Thank You: Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation

by Timothy Webmoor

“This conference should have been three days.” Comment overhead (by Anne Beaulieu) at a lunch.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the recent Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation conference over the weekend at the Saïd Business School.  Numbers are by no means the only measure of success. As a run down of the event, however, there were:

  • over 130 participants from North America, Australia, Europe and the UK
  • 50 paper presenters
  • 10 artists/scholars with installations and posters
  • 15 session chairs
  • 3 keynoters
  • 2 summarising disscussants

We also had a lively presence in ‘Twitterscape’ at #oxvisual. Some tweets we received:

Early photographer Stieglitz: ”In one’s way of seeing lies one’s way of action” – art challenging scientific ’objectivity’ at #oxvisual

Been looking forward to Mike Lynch’s talk all week – the geek in me is already satisfied at the pic on the title page of his ppt. #oxvisual

We will shortly be updating the conference website with links to the video of the keynotes. We welcome comments at this blog, tweeted at #oxvisual or sent to the organisers at And please do send photos or links to photos.

Finally, thanks again to the organising team, our sponsors and to the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society for hosting the event.

The (sixth) STS Talk-Walk: Concluding – what is it to conclude?

by Malte Ziewitz

What is it to conclude a paper, book or essay? How do we end a piece of research? How to say goodbye to our readers? The sixth STS Talk-Walk this academic year focused on something that is not usually discussed in research: the ‘conclusions’, ‘endings’ and ‘outlooks’ that can be found at the end of our texts.

A classic ending with limited applicability in STS research.

As usual, the discussions touched on many different aspects. One focus was on different styles of concluding and how we might use them in our research. How do we want to part from our readers? Do we always need to present explicit findings? Or are there ways to conclude differently? Chandrika alerted us to Ashis Nandy’s account of an incident that took place in 1947 during the time of partition in the Indian Punjab region. In his paper The invisible holocaust and the journey as an exodus [pdf], Nandy tells the story of how Harbans Singh, son of a fanatic Sikh, took care of and married Nawab Bibi, a Muslim woman whose family had been killed by Sikhs. In 1949, however, after the bloodshed had stopped, the authorities took away Nawab Bibi. Under the official ‘repatriation’ policy, she was brought to Pakistan as a ‘displaced Muslim”. Desperate to find her, Harbans took on the name Barkat Ali and assumed a new identity as a cloth dealer in Lahore. According to a local newspaper, Barkat Ali eventually managed to trace Nawab Bibi through official records. As Nandy concludes in his account (p. 326):

The newspaper does not tell us if Barkat Ali, nee Harbans Singh, son of the feared Sikh fanatic Bhan Singh, and Nawab Bibi, the victimised Muslim woman whose whole family had died in the hands of Sikhs, lived happily ever afterwards. But frankly, I would like to believe that they do.

The story triggered further thoughts about the possibility of open endings. Some remembered experimental television programmes from the 1990s when viewers could vote with telephone calls how they would like the film to end. Others pointed out that most major movie productions actually produce alternative endings and test them with ‘representative’ audiences.

All this brought up the question of how much we can expect our readers to do in academic writing. Why do so many people feel uncomfortable when they are denied the certainty of clear and unambiguous findings? And how might this uncomfortableness be turned into something edifying and productive? What counts as a ‘strong’ conclusion, and for whom? Isn’t every conclusion also a beginning? And wouldn’t it be good to think about conclusions as moments of reflection: stepping back from the text and commenting on what it might already have achieved?

Luckily, this talk-walk had a very happy ending. When we returned to Saïd Business School, not only had the sun come out after a rather rainy day. We also had the pleasure to experience Andreas’ excellent baking skills and were invited over to his flat for coffee, tea and homemade Scandinavian Kladdkaka.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 15 April 2011. More info here.

PhD Day at InSIS

By Helene Ratner

Sometimes, writing a PhD is similar to being the detective in a mystery novel: the contribution we thought we would make in the preliminary literature review end up being a different one. The confusions and aspirations of fieldwork open up an infinity of contextualization possibilities. There are cues and traces to pick up, voices to listen to and others that there is not time or opportunity to follow whose absence is nevertheless present. Sometimes one is not entirely sure what one is looking for but tries to be open for “it”, whatever “it” may be. Then the meticulous going through written notes and transcribed interviews and making difficult decisions about which parts to include and what stories to tell, which inevitably involves odd compromises and painful “kill your darlings” procedures (a darling cemetery may be an idea).

Instead of always being the lone rider with a private mystery to sort out, the STS-DPhils decided to have a PhD day at InSIS to pretend that we all knew the ending to our unfolding projects. And to share our thoughts and challenges with one other.

The PhD Day contestants: Chris, Chandrika, Lucy, Steve, Helene and (behind the camera) Malte

The exercise was the following: We (five DPhil students) were each to produce a four page “as-if abstract” of what we imagined our final thesis to be: the research question, contextualization, methodological questions addressed, empirical chapters’ conclusions and contributions. The intention was to produce a document sufficiently long for an abstract’s usual generalities to become specific in order to imagine and discuss the consequences of the choices we make. What stories can we tell? What contributions can we make? And which don’t fit? What to do with these?

In addition to the abstract, we each wrote a one-page review with feedback, comments, ideas, questions for each abstract. We met on Saturday the 12th with one hour for each project where the author was in charge of the debates which ranged from clarifying some of the comments over letting people associate freely on each other’s comments to bringing up new challenges that were not mentioned in the abstract or the comments. Steve Woolgar participated in the day as a senior researcher (and the majority’s supervisor), offering his thoughts, ideas and experience to the many mysteries to be solved (or deliberately left unsolved).

Our projects differ empirically, ranging from disaster management in India to patent law in the UK. Also, we are at very different stages, from in the midst of fieldwork to the finishing the concluding chapter. Despite these differences, we found that there were several common challenges and themes we could articulate through debating the specific problems. Some of us, actually, quite enjoyed deferring our own stuck-places to others’ projects in order to see how they would tackle them.

Here are some of the common themes raised:

  • Justification. We found that a common trajectory would be first to state how widespread a specific phenomenon was (which justified the need to study it now) and then to identify “gaps” in the literature addressing this phenomenon (which justified the need to study it through, say, ethnography). In these debates we discussed whether identifying gaps was a way of making straw-men and a “dirty and cheap trick”, which led to the question of what exactly would count as an ”expensive and clean trick”. And how we could make the standard (though well-worn) ways of justifying our studies work for us. We also noted the tension between how we on the one hand often wanted to deflate common understandings of our research objects – while at the same time, we would find that we were the ones taking them the most serious, devoting 3-5 years of studying, writing, reading about them.
  • Ethnographic angst. We also discussed the challenges we experienced when “collecting data”. What to do about the events where we couldn’t be present? Did our “informants’” (biased?) accounts of these meetings have the same status as our own (unbiased?) direct observations? And what kind of hierarchy did we invoke with such a notion of observations being more credible than interviews? We discussed ways in which we could transpose our own challenges to the informants. If we experience certain challenges, chances are that they deal with similar issues. How do they resolve them?
  • A totalizing modest sociology? All being within STS or anthropology, we quickly noticed how certain analytically laden “words” would frame our projects. These included “contingent”, “messy”, “practice”, “mundane”, “complex”, “multiple”, “situated”, etc. While these terms often are used as provocations to “singular”, “transcendent” and “clean” understandings of a phenomenon, they are not innocent. So one question regards how totalizing these terms are? To what extend do we assume to find mess, contingency, complexity, multiplicity etc.? And are we open for other enactments of our research object? And how to we make these terms work for us so it’s not just a matter of identifying “mess” but take that one step further? And in a second sense, how do these terms work for us in terms of enacting boundaries in relation to defining a relevant audience?
  • Coherence. This was the most common problem. We all had stories, partly written analyses that we wanted to tell. But how to relate them to a common “object”? Which role should they play in relation to one another? Should we compare cases? Or could we use our “cases” differently than in terms of comparison? Which order should our chapters come in? How to build in a momentum? How to deal with wanting to say everything at once but not being able to? How to work elegantly with deferral in our writing?
  • Consuming. The day involved not only consumptions of ideas and words but also teacakes, chocolates, and fruits. The conversations enacted by these presences led to one participant’s happy discovery of the possibility of buying poptarts in Tesco. So in that respect the solving of PhD mysteries had a happy end.

Storying: A Workshop Report

by Fadhila Mazanderani and Malte Ziewitz

What is it to tell a story in social science research? What techniques, strategies and narrative devices are available and how can we make the most of them? What audiences do we write for and how are they configured in the text? While there is a plethora of writing on story-telling and narratives, we thought that it is about time to have a look at how we story in our research, how we turn experiences and observations into stories and weave them in our writing. Equipped with coffee, teacakes and croissants, ten junior scholars from STS, management studies, anthropology and geography got together bright and early for a workshop last Saturday to discuss and experiment with different modes of storying.

The goal of the workshop was to tackle some of these issues in a hands (and pens)-on fashion, using exercises and techniques from creative writing and seeing whether and how they could be made useful in the context of our various academic projects. As background reading and preparation we had picked two books that addressed different aspects of storying: Arthur Frank’s recent Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology and Laurel Richardson’s evergreen Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences.

The workshop

We split the workshop into two parts to highlight different aspects of storying. After a brief round of introductions, we started with the first exercise: Reading for Writing. We had selected five short excerpts from fiction and non-fiction writing as exemplars of different literary strategies. These included pieces by Amy Hempel, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Antjie Krog, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Aravind Adiga. Every participant had been assigned one of these texts to look at it in greater detail and pay attention to how the story achieved what it achieved. On the day, we discussed our observations and related them to our own writing. Although all examples were from literary writing, the parallels were striking. Discussions revolved around the role of capitalizations (cf. ‘the Internet’), techniques of narrative linking, the question of how to story things that are hard to describe such as emotions and other absences in fieldwork and the benefits and pitfalls of addressing readers in certain ways.

Photo of table bell

An attention device for timing writing exercises.

In the second part, we took out pen and paper ourselves to engage in Styles of Writing. We started writing up a paragraph from our fieldwork. We then swapped these around and read out loud each other’s pieces. While this might sound scary, it is an incredibly useful technique for getting a different perspective on one’s text. Next, we had another 10 minutes to re-write another person’s piece as a very personal account. Again, some of these were read out loud. The final task was to re-write the piece again, but this time as a political manifesto. If you like the idea, you might also enjoy Exercises in Styles, a great little book by Raymond Queneau.

Some observations

To judge from people’s feedback, the workshop was not only very useful, but also great fun for aspiring (academic) writers. Some observations from the day:

  • While everyone had slightly different views on writing and what counts as a proper academic text, issues of storying were high up on everyone’s agendas. Whether you are about to craft an experimental self-exemplifying text or try to submit an article for a more conservative sociology or management journal, writing strategies and literary devices are equally useful.
  • Creative writing exercises can be intimidating. But once you get over the first draft, it is a lot of fun — up to a point where it was hard to stop.
  • Although people tend to distinguish sharply between ‘fiction’ and ‘academic’ writing, the boundary blurs in practice. For example, quite a few of the techniques employed in the literary texts led to insights and ideas for participants’ own projects.
  • We were surprised by the strong interest from anthropologists in the workshop and had wrongly assumed that these kinds of issues would be a standard part of their training.

If you are interested in this kind of workshop or have ideas for future events, please get in touch.