Oxford STS at the American Anthropological Association 2011

by Tim Webmoor

Over this past Michaelmas and Hilary Terms Tanja Schneider and I convened a series of informal conversations about ‘the doing of fieldwork’. These were meant to be a place to share reflections on, advice about and methodological tips for, undertaking this uniquely intense but little explicitly discussed mode of scholarship. Often, in addition to a sense of intellectual comradery, the sessions felt emotive and therapeutic – sometimes deliberately so. One theme which emerged was the concern with our ethnographic descriptions and how they matter. Visiting fellow Torben Elgaard Jensen suggested the topic of ‘the status of our descriptions’. Following on from these conversations, a group of us have decided to formalise the discussion as a session for the upcoming American Anthropological Association in Montreal, Canada. Former visiting Dphil Helene Ratner and Malte Ziewitz are spearheading the venture. Below are the session and paper abstracts.

Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Anthropology: What is the status of our descriptions?

“The goal of descriptive adequacy is unattainable but continually haunts the endeavor, lying alongside, but in another time, and speaking back, like the immaterial ghosts of prophecy or the value of a currency.” (Maurer 2005, p. 54)

What is it to describe? What ambitions and hopes do we attach to our descriptions? How do we make them “work” for us as policy advisers, spokespeople, critics and ethnographers? While the goal of adequate representation has been disputed for a long time, the status, construction and performativity of our descriptions remain an open question. In Mutual Life, Limited (2005), Bill Maurer notes that despite consensus on the impossibility of accurate and adequate descriptions, it continues to haunt “the [ethnographic] endeavor”. Hereby he points to an aesthetics of ethnography which, despite claims to relativism, in many cases still makes use of the persuasive rhetoric of “being there” (see also Strathern, 2004, p. 10). Roland Barthes (1982) has similarly argued that the prose of a plethora of details and descriptions characterizing ethnography is to create the “effect of the real”, which is part of constructing the ethnographic authority (Barthes in Knuuttila 2002).

With the “crisis of representation” of the 1980s comfortably behind us, we now see different questions about description, reflexivity and modes of writing emerging. The anthropological style and prose of “being there” with its representational effects is still deployed widely, leaving behind reflexivity debates as an issue of past concerns. Others add a few extra voices and confessions as a placeholder for epistemological self-awareness. A third position, lateral ethnography, uses empirical descriptions to question the very practices of anthropological ways of knowing. How can we understand these divisions in styles of ethnographic description? What are their implications? In this session, we explore how Science and Technology Studies (STS) can offer alternative understandings for how descriptions come to matter. Those working in the field of STS have long studied how different representations are achieved, in production, assembly, and circulation. Applying a sensitivity to the various ways in which the distinctions between fact and fiction, culture and nature, are enacted, it offers a vocabulary for exploring different modes of describing and writing. Taking our own descriptions as a starting point, we discuss how various reflexive and post-reflexive moves can inform the manner in which our ethnographic descriptions are deployed.

In the session, the following papers will be presented:

Thick Description On Diet – or What Does It Mean to Represent? Helene Ratner (Copenhagen Business School)

Abstract: Within anthropology and STS alike, the enactment of a “realist genre” or an authoritative voice such as the royal “we” has produced much concern (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Woolgar 1988), with the call for multi-vocality or literary experiments to “disrupt the apprehension of texts as ‘objective’ accounts” as a result (Woolgar 1988). Such reflexive approaches, however, have been dismissed for assuming that: “the most deleterious effect of a text is to be naively believed by the reader as in some way relating to a referent out there. Reflexivity is supposed to counteract this effect by rendering the text unfit for normal consumption (which often means unreadable)” (Latour 1988, p. 168). According to Latour, the problem is not one of being too persuasive in conventional writing but rather one of engaging with the (more) serious concerns of the people we study (Latour 2005, p. 33). Descriptions perform not through representation but as “action at a distance”. Revisiting the reflexivity debate, this paper addresses questions of how descriptions perform and the implications beliefs about the performativity of research has for writing. Instead of resorting to textual experiments as to break a narrative calling to “represent”, it proposes to understand research as “partial connection” (Strathern 1991). This is a work of mutual engagement and experimentary articulations which is about adding agency to “observer” and “observed” rather than representation (Jensen and Lauritsen 2005). This raises different concerns with writing than those of epistemological angst.

Description As Prescription – or What Does It Mean to Say That Documents Are Performative?: On ‘theory-Hope’ and ‘politics of Description’ In Performative Science and Technology Studies Christopher Gad (IT University of Copenhagen)

Abstract: In STS, the concept of performativity has been used in an ontological argument to counter a representationalist world-view (Pickering 1995). Performativity has later been used to conceptualize how market- worlds are partially constituted by how they are described. Models, theories, etc. take part in the cultural production of what they re-present (MacKenzie, Muniesa, and Siu 2007). This means that descriptions of all kinds must be investigated in terms of their prescriptive and agential potentials and effects: ‘what they say’ is not as important as what they (might) do (Dogonova & Eyquem-Renault 2009). According to Michel Callon (2010), performative accounts allow us to imagine how things could always be performed differently. Judith Butler (2010) suggests that performative thinking allows engaging in a continuous ‘argument with the real’, as an ongoing contestation of ‘truths’. In that regard, both suggest that politics emerge from performative thinking. Paul Du Gay (2010), however, comments this ‘hope’ is strongly related to ‘a moment of theory.’ While claiming to be political, what ‘practical politics’ flow from performativity in general remains unclear. This paper addresses how ‘politics of description’ emerge through a Danish case. The paper argues that what texts say and what they do have to be read in specific juxtaposition. Complexities of reading and writing both with and against performative texts (Jensen and Lauritsen 2005) is thus a central concern of the paper. The case exemplifies how particular issues concerning the purpose of description emerged in the moment of imagining a specific research topic as performed.

Descriptions As Companions? Notes from an Uneasy Relationship Malte Ziewitz (University of Oxford)

Abstract: Descriptions still tend to be conceptualized in terms of what Harvey Sacks (1963) famously called the ”commentator machine”: a device consisting of two parts, one of which engages in some practical activity and one of which produces a form of language about the first part. But what happens if we abandon this distinction and move beyond the various attempts at generating ‘correspondence’, ‘mirroring’ or ‘meaning’? What if we accept that our descriptions lead a life of their own? What if they do not simply ‘describe’, but ‘do’ things? In this paper, I will mobilize recent ideas from STS about symmetry, agency and performativity to explore an understanding of descriptions as actors or, as Arthur Frank (2010) suggests with reference to Donna Haraway’s (2003, 2008) trope, “material semiotic companions”. Using material from a recent ethnographic study of web-based feedback schemes, I will report on my encounters with both my own and others’ descriptions and the heterogeneous relations they entered, maintained and disrupted. I will sketch my attempts to follow and take care of them as a ‘good’ companion, but also recount moments of loss, betrayal and corruption. Rather than regarding descriptions as privileged windows into some otherworldly reality or narrative devices at the hands of the author, I will illustrate how they are implicated in the making of selves and sociality, defying the unimportant difference between ‘discourse’ and ‘doings’.

The Matter-Ing of Descriptions: Four Propositions Timothy Webmoor (University of Oxford)

Abstract: So what difference to our descriptions, field notes and narratives make? If we agree with Law (e.g. 2010:173) and other material semiotic sympathisers that to be real something must make a difference, how do I begin to think my writings in the field matter, where do I detect that difference? How would I trace their matter-ing, their reality-making? Exhuming my own descriptions from recent fieldwork at a software development lab in London, I suggest that the status of ethnographic descriptions often involve several issues. First, closet representationalism – and a coherentism at that. A working assumption is that I am rendering faithfully what is going on in these interactions. Second, “out of the box.” That is, already ready for assembly. My notes anticipate other obligations and accountabilities, primarily write-up for publication. To matter beyond satisfying my desire to understand this field setting I need to circulate my descriptions. Third, visual outsourcing of rhetoric and creativity. To matter I want some compelling visuals to supplement my textual narrative. This argument of the visual as supplemental evidence is well rehearsed. Nonetheless, I still take them for assembly with my text later on for this reason. Finally, temporal ebbs and flow. There is a temporal path to matter-ing, but it doesn’t seem very linear or sequential. Some of the process is anticipated, but there are many iterations to how the descriptions – textual, visual and I should add auditory too – will be involved in matter-ing along my research path.

Archaeological Description and Doubt Christopher L Witmore (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: What role does skepticism play in archaeological descriptions? What does the question of doubt reveal about the adequacy of a description? What is the relationship of skepticism to the issues of accountability and ultimately trust? This paper addresses these questions by taking a closer look at the modes of articulation deployed in an archaeological excavation at the remains of a Roman fort in Binchester, UK.

For more information about the session please contact the organisers:
Helene Ratner, hr.lpf@cbs.dk
Malte Ziewitz, malte.ziewitz@sbs.ox.ac.uk
Tim Webmoor, timwebmoor@gmail.com.