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Book Review: What About Mozart? What About Murder? – Howard S. Becker

What About Mozart? What About Murder? differs from Becker’s previous work. It is not a monograph on a particular subject the ways that Art Worlds and Outsiders were. Nor is it wholly concerned with the craft in the way Writing for Social Scientists and Telling About Society were. Instead it offers a unique insight into the events and concerns that have sparked his sociological imagination over his career to date. It opens up some of the inner conversations and thoughts that link his work across areas as diverse as deviance and Art.

This volume is focused upon cases studies and their use within Sociology. It takes the reader through different the different forms these take and the ways in which cases can be used to illuminate issues and sociological concerns. Drawing on his wide experience both empirical and anecdotal this is not a text on methodology but an insight into how Becker’s work has been shaped by a commitment to the value of case studies. He addresses issues of how seemingly unrelated cases can spark thinking in completely different fields, how detailed studies of cases can make visible things that other methods hide in black boxes and how imaginary cases can help to make issues more visible.

Through his accessible writing style, Becker generously fills in the blanks by making visible the influences and inspiration behind the various areas of research he has addressed during his career. In making these visible, this book offers a unique insight into how seemingly unrelated areas of study can become influential and how the everyday and the imagined can also prove valuable in sociological research.

This book speaks of his generosity to the reader. He addresses some of those questions that I am sure every academic has asked at some point; how do I decide what to study, where do I go next and How do I know when enough is enough? He does this in an accessible insightful way that makes the reader consider how similar issues might be able to offer useful insights into their own work. As such this text in my mind is essential reading for all PhD and Early career researchers who may be wrestling with these issues and wondering how Becker seamlessly moved from looking at Musicians to Schools and from deviance to Art.

References

Becker (2014) What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from cases, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

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Education, higher education, PhD

Reading Lists: Recommendations, Rabbit holes and Reputation

I was recently asked to try and write a blog to explain my reading strategy. The questions posed were how I decide what to read, when and why. I was also asked about how I read and take notes. I am going to take this into two posts, the first focusing on how my current reading pile has come about.

Why has this stack of books come about?

I hadn’t really thought about this before so I took what I currently had and realised there were three main reasons books and references to follow up were there, namely some form of recommendation, a follow up from a reference i’d come across in other reading or the fact that I felt something was a seminal text in the areas i’m researching.

Recommendation

Recommendations that have populated my list have come from several sources. Some have been as a result of twitter, some from seeing mailshots and stands at conferences and some through personal recommendation.

For example, Education, disadvantage and place came onto my radar through a flyer from Policy Press. Other recent books to drop into this category are the Education Policy Research book I reviewed last week, which came as a result of attending a symposium at the BERA conference and Zizek’s First as tragedy, then as farce recommended by @andewilkins on tiwtter following a conversation about cynicism as ideology that has fascinated me since the BSA conference earlier in the year.

Rabbit holes

When you begin immersing yourself in one topic, you find references to many things you feel you should read, things that look interesting and things that might be central to your research. The process of following one reference to another without really knowing where you will end up brought to my mind the idea of Alice following the white rabbit in her adventures in wonderland and as a result I decided to term these texts my rabbit holes.

There are a number of journal articles relating to this  category in my list, probably too numerous to mention and often this has been a useful way to carve out my reading into relevant studies. It has also lead me to explore specific texts from authors that may have also fallen into the final category; that of reputation. Two examples here are Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations which Steven Jones talks about in his chapter in Education Policy Research and in which I wish to explore the notion of ‘playing the game’ further. Bauman’s Wasted Lives has also ended up on my must read list as although I have read several of his books this was cited in another chapter and I feel may have some relevance to issues surrounding my thesis.

Reputation

The books that I would currently put into this category are actually ones on my reading list to revisit. I have read with interest Mills’ Sociological Imagination, Bourdieu’s Distinction and Becker’s Telling about society and all have extensive notes in them. The reason they are still sitting in my reading pile, however, is that re-reading certain parts in light of other thoughts i’m having, now specifically related to my thesis may help me develop my own thesis by drawing on the issues and concepts that these works highlight.

What do I do with this reading?

I wouldn’t suggest by any means this list is exhaustive, nor that my way is the best way but this is how my current reading list has been shaped. It would be interesting to here if this resonates with anyone else or if people have very different strategies for deciding what to read. I will be following up this post by exploring the idea of how I read and think through reading in another post in due course.

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Why I’ve chosen a PhD over the EdD

The decision to do a PhD over and EdD may seem strange given the recent post I made focusing on the benefits of an EdD and showing a slight sway towards this from my original PhD plans. I thought it would be useful to write a short blog to explain why.

I do not plan to rehearse the same arguments as I made in the previous post but to summarise, the two main benefits I saw in the EdD are the presence of a cohort for informal support, the structure to help retain focus during a part time doctorate.

It just so happened that I was put in a enviable position of being able to choose between and EdD and a PhD at the same institution on the same topic, so really this left little to choose from other than the model of delivery. This possibly made it harder than having external factors to shape my choices.

What became clear as I worked through my choices and came up with pros and cons is that both models are good and neither seemed to race ahead from the other in my thinking. What did however shape my final choice was me and my own background and circumstances.

The main differences in essence are that the EdD would have a shorter thesis but with several assessed formal assignments on research methods, policy and theory in the first 3 years. The PhD has a longer thesis but no formal assignments. In terms of an EdD there would be a cohort of at least 10 students all starting the journey together whereas by reading a PhD I would be likely to be one of a much smaller number in the department. Because of my circumstances both would be part-time and both have similar financial implications for me.

After talking to several academics who know me well and a couple I have met on one off occasions, much of what I have been doing over the last few years seems to be developing some of those skills needed for doctoral study. Reading around my interest areas, engaging with theory, attending conferences and building support networks. Given that I have already begun this journey, some of the structure offered by the EdD might have felt slightly restrictive and limited the start I could make from day one. This would also have a knock on effect on giving me more time and space for the data collection phase of my research which, when studying part time, may end up being very important.

In not choosing an EdD, however, I am acutely aware of those parts of the training model that may be lacking and the gaps I need to fill myself, such as the support network that a cohort would provide. I do wonder though if there is a way to re-create this through technology and am working through some ideas of how to do this for maximum benefit.

book review, Education

Book Review: Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education

Within this volume, Brooks, McCormack and Bhopal set out show how the sociology of education can cast a critical eye across the global issues in education from schooling through to university in the mainstream and to the margins. Opening with an outline of the theoretical, political and institutional contexts of the sociology of education, the book gets the reader up to speed with the state of the field before taking them on an editorial journey through the various stages of education by way of an interesting and thought provoking range of chapters based on cutting edge empirical research.

There are a number of chapters on compulsory age schooling examining issues of international comparisons in assessment, citizenship education, academic selection, masculinities, race and gender issues in schools. The most poignant chapter on schooling comes from Carolyn Jackson who explores the issue of fear and anxiety in schools. This is one of the few chapters that focuses on teachers as well as students, an area that on the whole the collection glosses over.  Recent debates surrounding increasing pressure from inspection and policy change on education professionals would suggest that this is an area central to contemporary debates. This however, is a comment as much on the speed of change and the current state of research in the sociology of education as much as it is the book.

The most interesting chapters are those that take the reader those beyond the scope of other texts. Firstly, Kagendo Mutua and Sandra Cooley Nichols chapter on special education in the USA and how gendered identities are constructed within it during adolescence which takes a very different stance on exploring special education provision beyond outcomes and process to explore how individuals develop a sense of identity. There is also an excellent chapter by Steve Roberts focusing on the lifelong educational opportunities of retail workers where he explores the tensions of between an instrumental credentialisation of skills and learning that is useful for life. This chapter is an important contribution as workplace learning is often omitted from debates in the field.

That said, no volume on contemporary debates would be complete without the obligatory chapter on working-class students and university. Wolfgang Lehmann provides this from a Canadian perspective and this highlights another key strength of the volume that in drawing from global perspectives, it helps the reader create a comparison of similarities with more local debates. This is complemented further by Heather Mendick’s exploring issues of the gendered nature of subject selection in Mathematics. Understanding these processes is key if issues of equal access based on gender are to be addressed within STEM subjects.

The final chapter by Keri Facer and Neil Selwyn is a provocation highlighting issues of technology and the importance for sociologists of education to be ready to explore these. They argue that given the ubiquity of technology within all areas of education, that there is sizeable gap in the research literature. In ending on this note, the volume challenges the reader to consider how they can fill this gap and hopefully will act as a stimulus for much needed work in the sociology of educational technology.

This collection serves its purpose of stimulating thought on the contemporary debates of the sociology of education and as such would provide an excellent starting point for those new to the field or who are currently engaged within education but would like to explore a more sociological analysis of some of the issues and challenges they face.

 Reference

Brooks, R., McCormack, M., Bhopal, K. (2013). Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education, Basingstoke; Palgrave macmillan

 

EdD, Education, PhD

Mind the gap? or enjoy it? The benefits of a break before the doctorate

When I had to abandon my original plans to start a doctorate last September, I must admit I was a bit despondent and irritated I couldn’t continue to the next level straight away. On reflection, this has probably been the best thing that could of happened and I thought it would be useful to blog about why I feel this way.

One of my major worries was that I would lose the impetus of study and the time and space for it within my busy work and home life. This hasn’t happened, in fact I’m probably spending as much time reading and writing as I ever did during my masters! The difference is, i’m finally spending the time exploring texts and ideas that I want to. What has really helped is attending a few conferences and workshops over the period since I ended my study and following up interesting ideas.

Having come into Sociology and Education through a quite eclectic route of study, this time and space has also allowed me to read some of those classic text I missed out on. Recently these have included Willis’ Learning to Labour, Lukes’ Power: a radical view as well as a number of more specific texts to the area I now plan to do my doctorate around.

This time and space to broaden my reading I feel is something that I would have missed out on if I embarked immediately onto a doctoral programme and now has me much more excited and focused on the next stage feeling more prepared than I ever could have done if I had started back in September. As I reflected on previously, it has also allowed me to explore exactly what I wanted from a doctorate and which one is right for me.

Hopefully the next few months will give me the space to continue this reading and to develop my writing through this blog, contributing to some other blogs and a few other projects to help hone some of these skills before I return to the formal journey towards a doctorate.

digital sociology, Education, higher education, public sociology

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

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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The professional doctorate model and similarities to a public sociology

Think of this more as a provocation, than a definitive thesis. I am currently reading the March 2014 Current Sociology which focuses on issues of public engagement in Sociology. Within this Rodriguez-Garavito (2014) talks about four strengths of public sociology:

1. ‘Rapid Change of roles and identities allows one to see the same social reality from different angles’

 

2. ‘The design, the questions and the results of the research project are directly informed by interactions with actors from the reality under study’

 

3. ‘the public sociologist tends to have immediate and continued access to the places and actors of her studies’

 

4. ‘public scientists tend to continue the dialogue with the people and collectivities for whom these practices are not a laboratory but their lives’ (p.159)

It struck me just how similar these strengths are to conducting a professional doctorate within a context where the researcher is part of the professional context under research. Many of the concerns of the distance between academic research and practice are negated through the nature of the professional doctorate model. 

In this case, the publics who are affected by the research are the professional communities within which the doctoral candidate works and thus, by its nature, the research should directly inform and influence those publics in the same way a public sociology would. Even if we consider Ethnography as being part of a community under research, there is always the need for withdrawal from the field eventually and distancing from the community under study. With a doctorate which centres around professional practice, it seems there is never that point of complete withdrawal and thus it mirrors much more closely a model of a public sociology and those strengths outlined above.

These were just initial ideas that struck me so i’d be interested to continue this dialog.

References

RODRÍGUEZ-GARAVITO, C. 2014. Amphibious sociology: Dilemmas and possibilities of public sociology in a multimedia world. Current Sociology, 62, 156-167.