Publish? Perish the thought!

There was a rather good advice session on Monday.  It was on getting books and articles published.

The book bit was amusing – we were given a (made-up) example of how NOT to do it and then some solid advice and warnings.

  • Don’t, when approaching a publisher (and do some research and personalising of any cover letter!) call it a PhD. Call it research.
  • Turning a PhD, sorry “research” into a publishable book is doable, but NOT overnight.  You need a year at least, probably two.
  • Not all PhDs can or indeed SHOULD be published.

The journal article bit was also amusing!

The presenter said he’d recently been looking at a great number (>150) CVs. Most people by the end of their PhD had some teaching. A small number had publicatoins in a top line journal, and that made them stand out.
So –

  • have a sense of the journal you’re aiming at
  • Aim for the best/top journal in your field
  • Make sure your submission has not typos, that its footnoting/referencing comply with the style
  • Right a cover letter that is short and personal

Expect things to take a while – 6 months before you get a yay, nay or “maybe”

There are three broad categories

  1. rejection
  2. acceptance with minor corrections (this is RARE)
  3. the editor says “kinda interesting/look at these bits/here are the reviewers’ comments”

The presenter was adamant that if you get c that you should NOT take that as “we’re on the way/we’ve got our foot in the door”  The temptation to therefore drop everything else and resubmit in three weeks is a temptation to be resisted.  The iron is NOT hot, the editor is NOT anxiously awaiting resubmission. Top journals are looking for reasons to turn things down, and it’s a case of not “when to revise and resubmit” but whether you can.

If/when you do resubmit, then mention “I’ve followed reviewer A’s points about… and reviewer B’s… however, I’ve not….”

If the piece is rejected, it is galling, but you have to climb back on the horse, and resubmit to the ‘next best’ journal.  And you know, perhaps look at the reviewers’ comments again. They may, after all, have some valid points…

Meanwhile, a friend who has been through the mill already sent me the following advice a while back –

“Key is start publishing immediately if you can. Base chapters around journal articles. And start getting them sent for peer review at once, its the only way you will ever get a job out of it. Then, when the reviewers comments arrive and start putting you through the ideological sausage machine, your soul will slowly begin to disintegrate.”

Outa tuna with the natural world: On corporate concentration and environmental governance

A rather intriguing and canny seminar at Manchester Business School…

Ever stand in the aisle, lost in the supermarket, and wonder what went into getting the products on the shelves? The tin mined for the cans, the oil drilled for the plastic packaging, the lives lost and the futures mortgaged for our present convenience?  I do, when I’m not taking my pills.

Supermarkets use tuna as a “loss leader”.  It’s a known price item (KPI), so shoppers base their decisions on that.  Supermarkets then offload the pressure down the supply chain, to the canners, the boat owners and so on.  That leads the charge for more boats, more nets, different species .

That was the gist of a detailed and fascinating seminar delivered today by Liam Campling, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary College.
The seminar was very much in two halves –

The first rattled through a bunch of political economy types who I’d never heard of but will be looking up for my post-doc (cough cough).

The second half looked specifically at tuna as a “worked example”.  It was dead fascinating. I will never look at a tin of tuna in the same way again (I know, #sadmanshouldgetalife.)

  • Tuna production is done on wafer thin margins.  Some of the production plants are in places where the factory is the only large employer, giving the owners the opportunity to demand subsidies from governments. (Campling told the story of Lehmann Brothers extorting, sorry, “negotiating” a huge subsidy for a 1,400 employee factory in the Seychelles, which they’d told the government was unprofitable in order to get a tax-payer bailout.  Guess what.  They lied!?! )
  • Meanwhile, private equity companies want rents, so they aren’t going to invest in the non-branded processing areas.  There is, unsurprisingly, a “Global Ocean Strategy.”  This is not about sustainability…
  • Profitability is about access to markets, and tariff-walls matter; e.g. there wouldn’t be an African production sector but for preferential access to Europe. That said, the Thai companies STILL manage to compete in the EU, despite a 24% tariff.
  • States(US, France, Spain etc)  are, of course, directly subsidising fleets to fish in foreign waters

Concepts (some familiar, some spanking new)

And from Wikipedia

O’Connor argues that capitalism necessarily undermines the “conditions of production” necessary to sustain the endless accumulation of capital. These conditions of production include soil, water, energy, and so forth. But they also include an adequate public education system, transportation infrastructures, and other services that are not produced directly by capital, but which capital needs in order accumulate effectively. As the conditions of production are exhausted, the costs of production for capital increase. For this reason, the second contradiction generates an underproduction crisis tendency, with the rising cost of inputs and labor, to complement the overproduction tendency of too many commodities for too few customers. Like Marx’s contradiction of capital and labor, the second contradiction therefore threatens the system’s existence.[62][63]

In addition, O’Connor believes that, in order to remedy environmental contradictions, the capitalist system innovates new technologies that overcome existing problems but introduce new ones.[62]

Campling’s conclusion: that efforts at regulation need to go beyond the point of extraction

My thoughts:

  • I wonder if there is mileage in looking at what Timothy Mitchell did with the idea of the Carbon Democracy and strategic “choke points”
  • This is another great example of what I call “bio-Taylorism” – after Frederick Taylor and his model of logically intensifying production.  Taylor only managed bodies.  We are managing genes, oceans.  We are as gods.  Sadly, some of the stupider and more venal ones.
  • Death by speed-up indeed.
  • easterbunnyislandcolour1Meanwhile of course, it’s always logical to chop down the next tree (you have to tools, and the know-how,  your shareholders expect it and your competitors will do it if you don’t.)
  • here’s a brilliant cartoon by Marc Roberts

Marc Hudson


Crossing the threshold of ecosystem resilience: the commercial extinction of northern cod
A. Christopher Finalyson and Bonnie J. McCay

The situation began to change after World War II. With much of the infrastructure of European agriculture in ruins, fish became a vital source of food. Under this impetus, and incorporating technologies developed during the war – inexpensive steel ship construction, powerful diesel engines, shipboard refrigeration and freezing, and electronics for precise navigation, long-distance communications, bottom imaging and fish-finding – the hungry nations of Europe, led by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact member states, developed distant-water fishing capacity and combined these technologies into a new and devastatingly effective configuration: the factory freeze-trawler. With the size and strength to fish in ice-ridden waters and all but the worst storms, these ships could be directed by their corporate or state owners to wherever catch rates were highest. Supplied via motherships with food, fuel and fresh crews from their home ports, these vessels could fish the year round and stay at sea indefinitely. By the mid-1960s, their numbers were so great that the Newfoundland fishing banks at night were described as a ‘city of lights’ (see Warner, 1983)
page 316
Warner, 1983 Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman Boston: Little, Brown and Company

Of shopping and climate science…

My supervisors say I should focus.  The wife says I should focus.  If the cat could talk, it would tell me to focus (on it).  At least two of them are right…

Anyhows.. about the birth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change…

By the mid 80s, scientists were getting more and more sure – and more and more nervous – about the effects of the build-up of carbon dioxide emissions.  This was especially the case at and after the 1985 meeting in the Austrian town of Villach that was sponsored by the World Meteorological Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). Just before that meeting a paper had been published that showed that the “basket” of other greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxides etc) was just as big a player.(1)  Climate change was going to come faster – and perhaps harder- than folks had thought…  Things moved on from calls for more research and ‘perhaps watch out’ to, ‘um, guys, we are going to need to do something about this.’

Now here’s a quote from a corking article called  Context and early origins of the intergovernmental panel on climate change [paywalled]

Meanwhile, UNEP and its pro-active Director Mostafa Tolba had no doubts about the future course of action on climate change. Flush with the success of negotiating the Vienna Convention on Ozone, he felt that the time was ripe to repeat the ozone ‘miracle’ for climate. Indeed, UNEP in it its long range planning document of 1985 had called for a climate convention. In the wake of the 1985 Villach workshop, Tolba began active consultations for a possible convention with WMO and ICSU, UNEP’s two long-standing collaborators on climate change. He also wrote to then US Secretary of State George Schultz urging the US to take appropriate actions (Hecht and Tirpak, 1995).
Agrawala, S. (1998a, p 609)

But it turns out that politicians and bureaucrats in the higher reaches of states don’t like being bossed around and “bounced” by what they perceive to be activist/upstart scientists. Who knew? And so, over the next few years there was a very considered, very conscious, attempt to isolate the issue from the scientists, to bring them in under control… More Agrawala:

The eventual compromise: an intergovernmental assessment mechanism which the US finally proposed addressed [Department of Energy] concerns regarding involvement of ‘official’ experts. At the same time it precluded immediate action and provided an opportunity for the administration to buy time (‘let’s study the problem more’). Yet, by encouraging international participation it also made an eventual climate convention more feasible, consistent with the goals of the EPA and the State Department.

There was also a recognition that any proposed international assessment process had to go much beyond the science of climate change. Thus while WMO was a natural sponsor for such a process, it did not have sufficient expertise to cover many other relevant aspects of climate change such as policy responses. This argued for UNEP involvement though the US had some reservations about Mostafa Tolba. This is because he had alienated many close allies of the US in Latin America during the ozone negotiations. There was thus a keen interest on the part of the US not to let Tolba run climate change with the same degree of control which he had wielded over ozone. Therefore, a proposal was made for a joint UNEP/WMO intergovernmental mechanism.
Agrawala, S. (1998a, p 614)

“Venue shopping” – versus venue creation
Powerful actors can choose which places – courts or legislatures or even the court of public opinion – to fight for their goals. It’s been called “venue shopping” –

The process for advocacy groups and policymakers of finding a decision setting that offers the best prospects for reaching one’s policy goals.
(Pralle, 2003, p. 234.)

REALLY powerful actors get to create venues that suit them.

And once the Americans had insulated/controlled the advice-giving, by creating the IPCC in November 1988,, they seem to have rolled on further. Here’s a quote from Agrawala’s separate paper, which covers the first 8 years of the IPCC’s existence.

… until then the IPCC had achieved limited success in its efforts to engage developing countries for its First Assessment cycle. This made some large developing countries, in particular Brazil and Mexico very suspicious of the IPCC …. they believed that climate change was closely linked to development, and hence not purely a technical issue (Bodansky, 1994). These countries therefore pressured a political body, the UN General Assembly, to take charge, a move which was eventually supported by the US, their close ally. These opinions came to the fore during the meeting of an open-ended ad-hoc group of government representatives convened by WMO and UNEP in September 1990. This led to the creation of the [Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Climate Change]  under the auspices of the UN General Assembly. Climate science and policy were thus formally split and housed in two separate intergovernmental mechanisms under different sponsorships.
(Agrawala, 1998b, p. 634-5)

Please note, I am NOT saying we should or could have somehow “left it to the scientists”.  I am just saying we should be aware of what particular form the scientific and political bodies take, and who is pushing for them to take that form (and why!).


(1) See Franz, 1997 for more on this paper and the Villach meeting


Agrawala, S. (1998a) “Context and early origins of the intergovernmental panel on climate change” Climatic Change 39,: 605-620

Agrawala, S. (1998b) “Structural and process history of the intergovernmental panel on climate change” Climatic Change 39,: 621-642

Franz, W. (1997) The Development of an International Agenda for Climate Change: Connecting Science to Policy  ENRP Discussion Paper E-97-07, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, August 1997 and also as International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis Interim Report IR-97-034/August.

Here’s the script of a video I intend to make (but not until the Christmas break!).  Not a long thing.  Suggestions?

In the late 1950s scientists started to investigate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It was going up…. Things moved fairly slowly, as they do.  There’s a whole lotta acronyms between the 1950s and the late 70s. And a conference, and a worrying drought in the Sahel.

In 1979 the first World Climate Conference is held in Geneva.   “More research” it said.

There were a couple of meetings under the auspices of the WMO and UNEP and ICSU in 1980 and 1983 in an Austrian town called Villach.

The 1985 one was where things kicked off.  X number of scientists turned up.  A scientific paper had just been published about how if you calculated the other gases besides carbon dioxide into the equation, then climate change was going to happen sooner and louder than anyone had thought.

Now remember, the Ozone hole issue has been going gangbusters.   The United Nations Environment Program, a relatively small bureaucracy with a “policy entrepreneur” boss called Mostafa Tolba , wanted to repeat the ozone trick with climate. In 1986 he sent a letter to the Americans.

They didn’t like being bossed around; politicians are like that.  Rather than let the activist scientists keep on making policy pronouncements, they set the ball rolling, via the United Nations, to create the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Governments were “invited” in March of 1988 to . Meanwhile, in June James Hansen gave his famous testimony to the Senate and there was a big “Changing Atmosphere” conference in Toronto, where the idea of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2005 came to be seen as sensible.

In November 1988 the United Nations General Assembly okayed the creation of the IPCC.

So when some whackjob tells you the IPCC can’t be trusted because its “intergovernmental” you can point out that the reason it is intergovernmental is because the Americans wanted to insulate themselves from the activist scientists, and to create a structure where extreme ideas –like I don’t know, valuing a habitable planet over fossil fuel company profits – could get reined in…  A generation later, we are still generating half our energy from coal. wtf. wtaf.?

Using Open Space or being “BOSSy”? How I would have done it….

Yet again I walked (flounced?). Yet again there’s communications (civil this time) with(one of) the organisers of the event.  Yet again the old conscience/ego chides “well, instead of specific criticisms, why not spell out how you’ld have done it differently?”

Here it is. There’s actually a couple of innovations I dreamt up today. It is Blended Open Space Stuff (BOSSy).  Btw, I am brewing an article on Open Space.  Partly simply because I want to use the title “OST-politik”….
The preparations for the day

Ask both funded and unfunded groups to prepare a presentation that is no more than 5 minutes and answers the following questions

  1. Who we are/why we exist
  2. What we’ve done in the last year that has “worked”
  3. What hasn’t gone well
  4. What we want to/will do differently
  5. What help we want, either from people in this room or beyond

Explain that people have the choice to have a film made based on their presentation (that will exclude 3. if they are uncomfortable sharing that beyond the room).

In a perfect world they would put that down on a sheet of paper, with recent photos of the people who will be attending.  These will get stuck up as posters.  Then, people can connect faces with projects, and see what different groups are good at/want help with.

Ask them to come up with  one sentence that describes a problem/challenge they are facing. This  will go on a flipchart for the open space,  “We are [group name] and the thing that we would really like to discuss is______________”


The day itself


Give each person three stickers, but tell them NOT to write anything on them.

Get them to put up the posters that  they have made and brought with them. If they haven’t, given them the option of doing so.

Encourage (put don’t force!) them to mingle with other people rather than cluster with friends or read the Guardian.

Encourage them to go around the room before the official start writing on the flipcharts that are up (have flipcharts with different questions)
“Straight in at the deep end”

At the appointed time, have your best (most confident and friendly) facilitator ring a bell to get everyone’s attention.

“Thanks for coming.  Please get your three stickers and a marker pen.

“Please find someone in this room who you do not know at all, or only very slightly.

  • Find out their name- write it on a sticker in big letters and give it to them to put on.
  • “Find out where live at the moment – write it on a sticker in big letters and give it to them to put on.
  • “Find out what “cause” they are campaigning for – environmental justice/gay rights etc – write it on a sticker in big letters and give it to them to put on.

[The three questions should go up on a powerpoint.  Or failing that, on sheets of paper that people can see]

“Then, they will do the same with you. And then you will be introducing them to other people, so find out something else – what food they like, why they’ve come today, whatever!

“You have THREE minutes for this.  Starting…. (ostentatiously looks at stop watch)…. Now.

[At exactly three minutes, ring the bell again.]

“Thank you!  Now, stay in your pair, and find another pair and form a group of four.  Introduce that person to the other people in one minute  Any left-over pair, form a group of six. You have five minutes for everyone to have been introduced!”

[After five minutes, ring the bell.]

Pulling back to orient people

“Thanks for coming.  If you hear this bell, there’s something we really have to tell you all.  (Rings bell).

[What is below can be ‘tag-teamed’ among your facilitators, so each is saying a bit]

“We hope you’re here

  • To bring problems and challenges you are having with your campaigning to a bigger group to get ideas, suggestions, advice
  • To make or strengthen links with people and organisations based on where you are, what you campaign on and who you “click with.
  • To learn more about [insert name of the host group]

As you will know from the emails we sent, we’ve designed the day around those goals.  We asked already in the email, but one last time, have people got OTHER goals for being here?

[Try to deal with these if anything comes up]

Toilets are through there. Fire exit is through there.  Facilitators are wearing [yellow?] t-shirts, bibs.  We are here to support YOU.

Tea, coffee, biscuits are there. Lunch is at 12.30.

“Other ‘rules’;

  • Mobiles on silent please
  • Listen carefully to what people are saying, and when you disagree, do so respectfully
  • Check whatever privileges you may have – and there are other privileges besides gender, race , age and class.
  • Anything else people want to throw in?

What is “Open Space”?

“This meeting has the barest formal agenda.  After one more exercise it is going to be “over to you” to figure out how best to use this time.   We’re using “open space” technology, and there is a poster on the wall over there to explain what it is).
The crucial thing is this – there is a “Law of Two Feet”.  You have one foot for learning, and one for contributing.  If you find yourself in a place where you are doing neither, it is your responsibility to respectfully go where you are.”  (At this point have one of the facilitators stand up and say “this is rubbish. I’m going for a coffee.” Hopefully this will elicit laughter, and a bit of nerves.

“Right- everyone. What did he do wrong?

“Was he allowed to go for coffee?  Yes.  Did he do it respectfully? No.”

“So, if you find yourself not in the right headspace, go for coffee – grab a marker pen and start writing up on the flipcharts.  Sit quietly, whatever.  If you really have to check your bloody facebook, check your facebook. It’s open space!

“Questions about the Law of Two Feet?”

The Novice Lines

“So has everyone got a coloured piece of paper and a white piece of paper?  In big letters, so other people can read it you are going to write.

“On the white paper write something you are good at. Cooking, website design, conflict mediation, whatever.

“On the coloured paper write something you would LIKE to be good at.  Public speaking? Accounts? Making videos. Whatever.

“You have  30 seconds to choose. Don’t overthink this!

“Right, please stand up, hold up your two sheets of paper and walk around the room.  Let’s see if we find matches.  If you can do something that people have written on their coloured paper, TELL THEM.  Exchange email addresses.  Yell out “huzzah” when you get a match!”

[After this has been going for a few minutes, send members of the facilitation team to collect all the sheets of paper.]

“Right, everyone. Thanks for that. Please take your seats.  Now, I need 10 volunteers!  You won’t be doing anything illegal or immoral.   Can I have ten volunteers standing here please.”

[Facilitator lays out the four icons – from novice to ninja]

“Now, there’s enough space for us all to step forward as much as four paces, safely.

“Could the ten of you line up please, on this line.

“You’re on what I call ‘the novice line.’ We’re going to find out who in the room has what skills, and we’re going to do it really quickly, and it will be fun. Honest.

“Let’s take cooking for example.

“If you are a novice cook you can just about boil an egg without burning the water.

“If you’re a practitioner, it means you can cook for 2 or 3 people, following a recipe book and sweating a little bit.

“If you’re an expert, you can cook most things without a cook book, for a bunch of people, and there’s a fistfight – even among the Quakers – for seconds.

“If the phone rings and it’s one of your activist friends who says: ‘There are 20 of us. We’ve just done this amazing action – turn on the radio! We’re arriving in two hours and we’ll be really hungry. Three of us are vegan, two are gluten intolerant and three of us MUST EAT MEAT. There’s 80 quid hidden in the cookie jar. Can you do it?’

“If you say ‘Well, duh, what else you need doing at the same time?’ then you are a ninja.
“So, in a second you’re going to step forward one step if you’re a novice, two steps if you’re a practitioner, three if you’re an expert and four if you’re a ninja. We’ve even got these lovely icons that  on the floor as markers.

“But – and I am sure the suspense is killing you. Here are a few important common questions and points.

“If you are not even a novice stay where you are.

“This is NOT a judgement – you are where you are. And also, you are under NO obligation to want to advance your skills. If you are happy as a novice or a practitioner, that’s fine

“This only works if you are honest – don’t boast and don’t be falsely modest. The more truthful you are, the more everyone benefits. Remember too, that women tend to be trained to underestimate themselves, men to overestimate. Same goes for working-class/middle-class. These are generalisations, of course

“Finally, keep your eyes closed as you choose where you are, so you aren’t affected by other people’s assessments of themselves.

“Everyone got it? Right, close your eyes, decide where you are going to move to on cooking, open your eyes, and… go!

[The ten people then move forward as far as they feel.]

“Right, well done everyone – quite a good spread of people.

“Hands up if you want to be better at cooking than you are now? Remember, no obligation! Okay, good. Now, the person who is best able to help you is probably NOT the ninja – they have forgotten what it is like not to know something. It’s probably the person who is just a step or two ahead of you.

“We’re running a little ahead of schedule, so I’ve time to ask the ninjas – how did you get so good? What advice do you have to offer? You’re allowed to treat me like an arresting officer and say ‘no comment’!

“Right, that was very interesting, but we’re not here to be cooks! I chose that one because everyone knows what kind of cook they are, and tends not to have too much ego invested! Let’s choose another, from the white pile. Back on the line please. Close your eyes. And the skill is … [Facilitator picks the most useful of the white papers, calls it out. Everyone moves forward or stays put, depending on their self-assessment.]

“Right – I chose a white paper to start with because at least someone in the room was going to be an expert or ninja. Gets too depressing otherwise. Now let’s do a coloured paper! If nobody here is in fact an expert or ninja, we’ll not panic just because there’s no-one in this room with that skill. The movement is – I hope – bigger than the few of us in this room.  I want you all to think for a second about anybody who you know who has this skill who can be bribed or blackmailed into helping your group gain that skill. Got someone? Now step forward to where you think they would step forward to…

“We’re still ahead of schedule, and you all seem pretty energised. Can I have a volunteer to have a go at running a novice line.   It will show you that there’s nothing magic to it.

[Hopefully someone comes forward and runs a novice line.]

The “Open Space”

“So, everyone, that’s it from us manipulating you!  The rest of the day is going to be built around what YOU want.  We asked you to come up with questions and problems.  The common ones were;

  • How do we attract and keep new people in our campaigns?
  • How do we avoid being drawn into endless consultations with politicians, the policy, social services?
  • How do we deal with burn out and morale maintenance
  • How do we constructively challenge homophobia in our potential and actual allies?
  • How do we constructively challenge racism in our potential and actual allies?
  • How do we constructively challenge sexism in our potential and actual allies?

If you have another problem that you want people’s attention on, please write it up on a sheet of paper and then stick it on one of these “flagpoles”.  Sit next to it  until some people come and join you. You may have to wait awhile, if big questions like the ones above haven’t been answered.

Crucially, we are NOT going to try to do a feedback on each of these questions.  But we DO have facilitators who are going to try to capture the flavour of what is said in each group.  They will NOT attach anyone’s names to individual comments and suggestions.

If you DO move from one group to another, please take a few minutes to listen to the discussion, rather than diving in with both feet.

Any questions?  Go for it.

[Open Space. Facilitators minuting, dealing with people’s questions, making sure tea and coffee doesn’t run out, etc]

3pm The “different groups”

So, you may all be knackered? But good knackered, from connection and idea overload, rather than boredom?  Yes, no, maybe?

We’re now going to hear from each of the groups.  We’ve asked each of them, and three of them want to be filmed, so we will do them first and then switch off the camera.  Does anyone want to learn how to do some filming?  We will show you a couple of things.

So each group is going to get at most five minutes.  Less is better. After four minutes I will hold up a sheet of paper that says “1”.  At exactly 5 minutes I will start clapping and I want you all to join in.  Got it?

So, the first group to answer these five questions is

  1. Who we are/why we exist
  2. What we’ve done in the last year that has “worked”
  3. What hasn’t gone well
  4. What we want to/will do differently
  5. What help we want, either from people in this room or beyond

…  [insert name].  We’re going to clap them off, so let’s clap them on!  [Applause]
The Feedback

Hands up who thinks most feedback is a meaningless ritual meant to protect the egos of the organisers (facilitator sticks up own hand!) and justify them to their funders?

So, we’ve got a SHORT questionnaire.  We want you to be brutally honest. It’s anonymous, but we have a reward system. If you flash us a completed form and then put it in the box, we will give you a [whatever the budget extends to – fruit, book vouchers, you name it].

What next?  We will type up the flipcharts, get the facilitators to summarise the open space discussions and put it all up on the web.  We will  analyse the feedback. We will then take a six month holiday….

THANKS FOR COMING.  A round of applause for yourselves please…

[The feedback form says

Be as brutally honest and specific as you can be please.   Do not worry about hurting our feelings. Capitalism hurts our feelings far more every day, ‘kay?

  1. What, (if anything) was useful for you from today
  2. What was missing from today, or could have been done better
  3. Did we help you or did we get in the way (please give examples)
  4. What else would you like to say?]



Do what you promised with the flipcharts etc

Edit the films of any groups that wanted filming

Analyse the feedback forms.

Reflect on the quality of a) the meeting design and b) the quality of the facilitation

On “Open Space” and tosspots…

Marc Hudson has been to one too many event that describes itself as “open space”. The fightback starts here.[Update: here’s how he’d have done it]

The Evil Corporations and their Evil State lackeys are trying to defeat us!! They constantly steal our ideas, water them down, and then use them to sell their own very non-participatory and non-liberatory junk back to us. There are bars called “Revolution”, and rubber-stamp consultation processes called “participation”. It’s awful and wrong.

All this is true…. But we have met the enemy, and he or she is… us.

Every time you go to an event that claims to be using “open space” but is just the old system of an agenda but with time in the afternoon for the loudest people to try to get folks along to their “come listen to me spiel”, you are witnessing the co-optation and destruction of important ideas. But by “our” side, not the “enemy.”

Every time you witness it and fail to speak up, you are complicit in the watering down of an important tool, and in the creation of long-term cynicism and despair.

If we are not willing to challenge bad practice in our own culture, why should anyone listen to us criticise “mainstream” culture? Why should anyone – least of all ourselves – take ourselves seriously?

This article looks at what “Open Space” actually is and where it came from. It then turns to how the tool is being (ab)used, and then looking at why that is happening, what the consequences are and, finally – crucially – ‘what is to be done’?

Open Space

[UPDATE 13/11/2014; NOOOO!  The following account is just so inaccurate that it’s not even wrong.  See here for the actual story!]

Software engineers got bored and frustrated with turning up to conferences and being sat in rows and being talked at for hours by different people with crappy powerpoints. They got bored and frustrated with having to use the “gaps” in the programme to do what they actually wanted – which was to talk about the practical problems they were facing, and trying to find someone who might be able to help.

So they changed. Instead of a top-down scheduled agenda, they had everyone turn up with their “what I need help with/can help with” heads on. People who had an issue (problem!) they wanted to discuss wrote it on the top of a big sheet of paper. Everyone who was also interested in discussing that same problem wrote their name underneath as many of the papers as they wanted. While everyone else went for coffee the hosts figured out which problems were burning hot, and assigned bigger rooms to them.

Everyone came back from coffee, saw which spaces were set aside for which problems and set off on their own personal missions.

Crucially, if it turned out the problem got solved, or people in the group were being asshats, or for whatever other reason, you didn’t have to stay in the group you first chose any longer than necessary. Because, as well as the agenda being spontaneously generated (but then curated), the other key tool of “Open Space” is “the law of two feet.”  It says that you have two feet – one for learning, and one for contributing. If you find yourself in a situation where you are doing neither, it is your responsibility to respectfully go somewhere that you are.”

Normally, you would sit and stew and have the red mist descend, and then ben the wrong headspace when you do have a chance to be involved. But now you are free (and with great freedom comes great responsibility) to leave and take charge of your own experience, saving your own (often limited) energy and morale.

It. Works. Well.

So what has happened the last three occasions I’ve been to events from the “left” which have contained so-called “Open Space”?

The Tosspots have taken over, is what. Tosspots? Terminators of Open Space’s Subversive Potential.

Here’s how it’s gone.  The crucial first couple of hours get taken up with very very standard “this is our organisation, this is what we do, this is how great we are [“you should join/subscribe. Really. Here’s the form.] and here is our guest speaker(s) to tell you funny stories.”

So people set into the “I am here to be ego-fodder/to say my piece when asked” headspace. They are NOT able to get into their “I am part of a movement that is not winning nearly as many victories as it could be, as it needs to be” headspace. So when they “open space” bit comes along, they are in their “I want to advertise my group” rather than “I want to get other people’s help solving specific problems” headspace.

Instead of actually giving the responsibility for the day to the attendees (and turning them from audience and ego-fodder into participants), the organisers run a very standard meeting, with a specific period of time designated for “Open Space.”

Why do they do it?

The charitable explanation (assuming that many Tosspots mean well and aren’t brittle control freaks) is that they don’t know what Open Space actually is, and are just mimicking what they saw someone else do recently. Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.

OR they do know, but they either had a failure of nerve, or were over-ruled as the agenda developed, and the label that was originally accurate has been left in situ.

The uncharitable explanation (and there ARE Tosspots who don’t mean well/are brittle control freaks) is that people are using the term as part of their “look at us, we’re cool and hip and cutting edge” marketing strategy. They are latching on it to the sexy new thing ; cool-hunters gonna hunt.

The short-term consequences

  • My blood-pressure goes up
  • Other people’s blood pressure goes up
  • The law of two feet gets invoked.

The long-term consequences

  • Open Space gets a bad rap/is misunderstood. The term gets hollowed out of meaning
  • People become cynical about it, and an important opportunity to improve the dismal quality of our meetings and events goes to waste.

What is to be done
People should make more strenuous efforts to avoid being Tosspots themselves.

And remember; “Friends don’t let friends be Tosspots”

And Non-friends don’t let friends be Tosspots. Here are two sample letters.

Dear xxx,

I see from the agenda of the meeting you are advertising that there to be an “element” of what you are describing as “Open Space.” I do hope you have read this rant about what Open Space is and isn’t. (links to this post!)

I’d like to remind you that you as an event organiser have a responsibility to tell the truth about what you are planning to have happen, so that potential attendees can make an informed choice about whether to use their limited time and energy coming to your thing. I’d also like to remind you that the use of labels matters a great deal. If what you are actually intending is “a bit of time for groups to advertise their existence on short notice” then please call it that, ‘kay?

Yours sincerely



Dear x,
I see that your event has a session in the afternoon called “open space.”
This is a travesty and you are actively destroying an important tool. I neither know nor care if you are doing it consciously or unconsciously. You should stop it now.
Open space is about helping people get help solving problems, not creating platforms for loud narcissists.

Oh, and if you are going to call your event “open space” are you going to run the ENTIRE meeting under the law of two feet. If not, why not?

yours in dismay


Newsflash: Fossil Fuel Lobby using blonde moppets as human shields in war on planet

Personally I am not a big fan of fascism.  Call me squeamish.  Nor am I a big fan of the whole ubermensch “Aryan blonde-blued eyed” thing .  Something to do with understanding who was on the land before whitey arrived and what whitey did to get that land.

I am not saying that the people shilling for Shell and Heathrow expansion are master-racers.  I am just saying that they have chosen – consciously or otherwise-  to mimic the visual grammar of the Nazis. Perhaps they didn’t read that Sontag essay carefully enough.

At 4pm I got an email from Greenpeace complaining about an advert that Shell is running.


At 10pm I got a facebook message from a very good friend, snapping something she’d seen on the tube.

heathrow picture arwa

Blonde girls as pictures of innocence.  Blonde girls as pure, representatives of the shining future that will last a thousand years.  Blonde girls (some of whom will grow up to do the whole Kinder Kuche Kirche thing), threatened by (unseen) wicked environmentalists. Who are probably communists and degenerates to boot.

There’s an implicit calculus of human worth here.  One rich white kid is worth, what, 50 poor brown foreign ones.  100?  Do I see a rise on 100.  Going once, going twice – 135 from the man in the suit over there.  135.  Do I see…  The irony is of course, that we think we can insulate ourselves from the consequences of our actions and we simply won’t be able to.  Things have gotten out of hand.*

I digress. Meanwhile, back to the crude visual analysis of crude visuals…We think we are beyond the crude rhetoric of the Creel Commission. And we are, just about…


If only I knew someone doing a PhD thesis on the tools that fossil fuel companies have used to stop any action on climate change that would interfere with their profits; (that is “most of it, in most cases”).

No, wait…


* opposable thumbs eh?  A two-edged sword, them.

Event report: “Enhancing Interdisciplinarity”

One of the joys of being a PhD student (asides being paid to read, “think”, write, hang out with very very smart people (and you too, Miles? 😛 ) is that you can go to day-long seminars on things called “Enhancing Interdisciplinarity.”  I couldn’t stay to the end because I had a symposium on neo-institutional theory to attend (#itsahardlife), at which one of my supervisors coincidentalishly made reference to two mouth-watering books (the ‘to read’ pile is approaching the moon);

The Chaos of Disciplines by Andrew Abbott: social theories cycle around various themes/puzzles of, say agency/structure, object/subject.  What is old is new again.

and Andrew Abbot again –  The System of Professions: an essay on the division of expert labor

And if you gonna spend a day at summat, you should spend a few minutes doing a write-up (I have been lax at this recently). Here it is.


  • Many of the speakers were engaging, committed, gave interesting answers (and one did the cool ‘feminist’ thing of asking other people what they thought the answer might be; I use the term feminist in the sense of ‘surprisingly and unduly rare awareness of power and participation’)
  • Catching up (again) with a couple of fellow PhD students
  • Meeting a new fellow PhD
  • Being exposed to new ideas
  • Free lunch (don’t pretend it doesn’t matter, ‘kay?)


  • Format that didn’t encourage interaction/accidental minglings. Very sage-on-the-stage, it was. Which only works if a) most of the sages are good ‘uns and b) there aren’t too many sages.  Fortunately both a) and b) applied, so they “got away with it”.

Take homes (without putting names of academics to different bits)

Object lessons by Robyn Wiegman

No concept has been more central to the emergence and evolution of identity studies than social justice. In historical and theoretical accounts, it crystallizes the progressive politics that have shaped the academic study of race, gender, and sexuality. Yet few scholars have deliberated directly on the political agency that notions of justice confer on critical practice. In Object Lessons, Robyn Wiegman contemplates this lack of attention, offering the first sustained inquiry into the political desire that galvanizes identity fields. In each chapter, she examines a key debate by considering the political aspirations that shape it. Addressing Women’s Studies, she traces the ways that “gender” promises to overcome the exclusions of “women.” Turning to Ethnic Studies, she examines the deconstruction of “whiteness” as an antiracist methodology. As she explores American Studies, she links internationalization to the broader quest for noncomplicity in contemporary criticism. Her analysis of Queer Studies demonstrates how the commitment to antinormativity normalizes the field. In the penultimate chapter, Wiegman addresses intersectionality as the most coveted theoretical approach to political resolution in all of these fields.

Tilda Swinton is a) smoking hot [my interpellation and interpretation, in all its glorious patriarchal objectification] and b) repeatedly and admirably insistent that her “success/impact/etc” is not that of an auteur, but based on collaborative endeavour.

5 interdisciplinary issues

1   Risk and innovation (shame of not knowing enough/being a dilettante)

2 Forcing things to fit/papering over the cracks.  Advice – don’t paper over the cracks – others will see, and the cracks are “how the light gets in”, anyhow

3 Reifying an object or concept

4 Interlocuters? With whom are you in dialogue

5 Publishers and examiners

4-Vs-of-big-dataIBM’s 4 Vs of big data


Good point on privacy and internet etc;

Happily use our supermarket loyalty card, but complain about the CCTV camera outside. Then go to the GP and be irritated that they don’t know we were at A and E that morning…

i.e. mild lack of consistency in this [but viva Snowden nonetheless!]

Arendt’s “how to create totalitarians/ism”

  1. Ideology
  2. Total Terror
  3. Destruction of Human bonds
  4. Bureaucracy

Vygotsky and Bourdieu mash-up!

Discuss – When it comes to (formal) education, Vygotsky is naïve on exchange value/”politics”, Bourdieu is overly dismissive of use value.

Formal education is, from a Bourdieusian sense, a system of distinction and SOME MUST FAIL (or the middle-classes get nothing from it), but that failure must be seen to be “fair” (i.e. due to individual weaknesses), so “exceptions” (one or two working class lads and lasses done good) are needed to validate t’system.  (But this must never be admitted in public!)

Disciplinarity is the “historic fracturing of knowledge and practice”

On education and politics – Legacies of Socialist Solidarity: Mozambique in East Germany book launch Tuesday 11th November here in Manchester  (the book is excellent)
Vivien Schmidt and Fourth Institutionalism/Discourse

Taking ideas and discourse seriously: explaining change through discursive institutionalism as the fourth ‘new institutionalism’

All three of the traditionally recognized new institutionalisms – rational choice, historical, and sociological – have increasingly sought to ‘endogenize’ change, which has often meant a turn to ideas and discourse. This article shows that the approaches of scholars coming out of each of these three institutionalist traditions who take ideas and discourse seriously can best be classified as part of a fourth ‘new institutionalism’ – discursive institutionalism (DI) – which is concerned with both the substantive content of ideas and the interactive processes of discourse in institutional context. It argues that this newest of the ‘new institutionalisms’ has the greatest potential for providing insights into the dynamics of institutional change by explaining the actual preferences, strategies, and normative orientations of actors. The article identifies the wide range of approaches that fit this analytic framework, illustrating the ways in which scholars of DI have gone beyond the limits of the traditional institutionalisms on questions of interests and uncertainty, critical junctures and incremental change, norms and culture. It defines institutions dynamically – in contrast to the older neo-institutionalisms’ more static external rule-following structures of incentives, path dependencies, and cultural framing – as structures and constructs of meaning internal to agents whose ‘background ideational abilities’ enable them to create (and maintain) institutions while their ‘foreground discursive abilities’ enable them to communicate critically about them, to change (or maintain) them. But the article also points to areas for improvement in DI, including the theoretical analysis of processes of ideational change, the use of the older neo-institutionalisms for background information, and the incorporation of the power of interests and position into accounts of the power of ideas and discourse.

There’s two more of these seminars, out in the provinces (Liverpool and Lancaster) in January and May next year.