3:1 — Post-Method — 1 of 3

For this week’s 3-1 we are dealing with the nuts and bolts of social analytics: methods! Are we living in a post-method world? What are its contours? How does it operate? We will try to find out!

In a more than 10 year old paper John Law characterized methods as tools for intellectual hygiene: “Do your methods properly. Eat your epistemological greens. Wash your hands after mixing with the real world.” But what if the problems we tackle are messy? What if trying to tidy them up leads us away from grasping the flavor of what we are studying? Can we deal with the vagueness, messiness, uncertainty and the diffuse character of multiple, not necessarily consistent realities? And can we, on the other hand, understand the performative effects of our standard methods, can we understand “seeing like a survey”? This double move towards social inquiry “after method” lets us migrate to a post-method regime of social research where the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure of our research practice allow us to embrace the heterogeneity, multiplicity and temporality of the social.

But this is more than 10 years ago. It seems to me that approaches like Law’s can be understood as the beginning of a shift in the epistemic order of the (in a very broad sense) social sciences. But like in most shifts that are still ongoing one cannot really tell where we is heading. Where are we now? Did the find our way towards vagueness and messiness? It seems to me that there is a double answer: it is yes if we look at the conceptual apparatus; it is no if we look at the standard set of methods (especially of qualitative research) still in use. But there is hope, I think. There is a quite recent movement in cultural anthropology and it is not so much framed as a methodological innovation, but as a way to cope with the hustles of interdisciplinarity, especially in cases where – as in the case of cultural anthropology and neurobiology – disciplinary answers to a similar problem are usually not very compatible. Co-laboration, not collaboration, para-site(d), not multisited: this attitude towards using not only, but also the standard set of methods in an interventionist, experimental and, sometimes, tongue-biting and ambiguous way. Why does that lead us into a post-method world? Because seen this way, methods stop being means of intellectual hygiene. They even stop being tools for knowledge production at all. They become attempt of intervening, of entanglement. They start to be methods in a literal sense: meta hodos, a transcending road.

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About Jan

Jan studied Sociology, Political Sciences and Computer Science. As a Research Group Leader at the MCTS in Munich he connects Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies by working on problems of social structure and infrastructures, human and non-human agency and discourse and material culture.

19 thoughts on “3:1 — Post-Method — 1 of 3

  1. I am thinking about that old Law paper, some of his more recent work, along with — how can you think about Law without it — Airplane Stories. I am also thinking about Law’s finest students along with Annemarie Mol’s stuff. With all that in mind, I am not so sure that the stuff going on in Cultural Anthropology — the co-lab stuff about anthro folks literally inside labs together with, for example, chemists and so on — and I wonder how much those two lines are really intertwined. I get Law’s point and a few of his papers in the interim have really embraced the “don’t smooth over the details” (esp. the stuff on foot and mouth disease and the paper about the train accident); however, that all this activity and intervention in CA is inspired by the post-method push in STS evades me and my reading. Is there such a link or am I just giving in to the juxtaposition in your two paragraphs?


  2. Well, it is a juxtaposition I tried to build. There is no manifest link, although quite a lot of what is going on in CA is related to the move to onto-politics, onto-norms, onto-issues and to the works of Mol and other. I seems to me that somehow we are not after method, although we sure are no longer “during” method. So are there interesting ideas how to deal with the issues of method in a non-representionalistic way? Are there good example of how to adopt the interventionist attitude?


  3. Hmmmmm … well, I can see the juxtaposition, but a firm link — perhaps not really even necessary — is not there, but perhaps you are right that both are part of a broader shift toward onto-[fill in the blank] that is afoot now. I suppose, but that does not mean that they are both “after” method, does it? I really don’t know about that one. I like the messiness idea the very best because insight can be generated by emphasizing the idea that many methods — and I mean, you learn this by studying methods in books and in the classroom where you learn that themes found in interview data need to be “robust” or that ethnographic field notes need a particular structure — are all about smoothing over the oddities and only reporting what they reliably depict. Reminds me, and I’ll likely write about this later this week, about “Sociology of the Trace,” an edited book that I recently reviewed that attempts to interact — no perfectly, of course — with some of this dialog about how our methods don’t capture well a few really important things … like silenced protestors, censored scholarship, and so on (they only leave, with the methods we have, “some traces”). The review is part of an article essay in International Sociology here: https://www.academia.edu/5931124/A_new_direction_in_political_sociology_proofs_


    • Indeed. The issue I tried to point to is this: there is a strange “dual use of method” even in projects in the messiness camp: while we “know” that methods are devices of hygiene that smooth over important stuff, we — in practice — tend to continue doing interviews, text analysis and draw Gephi-networks (of course always with a post-method disclaimer). The co-laborative/para-sited approach seems to be different in this respect: they practically redefine what the purpose of method might be. Given that I would count Law’s fish farm texts as being written more in the spirit of this approach than in what he proposed in After Method.


      • There is yet another “schism” in need of mention: what about all that debate (so 80s and 90s now, but relevant) about how every inquiry (pre- or post-method) was an intervention? That makes this new CA stuff seem so much less radical.


        • I still think it is – and not so much because “now it is interventions”, but because the whole approach to “method” is different: it is for example not that “interviews are also interventions (so be careful)”…it is that “interviews are used to intervene” – like breaching experiments disguised as “standard social research”


          • “Interviews are used to intervene” and “intervenes are an intervention” … that leap is not so large and is primarily based on “intention” which is not really stable grounds for methods, is it? (i.e., what makes it so different is that in the “tradition” intervention-thinking the interview is an intervention and in the new CA intervention-thinking the interview is used as an intervention)


  4. I don’t know what it would mean to be “post” method except to just be improvising/reacting and than one isn’t studying/researching/experimenting but just ‘relating’ or some such thing,
    and along these lines this ” it is yes if we look at the conceptual apparatus; it is no if we look at the standard set of methods” doesn’t make sense to me unless we are talking about applying methods without understanding them and why we are using them (are mere technicians if you will). On the broader point (I think) of course we cannot capture every aspect of something (the whole bloomingbuzzingconfusion), and nature (if you will) is not cut at the joint, and we cannot know all of the outcomes of our doings so we should own that and proceed with all due slowness (as Stengers) cautions, I don’t see any of the so called new multi/inter-disciplinary efforts being more successful than past ones at establishing new forms of research because there is no set common ground/practice that will serve all (even most) situations/interests, so why not own up that we are (as STS showed lab-sciences are) engineering assemblages with goals/work-products in mind?


  5. Pingback: 3:1 — Post-Method — 2 of 3 | Installing (Social) Order

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