In a recent post Ros Edwards and Val Gillies described the Women’s Workshop on Qualitative Family and Household Research which has been meeting independently for a quarter of a century. It began as a “nameless informal support group of five women who met at a British Sociological Association summer school for PhD students in 1988″ and slowly grew over the years through word-of-mouth. This growth of the group required a certain degree of formalisation but in a way which sustained its autonomy from professional associations and universities:
A growing group meant that things became a bit more formalized about three years into the Workshop’s existence. Someone took on being co-ordinator, a role that over the years has shifted around between members as and when necessary. The group also became a named entity. Quite a bit of discussion and care was put into coming up with the title, Women’s Workshop on Qualitative Family/Household Research, at the time. And part of that was the decision that it would explicitly be women-only. While this has been reviewed over the years it has retained unanimous support. Another part of the naming discussion was that the group’s title indicates and reflects that it’s as much concerned with the methodological process of qualitative research, with being a woman researcher, and with epistemological debates about how we can know about social life, as it is with the substantive topic of families and households.
As well as meetings and discussions, the group enacts collective publishing projects, motivated in part by an awareness of the necessity of such activity for individual members. As it has become more difficult for postgraduate members to host meetings, it’s increasingly the “members of the group with ‘permanent’, and more senior, positions who can leverage resources to ensure that meetings are free”. Nonetheless, the concern throughout has been to preserve the ethos of a group which was able to say in its early days that “no ‘big names’ attend so we wield little academic power”.
It’s definitely worth reading the article in full. It represents a case study of an alternative organisational form which, though many might be vaguely aware of its possibility, nonetheless seems to rarely figure in the repertoire of modalities through which projects can be enacted. The question I’ve been ruminating about recently is “what is a conference for?” or “what is a seminar for?”. Questions of this form can, as Stefan Collini observes, encourage deliberation about the purposes of ways of doing things which are otherwise taken for granted.
But, sometimes, asking what something is ‘for’ can, if understood as an expository tactic, a starting-point rather than a ruling, be a means of helping us to clear away the discursive debris that accumulates round any widely used category. The very asking of the question in this slightly over-insistent, finger-jabbing form may be enough to encourage reflection to cut through the incidental clutter and begin to wonder what kind of response could count as a useful answer. From then on, it is probably sensible not to try to press the question further in this narrow form, but to let rumination extend itself, brooding on the diversity that may shelter under a single term, pondering a series of characterizations or historical instances rather than seeking a single defining proposition.
– What are Universities For? by Stefan Collini
What I see as the pressing question confronting professional associations in the contemporary climate is whether their organisational form is eroding the purpose of certain forms of activity or even excluding them outright. The danger of this line of argument is that it lapses into idealism, failing to recognise the practical exigencies attendant upon certain forms of activity or the instrumental motivations which often lead people to wilfully engage with them despite widespread grumbling about their particular characteristics. This is why studying actually existing organisational forms, alternative ways of meeting and enacting collective purposes, becomes so important. It’s also crucial that we avoid the temptation to dichotomise forms of organisation, counterposing what is ‘good’ and autonomous and what is ‘bad’ and institutionalised.
There are many things which are only likely to be possible at scale and an interest in the autonomous, local and networked shouldn’t give rise to a simplistic disavowal of any forms of organisation which are institutionalised. Instead, we should look to actually existing cases to better understand what value each does and doesn’t have for the people participating in it. Ros Edwards and Val Gillies really helpfully bring out the intersection between what might otherwise be construed as two distinct spheres, recognising how participation in one can be leveraged to enable the other. I don’t think spaces like the ones they describe are a panacea for the ills of the contemporary academy but I do believe that they are becoming ever more important, for reasons too innumerable to address in a short blog post:
And despite the tensions, the Workshop as an open and welcoming forum remains as its intention, and also we think also its practice. Senior members reflect on how important the Workshop was as a source of support while doing their PhDs and hugely value the continued friendships and intellectual stimulation while post docs and early career researchers, like their doctoral forebears, see the Workshop as a safe forum to present their work and receive encouragement to publish for the first time. Whatever our career stage we experience the Workshop as standing in sharp contrast to some of the more adversarial academic cultures and contexts in which we can find ourselves. The Workshop remains a rare space in academia where women support each other while also providing excellent cross-generational mentoring and critique. We don’t know if our study group is unique in being an academic group, not institutionalized, explicitly women only and feminist, that’s achieved a silver anniversary and is still as active as ever. We think that we are, but we hope not.
The organisational forms preponderate within the academy have their history of emergence. They are not fixed or immutable, though of course they exhibit a persistence which cannot simply be wished away. What I’m calling ‘DIY Sociology’ is first and foremost an insistence that we cultivate a heightened reflexivity about dominant organisational forms and the panoply of purposes they serve or frustrate.
If you’re involved in something like this then why not write about it for Sociological Imagination?