This post extends the conversation started by @SocProf on Twitter in relation to the article by Steve Hall and Simon Winlow “Please keep up, sociology” available at http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/14401.
The basic argument in the article is that Sociology as a discipline has become censored and elitist rendering the discipline into a sausage factory. New and young researchers are expected to churn out facsimiles of prior work with clear connections to the discipline’s “elite.” The authors argue that contemporary and young/new researchers and thinkers have made valuable contributions to the field and should receive the same attention as the elite.
In my own response to @SocProf, I alluded to the fact that not only Sociology is affected by the kinds of circumstances described by Hall and Winlow, but all of academia. After all, once research became part of a profession, this paved the way for formalising the way in which research, and other aspects of the profession, would be conducted. The whole process of disseminating research through peer-reviewed journals and conferences creates, to some extent, a normalising effect on what is considered to be acceptable or unacceptable. The kind of wisdom that is shared within academia with budding researchers captures the focus on citing any discipline’s elite. I take a fairly moderate view in this regard. Of course there is some expectation that any article or work should cite works that are considered to have made important contributions to the field where relevant.
Nonetheless, the article and the ensuing Twitter discussion with @SocProf reminded me of something written a long time ago that is pertinent to changes within a field, albeit, with a slightly different emphasis from that intended by Hall and Winlow in their article.
I always found the following extract from Machiavelli’s “The Prince” insightful when trying to understand change and novelty in any aspect of human endeavour:
The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those would prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the existing laws on their side, and partly because men [sic] are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience. In consequence, whenever those who oppose the changes can do s, they attack vigorously, and the defence made by the others is only lukewarm. (Machiavelli, 1961, p.19).
Substituting the “innovator” in Machiavelli’s account with “new researcher” and “enemies” with the “elite” of a field or discipline provides a similar argument to that of Hall and Winslow. That is, it is a statement about the challenge that innovators face when proposing ideas that are not mainstream or even based upon the established norms within a field. But Machiavelli goes further to explain that the would-be innovators face further challenges in that their supporters are at best fickle. This makes it relatively easy for the elite to continue to assert their dominance within the field.
Machiavelli goes on to distinguish between two kinds of innovators: 1) those who stand alone, and 2) those who depend on others. Of the first type of innovator he claims that they are able to achieve their purposes by forcing their issue. The second class of innovator instead relies on persuasion. In his scheme, the second class of innovator always fails. He further explains that “…all armed prophets have conquered, and unarmed prophets have come to grief” (p.19). So how is the innovator of academia to “arm” him/herself?
Well apart from the fundamentals of high quality research involving novel ideas, I would like to propose another “weapon in their arsenal”: digital/social media.
As our current discussions and deliberations take place in the new technologies made available to us freely through the internet, this allows a different kind of innovator to develop. One who has the ability to become known and perhaps even persuasive long before their first article is published in an academic journal. By applying the same principles that one would use to develop well crafted academic articles, the blogging, tweeting, wordpressing, YouTubeing, academic can get their message across to a wide range of people. Metadata provide a means for that message to spread across networks faster than anything in the formalised structures of academia can manage. Yet, I anticipate that the risk is run of becoming a type 2 innovator if the bulk of the focus remains on this kind of “persuasion.” As the formal publications start to emerge, then this enhances the power of this new arsenal as the peer-review process provides legitimacy to what is distributed through various social media. I anticipate that this latter form of communication will in fact be the most powerful way of establishing a solid reputation while at the same time benefiting from the possibilities made available from new technologies.
Case in point: Randall Collins is part of the contemporary sociological “elite.” Nonetheless, his blog “The Sociological Eye” (Yes, my blog is inspired by his) epitomises the last point in my previous paragraph. Collins uses his blog to extend his published works into new and different directions. This not only allows him to extend the works by considering new data or examples that do not appear in his published works, but it allows for the extension and revisiting of his theories through a medium that is only restricted by the time it takes him to write the blog. I would like to take his case further. In his book “Interaction Ritual Chains,” Collins does more than reify Durkheim and Goffman. He deliberately moves their ideas into a different direction to provide his innovative perspective on interaction. This is the kind of substance that makes him a Machiavellian type 1 innovator.
I am not aware of cases where someone preceded their academic reputation through their on-line “fame,” but such an individual would make an interesting case study to explore the issues raised by Hall and Winlow further.
Collins, R. (2004). Interaction ritual chains. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Machiavelli, N. (1961). The prince. London: Penguin Books