The accidental career of a symbolic interactionist: How opportunities, not interests, define the lives of academics

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Information about The accidental career of a symbolic interactionist: How opportunities,...

Published on February 19, 2014

Author: RuthAppleton



This report focuses on the work of Alex Dennis, specifically around symbolic interactionism, Wittgenstein’s private language argument, and moments of excess. His research objectives, the link between his teaching, past research and current projects, and his concept of sociological studies are explored. I conclude that Dennis is heavily influenced by the schools of ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, and that the development of his career sheds light on larger issues within higher education including funding and bureaucracy.

120127071 SCS1015 The accidental career of a symbolic interactionist: how opportunities, not interests, define the lives of academics. This report focuses on the work of Alex Dennis, specifically around symbolic interactionism, Wittgenstein’s private language argument, and moments of excess. His research objectives, the link between his teaching, past research and current projects, and his concept of sociological studies are explored. I conclude that Dennis is heavily influenced by the schools of ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, and that the development of his career sheds light on larger issues within higher education including funding and bureaucracy. Literature Review We reviewed three theoretical pieces of literature. First, ‘Symbolic Interactionism and the concept of power’ (2005), focused on symbolic interactionism’s ability to offer alternative explanations for macro-phenomena such as power. Dennis argues that symbolic interactionism is entirely separate from mainstream sociology, and shows how it has been misunderstood as people have tried to combine the two. Dennis’ significant body of work within this field defends it as an alternative perspective within sociology (Dennis 2011a, 2011b, Dennis and Martin 2007). The second piece, entitled ‘That We Obey Rules Blindly Does Not Mean that We Are Blindly Subservient to Rules’ (2008) looked at Wittgenstein’s philosophical private language argument, showing how it had been misunderstood by social theory. Dennis uses Wittgenstein’s argument to demonstrate how sociology can perceive rules as deterministic instead of a normal part of negotiating daily life, and often creates complex theories which are unnecessary to understand the processes of everyday living. This is influenced by Dennis’ interest in ethnomethodology, often linked to Wittgenstein (Pleasants 2002), and his interest in the philosophical aspects of sociology. 1649 words 1

120127071 SCS1015 The title of the third piece, ‘Moments of Excess’ (2007), refers to a concept which Dennis developed with the Free Association. It refers to social movements which begin within capitalism but offer the opportunity to go beyond it, such as the resistance to the poll tax during Thatcher’s government. The article explores the characteristics of these moments, and how they develop and die away. This is the only area of our reading that Dennis is currently teaching (a level three module in protest and dissent). He additionally teaches Media Studies at level two, and research skills at Masters level. Method We designed a semi-structured interview (Bryman 2012), using specific open-ended questions in order to find out about what interested us, but leaving freedom to ask further probing questions if needed, or miss ones which he had already answered. Even though we were interested in specific issues the emphasis was on his understandings, thus fitting well into the qualitative tradition. Our questions followed the outline given by Charmaz (2002) which is based in grounded theory. Charmaz suggests having initial open ended questions, such as ‘what made you interested in sociology?’, then moving on to intermediate questions such as ‘How did Wittgenstein’s theory help develop your understanding of how we follow rules?’, and finishing with ending questions such as ‘what are your current plans for future research?’ We did this to help the interview to flow, and to avoid making Dennis uncomfortable. Our initial draft questions were too specific and numerous, so we redrafted them to be more general in order to gain more information about his understandings. We decided to each ask a question so that everyone would gain experience in asking questions. The interview was recorded using two devices (one of which stopped working during the interview), and then the transcription process was divided up between us. I analysed the interview findings deductively, as I was looking for answers to specific research questions. Findings When asked about his research objectives, Dennis responded by telling us how the direction of his career was entirely accidental, saying ‘I ended up doing this almost by mistake and I think that’s probably true for most academics.’ Moreover, the lack of empirical work was due to lack of time and funding. He told us that there is tremendous pressure to produce 1649 words 2

120127071 SCS1015 material, and when time and money are scarce theory is much easier to develop than carrying out research. Dennis is currently undertaking two empirical projects. One is investigating the roles of security guards in light of the discourse about public space being privatised, looking at their understandings which he says are often quite mundane compared to what people usually assume their job entails. The other project is about how people manage debates online, and the ways in which they manage being impolite to each other without becoming rude. It specifically focuses on a debate between socio-biologists discussing the presence of altruism in animals. When asked about how his work influences his teaching, he told us that he uses it to give anecdotal examples, as he prefers giving the original ideas, not his own interpretation. This is why he is not teaching things such as symbolic interactionism which he is an expert in. We didn’t ask him directly about his concept of sociology as a discipline, but there was plenty to draw out from the interview. In his view ‘sociology is a philosophical discipline’. He values an approach exploring the details of how human beings negotiate life and people’s subjective understandings of social reality. He says ‘I think it's my job to try and describe how people make sense of the world, rather than to try to correct it’. Therefore he disagrees with structural theoretical approaches which claim to have superior understanding of the factors impacting actors’ behaviour. Discussion The influence of ethnomethodology in Dennis’ work and is clear from these findings. Firstly ethnomethodology has its origins in phenomenological philosophy, which explains Dennis’ philosophical approach to sociology (Haralambos and Holborn 2008). In addition, the field rejects any attempts by mainstream sociology to theorise the existence of structures or influences on behaviour, instead seeing reality as entirely constructed by members (Button 1991). It aims to investigate the procedures through which members produce these constructions. His current research into the understandings of security guards emphasises this. Instead of approaching the discourse around the privatisation of public space through theory or a large scale empirical analysis, he is searching the day to day experiences of a group of people. Therefore his current empirical focus follows directly from the clear stance 1649 words 3

120127071 SCS1015 against mainstream sociology in his earlier theoretical work emphasing the constructed nature of the social world. However ethnomethodology also stresses that the sociologist uses the same processes to understand the world as normal people, therefore isn’t much different (Coulon 1995). Thus a common criticism of ethnomethodology can also be levelled at Dennis – his account of the procedures of security guards runs the risk of becoming a topic of study just like any other sociological phenomenon. Dennis’ interest in symbolic interaction is also evident. This approach emphasises the way in which meanings are constructed and negotiated by actors during interaction (Bulmer 1986), which is a focus in his study into online debates. Similar to ethnomethodology it emphasises the subjected nature of the social world. (Giddens 2012). However symbolic interactionism didn’t feature as heavily as expected in our review. He implied that it was something he chose to work in opportunistically, because the department he was part of specialised in it at the time. Ethnomethodology was clearly his preferred field, however there was no availability to teach it. Furthermore, the only article which was rooted in his own original interests was ‘Moments of Excess’, which he told us was not an academic piece. Based on our review we expected symbolic interactionism to be something he was more passionate about. Similarly, we were surprised by his comments on the accidental nature of his career and the limits which funding imposed on his research. Yet further research on this topic highlighted how there is immense pressure upon academics to produce research, and the way in which funding steers the opportunities available. There is much current debate about ‘academic capitalism’ and the influence of market values and international competition on university’s research (Bassnet 2013). It is argued that there is increased bureaucracy and less money available for investment due to the removal of the block grant which was a source of secure funding for universities (Brown and Carasso 2013). Moreover there is a heavier emphasis on producing results in research, and many countries have introduced measures of performance for research. The UK’s Research Assessment Exercise is one of the most institutionalised out of all OECD countries (Barker 2007). This means universities producing results receive funding, leaving less money available for struggling universities, which Dennis said he previously worked at. This explains his lack of empirical research earlier in his career, and shows that it is part of a larger trend in the UK. 1649 words 4

120127071 SCS1015 Conclusions In conclusion I discovered that designing research is a process, and research evolves as you develop and redevelop drafts and read around the topic. It was important to keep our research aim clear in order to maintain focus. I also learned the need for reliable recording devices and the length of time transcription can take. In addition, the differing purposes of quantitative and qualitative research became much clearer through the project. Although our interview had structure, the emphasis was on Dennis’ qualitative understandings. In particular I learned the importance of rapport during an interview in order to draw out good information. Dennis appeared nervous and often strayed off topic, perhaps due to the formal classroom environment and multiple interviewers. Moreover I suspect he may have felt the need to appear ‘on our level’ due to our age and so answered more personally than we had hoped. Furthermore, each of us asking a question disrupted the flow of the interview, and didn’t provide much opportunity to build up rapport with Dennis. In addition no one asked the probing questions suggested. I don’t think therefore we utilised the semistructured design very well. Despite these difficulties, this was an interesting project and taught me a lot about the nature of conducting research. Bibliography Barker, K. (2007) ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise: the evolution of a national research evaluation system’, Research Evaluation 16, no. 1: 3-12 Bassnet (2013), Just as bad, in a different way, Times Higher Education [online], available at:, Accessed: 22/04/2013. Brown, R. and Carasso, H. (2013) Everything For Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education, London: Routledge Bryman, A. (2012) Social Research Methods (4th ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press Bulmer, H. (1986) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method, California: University of California Press 1649 words 5

120127071 SCS1015 Button, G. (1991) Ethnomethodology and the Human Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Charmaz, K. (2002) ‘Qualitative Interviewing and Grounded Theory Analysis’, in J. Gubrium and J. Holstein (eds), The Handbook of Social Science Research Methods, California: Sage Coulon, A. (1995) Ethnomethodology, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France Dennis, A. and Peter, M. (2005) ‘Symbolic interactionism and the concept of power’, British Journal of Sociology 56, no. 2: 191–213. Dennis, A, and Martin, P. (200) ‘Symbolic interactionism and the concept of social structure’, Sociological Focus 40, no. 3: 287–305. Dennis, A. (2011) ‘Symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology’, Symbolic Interaction 34, no. 3: 349–56. Dennis, A. (2011) ‘Pragmatism and symbolic interactionism’, in The Sage handbook of the philosophy of social sciences, eds I. Jarvie and J. Zamora-Bonilla, 463–74. London: Sage. Giddens, A. (2012) Sociology (6th ed.), Cambridge: Polity Press Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M. (2008), Sociology: Themes and Perspectives (7th ed.), London: Harper Collins Pleasants, N. (2002), Wittgenstein and the Idea of a Critical Social Theory: A Critique of Giddens, Habermas and Bhaskar, London: Routledge Sharrock, W. and Dennis, A. (2008) ‘That we obey rules blindly does not mean that we are blindly subservient to rules’, Theory, Culture and Society 25, no. 2: 33–50. The Free Association. (2006) ‘Moments of excess’, The Anomalist, no. 2: 1–11. 1649 words 6

120127071 SCS1015 DOING SOCIAL RESEARCH (SCS1015) RESEARCH REPORT SELF-ASSESSMENT FORM Student ID Number 120126071 Your comment Do you adequately address the 3 main elements of the report? Yes, although I’m unsure whether I have managed to get the balance between them right – see below. Have you reflected critically on the readings from and interview with your assigned member of staff? Yes Have you referred to and cited the wider literature? Yes Has the work proof-read? Tutor’s comment Yes Is the given? word been count Yes (I assume the normal 10% overflow is allowed). In your opinion, what are the strengths of this piece of work? Theoretically strong – it draws in a good amount of larger concepts which Dennis’ work is part of, and I have done a lot of further reading into these areas. Tutor’s comments: In your opinion, what are the weaknesses of this piece of work? 1649 words 7

120127071 SCS1015 I could have written more about the methodology we used and backed it up with further reading, and perhaps reflected more critically on the process we went through. My reflections on what I’ve learned about the discipline could be stronger. Tutor’s comments: I would like your comments on the following: Whether the balance of theory and method was ok. Does the argument flow? Tutor’s comments: Overall, I feel the mark it deserves is…………………………….. 1649 words 8

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