Friday, 22 January 2010

Blogging, Academia and Sociology

Here's the text of a talk I gave this afternoon at Warwick University as part of a joint presentation on the 'sociological' uses of blogging and Twitter, and how it intersects with activism. In the subsequent discussion a point was raised about the ethics of writing about academic seminars, which are simultaneously public but are often quite informal and sometimes represent ideas/research that is not fully formed and/or ready to be opened to wider public scrutiny. This raises wider issues about having 'permission' to blog without 'consent' and ethics of responsibility one has to those who are named in blog posts. I'll revisit this topic in a future post.

A Very Public Sociologist has been active for over three years. Since the start of 2010 it has been averaging 496 unique visitors a day, which places it in the mid-rank of British political blogging. It is relatively well known among the so-called Bloggerati - in 2009 it was voted number 12 in Total Politics magazine's
top 100 left-of-centre blogs, and 41st in the overall politics top 100. Also I'm number 64 in the list of top 100 political bloggers on Twitter (though, hands held up, I did compile that myself). But none of these figures are bad for a blog that is more or less pure comment. I do not break exclusives and audience boosts from the big mainstream UK politics blogs - particularly right wing bloggers Iain Dale and Paul 'Guido Fawkes' Staines - are not a regular occurrence.

What has this got to do with sociology and the theme of today's talk? Despite having a reputation as a political blogger, the blog's name suggests I very clearly identify myself as a sociologist. I even began the blog thinking it would be a sort of online diary of the remainder of my PhD - though very quickly (perhaps even straight away) I couldn't resist blogging about politics and wider issues. Nevertheless I do try and make sure the 'sociological' strand of my blogging, if you can call it that, isn't entirely eclipsed by postings on other matters.

So how do I 'do' sociology on my blog? In broad terms, there are three ways I've gone about it:

1) Blog reports on research seminars I've attended and other academic-related activities.

2) Using my social science training to offer fairly unique perspectives on issues that are exercising the media and blogging commentariat.

3) Disseminating/reflecting on my previous academic work, and my (recently completed) PhD thesis.

I'll talk about these in a little depth.

As well as blogging, one of my favoured methods of procrastination was (and still is) the attendance of research seminars at
Keele University and elsewhere. After I started maintaining the blog I realised that very often these seminars were perfect material to blog about. I try and present the positions of the presenters as fairly and as accurately as my note-taking skills allow me (things are not helped by my not knowing shorthand) and give a flavour of the subsequent discussions. For example, I did this with a series of seminars on the theme of public sociology up the road at Birmingham University a couple of years back. And last year's day symposium on Pierre Bourdieu here at Warwick received similar treatment. Perhaps I'll do the same with today's proceedings?

Blogging about research seminars does two things. In the first place it demands an extended reflection on what is being presented. I have to think through and understand concepts and arguments almost to the same depth as a paper's discussant. This is a useful exercise in itself in terms of broadening one's knowledge. Second, and perhaps more importantly from the point of view of our discipline, blog posts on research seminars introduces their topics to a wider 'non-professional' audience.

Second, because UK political blogging is very crowded (
Total Politics magazine links to approximately 2,000 blogs in its directory). To attract an audience you need, to borrow a horrible phrase from marketing, a unique selling point. One of mine is to offer a slightly different take on the issues of the day. For example, with regard to the interminable plots and rumours of plots to bring down Gordon Brown as the leader of the Labour Party, this week I posted a piece drawing on an old political science paper written in 1994 to see if it, along with our would-be Blairite assassins, believes political leadership has decisive effects on the outcomes of elections. I've also written blog posts that have used Pierre Bourdieu to look at high-profile spats between leading bloggers, used Althusser's understanding of ideology as a lived relation to see if pornography can be treated as an ideology, and Marx for everything from the 2008 stock market crash to the economics of chicken sheds.

Thirdly blogging has been an essential part of self-clarification and self-reflective practice with regards to my PhD work. Just to quickly tell you about it, my work uses life history interviews to make sense of the processes at work in the radicalisation and continued commitment of a sample of Trotskyist activists. Some were drawn from the Socialist Workers' Party, but the majority were members of the Socialist Party (formerly known as the Militant Tendency). This was complicated by the fact that I am too a member of the Socialist Party, which led to all kinds of access issues and problems of sociological knowledge production, power relations, and reflexivity which I don't have the time to go into here. But I have blogged about these issues and received feedback from other activists, which affected my thinking about these subjects. Blogging's also been a useful arena for trying out certain ideas too, even if only to see how they work written down. For example a rough of a section of my PhD's methods began as a blog post and was then worked into the thesis. Probably about half a dozen posts made the transition as well as a number of other ideas that first appeared on the blog.

In addition to this blogging has enabled me to dust off old pieces of work that have been sitting on my hard drive for years and wouldn't have seen the day otherwise. This includes
texts of old presentations, recycled bits of masters degree essays as well as an old dissertation comparing Marxian and Foucauldian approaches to power. Again these have reached an audience who are unlikely to open a political science, cultural studies or sociology journal. So you could say the blog manages, albeit very modestly, of taking sociology to the "public" and justifies the name.

But there are problems with my approach to blogging. Like every political blogger should be I'm not backward about being forward with my opinions, and I understand that my particular brand of socialist politics are not to everyone's tastes. So from the outset I have assumed a level of relative anonymity. This is partly for personal security reasons - I do receive visitors from far right blogs and forums, especially if I'm writing about the BNP. Other friends of mine have appeared on Red Watch for simply attending a demonstration or having themselves pictured in a socialist newspaper. And there are career reasons too. Even today with Trotskyism in Britain a shadow of an already marginal political tradition it's not a useful strategy to advertise your activist record to potential employers in higher education.

By way of a conclusion, like all user-generated content on the internet, blogging is what you make of it - whether you write about sociology, kids TV or needlework. It can be incredibly useful as a tool of ongoing self-reflection for all sociologists of whatever level, and it can be addictive too. But beware of the pitfalls - blogging might get you into scrapes that could impact negatively on your career, especially if you're early career. So, as my mum used to say, if you can't be good be careful!


Lallands Peat Worrier said...

Speaking as someone in a similar(ish) position to yourself, I can sympathise with much that you say. Although I primarily blog about the Scottish context, I stumbled across your blog very recently - and appreciated the social theoretical content. So much blogging is so vacuous, gossipy and parasitic on news agendas - its always refreshing to find something anchored in an alternative, sagacious analysis of society.

In particular, I strongly encourage the idea of connectivity between the deliberative academy and wider discourses. Innumerable social issues, glancingly discussed by journalists and commentators, are underwritten by pre-existing literatures and empirical examinations of social orders precisely on point. Yet, because the connective tissue between these mooters isn't always what it could be - isolation ensues and ignorance is perpetuated (or cunningly employed by social actors apt to benefit from that ignorance).

I also appreciated the notion of blogging as a 'self-clarification and self-reflective practice'. I feel much the same. I tend to find that the stricture - 'Know yourself' - is a redundant caution. Rather, you have to work yourself up, find through effort and accumulation - not merely dip into some putative core and deftly manhandle yourself out entire, easy and complete.

andy newman said...

This is an interesting point Phil

"Thirdly blogging has been an essential part of self-clarification and self-reflective practice "

This has always been my approach, to try out some ideas and see where it leads you, but the political culture in the anglo-saxon world makes this very difficult, where carefully considered sound bites are calibrated to give away the absolute minimum.

(In contrast, for example both Chavez and Fidel have had the habit of very long rambling discources where they entertain their audience and are flippant and sometimes float half baked ideas - it is a different style of politics,and one easily (deliberately) misunderstood)

Add to which the gruelling culture of the blooging world, where people respond with very real anger and hostility to ideas that do not follow the herd.

So i think that the sort of reflective and experimental thinking that blogging shoud be well suited for (because it allows feedback to be rapidly incorporated) is actually discouraged by both the timidity and pressure toards conformism of the political culture, and the macho testosterone response of the many people in the interweb bearpit.

Chris said...

"A Very Public Sociologist has been in active for over three years."

What would Freud make of that Phil?

Phil said...

Gah, me and my shitty editing!

Wrinkled Weasel said...

How about livening up the blog with a few nice pictures or a recipe?
Poetry always goes down well, especially if it is about family and pets.

Anonymous said...

When I was at university the Master at my college, a distinguished knight of the realm, vigorously opposed the introduction of Sociology to the University. I opposed his position but I today I see very clearly that he was right.

Phil said...

Andy, blogging certainly offers the potential to depart from the sermon-on-the-mount style of writing so common on the left. As I've got older I find the cast iron certainty and total lack of modesty found in the writings of most left groups increasingly grating. I'm pretty sure most "normal" people who pick up left publications do too, which is why their circulation stays stubbornly low and very rarely they come back for a second copy.

Phil said...

Seeing as sociology is - among other things - about getting people to think critically about the societies they live in. I can see why our anonymous public school boy and his old master recoil at the very thought of the subject. Can't have the below stairs classes thinking for themselves, can we?

Anonymous said...

To Phil BC

I was educated entirely in the state school system, but your presumption succintly captures what is wrong with Sociology.

Unknown said...


Loved your post as it reflects very much my own reasons for blogging over at or Critical Mass ELT. I think you summed it up when you said this:

"Thirdly blogging has been an essential part of self-clarification and self-reflective practice with regards to my PhD work"

For me I find that the rigidity of academic writing, no matter how 'reflexive' my methodology, is exhausting on a day to day basis, and not more so than during the writing of a phd. Blogging was an antidote to this as it also presented me with the challenge of making my ideas accessible to a non-academic audience (who are, after all, more 'important' in the general scheme of things). I found that I was able to explore my phd research in a different way through blogging which in many ways I preferred! And it gave me a break from it. Plus I wanted to explore how power circulates in practice in education and beyond, and my blogging audience have helped me to do this in a different way to the critical interviews in the academic research.

I am thinking of doing a piece on the relationship between blogging and PhD writing - fancy doing a joint article? There is so much to look at in terms of content/style/identity etc : ) If you are, give me a shout as I always prefer not to be a lone academic wolf!


Phil said...

Forgive me anonymous for mistaking you for a public school boy. But come on, the only people who speak about previous teachers in such terms are either those who've gone through fee paying education, or plonkers with severe status anxiety. How was I to know?

Phil said...

Yes Sara, a joint piece sounds like a good idea - and just at the moment I'm supposed to be churning out publications too :) I'll email you some ideas before the end of the week.

EFComrade said...

A very interesting article Phil, enjoyed reading it so much I decided to blog about it myself as it made me think about how my blog could be a useful tool in my sociology degree

here is a link to the article

sjhannam said...

Great Phil. Will wait to hear from you then.