PhD

Why blogging and reading are mutually beneficial

I’ve always struggled to make notes when reading beyond those that adorn the margins of every book I read. It is not that I struggle with the concept of writing them, but with justifying the purpose of them having rarely referred back to them in my early studies. Apart from notes on specific issues when constructing assignments, I had almost completely separated the processes of reading and writing. My recent foray into blogging has really opened my eyes to the value of writing about what I’m reading and I hope by sharing this with you, it might make some of you who are in a similar position consider why blogging about your reading might be a useful endeavour and not a distraction from your work.

In order to be able to write a coherent blog, I need to have read, understood, found a way to succinctly summarise and decided how the ideas in the work sit with my own. Writing this blog has helped me do that in a more concrete way and has helped me explore better not only the issues that I have been blogging about but my understanding of wider issues within Sociology. If you are reading this, you are probably someone who already knew this, certainly the part that writing was key to better understanding concepts and solidifying thinking. What a blog does more than this, is force me to consider if my arguments are strong enough to put out in public, for writing an idea on a pad and publishing it into the blogosphere are two quite disparate things. The first few times it can be fraught with worry: what if my ideas are no good, what if I haven’t got the right just of what I’m reading or even what if I make myself look stupid. I would argue that the risk of all these things is far outweighed by the confidence that blogging can give you, especially when others enter into the discussions and debates you open up.

I’m glad I have discovered this before I begin my PhD but really I wish I had discovered it much earlier, in fact I wish someone had told me why it might be a good idea, so that is why I am telling you now. Try it, it may not be something that works for you, but certainly it has helped me become more engaged with my reading.

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public sociology

How to curate a public sociology that is truly public

Continuing on through Live Methods, Nirmal Puwar and Sanjay Sharma’s ‘Curating Sociology’ chapter has deepened some of my thoughts on how to engage wider publics in Sociology’s project that were discussed here and here.

I have highlighted previously the need to reconsider how reality TV can be used to engage publics and I think that Puwar and Sharma highlight an important link that is needed to ensure effective collaboration between academia and the media, that of a curator. They define a curator as a ‘catalyst who prompts dialogue by bringing artists, places and publics together’ (2012 p.40) and follows this by stating that there needs to be a commitment to collaboration as a research process instead of considering the research and dissemination process as separate entities. Later in the paper, Puwar and Sharma highlight the need to pay attention to ‘the value of other ways of telling’ (p.44) but in many cases for this to truly be realised, we need to reconsider how Sociology is presented to the next generation of students and scholars. If we are to excite the Sociological Imaginations of a new generation, we need to get them to understand and explore these other ways of telling. Encouragement to engage with interdisciplinary study, not within a more traditional sense of subjects allied within a neighbouring disciplines, but more extended combinations, bringing together students across the creative and social disciplines and encouraging them to collaborate on projects that enable them to better understand each other.

This is particularly important when we consider that Sociologists need to better understand what will interest publics and how best to engage them in it. By fostering more links with those who understand the tools of the media, we may be able to better access those publics. As Puwar and Sharma make clear within their chapter, it is not about Sociologists trying to become versed in the technical tools of the media, but for them to be more open to inter-disciplinary and, trans-disciplinary working. The idea of trans-disciplinary working, I will take up and elaborate more in another post as this is something that for me is essential in being ale to engage publics better.

Puwar, N. and Sharma, S. (2012) ‘Curating Sociology’. In Back L. and Puwar, N. (eds.) Live Methods, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell/ The Sociological Review

PhD

An excellent blog on part-time PhDs

Following a brief twitter conversation,  Gemma, who started her part-time PhD in Jan 2013 has put together an excellent blog of advice from her experience of the past few months.

PhD tips number 1.

you can follow her on twitter @princessjack.

 

I’d also be interested to read more ‘if I know then, what i know now’ posts on part-time PhDs.

 

public sociology

Why Live Sociology needs to consider the way publics live.

Following last weeks Blog post on the need to re-imagine reality TV, I have began to work through the excellent Live Methods Sociological Review Monograph. Some of the issues and questions it is raising about the need for a live sociology also seem to resonate with my own thoughts I began to explore last week on how Sociology needs to work to engage publics in a more meaningful and accessible way. Les Back’s excellent chapter on Live Sociology has provided much of the stimulus for me to examine my initial arguments further. In Back and Puwar’s previous chapter, ‘A manifesto for live methods: provocations and capacities’, they highlight Sociology’s responsibility to ‘vulnerable and precarious lives’ (2012, p.14) and its ethical responsibility to society. I argue that this is a strong justification for the subsumption of  the reality TV model to enable publics to have access to a more realistic and open representation of those communities they turn the lens on opposed to the current dramatised and pathologised view that is forced upon them.

Back argues within the chapter for making more accessible sociological texts and for re imagining research outputs through multimedia platforms and other forms of presentation  that may cross the boundaries with Art. He argues that online formats have the potential of global reach and have the ability to combine sound, image and text. Whilst I agree and this is certainly a distinct move forward from the limitations of printed text within the journal or monograph, if we are to address the aims of making sociology more accessible to publics, especially those who may be vulnerable and marginal, we need to examine how to reach them more carefully.

Whilst a broader the range of outputs has the ability to engage different publics with Sociology’s project, I think care needs to be taken to attend to the inequalities intrinsic within the consumption of these forms of output. By focusing upon the digital and the gallery, we exclude many of those to whom the research is most relevant. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t explore these avenues of research output, but that we need to consider more carefully which research outputs have the power to reach those whom we have the duty to help understand the truths about the social world within which they live.

As Back states, ‘journalistic exposé and reality TV […] occlude and hide what is at stake in the detail’ (2012, p.25) so is it not Sociology’s duty to expose and foreground that exact detail and to make it accessible to those publics who are currently only exposed to the partial representations of current offerings?

The more I consider this issue, the more I feel that the current state of academic sociology is missing out on part of its duty and now is the time the public’s Sociological Imagination needs to be ignited through refocusing their voyeuristic desire away from the dramatic, surface level representations they are currently exposed to a deeper sociological understanding of the world around them. One in which they can begin to see the fascination with the social world that Sociologists are already keenly aware of. The ideas of an accessible Sociology are nothing new, In fact Back draws upon Albion Small’s Essay from 1895 entitled The Era of Sociology to make the point that even as early as this essay in the first edition of the American Journal of Sociology, academics such as small were already reflecting on the need for translation of ‘Sociology into the language of ordinary life’ (cf. Back, 2012 p.21). Yet, as Back highlights much of the published materials since fall far short of this goal. Furthermore, I would go on to argue that the goal of translating sociology into ‘language of ordinary life’ by Small in 1895, should not only be considered in its most literal sense of using accessible language, but should be further considered in terms of the modes in which Sociology is disseminated.

As Mills wrote in the Sociological Imagination:

It is not only information that they need- in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it. It is not only the skills of reason that they need- although their struggles to acquire these often exhaust their limited moral energy. What they need, and what they feel they need is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves (1959 [1970], p.11)

I argue, therefore that it is Sociology’s duty to use the vehicles of more public media outlets in a way in which it not only informs, in a way that not only explains, but in a way that helps publics to develop their own ways to explore those issues that occur within their own lives by giving them access to their own Sociological Imagination. I will end on an invitation  to take up, or to challenge the ideas I put forward because what is needed now is the dialogue to continue. Only by continuing the conversation of what Sociology needs to do to engage publics can we ever have a chance of breaking down the barriers created by traditional output methods.

References

Back, L., (2012), ‘ Live sociology: social research and its futures’ in Back L. and Puwar, N. (eds.) Live Methods, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell/ The Sociological Review

Back, L. and Puwar, N., (2012), ‘A manifesto for live methods: provocations and capacities’ in Back L. and Puwar, N. (eds.) Live Methods, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell/ The Sociological Review

Mills, C. W., (1959 [1970]), The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press

PhD

Several parts may never equal a whole

The time has finally come to make a decision, despite a number of funding applications that reached varying places in the process, I find myself in June without funding for the new academic year. Luckily, I still have a full time job but I now have two options: To start the whole process again next year or to opt to self fund and start my PhD part-time.

This is something I have had mixed feelings about over the last year, swinging from all for it and it being a preferable option to not wanting to consider it at all. Nadine Muller’s excellent blog Brains, Time, Money has certainly killed off some of my demons about unworthiness of research regarding missing out on funding however one issue still is playing on my mind, that of identity.

You see, for the past four years I have juggled work, life and part time study to complete my BA and my MA. It’s not always been plain sailing but it has worked well for me as I have been able to balance when and how I study on my terms. What I have struggled with is my status as a ‘real student’. Working in education, I don’t have the freedom to take leave when I want to and have a fixed day where I’m not in work in the week. This means the conferences and seminars I can attend are limited. In addition my colleagues don’t see my day when I’m not in work as a study day but ‘my day off’ and my studies as no more than a hobby. Is makes forging an identity as a student harder than if it was a full time endeavour as I often feel I have to justify why my ‘hobby’ has to take priority at times.

The combination of being considered ‘a part timer’ at work, not a ‘real student’ and having to juggle a real life (not exactly being a happy care free twenty something anymore) makes the prospect of carrying onto a PhD as a part-timer a daunting prospect. Yet, I find myself still considering it and actively favouring it over attempting to try again for full time funding again next year.

My thinking on the topic over the last year I’ve been formulating the proposal has grown so much that I can see distinct benefits in part time working in terms of space to think through ideas and not being under the pressure to complete in three years for fear of funding running out. The control I have over the direction of my research without the constraints of funding is also appealing but do these benefits outweigh the challenges the part time route also creates?

I guess only time will tell (however, any tops tips on pitfalls that can be avoided would be more than welcomed!)

public sociology

Engaging publics: Do we need to re-imagine reality TV?

How to improve the way sociology is shared and made relevant to publics is something I have been musing over for a while, and something that was peaked during this years British Sociological Association Conference. The definition of ‘impact’ as required by the REF and actually creating I apart within the communities and publics that are the focus of sociological study are two very different things. Chris Shilling, in the Introduction to Live Methods highlights the way impact agendas are the living proof of Mills’ concerns that social research would become bureaucratised. What engagement with the public needs to reconsider is how to effectively reach those publics and not how to meet a tick box criteria on an assessment exercise.

Outputs that are considered to have ‘impact’ often include elements for wider consumption than an academic audience and some projects do this in exciting and imaginative ways (eg. Making modern mothers) yet, in the scheme of things, the audience of these outputs is limited. I would argue that this isn’t because they aren’t interested in the findings of research, but that it is not made accessible to them in the way they want to consume it. You see, contrary to many academics beliefs, not everyone reads for fun, nor do they all search the web for interesting websites!

What the publics are interested in, however, is gaining grater understandings of cultures, social groups and environments that are different from their own, or in some cases similar to see if they are portrayed accurately. Books such as Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work and Owen Jones’ Chavs do this effectively and yet, their penetration into a mass public is still, limited. My twitter timeline is not jammed by tweets about either of these and yet I cannot escape the barrage of updates for the latest reality TV show du Jour. This increasing thirst for ‘reality’ TV and shows such as My big fat gypsy wedding and Skint are not as distant from the cry for public sociology as some people may believe. Whilst these programs are flawed in many ways due to the editing process and the perceived need for suspense and drama within them the notion of bringing a chance for the public to better understand elements of society is not.

This overwhelming desire to act as a voyeur on other, often marginalised groups is something which carries with in great power, for it can demonise them and re-enforce negative stereotypes or, as it should in my opinion, convey a more realistic viewpoint that can help give a deeper understanding of the way other work through the challenges and opportunities of their lives. I would suggest that it is therefore Sociology’s job to provide accessible forms of its own work that can tap into this thirst for knowledge of the ‘other’, the desire to peek behind the curtains of those who they may know little about.

In the first chapter of the Sociological Imagination, Mills writes:

” Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live” (1970 [1959],  p.11)

I would argue then, that to help people better understand their own lives, it is Sociology’s duty to help increase the information accessible to them within their orbits. I opt for the word accessible here, over available as availability seems to be the sole concern of the impact agenda and not the idea of making the information accessible and in a relevant way. Therefore I would argue that instead of boycotting poorly constructed reality TV program’s, or sitting ranting at the TV as to how poorly portrayed these issues are, maybe it is time to re imagine how research is presented to the world outside of academia, beyond the journals and into those publics we study to help them to better understand the world around them. Undoubtably, Television has a role to play in this engagement but it is not the commissioning editors that will have the imagination to commission these modes of output, it needs to be the sociologists, for they are the ones who possess the Sociological imaginations and an understanding of exactly why Sociology is so important for everyone to be able to access.