We’ll be releasing this through The Sociological Review in the near future but I thought I’d give it a pre-screening here. It was originally intended to the first in a series of digital public sociology interviews, inviting sociologists to reflect on their digital projects and offer insights to others. The reality of far too much to do and too little time mean I eventually dropped this but I hope to come back to it at some point in the future.
Kicking myself I can’t make the date for this conference organised by Eric Lybeck:
Call for Papers (LINK)
Academics, Professionals and Publics:
Changes in the Ecologies of Knowledge Work
4 April 2019
University of Manchester, UK
Organiser: Eric Lybeck, Manchester Institute of Education
Andrew Abbott, University of Chicago
Vivienne Baumfield, University of Exeter
Linda Evans, University of Manchester
A PARADOX: never in human history has the role of knowledge been as central to the organisation of our work, politics and experiences as in our 21st century globalized societies. Yet, we also find today a rising distrust in experts, academics and professionals amongst the public, politicians and, indeed, other experts in differentiated disciplinary and professional fields.
Are there historical precedents for the growing challenges to the authority of knowledge workers and professional expertise? Are there aspects of the way knowledge is presently organized institutionally, politically and publicly that causes these dynamics? What is – and, what should be the relationship between universities, their graduates and wider societies? Have we reached the limits of a particular set of functions – the education of increasing cohorts of students and professionals; the advancement of economically profitable technical innovations; social justice activism – or, are we destined to add more and more roles and structures to an already highly complex global university system?
This conference to be held 4 April in Manchester will assess the role of academics and professionals and the knowledge economy, in general, to reflect critically on the past, present and future of the academic profession within a field of professions (and other occupations) – taking stock of what has led to our present condition, while perhaps signalling a navigable course for the future.
Call for abstracts:
We encourage interested members of the academy (any discipline), professions and public to submit abstracts for consideration in the programme, which will take place across one day in concurrent panels, workshops and keynote speeches.
Possible topics include, but are not limited to: the role of academic knowledge in professional education and practice; populist distrust of expertise; the role of think-tanks, consultancies and ‘non-academic’ forms of expertise; the changing role of knowledge in policy-making; histories of experts and professions, including artisan, trade and other occupational groups; economists’ and consultants’ role in law, education, science policy, etc.; professionals as public intellectuals; professionals, academics, students and political activism; professional services within university administration; academic work-life; sociology of higher education; inequalities of higher education and/or professional employment by race, class, gender, etc.; policy discourse and professionals as carrier groups; neoliberalism and professional expertise; individualisation vs. collective professional ethics; jurisdictional competition between and amongst professions; leadership and development; professional careers; crises of expertise, historical and present; the civic role of universities; rankings of universities and professional schools; international experiences of higher education and/or professional careers.
Please send 250 word abstracts to email@example.com before 15 February.
Further Conference Details:
Further details regarding the conference will become available early March. In the meantime, we encourage interested participants to arrange travel and accommodation for the morning, afternoon and evening of 4 April in Manchester. The main costs of the conference itself are funded by the Leverhulme Trust as part of the organiser’s early career fellowship, ‘The Academic Self: Changes in University Expectations Since 1800’. There may be a nominal fee requested to cover the costs of refreshments, which will be announced in March. We are also actively exploring facilities to support childcare and reduced fees for early career researchers and will have more news of this in due course.
Any questions or comments, including registration of interest for future email updates and news, can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
My notes on Skeggs, B. (2019). The forces that shape us: The entangled vine of gender, race and class. The Sociological Review, 67(1), 28-35.
How do we make sense of the influence of Antony Giddens? The first page of his Google Scholar profile shows 149,243 citations with many more to be expected if one were inclined to dig into the long tale of his many publications. He defined the cannon for an entire generation of social theorists, offering an account of the ‘founding fathers’ which became a shared reference point. His structuration theory drew together diverse strands in a way which directly and indirectly exercised a great influence over the landscape of social theory for decades. He wrote the best selling textbook, now in its eighth edition, introducing sociology to successive cohorts of A Level students and novice undergraduates. He cofounded Policy Press which radically reshaped the terrain of social theory and introduced continental philosophy into the Anglophone theoretical mainstream. He was director of LSE, one of the leading research universities in the world. He was architect of the New Labour notion of the third way, exercising an enormous influence over the self-understanding of this government and its subsequent trajectory. However I find it hard to write this without thinking back to Tony Benn’s observation that “Anthony Giddens just hovers round trying to put an ideological cloak around whatever is being discussed”. This blistering critique from Bev Skeggs in a new paper made me think back to his comment:
I think sociology lost its critical edge when a nationalist, individualist, presentist analysis was offered by the likes of Giddens and Beck. Sociology became a source of legitimation, not a force of critique. We should never forget that Giddens was an architect of New Labour’s ‘third way’, an apologist for the institutional structures that enabled neoliberal policies to be implemented. Through his publishing enterprises Giddens has saturated sociology with this apologist perspective. Most sociologists encounter Giddens from A-level, often throughout their degrees. Giddens and Beck both proposed the denigration of class as a key unit of analysis for sociologists; yet, analysis of class can only be wilfully ignored by those with enough privilege to do so. The occlusion of attention to the processes, structures and forces that produce class (and gender, race, sexuality), i.e. those of capital, capitalism and colonialism, I would argue, was not a conspiracy but a complacency of the comfortable, a perspective of privilege.
Even if it’s a matter of political gossip, I feel we should take Benn’s remark seriously. To what extend did Giddens move across sectors in pursuit of political influence and what did this mean for the work he produced? The discursive armoury fashioned in his early 1990s work on late modernity surely provided all the instruments he needed to “put an ideological cloak” around whatever was being discussed in New Labour circles: an epochal, justificatory, exciting framing which lifted discussion out of the quagmire of politics and policy, making it seems as if history was whispering in the ear of those present.
Skeggs supports the call of Satnam Virdee, to which this essay was originally a response at the Undisciplining conference, for an end to this complacency and a return to the critique of ‘progress’, the question of ‘in whose interests?’, the reclamation of an historical frame of reference, the recognition of over-determination and the “the contradictions between race, class and gender”. If we reclaim the past in this way, rejecting what Mike Savage has elsewhere characterised as epochal sociology, it becomes easier to see how it continues on in the present. As Skeggs writes of financialisation and digital capitalism:
Rent seeking is a major form and force of capital value. Just think of digital companies who extract billions per year through rent, e.g. for cloud computing (Amazon), extracting rent through monetizing your personal data (Facebook), extracting rent though monetizing your search data (Google). Rent as profit is now a major force, existing alongside surplus value production from labour. Interest from debt (rent from money lending) is another source of expropriation that continues to expand as capital is reorganized through financialization (Lapavitsas, 2013). And technology labour platforms such as Deliveroo extract rent whilst also exploiting labour, and Uber extracts rent, exploits through labour and also generates interest on debt through car purchase. Connecting expropriation to exploitation is now more easily identified and absolutely necessary to understanding contemporary capitalism, and how it shapes our daily lives.
Classifications ossify and they circulate and undergo institutionalisation, becoming part of the order of things as “they are used by capitalists and their managers over time” and enforced through the actions of the state. As Skeggs cautions, “Never underestimate the power of managers and state officials to enforce difference”. In the absence of a historical understand, our conceptual apparatus will be ill-equipped to understand either the present or the future. We lapse into complacency because we lack the tools to see what is urgent, even if it is right in front of our face. Skeggs over evocative description of the analytical and political challenge our present conjuncture poses:
Devices beyond our control or even understanding are giving money and trade a life of their own. The world of finance is heavily invested in high frequency trading, which only algorithms that machine learn understand. Huge investments are made in block chain technology which even fewer people understand. These are the instruments that shape our daily lives, determine whether we can pay our bills, rent, mortgages, whether our national currency stays afloat and whether trading between nations can occur. Alongside deregulated political manipulation of the Brexit kind, there is a huge distribution of wealth upwards enabled by investment vehicles (and for the conspiracy theorists amongst you – Robert Mercer is key to both worlds). Repeating historical legacies, a huge amount of violence is lived by vulnerable populations, designated as disposable and deportable. People struggle to stay alive against militarization, against structural adjustment policies in the Global South and austerity in the Global North.
Recognising how historical conditions “enabled our existence as particular types of potential value, as property, as rent, as the lubricant of social reproduction that enables capital to continue its travels” is crucial if we wish to avoid remaining “entrenched in privileged provincial perspectives”. She ends with by asking how did sociology get so side-tracked and reflects on what it is for when so many crucial turnings have been missed:
How did we get so distracted? Why did sociology refuse to engage with the crucial anti-racist analysis of Cultural Studies, from Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Les Back, Erol Lawrence, Hazel Carby? Or the wonderful feminists from history: Catherine Hall, Anna Davin, Carole Dyhouse, Ann McClintock, Vron Ware and many more from History Workshop Journal? What happened to the resistance detailed by the historical studies of power? Do we know about the motley crew? The pirates, the many-headed hydra? The many refusals against becoming surplus and disposable? Or the struggles together as the working class recognizes that divide and rule only benefits those with power, that Satnam identifies. When sociology turned its back on the state, away from education and social policy into the world of legitimation, it lost its traction. All those battles between anti-racism and multiculturalism were overlooked.
My notes on Burawoy, M. (2017). On Desmond: the limits of spontaneous sociology. Theory and Society, 46(4), 261-284.
The work of Matthew Desmond has won enormous acclaim in recent years, with Evicted being a book I recommend to anyone keen to understand the relevance of contemporary sociology. While recognising his talents as an ethnographer and writer, in this paper Michael Burawoy takes issue with the methodological approach advocated by Desmond, arguing that it represents a form of what Bourdieu called ‘spontaneous sociology’: a return to the naive empiricism of the Chicago school era that confines truth to the field site, presented in the guise of a theoretical revolution. Desmond has made the case that ethnographic practice reminds mired in substantialism, being left behind by what Andrew Abbott describes as a ‘quiet revolution’ in the social sciences: a relational turn which overcomes a dominant tendency where “the object of study is confined to isolated places, bounded groups and homogeneous cultures” as Burawoy summarises the case against substantialism on pg 263.
Nonetheless, Burawoy argues that Desmond struggles to identify examples of substantialist ethnography, with this purportedly dominant approach servicing to obscure the distinction between what Burawoy sees as the two forms of relational ethnography: “empiricist transactional ethnography and a theoretically-grounded structural ethnography” (pg 263). The former’s rejection of prior theory and comparison (the first seen as getting in the way of a pragmatic ontology of the field site by leaving the analyst bogged down in theoretical debates, the second as inevitably involving groups or places and thus substantialism) render it unable to grasp “forces beyond the field site that can only be explored with theoretical frameworks and comparative logic” as in structural ethnography (pg 263). Not only are the effects of wider structures circumscribed by this methodological stance, it goes hand-in-hand with a slide into “old style inductive ethnography in which sociological insights emerge spontaneously from the data”. As Burawoy continues on pg 264:
As a follower of Bourdieu, Desmond insists on the importance of constructing a scientific object that breaks with common sense. Yet his own ethnographies, far from breaking with the common sense of his participants, faithfully reproduce it. His objects of study, such as eviction, spring directly from the experience of his subjects, so that his work exemplifies what Bourdieu et al. (1991, p. 38) condemn, namely a hyperempiricism that abdicates the right and duty of theoretical construction in favour of spontaneous sociology. Paradoxically, the spontaneous sociology of Evicted makes it highly effective as a public sociology of exposé, but it comes at the cost of a critical perspective that would break with common sense and generate convincing policy proposals.
This slide follows from the rejection of comparison and past theory, falling back on the “the inductivist view that the field reveals insights in and of itself without explicitly engaging relevant literature, which is either dismissed as wrong-headed or ignored”: the ethnographer “mimics the experiences of those he studies” because the resources to facilitate an epistemological break (from common sense) in the construction of the research object have been discarded (pg 266). If I understand him correctly, Burawoy is concerned with the scholarly practice which makes this break possible. If you limit truth to what emerges from the field site then how do you ensure a distance from common sense? I’m not sure if Burawoy is saying it’s impossible but it’s certainly difficult. As he puts it on pg 276, “Desmond departs from Durkheim and Bourdieu for whom prior theorizing is essential for an epistemological shift, a shift from spontaneous sociology to scientific sociology”. In this sense, he’s saying Desmond’s approach runs counter to Bourdieu’s in spite of his invocation of it. He goes on to offer a clear summary of Bourdieu’s approach on pg 277:
Bourdieu’s epistemological break is based on a two-fold truth—the truth of the participant and the truth of the scientist between which there is an unbridgeable divide. That is to say, participants cannot connect their own world to the scientific understanding of the sociologist. In the game metaphor Bourdieu often deploys, players develop a commitment (illusio) to a taken-for-granted set of all absorbing and incontrovertible principles (nomos) governing the play of the game—while the scientist observing the game from without can see the conditions that make the game possible, conditions that are invisible to the players.
It follows from this that Bourdieu is “skeptical of participant observation, as it only reveals a partial truth, the subjective truth of the participant, unable of itself to reach an objective truth” (pg 278). Objectivity necessitates distance from the field site of precisely the sort which Burawoy claims Desmond’s approach precludes.
In the final part of the paper, Burawoy compares the Bourdieu’s public sociology to Desmond’s. The former was predicated on an “epistemological break with the epistemological break” that “establishes the conditions for a public sociology, a sociology that engages the public”, something which the insistence on distance from subaltern common sense had previously precluded (pg 279).The latter involves a “synergy of public and professional sociology, each bolstering and inspiring the other”, seen in Desmond’s scientific follow ups to Evicted and his copious scholarly end notes coupled with huge dissemination through popular media (pg 280). Unfortunately, argues Burawoy, it leads to poor policy sociology, producing recommendations which fail to grasp the broader dynamics in place. He writes on pg 281 of the wider social forces which “are invisible in Desmond’s account—forces that have to be unveiled and tackled if there is to be any solution to the housing problem”.
His objection is that “Desmond’s public sociology, important as it is, is limited to an exposé of the lived experience of housing insecurity”: it can’t get beyond the field site and hence is restricted to disseminating the common sense that is found there. This serves a purpose but it is a limited one. Burawoy ends with a call that resonates with me, stressing on pg 282 that the ‘underlying dilemma of ethnography’ is one of broader importance when the academic workplace is under threat: how do we relate to those we study?
Especially today, when the academic work- place is threatened by forces beyond, the underlying dilemma of ethnography—that we are part of the world we study—is pressingly germane to all social science and the academic world more generally. So we have to develop an understanding of our relation to those we study. We cannot confine ourselves to processes within the field site but must recognize how they are tied to the past and thus to the future, as well as to social forces that establish their conditions of existence. We cannot broach these problems without inherited bodies of knowledge—theories—that we continually reconstruct. That is what gives meaning and distinctiveness to sociology.
Reflecting on this a day later, I feel I should stress how much I like Matthew Desmond’s work. I regret the slightly click-baity header I gave these notes, though it does seem appropriate for the point Burawoy is making in his critique of Desmond’s cultivated atheoreticism. It would also be interesting to link up the argument Burawoy is making here to the critique Archer and Donati make of Mustafa Emirbayer’s relational sociology, as there’s a lot of overlap.
There’s a fascinating and honest account in Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry, reflecting on his own growing celebrity and the lethal challenges which have come with it. This is something I’ve often wondered about, particularly in relation to how widely one reads and the circle of people one engages with. From pg 247:
Furthermore, there have been times when my own critical faculties have been blunted a bit. I still critique other foreign affairs pundits, but perhaps not quite as much as before. This might be due to my growing appreciation for how hard it is to craft interesting, original arguments on a regular basis. But it might be due to a simple human failing; it is harder to publicly criticize writers whom one knows. 50 And the more successful one is as an intellectual, the more people one meets. As my career has progressed, I have experienced the benefits of greater intellectual success, and the effects frankly scare the hell out of me. My intellectual style has evolved, and not always in a good way. With success has come confidence, and a large dollop of arrogance. I have said “yes” to writing assignments that, in retrospect, I should have declined because I lacked the time or expertise to do them justice. As I write and speak more, I read less. It has become more difficult to replenish my intellectual capital beyond listening to others speak at conferences. The more international business class flights I take, the more impatient I become with quotidian responsibilities on the ground. As a graduate student, I would get irked when I contacted a senior scholar and failed to get a response. Now I am that senior scholar.
Earlier in the book he considers how scholars might circumvent these challenges, through teams of assistants, as well as how this might contribute to their eventual downfall. The detail which this leaves us pondering about those who are in a meaningful sense celebrities can leave this analysis feeling lurid. But I think it’s a crucial if we want to understand the contemporary reality of knowledge production. It is a crucial mechanism through which Matthew effects occur, as the already prestigious enjoy seemingly countless opportunities to accumulate yet further prestige, while also gaining access to the resources necessary to do this. As he observes on pg 184 these intellectual elites “garner an outsized fraction of opportunities in which superstars are asked to speak and write a lot more than anyone else”. He is surely correct that this creates a pressure to accept but I suspect refusals only have consequences for their status in the case of the most prestigious events, leaving the tendency to overstretch he identifies being inflected through the top rung of the ideas industry. This matters because refusal surely has a relationship to one’s academic prestige, even if it as a complex one. Would the speaker who accepts any invitation be perceived as a member of the intellectual elite even if they regarded themselves as one?
However what’s more interesting is how the intellectual elite respond to their outsized share of opportunities to accumulate further intellectual status. If you are constantly bombarded with invitations to right and speak then how do you handle them? Even assuming many are turned down, it entails a time pressure as what are traditionally seen as dissemination activities take over ever increasing swathes of working life. If much of your life is spent disseminating your analysis them how do you develop this and ensure it stays current? One possibility is to simply pretend that nothing has changed, producing work in the familiar way without recognition of the fundamental change in the conditions of that work, as well as the implications of these changes for its quality:
If the intellectual continues past practices, then he or she will inevitably become overworked from mounting obligations. In this situation, the superstar continues to write and research everything as if nothing has changed. The increased demand, however, can cause the intellectual to self-plagiarize or slack off as a survival tactic. Ferguson has admitted to this in interviews, telling the Washington Monthly that his books on empire could be described as “edutainment at best.” He told me, “I think overstretch is good.”
For many people the overstretch will feel obviously unsustainable though, creating a pressure to do things differently at precisely the time when the options available seem wider than ever. Drezner offers a powerful description on pg 186 of the peculiarly hierarchical form of collaboration this is likely to give rise to, as well as citing examples of superstar intellectuals and the teams they have working for them:
The other outcome is that a solitary intellectual becomes a brand manager with subordinates. To be sure, professors, think tank fellows, and management consultants frequently rely on research assistants. Nevertheless, a brand-name intellectual can require a staff—and most people who are good at being intellectuals are lousy at managing subordinates. It becomes all too easy for a superstar to outsource research to assistants. To run his show and to write his column, for example, Zakaria has a staff of eight people—and he takes great pride in doing most of the research for his column himself. 53 Ferguson hired a full-time researcher, as well as a “cottage industry” of bright undergraduates, to assist him with his research. Comparable superstars can choose to delegate research and writing tasks to coauthors or research assistants.
However this merely postpones the problem for these teams need management and the research assistants need direction. He offers a compelling account of how these managerial challenges are likely to lead to further overstretch, with standards slipping as research becomes an endeavour split between subordinates liable to be managed at a distance. The risks involved in this might be the eventual reason or the downfall of the intellectual, as their celebrity brand collapsed into scandal. As goes on to describe it on pg 186:
Outsourcing research and writing tasks is a natural shortcut for intellectual superstars to meet the Ideas Industry’s demands. But such delegation increases the probability of errors seeping into published work. If small shortcuts or errors are not caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats. It is rare for a public intellectual or a thought leader to willfully commit plagiarism or fraud. But there have been enough intellectual scandals in this century for a familiar narrative to emerge: a confusion of notes, or a miscommunication between assistants and writers. 54 Corners are not cut, but perhaps they are rounded.
For a thought-leader this might prove unproblematic, as someone like Ferguson has found a freedom in his move from the academic world to think tanks, embracing polemic in a way that allows him to bluster through the exposure of mistakes and fallacies. Whereas for intellectuals it is liable to prove more costly, as the exposure of failings which have crept in as a consequence of the intensity of work which their status now demands can pose an existential threat to that very status, with the worst possibility in the world being that people would no longer take them seriously.
What is it like to be an celebrity intellectual? I thought this was an admirably honest answer by Yuval Noah Harari to the question of how fame has changed his life. It seems obvious he would be far from alone in this experience, suggesting we could reflect on it as symptomatic of knowledge production by celebrity intellectuals rather than solely a biographical fact about an individual author. It is an important feature of knowledge production that acquiring a large audience often involves losing time to undertake research:
Well I have much less time. I find myself travelling around the world and going to conferences and giving interviews, basically repeating what I think I already know, and having less and less time to research new stuff. Just a few years ago I was an anonymous professor of history specialising in medieval history and my audience was about five people around the world who read my articles. So it’s quite shocking to be now in a position that I write something and there is a potential of millions of people will read it. Overall I’m happy with what’s happened. You don’t want to just speak up, you also want to be heard. It’s a privilege that I now have such an audience.
I found it striking when reading Harari’s work how much of it depended on existing popular(ish) summaries of research combined with an esoteric selection of direct citations to the research literatures he is a specialist in. Observing this isn’t a critique of Harari, as much as an attempt to underscore how this citational thinness is necessary if you intend to write at this level of generality. How on earth could you write avowedly comprehensive books “about the long-term past of humankind and the long-term future” without engaging with existing literature in this way?
If your instinct is to encourage these broad conversations, as mine is, what matters is how these trade offs are negotiated and the implications this has for the work in question. It becomes more tricky when we consider how these broad treatments are better placed than specialised texts to capture the attention of a wide audience, with implications for how status is accrued by their authors. Those who do this well find themselves catapulted into a global strata of jet setting celebrity intellectuals with less time to spend on the inevitably thin research which went into addressing such vast topics in the first place. This might be mitigated by the availability of teams of research assistants to be accessed through your newfound wealth but they require intellectual leadership and doing this across such broad topics brings you right back to the original problem.
So what do you do? There’s an argument to be made for riffing impressionistically on what you read on your flights and see as you travel the globe, interspersing new material with established favourites. One variant on this is to produce your new material “in conversation with the public” with topics “decided largely by the kinds of questions I was asked in interviews and public appearances”. This ensures a dialogue with your fans but risks a filter bubble, as your interests are shaped by their interests which were in turn shaped by your original books. There are many other potential tactics but the underlying problem is an intractable one, as the intellectual thinness of the celebrity intellectual becomes ever more so as their fame accumulates, until their main function is to provide a target for a new generation of upwardly mobile global thinkers to practice supplanting their by now empirically anaemic elders.
An interesting CfP I’m saving for my future reference
*Imagining Radical Futures: Anthropological Potentialities?*
Princeton Anthropology Graduate Conference
October 5th, 2018
*“The facts, alone, will not save us. Social change requires novel fictions
that reimagine and rework*
*all that is taken for granted about the current structure of society”
Anthropology has traditionally practiced restraint to speak only of what we know by virtue of “being there”. Anthropologists have embraced the limitations of knowledge while demonstrating the power of attention to the specific and the particular, to contest positivism and moralizing normativity. Increasingly, governments and corporations attempt to mobilize anthropological knowledge about social change, geopolitical events, sustainability and resilience as a predictive tool. Yet productive recognition of indeterminacy that anthropological theory and practice evokes opens doors to the imaginary, the hopeful, the potential, and the dreamed. This conference will explore the potential of non-predictive futures in anthropological thought and the methodological complexities of imagining futures from the present. The binary of “dark anthropology” and “anthropology of the good” (Ortner 2016) belies complexities and tensions in anthropological approaches to social change: anthropology can report, embody, employ, and open toward or against utopian ideals. What are the implications of imaginative fictions for interlocutors, ethnographers, and the discipline? What radical possibilities can anthropology’s fundamental questions about difference, relationality, and power open for us as we attempt to engage with futurity?
We seek contributions from graduate students in anthropology whose work contributes to understanding imagined futures and extends the anthropological imagination. How can anthropology treat the imaginary as both a heuristic and a space of futurity? What social role can anthropology play in voicing potential futures otherwise? How can ethnographers engage differently with interlocutors’ imagined futures?
Potential areas of inquiry include, but are not limited to, the following:
– New technologies
– Queering Progress
– Novel Fictions/Anthrofictions
– Nonhuman futures
– Creativity and imagination
– Climate and environment
– Hope at the margins
– Temporality of Markets
Interested applicants should submit an individual abstract (250-300 words) in addition to brief biographies on or before July 1st to email@example.com. Limited travel funds may be available TBD.
Benjamin, Ruha. “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the
Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods,” Catalyst:
Feminism, Theory, Technoscience: Vol 2, no. 2 (2016), 1-28.
Ortner, Sherry B. “Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the
Eighties.” HAU : Journal of Ethnographic Theory: Vol 6, no. 1
What does it mean to claim a historical figure as a (proto)sociologist? What does it mean to claim people were ‘doing sociology’ under any rubric? Keneth MacDonald began this conference on the history of sociology in Britain by directing these questions towards Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, kicking off with consideration of recent papers from the REF panel tasked with assessing the discipline in its contemporary form, finding little in these to suggest a unified discipline. He went on to consider programmatic visions of sociology, ranging from a population science, through to a discipline intended to interpret the ‘social’ as an efficacious and modifiable social structure and an activity which is defeasible, capable of being discomfited. He considered its dependence on tools, changing throughout its history and exercising a similarly changing influence over the way in which sociology was conducted. He identified features we associate with sociology now that could be found in Ferguson and Smith: a concern for summary statistics and an ability to collect data, use of government statistics, an awareness of experimental designs and a concern for regularities, even if they were construed in individual rather than collective ways. He finds sociological insights in Ferguson which are nonetheless passing remarks, undeveloped into systematic accounts. He finds a sociological sensibility underlying Smith’s frustration with political arithmetic as it was practiced in his day, concerned as he was to grasp the facts of the issues under discussion.
It was a thought-provoking and informative talk. But it nonetheless didn’t address the underlying question as directly as I hoped: what is it to be a sociologist? What is it to do sociology? If we read disciplinarity in terms of professionalism, such that recognition by one’s professional peers is the sine qua non of being a disciplinary practioner, it becomes difficult to make sense of the origins of the discipline. Even in the most sophisticated account, we would be left with a vision of a discipline that wills itself into being through ever-expanding circles of reciprocal evaluation, evading the question of what it is to be a practitioner of that discipline. Making this claim isn’t a denial that professional custom plays a crucial part in disciplinary identity, it just insists there is inevitably much more to the question than this. It is interesting to consider this is the present context because the discipline is so professionalised, leaving its fortunes tethered its position within the university. My interest in clinical sociology, applied sociology, public sociology and civic sociology is animated by the belief that sociology will function most effectively as a plural discipline, distributed throughout sectors of society and learning from sociological work undertaken across them. Rather than search the past for sociologists in the sense in which we would recognise them in the present day, I’m interested in the exemplars we can find of what sociology could be today, as much as the circumstances in which they worked might differ from the present day. Many of the possibilities which excite me involve work outside the academy. For this reason, professionalism is an unhelpful criterion for looking for (proto)sociologists. This is why I found MacDonald’s talk so thought-provoking because he laid out so many other criteria which we might consider: the questions asked, the methods applied, the role of data and the technology used. But a more direct answer to the question still eludes me and it’s one which I’m keen to explore through my work in the Foundations of British Sociology archive.
So pleased with this new series I edited with Can Yalcinkaya:
Not for the first time when reading John Scott and Ray Bromley’s Envisioning Sociology, I was struck by the parallels between the strengths and weaknesses of the early ‘sociological movement’ and tendencies we can see within activist sociology today. From loc 4419:
Until the 1920s, Branford and Geddes relied almost exclusively on Le Play House and the Cities Committee of the Sociological Society to promote their ideas on the Third Alternative. All their key works were published as books and pamphlets under the Le Play House imprint or as articles in the Sociological Review. They tried to influence mainstream politics through the occasional letter to a politician, but they were far from being political activists. During the 1920s, however, they began to engage with some of the political groups that they felt might give organizational form to their ideas. For the most part, this was limited to participation in small discussion groups where they hoped that their style of political discourse might have an effect and stimulate others to carry it forward. Their naive assumption was that their strategy would be adopted as soon as political and business leaders realized the logic and force of their argument.
This is something I have written about as the amelioration fallacy: the assumption that it is only the circulation of sociological knowledge which prevents the amelioration of social problems. If only others actors within the social world realised “the logic and force” of the arguments we are making then productive action would inevitably ensue.
One of my pet hates is the legacy of the ‘intellectual’, with its connotations of heroic figures speaking truth to power. This is recognised even by those who seek to retain the notion, as was the case with Foucault’s project “to break with the totalizing ambition of what he called the ‘universal intellectual'” as Bourdieu ably described it in his tribute to the philosopher after his death:
For him, the critical vision was applicable first of all to his own practice, and in this respect he was the purest representative of a new kind of intellectual who has no need to mystify himself as to the motives and themes of intellectual acts, nor to foster illusions about their effect, in order to practice them in full knowledge of their cause.
Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 139
For words to have influence, for knowledge to make a difference through speech, intellectuals require a platform. It is a platform which by its nature, facilitating a broadcast mode of one to many, can only be occupied by a chosen few. The figures who have occupied such platforms linger on in our imagination of the public role of the humanities and the social sciences, even amongst those who explicitly repudiate the role. This is problematic for many reasons but one which I’ve been reflecting on recently is how it marginalises other modes of intellectual engagement with the world and the people who undertake them. For instance Ann Oakley describes the often overlooked history of women ‘practical intellectuals’ on 4703 of her Father and Daughter:
We’re quite ignorant about the connected histories of women ‘practical intellectuals’, who combined learning, action and public policy. We don’t know the extent to which interlocking networks of women reformers/ researchers/ social scientists/ practical intellectuals have operated in different countries at different times and with what consequences. For example, the Swedish social researcher and reformer Kerstin Hesselgren was trained as a sanitary inspector at Bedford College in London in the early 1900s (having already learnt nursing and home economics and, most extraordinarily, acquired a certificate as a barber-surgeon). She practised her passion for research-based social reform by being one of the first Swedish women MPs, the first female factory inspector in Sweden, the instigator of many social investigations, a prime mover in the first social workers’ union, and a network-builder for women across political parties and classes. When the Swedish government set up a Committee on Women’s Work in the late 1930s, Hesselgren was its Chair, and another social scientist/ reformer/ politician, Alva Myrdal, was its Secretary. Networking, especially women’s networking has, like friendship, been neglected as part of the story of 20th-century social science. A childhood exposure.
The reach and influence of these networks was remarkable, as well as the obvious solidarity which characterised them. Though the manner in which they have been overlooked invites many explanations, I find it hard not to wonder if the oversight would be so pronounced were it not for the residual hold which the (usually male) public intellectual, pontificating from on high, retains on our imagination of how learning and action can be combined.
After Social Media: Alternatives, New Beginnings, and Socialized Media
***Call for Proposals***
Editors: Fenwick McKelvey, Sean Lawson, and Robert W. Gehl
The editors seeks 500 word abstracts for proposed articles for a special
issue of Social Media + Society on “alternative social media.” The
editors welcome proposals from scholars, practitioners, and activists
from across disciplinary boundaries so long as the work is critical and
Our call starts with a question: what comes after social media? It is
hard to imagine something other than the current configuration of social
media – of Facebook and Twitter – but signs of discontent abound. Social
media companies have become deputized to police and moderate whilst
being accused of poisoning civil discourse. Their integration of
advertising and targeting signals a new epoch of promotional culture,
but no one trusts the media anymore. As Brooke Duffy argues in (Not)
Getting Paid to Do What You Love, everyone can create, so long as they
don’t mind growing broke doing so. In sum, today’s social media is
broken… but what’s next?
For the past several years, one answer to “what’s next?” has been
“alternative social media.” Alternative social media encompasses a wide
range of systems, from diaspora* to Ello to Tokumei. In contrast to what
Robert Gehl calls “corporate social media,” such as Facebook, Twitter,
Google+, and Pinterest, alternative social media (ASM) “allows for users
to share content and connect with one another but also denies the
commercialization of speech, allows users more access to shape the
underlying technical infrastructure, and radically experiments with
surveillance regimes” (see
Thus, alternative social media may be understood in relation to larger
histories of alternative media, documented by scholars such as Megan
Boler, Nick Couldry, Chris Atton, and Clemencia Rodriguez, and carried
through into social media alternatives by collectives such as Unlike Us
Earlier instances of ASM included diaspora*, built as a critical
response to the growing dominance of Facebook in the late 2000s, with a
goal of decentralizing social media data and allowing end users more
control over their personal information. Later, decentralized systems,
such as Twister and GNU social, came online as alternatives to Twitter.
The Pinterest alternative Ello gained a lot of attention, especially due
to its manifesto with the opening provocation: “Your social network is
owned by advertisers.” Alternatives to Facebook and Twitter have even
appeared on the Dark Web (see
As they have developed over the past several years, alternatives decried
the censorship and manipulation of content found in corporate social
media. Building on this, new alternatives dedicated to “free speech”
arose during and after the contentious elections in Western countries in
2016 and 2017, including the Twitter alternative Gab. Proclaiming its
defense of free speech – especially against the perceived liberal bias
of Silicon Valley-based corporate sites – Gab promises freedom for
everyone, including the “alt right” and white supremacists, to speak.
But other networks, such as the federated system Mastodon, have been
built to allow for powerful moderation of discourse, with Codes of
Conduct that often prohibit hate, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or
racist speech. Indeed, while they are wildly divergent in their
politics, both Gab and Mastodon have positioned themselves as antidotes
to corporate social media. These debates over speech in ASM echo the
longstanding tension identified by alternative media scholars, where
many alternative media developers seek to socialize media and bring it
in line with leftist politics, but see their discourses appropriated by
right-wing media organizations.
Regardless of whether they are right or left, alternative social media
face a simply reality: they just aren’t popular. Compared to the
billions of Twitter and Facebook users, alternative sites’ user bases
are tiny. Whether or not their goal ought to be massive scale, the
powerful network effects of corporate social media – as well as the
bewildering array of alternatives – certainly have stifled the growth of
the alternatives. Still, the alternatives deserve critical attention,
because they force us to rethink what we mean by “social media.” What
tethers so many people to so few corporate sites? And what actual
“alternatives” to corporate social media do the current slate of
alternative social media platforms propose?
Topics that may be explored in this special issue of Social Media +
Society might include:
* ethnographic or participant observation engagements with alternative
social media communities
* software studies analysis of shifts in underlying ASM technologies
* narratives from practitioners who have built, moderated, or
extensively participated in ASM
* comparative analysis of two or more ASM platforms
* studies of ASM as political, technical or cultural discourses or desires
* regulatory and policy discussion regarding controversies involving ASM
* speculative proposals or fictions about new ASM that address existing
* analysis of appropriation of ASM innovations by corporate social media
***Timeline/Important Dates [subject to change]
DECEMBER 20 2017: 500 word abstracts and CVs/resumes may be sent to
JANUARY 20 2018: Acceptance notifications sent to authors
MAY 15 2018: Full drafts due to firstname.lastname@example.org
JULY 15 2018: Comments sent to authors by editors
SEPTEMBER 15 2018: Final drafts submitted to Social Media + Society for
FEBRUARY 2019: Special Issue Publication
Questions? Please email email@example.com.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading about the foundations of British sociology and the motivations of its main figures. One of the most striking things about their work was how explicitly committed it was to a moral vision and sociology’s role in realising that vision. Whereas contemporary public sociology is driven by the impulse to escape the (perceived) confines of the university, sociology at this point in time still had not been fully institutionalised. Combined with the independent wealth of some within this nascent ‘sociological movement’, these conditions created an astonishingly energetic, even entrepreneurial, public sociology. This is how John Scott and Ray Bromley summarise it on loc 2044 of their Envisioning Sociology:
Sociology is not, therefore, a detached and completely “value-free” discipline, but neither is it an ideologically committed doctrine. It is an autonomous discipline with a responsibility to engage in public discourse and involve a wider public in its own deliberations. Branford and Geddes’s view of the discipline sees it as what Burawoy (2005) has called a public sociology. Their public sociology does not pursue its practical vision and strategy of reconstruction in the manner of the bureaucratic expert, and they rejected the Fabian reliance on the centralized temporal power of state politicians and administrators. They called, instead, for a “resorption” of the powers of government from the state to the individual and the community ( Branford 1914a, 319–23 ), with sociologists promoting their ideas in cooperative and participative endeavors
They saw the role of sociological science as being the liberation of suppressed possibilities, deploying sociological knowledge in pursuit of realistically achievable ends: eutopias rather than utopias. The sociologist took on the role of coalition-builder in their scheme, creating initiatives through which fragmented groups could come together in common purpose. As Scott and Bromley describe it on loc 2063:
They must challenge dominant or mainstream thinkers and actively involve those who are engaged in spiritual tasks and so can best contribute to spiritual renewal: “These are the marching torchbearers of our social inheritance. It is theirs, in the onward and upward movement of civilization, to lead the way and light the path” ( Branford and Geddes 1919b, 93, 87, 92 ). They have the capacity “for exalting well-being, quickening the spirit, dignifying labor, beautifying cities, ennobling personalities” (ibid., 93). They include artists, poets, musicians, novelists, architects, and scientists: “The sociologist has now to search out the fragments of spiritual powers which have been growing up spontaneously and in isolation” ( Branford 1914a, 307 ), bringing them together in a coalition for social reconstruction.
There were two key mechanisms of engagement which they pursued: dramatisation and social surveys. Dramatisation was motivated by a belief that “sociologists could join with playwrights, poets, and other artists to write and present sociological knowledge and understanding in a way that is both accessible to a general public and could motivate them to join in a strategy of social change” (loc 2063). Surveys were a form of direct participation through which “those most affected by contemporary conditions” could become involved in a way that “would allow them to participate in the formulation of social policies” (loc 2119). In a future post, I’ll write more about these mechanisms and the role of the ‘sociological laboratory’ in facilitating them.
What can sociology learn from its archive? In asking this question, I mean archive in the broadest sense, far beyond the formal outputs of the discipline. I spent much of yesterday in the Foundations of British Sociology archive at Keele University, gifted to the university by the Institute of Sociology when it dissolved in 1955. This was the precursor organisation to The Sociological Review, founded at LePlay House in 1930, when the original editor of the journal Victor Branford and his partner Sybella Gurney gifted their estate to the earlier Sociological Society. There’s a vast array of material in the archive and I’ve only reached the vaguest understanding of this institutional history. It contains papers from the following organisations and people:
- Sociological Society
- Regional Association
- Civic Education League
- LePlay House
- Institute of Sociology
- The Sociological Trust
- LePlay House Press
- The Sociological Review
- LePlay Society
- Victor Branford
- Sybella Branford
- Alexander and Dorothea Farquharson
The archive is filled with historical curiosities which shed light on the history of the discipline, revealing the many changes but also the startling continuities. While the co-operation with the Eugenics Society seems startling from a contemporary point of view, it’s even more jarring to encounter concerned discussions about the style of the journal (insufficiently empirical and with literary pretensions that detract from sociological science) which could be encountered almost verbatim a century later.
However what really fascinates me is the question of how Sociology can be inspired by its own archive: what practical initiatives have been undertaken in the past which we can learn from in the present? To give one example, the Memorandum on Tours summarises the public interest in the many regional surveys which were undertaken. These strange hybrid explorations of geography, anthropology and sociology apparently proved popular with a certain subset of the broader public:
These Tours have aroused considerable interest amongst people to whom the ordinary Tourist Agencies offer no particular attraction. Quite a number of travellers have repeatedly joined the different parties setting forth from LePlay House during the past four years. Each Tour is accompanied by one or more persons distinguished for their knowledge of the history, ethnography, etc. of the particular country to be visited; also an unusual and pleasing feature of these Tours has been the cordial manner in which the University Authorities and other eminent men and women in the different Continental Cities have received the visitors and afforded them facilities for studying social life, customs and places of interest usually closed to the ordinary
It struck me when reading this how the sociological walks organised for The Sociological Review’s conference next year could be seen as a tentative recovery of this tradition. What else can we find in there? What can we learn from it now? What practical projects might it inspire? These questions have been circling in my mind since visiting the archive yesterday and it has left me pondering something between cultural entrepreneurship and action research inspired by this archive. The undisciplining of Sociology, at least in the UK, proves eerily familiar when we read about the context within which the Sociological Society and the Institute of Sociology operated. The same is true of the sense of social and political urgency which motivated their work:
But in the present disturbed state of the public mind there would seem to be open to the Society, two wider opportunities of public service. One is to promote an impartial and detached habit of mind in regard to current movements. The other is bring to bear on the manifold problems of Reconstruction, Civic, National and International such established truths as the present state of the psychological and social sciences affords. Hence an endeavour is being made to extend the Review to a wider circle of readers.
I am convinced that Sociology can find inspiration in its archive. Get in touch if you’re interested in looking for it with me.
In Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci discusses the emergence of curatorial journalism and contrasts its function with that of traditional journalism. From pg 41:
Traditional journalism tries to solve a problem of scarcity: lack of cameras at an event. Social media curatorial journalism tries to solve a problem of abundance: telling false or fake reports from real ones and composing a narrative from a seemingly chaotic splash-drip-splash supply of news.
This is something which has often been undertaken by citizens, rather than professional journalists, lacking a commitment to established ways of performing journalism which emerged within a different information environment. Could this also be a model for public engagement by sociologists? We can already see many sociologists performing this function, maintaining Twitter feeds and blogs which select from media sources and filter them through the prism of a research agenda and expertise which has been accumulated over many years.
It occurs to me that “composing a narrative” out of the informational disarray which predominates on social media is a task which sociologists could be well suited for, particularly in terms of complex and peripheral issues which are framed in isolation within the media. It would be interesting to know how sociologists who already perform this role online understand their own activity. Are there differences in how this is theorised by practioners? Does this have implications for practice? Is this a new frontier of public sociology or merely a digital reiteration of the older traditional public intellectual?
What does public sociology have to say about sociologists who are ‘merchants of doubt’? This is the question I’m slightly obsessing over after discovering that Peter Berger, famous for his work on social construction and the sociology of religion, worked as a consultant for the tobacco industry. As Source Watch details, he was tasked with establishing that “anti-smoking activists have a special agenda which serves their own purposes, but not necessarily the majority of nonsmokers”:
He served as a Tobacco Institute consultant. While at Boston College, Berger, (as quoted in tobacco industry newsletter “The Tobacco Observer,”) described tobacco control proponents as “fanatical.” Berger attended Philip Morris executive meetings  and participated in the multinational tobacco industry’s Social Costs/Social Values Project, created to refute the social costs theory of smoking and to help reverse declining social acceptability of smoking. He was a contributing author to the industry-financed book Smoking and Society, edited by another tobacco industry consultant, Robert Tollison.
This is critical sociology deployed on behalf of the powerful: pulling back the veil on a group pursuing an ideational agenda and claiming they act out of sectional interests. What other examples are there of prominent sociologists acting in this capacity? How should these cases inform our conception of public sociology?
Why do psychologists and economists enjoy more prominence in the public sphere than sociologists? I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of days about what seems to me to be a failure of sociology to value or encourage media engagement by sociologists. It should go without saying that these aren’t the only reasons for the difference in visibility. It’s easier for psychologists and economists to talk confidently in terms of an accumulating body of knowledge because of the relative lack of dissensus within these disciplines. This shouldn’t lead us to minimise the methodological and theoretical disputes which occur within them, as much as to ask why these lead to growth outwards rather than fragmentation inwards? As this thoughtful review of Doug Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach by Priscilla Alderson put it,
One defence of our discipline’s diversity is that its adaptable rich variety can embrace numerous theories, methods and topics. However, variety does not preclude coherence, and coherence does not demand narrow uniformity – like the neoclassical mantras that now monopolise economics. Medicine is a hugely varied discipline yet, fortunately for society’s healthcare, it is unified by powerful common values and theories about causal realities. By contrast, and unfortunately for society’s wellbeing, sociology is split not only by disagreements but, more seriously, by basic contradictions: positivism accepts pristine independent social facts and aims to discover general laws, whereas interpretivism sees only local contingent variety; statistics and experiments are set against ethnography; sociology is variously taken to be value-free, relativist or a moral endeavour.
In this review, Alderson looks to social theory as something that could bring order to this mess. Not in the sense of imposing unity upon diversity but rather bringing divergent perspectives into the same intellectual space. In this sense, I share her aspiration to “position its many valuable insights and methods in relation to one another, showing how they connect and interact within larger relations, to be more like a coherent jigsaw puzzle in progress, rather than a heap of pieces”. But how else could we pursue this other than through social theory? I wonder if the internal diversity of disciplines and how they conduct external engagement are intrinsically linked?
I’d suggest that communicating sociological knowledge – as well as public engagement more broadly, though in a somewhat different way – should not be seen as something extrinsic to sociological inquiry. Instead, it can potentially bring order to the discipline, through forcing its practitioners to develop their capacity to contextualise, translate and apply knowledge outside of the academy. Particularly when the practitioner in question is working beyond their area of immediate expertise and talking in terms of the discipline as a whole. This could then be something that feeds back into the core of the discipline, both directly (research and teaching) and indirectly (their broader influence).
The challenge is how to ensure that we recognise, value and encourage these capacities. My hunch is that few of these conditions obtain at present. There’s certainly a widespread openness to public sociology but a disconnection between the rhetoric and the reality. Furthermore, working with the media and pursuing visibility seems by many to be seen as vaguely suspicious (or worse). What I’d like to understand is how these practical challenges which can easily be construed as being outside the discipline, in fact reproduce core intellectual features which many would see as problematic.
My keynote from Public sociology and the role of the researcher: engagement, communication and academic activism postgraduate conference a couple of weeks ago:
Very pleased to be keynoting this fantastic BSA PhD conference in a couple of months:
What is the role of the researcher outside the academy? This event invites Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers to innovate and critically reflect on three related areas of public sociology: academic activism, public engagement, and participation and co-production. It encourages researchers to articulate and address diverse challenges, such as neutrality, networking, and whether activism can be considered a form of public engagement.
This event includes a keynote lecture from distinguished speaker Dr Mark Carrigan, Digital Fellow, The Sociological Review, presentations by invited speakers, a film created using participatory methods, a participatory session, and the chance to network and discuss work with fellow researchers. The aim is to provide an environment in which participants have the space to be questioning, to have a lively exchange of ideas, and to be inspired to explore the potential of these ideas in their own research.
Call for Abstracts and Posters
We would like to invite Postgraduates to take part in a five-minute PechaKucha presentation and/or a poster presentation: the call for abstracts is now open. Given the brevity of the presentations, abstract submissions should be no longer than 200 words. Abstracts for presentations are due on 24 February 2017 and poster confirmation is needed by 1 March 2017. There are small prizes for the best poster and the best presentation.
Oral presentations and posters may cover any aspect of Public Sociology, including, but not limited to:
- dissemination of knowledge beyond academia;
- participatory research methods and challenges;
- positionality of the researcher and relationships of power;
- approaches and practice in the co-production of knowledge;
- academic activism.
Participants are encouraged to submit a poster for a poster competition, which will be judged by the conference organisers. All posters will be accepted. Please contact the organiser for details.
There will also be a small prize for the best PechaKucha/Standup presentation, selected by a ballot of the conference participants.