Social media didn’t create the ambition to rethink scholarly communication, it gave us the tools to do it effectively

When we talk about the possibilities which social media offer for rethinking scholarly communication, it’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking this ambition is a new one. We counterpoise the ‘new’ and the ‘old’, the innovative and the traditional, the digital and the analogue. In doing so, we obscure past projects which sought to rethink how scholarly ideas are disseminated. These are projects from which we could learn much. The Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, created by Pierre Bourdieu in 1975, is one such project:

We shall present here, side by side, texts differing very greatly in their style and function: ‘finished’ texts, on the one hand, as they are called by academics journals, but also short notes, accounts of oral presentations, work in progress such as interim research projects and reports, in which theoretical intentions, empirical procedures of verification, and the data on which these are based, are all that much more visible. The desire to provide access to the workshop, which has different rules from those of method, and to present archives of a work still under way, implies a rejection of the most clearly ritual formalisms: justified typography, standard rhetoric, articles and issues of similar length, and more generally, everything that leads to the standardisation and ‘normalisation’ of the products of scholarship. Recognising no other imperative than those imposed by the rigour of demonstration, and secondarily by the aim of visibility, will mean freedom from the censorships, artificial devices and perversions generated by a concern to conform to the established customs and good manners of the university field: a rhetoric of caution or false prediction, with the apparatus and panoply of celebrity discussion that is never more than self-celebration, the ostentatious displays of signs of belonging to the most selective and select groups in the intellectual universe.

Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action, pg 90

The ambitions here are familiar ones from discussions about what social media means for scholarly communication:

  • Diversifying the types of scholarly output in circulation.
  • Sharing work-in-progress, revealing the scaffolding that lies behind the carefully crafted reality of journal articles and monographs.
  • Rejecting scholarly formalities where these operate as rituals, marking inclusion and exclusion, rather than contributing to the intellectual endeavour.
  • Rethinking the norms of scholarly communication with an aim of improving visibility, overcoming self-serving control of ideas (and the evaluative practices which constitute their proxies) in order to liberate scholarly communication.

The ambition was to “make visible, sometimes by a simple graphic effect, what is generally hidden” (p. 91) and doing this was seen to involve manifesting in its own representational activity the demystification which was its ambition in relation to the social world. If I’ve understood correctly, Bourdieu’s point was that sociological reflexivity has to extent to the communication of sociological knowledge, as well as to its production, if its critical value isn’t to be lost at the point of dissemination.

The value of social media lies in the tools it offers to these ends, understood in terms of their practical utility in specific organisational contexts, particularly in the absence of significant resources. But in overcoming the trite distinction between analogue and digital, between traditional publication and contemporary innovation, we need to be alive to the myths of social media which are in circulation, particularly as they manifest themselves in the academy.

Categories: Social Media for Academics, Sociological Craft

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3 replies »

  1. These are admirable aims, but one question remains.

    “Rejecting scholarly formalities where these operate as rituals, marking inclusion and exclusion, rather than contributing to the intellectual endeavour” leaves open the question of scholarly formalities that do contribute to the intellectual endeavour. In an era when a Google search may produce millions of hits for any give topic and misinformation is rampant, filtering and assessment functions are, if anything, more important than ever.

    • I agree but how effective are academics at performing that role?

      • “How effective?” may be the wrong question. Suppose we take as our premise Sturgeon’s law, that most of what gets published is crap. In school we are taught to look for flaws and take what are, at the end of the day, cheap shots. Suppose, instead, we adopted Japanese advertising critic Amano Yukichi’s approach, in which the critic’s most essential role is to celebrate great work and provide feedback to fuel further improvement.

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