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  • Mark 7:07 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    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 10:02 am on June 1, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , sociological imagination, , tufekci   

    Game of Thrones: from sociological to psychological storytelling 

    My notes on Tufekci, Z (2019) The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones. Scientific American: Observations. May 2019.

    This fascinating piece reflects on Game of Thrones as “sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual”, driven by characters who “evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them”. That is until the final season which has provoked so much ire amongst fans. When the show ran ahead of its source material, the new show runners turned towards a psychological mode of storytelling which radically changed the character of the show.

    This is a problem because so much of what made the show gripping, argues Tufekci, rested in the sociological character of its storytelling. Major characters were regularly killed yet the story could proceed because its poetics was not dependent upon them. This breaks from the dominant approach in which “a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics” is what drives the narrative. This differs from sociological storytelling:

    “the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life. People then fit their internal narrative to align with their incentives, justifying and rationalizing their behavior along the way.”

    We tend to seek personalised explanations for the behaviour of those around us, described by social psychologists as the fundamental attribution error. In contrast we are often capable of contextual explanations for our own behaviour, recognising how it has been shaped by forces external to us. If I understand Tufekci’s argument correctly, sociological storytelling can lift us outside of the everyday in this sense, offering a new vantage point for making sense of the world. This is what game of thrones did:

    “That tension between internal stories and desires, psychology and external pressures, institutions, norms and events was exactly what Game of Thrones showed us for many of its characters, creating rich tapestries of psychology but also behavior that was neither saintly nor fully evil at any one point. It was something more than that: you could understand why even the characters undertaking evil acts were doing what they did, how their good intentions got subverted, and how incentives structured behavior. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.”

    She observes that this permits identification with any character, as opposed to merely the ‘good’ ones. It encourages the sociological imagination by letting us imagine how we might make similar choices under those circumstances. The Wire is another example of sociological storytelling in this sense, with the star of each series being a particular institution within the city. The sociological genre helps us understand social change, while the psychological undermines that understanding by reducing it to the unpredictable actions of capricious individuals driven by internal dynamics which are always somewhat opaque to us. She draws a fascinating comparison to how digital elites are written about to explain digital change:

    “There are a significant number of stories, books, narratives and journalistic accounts that focus on the personalities of key players such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos. Of course, their personalities matter, but only in the context of business models, technological advances, the political environment, (lack of) meaningful regulation, the existing economic and political forces that fuel wealth inequality and lack of accountability for powerful actors, geopolitical dynamics, societal characteristics and more.”

    • landzek 2:44 am on June 2, 2019 Permalink

      Lol. I’m not even going to “like“ this post. Because I thought the whole things was fabulous. Beginning to end. And I put my two-cents in a post a couple weeks ago, And it didn’t need a book.

      I realize that you are doing an analysis from the social standpoint, so that’s cool.

      But one should realize that even the first season did not stick with the books. The original made for television series was already not adhering to the storyline of the books from the beginning. So the idea that somehow as the seasons went on it got away from the actual story that Martin Wrote is not really correct. I’m about 3/4 through the second book and I am already amazed how different this story i i’m about 3/4 through the second book and for sure it stayed somewhat close to the books, but I’m also amazed how much it didn’t. And so there’s even the social narrative component that developed as more people started liking the series about 3-4 years into it.

      Yeah I think that person in your blog post analysis is somewhat correct: people start watching the show and they start to demand that the writers of the show adhere to the audiences, as a single person thinking that there is this common audience, idea of how the plot should go.

      As I put in my post, the whole idea of entertainment is that it does not follow real psychological manifestations of human beings; I would argue that the great novels of our time and the great shows of our time did not exhibit a real psychologically Sound human being; rather they put in front of us a totally fictional idea of what a human being is, and that is why they are so great.

      This phenomenon of Game of Thrones as people started disliking the way the writers made the show in the last couple seasons shows the problem with our modern idea of what is good: The real human being is confusing it self with the object of its entertainment. And over intellectualization of a piece of entertainment by the people that see themselves as intelligent who really are not that intelligent, Frank to say.

      What this really shows is that the very idea of education and intelligence is losing Ground. Not against some held up standard of what those mean. But that is for another comment. 🤘🏾

    • Mark 4:16 pm on June 3, 2019 Permalink

      I think you kind of missed her point! Would recommend reading the original article as it speaks directly to your concern

    • landzek 2:59 am on June 5, 2019 Permalink

      Well that’s good 👌🏿. I’ll take your word for it. I suddenly became slammed between work and school. I’m thinking I’m gonna give up and be homeless camper and live off Spanging and throwing signs in the side of the road this is so ridiculous 😝. I think I’ve heard of more than a few very intelligent , even a tenured professor once, who just say fuck this stupid shit. And go homeless. And jobless.

      God that would be great. 🥑

    • Mark 8:15 am on June 5, 2019 Permalink

      Good luck!

  • Mark 12:31 pm on October 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , sociological imagination, ,   

    Erving Goffman: the rag-and-bone man of Sociology 

    There’s a wonderful essay by the playwright Alan Bennet in the London Review of Books, written 35+ years ago, reflecting on his fascination with Erving Goffman’s micro-sociology. His preoccupation was with the minutiae of everyday conduct, identified and described so astutely in Goffman’s work. Sociological observations in this register highlight our commonality, helping us see that individual experiences we assumed to be idiosyncratic are in fact shared by others.

    But while sociology itself remains arcane, this power is mere latency, standing as “a secret between me and the author” with the incidents in question “our private joke”. As Bennett puts it, “Individuals knew they behaved in this way, but Goffman knew everybody behaved like this and so did I”. There is a pleasure to be taken in such private jokes, so easily guarded through insular vocabularies within peripheral publications. Even if, as Bennett observes, “the books I once thought so private are piled promiscuously on any campus counter at the start of every term”, the power of these observations remains limited to a small subset of those within the walls of the university campus.

    If the work of any sociologist could breach these boundaries, it surely was Goffman’s. Much as Sociology is a scavenger discipline, Goffman himself was a scavenger intellectual, producing texts strewn with ephemera collected from beyond the rarefied boundaries of the ivory tower:

    Sociology begins in the dustbin and sociologists have always been licensed rag-and-bone men trundling their carts round the backyards of the posher academic establishments. The Benjamin Franklin Professor has done the rounds of more backyards than most, scavenging in anthropology, psychology and social administration, besides picking up a lot of useful jumble ‘on the knocker’: his books are larded with strips of personal experience, enlivened with items from newspapers, the annals of crime and the dustbins of showbiz. It’s this (and the look of so many quotations on the page) that makes his work initially inviting and accessible to a general reader like me. He writes with grace and wit and raises the odd eyebrow at those in his profession who don’t, though he can’t be too censorious of jargon, having invented a lot himself.


    He writes in a “vivid, impressionistic way” which often remains “tentative and exploratory”. It is this mode of expression which ensures that he “so regularly startles one into self-recognition”, as his predominately descriptive analysis proves able to make the familiar strange. Bennett cites Goffman’s own statement of ambitions in Frame analysis:

    I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.

    I’ve often wondered about the impulse beyond reality television. I recognise this is a complex topic that has produced a vast and multifaceted literature. But I sometimes suspect there’s a sociological impulse at work in its popularity, alongside many other factors shaping ‘supply’ and ‘demand’. Do many of us share a fascination with watching how people snore?  This curiosity about others, what we share with them and how they differ, provides a foundation for interest in sociological observation which is predominately met from outside the academy. Goffman’s was an unusually descriptive sociological imagination, prone to making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, but it was a superlative example of this pole of the sensibility that invited others with a more explanatory disposition to build upon his work. As Bennett goes on to write:

    I go to sociology, not for analysis or explication, but for access to experience I do not have and often do not want (prison, mental illness, birthmarks). Goffman treats these closed areas as lying alongside normal experience (or the experience of ‘normals’) in a way that makes them familiar and accessible. The approach is robust, humane and, despite his disclaimer, moral. ‘The normal and the stigmatised are not persons but perspectives,’ he writes in Stigma, ‘and it should come as no surprise that in many cases he who is stigmatised in one regard nicely exhibits all the normal prejudices held towards those who are stigmatised in another regard.’


    He goes on to explain how Goffman’s concepts come to form part of individual experience, as the possibility of categorising changes our relationship to that which we categorise:

    One of the pleasures of reading Goffman is in taxonomy: items that one has had lying around in one’s mind for ages can be filed neatly away. Like a caption I saw years ago and am delighted now to dignify as a leaky utterance: a newspaper picture of a drama group headed ‘Blackburn Amateurs examine each other’s parts.’ And another (which ought to be in Goffman’s book if only because the reasoning behind the remedial work is so complex and ultimately futile). Dorothy Killgallan, an American columnist, began a radio talk: ‘Tonight I am going to consider the films of Alfred Hitchcack … cock! … CACK!’ I wouldn’t like to see Mr Schegloff et al. let loose on that one.


    Reading Bennett’s account renews my confidence that there’s a public interest in Sociology of the sort I’ve always been drawn to, far beyond any instrumental concern for application. It can illuminate the human condition, enriching individual experience, if it is written and presented in a way which facilitates the exercise of this power. Unfortunately, the academy militates against this but social media offers opportunities to circumvent these constraints.

    • Martha Bell 9:27 pm on October 14, 2017 Permalink

      Lovely post Mark.

    • Mark 6:00 pm on October 16, 2017 Permalink

      Thanks, it’s a wonderful essay it responds to. Possibly one of my favourite ones by a non-sociologist about sociology.

  • Mark 7:13 pm on March 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , sociological imagination,   

    Opening up @soc_imagination as a platform for public engagement 

    In my talk at the Digital Sociology conference in New York in February 2015 (available online here) I explained my enthusiasm for the new possibilities afforded by social media for doing research in real time with communities. These are the two examples I’m familiar with but I’d like to know about any others that exist.

    1. Every minute of every day was an experiment in ‘real time ethnography’ undertaken by Les Back and others at Goldsmiths. You can read about it here. Unfortunately the project’s website is no longer online because it was hosted on Posterous website. This is sad and highlights some of the risks involved in relying upon commercial problems.
    2. The Barrio Ed Project is a “digital, participatory research project on Comunidades Latinos & EdReform”. You can read more about it here.

    One potential constraint upon these projects is the absence of a pre-existing audience. In some cases this won’t be a problem but in others I expect it will be and interesting work will be done that would benefit from a much wider audience. The life cycle of any project makes it difficult to gather an audience purely for that project. Obviously an audience doesn’t constitute a public but in many cases the project might benefit from a public and an audience.

    Given that the original idea for SociologicalImagination.org was a platform for public sociology, I’d love to open it up for use by research projects if it would be helpful. The twitter feed has almost 17,400 followers and the blog gets 1000-3000 page views per day so there’s a significant audience already in place. I’m not sure exactly how this would work in practice but if you’d like to discuss it further then please do get in touch. My e-mail address is mark AT markcarrigan.net.

  • Mark 8:25 pm on October 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , sociological imagination,   

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

    This essay by Milena Kremakova and myself reflecting on the sociological imagination blog has been reprinted in the Warwick Sociology Journal, having been floating around the internet for a while. It’s a slightly strange beast, equal parts reflective case study and C Wright Mills fanboyism:

    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.


  • Mark 6:38 pm on July 6, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , sociological imagination, , ,   

    Bev Skeggs discusses the contemporary sociological imagination with Les Back 

    In this lovely dialogue hosted on the Goldsmiths website, thanks to Dave Beer for flagging it up, Bev Skeggs discusses the contemporary sociological imagination with Les Back. To begin they discuss discomfort and dislocation as an integral aspect of the sociological imagination, engendering an inability to take the familiarity of things for granted, instead prompting a search for the patterns underlying it:

    Les: It can be about discomfort. I think sometimes often people come to sociology with an incredible sense of discomfort or dislocation. I have something within myself, you know, a discomfort, a disquiet sense of not quite fitting in place or being out of place, or even being confined or suffocated by the place in the world that one occupies, you know.

    Bev: So it’s about a complete lack of ontological security?

    Les: It can be–, sometimes students are absolutely suffocated by that lack of ontology. Of a sense of, you know, ‘I just don’t fit in this world’…

    Bev: Or know how to? On a tangent, this is very interesting in terms of Bourdieu’s habitus, because he had the model of subjectivity, which is about fitting dispositions to positions, and I’ve always thought it was highly problematic because I think most people just do not fit the fields into which they are positioned. It’s a theory of adaption that does not work for me.

    Les: And in a sense he was betrayed in his own biography. It is a sense of being displaced; being displaced not only from the world he enters in the Ecole Normale and all that whole world that he described in Homo Academicus, but he also doesn’t fit in the world in which he identifies so strongly

    I found the critique of Bourdieu here particularly interesting. As Bev Skeggs puts it, “he is trying to understand that lack of fit, but then he comes to a theory of fit.” This prompts a lovely exchange about ‘crampedness’ and its relationship to the sociological imagination.

    Bev: And you’re saying that you think the politics–, and let’s be clear, it’s the politics of the sociological imagination, is understanding the lack of fit?

    Les: A lack of fit or I think a sense of kind of suffocation often people feel in their place in the world.

    Bev: Crampedness?

    Les: Crampedness, being hemmed in, there’s something very powerful in Mills’ formulation when he says–, although I’m not sure it holds true now, but he  says, people experience themselves as if they’re spectators in their own lives.

    You know, and I think there’s something about that that is very powerful as a formulation, as an invitation. And I suppose what the politics of the sociological imagination and I’ll just put to one side the question of what you do with sociological imagination as a practice, but part of the politics I think is to have an enlarged sense of an understanding of one’s place in the world.

    The whole thing can and should be read in full here. There’s one additional section I can’t resist quoting (and not only because it offers such an eloquent formulation of why the Wire is sociologically fascinating):

    Bev: So you’re saying what’s happened is that the technologies of sociology, say, the methods of empirical understanding, be it measurement or ethnography, are detached from a very particular form of sociological attention, a detachment from critical political understandings of power relations, and it’s that detachment that has enabled the spread of the sociological imagination but only in its limited technical forms

    Les: I think sometimes it’s reduced to those bare technical forms and other times it’s really fantastically alive, at its most imaginative. And that’s part of the–, of the difficulty in summing up exactly that thing about where sociological imagination has moved to, because partly, you know, I think in some ways the
    sociological imagination is much more alive in The Wire than it is in most seminars about urban ethnography.

    Bev: And that I would want to argue, is because The Wire pays attention to big explanations whilst locating those big explanations, which are institutional, they’re economic, in characters. So it comes back to what you were saying about how the characters’ crampedness carries the precarious conditions of the global in which they creatively struggle to survive. So it’s not about positioning them as passive or victims, it’s about looking at how people are struggling within those incredibly cramped conditions, paying attention to that intensity of struggle and the reasons for it.

  • Mark 7:51 am on May 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: sociological imagination,   

    I just realised @soc_imagination is 4 years old tomorrow 

    And one of the things that has surprised me is how global it has become. According to Google Analytics, it’s been accessed from 211 different countries in the past 4 years:

    Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 08.49.48

  • Mark 8:53 pm on April 1, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , sociological imagination,   

    CfP: What are conferences for? The Political economy of academic events 

    The Sociological Imagination invites short articles (500-1500 words) critically reflecting upon the prevailing forms of intellectual meeting within the contemporary academy. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? How could they be done differently? What are the sociological implications of these standardised forms of intellectual meeting? Whose voices do they amplify and whose do they suppress? What behaviour do they reward and what behaviour do they discourage? What are their intellectual implications? How far does intellectual form follow conference function, limiting time and expression in the interests of the event’s logistics? Why do people attend seminars? Why do people attend events? What are the wider significance of these common reasons? Are there other motivations for attending academic events which tend to be squeezed out in the neoliberal academy. How might we do things differently? What alternative forms can we imagine? What would the implications for the academy be of DIY academic events becoming common? We’re particularly interested in receiving articles on the political economy of conferences, seminars and workshops? 

    If you would like to submit an article please send mark@markcarrigan.net a 500-1500 word article, attached within the body of the e-mail, as well as biographical details to be displayed with the post.

  • Mark 7:27 pm on January 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: adverts, google ads, sociological imagination,   

    No more google adverts for @soc_imagination 

    There have been a few instances of really problematic adverts since I registered the site for Google Ads a year and a half ago. But Wonga is a step too far. I’ve been as picky as the system will allow me to be in setting which categories of advert are acceptable for the site but problematic things still turn up. It’s a shame because the ads were a useful contribution to the costs of the virtual server which I’m now quite attached to (which hosts Discover Society, Campaign for the Public University, Digital Sociology and others) but the site does look much better now the adverts are gone.  

    Screen shot 2014-01-22 at 19.22.33

  • Mark 7:16 pm on May 26, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , sociological imagination,   

    Digital scholarship and the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility” 

    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.

    C. Wright Mills 50 Years On: The Promise and Craft of Sociology Revisited

    What implications does social media have for this ‘serious crisis in literacy’? I’m thinking about this question for a book chapter I’m working on about para-academics and social media. I’m trying to argue that calls for digital scholarship to be ‘recognised’ should be treated cautiously because of the risk that the incorporation of digital outputs into the evaluative frameworks of contemporary higher education would risk distorting many of the aspects of digital scholarship which are most refreshing. I think academic bloggers enjoy a degree of freedom from the sorts of pressures which concerned Mills and, with sufficient ‘mainstreaming’, perhaps this could be threatened.

    However I don’t want to overstate the case here, not least of all because I’m aware that unless I’m consciously ‘writing an article’ I tend to be rather lazy when I blog. So I’m not for a second suggesting that online communication represents an absolute avoidance of this tendency to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’. However when this does happen, I’d argue it is for entirely different reasons e.g. time pressure, seeing the medium as informal, seeing blog posts as provisional. Furthermore I think it confers an important freedom to experiment intellectually, reinforced by the concomitant liberation from any prior formatting constraints i.e. the freedom to write 20 words or 2000 as the situation demands helps with the iterative development of ideas.

    This has made me think about how I approach my own writing though. I tend to see stylistic editing as a form of polishing, sometimes necessary but not something I particularly value or enjoy. However I’m increasingly uncomfortable with what I now see as an instrumental understanding of the value of improving my writing because, now I’ve thought about it, it seems obvious that  blogging could constitute an extremely rewarding forum in which to deliberately and reflectively work on your own writing. This is one of many things I think Mills would have approved of about blogging.

  • Mark 12:52 pm on May 2, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , sociological imagination, ,   

    The Transformation of Academic Practice – Interview with Martin Weller, author of the Digital Scholar 

    In this podcast I talk to Martin Weller, author of the Digital Scholar, about the changes which digital technology is bringing about within academia and where they might ultimately lead. It’ll be up on Sociological Imagination at the end of this week or early next week.

  • Mark 2:14 pm on April 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: britsoc 2012, , , , sociological imagination, , sociology's moments,   

    John Holmwood on “Sociology’s ‘moments’: C. Wright Mills and the critique of professionalism” 

    John Holmwood’s talk “Sociology’s ‘moments’: C. Wright Mills and the critique of professionalism” from the C Wright Mills session I organised at the BSA conference in Leeds. Will go up on Sociological Imagination once I’ve finished editing the session and gathering the related material I want to post up with it.

  • Mark 1:07 pm on April 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , radical ambition, sociological imagination, ,   

    Les Back on Sociology’s Promise 

    Les Back’s talk ‘sociology’s promise’ from the C Wright Mills session I organised at the BSA conference in Leeds. Will go up on Sociological Imagination once I’ve finished editing the session and gathering the related material I want to post up with it.

    There are two books Les mentions in the talk which are fantastic. I’ve been meaning to write reviews of them for quite a while actually:



    (edit to add: for some reason the embedding isn’t working. that’s a bit irritating)

  • Mark 10:36 am on November 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: dougald hine, sociological imagination, the university project,   

    The University Project 

    In this podcast I’m talking to Dougald Hine about the University Project. If you’re interested in the project and would like to get involved in something similar in your area of the country, check out the SI list of radical education projects. Get in touch if there’s any other projects you want added to the list.

    The University Project

  • Mark 8:49 am on October 7, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , politics of austerity, sociological imagination,   

    “There’s no money left in the kitty”: austerity politics and the deficit of sociological imagination 

    In this presentation I will explore the unfolding of austerity politics in the UK in terms of longstanding tendencies towards the narrowing of political and cultural horizons in political life. I argue that this trend can, at root, be understood in terms of a ‘deficit of sociological imagination’ in mainstream political discourse. While Wright-Mills felt able to write in 1959 that ‘the sociological imagination is becoming, I believe, the major common denominator of of our cultural life and its signal feature’, there has been a precipitous decline in its prominence and significance since he made this (perhaps overly optimistic) claim. I suggest that without sociological imagination ‘private troubles’ become connected to ‘public issues’ in ideological and one-dimensional modes which, in denying the possibility of alternatives, so too undercuts the feasibility of political agency for large swathes of the populace. I frame my arguments in terms of what I take to be the most egregious and radical manifestation of this tendency: the contemporary politics of austerity.

    Abstract for panel on C Wright Mills at BSA Conference 2012

  • Mark 12:08 pm on August 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , sociological imagination, ,   

    #UKRiots and Sociological Imagination 

    Tottenham Riots

    So with London in flames for the third night in a row and, for the first time, disturbances spreading outside of the capital, the British population are asking the natural question – what the fuck is going on? The most frequent, as well as understandable, response to this question has been moral condemnation.

    Yet calling these riots ‘lawless looting’ or ‘pure criminality’ isn’t explanation, it’s description. In the last 48 hours of being obsessively glued to coverage of events (on social media and traditional media) one of the things that’s stood out most to me is antipathy to the former response in favor of the latter. Many people seem to assume that attempts to explain the riots are tantamount to moral justification, as if recognizing causal factors beyond the proclivities of particular individuals involved – or a purported culture they share – erases responsibility for their actions.

    In extreme cases this manifests itself in outright racism and classism but, in more moderate forms, it merely stands as a refusal to seriously engage with the severity of events. Rather than trying to understand how and why these riots are happening, it’s implied that they’re an inevitable consequence of the characteristics of those involved: given sufficient opportunity criminals will pursue criminal acts. Yet it would be a mistake to jump to the opposite extreme and argue that ‘austerity has caused these riots’, as if that’s all that needs to be said to explain the pretty much unprecedented scenes we’re all watching.

    At root, this can almost be construed as a methodological dispute about the central sociological question of structure and agency: should an event like this be explained in terms of the action of people involved or in terms of wider social forces shaping that action? The obvious excluded middle is that it’s both: public policy at both a metropolitan and national level, as well as the wider political and economic environment within which that policy is enacted, has shaped the life circumstances which different groups within cities encounter on a day-to-day basis. A plethora of cultural changes, some driven by these policies and others relatively independent, have shaped how different groups experience, interpret and respond to these circumstances (not least of all the spread of social media and smarts phones, which have been central to the organization, coverage and clean up of the riots).

    This might seem an overly abstract way of looking at such extreme events but these questions aren’t going to go away. Over the coming days, weeks and months we’re going to hear many suggested explanations of these events: breakdown of authority, youth unemployment, gang culture, failing educational systems, declining family structures, failures of multiculturalism, local government cuts, police cuts, declining educational opportunities, entrenched poverty etc. The right will invoke micro factors (some entirely accurate, others with a kernel of truth, many which are offensive nonsense) while the left will invoke macro factors (austerity, unemployment and disenfranchisement) and be condemned by the great and the good of the right-wing press for ‘point-scoring’ and ‘political opportunism’. Meanwhile, conspicuous by its absence, will be what C Wright Mills called the Sociological Imagination, the capacity to knit together the macro and the micro – the personal and the historical – through the recognition that:

    “The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women. When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a person is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a person takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesperson becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar operator; a wife or husband lives alone; a child grows up without a parent. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”

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