Thursday, November 13, 2003

(Reading roundup: Latour, Mol & Law, Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho, Nardi, Whittaker & Schwarz on Networks and Structure)

Originally posted: Thu, 13 Nov 2003 21:34:55

I'm working on reading several books right now, including Barbara Mirel's new book on complex problem solving, Cheryl Geisler's new text on analyzing text, and two of Engestrom's older books. And I have recalled Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: everyone is citing the damn thing, so I might as well read it. So expect more reviews soon.

For now, I'm chipping away at the notion of network and I'm reading several articles and chapters related to it. Network's a bit outmoded. Actor-network theorists are now "post-ANT," having traded in their networks for rhizomes, fluids, and regimes. Activity theory picked up on networks in a big way, but in their later work they've become suspicious as well. Four pieces have helped me to muddle through and do some comparisons:

Bruno Latour's "Social Theory and the Study of Computerized Work Sites" is a short chapter in which he talks about the problem with networks -- among other things. "Rhyzomes and homogeneous networks are thus powerful ways of avoiding essences, arbitrary dichotomies, and to fight structures." But they "define entities only through association." Thus "they remain critical tools, good only at disturbing, undoing, deploying, disseminating." They're always critical, not terribly constructive. Latour argues that something has to be added to networks "to make them useful in following displacements without seeing them as so many fragments." Not essences or structures, of course, but something that endures. Fluids (Mol & Law), modes of coordination (Callon), and regimes of delegation (Latour) are all ways to do this.

The concept of fluids is an intriguing one. In "Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology," Annemarie Mol and John Law discuss this notion. In this taxonomy, regions are areas that can be negotiated and where something can exist (typically geographically). For instance, anemia is widespread in a region called Africa, not so much in a region called The Netherlands. Within Africa, there are regions where anemia is more severe. One can link these regions with a network, in this case a network of laboratories in which immutable mobiles circulate. In The Netherlands or in Africa, the same lab equipment can be deployed in similar lab settings to come up with results that tell us about anemia. That is, anemia can be performed similarly anywhere in the network; outside the network, that performance of anemia isn't possible; that sort of anemia, in a sense, doesn't exist.

But some sort of anemia does exist outside the network. Even when equipment breaks down, doctors can test for anemia or at least make good guesses based on practices that spring up outside the network. Checking the eyelids and gums, for instance, can provide a reasonably accurate diagnosis of anemia in the hardest hit parts of Africa (where anemia is most severe), but not in The Netherlands (where anemia, when it occurs, is far milder). Checking for dizziness and shortness of breath can similarly provide a good diagnosis in The Netherlands (where good nutrition and easy labor make these symptoms rare) but not in most parts of Africa (where poor nutrition and hard labor are the norm). So anemia, in this case, is a mutable mobile, something that has the same name but that is performed quite differently in different regions and networks. It flows: it varies without boundaries, transforms without discontinuity. There is no obligatory passage point.

This lack of structure and order tends to bother activity theorists. I've alluded to this tendency already, in my review of a special issue of Mind, Culture, and Activity earlier in this blog. Activity theorists tend to want a more ordered, genetic-historic analysis. So the AT understanding of network has traditionally emphasized relatively stable groups and activities interacting, sharing their tools or objects. Recent AT work, however, has led away from stable structures. In "When the Center Does Not Hold: The Importance of Knotworking," Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho examine "work that requires active construction of constantly changing combinations of people and artifacts over lengthy trajectories of time and widely distributed in space" (p.345), work that has no center or stable configuration (p.346). That description sounds suspiciously like the one Latour has advanced repeatedly, yet the authors argue that "networks are typically understood as relatively stable structures" and thus do not provide a sufficient explanation (p.346)! Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho invent the term knotworking to describe this phenomenon. A closer examination of the chapter reveals that even when this dynamic work is recognized, it is immediately contextualized within stronger and more durable ordered structures.

Finally, Nardi, Whittaker & Schwarz argue in "NetWORKers and their Activity in Intensional Networks" that cross-disciplinary and temporary links -- in personal social networks in the workplace -- are on the rise and cannot be explained by the existing formulations of network. They examine and reject knotworking as one model to apply. Interestingly, they also examine and reject actor-network theory's account: they claim that it assumes "firm footings in institutional structures inhabited by Machiavellian 'princes'" as opposed to the "incessant buzz of small but crucial communications and reflections [that] shaped people's worklives and consciousness" in their study (2002, p.235). Again, activity theorists are accusing actor-network theorists of being too structural. Pot to kettle: you are black.

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