The Sociological Craft Project

In the appendix to Sociological Imagination, entitled On Intellectual Craftsmanship, C. Wright Mills advocates keeping a file or journal within which to record your ideas. He argues that doing so:

encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts’: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience […] by keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape.

Much of my initial fascination with this came from the extent to which it provided me with a theory of blogging. Or at the very least helped me articulate the way(s) in which blogging (which I’ve done for going on a decade now) was starting to intersect with my academic work (which only began in a meaningfully engaged way 5 years ago at the start of my part time PhD). In providing the conceptual resources to help me understand the emergent way in which I was using my blog to develop ideas, it also improved the way I was doing this by transforming it from a cluster of behaviours into a deliberate and self-aware practice. But it occurred recently that thinking about how I was using the tools also inculcated a sensitivity to what I was using the tools for which I’d previously lacked.

This lack might have just been my own idiosyncratic circumstances to a certain extent – I’ve had a meandering path through higher education and, while there are many things I’ve gained from the slightly eclectic range of influences I’ve been exposed to, I also sometimes worry that there’s a process of academic socialisation which other people have enjoyed which I’ve missed out on. Though this is probably something that most accidental sociologists feel at some point. But I think that’s perhaps an example of particular conditions leaving certain groups more sensitive to a broader trend. In this case the lack of attention to sociological craft within postgraduate education. Les Back and Nick Gane recently wrote a lovely paper exploring the notion of sociological craft and its relevance to the broader predicament facing sociology at the present juncture:

In the appendix of The Sociological Imagination, Mills develops this notion of the craft and its concern for questions of perspective and scale. In this part of the text, the craft refers to the imaginative labours that are needed in order for the promise the discipline – its capacity to connect biography to history – to be fulfilled. The craft is a way of thinking that brings into view relations between the individual and the social that have previously gone unnoticed, and does so by exercising an imagination that ‘is often successfully invited by putting together hitherto isolated items, by finding unsuspected connexions’ (1959:221). The craft is about imaginative methodological and theoretical work that puts the promise of sociology to work, and in so doing enables us to think about things, including our own lives, differently.

But there is, however, a further quality to Mills’ idea of the craft: ‘literary craftsmanship’. For sociology to be to be effective, especially beyond the academy, it must have literary ambitions. Mills’ assessment of the quality of the sociological writings of his time is damning. He argues that there is a ‘serious crisis in literacy’ in which sociologists are ‘very much involved’ (1959:239).

However I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the more quotidian sense of craft and particularly how it relates to postgraduate education. In a way this ties in rather nicely with the above paper: if postgraduate teaching is how sociology reproduces itself as a discipline then any role that a renewed focus on craft can play in actualising the promise of sociology must have pedagogical implications in relation to postgraduates (if not undergraduates as well). The other line of thought that’s been preoccupying me recently is routine and creativity. I’m fascinated by websites which chart the mundane daily routines of famous writers, artists and intellectuals: see for example herehere and here. My longstanding tendency towards obsessive introspection and self-analysis notwithstanding, this interest comes from some of the theoretical issues I’m interested in (particularly the relationship between habit and reflexivity) but it’s something which I’ve largely thought about in terms of how people organise and approach everyday life.

Increasingly though I’m seeing how useful a framework it is to think about craft – what do sociologists do in the deeply practical sense in which Mills discusses the question in the SI appendix? How do different sociologists approach similar tasks? How can an awareness of the different repertoires exhibited by sociologists factor into the development by PhD students and ECRs of their own distinctive style of sociological craft? Blogging gives a wonderful insight into thebackstage of sociological craft and, not least of all because of the name of the site, I’d love to explore this on Sociological Imagination in some way. Thus far the best I can come up with is e-mail interviews though and that seems a bit crap really – any suggestions/thoughts/ideas are much appreciated.

Edit to add: I realised that I didn’t recognise the fact that some people are already producing  the sort of material I’m talking about here, with Patter being the most obvious example. I think the popularity of blogs like Patter and the Thesis Whisperer point to precisely the lack in postgraduate education which I point to above. I guess I’m suggesting two things in practice (a) somehow soliciting reflections on sociological craft so that a wide range of voices are represented (b) doing so with a specifically sociological focus – not for reasons of wilful insularity but because, for reasons which might make a good follow up post, I think a disciplinary focus is integral to ensuring that discussions of professional craft don’t become somewhat less interesting proffering of generic career advice


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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