PhD: Authors of our own lives?

history of lancaster

Photographs reproduced with kind permission of the University of Lancaster, 2015. From left to right: Staff and students wear gowns at an undergraduate lecture circa 1965; Undergraduates are co-taught in a staff office, circa 1973; The original library catalogue, removed in the early 1990s.

These photographs, reproduced with kind permission by the University of Lancaster 2015, show some scenes of academic practices in the past. They are all scenes that we wouldn’t see today, but once they were familiar. In my PhD I explore the history of my own subject, I look at how the everyday work and careers of sociologists have changed across different eras of university reform, and identify some of the registers of structure and agency in these processes of change. In other words, I look at the ways in which we are, and are not, authors of our own lives.

Situated in critiques of producer/consumer authority and the protection of cultural goods from the market, I draw together concepts from MacIntyre, Giddens, Pred, and Bourdieu, to develop theoretical understanding of the complex details of change that are often overlooked in accounts of university reform.

At the same time, the thesis makes steps to redress an imbalance in theories of practice which typically marginalise multi-layered relations. I do so by arguing that processes of social transformation, and of how policy impacts on everyday work, can be understood by analysing the specific conjunction of everyday practice, careers, institutions and government policy.


These scales of change were analysed in different combinations to reveal some of the registers of structure and agency in processes of change


The thesis reveals that HE policy, as it is mediated by institutions, results in situated practices of sociology in which certain methods and styles of research gain privilege over others, with implications for the kinds of knowledge produced. This theme is explored in the book chapter ‘Research Strategies’.

Second, the thesis critiques and offers an alternative understanding of time pressure as discussed in the higher education literature. By drawing on explanations of time squeeze and time famine from the sociology of consumption, work and leisure I argue that it is not only quantities of overall work, but the qualities of time made through everyday work which are important for academics’ experiences of time. These ideas are taken forward in a journal article in Time and Society.


Journal paper
Spurling, N. (in press) Differential Experiences of Time in Academic Work: How qualities of time are made in practice, Time and Society

Book chapter
Spurling, N.J. (2012) Research Strategies: ‘capital’ and the goods of social science research, in P. Trowler, M. Saunders and R. Bamber (Eds) Tribes and Territories in Higher Education: Practices in the 21st Century,London: Routledge

Working papers
Hui, A. and Spurling, N. (2013) Career Dynamics in Social Practices: accumulation, concurrent careers and career demographics, read here >>

Spurling, N.J., (2009) Becoming and Being: University Reform, Biography and the Everyday Practice of Sociologists, EPOKE Working Paper Series, n.10,  Danmarks Pædagogiske Universitetsskole, read here >>

Spurling, N. (2010) Studying Individuals and Institutions: Taking account of biography, EASST010, Trento, September 2010. EASSTslides

Spurling, N. (2009) Paths, Projects and the Careers of Practices: Visualising Pred’s time geography, 1st Social Change Climate Change Working Party, Lancaster University, 9-10 July, 2009. predslides2009

Spurling, N. (2009) Universities, Temporalities and the Research Practices of Sociologists, Seminar, DPU, June 2009

Spurling, N. (2009) University Reform and the Research Practices of Sociologists, The Challenge of Global Social Inquiry, BSA Annual Conference, 16-18 April 2009. BSA09

Spurling, N. (2008) Becoming, Being and Doing: Biography and the Everyday Practices of Sociologists, Seminar, DPU, 13th November 2008. DPU2008