Not knowing why we do what we do.

By Michael Toze

I’m at the ‘We Need to Talk about Ethnography’ session. Lisa Dikomitis is talking about the fact that generally speaking, people don’t reflect on what they do. They may not know why they act in a particular way, and asking them about it can turn into an exercise in post hoc justification of actions that never really had a conscious rationale.

And I find this interesting because the experience of trying to blog about an academic conference is a bit different to my previous experience of being at one. Most of what I do and think and experience at conferences isn’t particularly reflexive. It also often isn’t particularly academic. Yes, of course I do listen to the speakers, and learn new things and ideas – but at the same time I’m also sometimes thinking “Ooh, ten minutes to the break. I wonder if they’ve got the nice biscuits again?” “Hm, missed call from my boyfriend. What’s happened? Can I surreptitiously check my text messages without being noticed?” There’s also a lot of habit and norms – queue up and give your name, get your lanyard, ask people where they’re from and what they research. Even at a conference that is consciously trying to be different, there is a lot of stuff that you autopilot through. (I guess there’s a sort of genre of what a conference is, which you can subvert a bit, but which also tends to retain core concepts in order to be a recognisable subversion of a conference? Or something. You know what I’m getting at: imagine I’ve put in fancy links to an appropriate theorist.)

Blogging turns the experience into a more auto-ethnographic experience, and I think that is something of a shift. My engagement becomes a more analytic one, of thinking about why I’m doing what I’m doing. It also requires me to order and assign meaning and ‘discipline’ my experiences of the conference in order to present a coherent post to an imagined audience. The social media aspect also makes that imagined audience more of an interactive process – someone tweeted last night that they laughed at one of my blog posts, so do I keep trying to be funny? Or should I try to write something more academically sophisticated? Will what I’m writing offend the speakers if I’ve misunderstood something important? Annoy Mark and Pat, who might have been hoping for something different from the blog exercise?

I think part of the issue is that the blog is quite a flexible medium. It can cover anything from someone drunkenly posting pictures of funny dogs in hats at three in the morning to a formally curated online magazine with an editorial policy. I guess most of us know by now what the kinds of ‘rules’ are for Twitter or four our own personal blogs: what’s risky to say and what isn’t, and the strategies for managing that – whether to put your own name on, whether to put a disclaimer in your bio. We also to some extent know our audience on Twitter or on personal blogs – who follows us, how they’re likely to respond. But since blogging an academic conference is new, I’m not quite sure about the rules. Should I treat it like Twitter – quick and ephemeral? Or should I craft it more like an academic piece? If I’m writing something fairly quickly, about a nuanced academic concept that may be relatively new to me (which is likely to happen at a conference focused on the edges of sociology), what level of sophistication is expected? What happens if I pitch it wrong?

I guess the wider questions here are: how far does undisciplining rely on knowing what the discipline is? Is there a distinction between subverting disciplinary expectations of conferences and social media, and going beyond those? And how does analysing experiences in a particular medium discipline them?

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