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