John Law: Making a Mess with Method

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John Law, “Making a Mess with Method.” In The Sage Handbook of Social Science Methodology, edited by W. Outhwaite and S. P. Turner, 595-606. London: Sage, 2007 (accessed May 2, 2008).

Keywords: social science research, vagueness, moving target, shape-shifting reality, disconcertment, Euro-American common-sense realism, metaphysics of out-thereness, Otherness, alegory, self-moralizing

As the title suggests, “Making a Mess of Method” is about vagueness, disconcertment, and non-coherence in social science research. Here, sociologist John Law (Lancaster University) explores the metaphysics of Euro-American common-sense realist research, specifically its problematics. Using a combination of case study (an alcohol liver disease clinic), post-structuralism and metaphor, he considers the widespread compulsion to “sanitize” research methods. This obsession, he observes, is bound up with representing reality as knowable, clear and definite--and herein lies the problem. Reality is more accurately described as a composite of multiplicities, indefiniteness and undecidabilities, thus signaling a critical disconnect between what reality is and how it gets organized in social science research. Pushing beyond the self-moralizing sense that vague research is “bad” research, Law calls for the development of disciplines and philosophies that more accurately reify the messiness of how things (really) are. “Disciplined lack of clarity, that may be what we need.” (3) In this spirit, he offers the example of allegory, highlighting its capacity to traffic additional meanings to those stated directly.

In addition to providing some useful language for discussing the nebulous subject of mess, Law (inadvertently) offers several relevant strategies for dealing with the messy process of collaborative research as a moving target resistant to clear and consistent mapping.

  1. Failure to acknowledge the messiness of knowing produces problems. “So the problem is not about the attempt to know...Rather, it lies in the failure (or refusal) to understand the logic, the character and the politics of the project of knowing. The failure to think through what is implied by the fact that knowing is constituently incomplete.” (7) Similarly, collaboration is similarly messy because no one knows what one's collaborators know...(This seems related to distributed cognition.)
  2. The metaphysics of presence: (see also Derrida) Presence implies absence, either that which is made manifestly absent or repressively Othered. Relevance: Rough consensus provides one model for determining what's included and what's not; the rationale behind a group's decision should include what is rejected and why.
  3. What are the possibilities of a research metaphysics that does not involve reproducing common-sense realism? How would one represent the vague, the multiple and all the rest? (9) This strikes me as exactly the stuff that art research could be made of--particularly collaborative art research, which necessitates proceeding with a high degree of ambiguity.
  4. Is it a matter of textuality? Can the ephemeral or the elusive be translated into and made present in textual form? (9) This seems related to inscription. Bearing in mind Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, however, inscriptions should never be confused with facts. They're better understood as representations requiring interpretation. Perhaps this needs to be more effectively signaled? How might textuality announce itself?
  5. The practice is productive: “This is because realities are being made alongside representations of realities.” (7) Said differently, the process is the product. This relates to audience(s). Question: For whom do collaborations produce? Answer: First and foremost for themselves (an interior audience) and then possibly a secondary audience (an exterior audience). Audiences, however, aren't cut and dry...(See Axel Brun's notion of "produsage" indicates for discussion on this.)

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- 1. Marsha, much more synthetic than previous posts. I appreciate the accessibility of this size. It makes me want to read the text. Good questions too!

- 2. Although I agree with the idea, I find it impracticable. Acting and tracing one's acting at the same time is hardly possible. (direct experience of this with our Ecoes/Falmouth project ...) --Cinzia 05:20, 28 July 2008 (UTC)