beyond “conviction” as the product of social constructions

(social) constructions do not “convince” or “make it appear to” individuals; they are, just, that, objects, things, that individuals then must deal with in the setting where they encounter them.

This is a coda to my last post about the semiotic (interactional, conversational) aspects of all collective processes (including science, schooling, etc.).  Lim, in his answer to the exam question about Bourdieu’s response to Latour, quotes a statement about “how a fact takes on a quality which appears to place it beyond the scope of some kinds of sociological and historical explanation” and how a “laboratory is a system of literary inscription, an outcome of which is the occasional conviction of others that something is a fact” (Latour and Woolgar 1979: 105).

As Latour now would well know, this statement is possibly dangerous as written if one takes literally or seriously words like “appearance” or “conviction.”  This is the kind of writing that allows for the critique of much “constructivism” for assuming more or less explicitly that the product of “social constructions” is a mental state that will unnoticeably confuse the person now psychologically “convinced” that some (scientific, etc.) statement is indeed a “fact” (or any other relevant entity).  What Latour demonstrated elsewhere (Latour 1987: 14) is that a statement like “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix” has multiple lives as it moves from setting to setting.  For example, the statement’s social power will differ whether it is the first time the statement was produced at some unique moment in the past, or whether it is some other settings such as scholarly papers demonstrating or critiquing this statement, or conversations among scientists, and then in textbooks, or now in works in the sociology of science.  In his work, Latour has started giving some indication of what happens as a statement is “taken on the collective mode” (Lévi-Strauss 1969).  But this conversational process which, after a while, produces an intertextual web of multiple consequences, is one that must be traced ethnographically through the various settings within which the statement appears.  Above all one must not prejudge what will happen to the many human beings who will hear the statement and then incorporate it in their own practices.

A fun version of this, which is also a call for anthropological proposals, can be found in the Jorge Cham’s cartoon about “the science news cycle” (2009).

And, of course, this is what I am trying to do with Jill Koyama, Ray McDermott and Aaron Hung.

on approaching reality through signs: the responsibility of anthropology

that essential reality can only approached through signs and in conversations that challenge earlier representations, and thus on the possibility of science and the responsability of anthropology to explicate further how signs in conversation can dis/en-able.

One of the questions for the final exam in my class on “Technology and Culture” asks for a discussion of one of Bourdieu’s rant against “constructivism” particularly as it applies to the sociology of science.  Once, he singled Latour and Woolgar’s ethnography of a biological research lab for possibly “reducing scientific demonstrations to mere rhetorical exhibitions”  (1998 [1994]: 94).  Joseph Lim, one of the students in this June 2009 class, took this question on.  He started with Baudrillard’s discussion of simulacra where the “sign replaces the real.”  Then, of course, science-as-sign ceases to be “real.”  Lim argues against this—as indeed one should for Baudrillard altogether misunderstands that signs are the only way for human beings to approach reality.  And then Bourdieu joins Baudrillard without noticing that, arguably, what Latour has been doing is putting analytic teeth in his own emphasis on, precisely, practice.

This made me think further about what Latour and, of course, Garfinkel before him, had done.  In a way they moved science (and all other “it’s” [things, epistemes?]) from the realm of platonic ideas to the realms of human practical productions that transform human conditions.  In this move they did not quite demonstrated that there may not be essences that human beings cannot directly apprehend.  Rather, they demonstrated that human beings, in their metaphorical cave, do not simply contemplate the shadows and wonder what they might be shadows “of.”  Human beings, always, work hard together to figure out what to do with their actual conditions in the cave.  In the process, they transform their cave and indeed their methods for figuring out the things that may be making shadows.  In this process, as Merleau-Ponty had understood (1969), (Saussurian) signs are the only, as well as the most powerful, tools at the disposal of human beings.  Signs never substitutes themselves to reality.  As anthropologists had to learn, though they did it early on, no human beings, together, has ever mistaken a prayer for successful hunt with a successful hunt.  So, I am quite sure, no scientist will ever mistake a statement of fact (a sign), or an argumentation that a fact is factual, with the fact itself (the experience the sign cannot quite capture).  Or, more precisely, in the collective conversations scientists have with each other (and this is to bring in the pragmatist correction to Saussurian structuralism), whether a statement of fact is to be taken as a fact “for all intent and purposes” will be a practical achievement that will last until it is demonstrated that the semiotic process was somehow invalid.

Methodologically, this means that, to access what we have found out our current representations do not quite catch, one does not proceed from deduction and definition to observation.  Rather, one proceed through another look at the practices that have led to any “it” (taken-for-granted-so-far) and the new skepticism about its “it-ness.”  “Perhaps,” we can imagine men discussing, “this is not the way to hunt this beast… Perhaps another set of hunting practices might be more successful and, by the way, do you notice that, this other set, might also allow us to ……”  Having looked carefully at the practices, one can then propose new statements of (practical) fact: “this process is (dis-)abling in these specific ways.”

And so, approaching science (schooling, etc.) in a semiotic (interactional, conversational) way is not to critique the standing of science as a particular form of human knowledge, and probably a privileged one for certain human purposes.  It is, on the contrary, to participate in its further development as, precisely, “science.”  My favorite example is to be found in Jane Goodall  work on chimpanzees: By highlighting certain semiotic processes (men looking at males and privileging their activity), and then by shifting these (as a woman looking at females), our collectivity (polity, community of practice) was led to a more scientific view of chimpanzee social structure.

Thus the responsibility of anthropologists is to demonstrate just how signs-in-particular-conversation proceed, and to do so in such a way that scientists in other fields find their work useful for their own.

experimenting with formats for the representation of anthropological analyses

First attempts at representing graphically our work on schooling in America

First, I want to thank Dr. Aaron Chia-Yuan Hung for all his help with the visualisations.  Without his imagination in translating my often inchoate ideas, not much of this would be happening.

The experiment in representation that I introduced in my June 11th entry is taking us in several directions.  We are

  • summarizing the links between settings, moments, and people, implied or explored in Jill Koyama’s dissertation, for example:
    • a private corporation lobbying Congress to ensure that for-profit entities can provide “Supplemental Education Services”;
    • principals and teachers facing an error made by the New York City Department of Education that identified them as a “School in Need of Improvement.”
  • Finding possible graphic means to represent the links, for example”
  • populating the Web of NCLB Consequences (and sub-webs)

What has been interesting so far is that the exercise is obliging me

  • to be much more specific than the ‘paper’ format allows
  • to face up to the need to imagine linkages for which we do not have good ethnographic evidence (these, when mentioned, are really Requests for Research)
  • to push the evidence that each moment/setting is itself
    • a web
    • a source for further indications (indexes) of un-imagined linkages (this could be the most useful aspect of all this)

This raises a whole set of new analytic problems which I will address in another post.

on experimenting with anthropological representation

In 1972, Geertz asked “what is it that we, anthropologists, do?”.  He answered, provocatively but not quite rhetorically: “we write.”  Actually, he said more in this vein which I summarize,
1) The ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse … In so doing he turns it from a passing event into an account … which can be reconsulted (1973: 19)
2) We inscribe … only that small part of which our informants can lead us into understanding (1973: 20)

I interpret this, anachronistically to everything we know about the tradition of symbolic and interpretive anthropology with which he is now associated, as an introduction to the ethno-methodology of all (educational) search to discover what is going on and what can be done with.  Technically, as (ethno-)anthropologists, we transcribe carefully documented interaction, through audio or video tape if we can, through detailed field notes if we cannot.  And then we pay close attention to everything we can see on this record to figure out, through the activity of the people and only through this activity, how a particular sequence might make sense in the world that the people had made (if not in ours).  Geertz, famously, analogized this task to that of a literary critic. But, in one text at least he specified that he thought of the critics task to explicate what an author might have indexed that a modern reader might not get: “you [cannot] know what a catcher’s mitt is if you don’t know what baseball is” (1976: 221).

Following such leads to find out how people constitute the world they must then deal with, has been magnificently productive for our understanding of face to face interaction among small groups.  From telephone conversations, to the telling of jokes (Sacks 1974), to the discovery of pulsars (Garfinkel and Livingston 1981), we have been able to move significantly further in the anthropological task.

But it has been much more difficult to follow this program with larger emerging units in which it seems evident that interactions in Setting A are somehow linked to conversations in Setting C through the interactions in Setting B.

For example, school based research can easily argue that some troubles a principal may have with teachers and students is directly related to directives from the superintendent’s office which was only passing on directives from the State or the Federal Government.  In other words, the principal and the immediate significant others in a school, indicate through their speech and acts what is it that they cannot escape, what they are making locally with this, and where we, as anthropologists might go to trace where what-they-cannot-escape comes from.

In recent years, Latour has become famous for insisting that social scientists work at tracing these connections.  He writes about “networks” and how his Actor-Network (non-) Theory might be useful (Latour 2005).  But he does not give much guidance as to how this might get done, that is as to how we might systematically inscribe and then identify the links and then inscribe the identified links as suggested by the participants, and in such a way that our critics can identify errors or omissions.

This is why I found Jill Koyama’s dissertation.  Not only did she dare make New York City her unit of analysis, she began tracing systematically the linkages on matters of providing “supplemental educational services” across many settings.  The next question, for me, then became, how might we represent these linkages.

As a starting point, I am reverting to the “web” metaphor, Geertz borrows from Weber (1973 ).  It is cozy metaphor about being “suspended” which I am turning more ominous by writing that we are “caught in webs of (practically consequential and enacted) meaning.”

spider web

And then I am pushing the metaphor by actually “suspending” people-in-their-moments in the hope that it can allow us to see the proposed connections and then plan further research on this basis.  Here is what this might look like.