A 100th Blog! A Reflexive Interlude

This is my 100th blog, so it seems fitting that it is given over to a reflexive moment. What follows touches only incidentally on the new and growing field of digital sociology.

How did I start? Why? And what do I make of it now that I am – I suppose – no longer a novice? It was my daughter Rebecca who in the autumn of 2012 first suggested that I might enjoy blogging, not least to occupy me during my retirement, then but a year off. She went on to design me a personal website offering a more vivid and interesting virtual presence than anything available through UCL, as well as ready access to my blogs (I had wanted her to design a website for the UCL Sociology Network but in true bureaucratic fashion this was vetoed because she was not a UCL employee despite no UCL employee being available to do it in her place). You can see my website at www.grahamscambler.com and Rebecca’s at www.rebeccascambler.com; email her at rebeccascambler@hotmail.com and she will design one for you for a very reasonable price!

What appealed to me about Rebecca’s suggestion was the idea of planting seeds of thought in the public domain. Academic publishing only deals in flowering specimens, usually after inspection and approval for display by peers. Seeds are very different from flowers in bloom.

In fact there is some continuity here. I have often in blogs made reference to my lucky baby-boomer generation. I was rarely during my career forced onto the back-foot, obliged to define achievement in terms of research revenue generated or publications in high-impact journals. More than this, perhaps eccentrically or even irrationally, I have never been particularly concerned about being read, let alone cited. I speak psychologically here: I acknowledge that this is far more of a weakness than a strength, and part of the reason also that I have contributed to professional and critical sociology but done painfully little public sociology. I have always been driven by a desire to say what I want to say; and, latterly at least, what I have wanted to say has in turn been oriented to explanations of why things are as they are. So maybe there was always going to be an elective affinity between my temperament or personality type and blogging. Thinking aloud without undue inhibition suits me.

My first tentative blog – on ‘stigma and mental illness’ – was posted on 30 October 2012. I had played safe by opting for a familiar topic. It was retweeted and a friendly comment or two helped build my confidence. The subsequent 98 blogs can be broken down into a dozen categories: critical realism, critical theory, education/careers, general sociology, health/medicine, interventions, sociological autobiography, sociological theorists, sociologists, sport, travel, and village life. At the time of writing my website stats show 22,000+ views; and the blog that has to date attracted most hits was on a critique of the REF (followed by ‘what is an intellectual?’).

I do not know how to interpret these stats. Clearly my blogs are accessed by more people than are any of my peer-reviewed articles. And they have a reach beyond the academic community (on the whole we ‘dons’ publish for each other). But do people actually read blogs or just click on them? Who knows? And does what they have to say stick in people’s minds? Characteristically I am interested but not as ‘bothered’ as I probably should be by such questions: I write, others choose whether or not to read. But the stats encourage me. I am no celebrity, having not once appeared in ‘Eastenders’ or a games show, and the number of hits on my website/blogs seems remarkable to me.

I particularly enjoy writing ‘off the top of my head’ about things that I have long pondered but not published on. Like jazz for example: I did an initial blog while at a loose end in a Paddington bar and was delighted to receive sharp, informed comments from two jazz players. I attempted a reply. My blogs have extended beyond my expertise and beyond academia. The seemingly endless series on ‘a sociological autobiography’ (29 fragments and counting) is a case in point.

But if blogging suits me temperamentally and intellectually, are there other points short of its sociology that can usefully be made here? Well, I have a few observations. First, given that my blogs average approximately 1000 words each, I have to date committed in excess of 100,000 words to blogging! That corresponds to several papers or a book. But in retirement the latter are no longer the bread and butter of my CV. It boils down to what I want to say to whom, or maybe what gives me the most pleasure. I will in the event settle for a mix of outputs. Emeritus Prof at UCL I may be, but I am now Visiting Prof at Surrey: I have several partly drafted papers and a book proposal or two up my sleeve! My CV may now be on the margins of my consciousness, but orthodox publishing still matters to me. Here’s a confession: when I pick up a work of non-fiction I react more positively if the author is an academic! Why? It is certainly not because non-academics lack appeal or authority. It is rather because academics have typically learned to respect evidence (or maybe internalized a sense of peer-review).

Second, I have a life outside sociology and am deeply appreciative of a network comprising 2000+ followers on twitter. It is twitter that provides others with the prime point of access to my website and blogs. In other words I am sharing blogs on sociology and other topics with people outside as well as inside the discipline and outside as well as inside academia. This has to be a healthy learning experience/challenge for me if not necessarily for them.

A third remark is pertinent for non-retired academic bloggers. I have encountered several ‘young’ sociologists whose expertise by far exceeds mine and who have played significant roles in facilitating as well as contributing to virtual networking and innovation but whose pioneering expertise in social media remain institutionally unrecognized and unrewarded. Social media are now soliciting theoretical and substantive attention. Moreover people vote with their feet. Why then does a blog that is widely read, penetrating civil society and the public sphere, accord less institutional status than a published paper read by a handful of colleagues? And what about those who ease hard and near-hopeless cases like me into the arena of the virtual? Are we just talking about a time lag here? To take a single example, I have huge appreciation and respect for the sociologist Mark Carrigan (see @mark_carrigan and @Soc_Imagination and check his stats): are his efforts appropriately appraised within tertiary education? I hope so. Does any specified number of blogs = a published article in today’s crass metrics?

Fourth, there is a new-grown fertile sociology of the likes of facebook, twitter, blogs and so on; but that is another story …

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