3:1 — Post-Method — 2 of 3

Jan has given an excellent start to think about STS and methods. According to Jan, we are in a world of “messiness” “If we look at the conceptual apparatus”, but not so much “if we look at the standard set of methods (especially of qualitative research) still in use.” I wholeheartedly agree with this analysis, and I think it points to what is wrong with the idea of mess, and how mess relates to the world and methods in the first place.

The thinking assumes that in “classical social science” sociologists believed that it is the role of the social researcher to create methods and theories that show the hidden order of the world. First of all, I think that a lot of social science never believed in this logic (most vehemently, Harold Garfinkel, but also Georges Devereux), a long time before ANT and STS came along. Second, – here is my reflexivity boomerang – even a paper like John Law’s cleans up the mess, by following precisely the logic of ordered articles: introduction, thesis, discussion, conclusion. The “need” for order, is not only one of theories of order.  It comes from how writing as practice unfolds (one word after another, quite unlike the world) and how scientific writing is standardized. This at least in part has good reasons, as John Law’s lucid article shows. But even if the diagnosis were right, and we disregard the reflexivity boomerang, the treatment is too timid.

From “the world is a mess” does not follow that our methods and descriptions should be a mess. This would simply leave us with a descriptivist duplication of the world, akin to Borges’ famous map that is a copy of the territory. The underlying problem here is that the treatment is a post-structuralist reconceptualization of methods. This is fine with me, as far as this implies to stop using methods as hammers in search of nails, or as identity (as in: I am an ethnographer, I do biographical interviews etc.). But the treatment stops with theoretical thinking about methods, leaving the practice of methods intact. John Law, in sync with most of STS, still does some form of ethnography. Post methods then, is before methods. Or, as I put it in a forthcoming article: Post-method is still based on a very particular kind of doing methods, namely textual loose translations. These are methods, such as ethnography that do one large jump from the world to a text. I prefer widening our set of methods with more and other methods instead: non-textual tight and loose translations.

I would like to suggest to explore such new methods that re-order and probe and challenge the mess. These are methods that do not translate the world into a text, but rather create new worlds. It is very much like what natural scientists do: to translate the world into something different, which then becomes an actant in itself with unforeseen repercussions for the world and the social researcher themselves. This is something very different from both (post-methods and post-structural) descriptivism and doing critical research. It is different from descriptivism because it accepts that social science needs a strong take on methods. It needs to create methods, as forms of intervention and analysis that slice the world in ways that the scientists, and not the world, decide on. It accepts all the things that ethnographers and large parts of STS abhor: creating actual laboratories, doing experiments, tinker with machines, using automated recording procedures, standardizing protocols, using and even designing all kinds of media and materials and even using force to make research participants do things they would otherwise not do, make subjects object to these procedures.

But it is also different from “critical research” in the sense that such methods do not aim towards an outcome that the researchers pre-determine. Such a world is neither a world of mess, nor a world of “post-method”. Together with my colleagues of shared inc., we call it incubations. You can call it what you like, but I suggest that you at least try it.

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34 thoughts on “3:1 — Post-Method — 2 of 3

      • I see his move into ontologies (not my favorite term as you know) as being more like Mol’s than Latour’s and so really an attempt to open us up to a more pragmatist sense (like Stengers&Rabinow) of experimentation, so not recommending (and or policing) any particular method but making any and all human-doings fair game for working-with/thru.

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        • for example Heidegger reacted against cybernetics as a kind of totalizing mind-set (Techne-ology) while Andy sees them as sort of delightfully whacky but potentially useful tinkerers much like the early days of computing in California (much to be learned I think about how those DIY experiments/experimenters got co-opted into DARPA/Apple/etc).
          Pickering and Hacking and all make the move to reframing science in terms of invention and not theory/laws and this is akin to Wittgenstein’s interventions against framing human doings as rule-following/law-abiding, putting Science and Philosophy in their place(s) [and back in the doings of embodied/environed human-beings) as Andy reminds us.

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  1. Thanks a lot for that twist, it foregrounds very nicely what is troubling with current post-method arguments. The talk about mess — you are right — is just a first step. As long as “embrace the mess” is still trying to capture it (as mess), we are just creating messy versions of what “classic social research did. Also: when you are working with engineers telling messy stories does not really help getting along.

    But “explore such new methods that re-order and probe and challenge the mess” — indeed. My impression is that these “new methods” can be extremely experimental, they can be visual or even dealing more with affect than representation. BUT they do not need to be. Quite a lot of standard methods — the interview for example or even content analysis (like Nicholas and I tried to show in our paper on reflexivity) — can be used to probe and challenge the mess. As long as you are not interviewing to create a textual version of what you study or as long as you do not analyze texts because you value its content.

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      • First of all: not all recordings and inscriptions are the same and do the same thing. the point of my contribution was to add distinctions to our discourse, not to flatten it. Second: how about: a new social world? a technology? an object? a performance (in both the theatrical and the ANT sense)?

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        • First, sure, recordings and inscriptions don’t all do the same thing (however, at my academic post, inscriptions like “journal articles” count for a lot more than, say, any other recording or inscription).

          I am worried that I simply do not fully understand parts of this discussion. For example, when you say something like making “a new social world” I do not know what that specifically means. Could you help me there?

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          • Read Hacking: Representing and Intervening. Try to think about how what he describes differs from ethnography. Read Latour, science in Action. Try to think how what he described differs from ethnography. If you dont see a difference, you are flattening: its all inscriptions! If you see a difference, try to think how STS could intervene in Hackings sense. Or look at some of our work, or indeed Sara Wylie’s work as per below, and try to think what makes this different from ethnography, not in philosophical, but methodical terms.

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            • I agree, really. There is a real difference in treating specific inscriptions (data and procedures that methodologically treat everything as “mere” text”) as the building blocks of what you can do as a social scientist … and just writing up. Or, to put it in other words: Of course the outcome is a text. But that does not mean that we need to treat everything as if it were already text — just because our methods ask us to….

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    • True, but: it is very difficult to “create” with textual methods. A content analysis does work with the content producers. There is a reason why natural scientists create all these fantastic machines that operate directly on the epistemic objecs chosen. It isnt because quarks, stones, microbes and drosophila are ontologically different from humans. It is because natural scientists are not weary of intervening. We can learn about this from countless STS books. Not all social scientists are weary of intervening, but “qualitative social science” is particularly so, after having cultivated a grudge against both statistics and laboratory experiments. What is wrong with lab experiments, is not that these make people do things they would not do outside of the lab. What is problematic is the way some people think these data relate to the world outside the lab. But this should not deter us from creating new forms of sociality in the lab or by other forms of intervention.

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      • This was recently a part of a relatively heated discussion (see link two on the Facebook page for our blog: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Installing-Social-Order/195775540456734?fref=nf) about sociology — why in the world is sociology so damned irrelevant these days? One answer, the author’s chief answer, was precisely that we don’t intervene (other than in the old adage “every inquiry is an intervention” discussion).

        Labs, in this context, could be pretty “wide open” — everything from parks to prisons to greenhouses and so on…

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        • No, I dont mean such a “wide open” idea of lab. I mean a condition for inconsequentiality. See my article here: http://hhs.sagepub.com/content/25/1/99.short
          And I am not sure whether this is how to become relevant. Because “relevance”, I guess at least in the sense as discussed above, is very much an organisational question. I.e. becoming part of government decision making circles, which at least to a large degree, is not a matter of method.

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      • Agreed, didn´t say it is a joyride. But it is worth a try. For example: you can weave a “lab setting” into an interview situation, like a parasite (or para-site, to use G. Marcus’ term). Basically then you “throw the interview itself away” – what a relieve, no transcription needed 🙂

        That does not mean that trying to invent new methods isn´t in many cases the better way. But in some forms of collaboration for example it is maybe not an option…

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        • the fact is that in any research/inter-action we are having to improvise/adjust/tinker so why not just foreground this and get over the fantasy of order/control and become more conscious (even enthusiastic) bricoleurs?

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          • Well, I guess because there is a difference between improvising, adjusting and tinkering on the one hand and intervening on the other. And it is not the level of order and control one fantasizes about that makes the difference – you can be an enthusiastic bricoleur and a curious interventionist

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            • no, if you act (and in some sense even if you decide not to act) you are intervening, now how much and what kind of impact you have is obviously an open/empirical question but to be involved is to inter-venio….

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              • Again, I am OK with this view on a philosophical level, except that it does not help us to clarify the current methodolodical practices of STS. If this is so, then why do STS people not intervene in a stronger sense, as this would make no difference to their current hands off practices?

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                • Just a guess: because of course it WOULD make a difference. It is exactly why I am sympathetic to the co-laboration/para-site attempts (not thinking that this is the golden way out of misery). Building “pop up labs” in standard situations of collaboration requires courageous improvisation. It is risky as it can be unmasked and blamed as treason.

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  2. Ad dmf: The “goal” would be to enlarge the options in the world. Not to achieve something specific. This is in my view the mistake of “critical” social science: they already know what they want to achieve, which usually takes away all suprises from research. But reserch is here to create suprises, not to achieve something specific. If we know what we want to achieve, we better create a social movement. And yes, the distinction between discovery and creation is misguided. But: As long as STS remains implicitly thoroughly on the side of description and discovery and weary of embracing creation, it is difficult to recall that separation, if we want to outline how we could do things differently. This is in my view also one of the ironies of Pickerings prject about British cybernetics. It is full of praise for the tinkerer cyberneticians, and at least when I saw Pickering talk about it, he seemed to suggest that this is the tradition we STS people should embrace, yet tinkering STS people are rare.

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    • ” enlarge the options in the world. Not to achieve something specific.” as far as I can see one can’t enlarge the options in general but only specifically with what (and who) is at hand, of course in the process the materials (writ large) will offer affordances and resistances that will shape the outcomes and take twists and turns unimagined at the start, but isn’t this exactly what folks like Pickering have found in their fieldwork of all sorts of human endeavors?
      Also not sure how Pickering being rare (or feeling like he is in outer-space, not on the same planet, as he says) is ironic as opposed to exemplary?

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      • At the last 4S meeting in Buenos Aires (with ESOCITE) there was, of course, a plenary session. In some ways it was gimmicky, because it was a lightning round of high-profile scholars each with three minutes speaking in one of three languages (which was in itself deemed something of a victory over the imperial use of English at professional society meetings). Well, the plenary in its entirety is available here: http://vimeo.com/106285283

        I show this for one purpose: about 28 or so minutes into the presentation, you meet Sara Wylie (http://www.northeastern.edu/socant/faculty-and-staff/sara-wylie-2) and her work does something in between “STS as usual” (i.e., papers in journals of various rankings) and “STS as intervention” (i.e., created ways to change the world based on the findings of her scholarship and general personal experience).

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      • Agree. I thought you meant a very utilitaristic idea of goals. Certainly my “enlarge options” wasnt meant in the abstract sense you imply. My point was simply there is a difference between some of my/our projects, which for example seek to create new disaster scenarios (http://www.migug.net/?p=593), and projects that seek to fight, say, disadvantages in the housing market.

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  3. In my recent dissertation, Spaces, Places and States of Mind, a pragmatic ethnography of liminal critique, I speak to a more complex ethnographic approach to understanding diversity ( chaos) —taking the individual actor ( me included) as the start point — rather than attempting impossible reductions to simple propositions. I like this forum. it has some great thoughts-thinkers in it!

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

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