As a sociologist my main interests are media and communications, culture and power, and social theory. Most of all, I am interested in the consequences for everyday reality of symbolic power’s concentration in particular institutions.
Initially, my work was focussed on the power of traditional ‘media’ (particular television and the press) to define political and social reality. More recently, I have become interested in how a range of institutions associated with ‘media’ have, in the digital age, taken over that power. Today, the work of constructing reality is done as importantly through algorithms that work to measure our performance online or while using a networked object (the ‘internet of things’), as through large-scale media narratives about society.
Throughout my career I have tried to confront a basic paradox: that information and communication technologies, because they present us with a ‘reality’ every day, can easily come to seem like a second nature. As a result, what should always be contestable can end up seeming beyond challenge, a structure of power that is too ‘hard’ to move or break through.
My work has looked at many examples of this: ritual forms around media, such as ‘reality TV’ and more recently how, in everyday organizations and settings, the power to measure and define through algorithmic processes is contested, a process I call ‘social analytics’ (see Storycircle project). For my latest project, see The Price of Connection. I have also researched the politics of representation: are we, through our uses of media, empowered to engage with the democratic process (see Public Connection project)?
Underlying all this is my desire to understand the many ways, often hidden, through which symbolic power works; and how, in those moments when we seem most ‘ourselves’, or most ‘together’ with others, we may at the same time be most thoroughly enfolded in the workings of power.
I believe in the role of universities as institutions which can open new horizons of possibility, enabling people to seize their own opportunities for action and imagination. This ‘liberal’ vision of the university is today under threat from many forms of instrumentalism, including neoliberal politics and the tyranny of market ideology. Academics can play a role in holding on to that older vision and building a counter-culture that sustains it.