Reading the philosopher Daniel Little’s reflection on eleven years of Understanding Society, I found myself wondering how blogging will be seen when we are surrounded by personal blogs which are decades old? The blog you are reading is eight years old this month, superseding a sequence of blogs which covered a further seven years before this. Its form and content have changed significantly in that time but its underlying purpose has not, cataloguing my intellectual engagement in a more or less thorough way during that time. It has ranged from what C Wright Mills called fringe thoughts through to elaborate reflections, even documenting an entire program of research on asexuality from start to finish.

It seems likely to be something I will stick with, leaving me wondering about how I will feel about it in twenty, thirty or forty years time? What will be the significance for intellectual culture when there are many of these elaborate texts of such an age? How will they be interpreted as what Ken Plummer called documents of life? In my more pretentious moments, I’m starting to wonder if the sheer fact of sustaining a blog like this over a long period of time has intellectual significance in and of itself, above and beyond the many ways in which it provides the soil from which other more familiar intellectual endeavours tend to grow.

In the new year, I’ll be giving a talk at the Arctic University of Norway on using social media as a social theorist. This post is an initial attempt to get my thoughts on paper before the break, in order to make it easier to get the talk written when I get back from holiday. It might seem that using social media as a social theorist would be little different from using it as a sociologist or as an academic. For this reason, I’d be inclined to start with an introduction to social media for academics, before turning to the opportunities and challenges attached to social theory in particular. Here are the immediate ideas that have occurred to me but I’d hugely welcome further suggestions about topics it would be useful to cover:

  1. On an intellectual level, social theory cuts across fields and disciplines. On an institutional level, social theorists are embedded within existing networks and particular departments. The opportunities which social media offers to facilitate connections across disciplinary boundaries, the possibility to “curate the ideal academic department”, becomes even more valuable because of this intellectual/institutional tension. The talk will cover cross-platform strategies for building these connections and integrating them into everyday work routines.
  2. Many social theorists face a pressure to be more than a theorist, demonstrating empirical and/or methodological proficiency in order to ensure their employability. Social media can be a release vale which helps cope with the internal and external tensions generated by this demand. It also offers opportunities for those who “may toil in relative isolation from others who share their immediate interests”.
  3. The fragmentation of social theory creates practical challenges, as the opportunity costs of scholarship mean that mastery of a particular area can make it difficult to keep up to date with wider developments. Social media can provide invaluable in keeping up with new developments, drawing on much wider networks which can be built. It also provides accessible routes into new areas, as other social theorists reflecting on what they are reading can serve as a valuable bridge into a new literature.
  4. The opportunities which social media offers for pre-publication and post-publication exchange reduces reliance on the journal article, with all the limitations which this format has tended to entail for theoretical scholarship. It also facilitates meaningful intellectual exchange which isn’t tied to the publication process at all, extending conversations which might have previously taken place within closed networks (e.g. friends, collaborators) and providing the occasion for entirely new ones to take place. The fact these tend to be open by default means they are potentially a resource for others and even an invitation to join in.
  5. There might be pitfalls which are particularly pronounced for social theorists. Social media can amplify existing tensions or create new ones, with the risk that existing tendencies towards dogmatism are made worse. Therefore it’s important to understand what one considers a useful exchange (or otherwise) to be and how to orientate oneself towards ensuring this takes place.

I’ll try to illustrate each of these points with examples of social theorists using social media in this way. I might also introduce a couple of extended case studies (probably Daniel Little) to flesh out these points towards the end of the talk. Any further suggestions are much appreciated. It’s likely I’ll run this session in the UK later in the year, if it gets a good reception.

Another excellent annual reflection from Daniel Little on the eighth birthday of Understanding Society. It’s one of my favourite academic blogs and certainly my favourite theory blog:

This week marks the end of the eighth year of Understanding Society. This year passed the 1000 mark — the blog is now up to 1,029 posts, or well over one million words. The blog continues to be a very good venue for me for developing and sharing ideas about the foundations of the social sciences and the ways that we attempt to understand the social world. (Mark Carrigan captures a lot of the value that a blog can have for a scholar in his recent excellent book, Social Media for Academics. Thanks, Mark, for including Understanding Society in your thinking about academic uses of social media!)

Writing Understanding Society continues to stimulate me to read and think outside the confines of the specific tradition in which I work. The collage presented above represents just a few of the books I wouldn’t have read in the past year if it weren’t for the blog. It gives me a lot of pleasure to recall the new ideas learned from working through these books and capturing a few ideas for the blog. There is a lot of diversity of content across these many books, but there are surprising cross-connections as well. (If you want to see the post where one of these books is discussed, just search for the author in the search box above.)

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/eight-years-of-understanding-society.html

The scale of his writing is remarkable and it was produced iteratively, leading to the emergence of the blog as a unique record of his scholarship over time. In this way, I think it can be seen as a monument to ‘treating ideas with seriousness’: a phrase Daniel used to me when I interviewed him and which has stuck with me since. It’s an exemplar of what research blogs can and should become.

One of my favourite academic blogs is Understanding Society. Written by Daniel Little, Chancellor for the University of Michigan-Dearborn, it covers an extraordinarily broad range of theoretical topics and sustains the rigour of serious academic writing while nonetheless being written in a relatively accessible way. I think it’s the best theory blog on the internet (by quite some way) and I’m always stunned by quite how much interesting stuff there is in the archives. The author, who has also done some excellent video interviews with leading social scientists, describes the blog as a ‘hypertext book’ and you can find an index of topics here.

My blog, UnderstandingSociety, addresses a series of topics in the philosophy of social science. What is involved in “understanding society”? The blog is an experiment in writing a book, one idea at a time.  In order to provide a bit more coherence for the series of postings, I’ve organized a series of threads that link together the postings relevant to a particular topic.  These can be looked at as virtual “chapters”.  This list of topics and readings can serve as the core of a semester-long discussion of the difficult philosophical issues that arise in the human sciences.  It roughly parallels the topics I cover in the course I teach in the philosophy of social science at the University of Michigan.

http://www.changingsociety.org/syllabus.html

I’d be interested to know if Little still sees it as book. The sheer size of the blog’s archives suggest that it’s now something approximating a whole series of books. Clearly, it’s been a success. What I have always been curious about is the author’s institutional role (which I assume is the equivalent of a UK vice-chancellor) and the role which the blog perhaps serves as an outlet for his continued scholarship when he presumably has many other commitments competing for his time. I was pleased to see this addressed recently in a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post. The blog recently had its sixth birthday and the author reflected on the evolution of the blog and his understanding of the role that it serves:

This week celebrates six years of Understanding Society.  This effort represents over 850 posts, on topics ranging from current debates in philosophy about causal powers to China’s urban transformation to the conservative war on the poor, leading to nearly three million page views since the first post in 2007.  I’m grateful to the communities of interested readers who have followed Understanding Society on TwitterFacebook, and Google Plus. There are almost 4,000 readers in these groups, and I’m grateful to everyone who has read, followed, tweeted, commented, and Googled the blog — thanks!

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/six-years-of-understanding-society.html

What I found particularly interesting was the author’s description of himself as an ‘open-source philosopher’. The integration of the blog into his working practices, such that it constitutes the starting point for traditional scholarship rather than something in opposition to it, is something which deeply resonates with me from the opposite end of the career spectrum. When I’ve written about continuous publishing in the past, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to say:

Virtually all the new academic publishing I’ve done in these six years began as a couple of posts on Understanding Society. You might say I’ve become an “open-source” philosopher — as I get new ideas about a topic I develop them through the blog. This means that readers can observe ideas in motion. A good example is the efforts I’ve made in the past year to clarify my thinking about microfoundations and meso-level causation. Another example is the topic of “character,” which I started thinking about after receiving an invitation to contribute to a volume on character and morality; through a handful of posts I arrived at a few new ideas I felt I could offer on the topic.  This “design and build” strategy means that there is the possibility of a degree of inconsistency over time, as earlier formulations are challenged by newer versions of the idea. But I think it makes the process of writing a more dynamic one, with lots of room for self-correction and feedback from others.

The blog has also given me a chance to write about topics I’ve long cared about, but haven’t had a professional venue for writing about. These include things like the reality of race in the United States; the lineaments of power that determine so many of the features of contemporary life; and the nuts and bolts of education and equality in our country. And along the way of researching and writing about some of these topics, I’ve come to have a better and more detailed understanding of them. Not many philosophers have such a wide opportunity to write on a variety of topics beyond the confines of their sub-disciplines.

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/six-years-of-understanding-society.html

It’s really interesting to read about the blogging experiences of someone who has been a philosophy professor for decades. I was struck by the homology between his experiences and my own in spite of our very different positions within the higher education system. I wonder if there’s something interesting about freedom here. As someone who has blogged throughout my PhD, I’ve experienced it as an intellectual outlet which has no real implications for my academic position (though retrospectively that’s not really true). Perhaps Daniel Little feels similarly free about his blog, for entirely different reasons, as a result of his institutional position leaving scholarship via his blog being something he does for its own rewards rather than any need to make a living out of it. Reading his post has increased my confidence in the notion of ‘continuous publishing’ and strengthened my conviction that, with time, this is a way of working that will become ever more common. Both the short-term and long-term gains available to those who begin to work in this way are such that it seems inexorable, barring a trend towards heavy-handed institutional regulation or something along those lines. I think the implications of this are hugely significant. Here’s how Pat Lockley and I described it in a blog post we wrote quite some time ago:

Perhaps it’s time to move from ‘the Cathedral to the Bazaar’. These metaphors from the open-source software movement refer to contrasting models of software development. In academic terms we might see them as referring to distinct orientations towards publishing: one which works towards the intermittent, largely private, production of one-off works (papers and monographs → cathedrals) and the other which proceeds in an iterative and dialogical fashion, with a range of shorter-term outputs (blog posts, tweets, online articles, podcasts, storified conversations etc) standing in a dynamic and productive relationship with larger-scale traditional publishing projects: the ‘cathedrals’ can be something we build through dialogues, within communities of practice, structured around reciprocal engagement with publications on social media platforms.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2012/02/29/reflections-continuous-publishing/

The idea which is still insufficiently clear in my own mind is how my advocacy of this relates to my belief in academic over-production. I’ve had a vague intuition for a long time about the potential ‘rebalancing’ away from ever more journal articles which ever fewer people read and towards a continuous making public of provisional work which ultimately leads to fewer though better journal articles. In a future post I’ll try and elaborate my understanding of the institutional constraints and enablements upon such as process, as well as what I imagine the landscape of scholarly publishing might look like when it is filled with a preponderance of open-source academics.