This exciting new project from Nick Mahony and Hilde Stephansen at The Open University goes some way to addressing some of the issues I have highlighted recently regarding public engagement. Creating interactive platforms such as this allows interactions with much wider publics, even though it is still limited to those that have Internet access and are predisposed to access the site. I will be interested to see what the uptake for the project is and some of the feedback it gets.
When academics suggest that peer reviewed journals are the only valid output for academic writing, my heart sinks. It is like saying “We’ve helped you develop a Sociological Imagination but now you have left the university, you must stop engaging, sorry!” Maybe i’m biased because soon I will lose my library access (until I start the PhD) and funnily enough, I want to continue engaging with sociological research. You see, without institutional affiliation, most of the world of academic research is off limits bar those teasers in abstracts unless perchance you are wealthy enough to subscribe to a range of journals. Being a member of professional associations (such as the BSA) does afford you access to some journals, but not all. This is not the only reason that I think blogs and digital open access platforms have a strong role to play in academic writing and I will try to shed some light on why both have equally important roles to play in modern scholarship.
Whilst I understand and appreciate the need for peer review in order to ensure research is being as thorough as it should be. The problem with the process is four-fold,: it is a time-consuming process and thus incurs expense for the publisher, is focused primarily on one way dissemination and, as is often missed, it to some extent controls and limits the possibilities of research.
Time is of the essence, unless of course you want to publish and then your exciting findings may not be public for up to eighteen months! Surely in a world that is changing as rapidly as the one we live in this is problematic. This is especially pertinent as was highlighted during the BSA Digital Sociology day today when working with digital platforms and tools that are transient and may be obsolete before a peer review article reaches publication.
My second argument, that of expense is a simple one, publishers need to cover their expenses some how and someone has to pay. At the moment that is either the user (through subscriptions, either personal or institutional) or the writer – as in the case of some of the new open access journals. If this is to continue, research bodies need to reconsider how research is funded so that the outputs, funded by public money are accessible to them (although in an age of austerity, this is probably as likely as the proverbial freezing of hades).
Thirdly, and most importantly in my mind, the peer review journal is a specific beast. It allows findings and opinions to be broadcast with little comeback or response from the audience and little understanding of how it was received past citation analytics. This is where blogs, twitter and digital publishing come into their own. These media allow readers to interact, to ‘favourite’ articles, to ‘like’ posts and to enter into a dialogue in which academics can refine and discuss their ideas, possibly clarifying misunderstandings. In this way, the research becomes engaging and thus reaches out to a wider interested audience. If you see people you follow on twitter discussing some research, you feel drawn to read about it yourself to draw your own opinions and enter into the dialogue yourself.
Finally, I want to touch upon a problem raised by Les Back @academic diary today when discussing the project he has been working on with Shamser Sinha about migrant communities. Details of the research can be found in the paper here but what I want to highlight are the two issues he raised in the peer review process of the research. Firstly, the reviewers struggled with the Ethics of the participant being named as an author and not anonymised and secondly that when it came to publication, they couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a university she was affiliated to. Both of these issues are remnants of a bygone day of research where is was something done to people, rather than with them. Often reviewers and journal editors find these issues hard to wrestle with whereas the process of blogging obviously doesn’t have those constraints. Similar problems also occur with non-traditional outputs, such as multimedia and to some extent visual elements beyond line diagrams and photographs that were intended to be reproduced in monochrome as generally journals are published in black and white which in some cases may remove important elements from the visual.
I am not, however, saying that blogging and unmonitored posting is unproblematic and I do acknowledge that review of work by colleagues is important in ensuring credibility of academic writing, but I would argue there is space for both and they should work in tandem to make research reachable to the widest possible audiences and to allow publication of work that is innovative and multi-sensory. I would also argue that blogging does have it’s own form of ‘peer review’ but that it takes place after publication through the comments and interactions of the reader.
Every way of doing things is perfect – for something
(Becker, 2007 p.72)
Having spent this week reading Howard Becker’s superb Telling About Society, I have continued to muse on this issue of how to engage publics and what needs to be done about it. For those of you that haven’t encountered Becker’s book, it is the culmination of a project that brings together ideas from his research, teaching and broad range of interests outside of Social Science. It is also influenced by a number of interdisciplinary classes he taught, including “Telling About Society” (the books namesake) where he examined different media to provoke discussion regarding the best way to report of society. What this approach allows him to do, is to examine the flaws of traditional research outputs and the potentials other disciplines offer. I do not plan to precís the book here, but to draw of a few of the ideas that resonated with my current thinking.
Understanding the status quo
The fist key point he raises early on is that all representations are constrained within the norms of the organisations they are created in. The research paper, the television documentary, and the novel, all have expected elements and ways of being created, so they can be read by the audience they are designed for. It is therefore important to understand that the status quo is maintained usually due to the shared understandings of the creators and users. In order to access a new base of users (or readers or viewers), we need to be able to understand the tools they possess for decoding the information presented.
What I mean by this, is if we take the film, a fade from one scene to another means a change of time or place or in a research paper, academic know that a small sample size means that the conclusions drawn are likely to have low levels of generalisability. These are things that the user learns through experience, or education. It is therefore important that makers using an unfamiliar medium understand these conventions.
Do I mean what I say or what you hear?
Maybe this is one of the reasons that social science sticks to known outputs (or variations on them). Through using written argument, to an audience of similar experiences and understanding, it is more likely than not that what an author explains will be understood in the same way it was intended – even if perhaps, the user disagrees with it. The problem arises when the user is expected to make their own interpretations and draw their own conclusions, something that is often done within Art or Film – using the term in the broadest sense. In this case, more skill is needed to ensure that the evidence presented is framed in a way that helps the user gain the same meaning as the maker. As Becker states, ‘Any representation of social reality […] is necessarily partial’ (p.22) and thus the maker needs to understand how the audience interprets the form of representation that they plan to use.
The case for breaking the silo walls
My argument here, therefore, is that in order to reach these publics, we need to collaborate with those makers who understand them best. By this, I don’t just mean collaborate at the point of production. In the resent LSE Impact event, Fiona Devine talked about the ‘challenges’ of working with the media on the Great British Class calculator when one party has differing expectations to the other. What I am suggesting, is that academia reconsiders what needs to be an essential element of education within the Social Sciences: developing interdisciplinary courses that allow development of the skills and understanding of several groups at once in the way that Becker did within his class at Northwestern. I propose that by changing the way students start out thinking about Social Science as working not in a silo, but in integrated and interdisciplinary ways with those who are training to become skilled in the technicalities of presentation of media, we can begin to overcome the barriers to reaching out to a wider range of publics.
Becker, H.S. (2007) Telling About Society, Chicago, Chicago University Press
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
- Why Live Sociology needs to consider the way publics live. (jonrainford.wordpress.com)
- Engaging publics: Do we need to re-imagine reality TV? (jonrainford.wordpress.com)
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 , 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.
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 ), The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press
There has been much speculation regarding the impact agenda and the REF. This weeks Times Higher has fleshed out more details as to how impact will be assessed within the 2014 REF. One of the ways this is mooted to happen is by increasing the panel memberships from outside Academia. This weeks Times Higher states that:
People from businesses and the public sector will be represented, according to a statement issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, as well as figures from charities, thinktanks, the media, libraries, galleries and polling organisations.
Hefce says there will be “significantly more” research users on panels compared with the final RAE.
The users “will help to assess the impact that universities’ research has had on the economy, society and culture”, it adds.
No doubt there is value in creating impact within these other institutions and organisations but to my mind, this isn’t the impact that matters and the one that needs encouragement and promotion. After all, it is not charities, libraries and galleries that fund academia! Whilst the way in which higher education is funded has changed dramatically, directly and indirectly, much of the money is coming from the public.
I believe that a radical reappraisal of impact is needed, especially within Social Sciences. This is needed in order to move away from one based in neoliberal principles to a more egalitarian one that encourages academics to ensure that the findings of their work are available and accessible to those who are the subjects of their study. I blogged last week about accessibility and how best to make research accessible so will avoid a repetition of that argument, however I strongly believe that it is the duty of the sociologist is to educate publics about the social world they exist within and to enable them to better understand the world around them. To only offer this knowledge to a select few who can access academic journals or who can penetrate complex technical language and rhetoric is, in my mind abusing their skills and those who they research. Not that I blame the current lack of public engagement wholly on those academics, after all it is not the impact being measured so they are not given the time and the space to do it. The system needs to encourage it if it is to happen on a meaningful scale across the board (this is not to dismiss those projects that already successfully do this, but not every project has the resources to be able to do this and my argument is that they should).
We are in an age where information can be shared in a multitude of ways at minimal costs and with relative ease. No longer is the only way to distribute text through printed books and journals, no longer do we have to rely on a small number of state broadcast and regulated channels to distribute video. Surely it is the duty of those measuring academic impact to ensure that academics are sharing their findings with the widest publics possible in a meaningful way, not limiting the definition of impact to one which privileges the impact of their work to industry, quangos and other institutions.
In order to provide this resource and space for academics to better engage with publics and create meaningful impact, I argue that a reassessment of the central tenets of what impact actually has meaningful value to society needs to take place. This reassessment of impact cannot happen without pressure; after all there is monetary value in the current definition of impact. On this basis, it is in the government’s interest to encourage it as it can help universities to be of greater economic value. The increasing commoditisation and marketisation of education needs to be continually opposed by academics and in my mind one important way of doing this is by subsuming the impact agenda and turning it on itself, creating a parallel discourse of a more meaningful impact, one that brings the value of the research back to those whom are the subject of the research by educating and working with them to inform and induce change in ways which improve their lives.
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 , 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.
A tweet caught my eye yesterday:
‘Interesting academics on Twitter who have thousands of followers but only follow 50 people, must like the sound of their own tweets.’ Les Back (@academicdiary)
This got me thinking about how more academics are joining twitter by the day yet using twitter and engaging through twitter are two different things. I know this and some academics who have been using social media for a while know this, but all academics need to understand the difference between the two and why it is the conversation that is key to twitters value. You see, there is lots of information out there, more information than anyone can process. If your time is already limited then more information, if not directly relevant at the time, is likely to be ignored. However, if someone poses a question on which you may have a response, then you often feel obligated to make your view heard and engage with the person posing that question. Surely though, as a busy academic you may be thinking “Do I have time to engage with all of these people?”. I would question, however if you can afford not to. After all, if people are interested enough to follow you on twitter, they are probably sufficiently interested in your work to read it, consider it, and possibly offer a perspective on your work that may not have entered your consciousness. Is this not one of the reasons why presenting papers at conference is so valuable, the ability to start conversations and enter into debates about your work.
Lets take this a step further then, think about the questions you get asked at a conference. For each of those questions, I’m sure there are another half a dozen people who wanted to ask a question but either didn’t have time in the allocated slot or, were too nervous to ask it within that context. I know I certainly have been guilty of not asking questions at times for both those reasons and yet, I would not hesitate to tweet those questions. So maybe now is the time to reconsider twitter. Think of it as the coffee break at a conference that never ends, the off the cuff comment that provides the kindling for the next flame of an idea. Unlike a coffee break of a conference, you have the chance to explore the perspectives of a far wider audience, those who you may never have been able to reach with your research in the past.
Now tell me that you can afford not to engage in the conversation?