard of – Lockwood today? Only the best theoretical sociologist the UK has had in the last 50+ years, of course. Yet the youngsters don’t know his work (I know they don’t; I have asked wherever I go; so did Ray Pahl who was equally puzzled), but have Bourdieu quotes tumbling from their laptops and mouths. And even the many French sociolgists I know don’t take Bourdieu that seriously! For empirical work, they find Goldthorpe more useful. You know, the Goldthorpe who is the best empirical macro-sociologist the UK has had in the last 50 years. It was G and L whose work attracted me to sociology and nothing since has persuaded me that their way isn’t the most promising for sociology. Why do UK sociologists prefer and keep turning to prophets from other countries? Naturally, I accept that there are other ways of doing sociology that are very insightful, too. But if one’s concerns are macro-sociological, as mine are, I fail to understand why the newer generations are so ignorant of what’s on their doorstep. Read Solidarity and Schism; read Lockwood in BJS 1996 – there’s a research agenda for today!

I think there are three important points here. Firstly, how is it that sociological work of the highest quality (and much else besides) can be eclipsed so quickly? Secondly, how has continental theory had the influence on British sociology that is has over the past few decades and what have its effects been? Thirdly, how have these two factors intersected to bring about the erosion of sociology as a cumulative enterprise? What else has been involved? The causality here is extremely complex and it’s Max’s crotchety simplification of it which has been winding me up . On this view, there was a sociological enterprise in rude health (oddly concurrent with Max’s entry into the discipline, almost as if there was an element of retrospective idealisation at work here….) until an invasion of fashionable french intellectualism, cheered on by modish young sociologists in generations following Max’s own, soon desecrated this intellectual arcadia and left a rudderless sociology being pushed and pulled by the tides of narrow minded fashion.

Clearly, I’m exaggerating for rhetorical effect but the point I want to make is about the kind of logic implied by Max’s arguments: everything was working, something external was involved in stopping it working therefore this external factor was the causal agent. Whereas I think there’s something much more complex going on here. For instance the emergence of an audit culture incentivised academic over-production (ever more books, journals and papers being ever less read) while squeezing out reading that isn’t instrumentally attached to the exigencies of present work. In this way, the speeding up of intellectual culture tends to be self-reinforcing and it’s a hugely negative trend. The more that is published, the faster debates move on and, given the underlying mechanisms driving the over-production, the limited time and space this allows for reading will tend to be subjugated to the demands of keeping on top of an ever-growing literature in order to contribute to the debate thus intensifying the process which is causing the underlying problem! This is part of what brings about the eternal sunshine of the spotless sociologist.

The same structure of incentives which drives this over-production also valorises novelty: in the contemporary academy, rewards go to those who can combine existing elements in new and exciting ways, capturing the intellectual attention of others and shaping the direction of future scholarship. However this process by its nature is something of an arms race, as the same incentives which drive X to propose Y also create the climate in which Z will soon come along and propose a radically new programme. I agree with Max both that sociology should be a cumulative discipline and that continental theory is implicated in the contemporary climate where it is anything but cumulative. Nonetheless I think his understanding of the causality is straight forwardly incorrect: these trends are structural not cultural. I suspect there are particular properties of continental theory which leave it ripe for appropriation by purveyors of sociological novelty seeking to make a name for themselves but I think this is a very different claim. Furthermore, it seems to me that part of the reason this can happen is because of the relative weakness of sociological theory as an enterprise. My suggestion is that Max’s attitude is the negative face of a common orientation towards sociological theory which, in its positive moment, seeks integration of a sort which ultimately produces the very fragmentation it abhors:

Sociology seems to produce a number of co-existing and mutually exclusive (semi) paradigms which continually split and re-form in different combinations. Those who are committed to the idea of the necessity of a ‘theoretical core’ frequently argue that such a situation represents a moment of synthesis, a moment that requires the development of a unified frame of reference representing structure and agency as presuppositional categories (as argued, for example, by Parsons,Alexander Habermas, Giddens,Archer, Scott, etc.). The fact that an accepted synthesis never comes and that each new attempt gives rise to further critique suggests that ‘synthesis’ is one of the moves that gives rise to new splits and forms and is not, therefore, a resolution.

Holmwood, J. (2010) Sociology’s misfortune: disciplines, interdisciplinary and the impact of audit culture. The British Journal of Sociology. 61:4, 639-658

As someone who only discovered sociology after four years of getting pissed off by philosophy, it was its promiscuity which drew me in and its relevance to the world around me which kept me there. As a statement about my own intellectual biography, the constant change in the ‘core concerns’ of sociology is precisely what made the discipline so gloriously fascinating for me. But I agree with Max that it poses problems. However I see these as practical problems to be addressed through constructive and cumulative work in sociological theory; building the infrastructure and tools to allow sociology to engage with new concerns while also working progressively to relate this novelty to those more established objects of sociological inquiry.

Markets, Expertise and the Public University: A crisis in knowledge for democracy?

 Wednesday 28 June 2012, 14.00-17.00

Open University, Milton Keynes, Library Seminar Rooms, 1&2

The Creating Publics project was launched in March 2012 with the aim of innovating new ways of engaging publics in the on-going processes of social science research and public life. For the 3rd Creating Publics keynote lecture we are delighted to welcome Professor John Holmwood (University of Nottingham).


14:00                 Welcome and introduction:  Prof. Jef Huysmans & Dr. Nick Mahony (CCIG)

14:10                 Keynote lecture: Prof. John Holmwood (University of Nottingham)

15:00                 Response by Prof. John Clarke and Dr. Vron Ware (CCIG)

15:30                 Q & A and collective discussion

The event will be followed by a drinks reception.

In the spirit of public experimentation that this project promotes, the event will be webcast live and accessible here.

Those viewing online will be able to post questions and comments, which will be relayed live to the event.

To register, to attend in person please email

For further information on the event and an outline of Prof. Holmwood’s lecture, please go to our website.

Michael Burawoy is president of the International Sociological Association and John Holmwood was recently elected president of the British Sociological Association from June 2012 onwards. In this dialogue recorded at the BSA conference in April 2012, they explore the challenges faced by public sociology in an age of austerity.

Part 1: Neoliberalism

Part 2: Higher Education

Part 3: Future of Sociology

Image courtesy of Kalina Yordanova

John Holmwood’s talk “Sociology’s ‘moments’: C. Wright Mills and the critique of professionalism” from the C Wright Mills session I organised at the BSA conference in Leeds. Will go up on Sociological Imagination once I’ve finished editing the session and gathering the related material I want to post up with it.