Why study positioning practices in academia? Voices from DISCONEX project

Science and scientists have been the object of scholarship for some time now. Fields like the philosophy, sociology, or history of science as well as the sociology of intellectuals are all interested in how ideas and scientific discoveries emerge in certain (social, historical, philosophical) contexts. In this post junior researchers of the DISCONEX project explain what inspired them to investigate the curious world of academic researchers.

Questions of how researchers do research and actually produce scientific knowledge in their day-to day activities, on the other hand, only shifted into the focus of social science scholars in the second half of the past century. Starting around the time of Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ there has been a growing concern with the practices of scientists. Since its beginning with the sociology of scientific knowledge and Bloor’s Strong programme and the laboratory studies of Latour, Woolgar, Knorr-Cetina, and others the field of science studies or science and technology studies (STS) has steadily grown. However, there is a bias towards studying the ‘harder’, natural sciences in this field. Furthermore, the discursive dimension of researchers’ practices are often neglected in this strand of research.

The DISCONEX project aims to fill this gap, by focusing on discursive classification, evaluation and positioning in the social sciences and humanities. A few members of the team share there reflections on their work in the field so far.

Making sense of the world and positioning – by Sixian

Looking at current concepts of ‘impact’ in Social Sciences and Humanities – by Marta

Doing research in academic semiotics – by Eduardo

Revisiting boundaries in Social Sciences –  by Nawel

Making a researcher subject. Positioning practices in the social sciences – by Johannes Beetz


Making sense of the world and positioning – by Sixian

I was paying for chocolates at WHSmith at the train station when the cashier asked me, “Where did you get your accent from?” We are constantly trying to make sense of the world and the people we meet. We try to place people by their accents. We make sense of who they are by evoking some preconceptions based on how they speak, what they say, and where they come from. Then we try to guess how s/he is like based on what we know about the place they come from. We also like to ask what do you do for a living? And again, this sparks off another series of speculations. All these happen implicitly and very quickly in our minds. Oh you’re a teacher… a researcher… I think this is a very natural human instinct of positioning people in the larger scheme of things as we try to understand them.

Positioning happens all the time. In the academic world, we make sense of fellow academics/ researchers by asking which discipline or field they belong to or research interests they have. We try to see if we can make sense of what they are saying by drawing associations to research domains that we already know. Then we position them in that field.

I’m interested to study how researchers position themselves and their research against the backdrop of academia. My study tries to make sense of how this instinctive attempt to make sense of people ‘happens’ in the academic world. I’ll elaborate on how I hope to do so in a subsequent blog entry.

Looking at current concepts of ‘impact’ in Social Sciences and Humanities – by Marta

Having a background in social philosophy and experience in opinion journalism, I have always been interested in the intersection of academia and society.

However, it was only upon my moving to the British academic context that I learned about the existence of a framework for evaluating researchers’ impact on extra-academic reality, namely the REF. For someone socialized in the continental tradition (think Kant & Humboldt & Co.) the very idea of assessing a scholar on the basis of the effects of his or her work was almost unthinkable. This initial perplexity led me to study how those involved in the process of evaluating impact make sense of this new aspect of academic activity.

In investigating the discursive construction of ‘impact’ I use the concept of ‘boundary work’ (Gieryn, 1983; Lamont et al., 2002). Though I am mainly looking into the British Research Excellence Framework, I am interested in a problem that is, potentially, a universal one in academia. Namely, the construction of research as a ‘boundary object’ which meets the requirements posed by two different social fields.

I believe this topic is of great interest for a discourse analyst and of immediate importance to those dealing with the reality of impact assessment in academia.

Doing research in academic semiotics – by Eduardo

All human beings are sign-users and semiotic thinking is inherent to mankind. However, the study of signs and sign systems, semiotics, is a paradoxical field with a relatively marginal status in the academic world. We can see  this in the status of contemporary semiotics in different countries. While semiotics is an established discipline  in countries such as Italy or Estonia, it is barely acknowledged by practitioners from different academic communities in Britain.

In order to explain such unevenness, it is necessary to account for the existing realities, contradictions, inequalities and exclusions within the academic community of semiotics scholars. This is why I propose a research that aims  to study how semioticians generate knowledge, how they produce their academic discourse(s), as well as how they understand their membership in an academic community.

This is important since there are many unresolved academic endeavors and specific obstacles for semiotics to tackle with, i.e. active communication for the global semiotics community, supporting of the early career researchers in the field, or establishing links with cognate academic organizations.

Revisiting boundaries in Social Sciences –  by Nawel

As a schoolgirl in Morocco and an undergraduate in a French university, I always used to question (the) implicit worldviews and representations that framed the knowledge we were taught. I asked myself about where and how theories and paradigms emerged, got established and powerful –and in some cases weakened  and disappeared.

Studying Sociology offered tools to analyse these legitimacy dynamics in scientific knowledge production.

My study frames SSH evaluative cultures as interactional, deeply emotional processes embedded in and influenced by the social identity[ies] of the researchers (Lamont, 2010).

My work focuses on PhD students and tenured researchers in the field of Postcolonial Studies in France. One of my interests lies in understanding how these actors deal with what Becker (In Müller, 2009) frames as a ‘tension between innovation and standardisation’ embedded in a variety of academic interpretive communities (i.e. subfields & fields, disciplines, research centres & institutions, etc.).

Interviews account for how researchers make sense of their own trajectory and produce a discourse about their research. They show how they position themselves in a variety of sub-spaces embedded in academia and/or located at its borders with non-academic spaces (i.e. political activism, artistic practices).

Participant observation (workshops, conferences, symposiums, arts performances, etc.)   provide contrasting insights of researchers’ agencies (Butler, 1990) in contexts of interaction with the members of these various interpretive communities.

I also use researchers’ publications and non-academic interviews as extra material to get a broader picture of their research ‘posture’ (Meizoz, undated).

Making a researcher subject. Positioning practices in the social sciences – by Johannes Beetz

Using discourse analysis and qualitative social research methods, my project investigates the multifarious practices of positioning in social scientific research. By analysing introductions to sociologists’ first books and by means of qualitative interviews, I aim to account for the practical accomplishment of establishing, occupying, evaluating, and ascribing subject positions in the academic discourse of sociology in Germany and the UK.  

To be a researcher means to occupy certain positions in the field of academia. Apart from institutional and socio-economic positions, there are also symbolic positions that are nevertheless real and consequential. Such are the positions researchers occupy in the field of their disciplines and areas of research. They speak, write, and read as sociologists, experts on different subject matters, and proponents of various theories, schools, or political movements.

What positions are available and what the value of those symbolic positions is, is something the academic has only very limited control over. They cannot freely choose how they are perceived, categorized, evaluated, classified, and positioned by their peers. But every scholar has an existential interest in securing not only an institutional but also a symbolic position that is recognized, valued, and subjectively affords the researcher to have an identity that gives them the possibility to speak from a certain subject position.


Butler Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge.

Gieryn, F. T. (1983). Boundary work and the demarcation of science from non-science: strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48(6), 781-795.

Knorr-Cetina, K. D. and M. Mulkay (1983). Science observed: Perspectives on the social study of science, Sage London.

Lamont, M. l., & Molar, V. (2002). The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 167-195.

Lamont Michèle (2010). How Professors Think : Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Harvard University Press.

Meizoz Jérôme (undated). Postures d’auteurs et poétique (Ajar, Rousseau, Céline, Houellebecq). Vox-poetica.

Müller Alain (2009). Dialogue avec Howard Becker : comment parler de la société ? ethnographiques.org, numéro 19.

Image: Leeds University, Monika, Flickr

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