An Invitation to DIY Sociology

For the last few months I’ve been playing with the idea of DIY Sociology, largely as a result of my dissatisfaction with professional associations. The intuition underlying this is that the institutional forms of academic life are not immutable, arising in a particular context and changing as that context changes, so that a relational reflexivity about them becomes ever more important if that context is undergoing a radical change. Would anyone deny that higher education in the UK is currently undergoing a ‘radical change’? One of the most immediately experienced forms taken by this change is the contraction of the academic labour market, the normalisation of fixed term contracts and the rise of what could (optimistically) be labelled ‘portfolio careers’ but can more realistically be termed precarious working. The implications of these changes for professional associations seem obvious to me and I have no great desire to rehearse my own frustrations to this end.

But what does ‘DIY’ mean more broadly? Dave Beer offers some useful answers to this question in Punk Sociology“A Do-it-yourself movement, in which forms of communication, creativity, and dissemination are co-opted to work towards this shared project”. This is what I mean by ‘relational reflexivity’. Not an individualistic ‘dropping out’ of the ‘mainstream’ but a converging orientation towards shared projects and shared values, working collectively towards their pursuit. Here are some other points in Punk Sociology where Beer writes about the ‘DIY ethic’:

The roughness of the music was a part of the iconoclasm of the movement and the projection of its DIY ethic. This DIY ethic, for some, is central to punk, as Kugelberg (2012: 46) writes, the ‘legacy of punk is simple: the immediate implementation of D.I.Y grassroots culture … No distance. Form a band, start a blog, become an artist, a DJ, a guitar player, an editor’. This DIY ethic played out in a number of ways, in the music and in the business practices, but it was perhaps most clearly honed in the use of self-publication and alternative means of communication that often took the material form of fanzines. As Hebdige described (1979: 111), ‘fanzines (Sniffin Glue, Ripped and Torn, etc.) were journals edited by an individual or a group, consisting of reviews, editorials and interviews with prominent punks, produced on a small scale as cheaply as possible, stapled together and distributed through a small number of sympathetic outlets’. Clearly the communicative possibilities and media have changed radically since the mid to late 1970s, and the possibilities for decentralized communication are now widespread in social media (which I will return to in Chapter 5).

The driving force here is a strong commitment to a pro-activism that is often expressed as the do-it-yourself or DIY ethic. The DIY ethic is an extension of the inventiveness of punk and affords an unbounded engagement with the cultural world. This leads punks to use the opportunities and materials that they encounter to express their creative forces. This is often highly opportunistic and is based upon the use of media and social networks in new and unpredictable ways. The punk finds a way to make things happen and finds a way to be unconventional in carving out pathways of expression and communication. The punk adapts to the terrain in which they are operating and refuses to be restricted by the limitations of access and funding. Punk is based on resourcefulness.

Conventions do not hold them back, and the idea of playing it safe is discordant with its central motifs. The driving force here is a strong commitment to a pro-activism that is often expressed as the do-it-yourself or DIY ethic. The DIY ethic is an extension of the inventiveness of punk and affords an unbounded engagement with the cultural world. This leads punks to use the opportunities and materials that they encounter to express their creative forces. This is often highly opportunistic and is based upon the use of media and social networks in new and unpredictable ways. The punk finds a way to make things happen and finds a way to be unconventional in carving out pathways of expression and communication. The punk adapts to the terrain in which they are operating and refuses to be restricted by the limitations of access and funding. Punk is based on resourcefulness.

The debates about ‘public sociology’ (Clawson et al., 2007) and sociology’s ‘public face’ (Holmwood & Scott, 2007) were formulated before these media developments took hold. As such they need to be re-imagined to tally with the ongoing remediation of everyday life. The punk sociologist would seek to understand and work with this remediation. The dissemination practices of the punk movement – based on hand written, cut-and-pasted, and self-printed fanzines distributed through shops and at gigs – might seem small in comparison, but it is the aesthetics of these practices and the creative and unconstrained attempts at novel types of communication that we might borrow from punk. The materials might have changed but we can find inspiration in the sentiment and in the drive to co-opt media and materials in communicating ideas.

The punk sociologist is going to need to be inventive in responding to their conditions, in working around the limitations of the austere neoliberal structures in which they are operating, and in finding opportunities that counteract the limitations of funding and powerful constraining norms and conventions. One way forward is to reflect on the boldness and inventiveness of punk, but more specifically we might look to take on the Do-It-Yourself ethic of the punk movement.

Those interested in what is described as digital sociology are also tending to use DIY means of communication, with social media outlets such as Twitter and blogs being used to publish and disseminate ideas in various stages of development. We perhaps have something here that is suggestive of how this inventiveness and DIY ethic might be deployed

So we can perhaps isolate two strands here: communication and organisation. What unites them both is a disinterest in established forms of authority and prestigious modes of dissemination. The point is not to oppose these things for their own sake but instead to subordinate these characteristics to the accomplishment of a shared project. The key values which informs both DIY communication and DIY organisation are resourcefulness, inventiveness and boldness. There’s lots of existing activity which exhibits these characteristics, whether or not it sees itself as in way ‘DIY’. I’m interested in trying to conceptualise this tendency in order to better think through its implications for higher education. I’m also curious about the self-understanding of those engaged in it. Is it possible many see this as a pragmatic adaptation to marginal conditions rather than something positive in and of itself?


Categories: Committing Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes

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3 replies »

  1. 15 years ago, when I was researching my PhD on the social and political meanings of independent culture in communist Czechoslovakia, I recall my frequent self-doubts about whether I risked romanticising those social practices – like samizdat, i.e. illegal self-publishing – that people had adopted or invented out of sheer necessity – “a pragmatic adaption to marginal conditions” to borrow your words.
    Member checking didn’t help very much to reassure me, because my respondents often confessed to having similar doubts when they found themselves reflecting nostalgically on those times. The source of that occasional nostalgia appeared to be the experience of having time (endless time) for activities like reading, writing and sharing the products of that DIY cultural industry that emerged behind the scenes of the so-called ‘official culture’. Time they found themselves lacking in their typically hectic lives in a democratic society and market economy. But when I probed them about whether it would be possible to recreate something like samizat in today’s world, and recover that sense of lost time, they mostly dismissed the idea – quickly adding that the benefits of democratisation far outweigh the losses.
    That was all before the world of blogging and online social networks came along. Today you do find some people prepared to draw an analogy between samizat and blogging, for example.
    But if academics are adopting similar tactics to resist what Brandist calls the Stalinist management model of the contemporary university (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/a-very-stalinist-management-model/2013616.article), it seems slightly paradoxical that chosen form is one that goes along with the logic of social acceleration that robs them of time to think!
    Samizdat magazines could circulate from hand to hand for two years or more, without exceeding their ‘sell-by date’. Do we need to invent a form of online self-publishing with the same capacity of temporal ‘resistance’?

    • thanks Simon, that’s really interesting. i tried to write a bit about temporality and social media here – http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/14529

      i’m not convinced that social media is as straight forwardly accelerationist as a lot of people are. though i completely understand what they’re saying about the connection. when you say a form of “online self-publishing with the same capacity of temporal resistance” that’s exactly the idea I’ve been trying to express when playing with notions such as ‘craft’ to understand how academics can (or should) use social media. in potentially (only potentially) provided a forum where intrinsic goods predominate over extrinsic ones, social media can (counter-intuitively) constitute a slower medium of creation and communication. not in the sense of the rhythm of production and dissemination but in that both these functions aren’t subordinated to institutional imperatives (though they might well come to be in the name of ‘impact’). plus the speed actually facilitates a paradoxical slowness. you can write and publish so rapidly that it reduces the demands of the activity in the context of an already busy and pressured life. it lets people take time to think and write and talk about stuff they otherwise wouldn’t, partly in virtue of how quickly it is possible to do these things.

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