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.