Interview with David Beer
© Nuné Nikoghosyan and Figure/Ground
Dr. Beer was interviewed by Nuné Nikoghosyan. September 22nd, 2014
David Beer is senior lecturer in Sociology, at the University of York. His research is mainly in the fields of culture and media in the everyday context, social and cultural theory, and methods and empiricism in social and cultural research. He has previously worked as ESRC “transnational” Research Fellow on the e-Society programme. He is a member of the editorial boards of Cultural Sociology, Big Data & Society, Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, and the International Journal of Market Research. He is also co-editor of the Theory, Culture & Society open site and the author of the blog Thinking Culture. Author of Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation (2013) and co-author of New Media : The Key Concepts(2008), his latest publication is Punk Sociology (2014).
How did you decide to become an academic and researcher? Was it a conscious choice?
There wasn’t really a big plan. I finished school with some fairly poor results, and I was lucky enough to be offered a place at Bradford University. I had a great time there and I ended up getting a pretty good degree. After working in a couple of different places I decided to return to university to do a Masters degree and I ended up staying on to complete a PhD. When I finished my PhD I worked for a year as a researcher and then moved into a fulltime academic role. So, I don’t think it was a conscious choice. It seemed to happen as I went along. It was sometime during my MA when I thought about perhaps trying to get a job as an academic. It seemed like it might offer an opportunity to do something creative and autonomous, which was really appealing. I also really like the challenge of academic work, and the way that you can (sometimes) set your own agenda and come up with ideas to explore.
Who were your mentors at university and what do you retain most from them?
The first person who really sparked my interest in sociology was someone called Dr Cotton. I don’t actually know his first name, but he taught me sociology at school. I didn’t do very well, but it got me thinking and his teaching was really interesting. Then at Bradford, I had a great tutor called Ian Burkitt. He took a fairly interdisciplinary approach to sociology, which was inspiring. But Ian also showed how we might apply sociology to our everyday lives. This led me to start applying sociology to everyday forms of popular culture, which was the beginning of the work I ended up doing as an academic. During my PhD, my supervisor Barry Sandywell, was a great guide. He helped me to develop an interest in social theory, but he also took an unconventional approach towards sociological work and a focus upon ideas. Again, these shaped my approach and interest. Then, finally, I was fortunate to have two great mentors as I made the difficult transition from my PhD to being an academic – which is a hard transition to make. Roger Burrows and Nick Gane both took the time to write with me, to discuss ideas and to help me to develop my thoughts. This was a crucial time for me, and they helped me to build a career. Both Roger and Nick have the ability to see problems from alternative perspectives and to open-up new types of questions. I learnt a great deal from watching them work and from working with them.
In your experience, how has the role of academic research and teaching evolved recently, since you were a student yourself?
I’m not really sure. The reason I’m not sure is because I’m not clear about how accurate my view is of what it was like to be an academic. It is also hard to judge because your own role as an academic adapts across time, so you have a changing role in a potentially changing university sector. It would seem that a crucial change has been the rise of the higher education data assemblage and the implications of systems of measurement and the like. But I’m not sure exactly how these have altered the role. I wrote a little bit about this in my recent book on Punk Sociology, and in one or two articles. I’ve become interested in what the more general changes to media infrastructures might mean for being an academic, but I’m also interested in how this creates new possibilities for conducting and communicating sociological research differently.
What in your opinion is the status of disciplines today? What are the strengths and/or weaknesses of interdisciplinary studies?
Disciplines matter in some respects, they help us to define ourselves and to associate with other academics. They also help us to attract students and to organise our universities. But in terms of research, we need to be careful that disciplines don’t become too comfortable. Ideas should be free to roam across disciplinary boundaries. So, disciplines can be constraining and can produce silos. I really like Andrew Abbott’s work on the chaos of disciplines. In that work he talks about how disciplines themselves are also carved up by the distinctions we make. This is the real problem, that we become too specialised and that we then struggle to speak across our own discipline, never mind across disciplines. So, disciplines are important, they help us to organise, categorise and define. But, if left unattended, these helpful aspects of disciplines can become problematic in themselves. Being ensconced in a disciplinary space that is too safe is probably to be avoided.
In your recent publication, Punk Sociology (2014), you lay down the foundations of a “punk sociology” as a way of reflecting and acting in sociology, leaning on the punk music ethos: being eclectic, raw and do-it-yourself. Does this “punk sociology”, striving to break with boundaries and established working methods, not risk becoming more marginal(ized) as an approach than being fully embraced?
I suspect that it will be quite marginal. I’ve written it to appeal to anyone with an interest in sociology, but it will divide opinion. I can’t really imagine a punk ethos being fully embraced in sociology. But I still felt that it was an argument worth making. My aim in that book is really to help us to collectively reflect on what sociology is and what it might become. It is a call for sociologists to think about how they might respond to the contemporary context. I expect that people will disagree with my punk sociology approach. But I think that such disagreement will be a positive thing. I’m hoping that the book will be provocative and will spark debates about the future of sociology. But I don’t think we should have one vision for the discipline, the Punk Sociology approach encourages such diversity and eclecticism. So, yes, it does risk being marginal and it does risk not being fully embraced. But I hope that it will still speak to people who want to re-animate the sociological imagination or who want to use outside resources to inspire and spark sociological thinking.
While new ways of communicating (social media, blogging, etc.) bring wider and relatively facilitated exposure – as you also highlight in Punk Sociology – they remain far less credited in academia and scientific circles than peer-review publications, for example. Do you have suggestions on how to go about this dilemma and some academics’ reluctance towards such exposure and communication, for fear of receiving less credit for their work?
One of the arguments of Punk Sociology is that we should try out and use different types of communication. But, as I mention in the book, I still think that books and articles should be the bedrock of academic debate and writing. I just think that beyond this we might want to try out alternative ways of communicating our ideas. In some cases this might mean using social media forms to speak more directly to people, but it might also mean exploring different types of outlets. I’ve used my blog thinkingculture.wordpress.com for the last two years, and that has given me a space to talk about and curate interesting materials about culture. The problem is that social media has its own ‘politics of circulation’ (as I’ve described it in a previous book), which means that it is not a neutral form of communication. Social media affords particular circulations of content and we should be aware of that. Being decentralised is not the same as being democratic. So, I think it is important that we maintain a diversity of communication, but that we also develop an understanding of the infrastructures through which our ideas are communicated. The Punk Sociology book suggests that we try out some different approaches and that we try, where possible, to broaden the patterns of communication. But this is not easy, and will take some careful work. A blog post will not carry the same weight as a peer-reviewed journal article, and that is fine. But a blog post has the potential to reach a greater audience, so the two might work alongside one another. My argument in the Punk Sociology book is that we need to be resourceful and think about the ways in which a transforming mediascape might allow different types of communication with different audiences.
In Punk Sociology, you argue that “[a]nyone can be a DIY sociologist. […] if we look at popular culture there are already lots of DIY sociologists out there […] – it does not undermine our position”. But if anyone can do it, does sociology as a whole not risk losing some of its status as a scientific field? It has taken decades for sociology to be recognized in academia, with specific skills to be acquired, giving its research and claims more weight. Do DIY sociologists not risk undermining the work of those who made Auguste Comte’s ideas, sometimes seen as pseudo-science, into an accepted form of science?
Yes, they do risk undermining sociology. But the risk is exacerbated if we don’t acknowledge that other people have things to say about the social world. The point is that contemporary culture is densely packed with commentaries and insights into the social world. In this context, we need to think carefully about what it is that sociology can offer. We can then develop an informed response that makes sociology’s value clear. This is really about trying to understand how sociology might adapt and respond to the context in which it is being produced. I would prefer that we engage with these broader accounts of the social world rather than be scared that they might undermine our scientific credentials. The punk sociology book talks about the risks of playing it safe, being too worried about our credibility is likely to lead us to play it safe – which I think will be counterproductive and detrimental to the discipline. We should aim for a discipline that speaks to people, that is vibrant and exciting, not something that is hampered by its own pursuit of acceptance. Plus, I think an inclusive discipline that people can associate with, and which they feel they can be part of, is much more likely to thrive in the current conditions we face.
Just to add a further point to this, we might be able to learn something from the forms of social analysis, commentary and insight that might be found in popular culture. They may tell us something we don’t know. They may also show us new ways of communicating sociological ideas. If we take the example of visualisations. There are lots of interesting and revealing visualisations to be found within web cultures. These may allow us to envision the social world in new and engaging ways. I recently found a visualisation of music genres on the Last.fm data playground. This used the data from Last.fm to show the connections between genres. For me, it helped to shed new light on contemporary music genres and helped to illustrate some problems in the way that cultural sociologists approach genre classifications. The other point here is that the social world is now already being visualised and analysed in cultural forms, if we don’t agree with these visions then we should respond. We should intervene and show why these forms of vernacular sociology are getting it wrong. So, there is plenty for sociology to do and it has plenty of scope for developing its unique values.
In your book, you mention having “shied away” from naming any “punk sociologists”, but perhaps you will accept to name some “daring voices” in sociology, classical or contemporary, that you encourage us (especially the younger generation of sociologists) to learn from?
Yes, I close the book by saying that I’ve avoided naming who I think are punk sociologists. I didn’t really want to be too prescriptive in that book, and I didn’t want to shape how the arguments were interpreted. So, I avoided naming people – although there are a few clues in the book. Also, there are lots of people who might be considered to be punk sociologists who are not cited or discussed in the book. I wanted to keep the book punchy, so I avoided long discussions of work that might fit with the topics I discuss. There is also lots of interesting material out there that isn’t punk sociology, but which should be read anyway. I’m afraid that I want to dodge this question again. I don’t want to name punk sociologists, and I don’t want to create a list, if that’s OK. The field should be left fairly open for people to read what they like. The books and articles that inspired me, may not inspire others. And I certainly think that reading outside of the discipline and outside of academia is probably a good idea. One of the aspects of the punk ethos I discuss in the book is eclecticism and openness, we should adopt this in our reading, at least that is what I’d suggest. But if people do want a single book to start with, I’d definitely read Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists (its sounds like a gentle book, but it isn’t).
What advice would you give to young aspiring researchers on the doorstep of academia?
Ideas come first. It is easy to get distracted from that. There have been all sorts of changes, which you alluded to in your earlier questions. One thing is unchanged. Ideas are the important thing. Taking the time to develop them, work with them, hone them and communicate them, that is what is needed. Academics appreciate ideas. They can apply them in their research and teach them to students. If you can cultivate ideas, then I think the possibilities will begin to open themselves up. It is a competitive and sometimes tough environment, what differentiates people are their ideas. It is good to read widely, to know theory, to understand method, to understand funding bodies, and so on, but it is the sociological imagination that really counts. It is the ability to find things that are revealing, to look across materials and to say something incisive and to create perspective that makes the difference. My advice, for what it is worth, would be to not lose sight of the importance of ideas.
What other projects are you currently working on?
The Punk Sociology was published very quickly, so I’m just in the process of moving on to the next project at the moment. I’m pausing a little. I have three or four ideas and I’m choosing which direction to take. I completed a project on recording engineers last year, which I may write up soon. I may also continue with some of the work I’ve done that uses cultural forms to try to think creatively about the social world. But I’m being drawn towards a project that looks back at old ideas in order to refresh the sociological imagination. I have the proposal written for this and I’ve been collecting materials together for the last few weeks. I’m planning to flesh that out a bit further over the coming weeks. And then, I’ll probably also write some shorter pieces that continue my work on the relations between culture and new media forms. I’m currently in a moment where the writing plan is just taking shape, I’ll commit to something in the next couple of weeks which will then become the primary focus.
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Nikoghosyan, N. (2014). “Interview with David Beer,” Figure/Ground. January 18th.
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