Saturday 28 March 2009

Sociology Meets Dolly and Guido

It was handbags at noon on Thursday's Daily Politics as two mainstream bloggers took their feud onto our TV screens. In the blue corner sat the corpulent self-styled enfant terrible of the libertarian hard right, Paul "Guido Fawkes" Staines. His pointy-finger opponent in the red was LabourList supremo and new kid on the block, Mr Kate Garraway. The ensuing slap fight did no one any credit and probably left "normal" people outside the blogging world scratching their heads in bemusement. Just see for yourselves:

Epic fail.

But speaking as a sociologist Derek Draper's entry into political blogging and his subsequent feuds with Staines and
Iain Dale are very interesting. It serves as a model case study for Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of cultural capital and capital conversion.

Bourdieu argues it is useful to conceptualise social space in terms of fields. A field is much like a game, with its own rules, objectives, strategies, stakes, actors and forms of capital. Think about the economy - firms "play a game" by developing strategies to accumulate capital and turn a profit. Non-economic fields operate in more or less the same way too. This is not to say the economy determines what happens in its non-economic counterparts, but that the interactions and interrelationships animating fields resemble the structures and dynamics of capitalist economies. For instance, take Sociology as a discipline. Whichever way you look at it, my PhD represents a strategy for accumulating the cultural capital specific to that field. My work is an intervention in current debates within social movement research on mobilisation and commitment, and has certain things to say about sociological reflexivity, paying particular attention to the thorny issue of activists studying activists with whom one shares substantial political agreement. The first function my thesis will fulfill (with luck) is achievement of my PhD, which will become my pass into the academic career structure. Depending on how my work is received by the sub-field of social movement research and the wider sociological field, I will accrue greater or lesser amounts of cultural capital, which will then be added to and deployed over the course of my subsequent career in terms of research opportunities, interests, etc.

There are ways in which cultural capital accumulated here can be converted into other forms of capital. One is economic capital - the more successful one's strategy the greater the chance of landing better paid and prestigious academic jobs. There are other ways of converting it into economic capital; securing consultancies of various stripes and writing popular sociology books are two avenues that spring to mind. There's political capital as well - for some on the left a well grounded professional background in the social sciences can give one standing as an 'intellectual'. In the wider political field academia can be married to political capital in terms of expertise. For instance, some MPs had been voicing concerns about the debt-fuelled boom for years, but it is Vince Cable whose reputation as a trained economist has allowed him to hoover up most of the kudos for foreseeing the bust.

What's all this got to do with Derek Draper vs Guido and Iain Dale? If you recall Draper shot to notoriety in the late 90s over the 'lobbygate' cash-for-access scandal. He then disappeared from the
New Labour firmament until resurfacing in 2008 as a "campaigns advisor" for the party (as a close associate of Peter Mandelson, it seems Nosferatu's return to favour opened the way for Draper's comeback). Among his brief was the setting up of a rapid rebuttal unit that could respond to the latest mud flung around blogland by the big Tory blogs. Several "new media" breakfasts later Draper midwifed LabourList into the world.

Because Draper is a New Labour insider his activities in putting the blog together attracted high profile attention from the blogging world. Seven posts appeared on Staines' blog about Derek Draper prior to LabourList's launch, variously mocking his efforts and attempting to discredit his psychotherapist credentials. There are even more on Dale's. Using Bourdieu, Draper's move into blogging can be interpreted as an exchange of his political capital for the (subcultural) capital of the blogging field - and that's even before writing a single blog post!

But being a name doesn't necessarily mean big audiences - who really pays attention to June Sarpong's
politics blog? Here Draper showed an intuitive understanding of how the blogging scene operates. He made sure there was just enough content on the fledgling site - some of it all right, most of it spin - and then went after the big blogs. Staines was called out over his toleration of the racists and sexists that infest his comments boxes. Dale was upbraided for his soft apologetic for Carol Thatcher's racist outburst. Because their previous actions had invested Draper with a certain amount of blogging 'capital' they had to respond to the provocation - driving audiences LabourList's way and sparking off a secondary layer of commentary on smaller blogs.

Add to this voices critical of the government's record in office and an overall improvement of content, Draper's sacralisation by Dale and Guido has helped LabourList's accumulation of blogging capital become self-sustaining. Like the aforementioned it has become a must-visit destination for anyone who follows the developments in mainstream blogging. However whether the capital the site has built up will translate into economic capital (via advertising) or political capital for the Labour party remains to be seen, but it's certainly done Draper's wider political profile no harm.

By treating political blogging as a field in its own right we can identify the rules of the game and the hierarchy it sustains. It enables a blogger to be conscious of the position they occupy in the blogging scheme of things and can help them understand why certain posts on certain topics pull in the numbers and others do not.


ModernityBlog said...

don't worry you'll become Dr. Phil before you know it!

as for Draper, I doubt anyone really gives him much of a thought, he's just another New Labour robot with little expertise in this area (other than self proclaimed) and would probably slip into the Tory machinery, if and when they take power, hardly changing his political views along the way.

Anglonoel said...

Mandelson, Campbell and Draper all coming back to help GB out...and talk of Blunkett coming back to the Cabinet, with Blair doing his 'trendy vicar' act once reminds me of a New Labour version of The Blues Brothers: 'We're putting the band back together.'

Madam Miaow said...

Ker-rist! Why are these wonks so lardy!

Phil said...

Too many "working" new media breakfasts.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

This is a bit too zeitgeisty for me. Still, I suppose you do a good explanation of the reason why people believe that the thoughts of Will Young will somehow have heuristic value on "Question Time" when debating the issues of the day.

jailhouselawyer said...

Why didn't you just say Draper was attention grabbing?

Phil said...

The conclusion that LabourList is a 'must-visit' made me wonder about your premises, but apart from that this is rather good. It's nice to see somebody using social/cultural capital in Bourdieu's (recognisably Marxist) sense rather than the overextended version popularised by Putnam; they're all Putnamites in Manchester these days.

Phil said...

In my defence I did say if you wanted to follow what was going on in mainstream political blogging!

Imposs1904 said...

So that's what Paul Staines looks like? Shouldn't it be Gutso rather than Guido?

Charlie Marks said...

When Adam Curtis made his documentary on The Century of the Self, an exploration of the impact of psychoanalysis on advertising and political affairs, he interviewed Derek Draper.

I edited Draper's comments on New Labour into a wee video:, but decided against publicising it too much lest the tory blogs pick it up.

Sunny H said...

Phil I think this is exactly right. Lots of people have been looking and laughing at the Draper V Guido fracas.

But both know, given they are fairly high profile, that is actually increases their profile and bring visitors - whether or not those people respect Draper or Guido is irrelevant. They just want the attention and visibility.
I think Draper understands the nature of the medium better than we think - whether we like it or not.

Matt Wardman said...


Would your analysis change a week later?

I'd change the terminology to marketing terms of "personal brand" and "personal profile".

I'm currently writing: "How not to Blog: A Masterclass"

I'm also reflecting on the advantages of starting with no "social capital" and making mistakes without people noticing.

Matt W

Phil said...

Perhaps it would, but only slightly. Essentially Draper pursued a get rich quick scheme where blogging capital is concerned, but now the strategy has misfired. That said even though Draper's name is mud, if he were to leave LabourList and set up on his own and THEN go after the top Tory bloggers I do think they'd find it hard to ignore his attacks.