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
Princeton University

*“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”
(Benjamin 2016)*

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
– Aging
– Temporality of Markets
– Policy

Interested applicants should submit an individual abstract (250-300 words) in addition to brief biographies on or before July 1st to antcon@princeton.edu. Limited travel funds may be available TBD.

*References*
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
(2016): 47–73.

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.

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
empirically rich.

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
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2056305115604338).

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
(http://networkcultures.org/unlikeus/).

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
https://socialmediaalternatives.org/archive/items/browse?tags=dark+web
for examples).

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
problems
* analysis of appropriation of ASM innovations by corporate social media
systems

***Timeline/Important Dates [subject to change]
DECEMBER 20 2017: 500 word abstracts and CVs/resumes may be sent to
asm@robertwgehl.org
JANUARY 20 2018: Acceptance notifications sent to authors
MAY 15 2018: Full drafts due to asm@robertwgehl.org
JULY 15 2018: Comments sent to authors by editors
SEPTEMBER 15 2018: Final drafts submitted to Social Media + Society for
peer review
FEBRUARY 2019: Special Issue Publication

Questions? Please email asm@robertwgehl.org.

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.

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.”[1] Berger attended Philip Morris executive meetings [2] 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.

http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Peter_L._Berger

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?

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.

Competitions

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.

Some thoughts after yesterday’s public sociology day in Manchester:

  • The meaning of ‘public sociology’ is not always self-evident and the enthusiasm of the impulse expressed through the term can cloud its meaning yet further. We need to be clear about what we are doing and why.
  • This clarity can help us negotiate the ambivalent spaces for public sociology created within institutions that speak the language of ‘impact’, ‘public engagement’, ‘knowledge exchange’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘outreach’. There are opportunities for public sociology here but also dangers.
  • The competitive individualism of the academy risks being reproduced in a discourse of ‘public sociology’ dominated by white, male professorial public sociologists. We need to celebrate the practice of public sociology, rather than the academic brands of the most prominent public sociologists. [thanks to the res-sisters and Lambros Fatsis for making this point so clearly, in slightly different ways]
  • Our prevailing systems of scholarly communication risk canalising the impulse towards ‘public sociology’ into abstract reflection upon what should ultimately be a practical activity. Sustaining employment in the academy necessitates ‘outputs’ of a certain restricted kind but we must avoid letting these define what we take public sociology to be.
  • We can take these limitations of existing systems as an inspiration to build new systems. How do we create platforms for public sociology that facilitate and encourage it as a collective endeavour, rather than the lone pursuit of isolated individuals within an accelerated academy? 

Notes for The Practice of Public Sociology

It can seem obvious that there’s some relationship between social media and public sociology. After all, these are platforms which offer free, instantaneous and immediate access to audiences ranging from the tens of millions to the billions. However unpacking the relationship between social media and public sociology requires we be careful about exactly what we see social media as allowing us to do. Social media platforms allow us to publish in a way that bypasses traditional intermediaries. It facilitates new forms of multimedia engagement. It allows us to do this with an immediacy which couldn’t be further removed from the time-consuming process of traditional scholarly publishing.

However this isn’t necessarily doing public sociology. Communicating sociological ideas doesn’t entail that anyone hear or responds to them. We can publish work without necessarily making it public. Being clear about the sense in which we’re trying to do public sociology is crucial if we’re going to take advantages of the opportunities it offers us. In our current climate, universities are expecting academics to embrace social media to indicate their capacity for impact, creating a risk that we embrace these platforms without any clear purpose in mind. Without serious thought, there’s a real possibility that, as Bourdieu once put it, we confuse “verbal sparring at conferences for ‘interventions’ in the affairs of the polis”.

An obvious question then: for what sort of purposes might we use social media as public sociologists?

  • As an extension of traditional public sociology: using social media to try and enter into public conversations, increase the influence of sociological ideas and ensuring sociological findings are prominent within public debates. I paraphrased John Holmwood’s keynote at the BSA a few years ago as advocating that we “occupy debate and make inequality matter”. This has traditionally been through writing books for a wider audience, opinion columns in newspapers and making appearances on national media. Social media can support this activity by making sociologists more easily discoverable by journalists and producers. It’s also extending the range of online outlets, with newspapers and magazines having large digital sections and new online-only publications opening up which specialise in academic content. But it creates new opportunities for narrow-casting rather than broadcasting, connecting with specific audiences who might previously have been marginalised within mainstream media. For this reason, writing for specialised blogs and engaging with niche social media forums can be an effective form of traditional public sociology if the publics you want to engage with are pre-constituted and specific.
  • As an extension of organic public sociology: working in a scholar-activist capacity with groups, organisations, campaigns and movements. Social media offers new ways of identifying and beginning to engage with groups, it offers new ways of supporting groups (albeit ones that might often blur into the category of traditional public sociology) and it offers new ways of making this activity visible within the academy in a way that might draw others into their remit. Social media is changing how such groups can come together, particularly in their initial stages, by offering new opportunities and challenges for assembling similarly-concerned people in time and space. But the very fact of these changes also transforms the relationality of how digital public sociologists engage with them over time. Though we should of course be wary of overstating the point, with the risk that we license a lapse into slacktavism.

There are important new challenges public sociologists face in both cases. Traditional public sociology may be easier than ever but it creates the problem of being heard above the noise. How do we ensure that our attempted interventions have an effect? Existing academic platforms like The Conversation, The Sociological Review, Discover Society and the LSE Blogs serve a purpose here by pre-assembling a public and mediating engagements with them. It can be difficult to assemble your own audience, unless you invest a lot of time and energy in regularly engaging on social media, have a pre-existing reputation to leverage or are seeking to communicate with a very specialised public. Learning about platforms like these helps you identify which, if any, seem right for your purposes. They all offer clear guidelines about how to submit material and are edited by people who are used to working with academics in this capacity.

Organic public sociology may be more visible but with this too comes hazards. When it is informed by our own research, the gap between researcher and researched narrows precipitously. For instance, my own experience of researching asexuality was that I very readily got drawn into doing media and campaigning work as an ally. But this also meant that many people in the asexual community were reading and engaging with material I was sharing online, as well as sometimes criticising it. In one case, this was a really informative critique that changed my mind on a specific issue. In another, it was a quote taken out of context which got circulated widely on Tumblr. These are examples of new challenges which we’re not trained for and we need to consider carefully

There’s a risk that the style of communication we’ve all been traded in proves utterly ineffective for digital public sociology. One of my favourite passages by C Wright Mills concerns the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility”. An “elaborate vocabulary” and “involved manner of speaking and writing” become props for a professional self-image which defines itself, in part, through the inaccessibility of the work being produced. If that work is now accessible then it holds this writing up to scrutiny. It may seem absurd, it may provoke offence but it’s perhaps much more likely to simply fail to gain any purchase and leave us talking amongst ourselves.

We also need to be careful about the climate within which we’re trying to do digital public sociology because it’s so dominated by a competitive individualism in which people are seeking to win attention for their work. The problem is that winning attention for your work doesn’t take place in a vacuum. As the digital anthropologist Melissa Gregg puts it, “even uniqueness starts to sound the same when everyone is trying to perform”. If everyone is seeking to build an audience and stand out from the crowd then the challenge of achieving these aims spirals ever upwards, excluding ever more people from the process in gendered and classed ways while this subordination is masked by the powerful rhetoric of openness.

To give one example of trend, George Veletsianos found in a study of educational tweeters that “the top 1 percent of scholars have an average follower base nearly 700 times that of scholars in the bottom 50 percent and nearly 100 times that of scholars in the other 99 percent” (loc 1162-1708). Rather than undermining old hierarchies, social media supplements new ones, with complex emergent effects: sometimes allowing the already celebrated to quickly amass a social media following or to allow those with a big social media following to translate this into academic capital. This is part of the reason why I think community-orientated platforms such as The Sociological Review and Discover Society are likely to prove so important in mitigating the ‘celebrity’-generating effects of social media.

But hopefully if we focus our discussion of digital public sociology on specific aspirations, projects and publics then we can negotiate these institutional difficulties. There are real opportunities here but also profound challenges.

We’ve recently had some cancellations for the forthcoming event, The Practice of Public Sociology: Sociological Review Early Career Event. 

If you would like one of these places, please registered here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-practice-of-public-sociology-sociological-review-early-career-event-tickets-28652394082 
The Practice of Public Sociology

Manchester Digital Laboratory, November 24th, Manchester

For over a decade public sociology has been a mainstream topic of discussion within the discipline. While practiced prior to the 2004 address by Michael Burawoy to the American Sociological Association, its identification and elaboration on an intellectual level was crucial to its popularisation. But is it possible that the voluminous literature that emerged in the years following has left us with a public sociology that is overly-discursive? While undoubtedly important, is there a risk that theorising about public sociology gets in the way of its practice? This event organised by The Sociological Review’s Early Career Forum takes as its starting point David Mellor’s 2011 argument that “we don’t need to debate public sociology anymore; we need to get good at it“. We invite early career researchers who share this aim to join us for a day of workshops, discussion and debate about how we can collectively improve our practice of public sociology. 

Speakers

Maddie Breeze, Queen Margaret University

Mark Carrigan, The Sociological Review

Ipek Demir, University of Leicester

Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Ruth Pearce, University of Warwick

Workshops

Working With Community Groups Dan Silver, Social Action & Research Foundation and Alex Albert, University of Manchester

Theorising Public Sociology, Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Social Media and Public Sociology, Mark Carrigan, The Sociological Review

Teaching Public Sociology, Maddie Breeze and Karl Johnson, Queen Margaret University

Writing Clearly for a Public Audience Simon Makin, Science Journalist

Working with Photo Archives, Ben Kyneswood, Photo Mining

Resistance in Higher Education, Res-Sisters