3:1 — Post-Method — 3 of 3

junk-mess

The problem with 99% of the more general discussion about post-method is that it is not about post-method. What’s wrong with 99% of post-method discussion, in general? His name is Jon Law and he titled a book After Method. Much of what we know about post-method is, naturally, influenced by that which is deemed “after method.” It is here that I stop because the subtitle of the book is especially significant. The subtitle “Mess in Social Science Research” is the real title of this book; this is because the book was about finding some way to engage — rather than paste-over and wipe-away — data anomalies or faint “traces” in our findings. There was probably some bogus publisher pressure to use a provocative title, so perhaps this is forgivable, but because the operative discussion about post-method is really about “dealing with mess” so is this post.

After reading that book, I was not post-method. I had a new attitude toward inquiry, but I was not post-method. I avoided seeing method as a privileged avenue with which truth sprang forth, but I was not post-method. I stopped conceptualizing methods as a way to “clear away the junk” and practice “good mental hygiene,” but I was not post-method. Still, we can refer to this general shift in attitude toward and conceptualization of method (perhaps, quite wrongly, as it implicates pre-method, now-method, and so on) as the operative post-method thing most scholars talk about.

What I learned was how to do research a little differently from that book of Law’s. I would not have conceived of writing a research paper about the development of a research paper as a means to tease-out how reflexivity is practically produced in actor-network accounts. Perhaps one of Law’s great contributions, and he is not the only one who gets at “the mess” this way, of course, was to take theoretical questions and make them practical and vice-versa. Just because something is compatible in theory does not mean that we should expect to see this compatibility in the field; in fact, viscous moments like these, Lynch once said, are often the most interesting. Likewise, problems that should not in theory be a problem are a problem in the field. I think of Law’s work on “foot and mouth” some years ago, “Context and Culling.” It did not occur to me that messy findings were findings at all, or that messy findings could help us understand when it was time to improve models of our subject matter based messy findings. In Law and Moser’s paper, they find that — this summary is glossy to a fault, by the way — a government program (designed to cull (i.e., the selective slaughter of, in this case,) herd animals) appeared to be a “success” on the government’s side of things, but upon closer examination, it was revealed that many herders did not kill a single animal in these areas where foot and mouth disease was now under control. The outcome, in Law and Moser’s accounting, was: now that we know this, we need to build better epidemiological models for how such diseases will be handled because a one-size fits all model, which appears to have worked, in fact, only was a success for reasons unrelated to the epidemiological modeling. 

What’s wrong with all that? 

1. Do we remake Borges’ map, but messier, if that is even possible? (good point, Michael; if we embrace the mess only to reproduce models of the mess that are life-sized equivalents, then nothing has been gained, beyond satisfying cartophilic tendencies)

2. Or, do we imply that messiness is a new one-way ticket — or detour — to scientific credibility now? (an argument Jan and I warned against strongly in our reflexivity paper) 

3. Or, do we probe and challenge the mess?  (and you can use, as Michael notes, new forms of visual or experimental methods, but, as Jan follows-up in the commentary on Michael’s post, you can also make attempts to wrangle the mess with traditional methods used with a “post-method” attitude)

*Image from: http://www.nccivitas.org/civitasreview/files/2013/09/junk-mess.jpg

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This entry was posted in 3-1, ANT, Methods, STS, Theory and tagged , , , 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.

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

  1. There is an interesting paradox in the whole issue of post-method and you managed to really single it out here: There is stuff that proposes post-method (like: “embrace the mess” or “do not clean up”) … which in fact stays totally IN the traditional framework OF method. But also there is the need to “transcended” (in a non-religious way, of course) our approach TO method that can be justified very similar to the justification that the stuff that proposes post method justifies ITS approach — but the outcome is totally different.,….or easier: there is the need to go beyond method, but post-method as it is does not do that. So…do we still join “them” — strategically? Or shouldn´t we? Thoughts?

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    • That is more or less my point: stuff that appears to be post-method rarely, rarely is post-anything; instead, the embrace the mess or don’t clean-up rhetoric overwhelmingly characterizes much of what we call post-method; if anything, therefore, we see after-method as something more akin to a new attitude before we apply method; this might be the only thing that the operative post-method has in common with Guggenheimian (let’s say) actual post-method — we have to think about methods a hell of a lot before we start doing anything …

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      • probably repeating myself here but there is always smoothing/framing in research/experimenting/mangling (just as there are in say acts of visual perception) so the question is (or at least my question is) what (and who’s entwined interests) do we measure our results/impacts against? and of course it will no longer be against things-as-they-are(were) but something new that we have assembled and find useful/pleasing/acceptable or not.

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        • Good point: “what’s the end game?” I think the problem is that “embrace the mess” is usually translated to “to gain moral rectitude” or “to enhance the truthiness” … what’s a better direction?

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          • yes so after Rorty&co drop the knightly quest for Truth/Reality and come to terms with and embrace the limits of our grasps, that even when we are handling with manufacturing microchip levels of care/cleanliness that we are mangling/manipulating things for our particular/placed/current purposes (which will/cannot ever fully grasp and which are always/already being recomposed to one degree or another).
            The wrong move (as in can’t be done) when people start to realize the existence/role of environs/backgrounds/surrounds/etc is to try and include everything (well there is another unfortunate move that Rorty diagnosed in derrideans/crypto-freudians where you ‘find’ the repressed part/player (often bearing an all too canny resemblance to the author) and claim it as the true center/end) which takes us ironically back into trying to achieve a Godseye view.

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      • The serious question we … lets say “struggled with” … this week is: what exactly is it that we need to think about when thinking about methods. There is a serious issue with that: Once you start asking that question, it is very tricky NOT to step into the trap of thinking IN the mode of method again — with all the problems attached to that…

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  2. At least how you present Laws culling paper (and how I read it as well), this is a typical case of being attentive to regional and topical differences in the field, combined with observing that policy is a form of – to frame it in a different language – “muddling through” and produces locally differentiated unintended consequences and some reflexivity on top. And obviously any serious ethnographer would be attentive to this. In that sense, it only highlights that our methods (yes, methods!) should be geared towards being able to see and account for differences in the field. I dont see anything particularly interesting about this in terms of *methods*. In particular, because this does not relate to theories of the researcher, but theories of what counts as “success” in the field. It could probably teach us something, if our theory of “muddling through” or unintended consequences were somehow complicated or refuted, because of some *methodological* trick (for example, if the story would be very different, if we had a crazy-precise video-transcription which could show us that a certain policy only happened because some hiccup was misunderstood in a meeting as a number of sheep to cull). But this does not seem to happen. This is not a critique of the article, I just try to point out that in my view, that from a methods point of view, nothing particularly interesting is happening here.

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    • Not disagreeing on that point — that, from the methods angle — nothing much is outstanding or interesting. Still, as I mention in the post, MUCH of what goes for post-method in STS is exactly the sort of work Law and Moser do in the culling paper — this is what I’m calling the operative post-method (even if, literally, it is not post much).

      >

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    • how does one separate ” theories of the researcher” from ‘theories of what counts as “success” in the field”, barring the lone-wolf/uninstitutionalized “independent” researcher/performance artist? theory and success (in a field or out) aren’t really divisible are they, one has to at least convince oneself I would imagine (even in an ironical work or farce)?

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  3. Sorry for being so negative. But maybe this is coming from not really getting what you and also Jan suggest in terms of methods. I dont disagree that we can deal with “mess” “with traditional methods with a post-method approach”, but I thought the whole exercise of this 3 in 1 was about methods and how to go after them, and not how to “approach” existing methods.

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    • I think it was both — and both are more than welcome is the discussion, at least, to my mind. In fact, after reading more of your stuff — the articles and your web-based material (esp. the subjects creating and responding to disaster scenarios), I am convinced that you’ve got at least one viable path for STS after method. It was eye-opening once I got what “inconsequentiality” means specifically in your work in the microcosm of the post-method discussion. The same goes for “making new social worlds” notion, which is also something that was hard for me to grasp after only hearing “making new social worlds,” but now that I get what you mean it does seem like a viable path forward too. Still, to provide readers with the broadest possible context, I — at least, possibly Jan too — wanted to provide what we see as the “operant” or “operational” discussion common in the field or at least in the circles we run in. So, to answer your question bluntly: both/and rather than either/or.

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