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  • Mark 7:07 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: public sociology,   

    Your ‘daily dose of Sociological Imagination’: reflections on social media and public sociology 

    Your ‘daily dose of Sociological Imagination’: reflections on social media and public sociology
    by Mark Carrigan and Milena Kremakova 

    This website’s raison d’etre was initially nebulous, tentative and ambitious all at the same time: we wanted to create a new online space for public sociology.  We hoped to establish something that was more than a blog, yet neither an institutionally bound magazine, nor an academic journal.  The existence of such a space would allow us to channel the eclectic range of interesting and useful content that we found ourselves wanting to share and publicise, as people who had much broader interests than our respective research topics.  We also envisaged site to be independent from the academic institution/s or other workplaces at which we found ourselves at that moment or in the future.  The very first post on the Sociological Imagination (hereafter also abbreviated as SI) pledged to ‘offer an ongoing forum within which the ethical and political commitments underlying much sociology can be explicitly and passionately linked to the actual practice of social research itself.’  Over time, the site’s purpose has stabilised in a pleasingly organic way and today it resembles a Boing Boing or Brainpickings for sociologists.  We publish original articles, commentaries on current events or debates, research profiles and podcast interviews, as well as a diverse range of multimedia material from across the web.  We have also begun to post calls for papers and event announcements, sometimes for projects in which we are involved ourselves, but more usually simply because we have read about them and found them interesting, or people have requested our help with promoting something and we are keen that the site be useful to others.  In short, SI tries to provide a ‘community service’ to other sociologists by pooling together a serendipitous range of relevant sociological content and allowing space for both silent reading and public engagement.

    At the time of writing, with the site’s third birthday imminent, it had received 263,523 visits (with 196,559 unique) and 396,773 page views.  35.7% of these visitors came from the US, 24.3% came from the UK, and other countries where the site is popular include Canada, Australia, Philippines, India, Germany and South Africa.  The website had 5,371 twitter followers (now 10,000+) and 721 facebook friends.  We have posted at least once daily, with the initial post always at 8am leading to a current total of 1,371 posts.  The regular 8 am post happened somewhat accidentally, but we decided to stick to it for the sake of consistency – and also, thinking of UK-based readers, it was a convenient time at the start of the working day.  We imagined sociology-minded readers sitting down at their desks with a cup of coffee in the morning and waking up their own sociological imaginations by reading something brief and intriguing which they might otherwise not have found.  This regularity led one twitter follower to describe the site as their ‘daily dose of the sociological imagination’ which we adopted as a slogan for the site, though it has more recently been supplanted by ‘committing sociology’ in homage to the diverting statement that ‘this is not a time to commit sociology’ made by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the wake of a foiled terror attack (25 April, 2013).

    While the nature of the site has transformed into something predominately curatorial, collating all manner of multi-media material which we think both sociologically interesting and likely to interest sociologists, we do have an increasing sense that websites like ours have a more important role to play in academic life.  They have the potential to establish and practice a more visible and more accessible sociology (and other disciplines).  This is relevant both outside of and within higher education.  The blogosphere provides a space for many elements which are often squeezed out by competition and specialisation in the neoliberal academy: discussions of scholarship and workflow, debates over broader disciplinary and professional questions, and an engagement with intellectual questions which is fun, driven by curiosity and purged of instrumental motivations.

    The first of these topics in particular poses a challenge to digital sceptics who would see online activity as a diversion from the ‘real’ business of academic life.  This attitude, however, neglects the fact that illuminating, sophisticated and reflective discussions about scholarship and work in progress are increasingly common online and, in a more quotidian sense, the full range of social media tools being used by academics are making formerly ‘backstage’ aspects of academic practice newly visible.  Moreover, these type of discussions are often more fruitful than traditional academic modes of publishing because of the frequency with which they take place across, often even relying on, boundaries of specialisation. One of us has written elsewhere about the idea of continuous publishing and its benefits not only for readers, but also for the writer (Carrigan & Lockley, 2013).  If we treat academic blogging as a continuous mode of publishing (that is, a continuous mode of making work public), the blog becomes an active space in which to brainstorm and store new ideas, catalogue notes on literature, reflect on fieldwork, develop future texts or projects, organise and refine your thoughts and arguments, and – thanks to its publicity – engage in discussion with others.  Importantly, it can also help fight writer’s block and procrastination.  Furthermore, the relatively insubstantial time investment required to follow someone’s blog or twitter feeds means it becomes possible to learn about particular topics, sometimes whole areas of inquiry, in a way which simply would not be feasible if the only option was to reach journal articles or monographs outside of one’s own research specialisation (because of time constraints, the financial expense required, or even because of not knowing about their existence).

    There is an important sense in which the scholarly web is becoming a playground for para academics: the torrents of open culture both demand and reward creative engagement outside ones own formal training. However, what is even more exciting is the extent to which digital communication makes sociology visible and accessible outside the academy – to those who have completed sociology degrees or other qualifications but have long since drifted away, as well as others who simply stumble across sociological materials online (the frequency with which this occurs suggests that, contra sceptics, the internet will not lead to the death of serendipity).  As a sociological tool, websites like SI have several important advantages over traditional academic publishing:

    ● First and foremost, sites such as SI have a democratising effect on sociology.  They offer the potential of both instant and continuous feedback – without requiring it.  Unlike a journal article, they can host comments and discussions literally on the same page as the text which prompted them.  They also allow almost real time written discussion which, unlike conference papers, is unlimited in time and volume, yet is not forced upon those readers who do not wish to comment.

    ● They are displaced/placeless, allowing access to the content to anyone regardless  of limitations of place, time, disability, or other constraints.

    ● They are an easy ways to record more fleeting and less well developed arguments which could be (or not be) developed further at any time in the future, either by their author or by a reader.

    ● As we have both found by writing about eclectic content, and hopefully readers have also found by reading it, this format gives food for thought and opens up new avenues for using sociological tools for the analysis of new problems.  Recently we have discovered and posted about a new subfield of sociology called Astrosociology; about one scholar‘s work on 3D visualisation of Kant‘s ‘Critique of pure reason’ which is redefining epistemology and the sociology of learning, Animal studies, and other ‘niche’ topics within sociology about which we previously knew little or nothing at all.  The curatorial capacity in which we explore these topics lends a purpose to the task of curiosity-driven exploration – which, in turn, belies the oppressive habits of mind often introjected within graduate school, e.g. ‘I can’t waste time on this just because it’s interesting.

    Nonetheless, it still seems that a process of mainstreaming the digital, which has arguably begun in some disciplines, remains far away in sociology.  This creates a gap between traditional sociology and the young, increasingly computer literate generations of sociology students and future sociologists.  There are notable exceptions (our favourite group blogs include Cyborgology, Sociological Images and Everyday Sociology) and there has been an observable growth of sociologists blogging in a personal capacity.  Nonetheless the relative absence of sociological voices from the blogosphere has been notable and, it seems, this is indicative of a broader failure to seize the opportunities afforded by digital tools.  Daniels and Feagin (2011) describe how the uptake of digital tools in sociology lags behind that which can be seen in the humanities:

    ‘All these changes in scholarship have been taken up with a great deal more enthusiasm by some in the academy than others.  Our colleagues in the humanities have embraced digital technologies much more readily than those of us in sociology or the social sciences more generally.  A casual survey of the blogosphere reveals that those in the humanities (and law schools) are much more likely to maintain academic blogs than social scientists.  In terms of scholarship, humanities scholars have been, for more than ten years, innovating ways to combine traditional scholarship with digital technologies.  To name just a two examples, scholars in English have established a searchable online database of the papers of Emily Dickinson and historians have developed a site that offers a 3D digital model showing the urban development of ancient Rome in A.D. 320. There are significant institutions being built in the digital humanities including the annual Digital Humanities Conference, which began in 1989, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities.

    Sociology lags far behind in the adoption of digital tools for scholarly work.  As Paul DiMaggio and colleagues noted in 2001, “sociologists have been slow to take up the study of the Internet” (“The Social Implications of the Internet,” Annual Review of Sociology, 2001, p.1). While there are notable exceptions, such as Andrew Beveridge’s digitizing of Census maps (http://www.socialexplorer.com), when looking at the field as a whole these sorts of innovations are rare in sociology. In contrast to the decade-long conference in the digital humanities, there is no annual conference on “digital sociology.”  Sociology graduate students Nathan Jurgensen and PJ Rey recently organized a conference on “Theorizing the Web,” that drew luminaries in sociology Saskia Sassen and George Ritzer, but this is the first sociology conference (that we are aware of) to focus exclusively on understanding the digital era from a sociological perspective. Analogously, there is no large institution, like the NEH seeking to fund digitally informed sociological research. The reasons for this sociological lag when it comes to the Internet are still not clear, but some point to the problems of getting digital publication projects recognized by tenure and promotion review committees.’

    Though we are sympathetic to such arguments about the desirability of winning recognition for digital publication projects, we would suggest that the point can be overstated and that, furthermore, doing so risk losing sight of the unprecedented freedom presently afforded by these technologies for para academics.  Calls for ‘recognition’ of digital scholarship too easily collapse into an instrumentalist logic which calls for blogging et al to be incorporated within the metrics of prevailing audit culture.  This is an understandable aim for those who are precariously situated within the contemporary academy but nonetheless perhaps a short-sighted one.  Digital opportunities could too easily slide into digital opportunism: if ‘digital publication projects’ win ‘recognition’ within institutions then what is to stop the pathologies which afflict the contemporary academy (audit culture, instrumentalism and alienation) migrating to the digital sphere?  Is institutional recognition of digital scholarship worthwhile if it distorts the practices (which at their best are paradigmatic of communicating for its own intrinsic value rather than extrinsic institutional rewards) which render digital scholarship attractive in the first place?

    In the rest of this chapter we link C. Wright Mills’ concept of ‘sociological imagination’ with our own experiences of learning, sharing, thinking and creating online as sociologists, as well as how this work has mattered to us and, we hope, mattered to other people.  Much of our discussion addresses sociology (and sociologists) specifically because of our own academic circumstances and the aforementioned digital lag observable when sociological engagement online is compared to other disciplines. Nonetheless, we hope the discussion retains some relevance beyond the small corner of the academy we contingently (and precariously) occupy.

    The Sociological Imagination

    The concept of Sociological Imagination entered circulation in the 1959 book of the same name by the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills.  It moves from a prophetic opening (‘Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps’) through to a lacerating critique of the dominant trends within American sociology at the time (offering a scathing series of ‘translations’ of passages taken from the grand doyen of 20th century American sociology, Talcott Parson, which though surely offering amusement to endless cohorts of grad students, probably was not the author’s wisest career move) and an elaborated vision of what sociology could be.  This centres around the eponymous concept of the Sociological Imagination – the quality of mind which ‘enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society’ and so ‘understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals’ (Mills, 1959: 5).  In doing so, Mills laid out a vision for sociology, emphatically political and engaged, founded on drawing out the interconnections between the grand sweep of history and the unfolding of individual lives.  However, it was far from universally praised at the time of publication, as can be seen in the early review of the book by Edward Shils quoted in Gane and Back (2013):

    “Imagine a burly cowpuncher on the long, slow ride from the Panhandle of Texas to Columbia University, carrying in his saddle-bag some books which he reads with absorption while his horse trots along. Imagine that among the books are some novels of Kafka, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and essays of Max Weber. Imagine the style and imagery that would result from the interaction of the cowboy- student and his studies. Imagine also that en route he passes through Madison, Wisconsin, that seat of a decaying populism and that, on arriving at his destination in New York, he encounters Madison Avenue, that street full of reeking phantasies of the manipulation of the human will and of what is painful to America’s well-wishers and enjoyable to its detractors. Imagine the first Madison disclosing to the learned cowpuncher his subsequent political mode, the second an object of his hatred…The end result of such an imaginary grand tour would be a work like The Sociological Imagination”

    Nonetheless, the book has come to be seen as a sociological classic, not least of all because of the value which so many sociologists have recurrently found in its passionate challenge to the professionalisation of sociology and the ivory tower intellectualism which it can so often engender.  Crucially, the sociological imagination is not something over which professional sociologists can be said to have a monopoly.  Indeed the extent to which this sensibility finds itself manifested within the academy can be taken as an index of the relative vitality or otherwise of the discipline.  Mills was intensely critical of the professional sociology from which he found himself ever more estranged over time, lamenting the tendency of his contemporaries to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’.  He identified the roots of this problems as inhering in the widespread tendency within the professionalising sociology of his time to self-consciously seek legitimation as a scientific discipline.  As Gane and Back (2012) go on to write,

    ‘For sociology to be to be effective, especially beyond the academy, it must have literary ambitions. Mills’ assessment of the quality of the sociological writings of his time is damning. He argues that there is a “serious crisis in literacy” in which sociologists are “very much involved” (1959:239). Mills’ position here is an extension of his earlier attack on Parsons and Lazarsfeld, and is just as fierce in tone. He observes that “a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences” (Mills, 1959:239), and adds that this style of writing has nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter. Mills explains the prevalence of this style, instead, in terms of a quest for status. He declares: “Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. And that, in turn, is one reason why they do not have the status they desire” (Mills, 1959:240). This thirst for status is said to be driven by an underlying desire for the sociologist to achieve recognition as a “scientist”; something, he argues, that led to sociology written in clear and accessible prose (including, presumably, his own work) to be dismissed by many as mere journalism.’

    Mills saw the promise of sociology as being undermined by this quest for status and the sclerotic forms of expression he saw associated with it, with sociologists prone to ‘stereotyped ways of writing which do away with the full experience by keeping them detached throughout their operations’ almost as if ‘they are deadly afraid to take chance of modifying themselves in the process of their work’ (Mills, 2001: 111).  He saw this failure of vision and expression in what could almost be construed as epochal terms, representing a failure of sociological imagination at precisely the moment when this distinctive sensibility was most needed.  Mills was, in many ways, estranged from the academic establishment and this was, in part, both cause and a consequence of his critique.  This estrangement gave him a degree of intellectual freedom from the cultural norms prevalent within the professional sociology of his day and this was in turn entrenched by the manner in which he employed that freedom to pull apart many of the orthodoxies which he saw as so inimical to his  understanding of sociology’s promise.

    This estrangement can be overstated and, though this is a chapter about para academic life, it would be manifestly untrue to suggest by way of ahistorical retrospection that Mills himself was a para academic.  Clearly he was not.  Nonetheless, he could, perhaps, serve a viable role model for para academics – in his case the estrangement was predominantly cultural rather than structural but, nonetheless, there was estrangement.  The relationship between his unceasingly critical orientation towards professional sociology and the profoundly creative use of the freedom afforded to him by this critical outlook and relative estrangement is worth reflecting on.  His position in relation to the sociological establishment afforded him a degree of freedom and he used this to diagnose the ills which afflicted the sociology of his day and, crucially, pursued a lifelong project of rethinking sociological craft in view of these disciplinary and institutional ailments.

    We would suggest that the blogosphere affords a parallel degree of freedom to para academics: a place of respite from the distorting tendencies engendered by the pursuit of status within higher education. While our discussion in this chapter focus predominantly on blogging, there is a broader claim to be made here about ‘digital scholarship’ and its complex relationship to the broader academic world within which it is emerging. The notion of digital scholarship drawn upon here is largely that offered by Weller (2012) who understands the constitution of a ‘digital scholar’ in a deliberately open way:

    A digital scholar need not be a recognised academic, and equally does not include anyone who posts something online. For now, a definition of someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field is probably sufficient to progress.’

    It would be absurd to claim that all digital scholars are para academics – manifestly this is not the case.  Nor would it be tenable to suggest that all para academics are, could or should become digital scholars (even if we would not be surprised if this happens in a couple of decades when today’s youngest generations enter professional research).  Nonetheless, we argue there is a contingent complementarity between the role of the digital scholar and that of the para academic, with the embrace of the former offering substantial opportunities to those thrown into the latter role.  As Weller (2012) goes on to observe, ‘in a digital, networked, open world people become less defined by the institution to which they belong and more by the network and online identity they establish’ and, as a consequence, ‘a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation’.  Part of the difficulty faced by those precariously employed within the academy is the long standing dependence of those so positioned on institutions as the means through which one can come to articulate a viable and efficacious professional identity.  This is precisely the dependence which digital scholarship is weakening and it is for this reason that we should treat calls for digital scholarship to be ‘recognised’ with caution.

    The risk is that incorporating digital outputs too readily into the evaluative frameworks of contemporary higher education might erode many of the things which are so refreshing about the uses which academics are making of these online tools.  As it stands academic bloggers enjoy a degree of freedom from the sorts of pressures which concerned Mills, which have surely only intensified and expanded since the time he was writing, which makes it imperative that this not be threatened through too hasty a process of mainstreaming.  Digital scholarship can, at its best, allow alternative infrastructures of communication and evaluation to emerge which, as well as being personally liberating to those active within them, holds out the promise of providing an independent vantage point from which the deleterious tendencies within the broader academy can be identified, analysed and resisted. This can take a variety of forms:

    1. The boundary between academic scholarship and ‘public engagement’ becomes blurred.  Even digital scholarship geared towards a narrowly specialised audience enjoys an intrinsic visibility which traditional scholarship does not.  In so far as digital scholars work with an awareness of this visibility it inculcates a tendency towards openness, in the sense of disrupting many of the habitual modes of academic expression which are intricately tied up in traditional modes of academic publishing.  Or in other words: it’s easier to avoid the temptation to use jargon when blogging than it is when writing a journal article because you are aware that readers of the former are far more unlikely to understand the jargon than readers of the latter.  The tendency to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’ decried by Mills is checked by the peculiarly public form of writing entailed by blogging and other modes of digital scholarship.
    2. This visibility goes hand-in-hand with discoverability.  It is easier to discover those engaged in digital scholarship both for others within the academy and those outside it.  This has important implications for the public status of academic work. While the traditional understanding of public intellectualism has been bound up in broadcast media, digital communications facilitates narrowcasting (Poe, 2012).  The image of the public intellectual as a world renowned figure communicating globally about issues of universal concern can give way to a much more democratic image of academics in general communicating about their research to those who find it interesting.  There will always be such an audience, no matter how niche the topic appears to be, yet prior to digital communications it was impossible to establish the necessary connections – hence the hegemony of the broadcast model of public intellectualism.
    3. Many taken for granted norms pertaining to scholarly communications are, at least in part, functions of the limitations inherent in non-digital communication systems.  For instance as Weller  (2011: 156) observes, ‘a journal article is a certain length, and the journal publication cycle is determined as much by the economics of printing as it by any consideration of the best methods for sharing knowledge’.  This is an example of an interconnection between form (the journal article) and function (communication of scholarly knowledge) having been shaped by the economics of analogue technology.  Digital technology creates opportunities to find innovative forms for long standing functions and because of their relatively peripheral status within the academy, para academics are best placed to undertake the innovation and experimentation to which this digital turn so naturally leads.
    4. Digital scholarship also tends to reveal the linkages between what Bourdieu (2003) describes as public scholarship and private commitment.  Whereas the two are clearly demarcated within mainstream academic culture, with the legitimacy of the former often seen to rest on the exclusion of the latter, digital communication tends to preclude such a demarcation.  This helps create the possibility of a more up front and less alienated social science, more open to those outside the academy and clearer about the beliefs and values which underlie scholarly projects.
    5. Some of the advantages of para academic work are accompanied with disadvantages.  As Weller (2012) observes, peer networks are integral to scholarship, representing the ‘people who scholars share ideas with, collaborate with on research projects, review papers for, discuss ideas with and get feedback from’.  Yet, before the rise of the internet and, more latterly and significantly, social networking tools, the constitutions of this peer network was limited to those with whom one interacted in person on a regular basis.  The rise of Internet communication has enabled ‘scholars to build up a network of peers who perform the same role in their scholarly activity as the networks founded on face-to-face contact’ thus reducing the disadvantages inherent in the enforced mobility; however, the basic inequality between the para academic and the traditionally employed academic remains, for example in caused by the relative lack of resources and precarious employment conditions which typically characterise the working life of the para academic.

    Our Sociological Imagination

    This project has value for us because of both its sheer continuity (we have worked willingly on the site for three years now) but also the independence which that continuity has in relation to each of our respective trajectories through the (para)academic world.  It is something which has consistently accompanied us in our professional involvements, in the sense that it has had direct and indirect implications for our other activities and professional identities, however it has always been experientially distinct from these.  We experience it as a form of free space which provides a public forum for what is otherwise private activity: thinking, reading around other subjects, and generally having fun through understanding society and developing analytical tools.  The fun and creative aspect of sociology seems to be insufficiently present in the academic curriculum: or at least less so than in mathematics and computer science (as one of us has discovered through her recent fieldwork).  It would probably be inaccurate to suggest the project is utterly insulated from instrumental reasons, but these are entirely secondary: i.e., we have become aware of ways in which the project has been instrumentally useful to us but we never sought to pursue it for these reasons.  It is a liberating counterbalance to the frequently stifling and laborious experiences of writing conference papers, articles for publication, or a PhD thesis.  The effort that goes into crafting a small SI piece is sometimes no smaller than the effort that went into an equally-sized portion of a journal paper.  But each SI article is driven by pure curiosity and interest – and some are more polished than others.  Part of this freedom, obviously, comes with the different genre and size of the articles that appear on SI.  Most of the site’s content is written in a less formal style and the range of possible formats is almost infinite, unlike the strictly regimented format and style of, say, journal articles in sociology.  Over the years, we have both found that this free format is precisely what has allowed us to post consistently, regardless of any other commitments we have, so as to never put off writing an SI post when an interesting idea comes to mind.  We have developed an informal writing style, much like a cross between sociology and journalism, but without losing the ability to write serious pieces.  Furthermore, it is partly thanks to this free format that we have gained an eclectic range of both ad hoc and consistent contributors, some of whom are freelance sociologists, others students in the social sciences, others in academic positions, and yet others non-sociologists who have an interest and something to say about one of our topics.

    Our consistent sociological ‘thinking aloud’ through SI has certainly been beneficial for our personal writing abilities, but more importantly, this format has suited the purpose of what we imagine as public sociology.  It is sociology spilling out of the confines of academia into the broader world, but without completely severing the link with academic research or losing sight of the worthwhile aspects of research embedded within institutions.  Admittedly, the informality and the lack of restraints on format also pose constrains: while the range of SI topics is wide, the coverage tends to be superficial, contrary to the very narrow focus of a journal or conference paper (although some of the posts have featured extensive literature research and analysis and could well form drafts for academic papers or book chapters). This is why we do not see SI as something that either of us could do full-time, or something for which we ought to abandon our other (academic or non-academic) research which affords us the depth and engagement with one particular sociological topic or subdiscipline.  In fact, our work on SI has benefitted from our respective academic work and our empirical research experience – just as it, in turn, neatly complements our other academic and non-academic work.

    Although the Sociological Imagination exists predominantly online, it often leaves the virtual world and crosses over to offline activities, some of which can be seen as academic and others para academic.  An example of this cross-over is a workshop which we organised in June 2011, devoted to the sociology of sport.  The workshop took place at Warwick University (where both of us were then based).  It brought together three researchers in the sociology of sport, was easily accessible to anyone at the university, and open to anyone else outside the university who was able to attend.  The ‘offline’ workshop was preceded by a week of one or two daily posts on different aspects of sociology of sport, introducing researchers and guest articles, and followed by audio and video podcasts of the presentations and discussions.  Since neither of us is a specialist in the sociology of sport, we did not write original articles, but approached several researchers of sport for guest contributions.  Our role as editors focused on finding relevant authors and contributions, curating interesting content, linking the online theme with the workshop, planning and crafting each of the posts, and providing both an online and a physical space for researchers and students interested in sociological aspects of sport.  The Week of Sport on SI thus had several functions: on the one hand, it resulted in a typical academic workshop, but on the other, the it was also a joint online-offline space-time which created a forum for topic-driven public sociology, publicising the work of researchers and accessible to anyone with an interest in the topic, including our online readers who could not attend the workshop.  This and other occasions when we have linked SI with the ‘offline world’ have been equally rewarding in terms of quality of discussion, the possibility for us or our readers to follow up on an interesting topic or meet interesting researchers in real (or virtual) life.

    In its own limited and local way, this felt as if the digital activity which had become so important to us had ‘spilled over’ from its artificial mooring with the ‘virtual’ world, coming to occupy what was then the shared institutional space within which our mundane day-to-day para academic lives unfolded.  It pointed to exciting new possibilities which, it would feel dishonest not to point out, we have not yet explored to the fullest, as the exigencies of daily life inevitably preclude a further opening of the cracks that suddenly became visible in established institutional structures.  But the possibilities are exciting nonetheless and they point to an alternative trajectory for the digital activity of para academics: one which resists the temptation to leverage digital scholarship for instrumental gain and opposes its incorporation into the existing audit culture.  Instead we have tried to point towards a potential expansion out of para academic digital scholarship which opposes its incorporation into existing structures.  We have suggested C. Wright Mills as an exemplar of the public and professional orientations this might involve and sought to ‘join the dots’ between contemporary discussions of public sociology, digital scholarship and para-academia.

    Bourdieu, P. (2003). Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2. London: Verso.
    Carrigan, M., & Lockley, P. (2013) Continual publishing across journals, blogs and social media maximises impact by increasing the size of the ‘academic footprint’.  Retrieved June 30th from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2011/10/26/academic-footprint/
    Daniels, J., & Feagin, J. (2011). The (coming) social media revolution in the academy. Fast Capitalism8(2).
    Gane, N., & Back, L. (2012). C. Wright Mills 50 Years On: The Promise and Craft of Sociology Revisited. Theory, Culture & Society29(7-8), 399-421.
    Mills, C.W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    Mills, C.W. (2001). C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. University of California Press.
    Poe, M. (2012). What Can University Presses Do? Retrieved June 30th from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/07/09/essay-what-university-presses-should-do
    Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How technology is transforming academic practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

  • Mark 7:38 am on April 21, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , organic public sociology, public sociology, traditional public sociology   

    Collectivising public sociology 

    My notes on Burawoy, M. (2002). Public sociologies and the grass roots, speech to SWS Wrightsville Beach, February 7, 2002.

    In this short text Burawoy takes issue with the mythology of decline which intellectuals are spreading about their own existence, as well as the associated belief that “a public sociology that dealt with the big issues of the day” has also begun to die out. However the supposed golden age of public sociology in the 1950s was in fact dominated by a small number of figures during the era of McCarthyism. Even if contemporary professional sociology has prioritised technique over substance, the same was true in this “era of sociology as messianic science”.  There are many more public sociologists today, in this sense of talking to the big issues of the day, then could be found at the time. They might be more narrowly focused but they are nonetheless tackling crucial issues of broader public concern. It therefore seems untenable to see public sociology as in decline.

    However is it true that sociology no longer deals with the big issues of the day? Burawoy cites the public engagement activity of the ASA, in its establishment of Contexts magazines and its issuing of statements and authoring of Amicus Briefs. He suggests the belief in decline can reflect a narrow Ivy League focus, failing to recognise a shift in the centre of gravity away from private universities to the public ones that encompasses a deeper professionalisation alongside an expansion of public sociology. This narrow focus represents “an elitist conception of public sociology whose currency is writing op-ed pieces for The New York Times, visiting the White House or writing best-selling books for an emergent middle class” (3). In contrast Burawoy’s vision of public sociology with a wider range of publics, “not just the readerships of national media which is an amorphous, invisible, passive, public made up of strangers but also the much thicker publics that must begin with our students (our best emissaries to the world beyond), extending to local communities (such as communities of faith which we address in our churches), or social movements we stimulate to achieve greater self-awareness (such as civil rights or labor)” (3). He cites the feminist movement as a prototype, constituting its public and bringing it to self-awareness and mobilisation.

    He suggests prophets of decline are actually talking about a particular type of public sociologist: male, inner-directed, alienated from public and profession. In contrast, he sees the rise of other-directed public sociologists connected to both sociology and publics. This is “not the free floating intellectual hoping to reach audiences on distant shores” (3) but rather the organic public sociologists whose work might be invisible to the discipline. This is why it’s now necessary to battle to make this work visible, democratising public sociology in the process. This involves collectivising public sociology, in order to recognise our common projects latent within work which might be undertaken as individuals, in communities and largely unrecognised within the profession.

  • Mark 10:50 am on January 16, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , public sociology   

    Call for Papers: Academics, Professionals and Publics: Changes in the Ecologies of Knowledge Work 

    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
    Contact: eric.lybeck@manchester.ac.uk

    Keynote speakers:

    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 eric.lybeck@manchester.ac.uk 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 eric.lybeck@manchester.ac.uk

  • Mark 11:11 am on January 14, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , public sociology, rent seeking, , ,   

    When sociology becomes a source of legitimation rather than critique: the case of Anthony Giddens 

    My notes on Skeggs, B. (2019). The forces that shape us: The entangled vine of gender, race and classThe Sociological Review67(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.

  • Mark 7:22 pm on December 28, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , desmond, , participant observation, public sociology   

    Against spontaneous sociology: Michael Burawoy’s attempt to rescue Bourdieu from Matthew Desmond and what it means for public sociology 

    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.

  • Mark 8:07 pm on August 7, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrities, accelerated work, , , , , public sociology, superstar intellectuals, ,   

    The intellectual sclerosis of the superstar intellectual 

    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.

  • Mark 3:37 pm on August 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , celebrity intellectuals, , , , public sociology, ,   

    The incredible shrinking scope of the celebrity intellectual 

    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.

  • Mark 7:04 pm on May 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , public sociology, speculative fiction,   

    CFP: Imagining Radical Futures, Princeton Oct. 5th 

    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.

    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.

  • Mark 9:39 am on April 16, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , civic sociology, , public sociology,   

    What does it mean to claim people were ‘doing sociology’? 

    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.

    • landzek 4:46 pm on April 16, 2018 Permalink

      Lately I’ve been pondering how Theory tends to jump In magnitudefrom a quick marking of the individual, to the group. And then poses a gays about what the individual actually is. It seems like philosophy and in general academics on humanity side at least, often conveniently set aside actual individual for the sake of the real group. As if the individual is nothing more than a part of the group.

      In particular philosophy I’ve been noticing how it seems like a pre-ponderings of philosophy talks about subjectivity but then jumps exponentially into a different order magnitude in one sentence; often will talk about the subject of politics or the subject of ideology. I feel like everyone takes these discourses as if they were actually talking about the individual person.

      It seems no one recognizes this ; it seems like missing the actual person is just part and parcel of being modern society. I think your question of what is a sociologist could begin with a sociology of the individual but doesn’t reduce itself to an order that is so far removed from the individual that we almost have to deny it in order to have it become “actual”.

      Just something I’ve been pondering lately

    • Martyn Everett 5:38 pm on April 16, 2018 Permalink

      I’m impressed by the sociology implied in the work of Louise Michel who interviewd French prostitutes while she was in prison in order to identify the reasons why women became involved in prostitution, and the problems they faced as prostitutes. This seems to be an approach to sociological problems that is as valid means of enquiry as statistical methods.

  • Mark 6:25 pm on February 13, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , drabbles, , micro-fiction, , public sociology,   

    A call for sociological micro-fiction! 

    I’m once again editing a section on sociological micro-fiction for Ashleigh Watson’s wonderful So Fi zine. See here for full details about how to submit. There’s lots of inspiration to be found in the last issue, collecting a wonderful selection of sociological fiction of 100 words or less.

  • Mark 4:29 am on February 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , public sociology,   

    When sociologists meet organised politics 

    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.

  • Mark 9:48 pm on December 7, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , practical intellectuals, public sociology,   

    The missing history of the practical intellectuals 

    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.

  • Mark 7:52 pm on November 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , public sociology, ,   

    CFP: Alternative Social Media special issue of Social Media + Society 

    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

    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
    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


    • 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 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.

  • Mark 8:31 am on November 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , public sociology, , victor branford   

    The Public Sociology of Patrick Geddes and Victor Branford 

    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.

  • Mark 12:24 pm on October 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , public sociology, , , ,   

    How can Sociology be inspired by its own archive? 

    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.

  • Mark 9:00 pm on July 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , peter berger, , public sociology, , , tobacco industry   

    What does public sociology have to say about sociologists who are ‘merchants of doubt’? 

    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.


    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?

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