A review of Punk Sociology

ShowJacketSociology in the Anglophone world has been in the doldrums for some time. Since the heady days of poststructuralism and postmodernism, until very recently few advances had been made in theory or method. British sociology, however, is seeing a renewed impetus and vigour, with several sociologists beginning to talk about a move from ‘zombie sociology’ to ‘live sociology’ (Back, 2012) or ‘inventive methods’ (Lury and Wakeford, 2012), in which creative approaches and different ways of communicating are suggested to move the discipline out of its doldrums.

Punk Sociology, by British sociologist Dave Beer, is a welcome contribution to this new and exciting approach. As its title suggests, Beer attempts in this short book (part of the Palgrave Pivot series, itself an innovative approach to academic publishing) to show how sociology might be shaken up and re-energised. Punk sociology looks outward, is subversive and willing to try new approaches and also ready to engage with alternative forms of knowledge outside sociology. It means investigating forms of research and representations of social life that are beyond the textual, such as audio-visual material, and, as Beer puts it, ‘to coach ourselves to see sociology in sources where we may not be expecting to see it’ (p. 38). It also includes working with, rather than on, participants in sociological research, and experimenting with different approaches to writing about one’s work: blogging, podcasts, YouTube videos and tweets, for example. Beer encourages sociologists to take courage in conveying ideas that may still be raw and engaging with others’ responses to them, a practice that social media avenues encourage.

I am no fan of punk rock, but I very much like the concept of punk sociology. The term itself denotes a fresher approach to the sociological canon and accepted assumptions of what sociology is and should be. I would have loved to have read a book like this as an undergraduate in first-year sociology in the early 1980s, when unfortunately I found myself bored rigid by the dry and dull way in which the discipline was taught. I suspect that undergraduates and even postgraduates in sociology today would also welcome Beer’s thoughts on enlivening sociology.

Exponents of critical sociology have always been a little bit punk in their reflexivity and their efforts to challenge the status quo and identify hidden power relations. Beer talks about the vibrancy and energy of the punk ethos That, for me, is what sociology can contribute at its best, and what has impelled me in my own sociological writing and research (including this blog). I am always interested in new ideas and approaches in my discipline and making new connections (including with other disciplines) and investigating where I can take them.
Sociology is inherently fascinating to many: it is about our own lives and times. Sociologists are able to offer many important insights into social life and selfhood, and it is it downright negligent for us not to be able to convey these insights to others. To render sociology dull is a great disservice to what it can promise.

Beer has chosen to represent the punk ethos in positive terms in this book, largely ignoring its sometimes nihilistic, violent and often overly confronting tendencies. I don’t think he wants to argue that sociology should go down this road. Punk at its most extreme was gritty and hardcore, and my reading of Beer’s argument is that he is espousing a somewhat gentler and optimistic version.

I would have liked to have seen some more concrete examples of punk sociology practice in the book. Beer makes suggestions for how to go about being a punk sociologist, but they tend to be general. Some specific cases of how sociologists might employ new ways of practising the craft in the ways suggested by Beer and how they have gone about it would have been helpful and interesting.

I agree with Beer that there is no point in wallowing in dismay about what some see as an apparent crisis in sociology. The discipline needs to be reactive, energetic and nimble — and yes, even confronting like the original punk musicians were — in response to the social changes that are continually occurring and new forms of social research that are emerging (particularly those related to digital media and digital data).

Beer suggests a punk music playlist to listen to as part of his call to arms for punk sociology. Join him in cranking the music up loud and getting to work on a sociology that is new, imaginative, in the moment and ever-so slightly anarchic!

Back, L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review, 60: 18-39.
Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: the Happening of the Social. New York: Routledge.

Research on academic blogging: what does it reveal?

I have written previously on this blog on the pros and cons of using social media for academic work, including a discussion of why I blog and what I have learnt from using these media. As part of a chapter on the digitised sociologist that I am working on for my Digital Sociology book, I have been reviewing other people’s research on academic blogging.

Numerous accounts of using social and other digital media for professional academic purposes can be found on websites such as the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences and The Guardian’s Higher Education Network. Some more traditional academic articles have also been published in journals on these topics. These accounts have identified some interesting trends and implications.

Academic blogging has been described as ‘conversational scholarship’, a means by which academics can attempt to loosen their formal style of writing as part of communicating to a wider audience (Gregg 2006). It is argued that the practice forces academics to think about their research and writing in new ways, bearing in mind the multiplicity of potential audiences and the ways readers can respond to the material presented (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013). Some bloggers use their writing as a way of developing ideas and seeking engagement with others before they formalise their ideas into a more traditional academic piece (Adema 2013, Carrigan 2013, Daniels 2013, Estes 2012, Gregg 2006, Maitzen 2012). This use of social media for developing scholarly writing and ideas has been described as being an ‘open source academic’ (Carrigan 2013).

Several scholars discussing academic blogging have noted that they often serve the purpose of sharing information and providing advice as part of a gift economy of producing material to share freely with others. From this perspective scholarship and knowledge are not viewed as a marketable commodity but rather as a social good (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, Hall 2013a, 2013b, Mewburn and Thomson 2013). Here the general sharing ethos and participatory democracy that are viewed as characteristic of social media engagement more generally are interpreted in a more specialist academic context.

Academic blogs and other forms of writing on digital platforms are also beginning to challenge scholarly publishing modes and invent new forms of publication. Blog posts are now often cited in more traditional academic forums, some scholarly journals are incorporating blogs, multimedia or open access repositories as part of their online presence and academic presses are experimenting with new digital modes of publication, including shorter online book formats with faster than usual turn-around times between acceptance of the manuscript and publication. Scholarly publishing is developing as hybrid and multiple, drawing both on legacy forms of publishing and on novel modes introduced by digital formats and platforms.

Public digital scholarship practices such as blogging are also sometimes represented as overtly political and resistant acts. It is argued that these types of practices allow for scholars to experiment with digital publishing and engagement at the same time as resisting the dictates of the scholarly publishing industry and producing new forms of knowledge dissemination (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, 2009). The content itself of blog posts, Twitter comments and other social media communications may be directly political, with these tools providing a forum for academics to challenge government policies and programs (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013, Wade and Sharp 2013). They can also provide an opportunity for academics to share their frustrations about higher education procedures and policies and their own experiences as academic workers (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, 2009, Mewburn and Thomson 2013).

On the negative side, blogging opens up academics to great public scrutiny, not only from their peers but from any other audiences. As I noted in a previous post on the risks of using social media for higher education work, some academic bloggers have found themselves the target of trolling, sexual harassment and even threats of violence in response to their public writing. This is particularly the case for members of marginalised or disadvantaged groups, such as women and racial or ethnic minorities. Those academics who express their opinions on controversial issues or who challenge powerful institutions or commercial interests are also often the target of comments questioning their professional integrity, as well hate messages and even death threats (Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report 2013, Chapman 2012, Cottom McMillan 2012, Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013, Wade and Sharp 2013).

Academics themselves using digital media as part of their professional identities need to think carefully about how best to manage their private and public personae when doing so: how formal their self-presentation is, to what extent they make personal comments about themselves or others, the nature of images of themselves that they upload, to what extent they allow or respond to comments from others (Barbour and Marshall 2012). The freedom of expression that forums such as blogs and social media sites offer academics can also be the cause of their downfall. Several cases exist involving the censure or disciplining of academics for statements that they made on social media sites of which their university disapproved (Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report 2013).

Posting one’s work on online media may be considered a risky practice because of the loss of control that eventuates. Academics need to be aware of the multitude of ways in which the content created by one author or group of authors may be re-used and transmitted via different modes of publishing (reblogged or excerpted on other people’s blogs, tweeted in tiny ‘grabs’, commented upon and so on). In receiving wider dissemination in the public forums afforded by the new digital technologies, scholarly writing may develop ‘a social life of its own’ (Beer 2013, Beer and Burrows 2013) as it circulates in these forums and control over it is lost by the author.

The possibilities of plagiarism have also been raised by some academics as a risk of engaging in digital public scholarship. Some academics who blog have noticed that their content has been used by others, sometimes verbatim, without any form of attribution to its original source. This experience has led them to reconsider the benefits of blogging (see, for example, an account by Williams 2013).

Some writers have commented on the vulnerability that social media engagement such as blogging may engender in scholars who are used to formal academic writing styles and traditional procedures of publishing, in which one’s writing is vetted by one’s peers before it reaches an audience and people outside academic do not have the opportunity to comments on one’s research (Estes 2012, Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Kitchin et al. 2013, Maitzen 2012). Quite simply, engaging as a digitised public scholar may be too confronting for some academics.

In the early years of academic blogging, there was often suspicion of the practice on the part of other academics, and people who maintained blogs were in some cases discriminated against when seeking tenure or promotion or otherwise viewed with disdain for being self-aggrandising or wasting time (Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Maitzen 2012). Although negative views of academic blogging have certainly not disappeared, they appear to be slowly changing as universities seek to prove that they are engaging with the public and conforming to open access mandates and policies. Indeed some academics are now concerned that in the quest to achieve community engagement and impact, universities will begin to pressure academics to use social media tools, albeit under restrictive guidelines developed by the university and in the interests of anodyne public relations rather than challenging ideas or engaging in political activism (Mewburn and Thomson 2013). In a workplace in which many academics are already feeling overworked and under continuing stress to produce research publications as well as attract students (Burrows 2012, Gill 2010), such demands may be viewed as unreasonable.

The research and commentary reviewed here outlines a diversity of perspectives on academic blogging, many of which are relevant to academics’ use of other social media as part of their professional work. The benefits of blogging are clear, but so are the potential pitfalls in what has been a largely under-researched practice. More research and scholarship is required as part of mapping how academic blogging is undertaken, how it might be changing in response to other developments in higher education and the broader politics of the practice.

Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report (2013): American Association of University Professors.
Adema, J. (2013) Practise what you preach: Engaging in humanities research through critical praxis. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 16 (5), 491-505.
Barbour, K. and Marshall, D. (2012) The academic online: constructing persona through the World Wide Web. First Monday, (9). Accessed 27 September 2013. Available from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3969/3292
Beer, D. (2013) Public geography and the politics of circulation. Dialogues in Human Geography, 3 (1), 92-95.
Beer, D. and Burrows, R. (2013) Popular culture, digital archives and the new social life of data. Theory, Culture & Society, 30 (4), 47-71.
Burrows, R. (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60 (2), 355-372.
Carrigan, M. (2013) Continous publishing and being an open-source academic. Accessed 22 December 2013. Available from http://digitalsociology.org.uk/?paged=2
Chapman, S. (2012) Hate mail and cyber trolls: the view from inside public health. The Conversation, Accessed 3 August 2013. Available from https://theconversation.com/hate-mail-and-cyber-trolls-the-view-from-inside-public-health-9329
Cottom McMillan, T. (2012) Risk and ethics in public scholarship. University of Venus, Accessed 4 August 2013. Available from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university-venus/risk-and-ethics-public-scholarship
Daniels, J. (2013) From tweet to blog post to peer-reviewed article: how to be a scholar now. Accessed 11 December 2013. Available from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/09/25/how-to-be-a-scholar-daniels
Estes, H. (2012) Blogging and academic identity. Literature Compass, 9 (12), 974-982.
Gill, R. (2010) Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia. In R. Flood and R. Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge, 228-244.
Gregg, M. (2006) Feeling ordinary: blogging as conversational scholarship. Continuum, 20 (2), 147-160.
Gregg, M. (2009) Banal bohemia: blogging from the ivory tower hot-desk. Convergence, 15 (4), 470-483.
Hall, G. (2013a) About Media Gifts Accessed 7 August 2013. Available from http://garyhall.squarespace.com/about
Hall, G. (2013b) The unbound book: academic publishing in the age of the infinite archive. Journal of Visual Culture, 12 (3), 490-507.
Kirkup, G. (2010) Academic blogging: academic practice and academic identity. London Review of Education, 8 (1), 75-84.
Kitchin, R. (2014) Engaging publics: writing as praxis. Cultural Geographies, 21 (1), 153-157.
Kitchin, R., Linehan, D., O’Callaghan, C. and Lawton, P. (2013) Public geographies through social media. Dialogues in Human Geography, 3 (1), 56-72.
Maitzen, R. (2012) Scholarship 2.0: blogging and/as academic practice. Journal of Victorian Culture, 1-7.
Mewburn, I. and Thomson, P. (2013) Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges. Studies in Higher Education, 38 (8), 1105.
Wade, L. and Sharp, G. (2013) Sociological Images: Blogging as public sociology. Social Science Computer Review, 31 (2), 221-228.
Williams, L. (2013) Academic blogging: a risk worth taking? The Guardian, Accessed 13 December 2013. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/dec/04/academic-blogging-newspaper-research-plagiarism