Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reading :: Organizing Modernity (second reading)

Organizing Modernity: Social Ordering and Social Theory
By John Law

I reviewed this book a while back, and was not kind. But reading Law's After Method made me decide to reread the book, especially after running across a reference to the project management aspects of Law's case. So I took another crack at it. The second read was more positive. I still wouldn't place this book high on a reading list -- it's still my least favorite of Law's books -- but it does have some virtues.

The book is a study of order and ordering at the Daresbury Laboratory. But -- and this fact is what yielded my previous review of the book -- it is just as much an introspection of the role and limits of the ethnographer in such a study, as the ethnographer is involved in his or her own ordering project. Law's angst throughout the project is due to becoming acutely aware that his own ordering practices -- what data he collects, what he chooses to analyze and write, how he presents the results -- are as artificial and partial as those he observes at the site. This realization is often crippling, and Law writes of having to retreat from the site to his car to have lunch, of worrying that the real action was always happening elsewhere, of fearing the power and status of his participants. (Really, it's a very fearful book, and intentionally revealing in its fear.)

Law argues that "perhaps there is ordering, but there is certainly no order" (p.1). So, he wonders, what material conditions enact this ordering? What are the social technologies of control? If we accept that there is no root order (p.2), and that the social is materially heterogeneous (p.2), how do we understand ordering? To find out, he embarks on an organizational ethnography of a world-class science lab (p.3), and he examines his own ethnographic work for ordering as well. The last he sees as vital: "Let me put it this way: as I describe the Laboratory I do not always want to make myself invisible. ... I believe this would be wrong because ethnography is also a story of research - and in some measure a tale about the conduct of the ethnographer as well" (p.4).

And so, instead of going about this task the traditional way, with a well-developed methods chapter, Law engages in a lot of introspection in this book. At points I felt as if I were his therapist, as he claims that "we [ethnographers] all go native" (p.39); as he describes how his introvert nature led to feelings of shame and how his retreat to the library allowed him to regroup without shame (p.45); as he admits that he is "shit scared" during ethnography work and he wonders why other ethnographers don't admit this (p.148); and as he frankly describes his fear of powerful people in particular. All of this was work for me, particularly in that I actually don't identify with most of what he's describing and trying to impute to ethnographers in general. At one point, he lucidly describes how enterprises as a matter of course maintain a front stage and a back stage, but then he explicitly disallows this approach from his own writing (pp.178-179). No back stage for Law: his ethnographic writing must be personal, reflexive, and bare: "And I choose to do this in a way which I now think is part humanist - that is by laying myself, as a person, on the line" (p.190).

But wait a minute. Law elsewhere argues (as a student of relational materialism should) that
a person is an effect, a fragile process of networking associated elements. It is an unusual theory of agency only to the extent that I want to fold the props - and the interaction with the props - into the person. And I want to do this because without the props we would not be people-agents, but only bodies. So this is a theory of agency, but it is more than a theory of agency. Or, to put it another way, it is a theory that is not simply about people. And here's where I part company from some kinds of social theory. Unlike many, I don't think that actors or agents necessarily have to be people. I'm uncertain, but perhaps any network of bits and pieces tends to count as an agent if it embodies a set of ordering processes which allows it (or others) to say 'It is an agent, an actor.' (pp.33-34)

Given this view that people are network effects, I am not clear on how Law achieves his revealing of the backstage, i.e., his baring of the self or authenticity. Particularly in this mode, writing, which as Law points out is ordering work: an effect of context that tends to hide that context (p.31). In writing the ethnography, Law has made conscious decisions to foreground or front-stage certain things while backgrounding or back-staging other things. To put this another way, Law's revealing of his innermost thoughts is also constructed, and when he pulls the curtain aside to reveal his backstage, that act itself is a bit of misdirection, since the backstage itself has a backstage. As Law discusses earlier on in a bit on reflexivity, "there is no reason to suppose that we are different from those whom we study" (p.16).

Maybe here, at the end of the review, is a good place to discuss modes of ordering: "I think of them as fairly regular patterns that may be usefully imputed for certain purposes to the recursive networks of the social. In other words, they are recurring patterns embodied within, witnessed by, generated in and reproduced as part of the ordering of human and non-human relations" (p.83). And in these terms, we might think of Law's self-reflexive ethnography as a mode of ordering, an attempt to adapt and further the genre of self-reflexive ethnography with the purpose of encouraging reflexivity across the social sciences.

And although this book forges some interesting connections for those interested in relational materialism, perhaps that's the chief contribution of this book: to perform reflexivity in a way that allows budding ethnographers to communicate among themselves what sorts of challenges they face as they become ethnographers. On second reading, I could see this book being used as a performance in an introductory class on qualitative research methods.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reading :: Documents

Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge
Ed. Annelise Riles

Documents are a big deal to those of us in writing studies, particularly technical communication. But to ethnographers, they have not typically been attractive foci. Yes, they are analyzed along with other artifacts, but (as Riles suggests) they usually take a back seat to field observations and interviews. Perhaps, she says, documents are despised by ethnographers because studying them means that ethnographers treat their own knowledge as just "one instantiation of a wider epistemological condition" (p.7). (See the article "Chains and Ecologies" that Mark Zachry, Bill Hart-Davidson and I wrote a while back for some thoughts about this issue.)

But interest in documents is picking up in ethnographic circles, due in part, no doubt, to the rapid spread of documentation and the trend toward ethnographies of workplaces and bureaucracies. This volume gives us some idea of this interest. For me, as a rhetoric and writing professor and workplace researcher of writing, the project is interesting in outline: what do ethnographers think of documents, and what new perspectives will they bring to bear?

In practice, I regret to say that the insights are not startling. The authors of the collection's pieces study NSF proposals, documents used at the UN, cases and parent-generated biographies of infants, attributions in scientific articles, intake records at a Papua New Guinea jail, university mission statements in the UK, and documentation of Fiji gift-giving. Each of these cases is interesting and each has flashes of insight - particularly the chapter on infant biographies. However, most focus primarily on representation of the documentation's author or subject, and none really dig into how the documents are interwoven into complex activity, either in routine problem-solving or novel situations. In other words, we learn a lot about how biographies and intake records represent and socially shape infants and convicts respectively; but we don't get to see how these representations travel across bureaucracies, become transformed in relation to other documents or activities, or develop over time in response to recurrent needs. In retrospect, I am a little startled at how focused the investigations are on specific documents and subjects as opposed to the bounded systems in which they function.

So who should read this book? If you're interested in representation in documents, or if you want an ethnographic take on documents -- particularly document types similar to the ones above -- this book might be worthwhile. If you're already in writing studies and are seeking cases that will deepen your understanding of how documents work, though, I wouldn't put this book at the top of the list.

Reading :: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
By Malcolm Gladwell

What can I say about The Tipping Point? It's a national bestseller -- as well as a former First Year Forum selection at the University of Texas (meaning that it was taught in all first-year composition courses that year). The author, Malcolm Gladwell, became tremendously well known based on it. And it apparently helped people think very differently about "how little things can make a big difference," as the subtitle suggests. It's compellingly written and accessible.

And yet I felt frustrated by it. Gladwell wants to study human phenomena such as trends, crime, and the popularity of children's shows, and he wants to answer the question of how they reach the "tipping point," the critical mass beyond which change happens rapidly. To understand the tipping point, Gladwell investigates it in the same terms as epidemics, an approach that has some inherent attraction to me. Gladwell's approach is to set up a three-legged stool for understanding how tipping points occur: "These three agents of change I call the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context" (p.19).

The Law of the Few is that "in a given process or system some people matter more than others" (p.19) - whether those people are spreading gonorrhea or networking with others in a business capacity. Gladwell subdivides these into Connectors (people who make connections with others), Mavens (people who learn about and educate others about their particular specialty of information), and Salespeople (people who are unusually persuasive and charismatic.

The Stickiness Factor "says that theere are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes" (p.25).

Finally, "The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem" (p.29). Gladwell provides several examples of how contextual or environmental factors appear to have a causal relationship with certain human behaviors we would normally consider individual.

Okay, none of these laws seem earth-shattering to someone who's read much in the sociocognitive literature. It's a systems approach. So why did I find it so frustrating? I think it's for two reasons. One, Gladwell's typology isn't that well fleshed out. We get many engaging stories, but it's hard to know how well these three factors cover or explain the phenomenon. The book popularizes the typology, but it doesn't make a strong case for it. In particular, we don't get a good sense of how the three relate, when one accounts for the phenomenon vs. the others, or how they interact to collectively explain phenomena. We might even begin to wonder what other factors are out there. Are there others? Are others even more important? It's impossible to tell from this book.

The second reason is a bit more focused. Gladwell's typology has a built-in tension related to agency. How much can be explained by individual agents whose individual, situated actions matter more than others - the Law of the Few? How much can be explained by the system, particularly the context, in which agency is reduced to a network effect -- the Power of Context? And how much is explained by how alike audience members are - the Stickiness Factor? Gladwell asserts that each is important, but doesn't seem to deal with three very different understandings of human agency here, much less attempt to reconcile them.

Nevertheless, Gladwell writes about these cases well and does a great job illustrating the three principles he's forwarding.