These reflections are based on Francesca Sobande’s May 2022 Thinklist keynote on the relationship between imaginativeness, digital culture, academic impact, and intersectionality. This post considers what can be involved in embracing ‘imaginative practice’ as scholars. It draws on themes from Sobande’s forthcoming SAGE ‘Social Justice’ series book, Consuming Crisis: Commodifying Care and COVID-19, as well as arguments made in the Marketing Theory article, ‘Hierarchies of knowledge about intersectionality in marketing theory and practice’ (co-authored with Marcel Rosa Salas).
In the inspiring words of author, scholar, and activist bell hooks, ‘To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality’.
Imaginativeness is often associated with the arts, creativity, and self-expression. However, it is central to many elements of life. Imaginativeness manifests like magic in moments of mundanity but is never humdrum in nature. It can involve creative forms of thoughtfulness and thoughtful forms of creating, but imaginativeness is always about much more than just thinking. Ultimately, imaginativeness is a space where dreams bloom and ideas come alive.
Imaginativeness and introspection
Imaginativeness is present in how people participate in storytelling practices to pass time (…remember ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…’?). Imaginativeness also appears as playing with and parsing language – from the creation and regional remixing of slang to the development of digital modes of visual communication and cultural codes.
Although imaginativeness can be connected to a strong sense of conviction, this should not be confused for hubris which is associated with ‘over-confidence, arrogance, pride, and contempt for the advice and criticism of others’. Imaginativeness may be principled, but it also involves an openness to the prospect of thinking about and doing things differently – including as scholars.
Imaginativeness springs from people’s minds – their thoughts, memories, hopes, and dreams, but is also influenced by external environments – how geo-cultural, socio-political, and material conditions impact imaginations. Imaginativeness is the power and playful possibility of creativity and introspection. It can be expressed in tangible ways – from books to photography – but experiences of imaginativeness can take very personal, and even private, forms.
Put differently, while imaginativeness can involve creating and sharing ideas, it can also involve self-reflections and inner dialogues which are never publicly shared or may solely be communicated within intentionally ‘small’, ephemeral, and opaque spaces. For these reasons, embracing imaginative practice as scholars is not just about the content and production of published work. Instead, such an approach involves engaging in ongoing and reflexive processes of intention-setting, introspection, and boundary-making. Specifically, while public engagement efforts play a significant part in imaginative practice, so too do carefully considered decisions about what not to share, and why.
Imagining impact outside of metrics-driven models
Aspects of academia frame ‘deep thinking’ – and by extension, imaginativeness – as exclusively occurring within universities’ walls. The dominant notion of ‘impact’ and ‘best practice’ in academia is based on metrics and bell curves which reflect the belief that people must be ‘exceptional’ to produce impactful work. Essentially, impact is assumed to be ‘quantifiable’ for it to be of ‘value’.
Accordingly, institutions’ ideas concerning scholarly impact are frequently accompanied by an expectation that scholars establish an ‘on-brand’ digital presence which appears to align with theirs. As such, increasingly universities express an interest in the social media follower count and digital engagement of scholars, but seldom do they seem as preoccupied with attempting to mitigate the online harms that such scholars may face. In other words, pressures to pursue scholarly impact typically dovetail with pressures to (re)present yourself and others online (but in the ‘right’ way).
I share all this to outline the starting point from which I have been thinking about imaginative practice in relation to digital culture, academic impact, and intersectionality. For imaginativeness to be fully embraced, institutions and individuals need to push against notions of ‘impact’ which uncritically equate it with ‘visibility’ and mounting numbers (of citations, followers, and credentials).
Then again, digital culture can afford structurally marginalised and precariously positioned scholars a chance to widely share and relatively autonomously archive their work in ways that academic institutions rarely facilitate. So, the benefits of such digital activity should not be dismissed, and discussion of scholarly impact and digital culture must move beyond viewing digital spaces as intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
I recognise that there is an irony in writing this post as someone who has quite consistently used Twitter since 2015, and as someone with a personal website in addition to their institutional staff page. That said, my critical reflections on this topic are not intended to be a prescriptive call for scholars to abandon all forms of ‘digital presence’, nor is this piece meant to cast judgment on those who turn to digital culture as part of how they do and share their work.
Instead, I am pondering how generative dimensions of imaginative practice, such as departing from a focus on written outputs, can be fostered both with and without the use of digital tools. This involves critically thinking about how academics’ ‘digital visibility’ can become an example of what philosophy scholar Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò terms ‘elite capture’, resulting in institutions consuming the scope for imaginative practice, and eroding boundaries between work (employers) and play (employees’ personal space).
Intersectionality and hierarchies of impact
‘Visibility’, ‘influence’, and ‘impact’ are among a wealth of words that circulate amid conversations about academia, including commentary on scholarship which addresses questions concerning business, ethics, and society. At times, ‘influence’ and ‘impact’ are ambiguous descriptors used interchangeably to infer that something and/or someone has the power to shape society – from influencing the direction of scholarly discourse to impacting policy and public debate.
When critically analysing arguments about what influence and impact entails – both in and beyond academia, it is essential to consider questions such as the following:
- Who has been identified as influential and/or impactful, and who have they been identified as influencing and/or impacting?
- What constitutes influence and/or impact in this case, and what does this reveal about geo-cultural, socio-political, and institutional conventions?
- When did such influence and/or impact occur, and for how long (E.g., what is the perceived timeline of such influence and/or impact? How ephemeral is such influence and/or impact)?
- Where did such influence and/or impact occur (E.g., what is its geo-cultural, physical, digital, and/or institutional/disciplinary location)?
- Why is such perceived influence and/or impact of interest, and what does this suggest about contemporary societal issues, power relations, and ideas about change?
As well as the above questions, I continually come back to the question of what happens when ideas about influence and impact shift away from a focus on metrics, rankings, visibility, and UK university audit processes? Also, how is intersectionality implicated in impressions of influence, impact, and individuals whose work is (not) perceived as ‘cutting-edge’ and/or ‘canonical’?
Feminist approaches to critical marketing studies have extensively highlighted how experiences of the marketplace are shaped by the intersections of forms of structural oppression such as sexism, racism, misogyny, and classism. As my co-authored work with Marcel Rosa-Salas explores, these inequalities are entwined with experiences of academia, such as the production of knowledge about intersectionality in the marketing discipline, ‘visibility’ of such knowledge, and perceptions of how ‘novel’ and ‘impactful’ it is.
In recent years, there has been a welcomed growth of research on intersectionality, marketing, and consumer culture, including studies of how people’s digital experiences are impacted by interconnected inequalities and the commercialisation of identity politics. However, particularly given the relatively newfound buzzword status of ‘intersectionality’ in the marketing discipline, it is important to stay alert to the potential for institutions (including universities) to engage such language to merely platform themselves as opposed to address intersecting structural oppressions.
Spectacle can surround ideas about imaginativeness, as well as those about intersectionality. Despite this, there is an ‘everyday’ quality to imaginativeness and to how intersectionality contours people’s lives, including experiences of academia. Unfortunately, raced, classed, and gendered stereotypes, such as that of ‘the esoteric prodigal genius’, are entrenched in academia. These restrictive visions of what it means to be an ‘impactful’ scholar, shape perceptions of what constitutes ‘valuable’ scholarship and who does it. Therefore, the work of imaginative practice includes refusing to subscribe to individualistic ideas about knowledge-production and constructs of ‘impact’ that are underpinned by interconnected hierarchies.
In short, I am continuing to think about bell hooks’ resonant words about ‘imagining possibilities’ beyond this reality, including ideas about ‘impact’ that transcend academia’s investment in metrics and the optics of so-called ‘best practice’. As I emphasised when recently contributing to a ‘media manifesto’ panel at the 72nd International Communication Association (ICA) Conference, academia needs more humility, not dogmatic prescriptivism, or paternalistic hierarchies. Aligned with that spirit, this blog post is an expression of the unfolding process of me querying who and what the digital visibility of scholars and their work benefits, while acknowledging that my own digital practices – imaginative and otherwise – are embroiled in the very processes that I’m critical of.
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