Writing Reflexively: Lessons from ANT

Qualitative Sociology is producing a special issue about using ANT to write-up qualitative results.


Original from “Acting Man” at http://www.acting-man.com/?p=24647

One of the papers in now available on-line first, which is our paper about writing reflexive accounts from an actor-network approach (not actor-network theory). We had fun writing it, and, once you get toward the end, you’ll see that this paper is somewhat unorthodox …

Our title:

Beware of Allies! Notes on Analytical Hygiene in Actor-Network Account-making

Our abstract:

In science and technology studies (STS), reflexivity is not the foremost political or ethical concern that it is for some postmodernists, feminists, anthropologists, or those earnest students of Bourdieu. For us, reflexivity is a practical methodological concern. When reflexivity is raised in our scholarly communications it is, without irony, about crafting scientific communication (i.e., scholarly accounts like articles or books) reflexively. This paper therefore is an actor-network account of making reflexive actor-network accounts, specifically, in the process of writing-up qualitative research findings. It is a paper about research. It is a paper about the research process. As our empirical contribution, we report on research we previously conducted and about the subsequent steps we took toward a (publishable) way of reporting it. We are trying to honestly disclose how the process of preparing a reflexive account is more than merely a matter of cleaning upthe messiness of data, but also, and perhaps foremost, a process of finding, aligning, and occasionally distancing our accounts from our allies – in our case, actor-network theory (ANT) and reflexivity.

One paragraph with something of a hook:

As we transformed a presentation from the microcosm of professional conferences into a working manuscript for academic, peer-reviewed publishing, we encountered remarks about how reflexive we needed to be during our account-making, in particular, in our methods section. After delving into the reflexivity literature, we concluded that no “amount” of reflexivity could have made our account more reflexive because, in addition to reflexivity being part of the intransigent character of all forms of account-making, overt pleas for the epistemic virtue of adding or subtracting any form of reflexivity is an immediate dead-end for the analysts and a long-term dead-end for whatever (inter)disciplinary homes they inhabit (Ashmore 1989; Latour 1988; Lynch 2000). Our empirical analysis confirmed each of these insights.

Still, the question, “how much reflexivity was enough?” seemed all too real as we accepted critiques of our presentation(s) and received reviews of our paper. For us,
the practical problem was, how do we settle this obviously irresolvable suggestion-turned-

Thus, the oddity that we poke-at in our paper is this: in theory, we know that nothing can be added to a paper to make it qualitatively more reflexive (no additional forms of looping-back or self-referential claims); however, that is precisely what we learn when we review our own experience: it is precisely because, in theory, nothing can make a paper more reflexive that critiques claiming that we are too reflexive or not reflexive enough are so difficult to overcome. These comments are, in theory, incomprehensible, but, in a practical sense, unavoidable if you want to present or publish your work in these academic circles where reflexivity lives…

This entry was posted in Methods, New Ideas, Old Ideas, STS, Teaching, Theory, Uncategorized by Nicholas. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

13 thoughts on “Writing Reflexively: Lessons from ANT

  1. We should thank Gianpaolo Baiocchi (New York University), Diana Graizbord (Brown University), and Michael-Rodríguez-Muñiz (Brown University) for putting together the special issue and for giving us the freedom to write … well, that paper.


  2. The issue is going to be outstanding, a credit to the hard work of the three scholars named above. Contributors include: 1. Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Diana Graizbord, and Michael-Rodríguez-Muñiz writing the introduction, which is like a biography of the process of creating a special issue (awesome!); 2. Wendy Griswold, Genna Mangione and Terrence McDonnell square ANT with the sociology of culture; 3. Michael Guggenheim shows us the limits of ANT for such purposes; 4. C.W. Anderson and Daniel Kreiss look at how political entities are performed, and examines the problems with ANT and politics; 5. Isaac Marrero-Guillamón looks at urban conflicts from ANT perspective; 6. Catherine Bliss prepares a piece on ANT, race, and genomics; 7. There is our piece; and 8. John Law and Vicky Singleton make some sweet postmodern music in the final piece with an ethnography of Norwegian Salmon fishing. In all, a great collection.


      • my father was an early researcher into ecological/systems thinking and modeling so DS was on the bookshelf by the fireplace along with folks like Bateson and Dewey, I was doomed from early years.
        I always thought that higher ed could have reworked the humanities/social-sciences along the lines of his work to cultivate students into actual reflexive actors that could carry on such practices beyond the narrow (and narrowing) disciplines/habits of being students but than professors would have had to learn how to role-model such capacities and that wasn’t going to happen, so now they have no real way that I can see to save themselves from the Invisible-Hand of the Market worshiping wrecking crews.


        • I see, I see. Well, one of the issues our paper tackles directly is how to produce “self-exemplifying reflexive accounts” … which, it seems, is not too orthogonal from the concern you raise. I am not sure what it would take to create reflexive students (and we’re not just talking about self-reflective folks, although that is a start, I suppose).


      • would like to read it (and the one by John Law), my soapbox for the past decade or so has “tyranny of the means” spray-painted on it.
        Yes it would take some early socialization along the lines of what Dewey was experimenting with as trying to teach adults (even really adolescents, if there is much of a developmental difference these days) such social-skills/habits from scratch is a long and slow haul that would take much more intense and longer lasting apprenticeships than higher-ed allows for now, maybe in life after higher-ed falls under:


  3. Great thoughts, thanks for that. Do we have your email? We could see what we can do, maybe we could organize some paper exchange. And true: the form of reflexivity Schön seemed to have in mind is quite different from the meta-self-positional form of reflexivity often found in qualitative research (and that is: good qualitative research). The basic idea of a piece of writing showing the process of its production, be honest in respect to its rhetorical devices and still just positively about its topic and not cluttered with “added reflexivity” is something really unique in Latour and Wallace. Wallace was, however, the true master of this kind of move.


    • No doubt, to my mind that is the key — recognition that the only viable move forward for reflexivity studies (if they are coherent enough to call them that) is a move toward self-exemplifying texts (rather than woefully self-referential or other sterile postmodern self-looping gymnastics). The reflexivity, which is continuously available in any account that is sensible to a reader, should not be utilized in an overt plea for moral superiority or as a means of academic authenticity that other “drab” scientific accounts fail to provide. That would the worse; we are at an end of overt attempts at reflexivity. Instead, we claim, as Wallace (very smartly) only ever implies and Latour (carefully, but not in a self-exemplary way), like a tour guide, helped lead STS scholars to way back in 1988 in a theoretical discussion, that one way to “know” reflexivity is to take it up as your empirical case. That way, we can learn something practically useful about reflexivity through science rather than treat reflexivity as this harmless tool aiding your credibility or a “free pass” to navel-gaze under the guise of science.


      • certainly texts that show as well as tell (that perform what they are trying to get across) are vital tools (which is why folks like Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Derrida have additional value just as writers who are taking into consideration and working with reader-responses as they invent their rhetorical strategies/styles) but if you don’t have readers/learners who can adapt to (including making peace with if not embracing the tensions of not-knowing and trusting their more capable teachers (ideally) to work it through with them and here Schon is on point) working with unfamiliar, even alien-ating, subjects than consciously reflective texts won’t so much engender reflexivity as likely work against it. Also there is all of the nascent work on cognitive-biases to contend with. I think that my email should be available thru these comments but if not let me know, and thanks for that.
        see what you folks make of: Wittgenstein, Wheeler and Wallace: The Curious Relation of Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics


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