Sociology blogging at the University of Leeds

Round about the beginning of this academic year, September 2009, the University of Leeds, like nearly all the higher education institutions in the UK, was preparing to make the cuts imposed by the Government in response to the economic crisis. About the same time a number of commentators in the media and in government circles were questioning the value and relevance of arts, social science and humanities research in our Universities given that so much public money was spent on it. They questioned their contribution to public debate and policy and their “value for money” claiming that a great deal of money was being spent on esoteric and marginal research that was only of interest to specialists and was disseminated mainly through obscure journals and even more obscure conferences. These criticisms caused understandable anxiety at a time when Universities were being encouraged to restructure and look for substantial savings and prompted a number of counter initiatives.

Perhaps the most recent example of this is the publication by the British Academy of Past, Present and Future: The Public Value of the Humanities and Social Sciences, a document that is a direct response to the “drastic funding cuts to university and research budgets [that] will imperil the massive contribution to the UK’s economic, social and cultural life made by the humanities and social sciences”. The document highlights the “enormous reservoir of public value” that the humanities and social sciences generate and demonstrates, with examples, “their contribution to Britain’s health, wealth and international reputation”. The criticisms and economic threats also prompted discussions amongst social science academics and researchers about how they could engage more effectively with a wider public audience.

During the previous summer I had participated in the design and running of a number of workshop sessions for academic staff and postgraduate students on how to begin to develop a digital presence and reputation using a variety of so-called Web 2.0 tools and platforms. One of the topics covered was using blogs as a research tool and for connecting with a wider network of researchers and interested individuals. Generally this provoked a lot of interest and good intentions. In practice however very few subsequently started blogs of their own. Follow up surveys found many did not start their own blogs because of the time commitment and doubting that the pay-of would make it worth while. A few expressed concerns about exposing their work and ideas to critical public scrutiny. There was some indication however of a willingness to get involved in a collaborative effort where there was some support and guidance on writing blog posts and any commitment would be shared.

The challenge to engage more effectively with a broad pubic audience and the conclusion that staff and postgraduate students would be willing to collaborate in a blogging project if suitably supported prompted a group of us in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Leeds University to start the Public Sociology blog last October 2009. The aim is to encourage a wide variety of different types of post including reports on aspects of research that may be of public interest, reports on events attended, commentary on current issues where a sociological take would illuminate, personal opinion pieces, book and film reviews, and just about anything else that could be of interest if presented through the filter of a sociological imagination. We have a very informal and supportive editorial process where draft posts are password protected so that colleagues can view and comment and the authors can modify posts before they are made public. Editorial comments tend to concentrate on style and terminology rather than content as we are trying to encourage an accessible more informal and journalistic style than that which we tend to use for academic writing for a specialist audience of peers. This usually involves trying to be more succinct!

The intention from the start was, once up and running, to explore the possibility of opening up the blog to contributors from other universities and maybe try to attract guest contributors from a variety of other institutions and organisations. Our main concern has been, and still is, the sustainability of the project. Research on blogs of this type reveals that most eventually grind to a halt as the initial team of enthusiasts lose interest, lose heart or simply move on. The ones that succeed are those that have a committed group of editors and regular contributors but also draw on a wider network of contributors who post on a more occasional basis. One way to ensure the sustainability of joint authored blogs like this is to join with other blogs of similar outlook and objectives in a loose supportive coalition that link to one another, comment where appropriate on each others’ posts (any blogger knows what great encouragement it is to get interested comments) and even perhaps guest post on each other’s blogs. This would increase the audience for each blog through overlapping readerships. It could also lead to the development of a community of like-minded bloggers and readers that takes on a momentum of its own and perhaps could feed into face-to-face conferences, events and local meetings as well as on-line collaborations. You never know.

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