My notes on Lichterman, P (2017) On Social Theory Now: Communicating Theory Now. Perspectives 39(2)

In this response to Social Theory Now, Paul Lichterman offers a compelling vision of social theory as sociology’s meta-conversation, with communicating theory being “to keep track of and facilitate that conversation, treating it as always in movement”. It is a sprawling conversation about the conceptual terms we use to articulate empirical research, linking together the particular subfields within which theories are generated in a topology of the discipline as a whole. Facilitating that conversation involves a kind of “temperature-taking”, “assessing where we are in the various sub-conversations, rather than a statement about which theories best reflect our historical era, or which theories are currently the best contenders for sociological immortality”. He contrasts this dialogical approach to theorising as transmission:

Transmissive theorizing starts with a large conceptual framework, and promotes it, applies it, passes it down with improvements or at least updates.  I’m contrasting that with this book’s version of communicating theory — which I will call “dialogue.” Dialogical theorizing propounds questions, and a few central concepts such as “culture” or “gender.” It sustains questions and central concepts, more than sustaining master theorists or distinct schools as ends in themselves. In transmissive theorizing, the theorist or school is exalted. In dialogical theorizing, the theorist or school is. . .consulted.

It is an overdrawn distinction but it’s an important one which captures the essence of my discomfort with critical realism, which I think suffers from being institutionally locked into a transmissive mode. Transmission gets in the way of “minding the conversation, recognizing its limits, checking out the rest of the party”. It is ill suited to the reality of contemporary social theory, consisting of “relatively porous conversations, where participants invite new participants now and then, rather than a world of masters, and apprentices working their way in”. Critical realism is far from alone in being transmissive but it is a powerful exemplar of this mode of theorising.

He ends with an interesting discussion of vision questions: “the big normative questions that help us envision a society that is—more democratic (Habermas, or Dewey), more self-understanding (Shils), more radically democratic (Mouffe, Seidman), not to mention more solidary, more rational, or less alienating, to invoke the big three”. If I understand correctly, he’s claiming that these vision questions tend to be baked into theorising in the transmissive mode, locked within schools to be accepted or resisted as part of a whole. But could they not be better integrated into dialogue between subfields in a way which renders them autonomous from schools? Can social theorising involve “semi-autonomous, conversational room for explicit communication about vision questions and how they relate to concepts in subfields”? He suggest public sociology and civic sociology as contributing to this process. Could a broader dialogical approach to social theorising better integrate them?

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.

There are many reasons to like Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends but the one I hadn’t expected was her depiction of theory anxiety:

I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed. (pg 28-29)

Afterwards I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. POCcasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me. (pg 94)

I’ve picked up a Slavoj Žižek book for the first time in a while and found the characteristics which led me to take a break from his writing have only grown over time. He links Me Too to victimhood early in Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity. From pg 6:

As in every revolutionary upheaval, there will be numerous ‘injustices’, ironies, and so on. (For example, I doubt that the American comedian Louis CK’s acts, deplorable and lewd as they are, could be put on the same level as direct sexual violence.) But, again, none of this should distract us; rather, we should focus on the problems that lie ahead. Although some countries are already experiencing a new post-patriarchal sexual culture (look at Iceland, where two thirds of children are born out of a wedlock, and where women occupy more posts in public institutions than men), one of the most urgent tasks is to explore what we are gaining and losing in the upheaval of traditional courtship procedures. New rules will have to be established in order to avoid a sterile culture of fear and uncertainty –plus, of course, we must make sure that this awakening does not turn into just another case where political legitimization is based on the subject’s victimhood status.

He reads victimhood in terms of the “weird combination of the free subject who experiences himself as being ultimately responsible for his fate, and the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status as a victim of circumstances beyond his control” (pg 6). It reflects an “extreme narcissistic perspective in which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite of, but rather the inherent supplement to, the liberal free subject” (pg 7). I don’t think there’s anything inherently rightward about exploring this thesis, though it being offered as the truth of any social movement or cultural moment is self-evidently absurd.

If we read him charitably though it is clear this is not what he is doing, rather his point is one of collective agency. How do we ensure a “post-patriarchal sexual culture’ can be built? Will trading narratives of victimisation contribute to this project or make it more difficult? But even this most charitable reading seems spectacularly tone deaf, as does his need to qualify the status of Louis CK’s acts. It’s difficult not to perceive a slide here, as a contrarian objection to ‘political correctness’ (something which he clearly misreads to begin with, failing to recognise the profoundly agentive character of it: far from being a diffuse culture of self-censorship, it begins with people making demands) leads to something darker. It’s a more thought provoking read than I expected but there a distinctly alt-light (not alt-right) themes prominent amongst the familiar features of a Žižek text. It remains to be seen where he is going in the longer term.

I thought these reflections by Mariano Zukerfeld on pg 4 of his Knowledge in the Age of Digital Capitalism were absolutely spot on. It would unfair to present this as a characteristic of poststructuralism as such, but there can be a dogmatism to poststructuralist thinkers which is all the more frustrating for their own obliviousness to it:

On the one hand, much of its indisputable publishing success has been based on concepts that, even though they seem attractive initially, are ultimately beautiful but of little use. On the other hand, many of these critical philosophical initiatives, when they engage with discussions about the capitalist economy, adopt concepts from orthodox economics in a completely naturalised and acritical way. Thus, they ascend to their concepts upon the scaffolding provided by the dominant ideology. More generally, I do not share these approaches’ rejection of the categories of totality, contradiction, negativity, and I believe that much of their blithe positivity makes them functional to the dominant ideology of informational capitalism. Finally, this tradition brandishes the banners of difference, otherness, multiplicity. However, in practice it is no more adept at dialogue with difference (in other words with those viewpoints that do not echo its mantras) than any other dogmatism. This intolerance in the face of plurality, debate, and constitutive contradictions, that for Marxism, scientism, or any religion can be explained (disagreeably but with coherence) by the belief that there is one truth, which they are in possession of, is completely unsustainable when observed in these ‘philosophies of difference’ .

This observation from loc 785 of The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Contemporary Theory by Razmig Keucheyan caught my eye. His concern is with the intellectual implications of a generation’s dominance within critical thought:

The new critical theories have not been developed by ‘new’ theorists, if by that is meant biologically young intellectuals. There are, of course, young authors producing innovative critical thinking today, but the critical thinkers recognized in the public sphere are in most cases over 60 years of age and often over 70. The implications of this are not insignificant. However ‘contemporary’, these authors’ analyses are mainly the fruit of political experiences belonging to a previous political cycle –that of the 1960s and 70s.

But what about these young authors and their innovative critical thinking? How is its reception influenced by the prominence of these towering figures in their 60s and 70s? It seems obvious to me there are Matthew effects at work here, with it being easier for the already visible to accumulate visibility for their work. Furthermore, the crisis in monographs means that established intellectual brands are immensely appealing to publishers.

It would be a crass overstatement to accuse ageing critical theorists of squeezing out the younger generation through their frantic rate of publication, something which younger scholars are unable to match for all sorts of reasons. But rejecting this argument as a form of intellectual populism shouldn’t lead us to retreat from the underlying observation. There is a dynamic here which is of great significance for the character and influence of critical thought today.

For the next edition of Social Media for Academics, I’ve been thinking a lot about hybrid formats for presenting theoretical ideas through social media. A really powerful example of this is the video essay Camera Ludica by marco de mutiis which explores photography in video games through a three-part essay combining in game footage, plain text slides and screencasts of browsing scholarly material. Different sources are overlaid against a black canvas, providing a gripping collage of a debate playing itself out in real time. As well as finding the subject itself interesting, I thought this was a fascinating example of a powerful format which sufficiently creative academics could use with relatively little technical skill.

It reminds me of a project Margaret Archer tried to setup a few years ago looking at visualising social theory, using the affordances of digital media to develop ways of expressing theoretical ideas without depending on linear text or the idiosyncratic diagrams of theorists. If theoretical ideas are to survive in the attention economy then we need to become creative in how they are expressed. But there are immense opportunities here to find non-linear ways of exploring theoretical questions which might prove to be engaging to a much broader audience then is typically the case with theoretical publications.

A few months ago, I recounted to a collaborator the details of a foolish mistake I made when planning a special occasion. Assuming the cake would be the easiest item on a long to do list, I left this till last, failing to recognise that cakes of this sort would require a lot of notice. It left me phoning round in a panic, until I eventually found someone who could do it at short notice. My collaborator remarked that he too could have seen himself making such an assumption, recognising aspects of himself in the assumption I had made and the problem it had created. ‘Easiest’ to me was coded as the most immediate and straightforward task, considered in terms of its internal logic, rather than being the  most predictable, quickest or controllable. I suspect this assumption reveals something quite deep about how I’m orientated towards the world, regardless of the counter-factual question of whether I might have planned this process more carefully had I been less stressed about the impending event.

This has left me thinking about the sociology of stupid assumptions. By this I don’t mean those occasions on which we make a mistake due to rushing, error or stress that could easily have been avoided. I mean those mistakes which result from deeply held, though flawed, assumptions running up against the reality of the world. These are assumptions we might not knowingly hold yet which find themselves revealed through our actions. They are the common threads which bind together persistent missteps as we make our way through the world, reflecting a subtle incongruity between the structures of our thought and the structure of the world. They can become things we are aware of and reflect upon, even things which we struggle against. But they are persistent and deep seated, raising the question of where they come from.

The obvious answer to this is the Bourdieusian one, finding the origins of these habits of thought in our original social context. The assumptions of our natal context get reproduced in the assumption we make about the world as adults, with contextual features sedimented into cognitive habits that reflect the world as we were brought up to exist within it rather than the way it is necessarily is. This is a brief sketch but I hope it’s not a facile one because I respect this line of argument and I believe I understand it, even if it’s not possible to convey its depth and sophistication in a short blog post.

Nonetheless I wonder if it can account for the feeling of recognition which my collaborator felt when recognising my stupid assumption as something akin to his own? Can it account for the recognition we come to in ourselves, often isolated from an awareness of class and upbringing because it relates to an assumption so specific that it can be claimed to be inherited only in the tautological sense that it must have come from somewhere? Can it account for the role of technologies in fermenting these assumptions? In my case, I suspect the problem is as much to do with the constraints of the to do list, something I rely upon to an immense degree (as does at least one of my parents), failing as it does to capture contingencies surrounding a task in the sequential logic it imposes upon our tasks. These aren’t really counter-arguments as much as requests for elaboration, reflecting my newfound belief that the sociology of stupid assumptions tracks some of the most interesting questions in social theory.

Why do people do what they do? It is a question at the heart of the human sciences but it is also one we ask in everyday life. However the way we ask it often tracks our prior feelings towards the people we ask it of. For instance, as Jana Bacevic has argued, many fail to grasp the agency of managers and consultants within the ‘neoliberal university’ and through doing so misdiagnose both the intentions of these managers and the system their actions are contributing to.

When people seem to embody systemic tendencies we are critical of, it inevitably slides into a disproval of the people themselves. They are reduced to vectors of these organisational processes, revealing a quotidian Althusserianism which is important to understand if we want to grasp how organisations and systems are imagined by participants within them.

There was an example I came across earlier today which made me think about the role of distance in this process. This is an observation which Richard Brooks makes on pg 14 of his Bean Counters: The Triumph of the Accountants and How They Broke Capitalism:

Few arrive with much sense of vocation or a passion for rooting out financial irregularity and making capitalism safe. They are motivated by good income prospects even for moderate performers, plus maybe a vague interest in the world of business. Many want to keep their options open, noticing the prevalence of qualified accountants at the top of the corporate world; one quarter of chief executives of the FTSE100 largest UK companies are chartered accountants.

The exercise of agency here is provisional and tentative. Rather than rapacious instrumentalists concerned only with maximising their income, we find people keen to keep their options open and seeking agreeable outcomes without hemming themselves in. It is similar to the claim made by Kevin Roose in his superb account of the everyday lives of young financiers on Wall Street:

As strange as it sounds, a big paycheck may not in fact be central to Wall Street’s allure for a certain cohort of young people. This possibility was explained to me several weeks before my Penn trip by a second-year Goldman Sachs analyst, who stopped me short when I posited that college students flock to Wall Street in order to cash in. “Money is part of it,” he said. “But mostly, they do it because it’s easy.” He proceeded to explain that by coming onto campus to recruit, by blitzing students with information and making the application process as simple as dropping a résumé into a box, by following up relentlessly and promising to inform applicants about job offers in the fall of their senior year—months before firms in most other industries—Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers, don’t want to lock themselves in to a narrow preprofessional track by going to law or medical school, and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out. Banks, in other words, have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to those worries. And the irony is that although we think of Wall Street as a risk-loving business, the recruiting process often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.

I’m not suggesting we should take people’s accounts of why they do what they do at face value. If we did, the space to be critical of power and hierarchy would soon collapse in the face of an endless succession of people with apparently good intentions of varying degrees of systematicity. But it does seem important that we also avoid taking our attributions of agency at face value, interrogating what we are imputing to people and the reasons why we might be imputing them.

Though Pat, Kate Thomas and I made initial contributions to the live blogging project yesterday, it really kicked off today when the main Undisciplining conference began. The day started with a short meeting for our co-researchers, before we all set off on our way through the conference. These are the results of day one:

  1. Trying to Say Something Clever – Michael Toze
  2. the person/al and the structural? – Pat Thomson
  3. un-mining, (under-mining?) disciplinarity – Anna Davidson
  4. I am NOT a sociologist, get me out of here! – Julia Molinari
  5. sociology of art as a powerful way to reveal the social – Janna Klostermann
  6. making a sociological board game – Pat Thomson
  7. Being alone at conferences – Mark Carrigan
  8. Structure and Undisciplining – Catherine Price
  9. Questions from the geographical edges – Rosemary Hancock
  10. The Missing Links – interdisciplinary in sociological inquiry – Donna Carmichael
  11. A sociological walk of contrasts – Julia Molinari
  12. The Future versus Bureaucracy – Michael Toze
  13. Live blogging and the cinema experience – Catherine Price
  14. Time to Write – Kate Carruthers Thomas
  15. The dreaded conference dinner – Julia Molinari
  16. When a conference has a meta-conference: reflections on the first day of live blogging at #undisciplining – Mark Carrigan (you didn’t think I was going to miss this off the list did you?)

What an incredible outpouring of creative energy. I hadn’t realised quite how much was written today because I retreated a bit, having my will to engage sapped by being tied up with a seemingly never ending series of tedious technical tasks. It goes without saying that I incorporated this into a blog, itself in part a response to someone who perfectly articulated what I was feeling (and a practical proposal relating to) on Twitter. Plus I found myself interpreting my later mood in relation to later responses. The whole thing is becoming chronically and almost overwhelmingly meta, compounding my own exhaustion but helping me interpret that and relate it to the conference as a whole.

There is a thread of reflectivity winding its way through the conference, increasingly showing signs of spiralling in upon itself as themes percolate outwards and onwards, across platforms and through the face-to-face. It has seemed increasingly obvious to me over the course of the day that the project needs more curation to feed back in on itself. It needs care and effort to frame the blogs and (re)present them undisciplining in a way that invites further responses. This might be through Twitter but it could also be face-to-face. I’ve struggled to do that during the day, with this project slipping to the back of my mind for long periods, though it should be a bit easier to focus tomorrow. But in a way that makes it more interesting because my fluctuating attention highlights the objectivity of what we’re doing, as something uncertainly begins to emerge from the aggregated iteration of the research team.

(I’m cross-posting this on my own blog first because I compulsively record everything that matters to me intellectually there and it’s dawning on me that I’m going to be thinking about this project a lot in the coming months, as much as my current focus is on the day-to-day of the conference. Plus I’m tired in a way that makes the familiarity of my own blog oddly comforting)

I spent much of the recent Accelerated Academy talking about the limitations of the fast/slow dichotomy and my concern that the framing of our series entrenches it. To talk of the ‘accelerated academy’ implies there was once a slow(er) academy and hints that the pathologies we currently face could be overcome by reclaiming what has been lost. It is an account which invites us towards nostalgia, imagining a past which we seek to recover rather than analysing the potential for change we can find latent within our present circumstances. In fact, between myself and Filip, it seemed the fast/slow dichotomy was trashed so much that a few people seemed apologetic when they mentioned it with anything other than condemnation.

So should we dispense with them entirely? Barbara Adam offered a qualified defence of dichotomies, recognising their limitations but insisting on their value as tools to think with. This resonated with me a lot, as someone prone to finding dichotomies in my own thinking yet continually struggling against them. Dichotomies anchor a terrain, laying out a space in a way which help us locate ourselves within it. But they only provide a rough sketch of that space, leaving us disorientated if we retain them as our sole reference points rather than elucidating the territory and exploring its topography.

The problem with dichotomies is not so much their appearance as their persistence, their tendency to prove sticky and our ensuing difficulty in dispensing with them once they have served their original purpose. We shouldn’t banish dichotomies, as much as refuse to take them seriously past a certain point. They can be useful conversation starters and sharpening blocks for our conceptual tools. But if we mistakenly take them as a primary focus then they can fatally undermine our capacity to make sense of a world inevitably more complex than a simplistic opposition can possibly capture.

In her keynote at the Accelerated Academy, Barbara Adam explains how she came to her concept of timescapes. It began with the study of social theory of time, leading her to recognise how “everyone used the same word but they didn’t talk about the same thing” because this was “a multiple compound concept, not a single one”. This was further complicated by interviews with diverse groups about their lived experience of time. The notion of timescales was developed in response to the the necessity of extracting something from the ensuing complexity, providing a sense of how these different facets existed in relationship to one another, as well as what this meant. This led her to develop an account of timescapes, as those features of  time which can be found across contexts: time as frame (imposed periods within which activities takes place), temporality (the processual, changing and cyclical character of lived life), tempo (speed, intensity and velocity), timing (synchronisation and coordination) and modality (past, present, future and our orientation towards them). It was a synthetic concept, drawing together existing conceptual and empirical strands while creating something new and distinct in the process, capable of acting back upon the space of ideas it had responded to in order to organise that space and shape the direction of its development.

It was a fascinating account of how a theoretical framework was developed over years of study. But Adam also explained how you don’t lose theoretical insights, they become part of you and you think with them. She explains how she would invoke these facets in an explicit way when talking and writing theoretically but when doing research they are not things which need to be remembered because through their development they have become part of her. But she continually stressed the role of reflexivity in this process, making explicit what you take for granted and examining any contradictions which might become obvious in the process. She explained that “Tools are ways of looking. They shape what you see. Each tool shapes differently” and advocated a reflexivity about these tools through the process of their development. It was an incredibly stimulating account of what it is to do theory, theorising as a skilled activity, rather than to simply write about theories and theorists. This is what I am exploring in this series of interviews at Social Theory Applied and what myself and Jana Bacevic have tried to address through the Practice of Social Theory Summer School. Our sense is these concerns are curiously absent from graduate education, neglecting the fundamental practical quality of theorising in favour of a narrower conception of working with texts. We need more experienced social theorists to offer accounts of how they have approached theory as an activity, as well as what is stake in how it is undertaken for social theory as a body of work and its relationship to social science as a whole. What gets in the way? Ironically, I think it’s often time pressure, bringing us neatly back to the theme of the conference itself.

In the conclusion to their Envisioning Sociology, John Scott and Ray Bromley reflect on how the project of Patrick Geddes and the sociologists around him came to be forgotten, in spite of the influence they exercised in their own time. This lost tradition of classical British social theory was an energetic and multifaceted engagement with the changing world around them, drawn together in a powerful vision of a sociological movement which sought to reconstruct this world.

How this project failed and how they came to be forgotten within the discipline is a complex story. But one particularly interesting aspect is how the intellectual charisma of Geddes himself might have contributed to this, imbuing the emergent movement with characteristics which lent it dynamism in its own time but failed to equip it to reproduce itself in subsequent generations. From 4554-4569:

The circle was organized around Patrick Geddes as its inspirational and charismatic leader. This was clearly one of its strengths, as it provided the core set of ideas that went largely unchallenged among his followers. This structure was also, however, a source of weakness. Geddes’s charisma as a teacher attracted those who were seeking an answer to fundamental questions. His synoptic vision and the apparent completion of his theoretical system tended to ensure that his followers were immediately and absolutely committed to furthering his work. They believed they had discovered “the truth” and so felt an almost religious obligation to bring this truth to those who had not yet encountered it. They became disciples with a commitment to proselytize on behalf of the master and to take his words to the ignorant masses. As convinced believers, they felt that it was necessary only to bring these ideas to the attention of others for them to recognize and accept their truth. Argument and persuasion were felt to be unnecessary, given the “obviousness” of the ideas once stated. Hence, they emphasized didactic education rather than persuasive discussion. The members of the circle therefore felt no real need to enter into proper dialogue with advocates of other positions. Their absolute certainty—often perceived as arrogance—was viewed with suspicion by their intellectual rivals, who simply ignored what they had to say. Other sociologists felt alienated from the Geddes circle and refused to cooperate in any venture that they thought might be a mere pretense at cooperation designed to impose the Geddes viewpoint. Excluded from expanded professional activities, the Geddes circle became increasingly inward looking. Its members tended to overpromote the work of very minor members of the group, further undermining their credibility in the eyes of others.

I find it hard not to see echoes of these tendencies in critical realism. There’s a much broader lesson here about the dangers of intellectual leadership, as the characteristics which lead ‘schools’ to form can in turn undermine the longevity of their ideas. I’ve long been drawn to the idea of a social life of theory which would unify the conceptual evaluation of theoretical ideas and their sociological explanation as cultural forms. These are two sides of the same coin and going back to the lost traditions, examining the failed projects which one promised so much, helps us look at the contemporary landscape of social theory in a new way.

 

Last night I was sitting in the front row of a plane from Germany to the UK. The couple next to me opened a half bottle of wine, immediately attracting the attention of the cabin crew. The flight attendant came over and turned to them, observing somewhat apologetically that “you should know that it’s against the rules to bring your own alcohol on to a plane and drink it”. There was an awkward silence. Filling the void, he went on to say that “obviously, it’s fine in this case but don’t be surprised if someone stops you in future”. He smiled and walked away, as they continued to pour their drinks without having spoken a word.

I found this encounter interesting because it represents an example of normativity failing to reproduce itself. There is an expectation inscribed in the role of the passenger (not to consume alcohol that was purchased outside the plane) and an expectation inscribed in the role of the flight attendant (to ensure passengers meet the expectations they are subject to) which entails a relationship between them. However this relationship between social roles is played out in interaction between people and this is where the problem for normativity arises. Normativity relies on human concern for its reproduction. The parties to a normatively relevant interaction have to recognise the norm in question, see it as worth reproducing for whatever reason and be inclined to take action to do so. For avoidance of doubt, I obviously recognise that the reasons why a norm might be enforced or not, in relation to particular others within a specific context are hugely variable, with different contributions to the reproduction of existing inequalities.

This is why I always found the language of endorsement and enforcement used by Dave Elder-Vass problematic. In his account these things run together whereas, it seems to me, they are often separate. Furthermore, it is easy to find countless instances of norms being identified, while neither being endorsed nor enforced. This is why I found the interaction I witnessed so interesting. It was also charming, affable and human. The flight attendant didn’t care, clearly recognising the couple would create no problems and, it seemed, feeling there would be no legitimacy in his enforcing the expectation under these conditions. Likewise the couple would presumably have felt irritated if the expectation had been enforced, in the absence of any harm they were causing with their actions.

But what happens at the macro-social level when these micro-social failures of normativity become pervasive? Are they a constant possibility inherent in human interaction? Or might they become more likely under certain social conditions? Do they tend to spiral? Does a failure to enforce expectations make you less likely to do so in future? How do organisations respond to this if they become cognisant that these norms aren’t enforced? Do they fall back on sanctions to try and correct this? If so, what effect do these punishments have on the perceived legitimacy of the norm in question and whether the parties tasked with enforcing it actually endorse it?

On the outbound leg of the same trip, I saw another interaction which relates to this discussion. The airline in question recently instituted a new baggage policy which has proved controversial with passengers. Again sitting in the front row (it turns out to be a brilliant spot for people watching) I watched person after person board the plane, holding a bag which had been labelled to be put in the hold, explaining to the flight attendant why they needed and/or were entitled to store it on the plane. I had no way to assess the reasons that were cited but we can assume that at least some of them were fabricated. The flight attendant argued in some cases and gave up in others, clearly finding the mechanics of the new policy utterly wearying. When the boarding had finished, one of the baggage handlers came up to confer with her about the number of bags in the hold. A tense interaction ended with him saying “it’s your choice whether you enforce the rules”. I couldn’t have phrased the problem of normativity better myself.

The network scientist Emmanuel Lazega studies collegiality and bureaucracy as ideal typical forms of social organisation which co-exist in a fluctuating balance within organisations. Collegiality involves actors recognising each other as autonomous, existing in relationship to each other and necessitating consensus as a preliminary for what will always be non-routine action. Bureaucracy merely requires interaction, being organised around hierarchy and impersonal relationships, operating through routine action. 

As I understand Lazega’s outlook, these modes of organisation always exist in tension because collegiality is a threat to bureaucracy, as the formation of collectivity between autonomous actors intrinsically carries the possibility of solidarity and subversion. What are otherwise bureaucratic organisation rely on residual collegiality, often organised into what Lazega describes as ‘pockets’, in order to perform non-routine tasks which necessitate creativity. However bureaucracy remains suspicious of collegiality, seeking to minimise its overall function and the autonomous character within the collegial  coordination which remains necessary within the organisation.

The ethnography of Dreamfields academy undertaken by Christy Kulz in her Factories for Learning offers a vivid account of strategies which bureaucracy adopts in its war against collegiality. From loc 1221:

A staple in most schools, the omission of a staff room was another design decision described by SMT members as a positive move to prevent factionalism and increase productivity. Mr Vine feels staff rooms are places ‘where staff go and hide out and try to avoid students’ and are ‘a breeding ground for negativity … where people get together and talk about others or moan’. Mr Davis thinks the lack of a staff room fits ‘the businesslike nature of the school’. Administrator Mr Fields feels private-sector businesses and Dreamfields share a similar work ethic: 

“There is no doubt that people at the school work very hard … it’s not a question of, well, you come here and you can relax for the first hour and have a cup of tea and have a long lunch break, which I think is probably still the case in some local authorities, but here people do work really hard. “

Eradicating the staff room symbolically severs Dreamfields from the perception that local authorities are unproductive spaces in comparison to private businesses, responding to narratives of public-sector failure. Staff taking a break or talking to one another are framed as troublesome activities eliminated by preventing congregation.

The teachers are only too aware of how this prevents them gathering together. As one describes, it is “very clever that we don’t have a staff room ’cause it means that people work harder then, and they can moan, but they moan less because there are not so many people gathered together, moaning together” (loc 1241) This ‘moaning together’ might otherwise be the coalescence of collectivity from which a challenge to the bureaucratic organisation of the school might ensue. The headteacher describes a similar concern to break up collectivities of children: “We do not have groups of more than six or seven congregating together. If you see large groups of children, you need to break them up so they do not cause silliness and mayhem” (loc 1241). They even breakup such congregations outside the school grounds. Such ‘silliness and mayhem’ is precisely what bureaucracy fears in collegiality and why it seeks to stamp it out.

Call for Papers: AMCIS 2018
Minitrack: Social Theory in Information Systems Research (STIR ’18)
Track: Social Inclusion (SIGSI)24th Americas Conference on Information Systems (AMCIS), Aug. 16-18, 2018
New Orleans, LA, USA

This minitrack solicits papers using social theory to critically examine ICTs and their roles in enabling and constraining social inclusion. What can be done to improve access to computing for underrepresented groups? In what ways do new technologies impact digital divides? What are the social, cultural, political, and economic implications of the Internet of things? These are examples of the kinds of questions we are interested in exploring in this minitrack. We are particularly interested in completed or emerging research using social theory to address the conference theme, Digital Disruption, critically examining the ways in which emerging technologies are changing the sociotechnical landscape in ways that narrow or widen the digital divide.

This will be the 18th consecutive year for STIR, and we hope to continue a tradition of high quality papers, and thought-provoking and lively discussion for IS researchers using social theory in their work.

In addition to research aligned with the conference theme we are also interested in high quality empirical and conceptual work that uses social theory to investigate issues such as (but not limited to):

• Improving access to computing for underrepresented minorities
• Reengineering the pipeline in STEM education for greater inclusiveness and diversity
• Critically assessing the ways in which ICTs and information systems can be used to privilege some and exclude others
• Understanding the impacts of the Internet of Things on the digital divide
• Assessing the unintended consequences of technology implementation and use in organizations and in social life
• Reflection on the ways in which ICT assemblages support and challenge political, cultural, and economic hegemonies.

Mini-Track chairs

Howard Rosenbaum, Indiana University  hrosenba@indiana.edu
Pnia Fichman, Indiana University  fichman@indiana.edu

Submission Instructions:

https://amcis2018.aisnet.org/submissions/call-for-papers/

Important Dates:

January 15, 2018: Manuscript submissions open
February 28, 2018: Deadline for paper submissions
April 18, 2018: Authors will be notified of decisions
April 25, 2018: Camera-ready submissions due

ICA Pre-Conference “ARTICULATING VOICE. THE EXPRESSIVITY AND PERFORMATIVITY OF MEDIA PRACTICES”

Sponsored by the Philosophy, Theory and Critique (PTC) Division of the International Communication Association

Event date: 24 May 2018, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Prague, Czech Republic

Deadline for proposals: 10 January 2018 (300-500 words abstract)

Location: Main Conference Hotel

Organizers: Christian Pentzold (University of Bremen), Kenzie Burchell (University of Toronto), Olivier Driessens (University of Cambridge), Alice Mattoni (Scuola Normale Superiore), John Postill (RMIT University), Cara Wallis (Texas A&M University)

“Media matter most when they seem not to matter at all.” (Wendy Chun) But how can we understand the practices through which innovations in media and digital data move from being unexpected, novel, and impactful to the negotiated, embedded, and habitual?

The pre-conference takes issue with the mundane yet pervasive nature of media habits, rituals, and customs. It assesses the purchase of practice-based approaches in order to see under what conditions and with what consequences they enter studies in communication and media. In particular, we invite participants to consider the expressive and performative dimension of what people actually do and say in relation to media and to the wider communication ecologies in which these articulations take place. We are especially interested in contributions that examine how voices are expressed, represented, or muted and that study the ways practices of voice combine, overlap, or collide with other mediated activities in contemporary societies. With this, we strive for an explanation and critical appreciation of media practices whose accomplishment is a perennial exercise in which we find ourselves immersed.

We welcome theoretical and/or empirical contributions on questions including:

How can we theorize and study the interplay between media-related practices and technologies, discourses, or institutions? How are these constellations created, maintained, and transformed? How do praxeological approaches correspond to other inquiries into speech acts, media rituals, or media habits?
What resources and skills are mobilized in order to perform voices? What is the meaning of the work that goes into activities of voicing? How do they contribute to or undermine the constitution of public spheres, privacy, and civic life in past and contemporary societies?
How do we grasp media practices empirically, and how do we analyze them across modes of expression, across cultures, different times, and ages? How can we challenge and advance the kinds of translation and transformation happening in-between the situated enactment of media practices and the descriptions and stories of scholarly accounts?
How can we understand the ways through which media practices are accomplished in social fields? How are they deployed in struggles for gaining voice and visibility as in political communication and journalism, participation and mobilization, health communication, or science communication? How have media practices changed over time and in relation to innovations in digitization and datafication?
Responses to the contributions will be given by Elisenda Ardèvol (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya); Maria Bakardjieva (University of Calgary), S. Elizabeth Bird (University of Southern Florida); Nick Couldry (London School of Economics and Political Science).

Please email a 300-500 words proposal to Christian Pentzold (christian.pentzold[at]uni-bremen.de) by January 10, 2018.

Authors will be notified of their acceptance before January 31, 2018.

Please direct any questions to: Alice Mattoni (alice.mattoni[at]sns.it) or Christian Pentzold (christian.pentzold[at]uni-bremen.de).

More info can be found here: http://www.zemki.uni-bremen.de/de/veranstaltungen/tagungen/articulating-voice-the-expressivity-and-performativity-of-media-practices.html