The Sociological Imagination A daily dose of the Sociological Imagination Thu, 11 Dec 2014 08:16:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Sociology of Living and Dying Optimally: Towards a Transhuman Necropolitics Thu, 11 Dec 2014 08:16:24 +0000 Read More ›]]> [This post is inspired by a twitter exchange with Mark Carrigan over this post, which reveals Foucault’s latent neo-liberal sympathies. Emilie Whitaker and I then had an exchange over this exchange, in which she coined ‘transhuman necropolitics’, capturing what I’m talking about here.]

Ever since I became interested in ‘Humanity 2.0’, it was clear that in the future the life/death distinction would be up for grabs. As a participant-observer in many events involving self-described ‘post-‘ and ‘trans-‘ humanist thinkers, what the US anthropologist Ernest Becker 40+ years ago dubbed ‘the denial of death’ is very much a bone of contention. Both biologists and sociologists have remarked that humans are striking in the fanfare attached to the birth and death of individual members of its species. The Abrahamic religions raised this species tendency to a fevered pitch, the secular legacy of which is canonized in the meaning of the word ‘humane’ (which Jeremy Bentham extended to animals).

At the same time, there remains the pagan legacy of the Greco-Roman world that treats life and death in a more generally resigned fashion. Their punchline is that we shouldn’t invest too much emotional energy in matters that, in the final analysis, are simply ‘natural’, in the sense of indifferent to whatever we might think or wish. Thus, the ‘good life’ and the ‘good death’ are about avoiding extremes in behaviour that can lead to needless suffering in oneself and others. Here personal experience is accorded an overriding role in ethical judgement: If you or others feel pain as a result of what you do, then it’s probably wrong.

But, for better or worse, we still live in a more Abrahamic world, notwithstanding the best efforts of atheists. In this world, life is treated as a project of self-realization — to be sure, just as much in matter as in spirit. Life and death are, at least in principle, voluntary and rational. Life is not something into which we are thrown – ‘abjection’, as those touched by Heidegger and Lacan like to put it. Now, why should anyone take literally the idea that life and death are in our own hands? Our having been created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ remains the most straightforward justification. Everything else either tries to replace the deity or deny the validity of the question.

Accordingly, our lives can be seen as sites for doing in small form what God does in ultimate form – namely, create the best possible world. The ethic of efficiency and productivity to which Max Weber drew attention in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is the most influential outgrowth of this sensibility. In this context, life is seen as an ‘inheritance’ in both economic and biological terms, out of which the heir is supposed to make something greater. If you fail, then it is your fault and the law – both positive and natural – will deal with you accordingly.

In light of the actual history of capitalism, we are prone to understand Weber’s thesis as justifying an ethic of productivity, where ‘productivity’ is equated with ‘endless production’. But ‘productivity’ is ultimately about doing the most with the least – i.e. our attempt to simulate God’s creatio ex nihilo. In that case, productivity may be achieved by knowing when to stop producing, which is to say, when we’re likely to get diminishing returns on each additional investment of effort. Of course, this can apply to living itself. Once we take this prospect seriously, then we can start talking about an optimal life and death. To strengthen such ‘optimality’ intuitions, we might consider how what one does later in life has the potential to detract value from what one did earlier.

To be sure, we already do something like this when we pass post-mortem judgements on the lives of ‘creative’ people. The paradigm case is the English Romantic poets, some of whom died at 30 and others at 80. The reputations of the longer-lived poets (Coleridge, Wordsworth) suffered, whereas those of the shorter-lived poets (Keats, Shelley) benefitted. The former are stigmatized for having become more reactionary, whereas the latter are presumed to have possessed unfulfilled promise – even though with age they too might have become reactionary. Closer to home, Max Weber was spared the reputational fate of his rival Werner Sombart, who lived twenty years longer than Weber, just in time to endorse the Nazi regime. In our own time, the radical glow that continues to surround Michel Foucault is abetted by his death in 1984, just before the neo-liberalism toward which he was already inching came to acquire a hegemonic grip on the world-order. Had he lived another twenty years, Foucault might have come to be known as the French Nikolas Rose, an unabashed theorist of the neo-liberal self.

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Devouring your data Thu, 11 Dec 2014 08:00:12 +0000 Read More ›]]> As someone who only a year ago was drowning in the mountains of interview transcripts that I was (stupidly) somewhat surprised to find that longitudinal qualitative interviewing had produced, this post by patter offering advice on ‘devouring your data’ really struck a chord. Read the full post in full here:

You’ve read hundreds of books. You’ve waded through archival material. You’ve got mountains of surveys, folders full of transcripts, notebooks stuffed with barely legible field notes, and rather more photographs than you initially intended. Now what? How is it going to be possible to convert all of this material into something sensible? Where do you start? What is it you don’t know about data analysis ?

It’s not at all uncommon to feel deeply worried about getting started on analysing all your material. Thinking about what it might take to make something out of the pantechnicon of paper and digital documents produces deep chasms of doubt, a fug of anxiety and/or a crisis in self-belief.

Getting through this stage can be really, really tough. They don’t often say that in the methods books. It all looks rather simple and straightforward on the written page. Well, I’m here to tell you that too many of the books gloss over the messy reality that is beginning to make something out of your research stuff. It’s daunting.

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Technology and Human Nature Wed, 10 Dec 2014 08:00:59 +0000 Read More ›]]> In their Webcam, Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan offer what they describe as a theory of attainment. While I’m not sure they’d accept my terminology, I read this as an attempt to theorise the causal powers of technology in relation to the causal powers of human beings. They start by recognising that “people have relationships with people and they have relationships with technology, and, mostly, we can’t really disentangle the two” (pg. 3) before turning to the question of how we should theorise this entanglement. Their approach resonates with me because their intention is non-conflationary - though they don’t use this term – in the sense that they see understanding the entanglement as necessitating that we understand the respective characteristics of the entities that are ‘tangled up’. In this sense, it preempts work I’d intended to do looking at tendencies towards conflation in theorising the relationship between human beings and technology: upwards conflation (social constructivism), downwards conflation (technological determinism) and central conflation (sociomateriality and co-evolution). Their account begins negatively, taking aim at what they see as a dominant tendency to juxtapose the novel meditations entailed by new technology with our putatively unmediated former state:

Any new media is first experienced as an additional and problematic mediation to our lives. We can’t help but contrast it with some imagined conversation between two people standing in a field as representing the original, unmediated and natural form of communication. A technology, by contrast, is always regarded as something artificial that imposes itself between the conversationalists and mediates that conversation. (pg. 5)

This licenses the nostalgia and despair for what’s lost that can be seen in the work of someone like Sherry Turkle, in which the (umediated) world of face-to-face relationships has been replaced by the (mediated) world of digital connections. From an anthropological standpoint however “there are no unmeditated, pure relationships” (pg. 3) to be dissolved by digital communications. There has always been material culture and, it follows from this, human relationships have never been exhausted by other human beings. Nonetheless, they seek to acknowledge that people do change in relation to technology but not in a way that can be described as becoming ‘more or less human’ (with the weirdly zero-sum relation between humanity and technology which that implies). Their concern is “to find a means of understanding the impact of new technologies that allows us to consider these as radical changes in consciousness and other basic modes of life, but without this being seen as either an increase or decrease in our essential humanity” (pg. 11).

Their theory of attainment seeks to do this by accounting for “how technology becomes an ordinary aspect of being routinely human” (pg. 13). They begin from the observation that “people who have access to a new media are at first usually concerned to use this technology to facilitate things they already had been trying to do, but had up to then been thwarted by the lack of means” (pg. 11): their focus is on ‘latency’, the situational frustrations, which can be found within any group. Technological innovation should be understood in terms of the “situation of incompleteness with respect to what we want to be or do” which invariably characterises the human condition (pg. 11). New technologies initially facilitate things people wanted to do but couldn’t – or perhaps couldn’t easily due to constraints entailed by prior analogues – with these inclinations predating the utilisation of the technology for things people didn’t know they wanted to do. Their interest is in when these technologies cease to be seen as innovations, facilitating frustrated desires before offering unimagined possibilities, instead becoming part of our background understanding of what it is to be human:

It is the next phase, when this facility becomes the merely taken-for-granted condition of what people simply assume as an integral aspect of who they are, which is the realisation of what we are calling attainment. The ability to write is a mark of attainment because we now tend to view those without that ability as though they lacked some fundamental property of being an ordinary human. Originally writing was an achievement, but by now it is considered a necessary condition. For many people, being able to type on a computer, or to drive a car, or speak on a telephone has become a similar mark of attainment. Webcam will serve as an example of this process because of the sheer speed with which it passes from an ideal we had aspired to, to a mundane technology we taken for granted. (pg. 12)

This account conceives of technology as facilitating latent capacities of human beings. As I understand it, they offer the notion of ‘an attainment’ as a way to conceptualise those capacities which rely upon a technological apparatus that we now take for granted: our technological innovations realise latent capacities and, in doing so, change what it is to be human but in a way that recognises this capacity for change as something intrinsic to humanity. This implies “a kind of latency in the human condition, but not merely a litany of pre-given imagined abilities planted in evolutionary time and then coming into being with new technology” (pg. 14):

There was no gene for writing that was frozen until the invention of the pen. Technology in and of itself transforms capacity and changes what human beings can do or can be envisaged as doing. The last of the four stages defined by Miller and Slater in examining technological change, which was called the expansive potential, concerns those aspirations that can only now be imagined thanks to these developments. Technology creates as well as realises latency. (pg. 15)

This theory of attainment offers a framework for analysing the trajectories through which technological innovations are adopted and how the adopters change in the process. It can be usefully applied to the study of individual cases or to much wider social units. This is a view of humanity “that incorporates its own potential for change” (pg. 12) and I think this is crucial: it avoids a view of infinite plasticity, where we are reshaped by technical tools, but also one of inert quiddity, where we remain stubbornly resistant to technologically induced change. It recognises the properties of technology, without leading us into the trap of either seeing the uses to which a technology is put as intrinsic to the technology or as irrelevant to the technology. 

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The myth of ‘us’ in a digital age Tue, 09 Dec 2014 08:00:43 +0000 Read More ›]]> In his A necessary disenchantment: myth, agency and injustice in a digital worldNick Couldry argues that transitions in media infrastructure are facilitating the emergence of a new myth of collectivity:

A new myth about the collectivities we form when we use platforms such as Facebook. An emerging myth of natural collectivity that is particularly seductive, because here traditional media institutions seem to drop out altogether from the picture: the story is focused entirely on what ‘we’ do naturally, when we have the chance to keep in touch with each other, as of course we want to do.

This is coming to replace an older sense of media as the point of access to the centre of society. The reliance on media organisations to access flows of content helped constitute an understanding of centre and periphery, with the media facilitating access to the (mythical) centre of value, knowledge and meaning for the majority who experienced themselves as peripheral to it. The rapid diffusion of the internet, mobile computing and social networking engenders a new form of mediation, by ‘us’ rather than content producing media organisations, which helps shatter this previous myth of the ‘mediated centre’ and substitute it with a vision of human networks, animated by natural sociability, dispersed across national boundaries. As I understand Couldry’s argument, the power of this new myth derives in part from its displacement of the old: once our reliance on the old media organisations is seen to be shattered, our sociality is unbound, revealing a naturally co-operative inclination towards discussion, creation and sharing (see for example Clay Shirky’s theory of ‘cognitive surplus’). Obviously, the perception is erroneous and it serves vested interests: media organisations haven’t ceased to be party to communication, either in the sphere of content-production or facilitating communication, it’s only that their role has shifted with a change in the logic of their competition. This obfuscation serves the interests of platform providers in particular, as they drift towards being seen solely in terms of the provision of infrastructure rather than as corporate actors with increasingly vast lobbying operations.

Couldry’s concern is that “we must be wary when our most important moments of ‘coming together’ seem to be captured in what people happen to do on platforms whose economic value is based on generating just such an idea of natural collectivity”. Social media platforms present themselves as providing new enablements for and eliminating old constraints upon ‘natural collectivity': their business model simultaneously relies upon monetizing the crowd which they have encouraged to gather, profiling behaviour in a manner susceptible to inference and allowing the growing data mining industry to do further work to this end. Their concern becomes less a matter of reaching as many people with adverts as possible (on occasions of mass attention driven by shared spectacle) but reaching the right people all the time. This is why ‘big’ data analytics are so tied up in the broader transformation of the media: the process itself demands innovation in order to extract the value it promises to generate. However this genuine computational challenge, as well as the economic interests which partly drive it, stand obscured behind the ‘myth of big data’ which Couldry takes aim at:

Myth works, as I’ve often argued following Maurice Bloch (1989) and Roland Barthes (1972), through ambiguity: through sometimes claiming to offer ‘truth’ and at other times to be merely playful, providing what, in the George W. Bush era, was called ‘plausible deniability’, but here at the level of claims about knowledge claims! So Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier, on the one hand, say big data bring ‘an  essential enrichment in human comprehension’ (2013: 96). They go further, proposing a large project of ‘datafication’ that involves quantifying every  aspect of everyday phenomena to enable big data analysts to find its hidden order: the result will be ‘a great infrastructure project’ like Diderot’s 18th- century encyclopaedia: ‘this enormous treasure chest of datafied information . . . once analysed, will shed light on social dynamics at all levels, from the individual to society at large’ (2013: 93–94, emphasis added). The world too will look different: ‘we will no longer regard our world as a string of happenings that we explain as a natural or social phenomenon, but as a universe comprised essentially of information’ (2013: 96, emphasis added). On the other hand, when the moral consequences of acting on the basis of ‘big data’ arises – for example, arresting people for offences they are predicted to commit but haven’t yet – they back off and say that big data only provide probabilities, not actualities, and worry about ‘fetishizing the output of our [data] analysis’ (2013: 151)

It’s the final points which will be so crucial to understanding the trajectory of ‘big data’ in a social world rapidly acclimatising itself to these forms of intervention. The mythical sociability of ‘us’ stands in sharp contrast to the quantity and quality of the interventions we are potentially susceptible to in virtue of our participation in (digitised) social life: we stand exposed, fragmented and scrutinised before a diffuse and inscrutable power. Under these circumstances might we come to cling to the myth more tightly than ever for the security it provides? As Couldry points out in relation to big data, “we too are involved in its reproduction, supplying information (to government and countless other collectors, including social media platforms) about what we do, as we do it, allowing that information to supplant other possible types of information about ourselves, what we say, and how we reflect”. He goes on to call for an ethical engagement with these questions and the implications that they have for the social order:

The CEO of a big-data-based sentiment analysis company, sounds reasonable when he says that ‘if we’re right 75% to 80% of the time, we don’t care about any single story’ (quoted Andrejevic, 2013: 56). 4 . 4 But if the big data model works by equating our only forms of social knowledge with such probabilities, then we have already started organizing things so that the single story – your story,my story – really doesn’t matter. That raises fundamental questions about individual voice, and the way voice is valued in our societies.

He doesn’t develop the point but it strikes me there’s a contradiction between the myth of ‘us’ and the myth of big data which could provide a focal point for resistance. In reality, the networked ‘us’ makes ‘big data’ possible. However symbolically, the reality of big data serves to negate the imagined promise of the ‘us': can we reclaim an impulse towards networked sociality and co-operation in a way that resists corporate capture? Could the very force of the myth of ‘us’ be something that can be drawn upon to mobilise resistance to a world in which, as Couldry puts it, “corporate interests and the state seek to know us through big data”?

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Sociology and, of and in Web 2.0 Mon, 08 Dec 2014 08:00:19 +0000 Read More ›]]> In this 2007 paper David Beer and Roger Burrows suggest that “by the time you get to read this paper in its published form, even in the hypertextual pages of Sociological Research Online, what it describes may well have become part of the cultural mainstream”. Seven years later, the paper certainly seems prescient, even if the eponymous term ‘Web 2.0′ has fallen out of use and the now ubiquitous phrase ‘social media’ fails to feature anywhere in the paper. There are many suggestions they made which can now be seen in much of the work increasingly conducted under the category of ‘digital sociology':

There are two issues here. First, we need to be inside of the networks, online communities, and collaborative movements to be able to see what is going on and describe it. If we take Facebook for instance, it is not possible to enter into and observe the network without becoming a member, providing an institutional email, entering some personal details and generating a profile. Therefore, in order to get some idea of users and their practices it is necessary to become a ‘wikizen’. The social researcher will need to be immersed, they will need to be participatory, and they will need to ‘get inside’ and make some ‘friends’. We will have to become part of the collaborative cultures of Web 2.0, we will need to build our own profiles, make some flickering friendships, expose our own choices, preferences and views, and make ethical decisions about what we reveal and the information we filter out of these communities and into our findings. Our ability to carry out virtual ethnographies will – by necessity – involve moving from the role of observer to that of participant observer.

4.4 A second issue is that once inside these networks we may explore the possibilities of using Web 2.0 applications, and particularly the interactive potentials of SNS, as research tools or research technologies (this is not necessarily limited to research into Web 2.0, SNS could be used to conduct research on any topic). Interviews and even focus groups could comfortably be conducted through SNS, either privately or in the open. Of course, there are a range of alternatives here. We can imagine the construction of virtual ethnographies accounting for these communities of users and their practices. Perhaps, more significantly, what we have, particularly with SNS, are vast archives on the everyday lives of individuals – a sort of ongoing codification of habitus – their preferences, choices, views, gender, physical attributes, geographical location, background, employment and educational history, photographs of them in different places, with different people and different things. These are open and accessible archives of (what was once thought of as sensitive) information that may be used to develop understandings of these people and to track out communities or networks of friends. These archives could be used to track preferences, connections, personal histories, views, friendships that may be data-mined, mapped, network analysed, discourse analysed and so on. There are possibilities then for tailoring innovative research strategies that take advantage of the interactive potentials of these new media and of the data that they hold.

However I wonder how widely social media has influenced the practice of those teaching sociology? There are certainly examples of using services like twiter and youtube for pedagogical experimentation and innovation. But how widespread are these? Beer and Burrows offer a few suggestions towards the end of their paper:

As a final note, once we have entered into these Web 2.0 applications it may also be worth giving some thought as to how they may be used to teach sociology. We can imagine here students building their own sociologically motivated mashups, collaborating to put together wiki’s on sociological topics, running seminars online through SNS, continuing to use SNS groups and profiles to informally discuss sociology or using folksonomies to tag and collate sociology content online (allowing students to create their own reading lists, or perhaps even using SNS as archived data sources on which to draw for short term research projects and dissertations). Of course, this may already be happening.

Does sociological teaching lag behind sociological research in its embrace of the possibilities which social media affords? Or are those utilising social media in their teaching practice not receiving the recognition they deserve? Are innovations failing to diffuse because they’re lodged within existing departments and networks rather than feeding into a more pervasive shift in our understanding of what it is to learn sociology and how sociology can be taught? Is this a matter of teaching repertoires which needed to be expended to take account of these new possibilities? We’d love to know what you think and are particularly keen to feature any experimental uses of social media in teaching that you’d like to tell our readers about.

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Roy Bhaskar explains critical realism, dialectical critical realism, and metareality in less than 6 minutes Sun, 07 Dec 2014 08:00:43 +0000

Via the ICCR blog

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Cats are our captive domesticated aliens Sat, 06 Dec 2014 08:00:59 +0000 Read More ›]]> This wonderful article in Wired seeks to explain how, to their cats, any human being is “a huge, unpredictable ape”. They are “our captives, domesticated aliens with no way of explaining their customs, or of interpreting ours” and we don’t know how to listen to them:

You hear the unmistakable sound of claws on couch. You snap, shout, squirt water, and maybe even throw a pillow. It’s all futile, because eventually he’s at it again. Your cat isn’t ignoring you, Buffington says. He just doesn’t know how to connect your negative reinforcement with his behavior. This is because cats evolved as solitary hunters with little need for reading social cues, especially those for behavior modification.

“How the hell is your cat supposed to know that you’re yelling at him because you want him to stop scratching the couch?” Buffington says. Without the cognitive ability to connect your outburst to their scratching, cats see only chaotic aggression. “To the cat, you’re this crazy primate who is attacking him for no reason,” he says.

Instead of discouraging the act, you become an object of fear. What’s more, your cat becomes frustrated, and eventually stressed, because you constantly interrupt natural feline activities like raking his claws or jumping on something high. “Cats get sick when they want to express their natural behaviors and they can’t,” he said, and will continue to do the thing when you aren’t around.

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Tales From the Millennials’ Sexual Revolution Fri, 05 Dec 2014 08:00:46 +0000 Read More ›]]> This intriguing but somewhat overstated article in Rolling Stone Magazine contests that there’s a distinctively generational dimension to changing relationship practices, with millennials constituting “a generation that has been raised with the concept of sexual freedom and without solid guidelines for how to make monogamy work” leading some amongst them to embrace what’s been called “The New Monogamy”:

Certainly, open heterosexual relationships are nothing new. Even the term “open relationship” seems like a throwback, uncomfortably reminiscent of free-love hippies, greasy swingers and a general loucheness so overt as to seem almost kitsch. But Leah and Ryan, 32 and 38, respectively, don’t fit these preconceived ideas. They’re both young professional types. She wears pretty skirts; he wears jeans and trendy glasses. They have a large, downtown apartment with a sweeping view and are possessed of the type of hip hyperawareness that lets them head off any assumptions as to what their arrangement might entail. Moreover, they see themselves as part of a growing trend of folks who do not view monogamy as any type of ideal. “There’s this huge group of younger people that are involved in these things,” says Ryan – an observation that seemed borne out of a monthly event called “Poly Cocktails,” held at an upstairs bar on the Lower East Side a few weeks later, in which one would have been hard-pressed to realize that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mixer (a guy who’d wandered in accidentally must have eventually figured it out; he was later seen by the bar grinning widely as he chatted up two women).

In fact, Leah and Ryan are noticing a trend that’s been on the radar of therapists and psychologists for several years now. Termed “The New Monogamy” in the journal Psychotherapy Networker, it’s a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one long-standing relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the long-standing relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time. Or, more specifically, that going outside the partnership for sex does not necessitate a forfeiture of it. “I was at a practice where we would meet every week, six to eight therapists in a room for teaching purposes and to bring up new things coming into therapy that weren’t there before,” says Lair Torrent, a New York-based marriage and family therapist. One of the things all the therapists had noticed over the past few years was “that couples – and these are younger people, twentysomethings, maybe early thirties – are negotiating what their brand of monogamy can be. They are opening up to having an open relationship, either in totality or for periods of time. I have couples that have closed relationships or open relationships depending on how they feel about the relative health of their relationship. It’s not so dogmatic.”

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The Social Life of Methods Thu, 04 Dec 2014 08:00:49 +0000 Read More ›]]> The Social Life of Methods is an interesting programme of research undertaken by Evelyn Ruppert, Mike Savage and John Law. This is orientated towards what the authors term the ‘methodological complex': a dominant way of understanding method, tangled up in a particular division of labour, which precludes the investigation of methods as objects in their own right. In contrast to the ensuing view of methods as neutral tools for producing knowledge about the social world, they want to study the ‘social life’ of these methods and consider how this has shaped their emergence. In this paper they talk about the dual sense in which methods can be said to have a social life:

Methods are shaped by the social world

Methods don’t come into being without a purpose and methods don’t come to prominence without advocates. In this sense, we can link techniques of map-making and surveying to the needs of nascent nation states to map their territory. The census came about as a result of the need to constitute a governable national population, measurable and therefore susceptible to intervention. For instance, Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome prior to the republic, instituted a census and divided the common people (plebs) into social classes: these were defined hierarchically, with rights and responsibilities ensuing from what they could contribute to the city. All the sixth class were seen to be able to contribute was their children (source). The UK census began in 1801 and, with the exception of 1939 and 1966, has been undertaken every ten years since. The present government has discussed replacing the census: “There are, I believe, ways of doing this which will provide better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper” opined Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude in 2010. The technologyused to conduct the census has changed radically, with a move towards handheld computers and online completion perhaps giving rise to an entirely online census supplemented by existing data or even its complete abandonment. The classifications used in the census change, existing classifications change, for instance ‘pensionable age’ increases, and new classifications are introduced, such as ‘ethnic group’. In fact this didn’t appear in the census until 1991, with Margaret Thatcher having dismissed its proposed introduction in the 1981 census, seeing it as a left-wing dogma incompatible with her planned direction for the UK (weirdly placing her in alignment with some on the radical left who were suspicious of the government collecting such data at a time of racial tensions and with a rising far-right). The purposes underlying the census change, both in terms of the intentions of the government but also the uses to which groups like academics and charities make of the census data, leaving different groups with vested interests who help shape its future direction. The vast majority of the population of England and Wales completed the census form and, while there are legal sanctions for a refusal to complete it, this degree of compliance necessitates an extensive public engagement operation and makes winning public supportcrucial. In this sense, the logistics of the census itself are of interest, given how all this activity is compressed into the space of a few weeks.

What Ruppert, Savage and Law are arguing is that we miss all the complexity if we simply treat the census as a neutral tool to study an object. It also helps constitute that object, ‘chopping up’ a population in various ways according to political needs and social contingencies, though the ensuing data cannot be dismissed as simply a product of the exercise. The census helps constitute a ‘population’ susceptible to intervention. We confront similar questions when considering the UK government social surveys, which began in 1941 during the second world war.

while the census made people inhabiting a territory into a national population, subsequently that population reality could be further calibrated through the technique of sample statistics in the mid-twentieth century. So there’s a history of method to be told here. In the US, for instance, sample surveys grew up with the Gallup polls of the late  1930s, and then with agencies such as the Department of Agriculture during the Second World War. Mike Savage traces their analogous though later rise in the UK. He shows, for instance, how during the Second World War, the Government Social Survey became a key instrument in generating knowledge of the circumstances and concerns of the British population. It proved popular in part because its methods of anonymous sampling avoided relying on known informants, in a way that had attracted popular opprobrium. The government proved a key player in promoting survey research into the 1960s, seeing it as part of a modernising form of government that no longer needed to rely on the views of the ‘good and the great’. It proved important in shaping educational reform in the 1960s, with surveys being used to explain the social selectivity of grammar schools. As Hilton and Savage have shown, these methods were thus embraced by a technocratic middle class, seeking to distinguish themselves from older gentlemanly intellectuals

To talk of the social life of methods entails inquiry into the purposes underlying methods and advocates for particular methods, as well as how these change over time. These purposes might not be lofty or consequential ones. The focus group was largely absent from the academy until the 1980s but had been developed and refined as a tool for market research. Likewise corporations have led the way in the analysis of consumer transactional data obtained through mechanisms such as store cards. Considering the social life of such method entails looking at the origins of these methods, their purposes and advocates, as well as how they have changed as they moved out of the commercial sphere and into the academic one. What assumptions are loaded into their use? How are their operations understood by those who us them? What status is ascribed to the data that is produced using them?

Method contribute to shaping the social world

The notion that methods are shaped by their context is relatively straight-forward. It might be under-theorised and understudied but it’s unlikely to be a contentious claim. However the authors argue that methods also contribute to shaping that world. This notion of the performativity of method can be slightly harder to grasp. They offer the sample survey as an example:

Take an example: the sample survey. This is not any example, because the sample survey is one of the most legitimated methods in use today. In the UK University teaching is assessed by the scores academic departments achieve in the National Student Survey. Our measures of crime are dependent on the British Crime Survey, which ‘corrects’ for the under-reporting of much crime to the police. The inflation rate is determined by responses to the Family Expenditure Survey, and so on.

The survey works by first sampling people. And then it works by asking them questions about matters of fact (like age, gender, income bracket, religious affiliation, lifestyle choices) and matters of opinion (such as the performance of the government, attitudes to abortion, or meat- eating). We might think of a survey as a bit like a methodological package deal. Like all package deals it has great virtues. It tells those who advocate it something about how people are planning to vote, or, say about their attitudes to global climate change. It’s also exceedingly useful because the basic methodological thinking doesn’t have to be done again. Surveying, after all, is a bog-standard method that has been industrialised and routinised. Its standards of quality control have been set, are widely agreed, and ethical guidelines are in place to police them.

At the same time, like all package deals, it is indeed standardised. You get to see parts of social reality in particular ways, while you don’t see things that escape the package. Or more strongly (and now we’re getting to the point we want to make about constituting), it may be that you get to perform certain kinds of social realities whilst not performing others. You’re actually bringing realities into being while you’re shutting down others

I think the framing here is confusing. But the underlying point is an interesting one. On the most basic level, people (sometimes) act on the basis of research and so what the methods open up and what they close down shapes the ensuing action. In so far as research methods helps shape how people see the social world then methods have consequences, including the oversights and blind spots latent to any particular method. As Einstein (allegedly) put it, “Everything that can becounted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily becounted”. Things that matter may not show up and, conversely, things that don’t matter may show up’. However the authors are making a much deeper point than this. Research methods construct individuals as having capacities and properties. To ask someone about their choices presupposes their capacity to choose. To ask someone about their attitudes presupposes that their reported attitudes at one moment can tell us something about their real attitudes at another i.e. it assumes their relative stability. Methods also construct collectives as having certain properties:

Individuals are abstracted from a place and then taken as representatives of that spatially delimited place. A particularly important example is the modern nation. There is no independent nation which does not appropriate to itself the ability to conduct censuses and surveys on its national population delimited by its sovereign boundaries. It is not incidental that new and developing states see the capacity to conduct national censuses and surveys as central parts of their ‘statehood’

This process of abstraction constructs a ‘population’ composed of individuals. In measuring this (newly constituted) population, they become susceptible to intervention. Who needs what? Who can contribute what? The answers to these questions may have become far more complex but the questions themselves are still rather similar to the ones addressed by Servius in pre-Republic Rome. These abstractions enter into the lives of individuals in terms of the expectations placed upon them, the facilities offered to them and the interventions they are subject to. Consider for instance, the vast auditing apparatus involved in the tax system. Methods address subjects as beings with particular sorts of competencies and encourage them to respond as such: for example a life history interview makes a whole range of assumptions about the coherency of an individual’s trajectory and their capacity to recall it. These ontological assumptions may be explicit but they’re often implicit. The latter case makes it even more imperative that we analyse methods and extract these latent claims.

The point the authors are making is that research methods have to “pick and choose between different individual and collective realities”. Methods assume the stability of their object but they also contribute to the reproduction or transformation of that object by foreground certain aspects and backgrounding others. They offer this as an argument about all methods, as opposed to quantitative or qualitative ones. We discover things about the world through methods but we also act in and on that world in way that contributes to changes in the objects we study.

First we’re saying that they make discoveries about the world, and that those discoveries may surprise us. That’s why we conduct interviews and surveys and all the rest. But also, and counterintuitively, we’re saying that they also make more or less self- fulfilling assumptions about the character of the social world. And that in so doing they tend to constitute it, so to speak, below the radar in ways that we scarcely notice. In short, that they tend to produce what John Law calls collateral realities: that is, realities that we don’t think about very much but that we’re all busy reproducing as we go about the daily methodological work of gathering and analysing data ‘about’ the social

This suggests that studying methods as objects in their own right encompasses theory: what theoretical assumptions are loaded into methods, how do they condition the enactment of the method and the status ascribed to the results? It encompasses history, in so far as that studying the emergence of the methods, its advocates and purposes, helps us understand how that method came to be constituted in the way we find it. It involves technique, in the sense that we must attend to the operation of the method but without bracketing it off in the manner implicit in the ‘methodological complex’.

The suggestion that research methods have a double social life seems uncontentious to me. The claims being made are that (1) methods are shaped by the social contexts in which they emerge and (2) methods in turn help shape those contexts. So research methods should not be understood as neutral tools developed in isolation from the social world they are orientated towards. Instead, we need to recognise the manner in which methods are shaped by that world and in turn contribute to its shaping. This involves rejecting what Law, Savage and Ruppert describe as the ‘methodological complex':

It assumes that methods are tools for learning about the social world. That this is what they are. End of story. We see this in methods courses. Juxtaposed and differentiated both from theory, and from substantive courses, these tell us about techniques for knowing the world. Which to choose. How to use them. How to analyse data. And how to present it.

There’s nothing wrong with this in certain senses: in social research indeed we need methods, and it’s not a bad idea to use those methods properly. But to think of methods in this way – simply as appropriate tools – involves consequences, some of them unanticipated, which create a baggage which can be heavy, even burdensome. We can distil this as ‘the methodological complex.’

This ‘methodological complex’ entails a particular division of labour for empirical research and a particular conception of how research can be undertaken. Theory, methods and substance are construed as distinct spheres of activity. Research questions are derived from theory, inviting the use of methods to address them in relation to distinct areas of substance. They also argue that this involves the ontological presupposition of a stable world, with definitive features that can be reported and turned into data:

We’re distinguishing between the world on the one hand, and representations of that world on the other. In this way of thinking it’s methods that bridge the gap. If we get those methods right then our representations will match the realities of the world. Tools have a better or worse capacity to do the job at hand. They  will, as the philosophers of science say correspond to it; or at least (this is what the  pragmatists say) they will describe it sufficiently well to be treated as accurate. This means that they are tools for handling the world. If we get them wrong then our accounts of reality, our data, will be flawed.

I’m hostile to any attempt to refute naturalism on this basis, arising from the obviousness with which these points can be reconciled to a critical naturalism (see Roy Bhaskar’s Possibility of Naturalism). But I think it’s important to explore them because the analysis seems entirely plausible to me, even if I’m sceptical about the prescriptions many would draw on the basis of them. I also agree that, as the authors put it, “oscillates between an objectivist concern with ‘bias’ and a humanist response which seeks refuge in an ‘ineffable’ human moment which somehow lies outside this purview of representational methods”. Roy Bhaskar makes a similar point when he argues that positivism and hermeneutics share a view of natural science, framing reality in terms of a schism between matter andmeanings with the former being the domain of the natural sciences and the latter the domain of the (hermeneutical) social sciences. In fact I find their analysis congruent with Bhaskar’s, complementing it productively as a result of a sightly different focus:

By reducing issues to questions of technique, it allows different parties to come together around some kind of shared project, whatever their goals,values, orientations and identities. If we need to create random samples, then this is because it is important to avoid undistorted samples. If it is dangerous to avoid recruiting so-called professional participants to our focus groups, then this is because we’re looking for people who are naïve and untutored in appropriate ways. If the ethnographer needs to avoid the outsiders who flock to talk with her when she first arrives in the field, then this is because she’s on the lookout for gatekeepers or people at the core of the community rather than people with grudges on the periphery. We learn all these things in a million different versions in the hope of reducing bias; in the hope of knowing and describing the world accurately. This search to avoid bias and to use our ‘tools’ more effectively is pervasive, indeed ubiquitous. We share it. But it then also leads to an automatic response, from even the most positivistic researcher, about ‘what is left out’ by any specific method.

Their point is not that a concern to use tools effectively is wrong but rather that an exhaustive treatment of methods in these terms serves to preclude consideration of others aspects of methods that are salient to the practice of social research. Their project seeks to recognise that “methods are fully of the social world that they research; that they are fully imbued with theoretical renderings of the social world” and to think through the implications of this for how we understand them. These are the questions that we lose sight of if we focus on using tools effectively. As I understand their point, they accept that tools are used in the production of knowledge but argue that to understand these ‘tools’ we need to stop and consider them as objects in their own right. Their point is not a trivial constructionist one, such as to assert that ‘methods are socially constructed’ (well of course they are, would anyone argue that methods are natural kinds?) because to do so would enact precisely the oscillation between objectivism (there is a world out there with fixed properties which we use neutral methods to investigate with a greater or lesser degree of efficacy) and subjectivism (there are first-person human realities which are intrinsically beyond the purview of objective representation using neutral methods) – in critical realist jargon, I think they’re proposing a systematic framework for investigating the transitive dimension of social science.

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Philosophical Perspectives on Why Haters Hate Wed, 03 Dec 2014 08:00:20 +0000 Read More ›]]> A wonderful entry on Brainpickings recounts Kierkegaard’s insights into why haters hate. Read it in full here:

In an immeasurably insightful entry from 1847, 34-year-old Kierkegaard observes a pervasive pathology of our fallible humanity, explaining the same basic psychology that lurks behind contemporary phenomena like bullying,trolling, and the general assaults of the web’s self-appointed critics, colloquially and rather appropriately known as haters.

Kierkegaard writes:

There is a form of envy of which I frequently have seen examples, in which an individual tries to obtain something by bullying. If, for instance, I enter a place where many are gathered, it often happens that one or another right away takes up arms against me by beginning to laugh; presumably he feels that he is being a tool of public opinion. But lo and behold, if I then make a casual remark to him, that same person becomes infinitely pliable and obliging. Essentially it shows that he regards me as something great, maybe even greater than I am: but if he can’t be admitted as a participant in my greatness, at least he will laugh at me. But as soon as he becomes a participant, as it were, he brags about my greatness.

That is what comes of living in a petty community.

Now if this were to become a series of posts, the obvious place to look next would be Nietzsche.

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