Ahead of the visit by Nicholas Christakis to the UK next month, the Times Higher Education has run an interesting article by Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald. I wrote a response to the original article by Christakis that sparked this debate (in fairness he didn’t choose the title) arguing that the problem with this argument is political rather than intellectual. I actually have a lot of sympathy for the intellectual case he’s making but I worry that his argument inadvertently lends support to a concerted attack on the social sciences (particularly in the case of political science in the US) and a broader attempt to restructure the university system in the UK. Goodall and Oswald succinctly convey what for me is the root of the problem:

The first thing to have in mind, as background, is the astonishing size of the social science literature. Few people appreciate this. The Thomson Reuters Web of Science database (which is by no means exhaustive of the entire global academic output) lists more than 3,000 social science journals. The journals classified as economics alone contained approximately 20,000 articles last year. This implies that one new journal article on economics is published every 25 minutes – even on Christmas Day. This iceberg-like immensity of the modern social sciences means that it is going to be difficult to say anything coherent and truly general across them. Nobody walking the planet has read more than 1 per cent of their published output. Most of us have not read 0.1 per cent. Such facts should give all of us – whether or not we agree with Christakis – pause for modesty in our assertions.


This situation seems obviously untenable to me. Add to it the low citation rates across the social sciences and we’re left with an utterly depressing picture of an ever growing quantity of ‘unread and unloved’ publications that should surely leave us asking what on earth is this work for? What are the social sciences supposed to do? What purposes do they serve? What purposes should they serve? I’m intuitively inclined towards a pluralistic view of social inquiry in spite of having firm theoretical commitments. This leaves me frustrated when encountering responses to these questions that affirm the validity of one approach and denigrate all others. But I’m equally firm in my conviction that these questions need to have an answer, even if the purpose might be some oblique matter of edification rather than anything even approximating instrumental standards of utility. In other words, I think it has to be for something and when considering the output of the social sciences as a whole, in contrast to any particular example of research I might choose to examine, it’s far from clear to me that this is the case. Furthermore, I think the proliferating piles of unread (and in some cases unreadable) literature mitigates against it serving some purpose. The problem is getting worse, not better.

(see here for context)

Thanks for the thoughtful response and apologies for what seems to have been a slightly shrill note to my comments in retrospect. I wasn’t consciously commenting with a sociological hat on (so to speak) but I take the point nonetheless – the implication of MacIntyre’s work for sociology is, I would argue at least, an attentiveness to the normative dimension of everyday life, as opposed to the material and/or the meanings. That is the sense in which things matter to individuals in an non-reductive way, as well as the cultural and structural properties of the world (things like dominant conceptions of social science, esoteric political philosophy, online publishing platforms and organisations which employ people with particular views) which constitute the environment within which moral subjects find themselves and are faced with the challenge of making sense of circumstances they did not choose but are nonetheless capable of making choices within. It’s in this sense that i think i did slip into talking sociologically when I accused you of simplifying a complex amalgamation of circumstances. So I guess I was saying two things really and i stand by both of them:

  1. I was questioning the empirical basis for your claims in a straight forward lay sense. I just don’t think what you’re saying is true. You slip into making empirical claims in your second to last paragraph and I think they’re straight forwardly inaccurate on an empirical level – if you look at sociology, economics, political science, geography and anthropology in an anglo-american context the degree of truth or falsity is different. Foucault’s work (and that of his adherents) doesn’t represent a ‘radical deviation’ from the norm – he’s been cited almost 400,000 times.  He’s practically institutionalised in some parts of the academy. The Foucauldian whose work I’m most familiar with, Nik Rose, has been cited over 30,000 times and is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the most highly cited British sociologists currently writing. What you believe to be the dominant conception of the social sciences does not, as far as I’m aware, exist outside of political science, economics and certain aspects of US sociology: in each case it is something very different despite the superficial commonality. There’s simply too much heterogeneity for the Straussian analysis to look like anything other than an (extremely interesting) anachronism orientated towards a post-war confluence of circumstances which hasn’t existed in the US for decades.
  2. Which brings me to the sociological point about simplification. To be frank I think you have a much stronger case when talking about the cultural politics of academia than you do when invoking the “implied politics of much of the research being conducted”. I also assumed this was what you were talking about in the first place i.e. the “why are professors liberal?” paradigm. My objection to what I took you to be arguing and the basis of my ‘narcissism’ comment was the sense in which it might be that they seem left-wing to you because of your own oppositional orientation to them i.e. they seem homogenous because of your own intense experience of heterogeneity within the academy. My frustration with what I took to be your simplification stemmed from the degree to which, as someone happily on the non-aligned far left for much of my life, it’s obvious to me that there’s a whole range of views which often get subsumed under the portmanteau term ‘leftism’. I realise now this wasn’t what you were actually arguing but I thought it would be helpful to explain where I was coming from. The other aspect to my frustration, which certainly is relevant, stems from what seems (to me at least) to be areas of near hegemonic social attitudes within the academy[*] concerning things like religion and secularism – spoken as a life long atheist whose most significant intellectual influences have nonetheless all been catholic philosophers. I’m sure there are others which I don’t notice, probably because I unthinkingly reproduce them. I would have assumed, looking at this from a sociological perspective, that these were the sorts of cultural tendencies which had provoked your ire. So when I accused you of simplification, it was on the (mistaken?) assumption that you were, in part at least, reacting to convergences of viewpoint which I accept exist but nonetheless over generalising from the existence to posit an ‘open conspiracy’ –  which I do accept as a possibility, in the sense of networks operating towards certain shared purposes without explicit organisation, but not in the sense you’re advocating, which suggested an unwillingness to accept the reasoned disagreement of others.

*It occurs when writing a statement like “within the academy” that I’m speaking generally and experientially, without any empirical basis that I can easily point to for substantiation, in precisely the way I was criticising you for doing. I remain entirely open to being persuaded otherwise though and the truncated empiricism I’d endorse is one which sees empirical data as adjudicating rather than prohibiting propositions which are not immediately substantiated.

Earlier this week, it was reported in a number of outlets that Tesco has been using armbands to monitor employees at a distribution center, enabling management to track moment to moment activity in a way which was previously impossible:

The armbands, officially known as Motorola arm-mounted terminals, look like something between a Game Boy and Garmin GPS device. The terminals keep track of how quickly and competently employees unload and scan goods in the warehouse and gives them a grade. It also sets benchmarks for loading and unloading speed, which workers are expected to meet. The monitors can be turned off during workers’ lunch breaks, but anything else—bathroom trips, visits to a water fountain—reportedly lowers their productivity score. Tesco did not respond to requests for comment, so it’s hard to know if the arm bands have been a success.

What struck me was the muted presence of gamification themes, both in the deployment of the technology and in the reporting of its use. The technology allows management to ‘grade’ workers and compile real time moment-to-moment data (facilitating Taylorism 2.0?) in a manner which produces ‘scores’:

The former employee said the device provided an order to collect from the warehouse and a set amount of time to complete it. If workers met that target, they were awarded a 100 per cent score, but that would rise to 200 per cent if they worked twice as quickly. The score would fall if they did not meet the target.

Micro-measurement of employee behaviour is obviously not new, however the use of mobile technology (that looks like a Game Boy) to produce ongoing scores for each individual is more novel. It produces the sustained, coherent and linear feedback which is integral to game dynamics. It doesn’t stretch one’s imagination to conceive of Tesco giving out FourSquare-esque badges for sustained levels of achievement by individuals in the depot or publishing league tables in order to ‘motivate’ workers in the depot to achieve ‘better scores’. When/if it takes such a form, gamification looks and sounds little like the radical technology described by its advocates, which draws together a trendily eclectic selection of behavioural knowledges into a easily saleable intellectual ‘movement’ which is increasingly in vogue within management schools.

However is there really such a disconnect? Drawing on the work of people like Nikolas Rose, it could easily be argued that technologies of motivation and affect (the ‘psi disciplines’) are intrinsically political. Or that, at the very least, they cannot be detached from their political implications. While I would resist any poststructuralist turn which, in my view, risks collapsing intellectual inquiry into cultural politics, I’d nonetheless suggest that people who work in these areas have a responsibility to consider the implications which their work might hold. I find gamification fascinating in a number of ways. Nonetheless my engagement with it (which to be fair amounts to watching some videos, reading a single book and doing a Coursera course) has also left me with the sense of it as deeply troubling. Largely because there seems to be little or no engagement with the question of the consequences that might be held by this work when it is thrown ‘out there’ into the world, free to be deployed in a world riven with inequalities of power and status, facing a long-term crisis of economic growth and an increasing tendency towards structural (near or total) redundancy for large swathes of the labour market. Within such a context, the failure of gamification people to engage with the politics of gamification is deeply troubling.