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.

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 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

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.

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.

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 a 500-1500 word article, attached within the body of the e-mail, as well as biographical details to be displayed with the post.

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.  

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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.

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.

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.

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)

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

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.”