Back, Les. “Live sociology: social research and its futures.”

Back, Les. “Live sociology: social research and its futures.” Live Methods, edited by Les Black and Nirmal Puwar, Malden, Blackwell Publishing, 2012, pp. 18-39.

Abstract: The article draws on recent debates about empirical sociology’s methodological crisis that results from the emergence of sophisticated information-based capitalism and digital culture. Researchers face the challenge of “newly coordinated social reality” in which social relations and interconnections exist across time and space. However, this challenge co-exists with an unprecedented opportunity to use digital multimedia to reimagine social research. In the face of these developments it is argued that the sociological craft needs to be invigorated by a renewed focus on its political purpose. Digital culture offers researchers the opportunity to develop new methodological devices. This vision is contrasted with a critique of dead sociology that is characterized as objectifying, comfortable, disengaged and parochial. The article argues for a live sociology, able to attend to the fleeting, distributed, multiple and sensory aspects of sociality through research techniques that are mobile, sensuous and operate from multiple vantage points. If researchers enact reality rather than simply reflect it, there is an opportunity to create sociological forms of representation that are more knowing and innovative than their antecedents.

Keywords: digital culture, research methods, politics of knowledge, ethics, sociology of the senses, methodological innovation


  • Twenty-first century human society is producing information at an unprecedented level and scale. It is not merely that people today can communicate with great ease through information technologies like mobile phones and social networking websites. Rather people are increasingly observers of their own lives, or, in the words of YouTube, ‘broadcasting themselves’ (18).
  • we have to be more strident about the value of the kinds of critical attentiveness, a compound of dialogue and critique … yet not fall into a scholastic arrogance (19).
  • Lisa Adkins and Celia Lury have pointed out that the ‘crisis and return to the empirical’ is one that has to reckon with a fundamental break with social research’s modes of representation. Rather, they suggest that we are confronted with ‘a newly coordinated reality, one that is open, processual, non-linear and constantly on the move’ (Adkins and Lury, 2009:16) (20).
  • ‘Life is open-ended: its impulse is not to reach a terminus but to keep on going … The thing, however, is not just a thread, but a certain gathering together of the threads of life’ (Ingold, 2010:10) (21).
  • Ulrich Beck commented controversially that residual dead theoretical ideas inhibit the sociological imagination and are ill-fitted to the task of understanding the contemporary shape of global society … This point is developed and extended by Scott Lash in his argument for an empirical sensibility that is a posteriori rather than a priori (Lash, 2009) (21).
  • [for socially networking migrants] the technological connection does not lessen the pain of absence: quite the contrary, it can exacerbate it (22).
  • [on ‘complicity in the brutal and banal exercises of power’] The betrayal and perversion of knowledge is not a lesson from the past, but a condition of the present (23-24).
  • The call for attentiveness or listening is no necessary protection from violations of another kind … [see also Carolyn Steedman] … intrusive empiricism claims to know and judge the very soul of its subjects … The work we do collectively needs to develop a kind of attentiveness that stands in contrast to this (25).
  • as everything has become an issue of ‘identity’ the notion is increasingly loosely defined and diffuse (26).
  • The point here is the necessity to retain, as a core sociological value, ethical and political reflection on the place and impact of social research on social life (27).
  • what remains unspoken can be of even greater significance … ‘Words both assist and obscure the sociologist’s understanding’ (Harrison, 1947:21) (28).
  • The first principle of live sociology is an attention to how a wider range of the senses changes quality data and makes other kinds of critical imagination possible (29).
  • The second point here is that live sociology requires researchers to work on the move in order to attend to the ‘newly coordinated’ nature of social reality. One of our current challenges is to re-invent forms of attentiveness that are mobile adn can respond precisely to admit the fleeting, the tacit, the mobile, chaotic and complex (29).
  • Through using multimodality researchers develop a different kind of attentiveness to the embodied social world in motion. Not being limited to what people say explicitly enables us to train a kind of attentiveness to tacit forms of coexistence (29).
  • the third point I want to express about live sociology as commitment to pluralizing the vantage points from which sociological attentiveness is trained (30).
  • We need to move from the arrogant convention in sociology to assimilate other practices on its own terms and within its own image (ie a ‘sociology of art’ or a ‘sociology of computing’) to a more collaborative practice that is mutually transformative (ie sociology with art or sociology with computing) … I am not suggesting that the boundary between sociology or ethnography can be collapsed with art but I am implying that research practices can be more artful (33).
  • Artfulness in the sense that it is used here also involves being wily or bringing a bit of craftiness into the craft … craftiness also involves learning new strategies for telling society and affecting and persuading the audiences of sociological work (34).
  • ‘All of us should therefore operate today with some notion of very probably reaching much larger audiences than any we could conceive of even a decade ago, although the chances of retaining that audience are by the same token quite chancy’ (Said, 2001:29).
  • online formats … provide an opportunity to think the form of sociology differently, imagining ‘texts’ that are compounds of word, image, sound and text. It is possible to imagine forms of social research that are themselves animated and develop a life of their own within the sphere of the virtual, that produce and provoke further questions (35).
  • ANT sees assemblages of human and non-human elements interacting in mutually connected fields of action and seeks to cut human hubris down to size … I would argue there are human consequences for enacting the social in this way because the immigration police do not deport assemblages of associations but individuals. Moral consequences follow from the way sociologists tell society (36).


  • London Routes workshop (‘thinking with sound’)
  • Nina Wakeford’s work
  • Les Back (2010), Broken Devices and New Opportunities
  • Ulrich Beck (2000), “The cosmopolitan perspective”
  • Howard Becker (2007), Telling about Society
  • John Berger (2011), Bento’s Sketchbook
  • John Berger and Jean Mohr (1975), A Seventh Man
  • Gurminder Bhambra (2007), Rethinking Modernity
  • Micheal Bull (2007), Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience
  • Nick Emmel and Andrew Clark (2007), “We walk the walk, but can we talk the talk” [‘mobile methods’]
  • Mariam Fraser (2009), “Experiencing Sociology”, European Journal of Social Theory
  • Clifford Geertz (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures
  • Anthony Giddens (2008), “Doubting diversity’s value”
  • Philip Gleason (1983), “Identifying identity: a semantic history”
  • Tom Harrisson (1947), “The future of sociology”, Pilot Papers
  • Tim Ingold (2010), Bringing things to life: Creative entanglements in a world of materials
  • Scott Lash (2002), Critique of Information
  • Scott Lash (2009), ‘Afterword: in praise of the a posteriori: sociology and the empirical
  • Margaret Mead (1995), “Visual anthropology in a discipline of words”
  • Walter Mignolo (2000), Local Histories/Global Designs: Colonality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking
  • C Wright Mills (1959), The Sociological Imagination
  • C Wright Mills (1963), “The social role of the intellectual” in Power, Politics and People
  • Georges Perec (1997), Species of Spaces and Other Places
  • Paul Rabinow (2003), Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment
  • Jean Rouch (1995[1973]), “The camera and man”
  • Edward Said (1996), Representations of the Intellectual
  • Mike Savage (2009), “Contemporary sociology and the challenge of descriptive assemblage”
  • Albion Small (1895), “The era of sociology”
  • Carolyn Steedman (2000), “Enforced Narratives”
  • George Steinmetz (2009), ” The imperial entanglements of sociology”
  • Nigel Thrift (2004), Knowing Capitalism
  • John Urry (2003), Global Complexity
  • S Wallace (2009), “Pop culture in the classroom”
  • A Wilson (2008), “Is that Escape you’re wearing, Miss?”

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