The academic quantified self

Last week I put together two abstracts for the British Sociological Association’s conference next year. One abstract is for a panel on digital public sociology and the other is for a workshop on the quantified self. In the digital public sociology abstract I refer to the need to take a critical sociological perspective on engaging in public sociology using digital tools. In the abstract on the quantified self, I focus on the conditions that have come together to make the quantified self assemblage possible.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to discuss in these papers, it struck me that there are strong connections between the two. Engaging as a public sociologist using digital media invariably involves some form of quantifying the self. Roger Burrows has employed the term ‘metric assemblage’ to describe the ways in which academics have become monitored and measured in the contemporary audit culture of the modern academy. As part of configuring our metric assemblages, we are quantifying our professional selves.

Academics have been counting elements of their work for a long time as part of their professional practice and presentation of the self, even before the advent of digital technologies. The ‘publish or perish’ maxim refers to the imperative for a successful academic to constantly produce materials such as books, book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles in order to maintain their reputation and place in the academic hierarchy. Academic curricula vitae invariably involve lists of these outputs under the appropriate headings, as do university webpages for academics. They are required for applications for promotions, new positions and research funding.

These quantified measures of output are our ‘small data’: the detailed data that we collect on ourselves. Universities too engage in regular monitoring and measuring practices of the work of their academics and their own prestige in academic rankings and assessment of the quality and quantity of the research output of their departments. They therefore participate in the aggregation of data, producing ‘big data’ sets. The advent of digital media, including the use of these media as part of engaging in public sociology, has resulted in more detailed and varied forms of data being created and collected. Sociologists using digital media have ever greater opportunities to quantify their output and impact in the form of likes, retweets, views of their blogs, followers and so on. We now have Google Scholar, Scopus or Web of Science to monitor and display how often our publications have been cited, where and by whom, and to automatically calculate our h-indices. Academic journals, now all online, show how often researchers’ articles have been read and downloaded, and provide lists of the most cited and most downloaded articles they have published.

In adopting a critical reflexive approach to all this monitoring and measurement, we need to ask questions. Should the practices of quantifying the academic self be considered repressive of academic freedom and autonomy? Do they place undue stress on academics to perform, and perhaps to produce work that is sub-standard but greater in number? However it is also important to consider the undeniable positive dimensions of participating in digital public engagement and thereby reaching a wider audience. Academics do not write for themselves alone: being able to present their work to more readers has its own rewards. Quantified selfers can find great satisfaction in using data to take control over elements of their lives and also as a performative aspect. So too, for academics, collecting and presenting data on their professional selves can engender feelings of achievement, satisfaction and pride at their accomplishments. Such data are important to the academic professional sense of self.

As I argued in my abstract for the digital public sociology panel, as sociologists we need to stand back and take a reflexive perspective on these developments in academic life: not simply to condemn them but also to acknowledge their contribution to the ‘making up’ of academic selves. We should be alert to both the pleasures and the privations of academic self-quantification.

See here for my blog posts on using digital media as an academic and here for my other posts on the quantified self.

20 thoughts on “The academic quantified self

  1. This is a very interesting post and something I have been mulling over myself, due to where I am in my career. It is a hard position to be in for junior academics, there is the pressure to quantify that we are ‘good enough’ and ‘produce enough’, which is compounded when working at a teaching school that does not give course reductions or research assistance, yet expects extensive output on par with large research institutions.

    • Thanks, Dani. Yes, you are right, there is a lot of pressure on early career academics to produce quantities of material, but I think this pressure affects academics at all levels. Those in senior positions are required to maintain and justify their position in this age of austerity, mass job losses in academia and the winding back of academic job security.

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  6. Dear Deborah [and hello Dani], as a budding ‘academic’ I have been a long time reader of your work.

    Your words here Deborah echo my own as a relatively ‘new’ ECR keen to unpick the social world in a theoretical manner.

    Over the last weekend I have spent (so far) eleven hours writing an Annual Review that ‘simply’ states academic progress over the last twelve months; whilst also asking academics to be able to (in a quantifiable guise) justify their research ‘impact’ up to 2020.

    This approach is ‘helpful’ up to a point. It is useful to be able to account over time, with a degree of linearity the why/who/where/what your research is about. However, I would contend that there is a new professional ‘phenomenon’ that is so intrinsically tied to hierarchy, heritage and procedure that we (particular at the rookie end of things) lose sight (if not faith) in the manner in which this ‘data’ is self-conducted, weighted and then filed away… to be seen (by whom?); assessed; monitored and… who knows…

    Could I ask for a forthcoming paper “Re-conceptualising the Academic as a Quantified Phenomenon.” And Yes I’d volunteer as ‘data’ and as Author too. If only to add to my strategic outputs by 2020.

    Thanks. Really enjoy your work and this blog especially.

    Mariann Hardey, University of Durham.

    • Thanks Mariann! Some interesting points. You are right, there is definitely a paper in this, to add to Roger Burrow’s work on metric assemblages, John Holmwood’s work on the audit culture in academia and Ros Gill’s piece on the implications for academics of neoliberalist culture. It probably won’t be too long until we will be required/asked to use wearable tech to measure our output, engagement, productivity and even moods, as is already the case in some workplaces.

      I have a long list of article ideas to which I will add this one. I am also including some discussion of this in my current book Digital Sociology.

      It would be great to do a cross-nation study on this. How is the academic metric assemblage configured in different political/geographical/cultural contexts?

  7. Good morning (my side of the pond) Deborah,

    Ah, I know Roger’s work very well [he, my father and I are chums]. I too have a similar long list of article ideas. This is one that is in the ‘red’ area, which means that it should be written and with aplomb. I fully agree and endorse a configuration of academic metrics that has global relevance. You may also welcome a breakdown of such stratification via the usual demographic data AND (importantly) a linear transparency that ‘makes demands’ at the level of production and reach.

    I like the idea of an/other iDevice to measure academic mood. This is why there are vending machines in university campuses…

    Deborah, I am going to write to you via email [if you don’t mind] a fuller and more rounded idea with regard to doing interesting research…

    Still enjoying the blog.



  8. The pleasures of academic self-quantification? Debra, theres not many of us can see that side.

    Michael Fine

    *From:* This Sociological Life [] *Sent:* Monday, 14 October 2013 8:54 PM *To:* *Subject:* [New post] The academic quantified self

    Deborah Lupton posted: “Last week I put together two abstracts for the British Sociological Associations conference next year. One abstract is for a panel on digital public sociology and the other is for a workshop on the quantified self. In the digital public sociology abstrac”

    • Most people, including academics, find satisfaction from positive feedback about their work. This may include the number of citations our work has received, the assessments our students give us, the number of followers we have on Twitter or readers of our blogs, for example. In this sense, there is pleasure to be gained from measures of self-quantification. I would also argue that some of these measures can be important for academics who have had an interrupted career trajectory or who are from marginalised social groups to demonstrate their ‘worth’ when applying for jobs and so on in ways that are viewed as objective by those who assess them. They thus can be powerful bargaining chips in cases where discrimination may otherwise occur.

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  12. I’m not from a traditional educational background, let alone an academic one, but I came across your blog via a Cardiff University academic nurse’s and researcher’s blog which made reference to your survey on the use of social media by academics.

    Out of utter frustration of the sociocultural, educational, and economic precarity in Britain and Europe, I’m using social media in a very awkward way to try to understand what social scientists are saying and doing? “The academic quantified self” seems to me, to be academic quantified self-obsession – public navel-gazing! Can you give me a couple of worthwhile case studies that has resulted in any real social benefit for the wider communities outside of the universities? The Free Dictionary: “ac·a·dem·ic 4. Scholarly to the point of being unaware of the outside world. See Synonyms at pedantic.”

    • Well Dave, that blog piece is part of a larger topic I am researching on how academics use social media and how digital technologies are changing the academic workplace. Yes, navel-gazing to some extent, in terms of turning my research upon my own profession (and this is actually a new topic of research for me). But the wider implications are for how students will be taught in increasingly digitised universities and also for how academics are able to make their work public to readers outside universities. Universities are gradually opening to the world via digital tools and platforms, including massive open online courses, Khan Academy, open access publishing, blogs like this, YouTube, wikis and the like. So academics are confronting significant changes in their work that do have implications for access to academic knowledge and research for those who may not attend university or read academic journals and books. Quite a few of my other blog posts are less navel-gazing and more about trying to reach a broader audience with my research, and therefore practising what I preach …

  13. Thanks for taking the time to reply. I guess that much of my disappointment and frustration comes from the fact that there’s little real empathetic resonance in the tools you mention; digital world seems anechoic with regards to pressing and dangerous social issues. Well geared-up for popular culture, though! Probably take some time to process this mother of a disruptive technology! “…trying to reach a broader audience with my research, and therefore practising what I preach” – I ‘get’ that! – rather have you here than not!

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  15. You seem to forget that social media quantification (expressed in visibility) is dependent on capital and so is the online “accessibility” of academic production. The concept of quantified academic self risks being but a naive humanist model if not linked to capital.

    • Not so much forgetting, as it wasn’t covered in this brief piece – apart from a reference to audit culture, which is implicated with neoliberalist capitalism. Much more is discussed in my chapter in my book Digital Sociology on ‘the digitised academic’.

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