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.

Infrastructures of offshore drilling

Thanks to Paul Edwards for posting this, this is visually and empirically amazing. I am not sure if it fits Urry´s analysis of offshoring focussing on “Offshore, out of sight, over the horizon are some of the troubling processes and metaphors by which much life has been rendered opaque and dependent upon secrets and lies.” As the map wonderfully shows  – offshore is pretty connected to shores…but of course, that map has to render that visible first…

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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.

Joining us for this week’s 3-1 on Post-Method: Michael Guggenheim (Goldsmiths)

For this week’s 3-1 we are trying to tackle the nuts and bolts of (social) science: method. How do we live in a world “after method” (Law)? Can we design new ones? Throw-away methods maybe? Interventionist approaches? Co-Laborative or para-site designs? Are we working in a post-method regime of social analytics? We try to find out! Joining us this week is Michael Guggenheim, sociologist of science, technology, expertise and art and Senior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London. His approach to experimental design, art and ethnography, the visual and…cooking is unique and thought-provocing. We are very happy to welcome you to Installing (Social) Order!

3:1 — Post-STS — 2 of 3

Do academic disciplines die? They are born, they are propagated, they are institutionalized. But can they disappear? While thinking about possible paths into a (hypothetical) Post-STS world, I tried to think of blueprints of such a path. There are some examples, yes, but none of them can really serve as a banner case: classic rhetorics, alchemy, classical (national) economy — sure we are post them, but what happened? Rhetorics? Still valued, but even in ancient Greece it has been a craft and a science and it seems that it today just embraces craft-i-ness. Alchemy? Well, yes, but that was, if you will, the lab work of natural philosophy and both lab and theory live on in modern chemistry and pharmacology. Classical (national) economy? Oh come on — that is not dead, it just serves as the dismissed precursor of neo-classical economy. So…do disciplines die? Well, we have talked about leftovers quite a lot and it seems part of the “dark side” of institutions is that it is hard to finally get rid of them.

That set aside: in a way I agree that the dream of STS has always been one of a world in which it is no longer necessary, but there are two versions of that dream. The first is mainly about the background of those who turned to STS: Wouldn´t it be great if sociology, philosophy, history and so on were more about science and technology? Isn´t STS sociology, philosophy or history how it should be? And would a world in which STS is no longer necessary not just a world in which the old disciplines finally noticed the importance of S&T for our contemporary world? The second is this: Wouldn´t it be fantastic if we could help technoscience to be so reflexive and aware of how they shape our world that no STS is necessary any more? And isn´t a Post-STS world just a world of upgraded technoscience? Both Post-STS worlds are incompatible as the success of the latter makes the former impossible: if technoscience does not need STS anymore, if sure does not need an upgraded sociology, philosophy or history of science or technology. But if technoscience still needs STS it would be counterproductive to disband the joint forced of our inter-discipline and talk different S&T related sociological, philosophical and historical lingo again, right?

Given these options, a Post-STS world would be one of failure, not of success. But on the other hand: given that the death of a discipline is a rather rare event, we can be pretty sure that STS will be around for a while. After all: look at Horizon 2020 (the current EU funding scheme) or similar statements of national funding agencies. The more they ask projects in particle physics or urban engineering to integrate ELSA (ethical, legal, social aspects), the more they strengthen the demand for sociologists, philosophers and historians who can help. In living the Post-STS dreams, it seems, we are strengthening an STS world.

3:1 — Postmodernity — 2 of 3

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Growing up with Baudrillard, Lyotard and Luhmann as well as with Bobby Brown, White Noise and Twin Peaks it always seemed to me that the tenets of postmodern thinking are so deeply engraved into my perception that I can hardly distance myself from that. This is still evident whenever I see someone raising a point that just has the smell of modernism: “trust in the independence of science!”, “We can manage our natural resources in a rational way!” or “This is why Ukraine wants to turn towards the West!” As a well trained postmodern I cannot help myself, I have to utter at least a statement of doubt, if not disbelieve. I also never felt the need hide this well habituated scruples when it comes to modernism, as for me, feeling well aligned to a tradition from Weber and Simmel to Adorno and Luhmann the task of sociology has never been simply to understand modernity but to work on the intellectual tools to deal with the both the pleasures and the discomfort it creates.

On the other hand: raised in sociology just before the turn of the chiliad I also never experienced the playfulness that made postmodern thought so appealing to some that were trained just a decade or two earlier. It must have been liberating for someone raised to be a modern, serious sociologist in a time when quite obviously the principles of modernism were crumbling. But I never really felt the pleasure of pastiche, bricolage and of following the interwoven threads of intertextuality – for me what was most evident about the postmodern condition was the inevitable horror and the unshrinkable terror that Jean Baudrillard´s hyperrealism and David Lynch´s Blue Velvet captured so well. There it was again, the discomfort that I assumed early sociologists tried to deal with at the turn to modernity. Modernity was gone, the terror remained. For me postmodern sociology, like its modernist sibling, was damn serious.

Only that of course it was not. Diving into Cultural Studies and Semiotics, into Intertextualities and interwoven layers of denotation and connotations when I turned towards media studies I could not help it: All that emphasis on empowered readers and on the politics of pleasure that consumption offered seemed to me seemed to just cover the entrance to the limbo of our contemporary condition. The doubt about ways of the moderns — isn´t it also justified in the case of the postmoderns? If we have never been modern, have we ever been postmodern? My best guess is that we have not. We do not need to be. We need to take the achievements of both the moderns and the postmoderns serious: science, technology, politics as well as hyperrealism, simulacra and irony — without trying to be either modern or postmodern. And we are still in need on the intellectual tools to deal with both the pleasures and the discomforts that both modernism and postmodernism provided us with.

*image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/julie_coulter/5070699614 (CC)

New review of Graham Harmans “Reassembling the Political” on Circling Squares

Philip over at Circling Squares just blogged about his first read of Graham Harman´s new book on Latour´s political philosophy. Both book and review are worth a look (and: remembering my impressions when reading the Prince of Networks I assume Philip´s thoughts on Harman´s new book resonate with me quite well…):

Much like his previous writings on Latour, Harmans new book should not be read as a neutral introduction. Just like Prince of Networks, Harman really ends up talking about himself and his own interests via the medium of Latours concepts. Harmans clear, accessible and sometimes entertaining prose style, and the excessively extended introductory quotations, should not distract from this point. The final two fifths of the book are far stronger than the earlier part with interesting and valuable discussions of Zizek and Strauss. However, as mentioned above, it appears to be a book written both in a hurry and in a style that fosters the appearance of being relatively neutral and introductory while in fact being anything but. Once again, Harman completely ignores the more interesting and complex, pluralistic aspects of Latours work and his unwavering groundedness in problems.

 

via Circling Squares: Harmans Reassembling the Political—Some first impressions.

Book Symposium on “The Materiality of Bureaucracy” in HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory

For those of you that are interested in the machinery of governance there is a wonderful book symposium in HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory. HAU is:

…an international peer-reviewed, open-access online journal which aims to situate ethnography as the prime heuristic of anthropology, and return it to the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline.

HAU – focus and scope

I know there are many new peer-reviewed, open access online journals out there and sometimes, lets be honest, their quality is dubious. But HAU is really cool, the research is very empirical, the book symposiums very enlightening, and their recent “classics” series is totally fascinating.

The symposium is on Michael Hull´s “Government of Paper”, in itself an interesting read. Here is the list of contributions, check it out!

Book Symposium – Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan (Matthew Hull)

Materiality, materialization PDF
Constantine V. Nakassis 399–406
Matthew Hull and ethnographies of the state PDF
Katherine Verdery 407–10
The question of the political: Thinking with Matthew Hull PDF
Naveeda Khan 411–15
Travels among the records: Some thoughts provoked byGovernment of paper PDF
Justin Richland 417–20
Paper as a serious method of concern PDF
Stephen M. Lyon, David Henig 421–25
Reflections on dysfunctional functioning in the political economy of paper PDF
Michael Gilsenan 427–30
On signatures and traces PDF
Béatrice Fraenkel 431–34
Messy bureaucracies PDF
Akhil Gupta 435–40
The materiality of indeterminacy . . . on paper, at least PDF
Matthew S. Hull 441–47

On (reading) the Inquiry into Modes of Existence

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There is a book that I try to read for weeks now. I always read a few pages, then put it back, pick it up again, read, shake my head and put it down again. You would probably not believe it, but this book is Bruno Latour´s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns”.

For those who have not touched AIME yet, Latour´s “new” book is not just a book, it is a book + website + collective inquiry, funded by the European Research Council and run by Science Po´s Media Lab. The printed version, the text, is supposed to be mainly a manual, not the report itself. The collective inquiry started somewhere in 2012, being first introduced at Azim Premji University some time before the french publication of the book in September 2012 and the launch of the platform in November 2012. Anglophone readers could join after the publication of Cathrine Porters translation in August 2013, a german translation by Gustav Roßler will be published this July. The project itself, maybe best described in a short piece published in Social Studies of Science, is what could be called a positive version of the, well, negative points made in “We have never been modern”. It is — finally — tackling a problem that accompanied actor-network theory since its beginnings (or at least: since its first movements outside the lab): If everything is made from networks, and “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else”: how to deal with what the moderns have called the differences of regions, spheres, fields, systems like science, law, politics, religion, organization? How can we flatten our approach without loosing our ability to account for the only kind of multiplicity that modernity has accepted, but continuously misunderstood as domains of knowledge? And what do to with what modernity has positioned at the source of knowledge — the self — or its object — matter?

Latour does that — Whitehead, Souriau, James and Tarde in his backpack and ready to dismiss the “Greimas” part of the “ANT is part Garfinkel, part Greimas” definition — by trying to sketch what he calls, borrowing a term from Souriau, “modes of existence”. Like the “regimes of enunciation” that populated earlier writings, especially those on religion and law and that have the same problem as Greimas’ actants, namely that they invoke a textual, discursive, narrative interpretation of what is at stake, modes of existence try to capture what “passes” through the various heterogenous networks that ANT had described. But of course, as in the case of science, the modes are not domains. There is more than passing reference in laboratories and more than politics in parliaments and more than religion in churches. The modes are the multiple forms of being, not essences — or, in Latour´s words, not being-as-being, but being-as-others — that populate the lab, the church, the parliament and that the moderns have crossed specifically and confused with the values they hold dear. The question that runs through the book is: can we find ways to speak with the moderns about what they hold dear without falling back into the traps that the modern constitution has put all over the landscape: the bifurcation of nature, the subject/object distinction, the crossed out god(s)?

As a long time reader of Latour´s work, I find the book both tempting and troubling, making be shift continuously between agreement and the feeling that something is terribly wrong with it. And since the moment I started reading the book, I am trying to find out what it is that produces that oscillation. I first thought it was the tone: the book is written in a very careful and modest, but at the same time educational, sometimes even cavalier style. But the tone, although puzzling at first, surprisingly funny after a few chapters. Then I thought it was the system of 15 modes and I felt the terror of reification and loosing not only the Greimas, but also the Garfinkel side. But no, that is not really the problem, as the inquiry is explicitly provisional. But the feeling that something is wrong remains. My current guess is that it has to do with the both too broad and too narrow definition of “the moderns”: what is said about religion is mostly about catholic christianity; what is said about law is mostly about discretionary adjudication, a very specific form of dealing with legal means in the Conseil D´Etat. The Moderns are at the same time “us”, “rich westerners”, “white moderns” and a species long gong. I guess expect more sensitivity and caution from something that calls itself anthropology. But I am still not sure that is source of my problem reading this book. Have you read it? Are your experiences similar? Thoughts?

 

Kyle McGee’s ‘Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks’

Thanks a lot to Philip for pointing us to Klye McGee´s new book, and especially to the three pieces on the AIME website:

There are three extracts from the book on the AIME website (registration required):
The co-presence of [pol] and [law]
The ontology of lawyer jokes
Legal reasoning as de-stratification

I am so looking forward to checking the book out. Or maybe i just wait for a review on: Circling Squares: Kyle McGee’s ‘Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks’.

Latour´s Cosmocolosse. A project of Gaia Global Circus

I am just listening to the german translation of the radio version of Latour´s first play “Cosmocolosse. A project of Gaia Global Circus (written with Frédérique Ait-Touati & Chloé Latour) that was just released in December. I remember that Paul Edwards told me about this being work in progress last summer – and it seems there is no english translation that you can listen to. But the text is available…and reading (to cite Niklas Luhmann´s comment on why he had no TV set) is much faster than listening or watching.

Easing Sociology into the Non-Modern World?

In a recent post on “Understanding Society”, Daniel Little discussed some recent development in the philosophy of social science: Analytic Sociology, Critical Realism and Actor-Network Theory. Here is how it goes:

Understanding Society: How do the poles of current PSS interact?

Start with a few resonances between ANT and CR. Both are grounded in a philosophical system (Deleuze, Kant), and they both make use of philosophical arguments to arrive at substantive conclusions. (…) But a point of contrast is pervasive: CR is realist, and ANT is constructionist.

(…) The anti-philosophical bent of AS makes it difficult for AS scholars to read and benefit from the writings of ANT scholars (witness, for example, Hedstrom’s dismissal of Bourdieu). The model of explanation that is presupposed by AS — demonstration of how higher-level entities are given their properties by the intentional actions of individuals — is explicitly rejected by ANT. (…)

Finally, what about the relation between AS and CR? On the issue of causation there is a degree of separation — AS favors causal mechanisms, preferably grounded in the level of individuals, whereas CR favors causal powers at all levels. (…) But here there is perhaps room for a degree of accommodation, if CR scholars can be persuaded of the idea of relative explanatory autonomy advocated elsewhere here.

via Understanding Society: How do the poles of current PSS interact?.

Somehow I felt a bit like I was suddenly in an academic version of an episode of Doctor Who, jumping back in time, stranded in 1992. In a paper that came out in parallel to the well know “Chicken Debate” (Collins/Yearly 1992; Latour/Callon 1992), but that was burried in a edited volume (McMullin 1992), Latour moved ANT explicitly away from what until then was called the “Social Studies of Science” and towards a framework to deal with the moderns. He wrote:

“A radical is someone who claims that scientific knowledge is entirely constructed ‘out of’ social relations; a progressist is someone who would say that it is ‘partially’ constructed out of social relations but that nature somehow ‘leaks in’ at the end. (…) a reactionary is someone who would claim science becomes really scientific only when it finally sheds any trace of social construction; while a conservative would say that although science escapes from society there are still factors from society that ‘leak in’ and influence its developmentIn the middle, would be the marsh of wishy-washy scholars who add a little bit of nature to a little bit of society and shun the two extremes.(…)” (Latour 1992: 277)

And then concludes:

“If one goes from left to right then one has to be a social constructivist; if, on the contrary, one goes from right to left, then one has to be a closet realist.  (…) It is fun to play but after twenty years of it we might shift to other games (…)”

Hmmm. Maybe it is not Doctor Who, maybe it is Groundhog Day and we are just waking up again at 6:00 to the voices of Sonny and Cher. Do we really have to have the same debate again, now not in the philosophy of science but the philosophy of social science? Maybe there is a reason to do that – after all, Phil Connors has to repeat his morning routine over and over again until he starts making himself a better man and finally finds a way to love and happiness. After all, Little does indeed think it is important to add “ANT to the menu for the philosophy of social science, at least as a condiment if not the main course” and there are others in that field today that share his opinion. Maybe if we don´t discuss those issues again and try to work diplomatically with the moderns (in this case: AS and CR…) on what they value most, we are selfish and grumpy fools – like the character that Bill Murray played so beautifully. But it is not tempting to know that the sound of “I got you babe” will be with us for a while. Is there a way out? A shortcut? A “shift to other games”?

Limn (4) on Food Infrastructures

Limn (“Limn is somewhere between a scholarly journal and an art magazine”), edited by Stephen J. Collier, Christoffer M. Kelty and Andrew Lakoff, just published its fourth issue on food infrastructures. Here is the opener, check it out:

Issue Number Four: Food Infrastructures

edited by Mikko Jauho, David Schleifer, Bart Penders and Xaq Frohlich
This issue of Limn analyzes food infrastructures and addresses scale in food production, provision, and consumption. We go beyond the tendency towards simple producer “push” or consumer “pull” accounts of the food system, focusing instead on the work that connects producers to consumers. By describing and analyzing food infrastructures, our contributors examine the reciprocal relationships among consumer choice, personal use, and the socio-material arrangements that enable, channel, and constrain our everyday food options.

With articles by Christopher Otter, Franck Cochoy, Sophie Dubuissson-Quellier,  Susanne Freidberg, Heather Paxson, Emily Yates-Doerr, Mikko Jauho, Kim Hendrickx, Bart Penders and Steven Flipse, Xaq Frohlich, David Schleifer and Alison Fairbrother, Javier Lezaun, Michael G. Powell, Makalé Faber-Cullen and Anna Lappé!

via Issue Number Four: Food Infrastructures | Limn.

Happy Holidays! See you all next year

This has been an interesting year for all of us at installingorder.org. We had a number of good topics this year and we are very happy that the blog is now way more interactive than it was before. We have been a little quite over the summer, sorry for that, but we are back since 4S 2013 in San Diego which was a great conference and a fantastic meeting for all who study societies sociotechnical nerves.

Stefanie Fishel joined us, first as a guest blogger, then as full time author. Thanks for the great input, Stef! Next year will see guest bloggers again, starting with Andrzej W. Nowak from the  Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. (See his TedXPoznan talk on youtube, sad that I don´t speak polish). We are looking forward to that! And there will be more! Expect 2014 to be as interesting as the last.

For the rest of the year we will, as most of you will too, take a little break and rest over the holidays. Have yourself a merry Christmas, if you want to have it, or happy Hanukkah, if that is yours, or a great flying spaghetti monster gathering. However you spend your days, think about Santa´s little elves at Amazon, FedEx or DHL and about the massive infrastructural work necessary to let you have some Eggnog, Chestnuts or that box of Breaking Bad episodes that you need for the upcoming festivities. See you all next year!

New Journal coming: Big Data & Society

Our friend Evelyn Ruppert at Goldsmiths is editor and founding editor of a new open access peer reviewed journal that is in the making. We have met Evelyn the last time at 4S in San Diego where she contributed to our “State Multiplicity, Performativity and Materiality: Current STS Research on State and Stateness” sessions with a great talk on “Peopling Europe”. She is also known to many for her co-lead on the Social Life of Methods theme at CRESC.

Big Data & Society (BD&S) is an open access peer-reviewed scholarly journal that publishes interdisciplinary work principally in the social sciences, humanities and computing and their intersections with the arts and natural sciences about the implications of Big Data for societies.

 

The Journal´s key purpose is to provide a space for connecting debates about the emerging field of Big Data practices and how they are reconfiguring academic, social, industry, business and government relations, expertise, methods, concepts and knowledge.

 

BD&S moves beyond usual notions of Big Data and treats it as an emerging field of practices that is not defined by but generative of (sometimes) novel data qualities such as high volume and granularity and complex analytics such as data linking and mining. It thus attends to digital content generated through online and offline practices in social, commercial, scientific, and government domains. This includes, for instance, content generated on the Internet through social media and search engines but also that which is generated in closed networks (commercial or government transactions) and open networks such as digital archives, open government and crowdsourced data.  Critically, rather than settling on a definition the Journal makes this an object of interdisciplinary inquiries and debates explored through studies of a variety of topics and themes.

 

BD&S seeks contributions that analyse Big Data practices and/or involve empirical engagements and experiments with innovative methods while also reflecting on the consequences for how societies are represented (epistemologies), realised (ontologies) and governed (politics).

viaBig Data & Society: About the Journal.

Is that really what is “wrong” with STS? Is there anything wrong?

Toolbox

Yesterday Nicholas posted a comment from org-theory that tries to grasp what might be wrong with STS. And although the discussion below that post is fascinating and thought-provocing, I am not so sure in more than two ways if the diagnosis is correct. First I do not agree that the focus on “authorial” concepts (the A->x structure) is really the way STS ticks. That “Latour -> actant” or “Callon -> Agencement” or “Mol -> Multiplicity” schema might work for attribution from the outside, but I am pretty sure Bruno, Michel and Annemarie do not really care. In fact: most prominent concepts have their “one-hit” appearance…for example “hybrids” in WHNBM, the “nonhuman” in the book on Pasteur. What is really at stake is the phenomena these terms try to capture: we have more than one concept to capture heterogeneity, more than one to capture instability, more than one to capture arrangements, more than one to capture translation.

And second I really do not agree that outside of STS the so called “Mertonian Model” is the model we find in practice of, lets say, organizational theory. One should take a deeper look – maybe an STS project on practice in org theory – to really make that point, but the latest prominence of “fields” -> Fligstein/McAdam, “networks” -> White or the classic ones like “garbage can” -> CMO, “embeddedness” -> Granovetter look pretty much like the A->x structure to me. That is no critique, but I doubt that the distinction between two modes (two cultures …hahaha) of scholarly practice really makes sense. I would prefer asking what role both modes (and maybe a few more) play in the production of science and technology and how one shifts from one to the other in practice.

Another take on the issue would play the old tune of reflexivity: As we are scientifically looking at science we cannot simply hammer variables down (as this is, as we have seen, not really what other scientists are doing anyway); nor can we just play the post-modern relativist (as this is disrespects the craft of science on so many levels). So what should we do? One way is to build up our own labs, our own inventory of used and not used inscription devices, some highly tinkered, some dusty, some in the center of the lab, some in the garage. Misunderstanding “concepts” (like agencement, actant, inscription device, lab, etc.) or styles (like the fictional observer in Lab Life or the “Voice of Aramis”) either as mertonian or as authorial is like treating a chromatograph as a scientific paper. They are devices, tools, workbenches to produce reflexive phenomena. Like the wonderful machines in biotech labs our devices might look strange to those not used to working with them on a day to day basis. Ours are cheap, at last…that is why we can dump them so easily and come up with another.

Lowercasing “sts” and “ant” – What comes next?

On various occasions during the last few months I noticed that we in STS (and we as ANTers especially) have a tendency to talk small when talking big. Some examples needed? Small ones of course? Here they are:

  1. not a theory, not a method”: A classic! Despite its beginnings – does someone still remember the Sociology of Translation or the great methodological subtitle of Science in Action? – nearly every account given of the status of ANT “today” resonates on the “oh, it is not a theory” (starting in 1999 with Latour’s “Recalling ANT”) and the “oh, it is not a method” theme. And while this looks like a withdrawl from “big debates” on theory and method and as a way of saying “we have nothing to offer if you are looking for that”, the answer of what it is, if not a theory and not a method, is: an approach, an attitude. That sounds modest, but has, when takken seriously, massive effects.
  2. “Thin concepts, modest methods, weak explanations”: Now if that is not at the center of the approach…in theory, methods and even in respect to what really is at stake we love to be modest — although we of course are not. Thin concepts are regarded as the strongest possible for thick narratives, modest methods are in fact really demanding and hard to “use” and weak explanations of local, situated and limited phenomena are valuated as far more solid than those with bigger pretense.
  3. “don’t try to get it right!”: ok, we (Nicholas and I) are to blame for that… but reflexivity in STS demands that whenever we studiy epistemic processes and knowledge creation we should not try to know better as our voice is just one more that adds to controversities we study. That was easy when studying technoscience – knowing better than someone working in particle physics or biotech is just too hard. But once we study ourselves or our relatives in economics, population science or political theory it is tempting to know better…but it is better not to try.

It is not just a matter of style: we actually like our concepts, our cases and our methodological rigor to be tiny and gigantic at the very same time. That has a lot of reasons, of course, the history of science studies, the science wars and our, well, not so great experiences with Bruno’s (and Michel’s and John’s) big gestures in the mid 90s being just the least important. After lowercasing science we are lowercasing ourselves. And then? What will follow? Will we stop there? Thoughts?

Latour Invites Contributions to his AIME Project

I am stuck, it seems – that thing is terrific…am I correct to feel old missing the printed edition?

ANTHEM

Dear AIME platform users,
Since last week all of the functionalities that we had planned to have fully functioning, function and in particular, the last column on the right ‘C’ for contributions. This column allows readers to become co-inquirers and gives meaning to the
whole Inquiry.
To accompany you in your role as a co-inquirer we have assembled a group of mediators who will edit, modify and expand upon and publish your contributions. Please click here to learn more about the members of the mediator team. 
Below, you will find the information that you need if you wish to contribute. Clicking on this link will take you to a tutorial that will guide you through the most common difficulties co-inquirers face when starting out.
 Having resolved most of the technical issues (of which a few remain but nothing too terrible) we can now get back to the
heart of our…

View original post 377 more words

Infrastructuring the City (and its Leftovers)

A few months ago we had a discussion (here and here) about olympic stadiums and the fact that they are the products of large infrastructuring projects that remain long after the project is over. That was an eye opener — at least for me: it seems as if our (STS) focus on stability and material durability is biased; we tend to think that by building buildings we build a world of things that stand for us, our wishes, dreams, prejudices or our moral classifications. The whole “politics by other means is going into that direction. And the ruins of the olympic stadium in Athens (the 2006 one, not the antique one turned into a soccer stadium) reminded me that durability sometimes is a burden: what is build in steel and concrete is going to stay unless we “deconstruct” it. And even then the marks of it stay, leftovers are hard to avoid. Two days ago now I saw this:

A city divided by light

A city divided by light (Photo by Chris Hadfield, Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/10003467/Berlin-satellite-image-reveals-stark-east-west-divisions.html)

After 23 years,the city of Berlin is still divided — infrastructurally. On the one hand, a lot of the western part of the city still has gas lights: a relict of the cold war era where gas was easier to manage because it can be made from coal and storing or even delivering that was easier than providing electricity in times of a lock-down of the city surrounded by the GDR. But that is not the reason for that: To increase efficiency (and officially to avoid “capitalist/imperialist wastefulness”, I suppose) the GDR changed their preferred system of electric lighting to Sodium-vapor lamps (with a warmer and darker light), the FRG continued to use Mercury-vapor lamps (with that bluish lucid light). So: leftovers of projects of infrastructural politics, but not disturbing ones like politically incorrect street names, memorizing ones like memorials, problematic ones like the Athens olympic stadium. But mundane ones. There in every corner, unnoticed. What do they tell us?

(Installing) Order restored

ReconstructionWe are back to normal, at least in technical terms. It is a strange thing to notice, but even a blog on infrastructure can have infrastructure issues. Posterous, our old home, has announced that after being acquired by Twitter they are shutting down at the end of April. Unfortunately the rats were leaving the sinking ship, producing all kinds of hickups  and dropouts, forcing us to leave in a hurry.

But we are glad to announce that we managed the transition! Thanks to Nicholas for carrying each post individually to its new home — and that from today on we are accessible again both via our temporary URL https://installingsocialorder.wordpress.com and our beloved old URL http://www.installingorder.org. We will keep both up as long as we see traffic coming in through them.

Some issues are still to be dealed with — author mapping for example, but that is work for the following weeks. While we are fixing these issues and tweaking the new design as well as the new machine: Are there any features, any functionalities that you as readers and commenters missed on the old installing (social) order? If so, please let us know, we will try to make them a part of the new installing (social) order!

Why are we using case studies?

One of the troubling features of STS for those in the “traditional” disciplines (in my case: sociology) is not so much its theoretical movements towards multiplicity, heterogeneity, symmetry and the like, but the fact that STS is doing theory not in specialized texts or on specialized conferences, but in the form of case studies. This is not my observation alone. John Law in his “On Sociology and STS” felt the urge to tell his fellow sociologists:

STS writing is not only highly theorised, but also works on and in theory. Its core concerns often have to do with epistemology (the theory of knowledge), and (more recently) ontology, the character of the real (I will come to the latter below). In theory it might make its arguments in an abstract manner (and there are some signs of movement in this direction), but its major mode of self-expression, discovery and exegesis has usually been through case-studies. (629)

John gives two reasons for this: It is because in STS theory and data are created simultaneously  and, more importantly, it is because STS works basically on the assumption that “abstraction is only possible by working through the concrete” (630). I am not sure if I agree: the masses of more illustrative than really empirical cases (for example: Portuguese vessels, keys in Berlin and keychains in Hotels in Paris, “Grooms” on strike or sleeping policemen) suggest that it might be the other way round sometimes and that in STS sometimes theory comes before there is data and sometimes data comes before theory.

But maybe there are other reasons for our love for case studies and I wonder if they are both the reason for STS´s success and for its incommensurability with traditional sociology:

  1. Case studies are hybrids: they allow the blend of empirical detail, conceptual work and methodological experiments in a single text. Take Aramis: a story about innovation in public transport (empirically), an argument for the temporal and relational coalescence of sociotechnical projects (conceputally) and a search (literally, remember, it is a mystery story) for interdisciplinary forms of reflexivity. Or take Aircraft Stories: a story about a failed military aircraft, about “fractional coherence” and about the impossibility to capture this with one method.
  2. Case studies are boundary objects: they allow heterogeneous cooperation between different disciplines and therefore interdisciplinary projects in STS because they are “weakly structured in common use, and becoming strongly structured in individual use” (Star & Griesemer 1989: 393). Cases allow a conversation about something very concrete (although it might be interesting for different reasons in different disciplines) while they are open enough to also allow very specific theoretical arguments (hidden in the empirical details and therefore not that bothersome for those not interested in them)
  3. Case studies are partial: their incompleteness (because one can always find out more about the case and tell its story differently) is a refexive argument. When science is a practice of turning matters of concern into matters of fact, there is no use of presenting ones own work as if it is part of a repertoire of STS-matters-of-fact.

Still I wonder: Can we find other ways? Do we have to stick with cases? What if we have a theoretical point to make — are we supposed to “make a case” then? Or are there other ways?

On imitation and isomorphism

Our friends at orgtheory discussed an interesting dilemma on institutional theory last week and this week that might be worth picking up to continue the discussion about institutionalism and the infrastructuralist agenda that we started last year: It seems that while institutional isomorphism (or more specific: mimetic isomorphism) is one of the most cited and most loved idea in institutionalism — although

If we look at various popular account of individual action in cultural sociology (e.g., toolkit theory), many don’t produce isomorphism. 

The way of putting the question might be a bit unfair: linking the “puzzle” directly to Colemans boat and to the debate on microfoundations of institutionalism sets the field for the struggle about the best microfoundation – as if the only task is to name a micro-theory that can explain institutional isomorphism. But the interesting question is: what is isomorphism in the first place and how on earth can we presuppose that practices of immitation will lead to isomorphisms? 

Maybe this is an entry point of bringing together institutional and infrastructuralist thinking again. When we look an infrastructural settings we are used to see entities that look similar but in fact are enacted in various, heterogenous forms.

Fields and Infrastructure? A comment to Fligstein on orgtheory

As a guest blogger on orgtheory Neil Fligstein started a series of posts about his and Doug McAdam´s new book “A Theory of Fields ” (Oxford 2012). It seems to me that to continue the debate on Instiutionalism and Infrastructuralism we should take his analysis that most of what is called NI today is – although continuously citing Meyer/Rowan, Dimaggio/Powell and of course the Powell/Dimaggio book – no longer working out the “old neo institutional” programm but try to deal with problems of ongoing activity, constant and gradual change and overlapping fields. In Fligsteins words:

One critical argument of the “new” new institutionalism is that actors are always jockeying for position in existing fields. They are always trying to better their situation and in doing so, can create change in both their position and the underlying order of the field. This produces two distinct kinds of change, the change whereby a new institutional order comes into existence and the more common situation whereby change is more gradual and continuous.

and:

But this view of the world posits two radically different states, one where we can be agents and make our world and the other where we can do little about it. “A Theory of Fields” undermines this entire line of argument by asserting that actors are always acting and this means they are always struggling. They are in a battle for position and the game is always being played. This means that “A Theory of Fields” is part of a “new” new institutionalism that honors actors, sees purposes, interests, and identities, and allows for stuff to happen all the time.

Although I would reflexively add that what Fligstein seems to do here is itself the activity of an instiutional entrepreneur – trying to change the rules of the field or – if that turns out to be impossible – prepare the setup of a new field, I guess there are some common problematiques that both the proposed new new institutionalism and the infrastructuralist agend have in common: a focus on practice (The Theory of Fields draws heavily on Bourdieu), a focus on constant change, a curiosity for the question of how in a world of constant change patterned activity is produced and the focus on struggles (although we might be critical about the psychological undertone of the term struggle and rather speak of trials of strength).

On microfoundations and Barley

Seems the comment tool on Posterous is not working today, so here is my comment to Jan-H. about Barley, the neo-I crowd, and technology.

While I have always liked Barley’s work on technology, there is something I have got to get off my chest: in his super famous 1986 paper, the one about radiologists and new workplace technology (ASQ?), what was he really showing in that paper that made him so famous?

He showed that technology does not have a straightforward consequence when it enters a work place and instead can have different consequences in different workplaces. Well, I’d say “of course”. After all, the paper provides a counter point to a non-issue. Even in the literature at the time, it was almost unfair to ask: what is the single consequence of this technology for all work? Thus, his argument was pinned against is flimsy one, even for org studies.
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Here is why: they have been searching for that answer since the 1960s with Woodward who assumed one could “unlock” the consequences of industrial manufacturing technology, namely, the assembly line, for work in general, laborers, managers, etc.
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Guess what? She couldn’t. There was no single consequence.
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Tech did not uniformly speed things up.
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Tech did not shape each organization the same.
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Tech did not … and so on.
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Woodward assumed it would, or hypothesized as much, but Woodward was, in fact, learning what Barley would later test as a hypothesis the other direction. Barley assumed it the other way — that there would not be just one consequence of technology — and, unsurprisingly, found it. Well, in a way, of course he did; he found what scholars had been finding (but not looking for) for decades.

Microfoundations, institutions and two ways of studying technologies

Quite some time ago we had a couple of posts on the possible links between STS and Neo-Institutionalism (see here, here, here and here) and about how both camps can be fruitfully matched in their attempts to get a grasp a the black-boxed, taken-for-granted or institutionalized character of modern practices.

One of the basic lines of linkage we identified back then was this: while Neo-Institutionalism is great at pointing out the empirical details and explaining the diffusion and isomorphisms of patterns that are taken-for-granted (institutions), they lack (following Powell and Colways 2008) a perspective on the respective microfoundations. THAT on the other hand is something that (most) STS approaches are quite good at – but they on the other hand – see for example the underdetermined concept of black-boxing – lack an understanding of how the “functional simplification” (Luhmann 1997) that technology enacts is comparable to other forms of making something taken for granted: habitualization (in the bourdieuian sense), embodyment, signification, formalization, institutionalization.

After reading Barley´s and Tolbert´s 1997 paper in Organization Studies on Institutionalization and Structuration and after reviewing Barles´s research on technologies at workplaces I wondered a. if and how the Powell and Colways argument about the missing micro-foundations has ever been valid in institutional theory given the amount of thought that Barley and Tolbert are investing in designing their concept of scripts and the methodology to analyze them and b. why STS approaches to technology do not seem to play a large role in institutional analysis that deal with technologies on the one hand and why these institutional approaches to technology on the other hand do also not play a significant role in STS? Any thoughts?

Infrastructural relics and ruins, or: is durability a good thing?

Since the old times of “inscription research” or maybe even longer one of the main frameworks for analyzing the social and cultural shaping of technology, infrastructure and socio-technical arrangements is build on the idea that material enactments of ideological or normative patterns are at least adding one specific (mostly valuable, sometimes problematic) feature to these otherwise quite instable phenomena: Technology is society made durable (Latour 1991). This “Durabilty Bias” has made its way straight from Winners “Moses´ Bridges” to Latours´ “Sleeping Policeman” 

Olympicshomepage

When I walked the streets of Athens last summer and especially the modern ruins of the 2004 Olympic Games stadium complex I started thinking about an interesting issue of that durability bias that emerges once you turn the problem upside down. All these massive and nearly unused buildings, the immense work of finding (valuable?) ways of reusing this wasteland of steel and concrete – it appeared to me that it is not a case of creative appropriation, but that the sheer stability of this infrastructural setting localized in a greek suburb is creating the need for keeping it maintained and used (and if only in trivial ways). The backside of infrastructural stability seems to be that relics and ruins of abandoned infrastructure are just not going away, their stability is a problem, not a sollution.

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What if that is far more common issue? We all know about some similar effects: technological pathways for example or technological and institutional lock-ins. But the issues we decribe with that concepts have one thing in common: The are still with us (like the QWERTY keyboard) and we want to explain why other arrangements are not accepted. But if we start searching for lefovers, ruins and abandonded technologies and infrastructures…what could we learn from them? Are we living in a world littered with of institutional waste?

Water as a boundary liquid … ahhh…object

Good news for our friends in water infrastructure research (and for those interested in STS and state theory of course): Patrick Carrolls “Water, and Technoscientific State Formation in California” has just been published as an “online-first” by Social Studies of Science!

This paper argues that water gradually became, over a period of more than half a century, a critical boundary object between science and governance in California. The paper historicizes ‘water’, and argues that a series of discrete problems that involved water, particularly the reclamation of ‘swampland’ in the Sacramento Valley, gradually came to be viewed as a single ‘water problem’ with many facets. My overarching theoretical aim is to rethink the ontology of the technoscientific state through the tools of actor-network theory. I conclude with the following paradox: the more the technoscientific state forms into a complex gathering – or ‘thing’ – of which humans are part, the more it is represented and perceived as a simplified and singular actor set apart from those same humans.

http://sss.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/03/06/0306312712437977.abstract

Not an open panel…Methodologies and Theories of Scale

As CfPs for “Open Panels” at 4S/EASST are frequently flooding our email clients at these days a remarkable regular panel (I actually have just seen two of them) is focussing on a topic we have discussed a few times: “Methodologies and Theories of Scale”. As regular panels are such a rare thing this year, I would really encourage people to send in good papers for this one – I would love to see good talks and papers on that topic. And no: I do not know Max Liboiron personally, this is not a friend´s recommendation 🙂

CFP: Methodologies and Theories of Scale
Panel proposal for 4S Annual Conference
October 17-20, 2012, Copenhagen, Denmark

Scale is not about being big or small. At different scales, different relationships matter. In the last two decades, there have been heated contests over the meanings and methodologies of scale, not the least because our historical moment faces economic systems, power structures, and ecological problems at global and planetary scopes. In these contexts, the use of the term “scale” is often unreflective and scholars inadvertently create “scalar fallacies,” particularly in the realm of environmental advocacy and design, where the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution are mismatched. This panel invites scholars whose work explicitly deals with theories and methodologies of scale, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • the epistemological versus the ontological aspects of scale
  • how interscalar relationships are defined and investigated
  • the relationships between time and space at different scales
  • the implications of terms and ideas such as “global,” glocal” and “planetary”
  • problems presented by designing technologies or actions meant to address different scales
  • methodologies that test designs and actions for scalability
  • methodologies that address scalar politics, and/or the politics of scale
  • designing technologies, policies or actions for specific scales
  • innovations in scalar theories or methods

Please send a 250 word abstract and CV to max.liboiron@nyu.edu by
March 10th, 2012.

Note that acceptance onto this panel does not guarantee acceptance
into the conference, as the panel as a whole must go through the 4S
acceptance process. The title and description of this panel are
mutable, and we will adapt each to the types of submissions received.

Max Liboiron is a PhD Candidate at New York University in the Media,
Culture, and Communication Dept.

My Best Fiend lectures: Fuller & Oswell recordings | CSISP

Steve Fuller: ‘Bruno Latour and Some Notes on Some Also Rans’ (December 13th).

Who is my best fiend? S/he is someone who has got the right facts mostly right but draws exactly the wrong normative conclusion – or at least gestures in the wrong way. In my own career, Kuhn and Latour fit that description. These are two ‘Zeitgeisty’ figures – i.e. future historians will understand their disproportionate significance in terms of their eras, the Cold War order and the neo-liberal post-Cold War order, respectively. But if you want to think ahead of the curve – perhaps because you believe that there is some larger ‘truth’ that humanity is trying to grasp – then you will want to ask how can these very smart people can be both so persuasive and so wrong. (I recommend this as a strategy for younger scholars who plan to be alive beyond the year 2050.) Of course, I have been beset by other fiends in my career, but they are much less interesting because they are simply slaves to fashion/induction, taking their marching orders from high scientific authorities. (And here I mean to include just about anyone who has reacted violently to my support for intelligent design.) I’ll say something about them, if only because of their entertainment value.

Recordings (to be downloaded; these are not designed to stream)

1. David Oswell: lecture
2. David Oswell: discussion
3. Steve Fuller: lecture

Thanks to the ANTHEM Blog I saw this today and I feel sad that I was not able to be in London in December. Although the basic point Fuller makes sounds familiar, I remember reading it in Putnam´c comment on Rorty, it is a valid point. And Fuller is – although a bit strange – always an entertaining guy to listen to.

4S/EASST Open Panels: Program Practice

Copenhagen is coming closer every day – only 263 days to go until the next 4S/EASST joint meeting will take place this October. Nicholas already announced that we are going to organize a so called Open Panel on “On states, stateness and STS: Government(ality) with a small ‘g’?” which can hold up to 15 papers. I repeat the call here: we are still looking for good contributions – please feel free to contact us!

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(c) Photo: Tobias Sieben

As there are 106 panels in 10 thematic fields many of you might have noticed the flood of emails with CfPs on the various STS lists. Although the list of Open Panels is included in the overall CfP many (we are no exception) felt the necessity to individually post the call. You might have guesses that this has to with promoting our own work, but well…no, that is not the reasons. The reason is: software.

Here is why: To submit a paper to an Open Panel the submitted has to tick a checkbox – that is how a paper proposal gets linked to a panel. The problem for us organizers is the following: we do not know what has been submitted yet – there might already be 15 papers, there might be none. We simply cannot see that until the call is closed. So: the only way to get informed is getting individual notifications from those who submit. I guess that is the “secret” reason for individual calls: To remind potential submitters of who is organizing which panel individual calls are one opportunity…we still do not know the exact number of submissions until March 18th, but we can try to get an approximation. So: you would do us a real favor if you could send us a notice when you submit a paper to our panel. Thanks a lot!