Participant Observation – what effect did I have?

RRebecca Turvillebecca Turvill is undertaking a PhD at the University of Brunel in the Department of Education. Her research “How are children developing number sense, post national numeracy strategy?” is supervised by Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick. You can follow Rebecca via twitter @RebeccaTurvill




The “participant observer disturbs the situation he investigates” (Hargreaves, 1967, p193).

This quote both haunts and drives me as I reflect on my year of research in primary school. Having undertaken an ethnography of primary mathematics learning, I have spent many, many hours disturbing primary classrooms. I have of course spent many more analysing and reflecting on the situations I have been investigating. Now, as I step back and analyse my data I am particularly focussed on this idea – this disruption.

Disruption generally has negative connotations, travel disruption strikes fear into the heart of most commuters. But what about data disruption? How do I manage the disruption in my observations due to my participation? As I have drawn on the work of Pierre Bourdieu (e.g. Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992), a reflexive approach to data collection has been central throughout my ethnographic research. Indeed my field notes are littered with comments like “I felt anxious about..” and even the occasional “I stopped myself falling asleep by…”

These comments are helpful as I analyse my data as they continue to highlight my physical presence within the data and identify personal bias in my notes. They cause me to consider my position within the data, particularly with regard to comments the children make. But one particular aspect of disruption I cannot account is the way in which I was prepared for.

As a primary school teacher myself, I know the additional pressure having another adult in the classroom can bring. I took great lengths to avoid placing the teachers under any pressure. I focussed my research on the children, not the teaching; I supported groups if it helped or stepped out of lessons if needed; I even photocopied missing sheets.  Despite these actions, having another adult present means you are in whatever way being watched. The disruption to the situation is present before I even arrive.

In order to “help” me get the right data, I am aware that sometimes teachers have scheduled a particular lesson on a day I would be in their school. I am also aware that since this has happened on at least one occasions, there are likely to be occasions when it happened without my knowledge. I also know that largely the lessons themselves are not the point, the children are and the way they engage in them.

So how do I disrupt this learning? How does my presence interrupt this situation? When I help with a group, when I challenge a child or support them in a task, I am not just disrupting but heavily involved in the data. Yet, when I step back and watch, when I sit and listen to what they do, I cannot assume I am not disrupting. So, how do I take hold of this disruption? My field notes continue to serve me as I strive to answer these questions and my reflexivity continues to be central as I analyse my data.

The disruption is in the data, I just hope Bourdieu can help me see it.


Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992) An invitation to reflexive sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hargreaves, D.H. (1967) Social relations in a secondary school. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

I wish to acknowledge the support of Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick for their supervision and guidance. I am grateful for a studentship from Brunel University to allow me to undertake this research.



Can’t decide on a research topic for your post-doc? Yeah, me neither.

Ben Belek


Ben Belek is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Cambridge University. His research focuses on the role of emotions in the lives of autistic adults in the UK. He is also the author of the blog The Autism Anthropologist  You can contact Ben via Twitter @benbelek


I’ve been spending too much of my time and energy recently trying to decide what my next research project would be about. For the past three and something years, as a master’s student and then as a PhD student, I’ve been looking into the social and cultural aspects of autism. This field is fascinating, exciting, and altogether extremely rewarding, and I have absolutely no reason to look sideways.

And yet there I am, making makeshift lists on the train, on my living room sofa and at my desk, trying to come up with a research interest. The plan is not to quit autism research altogether. No, there is still so much to read and write, discuss and analyse, and I’m far from getting bored or tired. But at the same time, I guess I just want to branch out and explore other areas. I kind of miss that feeling of reading about a topic for the first time, coming to know the different angles and issues, the relevant histories and approaches. Asking questions in my head for the very first time (only to then learn, with both joy and slight disappointment, that these have already been asked and indeed answered). Exploring new territories. You know, being a kid again.

So I’ve been making lists, as I’ve mentioned, and downloading relevant literature (reading only as much of it as I can afford without feeling unbearably guilty by the fact that I ought to be using this time to write my PhD), and emailing other researchers in the field, with the off-chance that one of them will write back saying “Yes!! We desperately need a medical anthropologist on board, what are you doing this September?” No, that hasn’t happened quite yet, surprisingly. But I’m hanging in there.

So far, my list of has included the following: Kawasaki Disease. Army combat medic training. Jerusalem syndrome. Non-medically trained rabbis in Israel offering medical advice and referring ‘patients’ to medical specialists. And most recently, medical marijuana.

The way I decide (or don’t decide, because spoiler: all of these have in the meantime been ruled out) is this: I’ve come up with a list of criteria for what my desirable research project should have. After all, whatever I choose to study, I want to be in it for that long run.

First, the topic has to be accessible. In other words, I need to have relative confidence in my ability to get access to the field, whatever that field may be, in order to do fieldwork. So that’s how the ‘medical rabbis’ thing got ruled out. I just don’t really see how any of these guys would want me there, creeping around, asking difficult questions and compromising whatever they’ve got going on (there’s a lot at stake for them, I’m sure, and I’m fairly convinced it’s not 100% kosher…). It wouldn’t be entirely impossible for me to find my way in, perhaps, but it is unlikely. And seeing as before I even give it a shot, I will first need to do a lot of reading, design a research proposal, and write grant applications, it’s not really worth the risk, as far as I’m concerned.

Second, it needs to be relevant. It’s true that the great thing about anthropology is that you can study one thing, one group or practice or phenomenon, and what you’ve learned can almost magically prove to be applicable or relevant to something else entirely. It’s all about making sense of human behaviour, and in that sense, studying people practicing sheep shearing in Sudan might actually tell us something quite profound about Wall-Street brokers. And vice-versa. But I just don’t feel I can count on these connections just somehow emerging. I want to know. I want to know that my work will matter, that people everywhere could potentially find it interesting and relevant, and hopefully even benefit from it. So this rules out my idea to study combat medic courses. These have been around for decades – centuries, probably – and while they’re definitely very interesting, in that they combine such different kinds of knowledge (medical and military), and different premises (making people well within an organisation that engages in violence); none of this feels immediately relevant. It doesn’t strike me as important enough. So I withdrew this plan.

Third, I want my project to be feasible. I want to situate myself in a position where I already have a handle on the issues and stakes, the relevant theories and literature. This sounds a bit like a contradiction, seeing as my whole purpose in doing something new is to, well, do something new (new for me, that is). But some steps are just too big. I need to keep in mind that there are always other researchers doing similar projects, and I don’t want to find myself struggling too much to keep up. In other words, if I have to spend months and months of reading just to acquaint myself with the most basic scholarship in the broad area, its vocabulary and discourse, it might very well put me in a position that is just too disadvantaged. And so while I love STS, for example, and I definitely want to gradually position myself within this discipline one day, I feel I need to make that shift gradually. So however fascinating and important (and problematic!) I find the construction of scientific knowledge about Kawasaki Disease, I feel I’m not quite ready to make that rather big leap. So that’s been ruled out.

Fourth, I want my project to be taken seriously. It’s common for social anthropologists, I think, to find themselves in a position where they have to explain what merit their projects actually have when speaking to people from outside the discipline (and often, when speaking to people from within the discipline as well). The recent increase in the prescribing and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, coupled with recent changes in legislation that make the plant far more tolerable from a legal perspective (and in some places, straight-up legal), make it a phenomenon that’s both important and relevant. Also, I think my set of skills and theoretical knowledge would allow me to enter this field without too many obstacles. So my only concern in choosing this as my next research project is that I worry people might not take it seriously, and think I was just in it for the high… (Participant observation, after all).  It might be silly of me, I know, but I don’t feel like I can just shake off this concern and take the plunge.

Finally, I want my research project to be novel, at least to an extent. Again, social anthropology is different, perhaps, than other disciplines in that the novelty of one’s research does not necessarily depend on the question of how much is already known about a specific phenomenon, group of people or what have you. You could walk into a village that’s been studied through and through and still come up with novel insights, which would stem from employing a slightly different method, having a different theoretical inclination, or looking at aspects that were hitherto mostly ignored. There are, after all, infinite stories to be told about any group of people, depending on what you focus on. Religion? Gender? Economy? Emotions? Language? Health? And yet there’s a risk there. Taking that route would mean, I think, that it would be harder to get people automatically interested in my project. It needs that initial appeal. Of course, if it’s only an initial appeal, that’s not going to take me anywhere. But alongside a good, rigorous, creative research project, I also want it to be about something that would appeal to as many people as possible. Something that would stand out. Something that, hopefully, would find its way to outside the walls of academia and interest a wider public. Jerusalem Syndrome, while a fascinating phenomenon insofar as it combines faith, travel, place, pilgrimage, and mental health, has had a book published about it just last year. Although authored by a psychiatrist, it touches on many of the issues that I, as an anthropologist, would also want to engage with. And so I just sort of feel, rightfully or otherwise, that this territory has been claimed.

So there you go. A world full of fascinating, complex, intriguing people, practices and phenomena, and an anthropologist who just can’t seem to decide. But it will come, I hope. And in the meantime, I have my eyes wide open, preparing for that moment when that light bulb lights up, and I get to say Aha! This is what I will study from now on. Until then, I’m checking my inbox every hour or so, just in case there’s an email there with the subject line “Re: by any chance do you need a medical anthropologist aboard?”

Making time count when doing your PhD

Lisa MurphyI am a first year PhD candidate in Applied Psychology at University College Cork. I did my undergraduate degree in Applied Psychology here and I honestly love the School! Its home to a lot of memories, but more importantly it has what I need in terms of progressing as an academic and as a professional. So, I’ve decided to embark upon a 4 year structured PhD programme – exciting (and terrifying) times ahead! In these early days, I sometimes need to remind myself that I’m actuallydoing a PhD – not so long ago, this was something that only grown up’s did!  You can tweet Lisa or visit her website, where this blog was originally published


Time is perhaps the most important thing in our physical and psychological world. We can neither save it nor store it, exchange it nor rewind it. We are constantly spending, and often wasting, our most precious resource. Since beginning my PhD, I have come to understand the importance of time (both my own as well as the time of others) more earnestly than ever before. Our time must be planned, utilised effectively, enjoyed, never squandered and always considered.

Yet I sometimes wonder – even if I succeeded in planning each and every minute of the next four years to a degree of astounding precision, and completed each minute exactly as scheduled, would this time be enough to accomplish all of the things that I want to accomplish, mainly, four perfectly designed and impeccably executed pieces of research? Probably/definitely not! Somewhere, somehow, a trade-off must occur between completing your doctoral research in a reasonable amount of time and conducting ‘perfect research’ of faultless quality. Although the latter, in my opinion, can never be accomplished, it is certainly achievable to waste mental energy and more importantly, precious time, trying to conduct perfect PhD research.  For example, at the moment I spend a considerable amount of time every day sitting at my computer, books and journal articles covering the surface of my desk, a new Microsoft Word document open on the screen, faced with a blinking curser, and no words. Here is why (a.k.a what not to let happen):

I have become so preoccupied with writing ‘the perfect literature review’, that I have convinced myself the only way to do so is to study every word ever written on my topic, before I put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, so to speak). My topic is time perspective. Writings on the psychology of time perception go back as far as the year 1781 (to the best of my knowledge). By this outrageous logic, I must therefore study, review and recall every detail of roughly 250 years of literature before I can even begin to write my introduction section. At that rate, my supervisor should receive the first draft of this introduction section by the year 2018 (I am a relatively slow reader). She is a patient woman, however given that it is in my research plan to submit for publication in December 2015, I imagine her patience would be tested to a large extent in this instance.

As I take my seat each day, vowing to be productive and do some writing, I am consumed with writing the perfect literature review. And what happens next? I am not sure how many of you will relate, but fear is what happens next. I am afraid to write in case I haven’t discovered the most important paper ever written in my field, identified the most influential thinker, or studiedthat thing that everybody else in the area knows, but I have yet to uncover. In essence, I am terrified that I will leave something important out…so nothing goes in! Even more ironic, I sit staring into space, contemplating what little time I have to read all of this literature, when I could actually be reading the literature! What a gigantic waste of my time!

Today, following a brief meltdown, I had an important conversation with a friend. She told me that it really doesn’t take an exceptional amount of intelligence to complete a PhD, but still many do not finish. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a reflection of intelligence, but rather of character, or more importantly, a reflection of one’s responsiveness and reaction to an intense and difficult character building process. And it hit me – more than I wish to write the perfect literature review, I hope to build my character and resilience to setbacks and meltdowns, enjoy the highs but learn from the mistakes, push through procrastination and panic, and acquire the skills and expertise necessary for a successful career in academia, all the while conducting research on a topic which gets me so excited that I could cartwheel, research which will never be perfect, but will be my best. This, I have been told, is good enough, and that, in my opinion, will be time well spent!

Creating a Twitter Space for Dementia Research

Julie ChristieHuge thanks to Julie Christie, a phd researcher at the University of Stirling who has kindly shared her blog about the development of social media platform#demphd, including how it was created, how it can help research and future plans. The original blog can be found here, and you can contact Julie on Twitter 



“Being a PhD candidate is a great privilege. You research areas of specific interest to you and immerse yourself in generating new data and answering unanswered questions.  Research takes place over many years, and during this period you have to isolate yourself physically and mentally, finding space and time to think and write.  Whilst universities provide formal supervision to students and offer a range of groups and services, these are structured activities, available at set times, and usually take place on the university campus. It isn’t always easy to catch up with other PhD researchers due to the diverse range of activities people are engaged in through their study. If, like myself, you are undertaking your PhD on a part time basis, or are in full time employment this becomes even harder. The answer for me was social media, and specifically twitter.

I started using twitter towards the end of 2012 but like many people considered it to be a social experience, engaged in as a leisure activity.  I then discovered that there were a small group of PhD researchers and academics exploring this new space, each testing the potential for new relationships. I began to connect with PhD candidates from around the world. I started by engaging with a new group the ‘Social Sciences Forum’  a social media platform for social scientists, hosted by Donna Peach of Salford University.  One of their early twitter chats was around the potential for intra and interdisciplinary connections. Also taking part in the discussion were several people who were researching different aspects of dementia and, in particular, Anna Tatton, a PhD candidate from Leeds University. Anna and I began to explore a space where those with a research interest in dementia could connect and the Dementia PhD identity #demphd was born.  We started to plan discussions, blogs and twitter chats and before long we had a dedicated group from around the world who were participating. The discussion topics relate to research, the PhD process and dementia.

So what is #demphd and how can it support dementia researchers and in particular PhD researchers? Anna describes it as “an international support network” (2014: 16).  I describe it as a space where anyone with an interest in dementia research can meet. A space for people who have dementia, carers, and experts by experience to meet academics, researchers and students as part of an evolving community of practice.  Peer support is both the foundation for this new community and a natural part of the process. Our twitter space is used to promote the work of PhD candidates, supporting them to present their research in weekly chats.  Our varied membership and connections facilitate the provision of advice, information and support on many aspects of the PhD journey. #demphd promotes news on dementia research opportunities and conferences from around the world. Our members live tweet from many events which mean that those unable to attend can follow speakers and topics of interest to them. We also offer an important critical friend role discussing challenging topics and, equally important, offer congratulations on the many personal and professional achievements of our community. This includes celebrating and promoting publications and conference engagements. I also believe that the transparency of twitter promotes the PhD experience, reaching new people and encouraging others to consider their own questions about dementia.

So how does this dementia twitter space work alongside formal supports and networking in person? Virtual PhD experiences can never replace face to face interaction but the friendships and support developed are real and can become opportunities to meet. I have met with many colleagues now, arranging to meet at conferences and to take forward work opportunities. The most recent development is that many of the #demphd community will be present at the Alzheimer Europe Conference in Glasgow, October 2014.  As a result we are currently planning our first in person #demphd meeting to explore our future direction.

If you are interested in shaping the future of this dementia twitter space or learning more please contact me by email at or on twitter@juliechristie1 or simply use #demphd to connect.”

Tatton, A. 2014. Introducing #demphd. Journal of Dementia Care 22, 4: 16-17

Are Researchers ALWAYS Busy?

Emmanuel socphd blogEmmanuel is a member of Centre for Advances in Marketing, Business and Management Research Institute at the University of Bedfordshire Business School, Luton. England. His research investigates the framework of print advertisements for consumer banking services in the UK in terms of visual communications (images) and appeals and understanding customer’s perceptions of visual communications. His research interest lies in visual consumption and communication of corporate designs.  You can follow Emmanuel via his twitter account @e_mogaji and at


This sounds like a research question but I guess I am not chanced at the present moment to seek answers for this question, like every other researcher, I am over committed and can’t take up any other project now..

I appreciate the need to network and share ideas, I look forward to meeting various people who I will like to work with but seems everyone has something already on ground doing. Can you take up another research project with your present workload?

Assuming financial reward is included or an opportunity which is so good to refuse because it will enhance your CV or an Early Career Researcher reaching out to you for partnership? I suppose we will have different answers.

I attended a workshop on successfully applying and securing research grant and it boils down to the fact that you need the right connections, the right people to enhance your chances. Imagine researchers from a Russell group university competing with those from a post 1992 University for a million euro research grant, most likely the Russell group university will get it.

So what’s the plan for those attending post 1992 universities? Any chance for us, the speaker suggested Networking, working with those already in the game to build your own network, but how easy is it to do that when we are all busy with huge amount of pressure.

As a PhD student who will like to collaborate and expand my research network, the supposedly busy schedule of everyone seem discouraging, supervisors are more concerned with you finishing in three years and may not want any other research activity to distract you, even though they have present work they are working upon, you timely completing is of uttermost importance but what is the value of a PhD with you added skills?

I will however suggest to individuals to keep trying, reaching out to people but most importantly, researchers of the same category/experience. You are both struggling to get your manuscripts published, working hard to climb the academic ladder and under same kind of pressure.   This is because the more experience researcher may be too busy while those behind you in terms of experience may not have the zeal you will want to work with.

I will also suggest the need to tap into Supervisors’ network. A friend of mine got his Supervisor involved in his conference presentation, they were both acknowledge as authors while his supervisor presented the paper, a senior colleague too had over five journal publications with his Supervisor before he finished his PhD which enhanced his chance of getting work immediately after graduation.

I have plan to keep building my small  network and we will grow together, people we can share ideas with and know that when they are still very busy, they can spare time to collaborate and provide the support. I have found the @PhDforum on twitter useful as the only collaborator for I project I have presently was through that network, Piirus is not the main thing for me, I also found ResearchGate inappropriate.

Am sure, I will also get to that level when I can’t work with an Early Career Researcher because I am over committed to various projects at the moment and can’t work on any new project.

Watch out for me.

How many of me are there?

Rebecca Photo PortraitRebecca Turvill is undertaking a PhD at the University of Brunel in the School of Sports Science and Education. Her research “How are children developing number sense, post national numeracy strategy?” is supervised by Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick. You can follow Rebecca via twitter @RebeccaTurvill



How many of me are there?

                I am in a wonderful position to be researching something I am passionate about and believe needs detailed further research. Working as a primary mathematics consultant in a London borough, with a stark achievement gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in mathematics, I was interested in the fundamental way children learn mathematics. At the same time my supervisors were looking for someone to undertake a PhD in how children develop number sense. It was a marriage made in heaven.

                To begin with (and I mean perhaps the first week) the mathematics consultant in me was happily undertaking a literature review around number sense, looking at policy and pedagogy documents with great interest and some critique. The neuro-psychological literature is heavily influential here, so I moved further into this area. Fortunately, having a psychology degree seemed advantageous.

                However, a major feature of my early work has been to examine the concept of number sense from a range of theoretical perspectives. So, whilst my previous studies have been useful, I have also had good guidance to broaden this focus with a sociological perspective. This has had the fantastic outcome of acquainting me with Bourdieu. This is an acquaintance I am still nurturing, but which has already had a major effect on me. The idea of working reflexively to study a field I am very familiar with is a central issue for my ongoing work. But starting this reflection has had a far deeper impact than just a practical, methodological one. By the end of my second month of study, I was feeling a bit split – not about whether to continue, but about who should be continuing? Unbeknownst to me, I have been building quite a repertoire of versions of myself.

                So far, I have introduced you to the mathematics consultant who saw the need for the study and the psychologist who supported a neuropsychological explanation for the phenomena being explored. But it also turns out that the teacher in me (who predates the consultant) has an opinion. In brief this equates to a child-centred pedagogy when there is time to carry it out, and whatever fits when tests / Ofsted are looming – and much soul searching was needed to finally admit it. Beyond that, I am also a parent. I have been surprised at how strong this voice has been. I have used parenting examples to illustrate some of my key theoretical critiques; yet my concern is with the school system’s influence on number sense. I am not planning to include parents in my research design; yet many of my thoughts seem personally salient in the home context.

                There are then, of course, the more fundamental sides to me, which I have never previously questioned, but feel naive not to have done so. I am a female primary teacher – a common sight – but one who is running the gauntlet of post-graduate study. My decisions to study maths at A-Level and take a “mathematical” route through my B.Sc. seemed quite easy when I took them, but as I look back and reflect more my gender seems somehow more relevant. But I have been lucky, I was a third daughter of supportive parents who through occupation (Army) sent me to private boarding school. How many sides to me proliferate in that one sentence alone!

                So, I return to my earlier question, who is taking this research forward? The motivation and the interpretation appear different from each angle. In truth, I may be some way from answering that and I suspect I haven’t even met all my forms yet. I feel like I’m walking through a hall of mirrors – I wonder if we will all make it to the end!


I wish to acknowledge the support of Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick for their supervision and guidance and the whole EISI group at Brunel University for allowing the many sides of me to emerge. I am grateful for a studentship from Brunel University to allow me to undertake this research.

Academic Bloggers as Public Intellectuals

Nic SubtireluNic is a Ph.D student in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL and a doctoral fellow in New and Emerging Media at Georgia State University (Atlanta, GA). He is interested in popular discourses and ideologies about language and how these impact the educational opportunities and political rights of speakers, whose languages and language varieties are marginalized. You can follow him on Twitter @linguisticpulse or on his blog, linguistic pulse

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has recently leveled a number of weighty criticisms at academia, specifically the professorate. In general, Kristof asserts that there are fewer public intellectuals today than there were a generation ago.

Regardless of whether Kristof is correct about this decrease, the call for academia to be more engaged with the public is one that seems to resonate with many. I personally feel strongly that a major aspect of my work as a social scientist and intellectual is to educate others about issues that are important to me. It was with this conviction in mind that, a year ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to try to engage a non-academic audience with my writing both in internet venues and in a blog I started. I’d observed that the public seemed interested in issues that were engaging to me as a sociolinguist. Specifically, there are no shortage of stories about language and how it varies. In fact, the most popular article on the New York Times website this year was a quiz about which English dialect you speak.

Kristof’s article and the uproar it has caused have provided an occasion for me to reflect on this endeavor. While I don’t reject the overall thrust of Kristof’s call to arms, I believe he offers little in the way of insight as to how scholars might actually engage the public. It is these insights that I hope to be able to provide particularly from the point of view a Ph.D student using the internet as a way to engage the public.

Before I launch into this issue more thoroughly, I do think that it’s worth noting that while Kristof focuses primarily on the traditional activities of the academy: speaking and writing about research, I believe that there are other means by which one might effectively be a public intellectual. Lending your expertise as a volunteer, for example, to relevant non-profit organizations is an important and effective way of being a public intellectual. I don’t, therefore, think that we should reserve the label of public intellectual only for those who write opinion pieces for major newspapers. Rather, our colleagues dedicating their time to serving their communities in schools, clinics, after school centers, and other venues are, in my book at least, public intellectuals.

However, one very obvious way by which one can earn the moniker of public intellectual would be to engage the public through the dissemination of expertise in an accessible manner. This might take the form of writing editorials for newspapers or speaking at popular events like TED. However, in the age of the internet, an efficient and free method by which this type of dissemination can take place is the use of blogs. All of these methods, however, I believe are subject to an important dilemma that we have to contend with as academics attempting to engage a popular audience.

In particular, this dilemma is characterized by the competing demands of the message we wish to disseminate as intellectuals and the forms that are most likely to engage a popular audience. As a social scientist, I have a perspective on social issues that are often contradictory to the beliefs that those outside of my field hold. Specifically, as a sociolinguist I am strongly committed to the idea that people’s language is legitimate in its own right regardless of whether it conforms to elitists’ arbitrary prescriptions about what it should be. Historically, sociolinguists have taken incredibly unpopular stances, such as affirming the idea that African-American English (or Ebonics if you prefer) is the legitimate primary language of many in the United States and that recognition of this fact is critical to their social advancement and educational achievement. Hence, one of the basic purposes of my intellectual life, public or academic, is to advance this agenda.

However, this agenda and the ideas that inform it are the exact opposite of public opinion on the matter. In fact, while the public is interested in reading about language, they are more likely to be engaged by stories that build on their pre-existing beliefs about language, for example, a story about Samuel L. Jackson criticizing President Obama’s use of ‘nonstandard’ language. Stories such as these do not require the introduction of novel perspective on language. Most readers come to the article ready to participate in the shaming of ‘nonstandard’ language. Imparting the perspective of linguists takes time, as anyone who has taught an introductory linguistics course can attest.

Before I go on, I should counter any suggestion that I am attempting to portray the public as some form of unthinking herd. I do not believe that what I am describing is an issue of lack of intellectual ability. Indeed, if you take a look at the type of complex analytical processes that are displayed when people discuss one of the most popular pastimes, sports, I believe it’s quite clear that no lack of cognitive reasoning skills prevents people from engaging with social scientists’ perspectives.

Rather, the issue is a matter of incentives. To draw on the example I mentioned above, coming to understand Samuel L. Jackson’s shaming of President Obama as an act of racism and classism, as many sociolinguists would conclude, requires a great deal of background knowledge in the perspective of sociolinguistics, a relatively obscure and politically left-leaning field. Thus, the intellectual and political will to engage with sociolinguists and other social scientists and their perspective is what is lacking.

Of course, I don’t write this in an effort to let academics off the hook. Rather, I think it’s important that we understand what we’re up against. If engaging the public is what we intend to do (and I think it’s precisely what we should be doing), then we need to acknowledge the political struggle that we are engaged in whether we would like to think of our work as being overtly political or objectively scientific. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that situating your writing within broader struggles and narratives is what makes social scientific work interesting to a popular audience. Writing that attempts to shy away from this is likely to be ignored. With this in mind, I wanted to offer some advice gleaned from my own brief experience attempting to play the role of public intellectual as a Ph.D student.

First, I believe it’s important to think of your field as its own unique culture with its own rules for, above all else, determining what constitutes legitimate knowledge. Engaging the public, however, means attempting to make an argument in a world governed by an entirely different set of rules. These rules may compel people to pay attention not to the validity of your methodology but instead to the apparent level of your personal conviction, your credentials, your ability to keep calm in the face of criticism, or some other academically irrelevant aspect of the situation. Whether these criteria are legitimate or not is really not the issue, as you will quickly find, you don’t get to make the rules. You could, of course, make it your mission as a public intellectual to change the public’s reliance on such criteria. However, expecting your work to be judged by a general audience according to the same criteria other members of your field apply is naïve. I’ve found that my training as a scholar has not necessarily prepared me for some of these situations. However, my advice to any Ph.D student thinking of trying to engage with the public: expect to lose sometimes and not according to the rules you think the game should be played.

Second, I encourage any intellectual who is trying to engage the public to start by thinking locally. I mean both in terms of geography as well as in terms of your pre-existing network of social contacts. I believe that you’re more likely to advance the agenda of your field in local settings. There are two advantages to this. First, I mentioned above that people lack the will to listen to social scientific research, but they probably don’t lack the will to listen to the thoughts of someone they care about. Some of the most engaging blog posts I have done have begun with a personal narrative that situated me as a living, breathing human being that many of my readers know and care about within the broader context that I was talking about. For example, in this one, I used medical bills I had personally received and my own recovery from an illness to frame a larger issue that I wanted to discuss: literacy and its impact on personal rights. While things like this don’t necessarily appeal to those who don’t know me, they are quite appealing to those who do know me. I believe that sometimes engaging the public as an intellectual means engaging the people in your immediate vicinity.

Finally, and I believe most importantly, you need to find a balance between seeking out readers and delivering the message you want to deliver. In doing so, you should be selective about the advice you accept from professional bloggers and journalists. Much of this advice derives from a context dominated by what I’ll call “click count ideology”. Click count ideology is a way of looking at the act of writing as motivated by a need to attract attention that can be quantified through the number of clicks a particular text receives. Obviously, click count ideology has close ties to internet advertising. Obviously, generating clicks is an important goal of any one producing content to be shared on the internet. If people don’t click on your blog, they can’t read your thoughts and your mission of engaging the public has failed.

However, it’s important to realize that generating web traffic is not an end in itself. Rather, as I mentioned above, academic arguments require reader investment, and what we are hoping for is invested readers. I have been told many times by my will-meaning, social-media savvy friends that my blog posts are too long according to their standards (usually 500 words) or that they don’t address timely enough issues. I believe in both cases this advice is counter-productive for anyone hoping to be an academic blogger. While I have found that the timeliness of a post can lead to it being highly trafficked, it is no guarantee of this. Also, by far my most successful post (by all criteria) breaks all of these rules. It addresses a non-timely issue and is nearly 4000 words long. Nonetheless, looking over my analytics, it’s clear that visitors to my blog are routinely engaged with it often for fifteen minutes or more. Conventional wisdom about blogging suggests the need for timely, short pieces that appeal to broad audiences that can be circulated by social media. However, this post’s success stems from its ability to garner traffic in ways that are neglected by conventional wisdom such as search engines and even by colleagues’ assigning the posts as reading in their courses.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t carefully consider the suggestions of people who are experienced in popular forms of blogging. However, it’s important to keep in mind the click count ideology from which these suggestions often stem and not to fall into the trap of viewing traffic as an end in itself.

Nicholas Kristof’s call may have been lacking in any practical applications, but I believe as members of the next generation of scholars (whether as professors or in other lines of work), we can and should engage the public with our work in many ways, perhaps one of the most obvious ways is through the use of a research-oriented blog or similar internet-based writing. However, to be effective we’ll need to view our work less as the presenting of research findings and more as a form of advocacy in favor of a particular world view with all of the ups and downs that this comes with.


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