Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Reading :: After Method

Originally posted: Tue, 26 Oct 2004 21:56:59

After Method: Mess in Social Science Research

by John Law

Just over a year ago -- I remember it was on a plane to SIGDOC, so it must have been mid-October -- I wrote an email to a group with whom I've been discussing research methods. The email, based on my recent readings in science and technology studies, suggested that we should stop thinking of research in terms of hierarchical categories (paradigms contain methodologies which contain methods, etc.) and start thinking of all these components as enacted practices that occupy the same level of scale. In fact, I'll be presenting on the topic at CCCC 2005, and Kristie Fleckenstein is writing an article on this same topic (almost certainly better considered than my presentation will be).

As I say, the inspiration was the work being done in science and technology studies. And one of the most active scholars in that field is John Law. So I was happy to find out that Law was writing a book along roughly the same lines that our group had been discussing. I finally got the book in the mail the other week, and it doesn't disappoint. Law really gets that "mess" in social science research -- that is, the inability to draw this research into hard boundaries with unequivocal answers -- is insoluble and ultimately undesirable. He also gets the problem that I've attempted to wrestle with elsewhere and that I've called the problem of unintegrated scope: the impulse to impose levels of scale so that one level can be construed as a master level of which the others are just effects. In After Method, he takes on this problem by describing what he calls "method assemblages." He gives two definitions:

In chapter 2 I defined this for the case of representation, as the enactment of a bundle of ramifying relations that shapes, mediates, and separates representations in-here, represented realities out-there, and invisible out-there relations, processes, and contexts necessary to in-here. In chapter 3, I offered a parallel definition appropriate to objects: that method assemblage is also the crafting of relations that shape, mediate and separate our object in-here, its relevant context out-there, and then an endless set of out-there relations, processes and all the rest that are a necessary part of the assemblage but at the same time have disappeared from it. As is obvious, the two are similar in form. But the post-structuralist philosophical tradition suggests a different vocabulary. If we use this then method assemblage becomes the enactment of presence, manifest absence, and absence as otherness. More specifically, method assemblage becomes the crafting or bundling of relations or hinterland into three parts: (a) whatever is in-here or present; (b) whatever is absent but is also manifest in its absence; and (c) whatever is absent but is Other because, while it is necessary to presence, it is not or cannot be made manifest. Note that it is the emphasis on presence that distinguishes method from any other form of assemblage. Note also that to talk of crafting is not necessarily to imply human agency or skill. The various ethnographies we have explored suggest that people, machines, traces, resources of all kinds -- and we might in other contexts extend the list to include spirits or angels or muses -- are all involved with the process of crafting. (p.84)

Clear enough? It might help to know that Law says that paradigms (the most abstract level of the research hierarchy) are embedded in craft skills (the most concrete level). That is, the hierarchy of research is an attempt to make sense out of a flat, uniscalar set of practices/enactments. And once we get that, it makes sense to think of assemblages as self-assembling elements that are entangled rather than constructed (p.42). When we hear people talking about, say, ethnography as a methodology, a method, or a paradigm, we may become agitated if we are used to thinking of these as separate levels of a hierarchy; but if we think of the whole assemblage as uniscalar, it makes a lot of sense that ethnography would slip across these categories. It makes a lot of sense that methods such as experiments can lose and gain elements until they become, say, usability testing.

I hesitate to call Law's book a Copernican revolution, but it does make sense of these incoherences that we so often see in research when people try to define and operationalize it. Despite Law's style -- which varies from lucid to obtuse and self-indulgent, alas -- this book is an important book that draws together and reinterprets many of the STS threads that have been developing since the early work of Latour and Woolgar. Buy it, read it, quote it. >

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Reading :: Reshaping Technical Communication

Originally posted: Tue, 26 Oct 2004 09:18:36

Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century

by Barbara Mirel, Rachel Spilka

My brother in law has a map on his wall depicting the Republic of Texas between its secession from Mexico (1836) and its annexation by the US (1845). In that map, Texas overflows its current boundaries; a long tendril stretches northward into what is currently Colorado.

map of the republic of Texas

The story behind this improbable configuration, as my brother in law tells it, is that a group of Texans went northward to claim as much land as possible in the unsettled territories. So this expedition genuinely traveled that far, turned around, and came back -- losing heavy casualties along the way. That is to say, the map is a fiction: the long tendril northward was traveled by, but never held by, Texans.

I kept thinking of this map and this story as I read Reshaping Technical Communication. Technical communication is an interdisciplinary field (though some people regard it as a jobs program for surplus literature PhDs) and technical communicators seem to be forever going on forays upriver to claim more and more territory for their field. Graphic design? Check. Usability? Check. Information design, user-centered design, participatory design, document design, typography, color theory, project management, database management, content management? Sure, why not.

This problem of claiming vast swathes of territory based on small expeditions, though endemic in the tech comm literature, highlighted in this book to a startling degree. That's because the book is, above all, about reshaping tech comm: figuring out what it is now and what it should be next. The results are inconclusive, a fact that perfectly mirrors the state of the field. This is, after all, a field in which people with literature PhDs talk animatedly about how Melville's chapter on cetology makes a model text for tech comm students (no, I'm not making this up -- it's happened at two separate conferences) -- and simultaneously the single-sourcing crowd is claiming that you have to know XML if you're going to be a member of this profession. (See Borland's chapter, p.194.) In short, it's a field with a serious identity crisis. The book reflects this crisis quite well, but I don't think it explores, critiques, or diagnoses the crisis incisively. One exception -- and it is glancing at that -- is provided in Faber and Johnson-Eilola's chapter, in which they charge that "practitioners would be hard pressed to identify a robust core body of knowledge" (p.140).

One way that crisis manifests itself, of course, is through the familiar and comfortable academy-industry split, a split that shows up in a number of chapters. (Full disclosure: my second article, published in 1996, discusses the split as well and talks about how to "bridge" it. This is the only article of mine to be reprinted in a collection.) This split begins to address the varying expectations and interpretations of our fractionally coherent field, but it provides only one axis, whereas I am convinced that the variations are multidimensional.

Despite the fractioning/fragmenting of the field, some of the chapters really stood out. Faber and Johnson-Eilola's essay was interesting in that it brought in the economic dimension and tried to engage it in a way that we usually don't. Pare's chapter on participatory research was valuable. And Mirel's discussion of usability was, as always, engaging.

Overall, I found this book to be thought provoking. I think we'll look back at it in ten years and find a summary of the embryonic trends in technical communication.

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