Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reading :: Educational Review 61(2)

Educational Review 61(2), May 2009
Special Issue: Critical Perspectives on Activity Theory
Ed. Deirdre Martin and Nick Peim

I usually review books here, but occasionally I'll review sets of articles or special issues, if they're interesting or valuable enough. This special issue meets both criteria. In these articles, just over a year old, various authors provide some criticisms of activity theory - sharp criticisms, in both senses of the word. Below, I'll review the editorial and five articles; the sixth rereads the Zone of Proximal Development in terms of Derridean deconstruction, and unfortunately I just can't work up the enthusiasm to read it. Nothing personal, Derrida.

So let's turn to the other articles.

Martin, D. and Peim, N. "Editorial: Critical perspectives on activity theory."

In this editors' introduction, Martin and Peim set up the issue for us. Activity theory is usually discussed in terms of sociocultural theory or cultural-historical theory (as sociocultural activity theory, or SCAT, and cultural-historical activity theory, or CHAT). But, the editors echo Daniels and Edwards, SCAT has "two areas of philosophical uncertainty" (p.131). First, sociocultural theory is rooted in anthropology, but AT is focused on transformative potential. Second, AT is ambivalent about "conceptualizations of agentic action" (p.131). Martin and Peim explore those tensions further, specifically in Engestrom's version of AT (or EAT).

As Martin and Peim tell us, five of the papers question EAT's relationship to the Vygotskian thought on which it is based - an important criticism, since "activity theory claims its authority in its allegiance to and development of Vygotsky" (p.131). So let's EAT, CHAT, and SCAT across the special issue and see what happens.

Avis, J. "Transformation or transformism: Engeström’s version of activity theory?"

If you've followed Engeström’s more recent work on AT, particularly his latest book, you're familiar with the notions of co-configuration and knotworking - Engeström’s attempts to address loose work (for want of a better term). In this article, James Avis "seeks to locate [EAT] within the socio-economic and theoretical context in which notions of co-configuration and knotworking are set" (p.151). He notes that Engeström’s AT analyses and his Developmental Work Research (DWR) approach have become popular in part because it
offers progressive possibilities by enabling movement from current practices deemed problematic, to those that are more effective and qualitatively different – in other words the facilitation of transformative change. (p.152)
Unlike other contemporary Marxist analyses, DWR "offer a politics of hope" - but one that "stops short of wider societal engagement" (p.152). Indeed, the DWR vision has its attractions for "progressively oriented educators" but also for "capitalist firms operating in competitive market places, as well as those managing public sector organizations seeking to enhance efficiency" (p.152), particularly those working within the conceptualizations of the knowledge society or information society (p.153). Indeed, "questions of dominance and power are sidelined" in case studies such as Engeström’s studies of co-configuration in health care (p.153). Avis charges:
The rhetoric would suggest that organizations have become increasingly fluid, open and amoeba like and that the logic of capitalist accumulation orientated towards the extraction of surplus value has been transmogrified. It should however be noted that this organizational vision refers to pre-figurative firms which are apparently at the cutting edge, serving an important ideological function. (p.154)
Avis is not happy with this representation, which (in his view) overemphasizes the messiness of divisions between organization/environment, customer/product developer, public/private sector, and the openness of systems (p.154). He detects, and is suspicious of, a narrative of progressive pluralism and democracy in this account (p.154). And he adds:
Such descriptions draw upon stakeholder analyses and participatory and pluralist processes to imply a democratization of social relations. However, such an image is misleading as it neglects the terrain on which such activities operate, that is to say the capitalist accumulation process together with those who have the power to set institutional agendas. The salience of the preceding argument is that not only can it readily align with understandings of capitalism as a dynamic system but also with those that suggest the qualitative changes undergone have rendered former social antagonisms muted and of lesser significance. However the current credit crisis is salutary as it reminds us of the rapaciousness of capitalism. (p.155)
I think Avis really reaches with that last sentence, and also that he imputes many of the popular ideas of the knowledge society to Engeström without a lot of evidence. At the same time, Avis definitely has a point when he argues that Engeström doesn't provide a consistent power-oriented critique of capitalism along the lines of canonical Marxism (p.155). Although Engeström acknowledges larger social structures,
This insight fails to be translated into broader political engagement as the focus of his interventions are upon practices within a particular activity system or those adjacent to it, as is the case with third generation AT. Consequently the wider social structure within which these processes arise tends to be ignored. This leads to analysis that leaves these wider relations in place and fails to interrogate the manner in which they shape the terrain on which an activity system or cluster is set. It is this limitation that in part results in analyses and change strategies that effectively secure the interests of capital. (p.156).
So, Avis complains, DWR focuses on peripheral contradictions rather than primary ones (p.157). Engestromg, he says, uses Marxist categories "heuristically, as part of an analytic technique that serves to distance their mobilization from Marx’s underpinning philosophical and political position" (p.157). In the next section, Avis examines the heuristic of the AT triangle and the principles that Engestrom says underlie AT (p.158). In these principles, Avis says, Engeström "plays down managerial relations of power" (p.158), accepts capitalist relations (p.159), and treats development-through-contradictions "as a somewhat straightforward process that serves the interests of all participants" (p.159). By focusing on peripheral contradictions, "Engeström’s AT veers towards becoming a form of comfort radicalism, its transformative rhetoric has a progressive appeal but ultimately it readily lends itself to becoming no more than a management technique" (p.161). Avis concludes that "There is a tension in Engeström’s AT that readily lends itself to appropriation by capital, and is a consequence of its failure to seriously acknowledge social antagonism and wider patterns of social relations in which activity systems are located" (p.162). Yet Avis hopes for approaches that "re-politicize and re-vitalize AT" (p.162).

In short, Avis sees Engeström as one of those guys who wears his Che t-shirt to Starbucks.

Hartley, D. "Education policy, distributed leadership and socio-cultural theory"

I was a little surprised here to see that Hartley begins his literature review by discussing Graeme Thompson's typology of hierarchy, market, and network (p.140; see my recent review of one of Thompson's books on the subject). Hartley is interested in the implications for public governance, particularly distributed leadership in the public sector. To explore these, he examines studies by Spillaine and colleagues that are grounded in sociocultural theories such as structuration theory, AT, and distributed cognition. Like Avis, Hartley raises criticisms of how power, boundedness, and mediation are handled in sociocultural theory, but he is neither as critical nor as focused on AT in particular as Avis was.

Peim, N. "Activity theory and ontology."

On the other hand, Peim is quite critical, perhaps moreso than Avis. Here, Peim criticizes EAT as "a technology of knowledge designed to enable positive transformations of specific practices," one that seeks to ground itself in Vygotsky but "is restricted by a commitment to a progressive, apolitical ideology of improvement" and "defined in terms of its expression of a will-to-power." Peim charges that EAT is disengaged from its supposed philosophical tradition and that it has misappropriated Vygotsky's legacy. And that's all just in the abstract (p.167). Peim further states in his introduction that EAT's "will-to-power arises from its desire to unmoor itself from any awkward political affiliations and to represent itself as a universal system of description," allowing EAT to function as "a thoroughly positivist technology of improvement" (p.167). And he continues: "Needless to say, the logic of improvement invoked by EAT lacks political contextualization. It is an odd feature of this socio-cultural historical theory that it reduces all of those dimensions – the social, the cultural, the historical – to apolitical abstractions" (p.167).

Peim hopes "to raise questions specifically about the political ontology of EAT" (p.168). And here, we get to a highly interesting passage which I'll quote in full:
EAT, then, has become a widely accepted technology of transformation harnessed to an ethic of improvement. This ethic has beset education as a whole with an overriding logic of performativity. One aspect of this marriage is the insistence, strongly emphasized by Engeström, on the local nature of activity systems. The avowal of a “radical localism” in EAT means that questions about social systems – and about the relations between local practices and larger social systems – are not, and cannot be, addressed (Engeström 2003, 36). As a result, what is sometimes known as sociocultural historical activity theory gives scant attention to any socially differentiated theory of culture or of history! Only thus can it offer itself as a universal technology of improvement. (p.168)
Avis made a similar charge. And, honestly, it has some sympatico with my criticisms of AT in Network. Let me just insert the observation that Engeström has lately turned to "runaway objects," which are objects too big for any given activity system. One example he frequently uses is that of global warming - hardly a radically localized object. My sense is that as he has continued theorizing, Engeström has begun to try to account for public discourse using the locally grounded theoretical tools of AT.

Okay, back to Peim. Peim draws on Heidegger to examine EAT's ontology, concluding that EAT is "metaphysical" and "essentially phenomenological," yet without explicit references to the phenomenological tradition (p.169). He detects a de facto break with Vygotsky (p.169), despite a narrative of direct-line development from Vygotskian thought (pp.169-171), and charges that although EAT claims concern for key Marxist terms, "Absorption in the multiplicity and specificity of activity here begins to sound uncannily like a form of post-modernism that has abandoned all meta-narratival delusions" (p.171). In the EAT account, Peim charges, the Heideggerian idea of world is lost, and all structures break down to a radical localism. But how can an activity system be studied without a notion of world, he asks?
But the elements of the system cannot belong entirely or solely to the system. The division of labour, for instance, must be an entity that exists between systems, founded in their very difference from one another, and certainly not a positive property of a single system. When we consider how EAT defines the constituent components of any particular system, we must always be left asking: How can any of these items have identity except as they exist both inside and outside the system? What is the nature of this inside/outside relation? What is outside the activity system? Only another interlocking activity system? Not a “world” in the Heidegger sense? ... The effect in EAT is to abstract the activity system from its wider social context, hence the insistence of “radical localism” (Engeström 2003, 36). (p.173)
Peim goes on to ontologically problematize Engestrom's "five fundamental principles" (p.174). Later, he says, "In the foregoing analysis of the five principles of EAT, it can be seen that serious questions arise concerning the fundamental ontology of EAT. Given that, EAT aspires to be a 'theory of everything,' these questions carry considerable significance" (p.176). Yes, that's the problem with theories of everything. I suppose that's why I've been underwhelmed by Peim's and Avis' arguments here: I haven't taken AT to be a theory of everything, just a theory that is good for some things (cf. Network). The trick is to figure out which things it's good for.

Not that I am dismissive of Peim's claims. Peim is correct, I think, in charging that EAT has not deeply delved into the ontological or philosophical implications of its influences (see esp. pp.177-178), and has often drawn from traditions that are ontologically and philosophically at odds. This has led to some theoretical, philosophical, and methodological lack of coherence.

Peim last raises the issue that Engeström has styled himself as the authority and guardian of AT, and points his finger at "a hint of idealism and more than the trace of a will-to-power" (p.179). My reading of his position: EAT is mostly about the E.

Hardcastle, J. "Vygotsky's Enlightenment precursors"

I regret giving short shrift to Hardcastle's article, which argues that we can better understand Vygotsky's statements about thought and language by reviewing Vygotsky's Enlightenment precursors - particularly Locke and Condillac - "to shed further light on these early influences and to suggest both the scale and complexity of the ideas about language, signs and symbolization that Vygotsky inherited" (p.193). It's an intriguing historicization. Or rather, I feel that it should be intriguing to me, but lately I have been more interested in critiques of Engeströmian AT. For those who are interested in the development of Vygotsky's thought, particularly the relatively underexplored non-Marxist roots, I recommend the article.

Bakhurst, D. "Reflections on activity theory"

Rounding out the articles reviewed here (and recall that I skipped one) is this incisive critique of how Engeström interpreted Ilyenkov's work. As you may know, Engeström lifted Ilyenkov's treatment of contradictions and applied it to Leont'ev's notion of activity systems - a pivotal moment in the development of activity theory, since it made possible many things, including critiques that would have been unwise in the Soviet milieu; an account of macrolevel development; and the notion of interlocking (chained) and overlapping (interpenetrating) activity systems. (Not to sound like a broken record, but see my book Network for more on this pivotal development.) Bakhurst is well versed in Ilyenkov's work and has been cited frequently by Engeström, so I was highly interested in his take. And his take is not entirely complimentary.

Bakhurst declares that although many suggest that "activity theory represents the most important legacy of Soviet philosophy and psychology," Engeström’s canonical account of EAT as a third-generation development of AT is troubled because EAT is at tension with the concerns of AT's Russian founders. In particular, the Soviet tradition of AT "saw the concept of activity as a fundamental category to address profound philosophical questions about the possibility of mind," but "activity theory in the West has principally become an empirical method for modeling activity systems" (p.197).

Bakhurst begins by noting that in the Soviet tradition, activity is taken as "a fundamental explanatory category in philosophy and psychology" (p.197). Yet "The concept of activity, in contrast, had, and continues to have, no place whatsoever on the Anglo-American philosophical scene" (p.198) - and for very good reason, since human activity is such a broad, general notion as to be useless. How could one have a theory of activity that can simultaneously cover all human activity and yet be specific enough to be useful? "This is a question to which activity theorists must have an answer," he declares firmly (p.198).
Alas, Bakhurst has no neat answer to the question, and he laments that there is not so much agreement on what activity actually is (p.198). Indeed, he argues,
In its heyday in Soviet thought, the concept of activity was a vehicle for the articulation of a critical and creative species of Marxism that stood in a tense relation to the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy of the Soviet establishment. As a result, the activity approach was a means for the ventriloquation of all kinds of views. So now, when one steps back and reflects on the tradition, many of those views appear rather difficult to render coherent. (p.199)
Now isn't that fascinating? Personally, I am used to reading Bakhtin in terms of veiled allusions and ambiguities, but not AT's Soviet writers. Reading this explanation, I felt a little stab of regret at my past harsh readings of Ilyenkov.
Back to the development of AT. Bakhurst praises Engeström’s Learning by Expanding for offering "a very detailed account of the diverse sources, philosophical and psychological, that inform activity theory"; but he deplores that "a simplified picture has emerged out of his work that has become part of the self-consciousness of those in the West who work in the tradition" (p.199). In particular, he means the idea that "there are three principal stages or generations of activity theory" (p.199; Bakhurst is too polite to say here that Engeström himself has been one of the chief advocates of this view, although he gets around to pointing the finger on p.200).
Bakhurst is not satisfied with the three-generation account. First, contra the linearity of this story, "within Russian philosophy and psychology, the concept of activity was always seen as problematic and open to multiple interpretations" (p.200). Bakhurst argues that, to rescue Vygotsky's work from the politically-inspired charge of idealism, "the concept of activity was brought to prominence by Vygotsky’s students as part of an attempt to defend the general Vygotskian framework against this objection" (p.202). This development "pulled the Vygotskian approach towards the tradition of Marx’s philosophical anthropology" and arguably away from Vygotsky's original conceptions (p.202).
Second, Bakhurst argues, Engeström’s account of AT yields "a theory of activity, in the form of a model of activity systems" (p.202). But "the Russian founders of the tradition" rather "deploy[ed] the concept of activity to explain something else – broadly speaking, our place in the world, the nature of consciousness, or personality. Their idea was that activity is the fundamental explanatory concept in philosophy and psychology because it is the central notion in any viable philosophical anthropology" (p.202). For instance, Bakhurst summarizes Ilyenkov's position thus: "Human beings are thus essentially social creatures because they owe their very status as minded beings, as persons, to their appropriation of culture" (p.203). Here, the concept of activity
is the key concept that explains both the emergence of the world as a possible object of thought through the objectification of significance and the emergence of our mental powers, which consist in a certain mode of active engagement with reality (responsiveness to reasons) and which develop in each individual through her appropriation of the specific modes of activity of her community, through initiation into a form of life. It is very typical of Russian philosophers of this tradition to look for such a root or core concept, the evolution of which encapsulates the logic of the system under scrutiny. (p.203)
Bakhurst does not read Ilyenkov's account as empirical but as purely philosophical - not to mention "deeply anthropocentric" (p.204). Bakhurst is critical of, but respectful toward, Ilyenkov throughout.
This Soviet notion of activity was
designed to form the basis of a viable psychology, a psychology of the kind Leontiev sought to develop. Out of Leontiev’s work then evolves the second strand, which is principally a method for modelling activity systems with a view to facilitating not just understanding, but practice. Activity theory in the second sense is, among other things, a way of modelling organizational change. (p.205)
Here, Bakhurst points us to a 2005 Kaptelinin article, "The object of activity: Making sense of the sense-maker" (p.205). Bakhurst says that he does not choose sides here, but his "main concern is that we do not lose sight of what the first strand of activity theory was all about. I do not want the first strand to be simply taken up into the second and to survive in people’s imaginations only as the precursor of the second" - especially since the two strands involve different styles (p.206).
So let's talk about the second strand. Bakhurst suspects that many who use AT "want to look at a particular phenomenon" but "recognize that the phenomenon is not easy to capture using the standard techniques of standard social science" because "the phenomenon is part of a complex system" and "because it involves a rich human texture." So they seek an empirical approach with an appropriate theoretical framework (p.206). But Bakhurst suspects Ilyenkov would raise objections:
First, it is not clear that what we have here is a theory at all. What we have is a model or a schema that has minimal predictive power. If activity theory is a theory, it warrants the name because it is a theoretical representation of the general structure of activity systems. (p.206)
But "It is pretty much impossible to find something recognizable as an activity that does not fit the model," he objects (p.206); " This implies that what we have here is a universal, but generally vacuous schema, that turns out to be a useful heuristic in reference to certain kinds of activity" - and that schema "vastly underdetermines the description of the 'activity system'under scrutiny" (p.207). The links are unclear, and "In terms of understanding the dynamics of the activity system, a fair load is carried by the idea of a contradiction, but this notion is conspicuously vague" (p.207).
Succinctly, Bakhurst says, "The moral is that you must be very cautious about given, stable, structural representations where you aspire to understand dynamism, flux, reflexivity, and transformation" (p.207).
Bakhurst reminds us that he sees this second strand as empirical rather than philosophical. But he is not convinced that the second strand needs more theory: "It might be better off with less," he argues, taking as an example the debate about the notion of "object" (p.208). Bakhurst notes that much ink has been spilled attempting to reconcile the two notions of object - what someone is trying to achieve vs. what they are working on - when he simply thinks the term is ill-formed and ambiguous. "I think recent discussions about the object of activity are a case where the second strand in the activity-theoretical tradition makes it seem as if there is a deep theoretical problem to be solved, when in fact there is not, and that turning to the first strand to address this pseudo-problem only promises to make matters worse," he staes (p.208).
Bakhurst ends with a bit of feather-smoothing that doesn't do much to take the sting out of his critique. It's a good critique, and I think the most valuable article in the issue.
Overall, should you read this issue? If you're interested in AT and have a solid background, I think you should. It has some smart critiques, and certainly some passionate ones. I don't agree with them all, and I think some have to do with differences in how AT is interpreted, but all are thought-provoking and deserve to be considered.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reading :: The Laws of the Markets

Laws of the Markets
Ed. Michel Callon

Reading Thompson's Between Hierarchies and Markets reminded me of this book, which Thompson uses as his primary source for actor-network theory. I think I tried reading it a few years ago, but was put off by the fact that most of the contributions are not ANT-oriented. This time, with considerably more background in social network analysis and related areas, I rallied and finished it.

The Laws of the Markets takes on how markets are made concrete and stabilized; contributors come from socioeconomics. As you may know, I am not a socioeconomist, so take my reading with a grain of salt.

The book starts with a lengthy introduction by Michel Callon, who asks: Why does economics have so little to say about the market? (p.1). His assertion is that "economics, in the broad sense of the term, performs, shapes, and formats the economy, rather than observing how it functions" (p.2). And "the aim of the present book is to contribute to the analysis and understanding of the subtle relationships between economics and the economy; not within an historical perspective, although some chapters do include historical material, but within a deliberately anthropological one" (p.2). And in that anthropological perspective, he overviews the book's chapters, interspersed with thoughts about economics, markets, and networks - and rhetoric.

About the latter, Callon cites McCloskey's book on the rhetoric of economics, "although its definition of rhetoric remains so classical that it is obviously limited" (p.31). "Rhetoric, defined as the art of building alliances to establish a favorable balance of power whether in science or politics, cannot be reduced to an excess of mathematization of generalizing abstraction intended to terrorize the opponent" (p.31), Callon chides, dividing rhetoric from brute calculation.

Let's skip a bit, because many of these chapters were interesting to me, but not connected enough to my own research to describe in detail. For instance, Vivianna Zelizer's "The proliferation of social currencies" has a fascinating discussion of earmarking, wallet systems, and other domestic and social currencies. Mitchel Abolafia's "Markets as cultures: An ethnographic approach" has a terrific discussion of how he gained access to a firm in order to conduct his ethnography; I'm thinking about using it next time I teach a qualitative research class.

Interesting in a deeper way was David Stark's "Recombinant property in East European capitalism." Stark has a fascinating take on how Eastern Europe's informal interfirm networks, developed to make the command economy of the USSR work, survived the collapse of the Soviet regime to become a partial substrate of the new capitalist regime. "In short, in place of disorientation, we find the metamorphosis of sub-rose organizational forms and the activation of pre-existing networks of affiliation" (p.117). "Thus, we examine how actors in the post-socialist context are rebuilding organizations and institutions not on the ruins but with the ruins of communism as they redeploy available resources in response to their immediate practical dilemma" (p.117). So in Hungary, for instance, we see new property forms under the heading of recombinant property (p.119). One feature of recombinant property is inter-enterprise ownership, with the State buying substantial stakes in many companies, and enterprises buying each other's stocks (p.122). Stark has a name for this: a "recombinet," or network of recombinant property (p.128). State paternalism continues to exist in a big way, but whereas under the Soviets state paternalism manifested as managing assets, in the post-socialist regime, state paternalism manifested as managing liabilities (p.132). Recombinant property, Stark concludes, is "an attempt to have a resource that can be justified or assessed by more than one standard of measure" (p.134) - e.g., profitability and eligibility - with different strategies for each measure.

At the end of the book, Callon supplies a final essay: "An essay on framing and overflowing." Here, he argues that the market is not simply expanding, it's emerging and reemerging (p.245). Callon takes the economic notions of externalities and overflows, puts them in contact with Goffman's notion of framing, and playfully uses them to discuss an ANT understanding of markets. The conventional approach, he says, is to see framing as normal and overflows as rare leaks (p.250). But from ANT's perspective, it's overflows that are the norm, and framing is rare and costly (p.252). All framing, he says, amounts to an effort to extricate agents from the network; overflows, in contrast, have many sources and flow in many directions (p.253). He points to intermediaries, which "secretly cross the frame's boundaries" (p.256), and insists that "no externalities can exist without relationships" instantiated through these intermediaries (p.257). Overflows, he continues, define groups (p.258). This discussion leads directly to one of hybrid forums (p.260; see also his Acting in an Uncertain World).

In all, the collection is a little uneven, but it has some standout essays, particularly Callon's. If you're interested in ANT, check it out.

Reading :: Acting in an Uncertain World

Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy
By Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe

While looking up another of Callon's books recently, I ran across this 2010 publication and bought it immediately. Callon has not been as well read as Latour, at least on this side of the Atlantic, but I've found his insights into actor-network theory to be extremely valuable - particularly the question of how groups form around controversies. That, in fact, is what this book is about.

In Acting in an Uncertain World, Callon and his coauthors tackle the question of how to make democracy work in an increasingly technical, specialized world. "Science and technology cannot be managed by the political institutions currently available to us," the authors charge (p.9), because scientific and technical controversies are becoming increasingly specialized while impacting more people. The general public don't have the expertise to make decisions about highly technical issues, but we also can't leave high-impact decisions up to specialists in a democracy. Such decisions include "GMOs, BSE [a.k.a. "mad cow disease"], nuclear waste, mobile phones, the treatment of household waste, asbestos, tobacco, gene therapy, genetic diagnosis" (p.9) - and we could also throw in anthropogenic global warming, a controversy that is the current Ground Zero of the problem Callon et al. discuss. Examine the discourse around that issue and you'll see the same dilemma: the public is impacted by any decisions made about global warming (particularly the rapidly industrializing Third World, which is only now realizing the basic economic benefits of industrialization, including food security and lengthening lifespans), but only specialists are deemed to have the deep expertise to make informed decisions. This skew, this disjuncture between expertise and democratic decision-making, has resulted in (among other things) hard and sometimes unfair questions about the nature and motivation of that expertise (see Climategate).

(Side note: Climate change is one of Yrjo Engestrom's examples of a "runaway object," an object(ive) of multiple activity systems that transcends and can't be contained by any particular activity system. Reading Callon's book helped me to rethink Engestrom's argument - and to wonder whether a "runaway object" is actually an attempt to introduce a notion of the public into an analytical theory that has no other mechanism for dealing with the public. More on this later, I'm sure.)

But Callon et al. don't want to replace our democratic institutions. Rather, these institutions "must be enriched, expanded, extended, and improved so as to bring about what some would call technical democracy, or more precisely in order to make our democracies more able to absorb the debates and controversies aroused by science and technology" (p.9).

In particular, Callon et al. are interested in
hybrid forums - forums because they are open spaces where groups can come together to discuss technical options involving the collective, hybrid because the groups involved and the spokespersons claiming to represent them are heterogeneous, including experts, politicians, technicians, and laypersons who consider themselves involved. They are also hybrid because the questions and problems taken up are addressed at different levels in a variety of domains, from ethics to economic and including physiology, nuclear physics, and electromagnetism. (p.18)
Callon et al. take some pains to distinguish the key issue here, uncertainty, from the "false friend" risk (p.19). In a nutshell, risk is "a well-identifiable danger associated with a perfectly describable event or series of events" (p.19). We know what might happen, and we can usually estimate or calculate its probability and develop contingency plans for dealing with it. Risk implies certainty about conditions (p.20). But uncertainty involves, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, the "unknown unknowns": or, "we cannot anticipate the consequences of the decisions that are likely to be made; we do not have a sufficiently precise knowledge of the conceivable options, the description of the constitution of the possible worlds comes up against resistant cores of ignorance, and the behavior and interactions of the entities making them up remain enigmatic" (p.21). Or, "We know that we do not know, but that is almost all we know; there is no better definition of uncertainty" (p.21). And in these cases, "the only option is questioning and debate, notably on the investigations to be launched. What do we know? What do we want to know? Hybrid forums help to bring some elements of an answer to these pressing questions" (p.21).

Callon et al. take the position that "controversies enrich democracy" (p.28); but for that to happen, we must use controversies as a mode of exploration. They allow us to see overflows, places where proposed solutions jump their defined parameters, "give rise to unexpected problems by giving prominence to unexpected effects" (p.28). "Each decision-making process requires a work of opening out, of diffusion, if only because of the need to mobilize the actors who will enable the project to be brought to a successful conclusion" - and "deciding is opening Pandora's Box by permitting actors previously held at arm's length to take part in a dynamic to which they quickly contribute" (p.30). Such sociotechnical controversies reveal the stakes and makes the network of problems visible and debatable (p.31).

An aside here: In Network I claimed that ANT doesn't really have an account of learning. But here, we (sort of) have an ANT book on learning and development - which is to say, a book on setting up dialogical spaces of hybrid forums in which controversies are defined and clarified so that participants can explore and learn (p.35). This learning "leads to the discovery of mutual, developing, and malleable identities that are led to take each other into account and thereby transform themselves" (p.35). Hybrid forums bring together specialists and laypersons, citizens and representatives (p.35).

Hybrid forums, in fact, sound a bit like Robert Jungk's future workshops, which partially inspired participatory design. These themes are familiar, but applied to scientific and technical controversies (rather than existential threats, as Jungk's work was) across societal scale (unlike PD).

To better understand hybrid forums, Callon et al. take us through the ANT concept of translation. In this context of scientific and technical development, translation involves three phases:
  1. From the macrocosm to the microcosm: specialists reduce the world to the microcosm of the laboratory so that they can simplify, prune, and reconfigure it for study (pp.48-49).
  2. In the small world of the lab: specialists turn the phenomenon into its traces and signatures (inscriptions), a chain of equivalences that can be manipulated and studied (pp.51-59).
  3. From the microcosm to the macrocosm: specialists return the laboratory results back to the wide world (pp.59-68).
These three movements, which can be called (small-"t") translations 1, 2, and 3, together constitute (big-"T") Translation, a Translation of the macrocosm, taking the world from one state to another (p.69). And of course the problem emerges here. For specialists to enact Translation, they must seclude themselves and work in isolation on the phenomenon. But that means that when they return to the world in translation 3, they are enacting far-reaching changes about which the general public has not been consulted. "How can we fail to see that this political choice in favor of one collective or another is carried out without any real debate or consultation, that is to say, according to procedures that are not those we usually associate with political life in our democracies?" (p.69).

Certainly this is a huge issue. The last several decades have worn out public faith that scientific and technical change will be universally good, and that faith has been replaced by the wary question: how will this affect us? As Callon et al. put it in the next chapter: "There is nothing ... more rigorous than a group of non-specialists who want to know why they endure unbearable misfortune" (p.80 - in the context of a community enduring unusually high rates of cancer). So we begin to see the public, or public groups, engaging in all phases of Translation: from translation 1 ("taking part in the formulation of problems," p.76) to translation 2 ("taking part in the research collective in order to broaden and organize it," p.83) to translation 3 ("turning back to the world," p.89). In each translation, we see citizens engaging dialogically with the scientific process. Take the question of whether sheep in England are being affected by the fallout from Chernobyl.
Despite the scientists' fine self-assurance, and maybe even because of it, the shepherds remain skeptical. First, because the specialists have already been wrong once and it does not seem unreasonable to think they could be wrong again. The sequel proves moreover that their fears were well founded: some months later the experts recognize that the observed radioactivity is half due to Chernobyl and half to what are discreetly called "other sources." Later because a serious analysis would have required data from before 1986. Now, despite the farmers' and their representatives' repeated demands, these data were never supplied, the administration finally acknowledging that they did not exist, implicitly admitting that it had not done its work. The cocktail of arrogant certainty, a background of secrecy, and poor work could only arouse the non-specialists' mistrust. In fact, in the farmers' opinion, the most serious thing is not so much that the experts made mistakes, or even that they botched their work, but clearly that they hid all this behind a self-assurance deriving from their status as scientists or experts. (p.92)
In this story from 1986, we might find ourselves cheering the shepherds, who stood up for their way of life, demanded accountability, and exposed scientists' secrecy, sometimes-shoddy work, and overreliance on authority. But change the date to 2009, change the issue from Chernobyl to global warming, change garden-variety stonewalling to failure to comply with FOIA requests, and change the botches to shoddy data-keeping practices, and you get last year's so-called Climategate controversy. You may or may not be cheering at this point, and you may find yourself listing the ways in which this more recent, "hot" controversy is different - but the basic issue is still the same, whether we are talking about "GMOs, BSE [a.k.a. "mad cow disease"], nuclear waste, mobile phones, the treatment of household waste, asbestos, tobacco, gene therapy, genetic diagnosis" (p.9). In all of these, "science says" is no longer enough when people's livelihoods are at stake or when people no longer trust the gatekeepers. In all of these, political decisions are being made, not democratically and publicly, but in seclusion by specialists. "If translation 1 does not reconstitute the networks of interests, translation 3 will end in failure," Callon et al. conclude dolefully (p.103).

So how do we get past this impasse? Callon et al. discuss various forms of cooperation between secluded research and research in the wild (p.125), and between the aggregation of individuals and the composition of the collective (p.131). These hybrid forums aim for some mix of delegative democracy (conducted by scientific specialists or specialized political representatives) and dialogic democracy (conducted collaboratively, by all interested parties) (p.135). Chapter 4 describes the basic ideas behind the hybrid forum, while Chapter 5 discusses how to organize them, including criteria and comparisons with similar efforts.

In all, this book was extremely valuable. It moves toward a macrodevelopmental, proactive approach to ANT that has too often been missing. It hints at an ANT account of learning. It moves in the same general direction as some of Latour's later work, but in more concrete ways. It provides a methodology for developing hybrid forums, and in doing so, helped me to connect ANT with some of the more politically oriented work in other literatures. It provides a possible point of connection with Developmental Work Research and with participatory design. And it's written in a riveting way. If you have interest in any of these aspects, please do pick up the book.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reading :: Building the Trident Network

Building the Trident Network: A Study of the Enrollment of People, Knowledge, and Machines
By Maggie Mort

If I were Randy on American Idol, my review would be an inarticulate "I don't know, man, it was just all right for me." It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I couldn't get excited about this book. The framing is actor-network theory; the question is the underexplored issue of "disenrollment," in which actor-networks divest actors; the study is of a large-scale sociotechnical network bent to building Trident submarines in Britain, and the problems and issues that surround that vexed network.

And yet I had a hard time maintaining interest. Partly, I think, it was because the ANT framing was too thinly applied. Partly it was because "disenrollment" is a thin concept on which to hang a book. Partly it was because the author seemed too invested in labor's side of the controversy, and too interested in describing failures rather than successes. Maybe it was the writing style. In any case, I found myself flipping and skimming and looking for something I could use. In the end, I felt that some buried treasure must have remained in the pages, but I wasn't up to uncovering it. Perhaps after some time has passed, I'll dig up some reviews and find out what others got from it. But for now, I would suggest some of the many other, more theoretically rewarding ANT books out there.

Reading :: Between Hierarchies and Markets

Between Hierarchies and Markets: The Logic and Limits of Network Forms of Organization
By Grahame F. Thompson

I was quite excited to read Between Hierarchies and Markets, which compares three different approaches to networks - social network analysis (SNA), transaction-cost analysis (TCA), and actor-network theory (ANT) - in an attempt to situate the notion of networks in relation to hierarchies and markets. Given my readings in the last three years, I found myself wishing that I had discovered this book before finishing my own Network. But after Chapter 3, I changed my mind. That's because, although Thompson does a nice job discussing SNA and TCA, and especially their relationship with hierarchies and markets, he tends to reduce ANT too much for comparison's sake. It's still a worthwhile book, but I think it would have confused me about ANT.

Let's start at the beginning to see how this works out. In the first chapter, Thompson lays out the problem: the term "network" is used without clear conceptual underpinnings. It has become a catchall metaphor and lost analytical precision. Thompson wants to rescue the term's analytical use, particularly so that he can contrast it with other coordination/governing mechanisms with their own logics, mechanisms such as hierarchies and markets (p.2). He characterizes his work here as an interrogation into the term "network" and a commentary on how it's used (p.4).

Since Thompson is writing in the field of organizational communication, he's very interested in how the term "network" can be applied to particular forms of organizations. This leads us into the second chapter, in which he does a nice job of trying to disentangle networks, markets, and hierarchies. His chief concern, which surfaces in Chapter 3, is how to define networks in a way that doesn't make them a superset of markets and/or hierarchies (p.54). Of course, SNA and TCA are amenable to this sort of work, since they attempt to describe empirical organizational relations among human actors. ANT doesn't fit into this mold for a variety of reasons - including its symmetrical treatment of humans and nonhumans and its ontological bent - but in trying to compare it with the other two frameworks, Thompson extracts primarily the comparable elements, and the result is an unfortunate hash.

Although Thompson makes a good faith effort to portray ANT, when he tries to relate it to the market, he focuses necessarily, and too heavily, on Callon's essays in his 1998 collection Laws of the Markets. Here, Callon tried to apply a broader, more general ontological theory (ANT) to a particular coordinative mechanism (the market). Thompson, since he sees the network as a coordinative mechanism rivaling the market, has trouble making sense of or bounding ANT's project. He argues that ANT's problems include its inability to establish boundaries, particularly its inability to distinguish anything social that is not made up of actor-networks (p.78). He complains that ANT tries to explain everything, and therefore ends up explaining nothing (p.79). He compares it unfavorably with the other network approaches, in which "network" demarcates a more limited domain (p.79). And he wants to see ANT's networks as discrete systems (p.80). Thompson struggles here as he tries to make sense of what ANT would portray as a form of organization, concluding that ANT's networks are not intermediate forms of organization so much as sets of relations between actors and techniques (p.86); in contrast, I would say that actor-networks are not forms of organization at all, at least not in the sense that SNAs or TCAs are.

Let's put aside ANT for a moment, then, since actor-networks can be rather confusing in the first place, and compare apples to apples. In later chapters, Thompson has a great deal to say about organizational networks in terms of economic organizational structures. For instance, p.114 starts a strong section on cooperation, trust, and firm organization, drawing on the scholarly literature on the information economy: contractor-subcontractor networks, held together by informal and cooperative relationships, relying on trust, requiring flexibility, and working against vertically hierarchical structures (pp.114-115). He explores the shift from mass production to flexible specialization, something that Engestrom discusses under the heading co-customization, and emphasizes the role of trust in this new sort of organization, as Adler and Heckscher do (p.116).

Later, he discusses political and policy networks in the same terms, exploring the politics of networks in a way that reminds me slightly of the Tofflers' later work and a bit more of David Ronfeldt's policy discussions (p.150). Of particular interest to me was his discussion of "NGO networks of dissent," something that reminds me of Ronfeldt's Zapatista book (p.157).

On the other hand, Castells enthusiasts will be less enamored of Thompson's assessment of his work: "the thesis remains an exaggerated one" and "in the case of the 'network society' the argument is that it is just plain wrong" (p.193). Thompson doesn't like the loose way in which Castells uses the term "network" (p.193), he believes Castells is a bit of a technological determinist (p.192), and contra Castells, Thompson believes that recent time reduction in communication "makes possible different volumes of activity, and has speeded things up" but has not constitutes "a 'new global network order'" (p.224).

Ultimately, I found parts of this book to be very useful, once I moved past the ANT discussion. I wouldn't rely on this book for a critique of Callon et al., but I would use it to examine a more methodologically oriented, theoretically tight understanding of networks. If that's what you're after, check it out.

Reading :: My Life as a Night Elf Priest

My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft
By Bonnie A. Nardi

Bonnie Nardi is well known for her hard-core explication and development of activity theory. For instance, her 1996 edited collection Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction remains an important landmark in introducing, discussing, and theorizing AT for HCI. Her more recent Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design (with Victor Kaptelinin) further pushes the boundaries of the theory, developing it for understanding knowledge work. But Bonnie is also known for her accessible writing, her excellent storytelling, and her compassionate portrayals of those she discusses in her ethnographies.

Her latest book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest, is light on the former and heavy on the latter. Bonnie uses activity theory as a framework here, but her focus isn't on developing the theory or testing its bounds so much as it is on developing, as the subtitle suggests, "an anthropological account of World of Warcraft." This massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) has millions of users, but it's widely misunderstood. As Bonnie confesses, she also began with a negative impression of WoW and gaming in general, but students kept bringing MMORPGs up, so she decided to try it. Trying out the game led to playing, which led to an honest-to-goodness ethnography that spanned three years, two continents, and various groupings.

In this ethnography, Bonnie recounts starting off as a n00b and learning the terms and mores of WoW. She dispels some of the pernicious stereotypes about WoW players here, describing players' backgrounds in her guilds, then discussing issues such as aesthetics, media, the work/play distinction, addiction, modding, gender, and intercultural play. Throughout, she writes engagingly, pulling us into the story as well: I haven't played a MMORPG myself, but by the end of the book, I could understand why people do, how they interact, how they develop norms, and how they enforce behavior. I could also see how changes in the WoW environment, such as new modules that favor smaller groupings, can have macrosocial effects on the entire population of players.

I particularly appreciated Bonnie's discussion of US vs. Chinese takes on WoW. Bonnie and her research team gathered Chinese data by visiting Chinese cybercafes, observing users, and interviewing them. The differences were sometimes startling, and had partly to do with the Chinese government's heavy-handed editing of game representations: skeletons, for instance, were replaced by graves. (Bonnie attempts to draw an equivalence with conservative Christian monitoring of WoW in North America, although she doesn't provide examples of how or whether WoW has been modified for Christian sensibilities.) Other differences had to do with where WoW was played (Chinese cybercafes, with co-players close by, vs. American offices and bedrooms) and with ideas about cooperation.

The book is a fast read, a page turner. For someone like me, with some console RPG experience but no MMORPG experience, it explained WoW well, especially the cultural dimension and constructs that come from closely sharing and cooperating in the game with other players. But - and this is my only criticism - the specialized terms were hard to track. Bonnie defined each one immediately, but for a n00b like me, it was hard to keep track of terms such as "debuff," "ninja-ing," and "facerolling," and I began to wish for a glossary rather than tracking down the definitions in the index.

Still, overall, a great book. It's entertaining, it's a nice example of an online ethnography, and it advances the ball in terms of applying activity theory to online gaming. If you have the remotest interest in any of these, pick it up.