Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reading :: Digital Detroit

Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network
By Jeff Rice

First, a confession: When I read Jeff Rice's first book, I don't think I really got his project. Rice was patient enough to explain it a bit in the comments. I suspect that I wasn't the first person he had to wearily correct.

Over the intervening years, I've become better acquainted with Rice's trajectory and his writing style (which Cynthia Haynes describes as "a cross between Rod Serling and Bob Dylan") and am perhaps in a better position to get what he's doing. In this book, he's interested in applying the concept of network to Detroit—network in the sense of associational links—to analyze how implicit and explicit arguments can resonate across these associations. As he says in the introduction, after name-checking chora:
I am... networking Detroit by tracing its accounts. Despite the possible readerly discomfort, I find this method advantageous for how it allows me new kinds of opportunities to explore a space; by using a network to examine Detroit as a digital concept, I am made aware of connections I would not have discovered otherwise. The disadvantage of this method, however, is that it can, at times, feel confusing. (p.13)
At times, yes. In fact, Rice's writing style is sometimes arresting, relying sometimes on repeating the same noun at the end of subsequent sentences, putting the emphasis on old rather than new information, sometimes sounding weary. Haynes hears Rod Serling in this voice; I hear Andy Rooney. Either way, it's a very different style, one that often seems to circle around to (or build slowly to) the point. This style is sometimes disrupted by uncharacteristic, heavy forecasting and other metadiscourse—I suspect that these are due to reviewers' comments rather than being organic to Rice's style. Too bad. Although I'm a big fan of clear signaling and forecasting, there's something to be said for following along at the pace the author sets.

And that style and pace are well suited for what Rice is trying to do here. Rather than describing a phenomenon out there, a shared social phenomenon, he is describing an idiosyncratic understanding based on associations:
All of my information is a network. All of my information I gather and assemble is internal to that network. These previous references—a contemporary op-ed, a 1940s historical book, a kitschy song, a novelist's travel memoirs, a car commercial—are database items within that network. Everything I produce, therefore, is a network as well. ... This book is an exploration and creation of that network. It attempts to be an information system. (p.24)
Readers might naturally wonder why the idiosyncratic network of associations that Rice describes could be useful to them. What's intrinsically more interesting about the network of associations that Rice pieces together about a specific time and place, versus, say, our own associations? Essentially this is the question that I asked about the year 1963 when I reviewed The Rhetoric of Cool. The answer that I was too task-oriented to see back then, but that I think I see now, is this: What's interesting is not the topic around how the network forms, nor the person who has assembled the network, but how such networks work, both for individuals and communities. In particular, how they function rhetorically, persuading and shaping perceptions. "Indeed, as I will argue throughout each chapter of this book," Rice adds halfway through, "networks move and are moved; they transform and translate experiences and ideas as they form and break connections. They do things" (p.70).

In his earlier book, Rice discussed such associations via the notion of chora. In this one, he draws on Latour, particularly Reassembling the Social. But whereas others in writing studies have applied Latour to empirical studies, Rice applies Latour to circulating rerepresentations in much broader, more idiosyncratic ways. As he does so, he opens the possibilities for applying such associational insights to rhetoric, demonstrating how they can help us to understand why these associations can be so persuasive in shaping our understanding of identities. Detroit is the case, but the real contribution of the book is the approach. I hope I've done justice to it—and if you're interested in networked rhetoric, I recommend you read the book.

Reading :: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence

An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns
By Bruno Latour

I've cited Latour quite a bit in my scholarship and reviewed his works on this blog, so when I found out this book was being published, I bought it immediately, along with Rejoicing. The book is respectably thick, 486 pages—which is actually much shorter than it could have been, since Latour omitted parenthetical citations and did not include a bibliography. You can see the citations at the book's website, which also hosts the book's glossary, visual materials, notes, and articles, as well as a column for readers' commentary and critiques. (If you want an index, too bad, use the online search function.) It's an interesting, though quite centralized and controlled, experiment.

For now, though, I'll keep my critique decentralized on this blog. But what a daunting challenge it is to critique a thick book by a world-renowned scholar. Especially when the scholar draws on such a broad set of significant works. Especially when the scholar writes in ways that often seem oblique and metaphorical, And especially when the resulting book seems like a capstone, one that reviews practically all of the author's scholarly output. That's essentially what the book is, from what I can tell: an attempt to tie all of this previous scholarship together into a single broad-based inquiry.

So what is this inquiry? Essentially, it's a taxonomy of different processes that yield different, yet internally coherent, contexts or meanings. Throughout his career, Latour has studied how meaning and knowledge are produced in the sciences, in technology, in law, in religion, in economics, and in politics. Here, he argues that these represent separate processes for developing meaning, processes that are internally consistent but that appear at odds when they come into contact. Those processes are all ways for making meanings and truth—ways with different logics, aims, and standards of proof. But it's difficult to get these modes of existence to interact well for two reasons.

First, it's easy to make category mistakes, mixing up their separate felicity conditions.

Second, and related, it's easy to assume that the different modes of existence are essentially compatible, boiling down to the same mode of existence and ideally following the same logics, aims, and standards of proof (something that Latour describes using the figure of "double click"). For instance, when someone tries to apply the felicity conditions of science to politics, or those of technology to religion, s/he is invoking the "double click," assuming that there can be transportation without transformation.

With that in mind, Latour patiently discusses each mode of existence, then how those modes interact. Patiently, but not economically, because Latour is not an economical writer. Fortunately for us, he lists the modes of existence in the back of the book:

  • reproduction
  • metamorphosis
  • habit
  • technology
  • fiction
  • reference
  • politics
  • law
  • religion
  • attachment
  • organization
  • morality
  • network
  • preposition
  • double-click
Each has its own hiatus (loosely speaking, a disruptive condition), trajectory (i.e., results of transformations), felicity/infelicity conditions (when they thrive vs. when they crash), beings to institute (i.e., objectives to produce), and alteration (i.e., the way in which they are transformed). (I'm not sure how happy Latour would be with my parenthetical explanations, but since he has not provided an index, I'm going to stick with these.) 

You'll notice that some of these modes are tied to fields (e.g., politics, law, religion) while others are not (e.g., habit, organization, network). Activity theorists will note that habit, which AT would associate with the operational level of activity, is presented as a separate mode. Yes, these modes are entangled in practice, and I'm not always clear on why a field-oriented mode (e.g., science) is on the same footing as a mode that is inevitably going to be instantiated in every other mode (e.g., habit). But Latour is not simply attempting to examine these modes as separate, but as inevitably crossing and producing hybrids. For instance, he talks about the crossings between networks and prepositions (p.63), reproduction and reference (p.106), reference and politics (p.128), reproduction and metamorphosis (p.202), technology and networks (p.212), and so forth. In defining each mode along basic canonical questions (hiatus, trajectory, felicity/infelicity, beings to institute, alteration), Latour has presented a way to systematically investigate each mode and how each mode interacts with the others. 

To describe the project in an overgeneralized way, the book is an attempt to get at polycontextuality via a taxonomy of processes that yield different, coherent contexts/meanings. Once the taxonomy is laid out, we can use it to systematically investigate how these processes interact. Along the way, Latour draws on his vast set of publications, discussing Latourean concepts from networks to black boxes to quasi-objects and quasi-subjects to factishes, and on and on. If you haven't read Latour yet, this is probably not the book to start with. The number of concepts is overwhelming, as is the overall scope of the project, and Latour's often elliptical, often metaphorical writing style makes it difficult to keep the concepts and scope straight. 

For those who have read most of Latour's major works, this book is worthwhile. But it's not a walk in the park for those folks either: after all, the book is attempting to reframe key parts of Latour's work, often by re-presenting some of the original material within the newly expanded scheme. In practice, this means that it's easy to begin skimming a chapter ("ah, this is his basic argument from that chapter in Pandora's Hope") only to realize near the end of the chapter that Latour has added a new term, concept, or connection. This problem is compounded by the fact that the printed book has removed some of the key signals that help readers to detect updated arguments: citations and footnotes. Nevertheless, the book synthesizes a vast body of work into a more coherent understanding of what's at stake. Those who have seen Latour primarily as a sociologist of science because of his earlier books should now be able to see how those early projects connect with his overarching ontological project.

At least in outline. As Latour says apologetically on p.478, "I am well aware that I passed over each mode too quickly, and that each crossing would require volumes of erudition, even if the modes and crossings are more fully developed in the digital environment that accompanies this text" (p.478). Latour's hope, I think, is that the digital environment will allow others to work out these ideas more fully, connect the modes more firmly, and examine the crossings more fully. Latour has provided this vast infrastructure, so won't you build on it?

Will I? Probably not. I expect that I'll return to this book over and over—as a sourcebook. But as a work of scholarship, it was too exhausting, too unwieldy, and too sprawling for me to take in. (Longtime readers may note that this review is shorter than those I've written for similarly massive books.) The scope itself was not the only problem. Latour's writing style, which can be immensely enjoyable in 150pp books, wore on me in this longer format, and I began to fervently wish that some editor had been licensed to ruthlessly edit for concision. Frankly, I think this book could have been sweated down to 200 lean, well-organized pages, and the result would have been much easier to absorb and navigate.

Nevertheless, if you have a few Latour books on your shelf, I encourage you to pick it up. In fact—although I obviously didn't try this—you might consider blocking off six months to read the book in concert with Latour's major works. For instance, when the present book mentions religion, you could bookmark it and read On Rejoicing. When it mentions law, you could bookmark that passage and read The Making of Law. When it discusses factishes, you could read Pandora's Hope and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. If you do this, let me know how it goes.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reading :: Innovation, Human Capabilities, and Democracy

Innovation, Human Capabilities, and Democracy: Towards an Enabling Welfare State
By Reijo Miettinen

Reijo Miettinen is a professor of adult education at the University of Helsinki, where he works alongside and often collaborates with several other activity theorists (such as Engestrom and Sannino). His work has typically involved case studies of scientific and technical innovations, case studies in which he has applied activity theory. In this book, however, he's less interested in contextualized case studies, instead focusing on the question of why Finland has excelled at innovation in educational and business contexts. That is, this book is focused on policy, using activity theory as a framework for understanding how Finland's educational policies have worked.

Interestingly, in Chapter 2, Miettinen applies rhetoric to the question of policy making, drawing on Burke and Perelman. This move allows him to examine policy and its drivers, setting the stage for an historical analysis of stakeholders and shifts in how those stakeholders have interpreted policy terms and concepts. He also examines the educational system, innnovation and technology policy, and capability-cultivating services. The result is a deeply textured examination of the unique mix at play in Finland.

I'll be honest: I'm not terribly interested in policy. But Miettinen conducts a solid, detailed analysis and does his best to enliven what is inherently a dry topic. I am interested in activity theory, but it is applied here rather than extended; you won't see new insights into AT here, just a model application of it.

If you're interested in policies, innovation, and education, or an application of AT to these topics, pick up this book. If you're not, consider picking it up anyway, but take it slow.

Reading:: Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work

Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work
By Robert E. Stake

Whenever I pick up an article on qualitative research, it seems, I see Stake referenced in the methodology section. So when I bought several methodology texts recently, I tossed Stake on the heap.

That was a worthwhile decision: Stake provides a clear, understandable, and (in some places) passionate discussion of qualitative research and its applications. As an introductory text, it works well, covering basic concepts and stages such as the researcher-as-instrument, data collection, literature review, analysis, action research, and reporting.

But at the same time, as with Charmaz's book, this one is pitched as an introductory text. Consequently, I found myself skimming a lot and sometimes skipping chapters. If you're interested in an introduction—for yourself or your students—this might be a good book to use. But if you've conducted a few studies already, I'd look for something a little more advanced.

Reading :: Constructing Grounded Theory

Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis
By Kathy Charmaz

When Charmaz published this book in 2006, it became an instant classic. Researchers working with grounded theory found it to be an accessible, useful guide for conducting qualitative research. They're right: Charmaz covers the basics of grounded theory, discusses how to collect data, code it, write analytical memos, conduct theoretical sampling, develop theory, and write it up.

The book is accessible. But I was only lukewarm about it. I don't think that's the book's fault, though. Rather, I think that the book is simpler than I wanted it to be—especially just after reading Saldana and Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, both of which explore parts of the qualitative research process in great detail. Those books taught me something; Charmaz's book is more of a primer—which, to be fair, is what it's supposed to be.

But for that reason, I'd consider using Charmaz's book for a graduate or even undergraduate class in qualitative research. It's accessible, clear, and perhaps more lucid than any other explanation of grounded theory that I've read. If you're just learning about qualitative research in general or grounded theory in particular, pick it up.

Reading :: Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook

Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook
By Matthew B. Miles, A. Michael Huberman, and Johnny Saldana

Miles and Huberman's Qualitative Data Analysis is a classic sourcebook for qualitative researchers. I have the second edition on my shelf in the office—the one that I bought as a new assistant professor at Texas Tech. Unfortunately, Miles and Huberman passed away before they could produce a third edition, and in the intervening years, qualitative research has gone through transitions. For instance, computer-aided qualitative data analysis (CAQDAS) packages have become commonplace, diversified, and become available on various platforms. Coding has become more systematized, partially because of Saldana's efforts.

The publisher, Sage, decided that it needed a new edition. So it approached Johnny Saldana, who has attempted to preserve Miles and Huberman's insights and text while updating and extending it. Saldana does not always agree with Miles and Huberman, and sometimes signals that disagreement by specifying the source ("Miles and Huberman say...").

The book is a sourcebook, not a cookbook: any method that works is fine (p.6). And it's focused on analysis, not research design or data collection, although it touches briefly on both. You can read it through sequentially—I did—but it's really meant as a reference. It covers matrix and network displays, the two basic types of data displays, and walks through how to apply these to explore, describe, order, explain, and predict. Simple, right? Yes, but the book is 373 pages of painstaking discussion.

It's all worth it. If you do qualitative research, this book should be either on your shelf or (more frequently) open on your desk.

Reading :: The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers

The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers
By Johnny Saldana

I can't remember whether I saw this book cited in a recent article or whether Amazon suggested it to me—but I bought it alongside the third edition of Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook, the classic Miles and Huberman sourcebook that Saldana recently updated. (I'll review that one soon too.)

In any case, this present book is all about coding, a move in qualitative research that involves interpreting, analyzing, and organizing data. "A code in qualitative inquiry is most often a word or short phrase that symbolically assigns a summative, salient, essence-capturing, and/or evocative attribute for a portion of language-based or visual data" (p.3). It's primarily an interpretive act (p.4).

Coding is often treated in qualitative research texts, but as a chapter or a section, not an entire book. Consequently, we typically get a restricted, crabbed idea of what coding involves. By giving himself the room to really explore coding, Saldana provides a broad synthesis of what others have said about it, and he consequently is able to systematize it and provide many different strategies for it.

In Chapter 1, Saldana describes what coding is, what it involves, and how to use computer-aided qualitative data analysis software to implement it. He explains how coding represents an interpretive, analytical act and prescribes ways to code solo or as a team.

In Chapter 2, he goes on to discuss analytic memos and their role in generating codes and categories of codes.

Chapter 3 is where coding actually begins: Saldana describes first-cycle coding methods, "processes that happen during the initial coding of data" (p.58). By methods, Saldana essentially means discrete categories of coding approaches: grammatical, elemental, affective, literary & language, exploratory, and procedural methods. Each is associated with different types of codes. For instance, affective methods involves emotion coding, values coding, versus coding, and evaluation coding. That is, Saldana has developed an organized taxonomy of coding approaches that might be appropriate for different kinds of studies and research questions. And he gives us explicit guidance in selecting the right coding approach(es). By laying out and taxonomizing these coding approaches, Saldana allows us to see coding in a much more organized and expansive way than we might have when reading more restricted discussions of coding.

Chapter 3 comprises pp.58-186 of the book. It's an exhaustive discussion of each category, making this book more of a sourcebook than a discussion (much like Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook).

Chapter 4 suggests what to do after first-cycle coding. It suggests performing "eclectic coding," a sort of open coding approach that "employs a select and compatible combination of two or more First Cycle coding methods" (p.188). After eclectic coding comes code mapping: listing the codes, categorizing them meaningfully, constructing major categories as moieties (group divisions), then phrasing the divisions in "versus" terms (pp.196-198). Code landscaping comes next: organizing and examining codes through basic approaches such as word clouds and outlining. Next, Saldana walks us through operational model diagramming, which depict processes in the data, and tabletop categories (i.e., affinity diagrams).

In Chapter 5, Saldana discusses second-cycle coding methods, which allow us to do further, more complex analytical work. These methods focus on Sources, Description, Applications, Example, Analysis, and Notes (p.207).

In the final chapter, Chapter 6, Saldana gives us strategies to pursue after second-cycle coding: focusing, theorizing, formatting, writing, ordering, networking, and mentorship.

If you're getting the idea that this sourcebook is essentially a portfolio or catalog of coding strategies, you're not wrong—and I'll likely turn to this book when I design my next research study. But it's also a meditation on what coding is, what it should do, and how it can furnish a stronger structure for one's analysis. If you conduct qualitative research, I strongly recommend it.