An exercise in distancing
Last week I had my final review for my PhD, which is the formal meeting at my University to ensure I am on track and ready to submit by this September. At that meeting I presented my research in five minutes, and I wondered how on earth I could condense my thesis into such a short space. In order to gain some distance and ‘see the wood for the trees’ I borrowed Annette Naudin’s idea to write about your thesis as if someone else is quoting you in their literature review. I found it strange at first but ultimately very useful for presenting three years of work in a few minutes.
So below is my attempt at gaining some distance from my own work. I changed it back to first person for my final review, but this first iteration was crucial for helping me get there in the first place.
Patel (2017) explores expertise in cultural work in greater depth, specifically how cultural workers signal expertise on social media. Her thesis, titled ‘The Politics of Expertise in Cultural Work’, highlights the contemporary relevance of expertise debates in political and popular culture, and uses this context to demonstrate the necessity of individual, everyday expertise in mitigating the risks of an unstable and volatile economic, social and political climate in the West. Focusing on the everyday expertise of cultural workers, including writers, painters, sculptors, composers and craftspeople, Patel provides a novel and timely account of the everyday skills, mastery and technique practised by cultural workers and how their expertise is presented, mediated and negotiated on social media platforms.
She offers a methodological framework for analysing how expertise is signalled on social media, drawing on the signalling expertise framework of Candace Jones (2002) and adapted for a qualitative analysis of expertise on social media. In her research Patel highlights the implications of signalling expertise on social media for cultural labour – such as its role in cultural workers’ everyday practice, how cultural workers negotiate their presentation of self and their expertise on social media, and gendered strategies for signalling expertise.
Patel offers a general definition of expertise which is: “the possession of specialised knowledge or skill, which is recognised by others as legitimate, and accumulated, mobilised and signalled within a particular social context.” Patel also acknowledges the specific forms of expertise required in cultural work, most notably, aesthetic expertise. Drawing on the history of aesthetics as outlined by Martha Woodmansee (1994) and Paul Oskar Kristeller (1951; 1952), she proposes that aesthetic expertise comprises knowledge of aesthetic codes and classifications, and skill in mastering the tools and techniques to produce a work of aesthetic value. Patel demonstrates how aesthetic expertise can be signalled on social media by cultural workers who confidently reveal aspects of the artistic process and discuss it in detail, whilst effectively managing their relationship with their online audience at the same time. A cultural workers’ ability to demonstrate and describe their process and techniques can be enhanced through the affordances of social media platforms by providing work in progress, creating tutorials, or interacting with the audience to produce testimonials and positive feedback which add to their profile.
Some of the implications revealed through the analysis include the pressure cultural workers experience to maintain an online presence, which for some punctuates and adds to daily work pressures. Cultural workers also need to negotiate what to reveal, and what not to, on social media in order to balance the maintenance of their presence with managing the imagined audience. Rather than just promoting their work, Patel reveals that the women cultural workers engaged with other women online more, sharing work and collaborating to attempt to facilitate a wider raising of visibility, which is a much more relational strategy for signalling expertise than the more one-way, promotional tactic of the men.
Patel raises questions about cultural value on social media – as cultural production online is increasingly motivated by engagement and getting the online attention of users. What could a preoccupation with numbers mean for cultural value? While social media platforms present positive possibilities for wider engagement and lowering barriers to access to cultural production, Patel argues that the democratising potential of social media is misleading – those who really want to make a living from cultural work still need the social, cultural and economic capital to make that happen, and social media will not change that. Overall, Patel provides useful insights into the individual experiences of cultural workers, and the politics of expertise in contemporary cultural work.
The distance really helped me to reflect on the key take-away points of the thesis, and of course its contributions to knowledge. It will be interesting to see how much it changes between now and the viva.