Appropriate scales of anxiety – on the frail operation of a therapeutic technique

by Tarek Cheniti, recent DPhil in Science and Technology Studies

Signe Vikkelsø, who gave last week’s STS seminar, is interested in the specific question of how unconscious phenomena become surfaced and materialised. She generally situates herself in a phenomenological research tradition which considers that research methods used generate (or ‘enact’) their objects.

Signe Vikkelso

Signe Vikkelsø

This has led her to consider psychologist Wilfred Bion’s experiments of group therapy (a method called ‘the Experience Group’) as a potentially useful way to study the rise of a phenomenon – in this case, the mental state of anxiety – as a result of certain types of group interactions and interpretations. To do so, Vikkelsø suggests looking at the socio-technical makeup of Bion’s psychoanalytical groups, as well as the risks and associations which are deployed in order to produce and manage the state of being anxious.

Vikkelsø describes Bion’s therapeutic technique as one that balances the expectations of participants with the actual role of the group analyst. The analyst’s role and objective in running the group are deliberately made ambiguous to participants in order to elicit different responses. Thus, participants develop ways of managing the tensions and uncertainties resulting from this ambiguity. Vikkelsø suggests that this therapeutic format is best understood as a scaling problem, because it involves shifting degrees of leadership, anxiety and optimism. In other words, through the notion of scale we come to understand the Experience Group as an improvised, disharmonious and mutable entity that seeks to control the intangible phenomenon of mental anxiety.

In practice, the Experience Group involves a one-hour discussion among eight to ten individuals who are seated in a circle. The analyst, or group taker, refrains from taking up a direct leadership position and instead pays attention to the way other participants express dissatisfaction with the absence of a leader and the ways in which they question the motives and organisation of the group. On the basis of that response the group taker engages in a discussion in which he tries to interpret the assumptions of the different participants, making them aware of the very tensions that are being studied. The group thus fluctuates between its main task – studying tensions in group situations – and the participants’ own ways of projecting their individual emotional responses onto the group.

Vikkelsø noted that this psychoanalytical technique has been notorious but was abandoned over time with analysts choosing less intense and emotionally exhausting versions. Thus, more appropriate ways of scaling anxiety can be found in two other forms of group analysis: the Tavistock Large Group (which scales up the production of anxiety by offering an expanded arrangement for applying Bion’s technique) and the Median Group (which scales anxiety down by focussing on the development of a ‘democratic dialogue’ among very few participants).

Being other than myself through the (data)matrix

Franck Cochoy on “On Curiosity Devices: from scalography to depthography”

by Timothy Webmoor, Research Fellow in Science and Technology Studies

Franck Cochoy

Franck Cochoy

Franck Cochoy (University of Toulouse II) gave an intriguing talk for the STS Issues in Scale seminar series. Part innovation and product design, part high-tech hype, and part wine marketing, I nearly felt as if I had sat in on a MacWorld release party held in Napa Valley. Franck was not, however, wholly configured as a user of an emergent ‘everyware’ application for iPhones. He introduced us to a case of serendipitous innovation, where a device developed for guaranteeing the authenticity of (highly priced) wines converged with strategies of “self-marketing.” Geowine (website) was developed by a 3rd party for a consortium of wineries in the Midi-Pyrenees Region. The goal is to attach foolproof fingerprints to wines for geo-traceability. Linking wine with terroir through this device benefits wine makers in several ways, but is particularly beneficial in terms of tracking the origin of the grapes in blends, and in reducing forgeries (which represent 8-10% of international commerce).

Sample datamatrix

A sample 'datamatrix'

While this little label – actually a ‘bubble tag’ produced by the random introduction of air into polymer processor boards – in itself enfolds a multitude of actors on a range of scales, Cochoy discussed the spin-off project he is involved with that uses datamatrices to “de-marketise” wine. Now, if you are like me, you’ve begun to notice these frenzied scatter-plot-looking labels showing up not just on parcels and letters, but increasingly on products at the market. Yet you’ve never pulled out your iPhone to perform self-marketing. That is, to opt for companies to out-source to you the work of marketing products through your eagerness for information. Like the idea of Geowine, the project Cochoy is involved with is a prototype for linking each bottle of wine on the shop shelves with Internet sites hosting information about the wine. For example, consumers can obtain the locale where the wine originated, the type of terroir and information about the winemaker: a virtual label without information boundaries – or at least not limited to the dimensions of the bottle’s label.

Developers of the datamatrix for wine are banking on what other proponents of a point-and-click world are leveraging: the 21st century savvy consumer’s hunger for information. Or, as Cochoy termed it, our participation in the “economies of attention.” Again, if you’re like me, I was trying to tease apart my mixed reaction of enthusiasm and skepticism to the wine datamatrix and the underlying premise of self-marketing. Having more information made available to me via ubiquitous computing sounds appealing. Yet self-marketing web-enabled wine depends, at least in this beta form, upon how the companies filter and select information. Just as I found myself slipping down into Mackenzie’s “certainty trough,” I pulled myself up with the thought of accessing not only company-endorsed information but also crowd-sourced reviews, comments, criticisms and backstories.

Despite the possibility that self-marketing may backfire, at least with skeptical consumers or those with an STS sensibility, Cochoy amassed the responses to a questionnaire about the wine datamatrix from 502 respondents who generally confirmed the success of self-marketing. Technophiles were more interested in the smartphones than the wine. Yet in the market for wine, we would expect technophiles to purchase the gadget-enabled bottles. Conversely, wine connoisseurs were initially uninterested, until their attention was excited by the richness of available information. Notwithstanding these overall positive reactions, Cochoy highlighted the stigma of consumerism attached to branding wine with barcodes.

In addition to the wine datamatrix, Cochoy suggested that other curiosity devices which deliver information through the web problematise scale as a unit of investigation because they “slide from scale to depth.” That is, maps of the local wineries, traits of a region’s wine terroir, or the authenticity of a bottle on the international market are all accessed through the Internet. Scale and its performance suffuse the Internet. To examine issues of scale one would have to artificially reduce it out from user engagement. With interactive and personalisable engagement through the filtering and selecting functions of web-based platforms, scale is increasingly being subsumed by economies of attention. As Cochoy urged at the beginning, STS might more usefully study how such devices enact certain dispositions, certain subjectivities which are configured by self-marketing.

Of mice and men

Rethinking scale and relations with humanised mice

by Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance and Director, Governance, Accountability and Innovation (GAIn)

In her InSIS seminar as part of the STS Issues in Scale series, Gail Davies (University College London) described some of the many ways in which the genetically engineered mouse, central to so much of today’s biomedical research, helps us rethink the scalar relations of scientific productivity. The ‘humanised mouse’ is a widespread instrument of knowledge production and clinical translation in contemporary medicine: by redesigning the genome of laboratory mice, researchers can mimic in the lab certain aspects of human biology and experiment in vivo without the risks and hazards of involving human subjects.

Gail Davies

Gail Davies, UCL

Davies presented materials from three years of fieldwork into the shifting geographies of the genetically engineered mouse, fieldwork that took her around the world as she traced the development and diffusion of purposely designed mouse strains. The mouse, in Davies’s account, is much more than an ‘animal model’ for human disease and immunity. It is – or is expected to become – a scalar device, capable of connecting disparate domains: the animal and the human, the experiment and the clinic, the local and the global, big science and small organism. Davies’s account called into question the seeming smoothness of these translations; she focused on the work involved in creating equivalent relationships between human and mouse, and some of the points at which those equivalencies break down.

The mouse is always in a state of ‘becoming human’ – to cite and reverse, Davies suggested, Deleuze’s formulation – but this is not simply a matter of translating one state into another, of scaling up or down, but rather of operating on complex topologies. The body of the humanised mouse is not the human body writ small; the relevant shifts and transpositions are not only across species, but also across spaces; the animal is not simply a model representation, but also an organism expected to perform the work that only a living organism can. A proper geography of the transgenic mouse, Davies concluded, sheds new light on the practical problems of scale and scalography that characterise scientific and medical research.

After Markets

The workshop brought together scholars from science and technology studies and economic and political sociology, to discuss ways ahead in the study of heterogeneous arrangements. Social researchers and theorists have long been committed to the idea that economic relations are always already entangled with social, technical and political ones, but the workshop asked, how should we fill this commitment in the current context, in which the category of the market is increasingly open to questioning?

More info about the workshop

Download a full report


Ethnographies as case studies?

by Tanja Schneider, Research Fellow in Science and Technology Studies

Last week, Professor AnneMarie Mol (University of Amsterdam) gave a talk on “Some eating body’s wider relevance: on the elsewheres of the case” as part of the Science and Technology Studies (STS) seminar series Issues in Scale at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS). Her presentation addressed how ethnographic research, despite its local specificity, may still attend and pertain to the wider world. In particular, she suggested considering ethnographic research as case studies that ‘contain traces from elsewhere’ and as such may be relevant on a broader scale.

To tease out these connections and the relevance of the ethnographic case, she used materials from her current research project, ‘The eating body in Western practice and theory’ funded with an Advanced Grant of the European Research Commission. This project looks at the role of the body as it pertains to food, eating and its enjoyment – for example, Mol is studying the tension between control and pleasure in healthy diets, and how the concept of ‘good taste’ is both aesthetic and political.

In her talk at InSIS, Mol used the example of Mrs. Klerk, a patient in a Dutch nursing home eating bami goreng, an Indonesian noodle dish. Mol described how she attempted an ‘ethnographic diagnosis’ of Mrs. Klerk’s eating practice by asking what is present and what is absent in this particular situation. According to Mol, if one considers Mrs. Klerk’s case, at least six issues emerge:

(1) concern about nourishment
• present: the nursing home staff is primarily concerned about Mrs. Klerk’s nutrient intake
• absent: the nursing home staff is not concerned about the amount of pleasure Mrs. Klerk derives from eating

(2) individualised care
• present: the nursing home allows Mrs. Klerk to bring her personal clothes and objects and attempts to take into account her personal history in their care relationship
• absent: Mrs. Klerk’s personal history is not presented to pose any major problems to the institutional logic

(3) food culture
• present: the nursing home staff takes into consideration Mrs. Klerk’s personal history when providing food for her
• absent: the nursing home staff does not ask Mrs. Klerk to eat exclusively traditional Dutch food

(4) cooking practices
• present: cooking in the nursing home takes place in an industrial kitchen outside of the nursing home’s premises, the food is then transported to the nursing home.
• absent: Mrs Klerk (as well as many other female nursing home inhabitants) was accustomed to cooking for herself and her family before living in a nursing home. This is difficult to achieve in an institutional setting, but the nursing home staff attempts to provide opportunities for occasional communal or individual cooking.

(5) dementia care
• present: the nursing home staff attempt to find out what inhabitants like to eat to handle food refusal (often related to loss of taste and appetite in dementia patients)
• absent: Mrs. Klerk is not force fed if she refuses food

(6) global food trade
• present: the ingredients of Mrs. Klerk’s bami goreng are consumed locally
• absent: however, the ingredients of Mrs. Klerk’s food are most likely produced/sourced globally

Mol concluded that by ‘drawing in and drawing out’ of the case of Mrs. Klerk, it is possible to (1) study cases as if they were monads or single entities that contain the world – or at least lots of traces from elsewhere; and (2) make case studies relevant for what is ‘elsewhere’ to them, by engaging in (or encouraging) the effort of translation.

The ensuing discussion focused on the potential limits of ‘drawing out of cases’ and Mol suggested considering the task of drawing out of a case as a way to challenge dominant knowledge production which is usually generated by quantitative research that allows for generalisations. Another issue that was brought up was that colleagues might ask ‘what is this case about?’ Mol responded by stressing that her research interest was primarily in understanding a particular moment and in the case she presented she sought to understand the logics that inform Mrs. Klerk’s eating practices. She compared her role as ethnographer with that of a doctor trying to diagnose the behaviour of a patient, hence the expression she introduced earlier, namely ‘ethnographic diagnosis’.

For more information:
Visit the website for the STS Oxford seminar series Issues in Scale.