This peer interview is with Mark Carrigan. You can follow him on Twitter @mark_carrigan. All links open in new windows. If you read this interview and find it interesting or useful, please take a moment to share it on your networks. Thank you.
Ernesto Priego: Thanks for accepting this interview, Mark. Can you describe who you are and what you do?
Mark Carrigan: On my Twitter profile I describe myself as a ‘sociologist and academic technologist’. It’s not perfect but it’s the best I’ve managed thus far. In my day job I’m the managing editor of the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog. I also train researchers to use NVivo (qualitative data analysis software) and, in the broadest sense of the phrase, online communication.
I’m in the final year of a part-time PhD in sociology at the University of Warwick, which has involved a longitudinal qualitative study of the internal conversations of undergraduate students. My aim with this has been to develop a new approach to conducting biographical research but it’s probably sensible that I wait until I’ve finished writing up before trying to decide if I’ve succeeded in this or not.
I also work on the sociology of sexuality, particularly asexuality and sexual culture, which is where my enthusiasm for public engagement first emerged. I used to run a website which aimed to connect asexuality researchers to the asexual community but I’ve put it in hold, at least until I finally get my thesis submitted.
I also run the Sociological Imagination along with my friend Milena (@IdleEthnographer), which is something I tend to forget when asked this sort of question because it’s something which is, in an entirely non-disparaging way, much more a hobby than it is ‘work’. I’m currently quite taken with the idea of Digital Sociology, partly because it’s helping bridge what has at times been a slightly frustrating experiential gap between stuff I do with my sociological hat on and stuff I do with my technological hat on.
Though having said that, I think I approach everything I do from a fundamentally sociological point of view though, albeit one concerned primarily with inner life and its social dimensions. There’s a sense in which I think this has always been true, although unfortunately I had no real idea what Sociology was until I was in my 20s, which led to me spending my first four years at university getting quietly pissy with philosophers for being the way that they are.
EP: What brought you to blogging and how do you insert it in your academic workflow? Please also tell us about your site, http://markcarrigan.net/.
MC: I’ve been blogging in various guises for over a decade now. To be honest I can’t remember the decision that led to my first blog – at this point it’s just something I’ve always done. There’s a lot of things I find interesting and, left to my own devices, I can often find it pretty difficult to focus. Blogging has always helped with this, as something which inculcates a degree of self-discipline about actually sitting with ideas and developing them, rather than just cognitively skimming the surface.
In the last four or five years I’ve also developed a slightly obsessive belief in recording every idea I have (lots of them are crap but it’s worth it for the 10% that are still good when you come back to them later) and my current blog fits into this but has also helped me connect it up with the process of actually putting the ideas into practice. I’ve written about this as ‘continuous publishing’ and it’s something I’ve become progressively more convinced by, though I appreciate it may not be for everyone.
It’s also pretty useful on a practical level, particularly when promoting events etc. Once you connect a blog to a well established Twitter feed, it becomes an incredibly potent publishing platform, particularly if the Twitter feed is well networked for retweets. I’ve tried consciously to use my website as an organizing point for my professional life (collecting everything I’m doing, in some way or another, as well as organizing commitments into themes and categories) but in the last year or so I’ve been pretty bad at keeping it updated. My eventual plan is to move all the updating stuff into Bundlr and then embed these into the site, so that hopefully curating stuff I do and keeping the site updated will become habitual.
But predictably I haven’t got round to it yet. It’s far from an urgent need but it does bug me if things I’ve made aren’t sufficiently organized. For instance there’s close to a hundred podcasts (of various sorts) I’ve made floating around the Internet and I’d really like them to be indexed and easily accessible from my site. However I’m aware that obsessively playing with Internet tools in the name of self-organization can become counter-productive. There are an enormous array of (free!) digital tools which, if approached in a reflexive and systematic way (I’m a huge fan of GTD) can hugely refine the academic workflow and offer enormous productivity gains. But on the other hand, there’s always the risk it can descend into absurdly circular and dangerously self-justificatory procrastination.
I guess a pretty large part of my use of social media amounts to little more than thinking out loud. Part of my enthusiasm for Twitter in particular, after maintaining for a long time that I simply couldn’t see the point of it, stems from the way it radically narrows the gap between thought and interlocution – it’s possible to near instantly throw ideas out there and get responses to them, sometimes leading to dialogues which can be illuminating to a degree which many would assume was impossible with such a radically constrained medium. But there’s an awful lot you can do with 140 characters and, perhaps, it’s often illuminating because of, rather than in spite of, these limitations.
One satisfying experience I’ve recurrently had with Twitter and I’m certain I’m not alone with this is the economy of expression it necessitates. Or, in other words, it’s really fucking difficult to express complex ideas within 140 characters and, as a consequence, it imposes a discipline on abstract conversation which is otherwise lacking. I find it an incredibly compelling antidote to some of the more deleterious effects which stem from the sea of redundant verbiage in which we can so often find ourselves swimming within the humanities and social sciences. Which is something I am by no means suggesting I am innocent of contributing to, something which will likely be starkly obvious to me when i read over these last few sentences… (it was). I like Twitter because I find this brevity intellectually productive, it dissipates the friction which unavoidably attaches itself to the process of articulating and rearticulating our ideas.
EP: What would your advice be to scholars who are new to either blogging or social media in academic contexts?
MC: Throw yourself into it. If there’s something in particular which piques your curiosity then don’t overthink it and simply pursue it. The best way to learn in this area is through experimentation, both in terms of the technical skills required (and if you can use a word processor then you can use these digital tools) and the more elusive self-understanding of what works for you as an individual. The idea that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to use social media as an academic can be extremely suffocating – it’s best to reflect on what interests you about these tools and how they could fit into and extend your existing projects. Which is not to say that there aren’t risks about communicating online. There are. But in my view they’re chronically overstated. Display the common sense you would in other areas of your life and you’ll be fine.
EP: Finally, a double question: what kind of changes would you like to see in Higher Education or in academic culture in general, and do you think social media could play or is playing a role towards achieving those changes? And if not, why not?
MC: I guess more than anything else, I’d hope academic culture could become more open. Particularly in the sense of giving the same scholarly weight to the communication of knowledge as to its production. I think this persistent undervaluation can be seen across a whole range of issues, not least of all in the status attached to teaching. I’m not for a second saying the problem is entirely a cultural one, clearly the audit culture and the pressures individuals are subject to as they move through the career structure play a huge part. But I think it does have a distinctively cultural component to it, one which I hope might be partially overcome if we were to, say, see a mass migration of academics to Twitter. I’m not a technological determinist by any stretch of the imagination but I do believe communications technologies exercise conditioning influences over how we habitually orientate ourselves to others. Or, in other words, I think a widespread uptake of twitter within the academy would, in a variety of ways, tend to make the culture a more open one.
I think more academic activity needs to take place in public, albeit to varying degrees, so that those outside the academy can listen or participate. The humanities and social sciences are currently in a profoundly precarious situation and I fear such circumstances can actually serve to inhibit change rather than drive it. I recently interviewed the sociologist Les Back who argued that there is no future for a ‘timid’ or ‘conservative’ sociology. I think the same point applies more broadly. I don’t think a more open academic culture, in the broadest sense of the term ‘open’, is any sort of panacea but I do think it’s a necessary condition for moving forward under present circumstances.