Liberty and community, risk and trust: a plea for the edited collection

Edited collections of essays are widely supposed to contain lesser work than scholarly journals; to be incoherent as volumes, no more than the sum of their parts; and to be less visible once published. It is also often assumed that those who make decisions in relation to hiring, promotion, tenure and funding think the same. To publish in or edit an essay collection is thought to risk being penalised for the format before even a word is read.

In my forthcoming short book on the edited collection, I examine each component part of this critique, showing that each objection either is largely unfounded or could be met. While edited collection chapters have been less visible than journal articles, the problem is one of information systems rather than anything fundamental to the format; the situation has improved and is likely to continue to improve. In spite of scholars’ perceptions, it is not clear that there has been a generalised loss of confidence in the format amongst publishers. Without much more further research, it is also hard to say that there is any universal citation deficit when chapters are compared to journal articles. And though the systems of quality control commonly used for collections may be different to those for journals, it is not clear that they are any less robust. Much depends on the editor(s).

Despite the lack of empirical evidence, however, this suspicion of the format remains strong, both in the perceptions of scholars and in the way those perceptions are tacitly or openly embedded in systems of research assessment. There is a persistent misalignment between (on the one hand) what scholars believe is in the best interest of their discipline and (on the other) their sense of the professional incentives under which they must work. And such perceptions tend to be self-fulfilling, since a maligned publishing format will attract lesser work from scholars less committed to the task, and thus suffer in terms of quality, significance and impact.

The story of the edited collection in the last three decades is a story of the interplay of technological change, economics, public policy and the changing nature of the scholarly enterprise, where none is wholly cause or wholly effect. But unease with the format predates the disruptions of the last few years; fundamental factors of motivation and personality are in play, as is the relation of individual and collective in academic life. I want to explore these here.

The idea of academic freedom generally comes into view only when it is threatened in a direct way: by the compulsion, whether by governments or indeed universities, to publish certain things and not others, in certain venues and not in others, and at a certain rate. To transpose Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between two kinds of liberty out of its original context, the freedom from direction or constraint in this way is a form of negative liberty.

The second of Berlin’s two ideas, is that of positive liberty: the freedom not so much from direct constraint as ‘to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.’ One critic of the edited collection used a highly revealing phrase. To publish one’s work in a edited collection, he argued, is to allow oneself to be distracted by the thematic priorities of others: to divert time and effort into publishing work that, left to one’s own devices, one might not have pursued. Instead, scholars should pursue their own ‘sovereignly set research agenda’. Positive academic liberty, in this sense, is the freedom to take sole control of one’s work, to pursue one’s fundamental intellectual purpose solely in accordance with its own logic.

In an earlier essay Berlin made another distinction, between two kinds of intellectual personality, the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing whereas the fox knows something about many things; the hedgehog’s instinct is to relate all things to a single, coherent vision; the fox’s thought is centrifugal, operating on many levels, ‘scattered or diffused.’ The scholarly hedgehog, then, is likely to value his or her academic sovereignty – or, his positive liberty – to a greater extent than does the fox; better to pursue one’s singular vision than to be waylaid by contributing to a project conceived by others.

Berlin published both essays long before many of the contemporary pressures of publishing culture and academic assessment came to bear. However, it may be that, for some scholars, the edited collection will always remain uncongenial for the constraints it must involve and for the distraction it may prove to be from their sovereign research agenda: an infringement of their positive academic liberty.

But the state of the edited collection is an indication of the health of a certain idea of scholarly community, which persists still, though in inhospitable conditions. It may be that the internalisation (in universities) of an imperative of competitiveness that Kathleen Fitzpatrick has outlined – connected to a wider stress on the ‘creative’ marketing of the self – has dulled the inclination to co-operate. Be that as it may, I suspect (although I could not prove) that most scholars, though both ambitious and rightly proud of their work, would aspire to a more generous mode of academic relationship, if the conditions allowed it. The edited collection at its best offers a model of that community.

One’s life in any community involves the acceptance of some mutual obligation, and a realisation that the interests of the whole are sometimes best served by the constraint of one’s own. As a contributor, I may have to accept some shaping of my work as I collaborate with an editor to turn my contribution into something that is in dialogue with the other chapters, and helps the whole collection amount to more than the sum of its parts. This may sometimes be an agreeable intrusion, and one that in fact improves my work in ways in which I did not expect; at other times it may be less welcome, but still necessary. Though perhaps not all would accept it, I would argue that as a contributor I have also an obligation to the other contributors to the book to commit the time and energy required to produce work of the required standard at the times laid down, or to withdraw in good time if I cannot so commit.

At the same time, these obligations are mutual, or ought to be, but without some level of trust between those involved, such a system is bound to fail. As I recognise my obligation to the other contributors, I am required to take a risk: to trust the other contributors similarly to commit themselves. Just as the editor takes a risk to his or her reputation in trusting me to contribute, so I must trust the editor to complete their work in a similar fashion. I trust them also to intervene to create the most coherent and impactful work that there can be, even if it involves rejecting the work of others (or even mine).

And it is here that the misalignment of academic and institutional interests is most obvious. For a university with one eye on its finances and the other on the capriciousness of government policy, to seek to minimise any perceived risk when dealing with centrally-administered research assessment is a rational response. Scholars, competing to secure an academic job, or promotion, or tenure, may also be forgiven for trimming their sails to the wind: for aligning their published work with what are thought to be the criteria on which it will be judged. Again, the attempt to mitigate risk is entirely rational. The suspicion of the edited collection is surely due in part to this risk-averseness. Even if individual works are ostensibly assessed on their own merits, and scholars continue to regard these works as among their best, an ill-defined perception of risk attachs to the format as a whole. The irony is that to dispel that perception, scholars and editors will need to embrace that risk and commit, together, to making the unsuccessful edited collection a thing of the past.

The Church, law, and politics, 1958–1974

[UPDATE (January 2019): there is now a summary version of this forthcoming chapter available to read.]

I’m delighted to be able to say that an article of mine is to be part of a volume now under contract with Boydell and Brewer. Edited by Thomas Rodger and Philip Williamson, it has the title Church and State. The Church of England and British politics in the twentieth century, and should be published in 2019……

Religion in Web history: a survey

[UPDATE: this chapter is now published. See a fuller summary.]

I am currently working on a chapter contribution to the forthcoming Sage Handbook to Web History, edited by Niels Brugger and Ian Milligan. Although the inclusion of the paper is subject to peer review, here’s my abstract. It should appear some time in late 2017.

“This chapter seeks both to assess the state of current scholarship on online religion, and to suggest potential directions for future research. There are now 20 years of research in the field of Internet Studies in relationship to religious organisations, faith and practice. However, it is less clear that this body of work yet represents a specifically historical inquiry about religion on the Web, although it will in many cases provide the foundation of such work. Much of the research to date has concentrated on the nature of emerging communities of individuals: communities that were either an alternative or a supplement to face-to-face relations in particular localities. This chapter draws out trends emerging in this scholarship over the 25 years of Web history, as the affordances of the Web have developed. Attention has also been paid to the balance of institutional authority and individual self-expression in a religious space that is unregulated, or at least that must be regulated in new ways. The chapter asks how far this scholarship may be integrated into wider histories of offline religious authority and practice, which have themselves undergone shifts and transformations of perhaps equal significance.

“Rather less prominent in the literature so far is the institutional history of religion. Making use of the archived Web in particular, the chapter sketches the outline of a new area of inquiry: the evolution of the religious web sphere, both as a global whole, within each of the global religions and denominations, and at a national level. To what degree has the nature of the Web, a decentralised international network system which contrasts with the hierarchical nature of most religious organisations, moulded the religious web sphere into a different shape? Early studies in this area have suggested that, in certain key ways, the religious web sphere can be read as a reimplementation of older structures of influence, attention and esteem that were visible before, and remain visible offline. Insofar as the religious web does not mirror the traditional offline structure of religious organisations, the chapter also reflects on how far this changed shape may be accounted for by broader trends in religious history, in a period of rapid change. How far does it relate to the recent history of religion in the media more generally?

“At a more abstract level, the chapter will attend to the degree to which the myths of the Web, and indeed of the whole Internet – of a pluralistic, idealistic, liberating force with an agency of its own – have shaped understandings of the Web’s religious history. It examines how far the last quarter century has really been a period of rupture and discontinuity, and how much has in fact stayed the same, or continued on a path on which it was set before the Web appeared. It will also assess how far the field has so far been focussed to excess on the new, to the neglect of understanding the histories of how practices and technologies that were once new become mainstream.

We all lost the referendum on the EU

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have steered clear of political topics before now, wanting it to remain a vehicle for my professional writings, either on history or on digital scholarship. I’m making an exception for the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and here’s why.

Politics involves spin, a certain amount of exaggeration, the presentation of the most favourable interpretation of a situation. We understand this, I think; and (as Evgeny Morozov has argued) political life is probably impossible without it. In order to carry large groups of people with them, politicians must be able to make broad claims, about political philosophy and the likelihood of certain future events. That they are open to dispute is no intrinsic difficulty.

I voted Remain, and believe the result to be potentially catastrophic for the UK, and potentially very damaging for the rest of Europe. However, the Remain camp were certainly guilty of some exaggeration in some cases, about the potential economic meltdown that Brexit would cause (although as I write the FTSE 250 share index is more than 10% down in two days’ trading, and the pound at a 30-year low against the US dollar.) However, I think the conduct of the Leave campaign is of a different order.

VoteLeave_Turkey

Time after time, Leave campaigners made verifiably untrue statements about the present situation, and about clearly known facts about the future. Penny Mordaunt MP, a minister of the Crown, repeatedly insisted on live television that the UK would be unable to veto Turkish membership of the EU, a matter publicly contradicted by her own party leader, the Prime Minister. And this was not a momentary confusion: the same claim is made by the poster below.

VoteLeave_bus

I could multiply example after example of these, but will rest with the worst of them all: the £350million figure that the UK supposedly pays to the EU budget each week. Journalist after journalist challenged the number over several weeks, as the true figure after the rebate the UK receives is about half that. Time after time the Leavers insisted on it, even after the UK Statistics Authority, about as impartial as they come, expressed disappointment that the figure was still being used, and that to do so ‘undermines trust in official statistics’. But no, still the posters stayed up, and there it was, still on the Leave battle bus as they arrived for the big debate at Wembley Arena 36 hours before polls opened.

VoteLeave_350million

I shall not go into the way in which these and other claims have been breezily disowned in the days since the result, in a show of reckless frivolity that characterised the campaign generally. My point is that this kind of downright lying poisons the wells for the whole of our political culture, for everyone, whether you voted Remain or Leave. It further fuels precisely the cynicism about politics that seems to have behind some of the paranoid rumours that circulated before the vote that it might be rigged. And it adds to the righteous anger of many of the 48% who are disappointed by the result, but might have accepted it otherwise. I wish I had a easy remedy: a way to repair the damage done to the fabric of our public discourse, but right now I don’t have it. Leaver or Remainer, we all lost on Thursday.