Live tweeting: Why and how: A reflection on #Britsoc14

digital sociology, Education, higher education, public sociology

This years British Sociology Association conference must be my tenth foray into live tweeting from a conference or event and over time I have developed how and what I tweet. I think some of this has come from reflecting on of why I am live tweeting in the first place and this blog will explore some of the benefits of live tweeting as a central part of attending a conference as I see them through my emerging practice.

Distilling ideas

In the same way that twitter has helped me hone my ideas through concise writing, so has tweeting key ideas from a session helped hone my thinking on these ideas. In order to process a 20 minute paper which is often densely packed with material into key ideas, concerns or questions of interest, you develop a skill in trying to not only identify what is important about the paper but which ideas might resonate with a wider audience or prove useful to engage with further.

Engaging in the debate

As a beginning researcher, I think twitter provides an excellent ay to engage with, debate and question ideas in a relatively safe environment. Many people forget how nerve wracking it can be to ask a question or challenge a concept in a paper during a question session. Doing so via twitter can often provide a space to do this more confidently. It also provides a space to develop ideas from a paper in discussion with others both within the session and far beyond it.

 Sharing ideas beyond the audience

Over the past few years, especially working within education, I have become mindful of how difficult it is for those practitioners and doctoral researchers who hold juggle other employment and academia to attend conferences, especially in their field of education when they often clash with scheduled teaching. From my own experience, having live tweets from events has been invaluable in order to get a feel for what is going on during a session I myself would have liked to attend.

Allowing other conference attendees to get key messages from other streams

This inability to attend every paper that is of interest also extends to other conference attendees. Certainly this was my experience of this years BSA conference and there were times where I chose to go to a different session knowing that there would be enough live tweeting going on in another that I would not be completely missing out. This is not unproblematic as it sometimes leads to regret for not choosing a different stream but it does to some extent compensate for some of the difficult choices that need to be made between parallel sessions.

Forming networks of practice

The reciprocity and sharing of ideas from one session to another and from one conference to another leads to building of networks of practice. By reading what others are sharing on a conference hashtag it is possible to find and connect with other academics that are interested in similar topics as you and thus allow the development of networks. It is by doing this I managed to gain so much more from this, my third BSA conference than I ever was able to from my first conference three years ago.

 

I am sure there are more elements to it and there is probably some merit in exploring these in more depth which I hope to do in future but I felt it was important to document where my thinking is at now on the purpose of live tweeting and the digital back channels behind conferences in building networks and sharing knowledge and ideas.

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Book review: Punk Sociology by David Beer

book review, digital sociology, public sociology

Ever since he threw the initial idea out there on his blog, i’ve been intrigued by David Beer’s Punk Sociology project and after reading it I wasn’t disappointed. It is one of the Palgrave Pivot titles that exist to bridge the gap between a journal article and a monograph. As such it is not an onerous read at a mere 76 pages but within those packs a huge amount of ideas and provocation that has the power to re-inspire a generation of Sociologists.

Punk Sociology is a call to arms framed through the ethos of punk. It should not be dismissed if Punk music and style weren’t your bag or if indeed you are too young to remember Punk. it is really a framework to encourage the re-imagination of Sociology through inventive and exciting methods that breakdown the barriers between sub disciplines, academics and readers and researchers and participants. Beer puts this far better than I could:

 ‘Punk is about playing with and questioning received and established versions and accounts of the world, that it likes to challenge and transcend barriers and boundaries and that it relishes a critical engagement with any fixed or intransigent ideological or material obstacles’ (p.64)

Whilst framing the argument in terms of Punk is certainly novel, much of what Beer argues is not new, in fact it is what Mills and Becker have previously argued for extensively and yet, Punk Sociology appears as a fresh ‘call to arms’ and one that has never been needed more than in an age where metrics and measurement are becoming so important that there could be a tendency to play it safe to ensure research solely fulfils the criteria of excellence set down by the academy.

Part 1 sets out the background of the challenges and opportunities that Sociology faces in today’s academic climate but focuses not on the problems but potential solutions. It does this through a whistle stop tour of Punk ethos. this is consolidated through examination of how the ethos could be used to re-imagine sociology and to revitalise the discipline. It is not a handbook of solutions, but a series of provocations that will help the reader to think about their own work in a new light. Through this method of provocation, it is equally applicable to other social sciences and any one from the fresh undergraduate student to the most experienced of academic.

My only regret about the text is the accessibility of its distribution. The message it has to share is so vital that it is a shame that it comes at a prohibitive cost. Notwithstanding this, I would argue that this should be an essential text for every potential and practicing Sociologist in hope that the call to arms and the provocation it provides will engender the seed change that Beer argues for.

References

Beer, D. (2014) Punk Sociology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 

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.

References

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

Book Review: The Engaged Sociologist (4th ed.) Korgen & White

book review, public sociology

I happened upon The Engaged Sociologist through a recent email from Sage and the blurb looked decidedly intriguing so I thought I would get myself a copy. It has many excellent things going for it and certainly is something I wish I had discovered back when I first began my study of Sociology. it ends with a quote from Margaret Mead which just about sums up the whole premise of the book ‘using your sociological tools, you can help change the world’ (Mead cf. p.224)

Briefly, It is divided into 11 chapters, each taking a similar format followed by a final chapter that suggests some potential research projects which allow practical engagement with the aims of the book. The remaining chapters consist of a section of theory or background relating to sociological concerns or debates, an example of how a real life Sociologist (ranging from students to professors) has worked within that area to affect change, some exercises to put the abstract issues into real life contexts and related discussion points, and finally, some suggestions for ‘actions’ to use the knowledge of Sociology in the readers own community.

The book is written in a clear and accessible way, but is clearly aimed towards undergraduate students in its scope and delivery. It is supported by an excellent website which provides some resources to help support the practical activities and as such would make a good teaching text. What is does extremely well is shows the reader the value and implications of Sociology beyond the classroom and academia.

The book does, however, have its limitations. firstly, it is extremely US centric in its content. It constantly refers to US policy and examples that may seem alien to the average student outside of the continental USA. This is not to say the book is not useful for students across the atlantic, far from it, in fact it certainly enhanced my knowledge of issues that I had little knowledge of before. It may, however, need to be enhanced with examples in a more local context if it was used as a core text for a course in the UK for example. This us-centricity seems to carry through to the theorists cited in each chapter with notable omissions of Bourdieu and Foucault to give two examples.

Nonetheless, the book does fill a gap relating to the “so what?” question that faces many academics when teaching a introductory sociology module to students from a range of disciplines who do not as yet understand the value and power of Sociology. Whilst the americanisation of the examples might be too much for some to bear, especially if considering its use as a core text, it certainly has a value in every lecturers bookcase as a point of reference for some excellent, engaging teaching ideas that bring Sociology to life.

References

Korgen, K.O. & White, J.M. (2011) The Engaged Sociologist, Los Angeles, Sage

Could blogging help to treat imposter syndrome?

digital sociology, higher education, PhD, public sociology

A short blog for today but reflecting on some of the things I have been contemplating in the last few days.

Recently I blogged in response to a paper by David Beer on The wire. Through the wonders of twitter and the public nature of the blog, he responded with his thoughts here. What surprised me to some extent was the fact that he agreed with some of my comments and pushed me to reconsider others. If I had simply noted these comments in the margins of the paper, or in my own notebook then I’d still be wondering if I was on the right track.

The fact that so far this blog has been read by 900 people in the last month and that a number have told me how much they are enjoying my writing or finding some of the discussions I have begun useful is a huge boost. I think everyone suffers from imposter syndrome to a certain extent, worrying if they really do know what they are talking about and no, blogging doesn’t make this go away but it has certainly helped reassure me that I’m on the right track and spurred me to keep going.

I don’t think this is something that is only useful for students and early career researchers, however. Given the peer review process, rejection and putting yourself in a position where there is a high potential for a focus on negative feedback, a blog is a way to get ideas out there and to allow you to test them out and help you gain confidence in them. If you have more confidence in your ideas, it is easier to use negative feedback in a constructive way that helps you revise your work. Surely this is something that all academics, regardless of experience need from time to time?

Sometimes you contemplate an issue and then stumble upon someone who explains it far better than you could ever have done. In this case the issue was why the mission for public engagement of sociology is so vital and this is one of those times.

The task of sociology is to cast doubt on the public understandings that prevail – be they about the ‘war on terror’ or the nature of ‘immigration policy’ – and invite other voices to be heard and reckoned with

– Les Back (2007) The Art of Listening p.152

For my mind, this explains why sociologists cannot afford to ignore the need to realign the way they communicate their work with publics. If the academic insights and interpretations of the social world are not accessible to those publics then how can we hope to cast the doubt in their minds over their current understandings of the world?

Why sociology needs to reach out to publics

public sociology

Is ‘The Wire’ the solution?

public sociology

 

Recently I commented on twitter that ‘I can’t help but think that some academics are scared of research being accessible and understandable to publics…’ and in response Dave Beer (@davidgbeer) pointed me towards a paper from City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, action that he co-authored with Rowland Atkinson in 2010. It highlights some interesting points of the value of well made drama, such as The Wire and its ability to foreground social issues in a ‘thoughtful and experimental way’ (p.530). They go on to discuss the valuable role that such a series can play in adult education and engagement of publics with deeper understandings of society, more commonly restricted to academic outputs and the challenges faced when academics struggle to communicate with each other in across sub-disciplines, let alone across the public-academic divide . This paper addressed several of the issues I explored in previous blogs here and here but it also opened up two questions in my mind. Firstly, whether any of this is possible so long as the REF framework restricts what can be valued in terms of public ‘impact’ through restrictive criteria and whether need to admit they need help in doing this effectively. The second question sits within why a program such as The Wire has the ability to capture the public imagination in a far greater way than most documentaries.

I have already explored the question of the REF and it’s restrictions on what it considers to be impact on this blog and won’t go into too much depth here but bringing back into focus some thoughts I had previously is important, there is a thirst in the general populace for programming that turns its lens on the social world, surely it is vital that social scientists (and I use that term in the broadest sense) play a part in ensuring the version portrayed is accurate and helps break down inequality and stereotypes, opposed to re-enforcing them. The only way this is going to happen is through collaboration with writers, producers and directors of these kind of outputs. By becoming instrumental in the production of social representations, social scientists can aid in engaging the social imaginations of the general publics in positive ways to help reduce inequality opposed to in a way that perpetuates or amplifies it.

The fact that The Wire has been so successful and has captured the public imagination also needs to be reflected upon. Atkinson and Beer allude to this within their paper but I want to be more explicit on the issue and possibly challenge the question of how this could work as a research output that engages publics. Part of its success lies within its complex and provisional nature. The highly visual nature of the medium and the complex social narratives played out in front of the lens, not only of the main story lines, but the ‘background noise’ that also goes on, allows the viewers to take charge of their understanding, guided by the issues that the lens foregrounds for them. This is in stark contrast to the documentary that often narrates a god like perspective on the meaning of what is presented. By handing over ownership of some of the responsibility for making sense of what is presented to them, the viewer feels more compelled to engage in the world they are viewing and feels more investment in what they are seeing. Of course, this idea may sit uneasily with some academics, after all, the analysis and theorising is their domain, they have spent many years learning and developing their craft and knowledge about the social world, haven’t they? I would argue, however that in the case of a video based form of delivery, the skill of the academic lies within presenting the world to the viewer in a way that allows them to follow the same logics and understandings that the academic themselves follows and this can be done without telling the viewer what to think, but by carefully guiding their focus. Being able to guide focus in such a medium is a skill, one that academics are unlikely to possess but that many media professional possess. Therefore collaboration is the way to make this happen. What needs to be entered into, however, is a proactive dialog across the two fields, academics need to understand the value that the media professionals can add to their work in terms of engaging the public imagination. Likewise, media professionals need to understand the value that accurate representation and academic understanding of social process can add to their outputs in terms of enabling viewers to better relate to their programs, and thus engage with them, something that The Wire provides an excellent model for

Reference

Atkinson, R. and Beer, D. (2010) ‘The ivorine tower in the city: Engaing urban studies after The wire’, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, action, 14(5) p.529-544