The tree falling in the woods

Is a blog a blog if no one reads it? I can’t imagine I am the first person to think or write about this, indeed there’s probably a whole literature on the varied contours of blogs, blogging and bloggers.  I wonder about it only because a very social media savvy colleague and friend found out about my blog last week, when it came up in conversation (no idea how), and remonstrated with me for not promoting it and building up my readership. Now maybe if my primary purpose in writing the blog was to publicise the book (assuming of course it is ever completed) then she would have a strong case. But it isn’t, rather it’s meant to be a way of disciplining myself to actually make progress on the book, or at least write a number of words on a regular basis. That reference to disciplining took me off into investigating Foucault and surprise, surprise finding something else I haven’t read on ethics, governmentality and the self.

So whether or not anyone reads this, the act of writing it is important to me and I hope for progressing the book. One thing I hadn’t really thought about was the rules I would set myself in relation to writing posts. But over the last few weeks rules have emerged, including only writing blog posts when book writing has occurred, linking the post to what I am writing about, and trying to record things I discover about how I write so that they might help me, or at least not hinder me, in the future.

So is this blog just a more legible version of a diary? or a public declaration of how I am continuing to underperform as an efficient author? or a recording that sits somewhere in between public and private? At/on a boundary one might say.

I am still operating on the principle that I when I sit down to work on my book I will write about whatever element of the current book chapter that appeals to me, and that I will write without revision until I have said what I would like to say. This represents an entirely new way of writing for me, a control freak who hitherto has written to very tightly structured plans and edited contemporaneously with a verve usually associated with my dog Dylan’s approach to a chewy treat.  As with Dylan’s chews there was often very little text left at the end of this process.

So today I decided to write about the public and private dimensions of ethics. I have been puzzling over this for a little while and not being an expert in ethics I may have this entirely wrong but it does seem to me that ethics and ethical conduct is language normally associated with people’s public behaviour. So we associate ethical conduct with the adherence to accepted ethical standards of particular professions and/or institutions. The institutions and the actors are required to behave ethically in a the public domain. But we tend not to think about human actors’  dishonourable conduct towards each other in private as unethical; rather it’s deceitful, dishonest or just plain bad. But if we accept that integrity in our private conduct is as relevant a concept as integrity in our public conduct then why wouldn’t we also think about it in ethical terms?

Before we get to that the work of Janet Newman (female academic role model par excellence) alerts us to the need to stop and pause at the word ‘public’.and what it is possible for that word to mean in a divided, complex, and diverse world. Newman (2007) argues that marketisation and ‘modernisation, social diversity, and transnational flows challenge traditional ideas of ‘the public’ and confront liberal values that have hitherto defined public action in the global north. In response she suggests that we reconceive ‘the public imaginary’ as an emergent property of values which privilege transnational ethical and political claims and social and political practices of state and non-state actors that support local public action cognisant of the dominance of ideas about ‘publics’ that can limit this action. This proposal necessarily encourages diversity and failure and the role of public institutions is to guard against this and facilitate its realisation.

Building on Newman’s deconstruction and reconstitution of ‘the public’ in the context of collaboration and human actors highlights the way in which ethics can confuse our understandings of individual conduct as a public or private action. Notwithstanding the fact that in many parts of the world ‘work’ comprises and constitutes ‘life’ despite the first world cries of ‘work-life balance’, we still retain a distinction between public and private conduct and associate particular norms or codes of behaviour with each. Who ‘we’ are at work will vary and will be shaped by our agency over how we can express our identity, but for many of us there will be ways in which we behave publicly that are distinct from our private conduct.

Newman’s critique reminds us that long established norms of ‘public conduct’ are insufficient in the contemporary context. What is needed is a concept of public actors and conduct that supports ‘a ‘being together of strangers’, open to difference, passion and play (Young, 1990: 236–241). Young’s characterisation acknowledges the desirability of ‘publics’ but demands that they and any public action be inclusive of diversity and affect and emotion. Barnes et als (2007) study of public participation endorses this characterisation and Lepine and Sullivan (2009) explore it as the basis for the future role of local elected councillors as ‘public persons’. While this ‘public face’ need not necessarily be in conflict with or even compared with a ‘private face’, our conventional associations of emotion and intimacy with private actions rather than public persists and can act to blur our confidence in how to judge appropriate behaviour.

This discussion is relevant to collaboration in a number of ways. Evolving the concept of ethical public conduct to include diversity, affect and emotion adds complexity to an already congested arena of multiple professional, organisational and/or traditional ethical codes. At the same time it opens up a distinct identity for a collaborative public actor that may be more appealing than the ones available in their organisations. Ethical standards and practices may arise from the generation of norms that are associated with the workings of groups (or collaboratives) and can act to enable or constrain their functioning. These group norms may risk marginalising the collaboration by signalling it as an ‘exclusive club’, something that should call into being reference to an ethical standard linking public conduct to public interest. Ethical conduct is at least as much about individuals as it is about organisations or institutions and this is clearly evident in collaborations where the interplay between individuals within the collaboration and their engagement with their organisations or professions are equally important to their operating effectively.

Get well soon Janet.









One thought on “The tree falling in the woods

  1. Helen, very interesting piece, with things that resonated for me. I listened the other day to the obituary of the matriarch of the Timpson shoe empire…..where I think their philanthropic approach to business ( al al Cadburys, Rowntree, Port Sunlight etc) certainly was mixed with the families ethical behaviour and approach to life. She and her husband had fostered over 90 children over a 40 year period….seems to me they mixed the difficult areas of running a business with ethically the greater good, although not in the Bill Gates way.

    Your piece Lao had me thinking about specific groups of people no individuals, although I recognise your blog is about the overarching issue of ethics, both private and public, however typical for me is that I look at application to things that are happening, eg the private and public ethical behaviours of politicians, who you mention briefly. More of a case of do as I say not as I do….and then there is the whole issue of domestic violence perpetrators, usually men, usually heterosexual, although not exclusively. Given that this latter groups behaviours are very often criminal, in its narrowest legal sense, are they a group that the rationale of the blog would “ignore” ???? Or am I missing the point…..


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