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.

We would all agree that social movements are ‘collective’ ventures, for example, but what makes a venture count as collective? Is it a matter of numbers? If so, how many? Is it a matter of a type of interconnection between people, an organization or network? If so, how is that interconnection itself defined? Does ‘wearing the badge’ and ‘buying the T-shirt’ make one part of a movement or must one attend monthly meetings and engage in protest? And if the latter, what counts as protest? Would wearing the aforementioned badge count as a protest or must one stand in a group of three or more people waving a placard? There can be no decisive answers to these questions.

– Nick Crossley, Making Sense of Social Movements, Pg 2

While Crossley is undoubtedly correct about there being ‘no decisive answers’ to these questions, I like this quote because it delineates the contours of the issue: the social movement (macro), the interconnected networks within it (meso) and the varying forms of individual participation (micro) without which there would be no ‘social movement’ but to which the emergent agent cannot be adequately reduced. This is because the activity dependence of the social movement can best be understood in the past tense i.e. the present characteristics of the social movement are emergent from the past (inter)actions of those participating in it. It’s this introduction of temporality, as well as seeing collective agents as ontologically stratified, which precludes the collapse into a structurationist affirmation of social movements being constituted and reconstituted through the activity of the individuals within it.

What really interests me is the possibility of understanding social movements in a way which can incorporate the macro, meso and micro within the same frame of reference: so its nature as a ‘collective venture’ is explained in terms of the ‘interconnections between people’ and the activities which the people so interconnected engage in over time and the variable meanings they attach to this activity. So I guess my broader point is to try and advocate an approach to the ontology of collectives which builds from the ‘bottom up’, understanding the biographical patterns which lead people into patterned interaction towards shared ends but also how past cycles of such interaction led to the emergence of  constraints and enablements on the present interaction of participating individuals.

I confess to not having read more than the initial few pages of Crossley’s book (the first chapter is available for free online here) and, given the themes he addresses in his later work on relational sociology, I suspect there’s a lot which I’ll find useful in developing this line of thought. This is a literature I’m still largely unfamiliar with so I found Crossley’s overview of  two key strands very useful. Though it’s important to note that Crossley observes that the literature is more complex and differentiated than I’m making it sound by quoting these two paragraphs in isolation:

Contemporary retrospective accounts of what the collective behaviour approach entailed tend towards a gruesome caricature, reducing the model to little more than a foil for the newer theories . I do not subscribe to this straw model but it has uses so I will briefly outline it. According to many contemporary accounts (e.g. Oberschall 1973; Tilly
1978; McAdam 1982; Jenkins 1983; McAdam et al. 1988), the collective behaviour approach:

• portrays movement emergence as a reflex response to ‘grievances’, deprivations’, ‘anomie’, ‘structural strains’ or other such forms of hardship. The stereotypical collective behaviour theorist believes that objective hardships are both a necessary and a sufficient cause of protest and movement formation;

• portrays the protests and movements triggered by these hardships as irrational psychological responses; manifestations of ‘mob psychology’ or collective hysteria;

• portrays those who become involved in these ‘mobs’ as (previously) isolated individuals who are often not very well integrated into society;

• lumps social movements together with other assorted forms of ‘collective behaviour’, such as fashions, crazes and panics, without any due consideration for their distinctness and properly ‘political’ nature.


The emergence of the new replacement paradigm has come in a number of stages. Early developments tended to centre upon two key elements. First, a rational actor model of the social agent was appropriated, along with an economistic focus upon exchange relations in social life and the effects of the movement of resources between agents. Second, a structural ‘network’ model of social relations and social life was adopted. With these elements movement theorists from within the ‘resource mobilization’ approach were able to examine the balance of costs, rewards and incentives that provided agents with the motivation to become involved in struggle, and they were able to focus upon the block mobilization of whole communities. Many features of this resource mobilization approach have persisted in American movement analysis but by the 1980s they had been added to by a consideration of the ways in which political systems and processes variously open up and close down opportunities for protest, thereby affecting the flow of activism itself. Rational actors, it was argued, will tend to act when the opportunities for doing so effectively are greatest.

Each seems to be a prime example of what Margaret Archer (2007) calls the ‘two-stage model’ where subjective properties are imputed to agents as a ‘dummy for real and efficacious human subjectivity’. I’m reading Castells at the moment and his recent work could be construed as a much sophisticated instance of the same generic mistake: bringing subjective concerns (‘outrage’ and ‘hope’) into the account but doing so in an excessively psychologistic fashion.

Two-stage model:

  1. Structural and/or cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily and exercise powers of constraint and enablement in relation to –
  2. Subjective properties imputed to agents and assumed to govern their actions:
  • promotion of vested interests (critical realism)
  • instrumental rationality (rational choice theory)
  • habitus/induced repertoires (Bourdieu / discourse theory)

Three-stage model:

  1. Structural and cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily, and inter alia, possess generative powers of constraint and enablement in relation to –

  2. Subjects’ own constellations of concerns, as subjectively defined in relation to the three orders of natural reality: nature, practice and the social.

  3. Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberations of subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective circumstances.

In his book on relational sociology Nick Crossley offers an account of ‘social worlds’ which I have found very thought provoking but ultimately quite problematic:

Social worlds are networks of interaction demarcated by their participants’ mutual involvment in specifiable sets of activites. They form around sports, art forms and genres, pastimes, occupations, locations, conflicts and controversies, and projects, anything that can become a focus for collective interest and action. Worlds are networks whose members manifest a shared orientated towards specific conventions and common adherence to a shared framework of meaning. They are generated by interaction but also function as a context and environment which shapes interaction. As actors ‘enter’ a world, interacting with others whom they recognize as members of it, they shift their orientation and perhaps also their identity, thereby collaboratively with the other (re)generating their part of that world. (Crossley 2010: 138) 

The difficulty arises with this concept because of its  reliance on the notion of a shared orientation towards specific conventions and common adherance to a shared framework of meaning. If we view culture as a community of shared meanings then we conflate the community and the meanings with the important consequence of leaving us unable to recognise the independent variability of each (Archer 1985). In my own area an example of this would be assuming that the existence of an asexual community implies a uniform asexual identity or that this identity has the same meaning in the lives of all individuals who identify as members of the group.

What I do find useful about Crossley’s concept is the extent to which it identifies ‘worlds’ as continually (re)constituted through patterns of mediated and/or face-to-face interaction and providing normative frames of reference which individuals can utilise outside the ‘world’. Crucially in offering a way to delineate (fuzzily or otherwise) a ‘world’, without reducing it to geographical territory or an essentialist understanding of group membership, it opens up a space of biographical questions i.e. how actors ‘enter’ and perhaps ‘exit’ the world in question, as well as how the nature of the underlying trajectory (its direction, velocity and meaning)  shape the constitution of the social world they subsequently enter it and is in term shaped by that world.