Tactical manoeuvres in the dark….

…. or re-imagining engagement in times of change and uncertainty.

Sociological knowledge is by necessity born out of a relationship or rather multiple and complex relationships and engagements with the world, its social actors, objects, historical trajectories – both personal and collective -, political projects and so on. Thinking through the terms of these engagements i.e. the politics of knowledge has long been part of practising the discipline. As the spaces where sociologists operate become increasingly provisional, as the old notions of research as the discovery of universal laws or making visible some hidden truth become less and less tenable, what tactical manoeuvres can be mobilised to negotiate these fleeting and increasingly interconnected critical junctures and engagements between social research, researchers and research fields?

In many ways, ‘Engaging tactics’ as an invitation to ‘take stock’ and think through the terms of these engagements – the conference – and a call for action – a pledge or commitment (a gage) to continue to look for innovative approaches to practising sociology – , reflects the particular place in which sociology finds itself in today. Globalised flows and information technologies provide unprecedented ways for conducting research in new and innovative ways, for example operating instantaneously in different times, places and/ or scales. At the same time, these technologies also tend to result in a situation of ‘over-scrutiny’ where, as Les Back notes, we become the ‘spectators in other people’s lives’. As moral judgements about what constitutes the proper way to lead our lives, clean our houses, raise our kids, etc… are being drawn on a daily basis on reality TV, sociology increasingly finds itself highlighting the importance of ‘living in doubt’ (Back, 2007:15). And, in these times ‘in motion’, this seems to make sense and represent some form of resolution towards what AbdouMaliq Simone sees as one of the key challenges of social research today i.e. how to ‘provide people the space to operate without excessive scrutiny, but also to see what is going on so that new confidence and possibilities can be attained’ (2009: 27). Yet, from sociology’s old position as a ‘privileged view’ which people could turn to for bits of ‘expert knowledge’, this can’t be an easy task – but certainly is one of the most exciting challenges for sociologists today I think…

A few more notes on ‘engaging tactics’…

Writing this, I find thinking about the various meanings of the word engaging particularly helpful in highlighting the complexities and multiple aspects of the questions raised:

Engaging as initiating, approaching. Gaining access, and in some way legitimising our presence as a researcher/ an outside observers has long been a question in social research. If we move away from clearly preconceived, planned and mechanically executed research strategies towards a sort of micropolitics of research, characterised by ‘tactical manoeuvres that follows multiple trajectories and threads’ (Simone, 2009) at what point are we engaged in research? how do you initiate research ‘without excessive scrutiny’?

Engaging as making exciting and sustaining that excitement. Here the broad range of possibilities raised by visual and sonic research as well as the participatory power of new technologies come to mind. As well as the dilemma highlighted above, how do you make doubt, uncertainty engaging in a world where answers about anything can be found at the click of a button?

Engaging as mobilising, putting to work i.e. drawing on certain tactical choices to pursue certain broader aspirations. This is about the politics of knowledge production and more particularly positionality vis-a-vis political projects. I am here interested in the relevance of the work of Ranciere and his ‘postulat of equality’ for example, in the age of internet technology?

Engaging (or rather engaged) as in committed, albeit a particular type of engagement, in some way temporary, with the possibility of getting out, trying to see if the relationship works. I think this often characterises the research relationships we build with our research participants/ subjects, etc… What ethical questions are raised by this particular ‘engagement’? Are there any particular challenges when operating in fields ‘in need of intervention’? How are these affected by the current re-negotiations of our public/ private lives witnessed on social media sites and the internet more broadly?

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