The many labours of research students

When you start out as a research student, what do you think your main area of work will be? It might be data collection, the many challenges of access to a field, learning new skills to wrangle data, and always writing, writing, writing. It is a surprise when most of the work appears to have nothing to do with that. Instead the several labours of research students are:

  • Finding your place in the field, the institution and the discipline
  • Keeping keen, maintaining your drive and self belief
  • Managing others, especially your supervisor
  • Creating boundaries and reasonable expectations
  • Legitimating – shaping your agenda and bending others to it
  • Recognising your own agency
  • Finding a path between complete and finished
The amount of work spent labouring on others and getting institutions to behave in the way they are meant to might be novel to many students, and not to others. If you are a parent the effort involved in getting others to do what they are supposed to do will not be news.
A high degree of friction is involved in interacting with institutions. If you have to repeatedly remind supervisors to read your draft work, that’s a friction cost which adds to the emotional labour of being a PhD student. Friction is not distributed equitably and it’s long been known that some people find an easier path due to factors such as higher cultural capital, factors related to social class, gender and ethnicity. I find the institution sometimes needs to be trained to recognise you. We benefit from the work of others who have gone before and taken on the labour of making themselves recognisable to the institution.
Recognising our agency is harder when many of the ways of speaking about the self in UK society seem to diminish agency. We are framed as being at the mercy of our past, of structural forces, and manipulative social media platforms. Those factors do matter, but they can end up making life feel rather passive and victim-like. An immediate problem is that the way institutions operate generates a lot of inertia and this reinforces that sensibility. Might was well not bang your head against the brick wall for the umpteenth time. Institutional inertia is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be protecting, when the alternative is moving fast and breaking things. As it stands, mostly inertia benefits those who already benefit and the breaking things breaks those who do not.

Invisible Touch

Republished from the Edinburgh Decameron Angus Bancroft

What do you touch most everyday? Your face? Your hair? Someone else? Coffee cup? Door handle? Keyboard and screen?  A lot of our social, leisure and work lives were conducted digitally before lockdown and now it seems nearly all of it is.  Now imagine each digital element was tangible. How much does a click ‘weigh’? What’s the mass of a like? How much momentum does your tweet have? What’s the force of an insta? The calorific value of an email?

The question I have been dicing with during lockdown is how the digital is tangible as a physical force. It has been estimated that the internet weighs between 6 micrograms 60 grams depending on how many electrons are factored into the calculation. Rather than being this literal – what energy does it consume – I think of it in reverse. How much of your energy does it consume. What physical properties does it imbue in the user? Marshal McLuhan noted that watching television was a physical experience. A person watching it has their metabolism change, their brain changes to devote more resources to the bright little square in the visual field. The digital also rearranges selves, demands devotion, shifts sleep cycles, changes appetite.

The question matters for how we apply digital methods. As we recognise the digital as material this helps us examine how it has effects as a set of social things. Digital systems stabilise some realities and destabilise others. The design of digital platforms makes the social tangible in ways that we can examine. In a way this just brings us back to the original questions of sociology – what is artificial, what is natural, what is social and how do real things have real effects. We have never been without technology, from the cooking pot to the lifestyle pharmaceutical. Technologies order life. Now we can examine how sociality incorporates computational effects, the touch of the algorithm.

We already deal with this materiality in many ways. A spreadsheet has material effects. Double entry bookkeeping brought us modern capitalism. Lotus 1-2-3 brought us predictive capitalism. Lenonardi identifies that as the effective production (‘the practical instantiation’) of theoretical ideas. Software creates capacities for action and constraints on it as any technology does.  One of the effects I have noticed in digital drug dealing is how it reworks the experience of waiting. Social time is a comprehensible, graspable form of sociality which is currently overwhelmed and articulated by machine time, by the nanoseconds of algorithmic calculation. Drug buyers’ discussion of waiting – waiting for a dealer to respond via the market system, waiting on the postal service to deliver the drugs they want – put social time back in. I noticed how often concepts of dopesickness – drug withdrawal – were showing up in the same discussions as references to time and waiting. The obdurate waiting times dictated by the delivery infrastructure, such as shipment times, and by the market infrastructure, such as the time for bitcoin payment to clear and an order to be confirmed, were endured. Waiting because the dealer keeps you waiting is not endurable. Users who perceive indifference on the dealers’ part then find time is experienced more harshly. Dopesickness becomes more painful, and anxiety grows. One reason for that is that the user is concerned that the drug may not arrive at all. That feature of the infrastructure then changes the texture of dope time for the user. It reminds them that the power in the relationship fundamentally lies with the dealer. The user worries that they may be thrown back on an unreliable face to face market, or have to go without. Time waiting becomes physical. The drug market system produces a physical response. System users experience the system as touching them.

The example I have used here shows how digital systems have matter. They are not only communicative but have force, weight on the world. It needn’t surprise us that the weight lies on those already marginalised (Noble, 2018).

Leonardi PM (2010) Digital materiality? How artifacts without matter, matter. First Monday. DOI: 10.5210/fm.v15i6.3036.

Noble SU (2018) Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press.

Plagues, monuments and folds in the land

Republished from the Edinburgh Decameron Angus Bancroft

In pandemic times social time seems to give way to virus time. The time the infection takes to replicate, transmit and reinfect is now the basic unit of time which supersedes other rhythms of social and economic life. There is a much longer historical virus time. To be human is to carry the imprint of virus responses in our immune systems and DNA. Viruses have their own biological historical record. Edinburgh is scattered with monuments to the medical history of the place. There are statues to medical pioneers, far too many plaques to read and grasp, each marking the struggle between humanity and mortality. On Princes Street sits a statue to James Young Simpson, one of the pioneers who developed chloroform as an anaesthetic. Another imprint of disease and public medicine is less pronounced but more chatty, the folds in the land . There are the plague mounds, cemeteries, and the plague barriers, remnants of barriers between folk designed to ensure social and contagion distance, and the draughty working class housing that was an attempt to get a grip on miasma and contagion.

The collision between theories of humanity and theories of disease contagion is worth attention. It is written stone and earth. In creates new ways of governing humans, tagging and sorting them and shifting some to the edge of the expanding city, to new sites like Niddrie. Improvement moral, economic, social and sanitary reshaped the city and resorted its inhabitants. Planners theorised how bodies would mix. The vertical social segregation of the Old Town gave way to the horizontal separation of the new suburbs. Internal and external architecture was informed by ideas about hygiene and sanitation alongside privacy, ownership, divisions of domestic labour and time.

The evidence of past social innovations and public health crises is visible in the physical form of the city and also its social dynamics and the cultural and imaginary distance between places. The current pandemic will produce its own legacy in the physical and organisational infrastructure while as a society we move onto the next worry. Looking at past pandemics is going to be crucial to understanding the challenges involved.

Fake times and real life during a pandemic

Republished from the Edinburgh Decameron One of the effects of our arm’s length social life is that we interact with a limited range of interactional cues: our subconscious interpretation of body language, eye contact, tone of voice, is heavily truncated by the technology. There are many implications of that, not least for how we teach and engage students. They will have little sense of teachers and themselves as a classroom presence. It also has caused me to reflect on how we use these cues and others’ reactions for information verifiability. A part of my research is investigating how fake news and disinformation campaigns are produced and valued in the marketplace. Disinformation operations are deliberate attempts to undermine trust in the public square and to create false narratives around public events. Rid (2020) outlines three key myths about them: 1. They take place in the shadows (in fact, disclosing that there is an active campaign can be useful to those running it) 2. They primarily use false information (in fact they often use real information but generate a fake context) 3. They are public (often they use ‘silent measures’ targeting people privately). Research indicates that how others respond to information is critical in deciding for us whether it is factual or not (Colliander, 2019). Social media platforms’ ability to counter the influence of fake news with verification tags and other methods are going to have a limited effect, other than enraging the US President. Overall disinformation operations are about the intent, rather than the form, of the operation. For that reason tactical moves like disclosing an operation’s existence can be effective if the aim is to generate uncertainty. According to Rid (2020) what they do is attack the liberal epistemic order – the ground rock assumptions about shared knowledge that Western societies based public life on. That facts have their own life, independent of values and interests. Expertise should be independent of immediate political and strategic interest. That institutions should be built around those principles – a relatively impartial media, quiescent trade unions, autonomous universities, even churches and other private institutions, are part of the epistemic matrix undergirding liberalism. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this order has been eroded and hollowed out from multiple angles over the past decades by processes that have nothing to do with information operations. Established national, regional, and local newspapers have become uneconomic and replaced with a click-driven, rage fuelled, tribalist media. Increasingly the old institutions mimic the new. Some established newspapers evolved from staid, slightly dull, irritatingly unengaged publications to an outrage driven, highly partial, publication model. The independence universities and the professions once enjoyed has been similarly eroded by the imposition of market driven governance on higher education, the NHS, and other bodies. On the other hand Buzzfeed evolved in the opposite direction for a time. It also doesn’t take a genius to note that the liberal epistemic order was always less than it was cracked up to be, as noted by the Glasgow University Media Group among others. The erosion of this may be overplayed – for example, most UK citizens still get their news from the BBC. however survey data notes that there is a definite loss of trust in national media among supporters of specific political viewpoints (Brexit and Scottish Nationalism being two). The liberal epistemic order was therefore neither as robust, nor agreed, nor as liberal as it proclaimed itself to be and may have been contingent on a specific configuration of post-WW2 Bretton Woods governance. We can see plenty of examples of where this faith in the impartiality of institutions was never the case e.g. widespread support for the Communist parties in Italy and France, which had their own media, trade unions and social life. Building an alternative reality was a key aim of progressive movements at one time. Labour movements often had their own newspapers, building societies, welfare clubs, shops and funeral services. Shopping at ‘the coppie’ (The Co-Op) said a lot about one’s belonging, social class and politics. That alternative reality can be the basis for social solidarity. That isn’t to compare the two. Fake news is inherently damaging to any effort to build a better society or understand the one we are living in. But real life and life organised independently does provide a defence and a basis for building a resilient post-pandemic society. Part of this is resisting and questioning what underlies fake news – the continuous attack on autonomous knowledge and Enlightenment values which have eroded the resilience of democratic societies. References: Colliander J (2019) “This is fake news”: Investigating the role of conformity to other users’ views when commenting on and spreading disinformation in social media. Computers in Human Behavior 97: 202–215. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2019.03.032 Rid T (2020) Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Writing tips

  1. Learn to use paragraphs. A good technique is to look at each paragraph as a whole and divide it into topic – body – tokens – wrap, as described by Patrick Dunleavy in the LSE’s Writing for Research blog This helps you allocate sentences to the right bits and shorten them, so you wouldn’t have a sentence doing all 4 functions.
  2. Look at two papers/books that describe the same problem in two completely different ways. There’s no single way of writing facts. It appears as if there is because the sources we use (e.g. newspapers, blogs) basically copy each other. Most news reports just write up an Associated Press wire so they all look the same. Not because they’ve all independently arrived at the same framing of the situation. Likewise, the reason a lot of academics write about the same topic in the same way is that we confer and also are a little bit conformist. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but there are times when the first book or article in a field gets to set how it is framed for decades without anyone questioning it.
  3. Read a public document (e.g. from an NGO, government, university strategy etc) and count up the clichés (‘as this report makes abundantly clear’ and such). Note at what points the document ceases to use cliché. Why is that? Is it because those are the parts that matter? Compare the way that document is produced to how we produce research writing.
  4. There are more original things to be said than there are original questions to ask. The four basic questions of science and social science are: what is this? Why is it like that? What effect does it have on others? Can it be different? Say who/what is doing what to whom, and why. What’s real, and what’s not? What matters, and what just appears to?
  5. Don’t homogenise differing points of view
  6. Use the active voice. It’s often said that academic writing uses the passive voice too much but that’s not the problem, the problem is the lack of any subject. Stuff just happens, apparently.
  7. Don’t say what you’re going to say, but do say why you are saying it. This goes against Becker’s advice to map your writing and goes to show there’s no one way of advising people about writing either. If in doubt choose Becker.
  8. Edit other people’s work and let them edit yours. Don’t just ignore comments. One of the biggest frustrations I have is when I give comments on someone’s work and the next version I see there is no evidence of me having said anything about it. If you have addressed it say how. If you haven’t addressed it, say why. Feedback is a dialogue.
  9. Don’t write deferentially e.g. saying ‘I think’ (I do this far too much). It’s the most useless phrase in the language. Of course you thought it when you wrote it. It’s one of a class of phrases that are purely there to cover us if someone takes issue with what we said or wrote. It implies that others are more important in the conversation than you. Do write with due deference to others who have gone before though.
  10. Progress is when writing is more effective, not longer.
  11. Imagine yourself in the world you are writing about. Tell us about it. What’s life like as a bitcoin? A border fence?
  12. Move from the abstract to the concrete and back.
  13. Try both complex writing tools (Scrivener, WordPress) and simple ones (emacs, TextEdit). Don’t be satisfied with the tools you are given. You will build your own toolbox for your purpose. You can do amazing things with Excel.

A few notes from Becker with Richards, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article

Becker HS and Richards P (2007) Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article: Second Edition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

  1. How do you write? What are the non function rituals and habits, that appear to having nothing to do with writing.
  2. When do you turn to magic? The Trobrianders produce finely crafted boats, ideal for their function. They speak of their craft with deep scientific knowledge (if not scientifically expressed). When they face storms, the one event they cannot control by their craft, they turn to magic. What in your PhD creates the same trepidation – the factor you cannot control? What rituals do you use to ward off the weather gods? He cites: ways of signalling your writing is not done, so can’t be subject to the full wrath of the supervisory death stare.
  3. Sociologists often imply strong cause but run away from saying it (my personal bugbear #1/9126)
  4. Scientific writing is a rhetoric (Gusfield, Rhetoric of Social Science). Meaning writers use conventions to make themselves appear scientific. Think about the contradiction there. Many sociologists rail against scientific positivism, reductionism etc while using writing conventions to make themselves seem like they have the qualities involved. Distance on the subject, objective standpoint etc. This is your theory of writing which everyone uses – you have it even if you don’t think you do. There’s always a hidden purpose to the way you write.
  5. So there are various research ‘rhetorics’ – styles with a purpose – and also ‘languages’ – organised meaning sets. They are a little independent of each other but not entirely. Anyway, the languages are usually more elaborated and dangerous to mix. Invoking feminist materialism having started on the path of Judith Butler is asking for problems but it might indicate a critical point in your quest where your path turns away from your intended goal.
  6. Undergraduate skills don’t prepare you for a PhD. ‘Meet deadline … reach word count limit … balance out argument’. Yes, this is the academy’s fault. New scholars learn that obfuscation=academic capital and status. The problem isn’t quite as bad as that, but there aren’t enough checks and balances in the system at an early stage. We don’t model good behaviour, which involves someone saying ‘Wait a minute, what you said doesn’t make sense’. The way Becker frames this is probably reflective of his specific time and place – low oxygen US academia. It’s less true of the UK system but we have developed other problems e.g. research writing infested with gov-speak and NGO-vocab. One problem is correction via avoidance. People have learnt that theory=tortuous prose and so just avoid theory altogether. You. Can’t. Do. That.
  7. Writing=risk of exposure.

What is the darknet?

A darknet is any system that isolates and obfuscates internet traffic through a combination of hardware and software. Facebook has some features of a darknet. It does separate itself from the web and obfuscates users from each other depending on a combination of user-controlled and system controlled settings. Ultimately users are entirely exposed to the system so there is no hope of privacy.  ‘The’ darknet is the Tor darknet which is a different proposition. Along with other darknets like i2p and Freenet, it creates an anonymising layer over internet traffic using a combination of encryption and signal routing. Users operate with a degree of anonymity that is not possible with normal internet and web use, which has been compared to living in the Big Brother house in terms of privacy. Tor and the other darknets are part of a class of privacy promoting systems and products that include remailers, cryptocurrencies and VPNs. They differ in the degree of control and knowledge users have over the systems. Tor offers another ability which is that of private or hidden hosting. Services can be offered from anonymous servers. That ability opens up a whole host of uses, from criminal markets to encrypted chat and private discussion. It offers new qualities for commodity exchange and social interaction which is of interest to sociologists, criminologists, economists and privacy focused activists.