Interview with Ian Woodward

© Ian Woodward and Figure/Ground
Dr. Woodward was interviewed by Daniel Hourigan. October 26th, 2012.

Ian Woodward is Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Humanities, Griffith University, Australia, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Cultural Research at Griffith University. He is the author of Understanding Material Culture, The Sociology of Cosmopolitanism, Cultural Sociology: An Introduction and Cosmopolitanism: Uses of the Idea. His recent papers have appeared in Journal of Consumer Culture, The Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies and The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Sociology. He is a board member on the new journal outlet, the American Journal of Cultural Sociology, and an Editor of The Journal of Sociology. In 2010-2011 he was a Fellow of the Kulturwissenschaftliches Kolleg, University of Konstanz, Germany.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

There was certainly nothing that felt like conscious choice, but there was an experience of being drawn to the intellectual and artistic production that is entailed in doing academic work. Along with this affinity for writing and thinking creatively, for me becoming a professor was never inevitable or guaranteed as these pathways are never clear or easy. And, I was always aware that I may need to pursue other options. Nevertheless, with hard work, productivity, the right personal circumstances and some luck, the job ended up choosing me.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

I have two sets of mentors. My most important mentors remain my dissertation supervisors, Mike Emmison and Philip Smith. I have co-published with both guys and they instructed me on important aspects of writing for publication. Both are very productive scholars with international reputations in their respective fields, so this has been crucial building my skills. Phil Smith now teaches at Yale and has been imperative in promoting my work and introducing me into his networks. This guy completely understands the field of academic production. But, a supervisor can’t support or promote all of their students and shouldn’t be expected to – there simply isn’t enough time and resources – so having a great mentor means sharing common intellectual interests and goals, to some degree. Second, I was lucky enough to form a very productive research partnership with two other scholars, Zlatko Skrbis and Gavin Kendall, who employed me to do some RA work after submission of my Ph.D. This work was in a different, but somewhat related, field to my Ph.D. As it worked out, we have published together for the best part of 10 years, including many articles and a few books. This started out as research assistance with mentoring as a side benefit, but blossomed into a genuine research partnership.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor “evolve” since you were an undergraduate student?

This is hard to answer, because as an undergraduate you are obviously crucial to the university’s productivity, but necessarily outside and unable to fathom – for the most part – the work and conditions of the professors who teach you. To complicate this, the place where I now teach is not the place where I completed my dissertation, so the local conditions are unique to some degree. I guess the main difference these days is that professors are subject to stronger regimes of accountability and performance evaluation across all their tasks.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overflow?

Well, there are many types of good teachers, I think, and we shouldn’t feel the need to conform to one type. Good teaching evolves from a rendering of effective and productive teaching practices in and through one’s personality, one’s unique approach to their discipline and also one’s personal identity and style. What I’m saying here is that while there are some bottom lines that help with being a successful, admired and respected teacher – things such as expertise and knowledge – being an effective group manager and interpersonal communicator, liking your field of research, and being able to help students see the relevance of their learning, I also think students are able to accommodate and enjoy a range of teaching styles. Have at your fingertips both examples from current media, music and politics, and the intellectual capacity and breadth to give students ways of understanding and explaining what’s going on outside.

What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts young scholars should be reading today?

I’m afraid it must begin and largely end with the old story – publish. In today’s job market, you also need some patience, commitment and flexibility. The euphemistic relation of this so-called flexibility to the exemplary neo-liberal subject is not lost on me! Nevertheless, my feeling is that you must aim to have a mix of papers in the best generalist and specialist international journals you can possibly aim for. Your Ph.D. should deliver a small handful of these, along with other things like a book. No matter how specialist your work, always try to relate it to important field and possibly discipline-wide questions.  Be brave with your research, pursue ideas you are passionate about and understand the unique things your research contributes to your area and related areas. Build coherence amongst your diverse publications and understand them as having a narrative trajectory that builds a story about your research contributions. This helps for job and funding applications. Trade off only some quality for quantity in terms of your early career outputs, but make sure you put quality of outputs first, overall. Be realistic: research recognition, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is generally a medium to long-term game based on continuous investments.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?

I’m not sure departmental sovereignties have melted away – the department or school is both the administrative unit and institutional disciplinary target. It can also encapsulate and embody vital collective research identities and communities. And, as a scholar of cosmopolitanism, I also know that national sovereignties have not entirely dissipated, but reassert themselves under various conditions. McLuhan was right, though, to give some weight to the medium, materiality and technics of these processes.

Others often discuss your area of expertise as ‘cultural’ sociology. What does this mean for your work and how your inquiries are situated under the broader disciplinary umbrella of sociology?

Cultural sociology has performed an important role in the last few decades by bringing culture to the centre of sociological analysis, but in a particular way. It inverts the classical paradigm in sociology by demonstrating that culture is an autonomous thing – an independent variable – that shapes social action, interpretation and meaning. For me, cultural sociology has been important because, in its foundational version, it promises to fuse structural and hermeneutic approaches to social analysis. That is, it shows the way in which interpretation, meaning and emotion are embedded in structured patterns of codes, narratives and genres. Cultural sociology was also something of a revelation to me as it brought classical anthropological texts, from the likes of Geertz, Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas into the frame of sociological analysis. For me, this was enormously valuable as a productive counterpoint and complement to mainstream sociological approaches. In recent years, the benefits of this meaning-centred, hermeneutic approach has been realised across disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.

 In recent decades cultural sociology has enjoyed a turn to ‘material culture’. Why do you think this shift has occurred? What challenges and/or problems can you foresee for the future studies of material culture?

The turn to material culture is somewhat akin to the case made for a cultural sociology. To some degree, sociologists have always written about objects, materials and things, but at the same time they mostly placed them as background props, scaffolding or architecture. Material culture studies looks to things as vital matter that organise, animate and orient social action. There has been a realization by some scholars that sociology has often been too concerned with values, norms and behaviours as the basis for an explanation of the social, at the expense of the hard and often mobile material things and infrastructures that we engage with and live through. While material culture studies has become known via the work of scholars in cultural and social anthropology, at the same time innovations in science and technology studies have also pushed things to centre stage and articulated a challenging material ontology. Of course, here I am referring to scholars like Bruno Latour and John Law in the social sciences, and Jane Bennett and Bill Brown in the humanities. In cultural sociology, Jeffrey Alexander’s work on iconic engagement usefully fuses material approaches with attention to emotional depth and meaning. I think that this larger question of how we may continue along the path of developing a material ontology, making use of ideas of technics and haptics, while at the same time paying attention to the ways in which material engagements connect such practices to emotion, identity and psychological transitioning, should be an area of priority in the cross disciplinary field of materiality studies.

What advice would you give to newcomers to the sociology of material culture?  Are there any other emerging areas that you feel offer important opportunities for sociology as a whole?

In general my advice is to undertake fine-grained empirical work in order to let discoveries guide your explanation and development of theory. Engage with materiality – or indeed any study of social phenomena – through thick description and close engagement with practices in particular contexts. Also, pay attention to methodological innovations in the field by incorporating complementary non-discursive, visual and ethnographic material in your work.

How would you characterise the connections, if any, between material culture studies and a socio-political phenomenon such as cosmopolitanism?

Interestingly, there are some connections between these fields that require development, in my view. One of the potential problems with cosmopolitanism studies is its basis in idealised forms of sociality, reflexive ethical responses, and forms of cultural openness founded in sets of attitudes and behavioural repertoires. What this traditional approach to the topic overlooks of course is the way cosmopolitan cultures and cultivated, sustained and arranged by material engagements, spatial forms and material networks. And, at a finer level, particular object engagements can be constitutive of cosmopolitan reflexivities or be the basis of closures of such engagements. Reframing cosmopolitan studies through materiality studies presents an interesting possibility for innovations.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on the copyediting corrections to a book on cosmopolitanism written with my colleague Zlatko Skrbis that will be available in the first quarter of next year. Also, I’m at the beginning stages of empirical research for a book on the vinyl record with a colleague from Germany. The vinyl record has made something of a comeback in recent years and represents an interesting case study for developing my work on material culture. As well, I am planning a symposium to run next year with colleagues in my department that addresses the links between materiality, emotion and psychoanalytic approaches to understanding material culture.

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Ian Woodward
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Hourigan, D. (2012). “A Conversation with Ian Woodward,” Figure/Ground. October 26th.
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