Beyond the conference

by Michael Toze

Final day of Undisciplining today, and it’s been good. I didn’t book onto the conference dinner last night, so walked back to where I’m staying in Gateshead, thinking through papers in my head.

This is the first specifically ‘sociological’ conference I’ve been to. I’ve done health conferences and LGBT conferences and trans conferences, and in those spaces I’ve tended to see myself firmly in the sociological camp. At a sociological conference, I do feel a bit conscious of being somewhat on the fringes of sociology, so it’s nice to be at an event that’s dedicated to recognising and including those edges.

It’s been useful. There’s definitely some more sociological perspectives I can take away and apply to a half-written paper I was originally thinking was going to be a fairly technical critique of healthcare structures. There’s also the germs of a new paper about health activism and neoliberal values. We also had a really good discussion in the session I was involved in running yesterday, and that’s also given me some food for thought, both regarding research but also regarding activism. So for me, that’s what I’ll be taking forward from the conference.

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?

The Future versus Bureaucracy

by Michael Toze.

Right. I’ve got the navel gazing out of the way now. Let’s try something a bit more theoretical.

This morning I listened to Ayona Datta talking about urban futures, focusing on Smart Cities in India.

The other big thing that’s been going on for me today on social media, as a trans researcher (in both senses of the term) is that the new version of the International Classification of Diseases has recently been published. In the ICD-11 the former medical diagnosis of ‘transsexualism’ has now been replaced by ‘gender incongruence’, which is also no longer in the mental health section of the manual.

Urban development in India and trans diagnoses don’t immediately seem connected. But actually, it struck me that there are parallels regarding how concepts of the future intersect with bureaucracy.

One thing Ayona highlighted in her presentation was a tension between paternalist bureaucratic structures (which are often keen to hang onto control), and on the other hand an idea of modernity as rationality and efficiency, with an emphasis upon speed and the cutting of red tape. And as a result, government actions are sometimes trying to balance competing demands and discourses, talking about localism and decentralisation while also putting in place institutional and organisational restrictions that limit local flexibility (e.g. restricting who can take on certain roles).

These are very much the debates that underpin discussions of trans healthcare and diagnosis. On the one hand, the old medical structures are time-consuming, inefficient and paternalist. They’re also often reluctant to change, emphasising the importance of medical oversight and closing ranks against upstart entrants. (for a full discussion of trans health care, temporality and constructions of expertise I recommend Ruth Pearce’s book, Understanding Trans Health).  In resistance to medicalism, trans activists often position their arguments within concepts of modernity, rationality and efficiency – trans people are not mentally ill, we are perfectly capable of knowing what we want and taking our own medical decisions, and the current system is inefficient, old-fashioned and unsustainable. At the same time, those of us who advocate for stripping back of medical oversight are sometimes (rightly!) challenged by other trans people and their advocates who point out flaws and pitfalls in out arguments. For example, one big problem with relying on rationality as a justification for access to trans healthcare is that it potentially excludes groups of trans people whose rationality is impaired or disputed (e.g. trans people under the age of 18). As a consequence, there is a risk that emphasising rationality tends to reify existing biases – white, middle-class, adult trans people get better access to care than those whose rationality is more ‘suspect’.

Linked to this is the idea that slowness and bureaucracy is ‘safer’. This is very much a feature of debates around trans healthcare and trans legal recognition, where waiting and checking are often couched as being necessary safeguards to protect people from making decisions they could regret. Although somewhat outside my own field, I would think that the idea of bureaucracy as safety is also a component of urban planning discussions, both in terms of obvious concepts of safety (fire hazards etc) but also more broad ideas of what societies consider to be ‘safe’ (scrutinising the wider social effects of any potentially novel change). At the same time, the idea of bureaucratic slowness as safeguarding also relies upon a presumption that radical change in the future is inherently more of a risk than the present. That’s not necessarily the case for individuals, communities or spaces for whom the present is already very unsafe.

At this point, I think the similarities start to break down. The arguments for and against bureaucratic safeguarding of possible futures are rather different for shared public spaces that for individual bodies. Nonetheless, I think it’s useful to think about how discussions in a range of sociological fields may be influenced by concepts of the future and of bureaucratic safeguarding, and Ayona’s paper has definitely inspired me to read and think more around this.

Trying to say something clever.

by Michael Toze

This is the first time I’ve ever tried live blogging at a conference (or anything else). I’m not particularly prone to writer’s block – I tend to scribble a load of words down in no particular order, and then take days or weeks to sort them out. But that doesn’t work well for a live blog format. I’ve got to write something in a format where it’s suitable for others to read within hours or days.

And my first reaction is feeling the pressure is on. I’m conscious of watching the speakers trying to think about what clever observations I can make, preferably couched in suitably academic terms.

Yesterday, at the ECR day, we had quite a lot of conversation about prestige and precarity. As ECRs, we’re often encouraged to see everything we do as a trial run for a job interview. Want to talk about your research? Great, but how can you spin it as ‘impact’, or ‘knowledge exchange’? Written an article about a subject you love? Ah, but you need to send it to the right journal in order to play the REF game. Network. Shake hands. Make contacts. We spoke a bit about acknowledging vulnerability in conference presentations. But as ECRs, at most conferences we’re potentially in the room with people we might be asking to hire us at some point. Best not to admit to anything too embarrassing.

(Should I reference Bourdieu at this point? I’m pretty sure this is ‘field’. But at a conference, with slightly ropey access to my institutional log in, I’ve not got a text to hand I can quickly check – other than Wikipedia – and it would be really embarrassing if I misrepresent Bourdieu in a sociological blog. And anyway, is it a bit OTT to refer to Bourdieu in a blog post?)