book review, digital sociology, public sociology

Book review: Punk Sociology by David Beer

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 

digital sociology, public sociology

Can peer reviewed journals and blogs co-exist as research outputs?

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.

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

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

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.