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XKCD illustrates Actor-Network Theory

In which popular geek comic XKCD illustrates to some degree what Actor-Network Theory (and Science and Technology Studies more generally) has claimed for years: the apparent stability of many taken-for-granted, everyday objects conceals a lot of work that went into making them stable in their current form:

 

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What good is Actor-Network Theory?

I was asked a a little while back why Actor-Network Theory (ANT for short) should be considered a useful approach for social and cultural study. I don’t think I gave a particularly satisfactory answer at the time. The issue that I think caused me trouble was that, ANT doesn’t really fit very well with more traditional approaches to social and cultural inquiry. This is part of the appeal of ANT to many of its proponents, but it’s also something of a problem.

The incompatibility between ANT and more traditional approaches I think stems from the distinctive methodological assumptions of ANT. Latour (2005), in particular, described ANT,  “sociology of association” as he called it, as starting from an entirely different assumption about the meaning of the term “society” than the entirety of mainstream (by which he meant Durkheimian) sociology (what Latour called “sociology of the social”). Durkheimian sociology conceives of “society” as a thing, objective and independent, with its own laws and its own reality that it imposes on individuals: “social facts”. “Society”, in Latour’s version of sociology, is a thing, but it is never fully independent of the work needed to achieve this singular “thingness” from multiple and heterogenous actors : the work of making and maintaining associations.

This, at its most basic, is the distinctiveness of ANT, in sociological terms: it assumes society is not an explanation – there are no “social forces” or “social contexts” that provide a ready-made reason for why social life is the way it is – but that society is what needs to be explained. What, in traditional (Durkheimian) sociology, is the solution to understanding structure and action, is, in ANT, the phenomenon that needs to be understood as an outcome of diverse, sometimes co-operative and sometimes competitive, actions.

The further step, and the one that pushes ANT beyond the field of sociology and into many other fields, is an a priori suspension of what is and is not to count, in any given inquiry, as an actor capable of action. When approaching a phenomenon from the perspective of ANT, the researcher is supposed to, ideally, identify actors solely through the identifications and actions attributed to them by other actors. The bootstrap-style paradox of being able to identify actors’ attribution of properties to other actors, without first identifying actors able to do this, is generally acknowledged by ANT proponents. It is addressed by positioning the researcher or researchers themselves as an actor in the area of study, also attempting to identify and attribute action to actors (Callon, Law & Rip 1986). These contesting attempts, between all actors, to identify and define the nature of each other are traced, and the way in which they are “settled”  – stability and (relative) consensus about the nature of all actors and the relationships between them is achieved – is reported by the researcher. This is what an “explanation” is in ANT: a description of how identifiable stability of actors and their relationships arose from initial instability and uncertainty.

One particularly tricky methodological point – a point that a lot of critics tend to get stuck on – is that, in ANT, “actors” can be both human and non-human. The point I think is rather overemphasised by critics; as I see it, this suspension the human/non-human division is simply a way of taking into account the possibility of non-human entities causing action to occur, without falling into the trap of assuming that any non-human causality exists independently of other causality, human or non-human. More interestingly, in terms of my own interest in technology studies, it also helps bypasses rather stale debates about technological versus social determinism. Technology is, in this sense, neither a human nor a non-human phenomenon, but a hybrid of both. In ANT, once again, the approach is a reversal of existing practice: instead of asking whether “technology” or “society” causes action, ANT is a way of asking how diverse actions lead to the achievement of specific instances of “technology” and/or “society”?

What good is ANT? It really depends on what you are setting out to achieve. It may not be possible to fully adopt an ANT approach without entirely abandoning more traditional approaches (although that may depend on what those approaches are – contrary to Latour’s position, Durkheimian sociology is hardly the be-all and end-all of traditional sociology). But what you can do with ANT, at the very least, is draw attention to certain taken-for-granted phenomena in social or cultural studies, up to and including the very labeling of something as “social” and “cultural”, and question how and why those phenomena currently exist in the way that they do. This doesn’t mean uncovering the “hidden forces” behind their dominant definitions, or tracing their genealogical or dialectical development, but approaching their evolution with as few assumptions as possible about what exists and what acts, in order to encounter what existed and what acted. Ultimately, ANT offers explanations, which is all any kind of inquiry can really do, but very distinctive ones. That’s why it appeals to me.

References

Callon, M., Law, J., Rip, A. 1986, Mapping the dynamics of science and technology: sociology of science in the real world, The Macmillan Press Ltd, London, UK.
Latour, B. 2005, Reassembling the social: an introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

The Wollongong antivaccination PhD thesis: an informal assessment of its social science content

The University of Wollongong appears to have awarded a PhD for a thesis to that argues against the health benefits of vaccination. Written by a person named Judy Wilyman and entitled A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy, it’s already garnered a lot of criticism for being antivaccine-pseudoscience. As many have pointed out, this thesis wasn’t submitted for a PhD in any natural science field (let alone one that might require actual medical knowledge about vaccines), but under the University of Wollongong’s humanities banner. It’s the responsibility of the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, to be exact.

There is actually a tradition of studying science itself as a social practice rather than a philosophy or method of gathering knowledge. Actually, there are several. There’s the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), which later merged with general technology studies, to become Science and Technology Studies (STS), and there’s also a field calling itself the political sociology of science, which I’ll get to shortly.

There’s been some controversy over studying scientific practice in this way, as the research framework for these studies often implicitly or explicitly claims that the truth claims of science are relative, or at least not as divorced from social context as proponents of science usually claim. I really hope that the publication of this PhD thesis doesn’t suggest that any social inquiry into science should automatically be disregarded..

While I do think it’s important to demonstrate errors that Wilyman makes around the state of scientific knowledge regarding vaccination, I also think it important, for the sake of the integrity of the field of social science and the humanities generally, to determine whether this thesis lives up to that field of knowledge’s standards as well. As a humanities/social inquiry student, it’s in my own self-interest.My own, admittedly far from well-educated, assessment of thesis is that it fails those standards.

Though it isn’t really my area of expertise, I’ve tried to trace down some of the sources this thesis used, specifically from the academic literature around social study of science, to see how well it was used. Most this seems to show up in chapter 8 of the thesis, where Wilyman offers a definition of ‘unsound science’. This concept comes from peer-reviewed literature. But from my reading of that literature, Wilyman is using the concept incorrectly.

As pointed out by others, several of the books Wilyman relies on are not of an academic standard: they are polemics rather than well-argued assessments. I won’t address those. In chapter 8, sources that do have academic credibility in the social study of science include Hess (2007;2009), Gross (2007), and Frickel et al. (2010). Together, these sources articulate the concept of ‘undone science’ that Wilyman uses to claim that scientific research on vaccination has been compromised. I think she’s misusing it.

The term ‘undone science’ comes from a newish field of study, called the political sociology of science. According to Hess (2009, p. 309), this field of study “draws attention to the politics of research agendas and the ways in which choices about scientific knowledge are outcomes of broader societal conflicts and coalitions involving not only research communities but also governments, industries and social movements”. The approach doesn’t embrace the utter scientific relativism of, say, the Strong Programme of SSK, but it does insist that scientists’ decisions about what should be researched, and why, can’t be divorced from “unscientific” influences like availability of research funding, and opportunities for recognition and prestige from peers. Scientific progress, in this framework, isn’t linear. It’s opportunistic. And there are areas of research, entire fields of potential scientific inquiry, that not only aren’t pursued due to the existing political incentives around actual scientific practice, but are presumed explicitly not worth pursuing. This is ‘undone science’.

I need to stress another aspect of this concept of undone science as it appears in the literature, precisely because Wilyman doesn’t mention it at all. Fricken et al (2010, p. 444) describe undone science as “areas of research that are left unfunded, incomplete, or generally ignored, but that social movements or civil society organizations often identify as worthy of more research” (emphasis added). Hess (2007, p. 22) similarly treats ‘undone science’ as primarily an issue brought to light by social organisations: “from the perspectives of..activists and reform-oriented innovators, the science that should get done does not get done because there are structures that keep it from getting done”.

There’s a certain amount of relativism in these statements. What they are not saying is that there’s an objective, universally understandable idea of “science”, which universally serves the public interest, but which gets distorted by institutional interests. Rather, is says that the entire field of science is internally divided by “relations of co-operation and conflict among advocates of different conceptual frameworks, research methods and problem areas” (Hess 2007, p. 27) and externally ‘aligned’, influenced but also able to influence, policy makers and research funders (Hess 2007, p. 44), all while under the scrutiny of exernal actors such as civil society movements (Hess 2007, p. 43). The relationship between all these stakeholders is considered fairly complex, and ripe for empirical study.

All this nuance is utterly lost in Wilyman’s work. She describes undone science as simply “research that is not conducted because institutional barriers are constructed in the political process to prevent it from being done” (Wilyman 2015, p. 195). Her model of undone science is one in which it only appears if “political barriers arise” because “the interests of political, economic and industrial leaders synergise to control the direction of funding for scientific research” (Wilyman 2015, p. 196). This, she claims “occurs at the expense of public interest science”. She presumes that this alleged collusion between government, industry and academia leads to public policy which “select[s] against some areas of science” (Wilyman 2015, p. 198). She then quotes Hess (2007, p. 21) out of context to suggest that because “most politicians do not have an in-depth understanding of scientific issues..the legitimacy of political outcomes therefore depends upon the values inherent in the production of science and in the use of science that has been accepted by all stakeholders” (Wilyman 2015, p. 196).

Hess did indeed point out that policymakers lack scientific knowledge. But he pointed this out to show how it was possible for scientists to escape from constraints on the autonomy of scientific practice. While those who fund research can fund it on the basis of what the funders rather than the scientists want, funders’ lack of technical proficiency means that “they can, to a certain degree, be told what they want” (Hess 2007, p. 44). And rather than an ideal of science which gets perverted to create ‘undone science’, as part of general problem of “selective science”, the political sociology of science approach seems to treats scientific practice as always partially agonistic, and in which there is always some form of undone science in existence.

The case studies of Fricken et al. (2010) seem to bear this out. In their description of a dispute between industry and NGO groups about the viability of a “chlorine sunset”, they illustrate the “paradigms” of research of both the industry groups and the NGOs. Both contain identifiable ‘undone science’, which tend to reflect one another. Illustrating the potential use of such an approach, the paradigms at issue (“risk” vs “challenger”) describe  the political claims made by each group about how research should be performed. The claims at issue are political, not scientific, because they are based on the assumption of what will be found by research before any research has begun: one group assumes that testing of individual chlorine compounds for environmental impact is enough, the other assumes that the class of chemicals as a whole is problematic, and needs to be restricted until each individual one is proven safe. Such a political question is likely intractable, but including the dimension of ‘undone science’ may help clarify it somewhat.

Further, in contrast to Wilyman’s characterisation of a “synergy” of powerful institutional actors ganging up to work against the public interest of the, er, public, Fricken et al (2010) point out that civil society groups can and do act as a break on specific areas of scientific research. An area of research where they found scientists refusing to engage in research, precisely because of the pressure from outside groups, was research involving animal testing. Many scientists, according to the case study they examined, deliberately steered well clear because of the “terrorist” activities of animal rights activists that they feared they would experience. Fricken et al. suggested that stem cell research is similarly steered away from by some scientists due to the activities of right-to-life advocates.

All this is to say that undone science as an academic concept relies on a lot of paradigmatic assumptions about science that Wilyman does not adopt and directly contradicts. The interesting possible relations between partially co-operative and partially antagonistic, partially determined and partially autonomous, elite social groups and science practicioners, is reduced to a morality play between the virtuous public interest that pristine (not “selective”) science serves and the evil profit motives served by villainous governments and industries, and their totally subjugated scientist lackeys. She makes use of Hess’ claim that “funding claims what can be done and what will be done as well as what remains undone”, but utterly ignores his warning that “this argument can turn into a simplistic, externalist form of economic determinism” (Hess 2007, p. 32). In Wilyman’s thesis, that’s more or less exactly what happened.

It would be interesting to assess Wilyman’s own work by the standards of political sociology of science. It’s not my field, though: any errors in the above are mine, not the respectable academic authors I’ve quoted. I would like to point out, however, what seems to be the fundamental political orientation that undergirds Wilyman’s whole project. It appears on the last page of the conclusion: “Healthy communities are achieved by increasing individual autonomy, that is, the individual’s right to choose how they care for their own bodies in the prevention of disease. This prevents indoctrination and it must be respected and promoted in public health policies that ensure better health is the primary outcome of these policies” (Wilyman 2015, p. 308).

Wilyman’s axiomatic assumption is that health is achieved first and foremost by retaining personal autonomy. It isn’t achieved by, say, valuing health expertise and the knowledge associated with it. The political value of freedom comes before everything else, and the exercise of this freedom – by refusing to participate in building up herd immunity through mass vaccination, for example – can axiomatically never be unhealthy for others. Any science that says otherwise must be wrong.

References

Frickel, S., Gibbon, S., Howard, J., Kempner, J., Ottinger, G., Hess, D.J., 2010, ‘Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting’ Science Technology Human Values 35, 444–473. doi:10.1177/0162243909345836
Gross, M., 2007, ‘The Unknown in Process: Dynamic connections of Ignorance, NonKnowledge, and Related Concepts’, Current Sociology, 55: 5: 742-59
Hess, D.J., 2007, Alternative pathways in science and industry: activism, innovation, and the environment in an era of globalization, Urban and industrial environments, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Hess, D.J., 2009. ‘The Potentials and Limitations of Civil Society Research: Getting Undone Science Done.’ Sociological Inquiry 79, 306–327. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00292.x

Wilyman, J., 2015, ‘A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy’, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, 2015. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/4541,accessed 15 Jan 2016

Monopolies of Knowledge and Hyperlinks: Addendum

In reference to this post and the changed way in which we use hyperlinks today as compared to the 1990s, a colleague of mine pointed out that there is in fact a website where it’s possible to engage in the kind of free-wheeling jumping from place to place characteristic of the early web. That website is Wikipedia. Getting lost amidst the pages, with no idea how how you ended up wheere you are, is quite common for some people.

I suspect it may not be a coincidence that, of all the large websites still around today, Wikipedia is alsoone of the few that is still 100% funded by donations, not by advertising revenue. They have no incentive to try and get rated highly in Google. It’s intriguing that Wikipedia pages often show up very highly in Google search results regardless.

Information and Invitation: Persona Studies Working Papers Symposium

The persona cluster of the Persona Celebrity Publics Research Group warmly invites you to join us for an afternoon of scholarship and discussion with local and international colleagues.

When:  Thursday February 5th, 1-5pm, afternoon tea provided, followed by drinks at Mrs Robinsons

Where: Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood.

Building BC, Burwood Corporate Centre, Level 2 (the new highway frontage building)

Room East 1 – Please see reception on arrival.

To register your attendance, please email personastudies@deakin.edu.au

Persona studies is an emerging area of cross-disciplinary study that investigates the presentation of the self and the masks that we use as we construct ourselves in real and virtual settings and worlds. It is an exploration of the public self and how these versions of identity come to prominence in contemporary culture. It acknowledges that we all negotiate and construct personas that we deploy and employ in work and professional environments as much as in our recreational and leisure activities: much of the emerging work in persona studies is closer studies of these particular settings and how they help frame our public selves.

The symposium is designed to allow ample discussion. Therefore, each presenter will briefly introduce their project or paper, identifying areas where they are looking for feedback. The focus will then shift to group discussion. The program will look at persona studies in the context of the use of emojis in instant messaging, social mobility, political communication, Andy Warhol’s, objects, audience research, celebrity activism, and queer television. Papers will be presented both in person and online. Deliberately broad ranging and interdisciplinary, the papers presented emphasise the flexibility of persona studies, and will provide an introduction to the possibilities offered by this rapidly growing field of study.

Exhibition: When do you feel most like yourself?

Aligned with the symposium is an exhibition by Deakin University artists Cameron Bishop, Glenn D’Cruz, and Shelley Hannigan. Investigating whether there are places and activities that people consider more private and more authentic than others, the artists respond to the question when do you feel most like yourself by producing works that address persona through questions of identity, selfhood, role play, and authenticity.

Please join us for the exhibition opening prior to the symposium:

When: Thursday February 5, 11am

Where: Phoenix Gallery, Building B

– Meet at 10:45 at Mrs. Robinson’s Café in building BC (easily accessible from Burwood Highway) for assistance in locating the gallery

My article in M/C Journal: “Online Persona as Hybrid-Object: Tracing the Problems and Possibilities of Persona in the Short Film Noah”

I’m a little excited to say that my article on online persona, titled “Online Persona as Hybrid-Object: Tracing the Problems and Possibilities of Persona in the Short Film Noah” was accepted for publication in the “persona” issue of M/C Journal. That issue of the journal is now available online.

Here’s the link to the “persona” issue of M/C Journal: click here

And here’s the link to my article: click here

The short film that I discuss in the article is available from here

 

Some odds and ends on cyberpunk

What is cyberpunk? It’s kind of an old genre now (somewhat ironic considering it’s a genre generally set twenty minutes into the future), but it’s still a genre that I find myself drawn to, even today. I’ve collected a few odds and ends from the Internet that might help give a greater appreciation of it.

There’s still a fairly significant interest in the cyberpunk genre in the gaming world today, both the computer and the table-top varieties. You can see both types of gaming interest combined in this trailer for a computer game that will, hopefully, be developed some time within the next couple of years. The computer game is Cyberpunk 2077. It’s derived from, and in part developed by the person who first created, the roleplaying game “Cyberpunk 2020” back in the 1980s. Its aesthetics are everything cyberpunk aesthetics ought to be:

Computer graphics sure have come along way since the 80s, haven’t they?

In the world of table-top gaming, discussions spring up from time to time about what is the most significant part of a story that makes it “cyberpunk”. At a place on the Internet known as /tg/ (if you have to ask, you shouldn’t be going there anyway), I encountered this little statement which I think makes an important point (click to enlarge):

cyberpunk_screencap

Cyberpunk explicitly denies that scientific and technological progress will automatically improve life. Given that we’re currently in a period where technological progress (i.e. the Internet and communications technology) is often presented as heralding the dawn of a new era for human communication, it seems to me that such a message is both much more needed today than in the 1980s, and also much less likely to be heeded.

Finally, there’s this little excursus from the Youtube entity known as “Mr Btongue”, in which he traces the roots of cyberpunk:

I’m a little surprised that he managed to trace the roots all the way back to Nietszche, but in retrospect, it does make sense.

Is there still a place for cyberpunk as a genre, as a form of speculative fiction, today?