The Sociological Imagination A daily dose of the Sociological Imagination Tue, 03 Mar 2015 08:00:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What constitutes a civilisational collapse? Tue, 03 Mar 2015 08:00:40 +0000 Read More ›]]> What constitutes collapse? This is the important question which Phil BC asks in response to my post on the sociology of civilisational collapse. If I mean the notion as anything other than a fleeting speculative thought* then conceptual clarification is essential. I said in the original post that I understand collapse to be the loss of an ability to change state, as opposed to any particular catastrophic change in the social order. By this I mean that the social order, as an emergent totality, ceases to possess the capacity to change its state. It’s these objective possibilities for change, known fallibly by situated actors through all manner of cultural constructions, through which collective agents seek social transformation. It’s the activation of these latent capacities for change which iswhat people are fighting over.

But what change ensues comes about through the unintended consequences arising from their conflictual plans rather than as the result of any grand design. But latent in any project of social transformation is a set of claims, implicit or explicit, concerning the capacity of the social order to change state. These claims may be idiotic, deluded or incoherent but they nonetheless have an objective referent. Accepting the objective capacities for change within any social order (though not necessarily our ability to know them with any reliability) allow us think about collapse in a sociological way. All manner of epistemological obstacles impede our knowledge of collapse but I don’t see this as creating any difficulties for attempting to posit it as a possibility.

If the social order is an emergent totality, collapse can be best understood as itsde-emergence (if anyone could suggest a less clumsy antonym than this, I’ll be forever in your debt). The social order loses its malleability as a totality. This doesn’t mean it dissolves but it does mean it begins to crumble. It loses its susceptibility to steering. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold (etc). Most of the examples Phil cites are about dramatic social transformations and in this sense they’re not instances of collapse: it’s this very susceptibility to transformation, even if the actual changes elude the intentions of those groups fighting over them, which I’m suggesting is lost under conditions of civilisational collapse. This is not a matter of the ‘parts’ of the society (people, social relations, organisations, institutions) but rather a feature of the ‘whole': an emergentist ontology lends itself to quite a specific understanding of civilisational collapse but this is obviously neither an argument for that ontology nor the notion of collapse itself.

The de-emergence of the social order in this sense does not mean that we see the collapse of social order as such. As Phil points out, the durability of social relations mitigates against this:

Therefore theorising about collapse has to take into consideration is thedurability of social relations. At certain levels of abstraction, sociology assumes the durability of social relationships because they have proven to be just that. There is social change, but the – on paper – precariously balanced division of labour with its innumerable interdependencies has not just survived, but has thrived economic shocks and world wars, and has spread itself across the globe. The social substance is elastic and tough, I’d wager, because on the one hand capitalist societies are constituted in their production and reproduction by irreducibly antagonistic relationships, and on the other human beings cannot be anything but social, meaning-making beings in the Goffman mode who, in turn, constitute/reproduce social structures as per Giddens and Bourdieu. It’s also worth noting that crisis tendencies are organic to capitalism, that each of its myriad points of tension are pregnant with destruction and creation, of enculturation and barbarism. In other words, while there are precedents from history of civilisations coming and going, none have attained the level of social complexity and productive prowess as our own. Fundamentally speaking, the Romans, the Mayans, the Hittites, and the Babylonians were static societies. The advanced capitalist, industrial societies of today are dynamic and fluidic. They have momentum that might carry them through a huge disaster, or allow them to adapt to real and imagined threats posed by climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence, and so on.

While I’m far from clear in my own mind about these questions, it’s the characteristics of social orders as emergent totalities (for which I’m using ‘civilisation’ as a lazy shorthand) which interests me. I’m undecided whether I’m serious about the notion of the collapse or if I just see it as a thought experiment with which to consider the characteristics of social totalities with the widest possible lens. It offers an interesting way to consider what it means to talk of a social totality as ‘having momentum’ or attaining a certain level of ‘social complexity’ and ‘productive prowess’.

*I’m still far from certain that I do.

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11 reasons why we need a Chair for the Public Understanding of Sociology Mon, 02 Mar 2015 08:00:22 +0000 Read More ›]]>
  • It would provide a default point of contact for the media when looking for a sociological perspective.
  • It would allow someone the time & support necessary to build up working relationships with a wide range of figures in the media.
  • These relationships would be of use to the discipline more broadly by allowing the chair to refer journalists and broadcasters to specialists in particular areas
  • It would increase sociology’s media profile through the prominence of a particular figure who intervened across a range of areas
  • It would demonstrate that communicating sociological knowledge is valued by the discipline
  • The chair would be able to provide informal support and mentoring to other younger sociologists who try to be media active
  • The chair could help establish a body of know how which could help other sociologists when engaging with the media
  • I can think of a range of sociology professors in the UK who would be good at this. The specialised chair would free them up from teaching and administration in order to allow them to concentrate full time on public engagement.
  • The philosophers have one
  • So do pretty much all the natural sciences
  • We can’t leave it all to Owen Jones (as Lisa Mckenzie wisely observed in a talk last year)
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    Routines and Reflexivity – March 10th @SocioWarwick Sun, 01 Mar 2015 12:17:17 +0000 Read More ›]]> Alistair Mutch NBS

    Alistair Mutch (Nottingham Trent University)
    March 10th
    17.00-18.30, R1.04
    Ramphal Building, University of Warwick

    Much of the debate occasioned by the development of ideas about reflexivity and morphogenesis has turned on the status of habit. Whilst recognising the importance of this debate, this seminar takes an alternative tack. Returning to Bhaskar’s formulation of ‘position-practices’, it reviews recent work on organizational routines. Developing a position which sees routines as a key emergent property of organizations, recent developments in information technology are seen to cement autonomous reflexivity. Accompanied by an increasing discourse of ‘strategizing’, this might limit the development of meta reflexivity.

    All welcome! E-mail with any questions

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    JG Ballard’s High-Rise recreated in lego Sat, 28 Feb 2015 08:00:59 +0000 Read More ›]]> JG Ballard’s High-Rise is one of my favourite novels. It’s easy to see why sociologists would like it and it seems I’m not the only one this is true of. So I’m not sure what to make of High-Rise recreated in lego… it’s a homage but it feels like it also trivialises it somewhat. These haunting scenes that have stayed with me long after I read the book actually look twee when materialised in lego. This is how the author describes the project:

    On August the 28th 2014, after reading an article about the magnificent Brick Jest, the official twitter for the film High-Rise (2015, directed by Ben Wheatley, and starring Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss and many more) issued me with a challenge to complete a similar project, based on the Ballard novel.

    I was in Covent Garden at the time, on one of my many trips to pillage London, and as I had been to the tavern the night before and imbibed enough alcohol to bring down a small Bilgesnipe, it is entirely possible that I only accepted the challenge because I was still slightly tipsy. I still believe it was an excellent choice, nevertheless.

    To adequately tell the story of High-Rise I decided to do one image per page of the book, which would be 166 photos according to my battered paperback copy of the novel.

    Due to budget constraints I could only afford to buy enough LEGO bricks to build one set at a time, so to save time and avoid having to rebuild the same set multiple times I began work on a shooting script.

    Unless you’ve read the novel this must all be pretty meaningless (and you probably skimmed the first few sentences at most). But for those who did, see what you think:

    Brick High-Rise Page 7

    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building in the previous three months.

    You can read the lego story in full here. But if you haven’t already, please read the book. It’s fabulous.

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    CfP: Web Science 2015 Fri, 27 Feb 2015 08:00:52 +0000 Read More ›]]> Call for Papers & Posters (text version)

    The Web Science conference welcomes participation from all disciplines including, but not limited to, art, computer and information sciences, communication, economics, humanities, informatics, law, linguistics, philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology, in pursuit of an understanding of the Web. This conference is unique in bringing these disciplines together in creative and critical dialogue. We particularly welcome contributions that seek to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.

    Following the success of WebSci’09 in Athens, WebSci’10 in Raleigh, WebSci’11 in Koblenz, WebSci’12 in Evanston, WebSci’13 in Paris, and WebSci’14 in Bloomington, for the 2015 conference we are seeking papers and posters that describe original research, analysis, and practice in the field of Web Science, as well as work that discusses novel and thought-provoking ideas and works-in-progress. There is a separate call for colocated workshops.

    Possible topics for submissions include, but are not limited to, the following:

    • Theoretical, methodological and ethical approaches for Web Science
    • Web practices – individual and/or collective and/or institutional
    • Humanities on the Web
    • The architecture and philosophy of the Web
    • Web Science approaches to Data Science and the Web of Data
    • Web Science and the Internet of Things
    • Social machines, collective intelligence and collaborative production
    • Social Media analytics for Web Science
    • Web economics, social entrepreneurship and innovation
    • Web Science and Cybersecurity
    • Governance, democracy, intellectual property, and the commons
    • Personal data, trust, and privacy
    • Web access, literacy, and development
    • Knowledge, education, and scholarship on and through the Web
    • Health and well-being online
    • Arts and culture on the Web
    • Data curation and stewardship in Web Science
    • Web archiving techniques and scholarly uses of Web archives


    Web Science 2015 is a very selective single track conference with a rigorous review process. To accommodate the distinct traditions of its many disciplines, we provide three different paper submission formats: full papers, short papers, and posters. For all types of submissions, inclusion in the Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library proceedings will be by default, but not mandatory. All accepted research papers (full and short papers) will be presented during the single track conference. There will be a reception for all accepted posters, which will all be displayed in a dedicated space during the conference.

    Full research papers (8-10 pages, ACM double column) Full research papers should present substantial theoretical, empirical, methodological, or policy-oriented contributions to research and/or practice. This should be original work that has not been previously published.

    Short research papers (up to 5 pages, ACM double column) Short research papers may present preliminary theoretical, empirical, methodological, or policy-oriented contributions to research and/or practice. This should be original work that has not been previously published.

    Posters (up to 2 pages, ACM double column, poster reception and presentation) Extended abstracts for posters may be up to 2 pages.

    Other types of creative submissions (flexible format) are also encouraged, and the exact format and style of presentation are open. Examples might include artistic performances or installations, interactive exhibits, demonstrations, or other creative formats. For these submissions, the proposers should make clear the format and content and any special requirements they would need to successfully deliver this work (in terms of space, time, technology, etc.)

    Submission instructions

    Full and short paper and poster submissions should be formatted according to the official ACM SIG proceedings template ( If appropriate, please make use of the ACM 1998 classification scheme ( Submit papers using EasyChair at Submissions do not need to be anonymised.

    Review Process

    The Web Science Programme Committee covers all areas of Web Science. Each submission will be refereed by three Programme Committee members and one short meta review written by a Co-Programme Committee chair, to cover both the research background of each submission as well as the necessary interdisciplinary aspects.

    Digital Library

    All accepted papers and posters will by default appear in the Web Science 2015 Conference Proceedings and can also be made available through the ACM Digital Library, in the same length and format of the submission unless indicated otherwise (those wishing not to be indexed and archived can “opt out” of the proceedings).

    Important Dates

    20 Mar 2015Deadline for paper and poster submissions
    30 Apr 2015Paper/poster notification
    15 May 2015Paper/poster camera-ready

    Programme Chairs

    • Christine L. Borgman, Professor and Presidential Chair in Information Studies, UCLA
    • Pete Burnap, School of Computer Science & Informatics, Cardiff University, UK
    • Susan Halford, Professor of Sociology, Web Science Institute, University of Southampton, UK

    Call for Workshops

    For WebSci15 the workshops will be integrated into the main conference programme, running in the afternoons of June 30 and July 1. The workshops offer organisers the opportunity to curate panels, or collaborative research and scholarship activities around a key Web Science theme and to explore this in depth. Workshops may be proposed on any theme that facilitates interdisciplinary discussion of the Web and approaches to Web Science research. We particularly welcome applications that are ambitious in scope and aim to address the pressing challenges of Web Science. This might include, but is not restricted to:

    • Theorising the Web
    • Data ownership, access and ethics
    • Digital cultures
    • Digital inequality, citizenship and governance
    • The future of the Web

    Workshops can have a mixture of panel presentations and invited speakers, but presentations should reflect the diversity of approaches that characterise the multidisciplinary nature of Web Science.

    Workshop submission

    Workshop proposals should contain the following information:

    1. Title summarising the tutorial goals or workshop theme.
    2. Details of the organising committee, including names and institutional affiliations.
    3. Max two-page description about the relevance, motivation and goals of the tutorial or workshop.
    4. Schedule of sessions, panels, and talks (half day 14:00-17:00).
    5. Names of instructors and potential invited speakers.
    6. For workshops, selection criteria for papers to be presented.
    7. Workshop website URL (desirable).

    It is the prerogative of organisers to decide whether to have an open call for participants and papers, or arrange panels by invitation only. Proposals should include as many details as possible about sessions, speakers, and talks: they will be evaluated by their coherence and ability to address the stated goals.

    It is the responsibility of organisers to advertise their event, and constitute a program committee to review and select papers, manage the review process, and possibly arrange for selected papers to be published in a special issue of a to-be-identified journal.

    If successful, we advise proposals to have a website describing the event (within two weeks of acceptance) and, if applicable, information about similar events held in the past. Workshops will be linked from the main conference site. Proposals should be submitted in pdf format through Easychair to:

    Workshop proposal review

    The Web Science programme chairs will review each submission and select those with the higher scores on originality, timeliness and relevance of the proposed topic, its interdisciplinarity, rigour of the review process, coherence with the conference aims, and potential to attract a large audience.

    Workshop proposal deadlines

    February 27, 2015Workshop proposal submissions
    March 6, 2015Notification of workshop acceptance
    March 13, 2015Workshop website due


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    Discourse, Power, Resistance 15 – Conference at Goldsmiths in April Thu, 26 Feb 2015 12:25:44 +0000 Read More ›]]> DISCOURSE, POWER, RESISTANCE 15



    We have for some time been looking into the effects of neoliberalism on culture, identity, and institutions – effects that have included ‘audit culture’ (Marilyn Strathern), self-branding, and the subsuming of any collective ‘voice’ into individualistic ‘consumer power’ (Nick Couldry). At the same time, we have struggled with the fading importance of structural inequalities in the minds of policymakers.

    There are developing answers, though, in many theoretical idioms. Stephen Ball has commented that “both structural and poststructural theories and analyses are necessary for ‘bearing witness’ and for an adequate critical understanding of educational realities”. We could add to this that other kinds of practice, developed in fields like art or drama, also contribute to the working out of critique and the embodying of alternatives.

    At DPR, these varied perspectives all find a home. Over the years, the conference has asked, how can we develop such creative theoretical approaches? And how would they look in practice? DPR 15 continues this line of work. Beyond critique, it asks how we can resist, subvert, and create spaces for multiple and collective voices, for change, and for social justice.

    The conference brings together a range of practitioners, researchers, policy-makers, learners and teachers, who are actively engaged in these kinds of challenge. Presentations at the conference will take the form of papers, workshops, performances, exhibitions, and posters. We hope that presenters will come with ideas to share about research and practice, through single or joint presentations or as a contribution to any of the symposia that will be taking shape. Please keep an eye on the DPR15 web page for further details.

    If you have suggestions, or ideas for a contribution you would like to discuss, please contact the conference organizer:

    Anna Carlile

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    Understanding academia through food Thu, 26 Feb 2015 08:00:59 +0000 Read More ›]]> Is it a meme? Is it a research project? Does it matter?

    We aim to understand academia through food. Do you have a picture of an academic event or function where food is provided? Who was there and what was happening?

    (HT Kirsty Liddiard)

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    Name-Dropping vs Name-Checking as Academic Vices Wed, 25 Feb 2015 08:58:08 +0000 Read More ›]]> When I was a student, teachers used to warn against ‘name-dropping’ as a scholarly faux pas. This is when you suddenly provide a string of names in place of a substantive argument. The implication is that if you read the guys behind the names, you would understand what the author is trying to say. However, this was seen as an unfair imposition on the reader, who should be able to judge an argument through direct presentation. In fact, name-dropping would be cited as a paradigm case of ‘argument from authority’, a fallacy of informal logic. It was seen as a very elitist – if not outright bullying – tactic. But I now believe that this attitude is an artefact of the context in which scholarly communication was conducted in the 20th century, an exponential growth in publications while ordinary human cognitive capacities remained largely the same – i.e. technologically unenhanced.

    I seem to see fewer complaints about name-dropping these days. A big reason no doubt is the widespread adoption of the so-called Harvard style of scholarly reference (i.e. author/date format embedded in the text), which basically allows you to drop names with impunity but in a superficially accountable way. Another reason, of course, is that search engines allow the reader easy access the identities behind the names, so that one can quickly discern the pattern of thought that the names trace. In fact, the burden of proof is beginning to shift, so that if someone complains that they didn’t know half the names mentioned in an article, they’re told, ‘Why didn’t you Google the names?’

    However, name-dropping is not the same as name-checking. Name-checking is when you do more than simply say you’re relying on the authority of someone else’ work. Rather, a stronger bond is suggested, namely, that you’re somehow part of the same team, party or movement as the other person. Thus, a much stronger sense of identification is being asserted – in fact, so strong that the name-checking serves to pre-empt any criticism that the name-checked party might have of you. This is recognizable as part of the Mafia’s gift-giving modus operandi: I go out of my way to do something nice for you in order to put you in my debt, which you may repay simply by keeping quiet if I do something (to someone else) that you don’t happen to like.

    (I must confess that this influences my view of gift-giving more generally: in other words, I tend to regard it as a mildly aggressive act unless the gift-giver is clearly exposing themselves to risk.)

    I first associated name-checking and the Mafia mentality when I heard a distinguished feminist theorist periodically name-check people in the audience by referring to them as ‘my dear friend’, which I found (and still do) vaguely annoying. She spoke in the sort of raspy voice that I associated with Borscht Belt comedians, who also use the same mode of address. The Borscht Belt bred America’s edgiest comedy talent, but the resort hotels in which they operated were under the protective gaze of the Mafia. My view is that these comedians incorporated Mafia discourse protocols into their acts, so as to co-opt the audience into accepting things that they might not otherwise, were the audience not overtly made complicit in them by the comedian.

    The interesting thing, of course, is that comedians often refer to literal strangers in the audience as ‘my dear friend’, which is much braver than academics who cite as ‘friends’ people they already know – and perhaps whose behaviour they can then more easily control.

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    Higher Education and The Temporal Conditions for Critique Wed, 25 Feb 2015 08:00:13 +0000 Read More ›]]> I’m aware that I probably come across like I hate Slavoj Zizek but there are many aspects of his work which I really like. My favourite is his account ofneoliberal ideology which I understand to be an argument about how subjective disavowal goes hand-in-hand with objective complicity: we maintain a critical distance from a system while nonetheless behaving in a way conducive to its reproduction. Rather than labouring under illusions which, if absented, would lead to action, we see things as they are but in a way that engenders passivity. We expressively repudiate our conditions while nonetheless continuing to acquiesce to them. In fact the former reinforces the latter. We invest ourselves in having seen through the mystification of the system but the pleasure we take in this cynical distance leaves us able to pragmatically continue as if the mystification was still operative.

    It seems obvious to me that this cynicism is rife within higher education. Consider the REF: widely scorned yet near universally acquiesced to. My point is not to minimise the practical obstacles to resisting it but simply to suggest that the contrast between the vehemence with which it is discussed and the pragmatism with which it is adapted to is, to put it mildly, rather curious. However I think Zizek’s account helps illuminate the tension here but doesn’t entirely explain it. I’m curious about whether there’s a temporal dimension to critique that needs to be invoked in order to explain this tendency. For a while now, I’ve been trying to develop the notion of cognitive triage: coping strategies on the part of overburdened subjects in which they prioritise the most immediate and urgent demands upon them.

    The urgent things which we must attend to tend to be situational. The more time we spend triaging, the more situational factors occupy our decision making. Given our finite attentional resources, we can therefore talk about situational factors crowding out trans-situational considerations. Our decision making doesn’t cease but its temporal scope diminishes. Urgent requirements for next week, tomorrow or later today crowd out considerations of next month, next year or next decade. People adapt to this in all sorts of ways and I would argue that things like digital detoxes can be understood as a coping strategy under conditions where triaging is proving frequently necessary. These coping strategies in turn act back upon the subject when they are pursued habitually. If we are what we habitually do then when, say, one draws on life hacking techniques to cope with their burdens one eventually becomes a life hacker. I’m not sure this is a good thing but reasons I’ll do my best to explain.

    My suggestion is that many second-order coping strategies actually intensify the tendency towards triaging. One finds oneself in this state of cognitive triage (first-order) and begins to consult resources to develop techniques to avoid this overburdened fire fighting (second-order). But these techniques will usually involve cultivating a more refined process of self-management: deliberate triaging rather than desperate coping. These techniques involve greater scrutiny of first-order responses in order to better facilitate policing of reactions e.g. measuring and controlling a proclivity towards distraction. In doing so, the slide into situationalism is actually reinforced. The strategies we draw upon to help us cope with the intensity of situational demands leave us more embroiled in situationalism. We do it more gracefully and more efficiently but the tendency towards a narrowing of our temporal horizons is entrenched.

    The problem is that critique is necessarily trans-situational. Lay normativity rests on personal concerns which by their nature transcend particular situations. If we’re embroiled in coping with day-to-day demands then it’s very difficult to step back and reflect critically upon the conditions within which those demands occur. It’s more difficult still to consider potential courses of action through which we could individually, let alone collectively, work to change conditions that generate these ceaseless demands that leave us pushed and pulled by forces beyond our immediate control. Under such circumstances, it seems to me thatexpressive disavowal occupies an important psychological role as a safety valve. It lets us vent and moan. It lets us experience an ephemeral feeling of moral agency over circumstances that frustrate and impede our sense of what a good life could and should be. When we do it collectively, it has the feel of collective repudiation of that which we reject in common. But unfortunately it rarely, if ever, will lead to action. There’s a character in the John Lanchester novel Capital who continually fantasises about leaving his job:

    That didn’t mean he didn’t think about giving it up and doing something else. He did, almost every day. The thought was a safety valve; the idea that he could quit whenever he liked was one of the things which kept him in the job. The exit was always in his line of sight. The idea of it helped him to stay put and to cope with the rough parts of his job and his day.

    I’m suggesting inertia of this sort is a common phenomenon under conditions of social acceleration. As things get faster, as the demands upon us increase, we are left scrabbling to cope with immediate demands. We don’t lose the capacity to think about the longer term but we do it less and it becomes harder to sustain. The better we become at coping with these situational demands, the more we become locked in the immediate and urgent. The longer this continues, the more we recognise these conditions as ‘life’ and fail to imagine anything else. We don’t cease to be agents but the scope of that agency begins to change in a radical way. Critique and the action to which it leads increasingly gives way to cynicism and inertia. The fact this is occurring in institutional environments where those in charge are “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest“ only makes it worse.

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    The dogs of the Moscow metro Tue, 24 Feb 2015 08:00:04 +0000 Read More ›]]> Can you think of a space more emblematic of urbanism than a metro? I can’t and perhaps that’s why I’m so preoccupied by Moscow’s metro dogs: it’s a reminder that cities are sites of ecological novelty, rather than human constructions that have constituted nature as ‘outside’. I love reading about the distinctive behaviours that have emerged amongst Moscow’s metro dogs:

    Rather than chasing the dogs away, metro workers fed them. Riders, too, were kind: if a tired dog fell asleep in the middle of a marble station, people walked around the animal to avoid waking him. The dogs have learned to recognize stations from the announcers’ voices—though Neuronov added that he doubts the oft-repeated assertion that, like humans, the commuting dogs occasionally fall asleep and miss their stops. “There are three models of metro dogs,” he explained: dogs who live in the subway but do not travel, dogs who use the subway to travel short distances instead of walking, and entrepreneurial dogs who spend the day riding back and forth, busking. This last type of dog takes long trips, working the crowd for treats and emotional contact. (On trains, dogs “seeking tenderness” are particularly inclined to approach women over forty who are carrying large shopping bags.) And, according to the results of a study Neuronov conducted of the Red Line, some dogs hop on the train for purely recreational reasons. “Like in human society,” he said, “there are dogs who are inclined to see new places.”

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