I know what I read this summer

book review

After unashamedly taking an idea from Mark Carrigan and running with it, I thought I’d share not what I’m reading but what I’ve read over the summer. Some of them I’ve blogged about, some will be the subject of future blogs no doubt.


Mind you with only a few days left and a book still to finish, I better get back to it!

Breaking down disciplinary boundaries by not building them

Education, higher education, public sociology

This may seem a strange idea, especially given how well established many of the disciplines within Social Science are, but here me out.

I am currently working through John Brewers The public value of Social Sciences. Early on, he talks about how disciplinary silos or bunkers are bad places to lead changes in post-disciplinary collaboration from. This idea got me to thinking about how to break down those silos and thinking to the current GCSE > A-level > degree pathway.

I think it would be safe to say that for most students, they don’t encounter the Social Sciences (outside of Geography) before they undertake A-levels. There are in fact GCSE’s in some, but with relatively low uptakes. What then happens is students study 3 or 4 discreet disciplinary social sciences, picking from Sociology, Psychology, Politics and Economics in most cases. Box doing it in this way immediately tells the next generation of social scientists ‘look, psychology does this while Sociology does that’. In the real world, it is far messier and as Brewer rightly suggests, much of the public use of the Social Sciences comes from their collaborative voice, not from competing lone voices.

If this need for encouraging interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary work, then maybe it needs to take a grass roots approach. Instead of making students decide at 16 if Sociology is for them, create A-Levels in Crime or Environment, in Culture or Urban Studies. By showing the multi-faceted ways parts of Society can be envisioned from different angles by different disciplines then not only would it help students to develop a more holistic view of Society and how it is studied but it may actually provide them find resonance with areas of the social sciences that otherwise remain hidden from them by traditional disciplinary boundaries.


Brewer, J.D (2013) The public value of the social sciences, London, Bloomsbury

What can Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists teach us about blogging?

book review, digital sociology

Recently a few other bloggers including David Beer had mentioned Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. Having been a fan of his style of writing since I first discovered Art Worlds a few years ago, I was keen to see what sagely advice he had to offer. Interestingly, much of what he suggested are things I already do. Interestingly, the way he suggests writing for getting words down, regardless of quality and worrying about that later is something i’ve always done. I can see how this, to some people would be an huge leap from their current way of working. I never got on with planning in the traditional sense, preferring to get stuff down and them look at how to shape it and it was a relief to see i’m not the only one.

Interestingly, this relief at seeing commonalities between what others do and how beginning academics work is something Becker stresses in the book and I would whole heartedly support this.


It was no surprise that seeing it sitting on my car seat next to a map was a light bulb moment as it felt like the guidebook that had been missing from my writing. I had figured most of it out already like any explorer of a new place often does, but it was good to see that I hadn’t missed anything important. I think this is the key reason to read this book, if you aren’t sure how to make your writing better then it will help but if you think you know but have niggling worries that you aren’t on the right track, it can help reinforce those ideas.

This second edition examines some of the changes in technology in the twenty years since it was first published, especially in terms of ways in which computers have enhanced the ability for drafting and rearranging ideas and the reduced permanence of the text that is churned out, allowing for writers to take more risks with what they put into being. This, combined with some of his lines of argument about the value of sharing and discussing writing lead me to thinking how the rise of blogs have changed the game even further since 2007.

Becker uses a lovely phrase in chapter three. He says ‘A thought written down is stubbon, doesn’t change it’s shape and can be compared to thoughts that come after it’ (p.56). For me, this forms the crux of why I am finding blogging so valuable for my writing, it allows me to commit those ideas to writing and to share them with other people, not only my close academic network, but more widely. It allows me to ask questions, to float partially formed thoughts and to help develop the thinking by continuing to write about them. This is what many academics have down for years in letters and through discussions so why, in some cases is there a resistance to blogging still by some people?

Becker poses a possible reason why, he says ‘There’s something that I think many of us believe: talking about work is less of a risk than writing about it. In part it’s because no one remembers the ideas you speak.’ (p.118). I wonder if it is an extension of this argument that keeps the discussions in private opposed to in the open on a blog. Maybe if you do not make public your partially formed ideas, people won’t remember all the wrong turns you took., after all, your audiences only want to hear the perfectly formed ideas, not those provisional ones, right?

Wrong! I think if Becker’s book teaches one thing, it is that being open about the writing (and by extension, thinking) process can help combat the intrinsic worry, especially in students and early career academics that they are doing it all wrong. By unveiling the mysticism of the process of idea formation, it opens up an understanding of the true messiness of it. I think when Becker comments about writing his quote could equally be about blogging:

In some ways writing gets easier the more you do it, because the more you do it, the more you learn that it’s not really as risky as you fear. You have a history on which to draw for self confidence […] You took the risk, produced something and voila! (p.119)

Of course, this is just my interpretation of how his work be translated to the risks and fears of blogging and how blogs can offer ways to address some of the concerns of writing he raises in the book. Maybe he would speak differently?


Becker, H.S. (2007) Writing for Social Scientists (2nd Ed.), Chicago, University of Chicago Press

The best way to begin a conversation


I was at a loose end for a couple of hours yesterday with no reading matter so I popped into a bookshop in hunt of something to read. I happened to pick up John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a book about his trip across America in a camper van to in effect conduct an ethnography of Americans. There was a quote that jumped straight out as me that I found exemplified when Twitter has been the most use to me, when i’ve needed advice or pointing in the right direction:

The techniques of opening conversation are universal. I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. (p.8)

Who are we to judge if they are empowered?


This blog comes about in light of reading a thought-provoking paper  by Richard Williams entitled ‘The collaboration as empowerment claim: The case of visual social research’. Initially I almost didn’t read it given that it was behind a paywall and Sociology Compass is not a title my library subscribes to. I’m glad I took a gamble based on the abstract, however, as it raises some interesting issues.

Williams highlights the disparity in the way the benefits of the research relationship are conceptualised by examining two visual studies in light of a framework of ideal collaboration.  For the researcher, he argues that there are tangible, measurable benefits associated with publications, outputs and other elements that enhance a CV. For the participants, however, they are often termed as being “empowered”, something of a slippery intangible concept and that is often assumed opposed to evaluated. He argues that this empowerment is also framed from the researchers perspective in terms of how they view that the project has empowered the individual, or group they have been studying. 

The main line of one of Williams’ arguments is for me incredibly important and one that does need further thought: How can we understand the ways in which the participants have been empowered? 

Williams’ highlights that ‘there is no room within the academic social structure for the research subject to express their opinion about empowerment’ (p.526). I think this is an important point to address in terms of how we frame the research relationship. It is expected that qualitative researchers make clear their own positioning to the research but there needs to be a place for the participants to do the same. A researcher wouldn’t make a claim within their analysis not backed up with evidence from their data therefore why should they be able to make similar claims in regards to the claims they make about empowerment? I think this debate opened up by Williams’ is an important one and something that needs to be considered by any researcher claiming to ’empower’ their participants through a participatory model of research. Williams’ is right, the current dissemination structures of journals do not allow for incorporation of the voices of participants. In fact, Les Back often highlights this concern through his attempts to add a participant as a co-author on a paper and how problematic it was for the editors to understand that she didn’t have a research affiliation.

There are two possible ways to address this. One is for editors, reviewers and academics to start addressing the issue through ensuring that published papers do address this issue and that they begin interrogating the question of how the researcher knows that the participant was empowered. The alternative is to ensure that research projects have an outlet for the multiple voices of their participants and places for them to examine how the research may, or may not have impacted upon their lives. Making them an active part of the project through web 2.0 platforms may be one way to do this. Allowing participation within the research not to be a one time thing that takes place during the collection of data, but by allowing them to continue to participate alongside the analysis phase and beyond publication to help researchers understand the way in which their research may, or may not have met it’s aims of empowerment.

There is an oft used phrase ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints’ which is the anti-thesis of what participatory research that maintains a goal of empowerment aims to do. I would argue that without actually examining if and how participants are indeed empowered, that we are in danger of leaving only footprints that do not have a lasting effect on those who researcher claim to empower.



Williams, R. (2013) ‘The Collaboration as Empowerment Claim: The Case of Visual Social Research’, Sociology Compass, 7, 515-532