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Deborah-Lupton-2With a vast array of performance and output measurements readily available on universities and individual academics, Deborah Lupton explores the parallels between the audit culture in academia and the quantified self movement. Quantified selfers can find great satisfaction in using data to take control over elements of their lives. But it is important for researchers to remain critically alert to both the pleasures and the privations of academic self-quantification.

Recently I put together two abstracts for the British Sociological Association’s conference next year. One abstract is for a panel on digital public sociology and the other is for a workshop on the quantified self. In the digital public sociology abstract I refer to the need to take a critical sociological perspective on engaging in public sociology using digital tools. In the abstract on the quantified self, I focus on the conditions that have come together to make the quantified self assemblage possible.

Image credit: Juhan Sonin (CC-BY)

As I was thinking about what I wanted to discuss in these papers, it struck me that there are strong connections between the two. Engaging as a public sociologist using digital media invariably involves some form of quantifying the self. Roger Burrows has employed the term ‘metric assemblage’ to describe the ways in which academics have become monitored and measured in the contemporary audit culture of the modern academy. As part of configuring our metric assemblages, we are quantifying our professional selves.

Academics have been counting elements of their work for a long time as part of their professional practice and presentation of the self, even before the advent of digital technologies. The ‘publish or perish’ maxim refers to the imperative for a successful academic to constantly produce materials such as books, book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles in order to maintain their reputation and place in the academic hierarchy. Academic curricula vitae invariably involve lists of these outputs under the appropriate headings, as do university webpages for academics. They are required for applications for promotions, new positions and research funding.

These quantified measures of output are our ‘small data’: the detailed data that we collect on ourselves. Universities too engage in regular monitoring and measuring practices of the work of their academics and their own prestige in academic rankings and assessment of the quality and quantity of the research output of their departments. They therefore participate in the aggregation of data, producing ‘big data’ sets. The advent of digital media, including the use of these media as part of engaging in public sociology, has resulted in more detailed and varied forms of data being created and collected. Sociologists using digital media have ever greater opportunities to quantify their output and impact in the form of likes, retweets, views of their blogs, followers and so on. We now have Google Scholar, Scopus or Web of Science to monitor and display how often our publications have been cited, where and by whom, and to automatically calculate our h-indices. Academic journals, now all online, show how often researchers’ articles have been read and downloaded, and provide lists of the most cited and most downloaded articles they have published.

In adopting a critical reflexive approach to all this monitoring and measurement, we need to ask questions. Should the practices of quantifying the academic self be considered repressive of academic freedom and autonomy? Do they place undue stress on academics to perform, and perhaps to produce work that is sub-standard but greater in number? However it is also important to consider the undeniable positive dimensions of participating in digital public engagement and thereby reaching a wider audience. Academics do not write for themselves alone: being able to present their work to more readers has its own rewards. Quantified selfers can find great satisfaction in using data to take control over elements of their lives and also as a performative aspect. So too, for academics, collecting and presenting data on their professional selves can engender feelings of achievement, satisfaction and pride at their accomplishments. Such data are important to the academic professional sense of self.

As I argued in my abstract for the digital public sociology panel, as sociologists we need to stand back and take a reflexive perspective on these developments in academic life: not simply to condemn them but also to acknowledge their contribution to the ‘making up’ of academic selves. We should be alert to both the pleasures and the privations of academic self-quantification.

See here for my blog posts on using digital media as an academic and here for my other posts on the quantified self.

This piece originally appeared on Deborah Lupton’s personal blog The Sociological Life and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Deborah Lupton is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney. She blogs at This Sociological Life and tweets @DALupton and is currently writing a book on digital sociology for Routledge.

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