This was originally published on Making Science Public
Ever since I began to study Sociology, I’ve been fascinated by the question of how the discipline orientates itself towards public life. When I first encountered Sociology I was an intellectually frustrated philosophy student with a desire to study something that informed my activism. The political philosophy which had been the main object of my interest was clearly related to my activism but it was only when auditing a module on sociology that this weird tension in my experience, in which I tried to bridge a gap between activism and theory, began to dissipate in the face of a discipline that in an important way refused this separation. Like many other activists entering Sociology, I gravitated towards Public Sociology and the work of C. Wright Mills, soon coming to a deep conviction that the discipline should be engaged in and with public life, even if I wasn’t entirely clear what form this should take. It was through my fumbling engagements with this question that I began to see that my longstanding hobby of blogging was hugely relevant to my academic goals. This was a pretty organic process: as I began to study sociology, my predominately political blog posts began to take on a distinctly sociological tenor, with my activist blogging ultimately giving way to a much broader sociological identity.
However while it’s obviously the case that social media is relevant for public sociology, I’ve found it harder to be clear about precisely what this relationship entails. The communicative affordances of social media obviously play an important part in this: these tools are ‘fast, cheap and out of control’ as the educational technologist Martin Weller has put it. But there are good sociological reasons to reject a view of the communication of sociological knowledge as intrinsically valuable, as well as important conceptual questions about what exactly we mean by ’sociological knowledge’. The discipline’s identity is far from secure and ritualistic invocations of the sociological imagination (etc) need to be treated with caution at a time of institutional instability. That said, I’m still convinced that Sociology has an important role to play in public life and I’m much more interested in getting good at public sociology than I am in adding to an already voluminous literature.
To a certain extent this ambition fits with the theme of ‘making science public’. I’m interested in how we can use these new tools to help make sociology public. What are we doing? What could we be doing? What should we be doing? There’s a theoretical dimension to such questions but it’s one with a fundamentally practical orientation. To my slight surprise, I’ve recently been finding the later work of Pierre Bourdieu immensely useful towards this end. One aspect of this that has particularly influenced me is Bourdieu’s suggestion that collaborations with artists allow us to give symbolic force to social scientific ideas. This was the understanding that motivated a project I undertook with my friend Holly Falconer, a photographer, which was recently published by Vice. This project was an attempt to convey photographically something which I’d struggled somewhat to articulate in the context of journal articles. Having undertaken research on asexuality, I’d reached the conclusion that much of what makes asexuality problematic is the widespread assumption that it must be problematic. Many of the problems encountered by asexual people have their origins in a widely shared assumption about sexual attraction (specifically: it’s universal and it’s uniform) that lead people who aren’t asexual to act in inadvertently pathologizing ways towards those who are. On an academic level, I was reasonably pleased with how I’d developed this notion of ‘the sexual assumption’ but there was something dissatisfying about the way in which it was necessary to publish what was an abstract critique of an (often) unacknowledged assumption. The appeal of the project with Holly was the immediacy with which we could convey this notion through photography, communicating that asexual people live just fine, without falling back into the obtuse formulations that are so hard to avoid with academic writing.
Photography is only one example here, albeit one with which Bourdieu was intensely engaged as both theorist and practitioner. Another which I’ve been preoccupied by recently is Social Fiction or Design Fiction, which using fiction to explore social scientific ideas in the mode of ‘showing’ rather than ’telling’. To get a sense of what this might look like, it’s worth reading Zero Hours by Tim Maughan which was written as part of a NESTA project on Future Londoners. Tim explores the near future implications of gamification, zero hour contracts and micro-tasking to convey the texture of daily life for a young Londoner caught in an exhausting cycle of ‘digitally enhanced’ precarious labour only eight years from now. The capacity of such fiction to bridge description and explanation, illuminating social forces by describing their imagined ramifications, represents something I think many critical social scientists could find hugely promising. We can see similar ideas at work in the Social Fictions series edited by Patricia Leavy or the Performative Social Science enacted by people like Kip Jones.
While I don’t think these can be reduced to the category of public scholarship of the form I’m advocating, in fact it would be unfair on those in question to do this, it nonetheless shows us that there are a range of possible forms through which we can seek to communicate critical ideas in more immediate ways. This notion of ‘giving symbolic force, by way of artistic form, to critical ideas and analyses’ was offered by Bourdieu before social media. But the only thing which has been changed by the emergence of these services is the ease with which we can pursue such activity, not least of all in seeking collaborators and circulating what has been made collectively. The opportunities for an artistically orientated Public Sociology are more pronounced than ever and Bourdieu’s account allows us to see this activity as intrinsically political, seeking as it does to communicate critical abstractions with an immediacy and power that academic writing inevitably lacks.