The Sociological Imagination A daily dose of the Sociological Imagination Tue, 21 Oct 2014 20:32:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why don’t more early career researchers produce podcasts? Tue, 21 Oct 2014 07:00:39 +0000 Read More ›]]> I’ve never understood why more PhD students and Early Career Researchers don’t produce podcasts. I’ve wondered this for a long time and the question came back to me when reading this post on LSE Impact. I think she overstates the case slightly (both in terms of the degree to which social media reproduces existing hierarchies and the extent to which podcasts level them) but it’s an important argument nonetheless:

I’m extremely optimistic about the use of podcasts because academia is a slow ‘industry’ and often only a few people hear about your work. With a podcast the focus is on your research topic and you can quickly share your results. Findings are also made more accessible and engaging for people outside of the academic bubble, and who are often directly applicable to the results. In addition, social science research can become sanitised when researchers are left to summarise their findings in a few lines. By literally giving researchers a voice, findings become more exciting as people are allowed to animate their findings and bring character to their research, which I think does more justice to the research that they carry out.

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Limits of democratization. Two roots of the current political misery Mon, 20 Oct 2014 19:53:13 +0000 Read More ›]]> by Ralf Wetzel

Rwanda. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan. Libya. Egypt. And Syria. And Iraq again. The number of failed modern political interventions is legion. Successful examples are the rare exceptions. There are few worth mentioning, except certainly post-war Germany or post-Apartheid South Africa. How come? People trying to understand malfunctioning or even ‘failing’ states tend to make two fundamental mistakes, mostly by ignoring the conditions of societal intervention in the modern world.

The three forms of societal evolution
It would be moot to state that societal conditions and the level of development around the globe differ considerably. The fundamental difference, beyond differences in commercial wealth, political participation, or educational inclusion, is the state of societal evolution. This term is understood here in the way the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann developed it in the second half of the 20th century. According to his extensive work on societal evolution and differentiation, we know three distinct forms of societal differentiation: a.) a peripheral society which distinguishes between a centre and its periphery, b.) between above and below, forming a stratified order, and c.) between different functional domains, like the economy, politics, or education in modern society. Such centre|periphery-based societies arose in the very early days of social evolution, when different tribes began operating in limited spatial conditions, fully reliant on physical co-presence and interaction. Ancient Greece or medieval Europe can figure as examples of above|below-centered societies, in which different social strata (slaves|craftsmen|nobility), the parallel hierarchy of religion, and the overall dominance of a religion (the temporal expression of a presumed divine will) determined the social world. Latest with the 18th century in Europe and North America especially, a new form of societal differentiation occurred, which is the so-called functionally differentiated society. Here, the ranking of different social strata has been replaced by the appearance of different societal domains, such as the economy, politics, education, or science. Religion stepped down from its eminent place as a primary and distinguished observer of society and became one amongst many functional milieus. Since then, Western modern society has lost its foundations of a hierarchical nature.

Functionalism as the precondition of modern democracy
The current political ambition that modern democracy could hold sway as the governing principle of today’s world results from a terrible overestimation of its applicability. Originally born under highly specific and improbable conditions in one specific stratum of ancient Greek society, its first manifestation disappeared alongside the political and societal context that gave birth to it. It reoccurred as the political outcome of the Renaissance ending the medieval order in Europe, when Europe’s societies shifted their constituent principle from stratification to functionalization. Both economic and political communication separated from and challenged the religious primary, visible in the tectonic shifts in the political landscape between the 15th and 17th century. Religion lost substantial societal impact and parties and enterprises appeared independent from any religious roots. Democracy became a core program for the system of politics in the first impactful modern nations in Europe, like England or France, later on the ascendant in North American state building ventures. The success of democracy was grounded in its ability to adapt to the call for broad participation of individuals in these societies. If there had not been society-wide political communication, resting on the call for participation and inclusion, there would have been no democracy. Democracy became the modus vivendi of modern societal politics.

The modern relevance of organizations
With the functionalization of society, another social system launched its extraordinarily successful career: the formal organization. Already used to great effect in local projects such as dam construction, in armies, and in religious orders, the sheer number of organizations exploded while the stratified society of yore disappeared. Since the general stability of stratified societies was replaced by modern ambiguity and individual uncertainty resulting from the heterogenization of modern society, organizations stepped in to fill its place. The temporal hierarchy of organizations could serve the need of stability and provide clarity, temporal goals, and individual inclusion. Formal administration became the backbone of nation building, and formal procedures guaranteed the application of democratic principles. Furthermore, organizations have become the core and almost single means of modern society to intervene in itself. Political and economic intervention is basically less about the injection of materiel, overwhelming numbers of soldiers, or developmental aids. It is about an organization (government, enterprise, army, NGO, United Nations, whatever) intervening in another organization (government, army, company, school) or another social system (economy, education politics, or quasi-systems like nations or networks). There is nothing left to use but organizations. We have ‘unlearned’ other means. Accordingly, the form of democracy we know today is fate-bound to the principal conditions of modern Western societies, which are functionalization and organizationalization.

The pre-modernity of intervened nations
A quick look at the constitution of the ‘nations’ that form the targets of modern intervention reveals that these preconditions of modern democracy do not hold true there. Without any exception, we find stratified or even peripheral societies in which the implementation of a Western kind of democracy lacks all prerequisites and, in very generic terms, is not meaningful. The cognitive horizon of these societies is bound to their form of societal differentiation as much as modern Western society is bound to its own. Literally, implementing democracy does not make sense for pre-modern societies, since the general notion of and emphasis on heteronomy, equality, and individuality is simply not given and has no anchor in the societies’ constitution (as the implementation of pre-modern regulatory means would not hold under modern conditions). Democracy, in short, is unusable, and the attempt to implement such a political and highly organized program astonishingly naïve. Furthermore, the organization-based style of intervention is inappropriate as well. Different societal constitutions are based on different forms of intervention, and intervening by means of organizations in a society unused to organizations cannot hope to lead to the intended effects.

And now? About functional equivalences
Clearly, the West has been too self-assured in assuming that a modern technology to produce collectively binding decisions could be applied under circumstances which lack the essential preconditions. And it has been astonishingly ignorant to the point that political interventions by means of organizations will not take hold, since there are almost no organizations to intervene in. The agenda now has to be to look for functional equivalences of democracy, which could stabilize the societies in question and which could provide a link to modern conditions of decision-making and participation. An equivalent stand for a program which could create collectively binding decisions (like democracy does to modern nations), however, must acknowledge the different societal constitution. This search will be painful, since Western values and myths like equality and individualism will not be mirrored by whatever it reveals. To bring these values by modern, Western means to pre-modern societies is a vain illusion. There is no other way than to acknowledge the fundamental difference of pre-modern societies first, to accept a fundamental distinction in terms of the values and aspirations on the other side, and to check what is possible in the development of both (arrogant) modern and (ignorant) pre-modern societies in their co-evolution. Local wars will certainly be a constant and almost unavoidable part of this pain. Let’s face it, this pain won’t go away easily.

Ralf Wetzel began his career as an electrician. He joined Vlerick Business School as a Professor of Organization and Management after extensive work experience in management and organization research and after being a head of a joint research and consulting group. His career path led him from Germany to the UK, via Switzerland to Belgium. He applies art-based research like improvisation principles and theatre play in his work, especially for inquiring into topics like organization theory & behaviour, change management, consulting, leadership, organization & society. Aside of his academic writing, he loves to turn research results into art-based forms like fiction, accessible for non-academic readers. Twitter: @RalfWetzel

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Gurminder K Bhambra on Connected Sociologies Mon, 20 Oct 2014 16:44:17 +0000 The discussion of Connected Sociologies as theoretical methodology around the 13 minute mark is particularly interesting:

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Call for contributions: Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life Mon, 20 Oct 2014 16:30:49 +0000 Read More ›]]> There is little doubt that science and knowledge production are presently undergoing dramatic and multi-layered transformations accompanied by new imperatives reflecting broader socio-economic and technological developments. The unprecedented proliferation of audit cultures preoccupied with digitally mediated measurement and quantification of scholarship and the consolidation of business-driven managerialism and governance modes are commonplace in the contemporary academy. Concurrently, the ever-increasing rate of institutional change, (the need for) intensification of scientific and scholarly production/communication and diverse academic processes seem to characterize the overall acceleration of academic life (i.e., in many disciplines the new maxim ‘patent and prosper’ (Schachman) supplements the traditional ‘publish or perish’). Quantification and metrics have emerged not only as navigating instruments paradoxically exacerbating the general dynamization of academic life but also as barely questioned proxies for scientific quality, career progression and job prospects, and as parameters redrawing what it means to be/work as a scholar nowadays (i.e., the shifting parameters and patterns of academic subjectivity). Metrification now seems to be an important interface between labour and surveillance within academic life, with manifold affective implications.

This workshop will inquire into the techniques of auditing and their attendant practices and effects and will also probe into scholars’ complicity in reproduction of such practices. It will consider processes of social acceleration within the academy and their implications for the management of everyday activity by those working within it. This will include:

• empirical and theoretical engagements with the acceleration of higher education
• the origins of metrification of higher education
• metrification as a form of social control
• the challenges of self-management posted metrification and/or acceleration
• common strategic responses to these challenges
• the relationship between metrification and acceleration
• how metrification and acceleration relate to a broader social crisis

The workshop will take place in December 2015 in Prague. At present, we’re seeking to clarify the level of interest before determining the length of the event, fixing a date and inviting keynote speakers. Please send expressions of interest – a biographical note and brief description of interest in the topic – to and


Hosted by Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic the event will take place in Vila Lanna, V Sadech 1, 160 00, Prague 6, Czech Republic (


Air: all standard flights to Václav Havel Airport in Prague. From airport the take bus no 119 to Dejvicka stop which is terminal one. Vila Lanna is 5-6min walk from there.

Train: From Central Train Station (Hlavni nadrazi), take metro line C (red), change at the station Muzeum for line A (green) and get off at the terminal station Dejvicka.Vila Lanna is 5-6min walk from there.

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“I have no idea what to tweet about!” Mon, 20 Oct 2014 07:00:51 +0000 Read More ›]]> Are you a social researcher who feels this way? Here are some ideas which might help:

  • Have you read any interesting papers recently? Link to them and briefly explain why you liked them.
  • Are you going to any conferences soon? Tweet that you’re going and ask if anyone else is.
  • Are there any new stories which connect to issues you address in your research? Link to them and explain why
  • Working on a presentation or a paper? Take one idea, try and express it succinctly then throw it on to twitter to see what reaction you get.
  • Have you read anything good recently that isn’t related to your research? Tweet about it and explain why.
  • Try to find other people working on similar issues to you. Tweet and ask! (e.g. “Does anyone know other people working on x, y, z?”)
  • Are there any blogs or other websites you follow that are connected to your research? Tweet and tell other people why you like them.
  • Are there policy or political conclusions which follow from your research findings? Explain what they are.
  • For that matter, what are your research findings? Tell people.
  • The most obvious one: link to your publications. Tell people what they’re about and why the work mattered to you.
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Digital Sociologist: Noortje Marres from @SociologyGold Sun, 19 Oct 2014 09:03:29 +0000 Read More ›]]> s200_noortje.marres

How did the Goldsmiths MA/MSc in digital sociology come about?

Is it difficult to unify the disciplines that are represented on the course? 

How would you describe the aims of the course? 

What sort of students are attracted to the course?

Do you think digital sociology courses like this will become more common over time? 

You can find out more about the MA/MSc in Digital Sociology here. You can find out more about Noortje’s work here.

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The exciting future of governance Sun, 19 Oct 2014 07:00:31 +0000 Read More ›]]> Background to the video here. I have to admit that I’d assumed this sort of thing was at least a decade away. What’s so creepy about this (beyond “because of this your feeling of safety increased”) is how ‘joined up’ the proposed monitoring is. Rather than piecemeal monitoring that gradually gets joined up in response to instrumental concerns, this company is proposing total monitoring from the outset because of the kinds of interventions it can facilitate.

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An introduction to blogging and twitter for social researchers Sat, 18 Oct 2014 12:22:05 +0000 Read More ›]]> My course at Nat Cen has been moved to December. You can book online here.

Given the increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact of social research, it is inevitable that researchers are looking towards the opportunities offered by social media. This one day course offers an accessible introduction to the use of blogging and twitter, encompassing the possibilities they offer for social researchers and walking you through best practice.

You will learn through a combination of presentations, informal discussions and practical sessions, including pre-course reading.

Course content covers:

  • An introduction to blogging
  • An introduction to twitter
  • Making an impact with blogging and twitter
  • Integrating blogging and twitter into your working life

 Who is it aimed at?

This is an entry level course, which assumes no familiarity with blogging or twitter.

You will find this course useful if you:

  • conduct social research
  • have responsibility for impact and public engagement
  • communicate findings to policymakers and practitioners

Learning outcomes:

By the end of the programme you will be able to:

  • understand the characteristics of blogging and micro-blogging
  • get started in a practical and engaged way with Twitter and WordPress formulate your own strategic plan to use these services effectively
  • connect effectively with others online in a way which serves these ends measure the impact of your online engagement
  • participate enjoyably in the emerging academic blogosphere and twittersphere
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Resonance and subjectivity on twitter Sat, 18 Oct 2014 07:00:51 +0000 Read More ›]]> In four years of using Twitter regularly, I’ve often found others tweeting things that resonate with me and vice versa. In fact one could plausibly suggest that these experiences play an important role in making continued use of the service appealing. What do I mean by ‘resonate’? I mean knowing where someone is coming from, understanding the reaction they’re expressing and sharing it to some extent. I would argue that resonance is an important factor to consider in understanding subjectivity within a changing social world – to understand where someone is coming from necessitates some degree of converging experience and circumstances. If everyone’s experience and circumstances are entirely particularistic then resonance becomes impossible. If everyone’s experience and circumstances tend towards homogeneity then resonance in interaction fades into the background and ceases to become a distinguishable phenomenon.

In this sense, I’d see resonance as an important micro-social mechanism engendering social integration: it helps translate objective commonalities intosubjective commonalities. Experiences of resonance leave us with a sense that others understand where we are coming from and vice versa. The new forms of interaction facilitated by social media enable new ways in which objective commonalities can be translated into subjective commonalities. Things that previously couldn’t be a basis for subjective commonalities – because they rarely, if ever, entered into interaction – now can be and this has important social consequences. It would be easy to overlook the way in which something like Twitter can contribute to social integration because it is so empirically different to what we’re used to but I’d argue the same underlying mechanism is at work. It tends to increase the degree to which people feel a sense of commonality with a range of others with whom they interact and it does so because there are real underlying commonalities which facilitate this.

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Shaking up the social sciences Fri, 17 Oct 2014 07:00:40 +0000 Read More ›]]> Ahead of the visit by Nicholas Christakis to the UK next month, the Times Higher Education has run an interesting article by Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald. I wrote a response to the original article by Christakis that sparked this debate (in fairness he didn’t choose the title) arguing that the problem with this argument is political rather than intellectual. I actually have a lot of sympathy for the intellectual case he’s making but I worry that his argument inadvertently lends support to a concerted attack on the social sciences (particularly in the case of political science in the US) and a broader attempt to restructure the university system in the UK. Goodall and Oswald succinctly convey what for me is the root of the problem:

The first thing to have in mind, as background, is the astonishing size of the social science literature. Few people appreciate this. The Thomson Reuters Web of Science database (which is by no means exhaustive of the entire global academic output) lists more than 3,000 social science journals. The journals classified as economics alone contained approximately 20,000 articles last year. This implies that one new journal article on economics is published every 25 minutes – even on Christmas Day. This iceberg-like immensity of the modern social sciences means that it is going to be difficult to say anything coherent and truly general across them. Nobody walking the planet has read more than 1 per cent of their published output. Most of us have not read 0.1 per cent. Such facts should give all of us – whether or not we agree with Christakis – pause for modesty in our assertions.

This situation seems obviously untenable to me. Add to it the low citation rates across the social sciences and we’re left with an utterly depressing picture of an ever growing quantity of ‘unread and unloved’ publications that should surely leave us asking what on earth is this work for? What are the social sciences supposed to do? What purposes do they serve? What purposes should they serve? I’m intuitively inclined towards a pluralistic view of social inquiry in spite of having firm theoretical commitments. This leaves me frustrated when encountering responses to these questions that affirm the validity of one approach and denigrate all others. But I’m equally firm in my conviction that these questions need to have an answer, even if the purpose might be some oblique matter of edification rather than anything even approximating instrumental standards of utility. In other words, I think it has to be for something and when considering the output of the social sciences as a whole, in contrast to any particular example of research I might choose to examine, it’s far from clear to me that this is the case. Furthermore, I think the proliferating piles of unread (and in some cases unreadable) literature mitigates against it serving some purpose. The problem is getting worse, not better.

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