Monday, January 18, 2016

Introducing the Mess

In her comment to Wednesday's post, Julia Molinari offered John Law's "Making a Mess with Method" as an example of a kind of academic writing that is "as true to its signified as is possible". It's important to keep in mind that she takes "the signified" of the academic signifier to be, not the real world of objective facts, but the complex reality of the research that studies it. Both of these options, of course, run afoul of the strict semiotic definition of "the signfied" as the concept not the object, "not a thing but the notion of a thing". In fact, I would argue that the academic "sign" includes a reference to both the research process and the objective reality it studies, in both cases by way of the concepts of academic discourse, which can be used to say true things both about what you have done (method) and what you have seen (analysis). In other words, perhaps the "messiness" that Julia experiences in research, and which she wants to represent in writing, results from not distinguishing her research from her results, her own subjectivity from the objectivity of what she studies.

But let's leave that for a moment. We'll get back to that sort of issue as we proceed through Law's text and try to make sense of it. (He makes a similar argument.) What I want to do today is to edit his 827 word introduction to bring it into line with my guidelines. Since they allow for a maximum of 600 words, I'm going to have to cut it down a little to fit onto the Procrustean bed of my writing advice, and I of course apologize to John Law in advance. This may hurt a bit.

I said yesterday, that his version is not as far from my ideal as Julia suggests. Here, for example, are the first two paragraphs:

The presenting symptom is easily shown. Look at the picture. And then reflect on the caption: ‘If this is an awful mess … then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?’ This is a leading question. I’m looking for your agreement. Simplicity, I’m asking you to say, won’t help us to understand mess.

So my topic is mess. Messy worlds. I’m interested in the politics of mess. I’m interested in the process of knowing mess. I’m interested, in particular, in methodologies for knowing mess. My intuition, to say it quickly, is that the world is largely messy. It is also that contemporary social science methods are hopelessly bad at knowing that mess. Indeed it is that dominant approaches to method work with some success to repress the very possibility of mess. They cannot know mess, except in their aporias, as they try to make the world clean and neat. So it is my concern to broaden method. To imagine it more imaginatively. To imagine what method – and its politics – might be if it were not caught in an obsession with clarity, with specificity, and with the definite.

That's only 190 words, which isn't too much for a single paragraph. According to my guidelines, however, the first paragraph should make no mention of the author or the argument the paper is going to make. Rather, it should situate us in a world of shared concern. In the case of a methods paper, it should describe aspects of the world that pose an interesting problem for methodologists. And Law clearly does that here. The social world, he tells us, is a messy place. Suppose that were all he told us, how would this pararaph look? If we move some of his concrete description up from the body into the introduction, we get something like this:

The social world is largely messy. Consider the treatment of alcoholic liver disease (ALD) in a modern hospital. It is connected to other phenomena that have something to do with ALD but aren’t the same. It is connected to liver disease in general (without the alcohol), for example, but also to alcoholic cirrhosis. It is related alcohol abuse, of course, and to alcoholism, but these are not necessarily the same thing either. And it is sometimes related to the overall quality of life in relation to substances including, but not limited to, alcohol. The hospital brings all of these phenomena, and countless others, together around what appears to be a simple thing, ALD, which it then purports to “treat”. Perhaps this appearance is the result of our image of hospital hygiene, everything neat and orderly and clean. Everything in its proper place. We forget, sometimes, that there are also people involved.

From there we can go on to write another two paragraphs: one about the current state of method in our discipline, the other about what we want to accomplish in this paper.

In sociology we also practice a form of hygiene. Do your methods properly. Eat your epistemological greens. Wash your hands after mixing with the real world. Your data will be clean, your findings warrantable. There are lots of books about intellectual hygiene, all of which preach the virtue of methodological cleanliness. No doubt there is much that is good in these texts. No doubt it is useful, indeed, to know about statistical significance, or how to avoid interviewer bias. Tips for research are always handy. But they seem to ignore the need to be messy and heterogeneous; contemporary social science methods are hopelessly bad at knowing the mess. The dominant approaches to method work with some success to repress the very possibility of mess. As a result, they cannot know mess, except in their aporias, as they try to make the world clean and neat.

In this paper I want to broaden our understanding of method to include the mess. I want to imagine what method – and its politics – might be if it were not caught in an obsession specificity, and with the definite. In practice research needs to be messy and heterogeneous, not hygienic. It needs to be messy and heterogeneous, because that is the way research is and more importantly, the way the largest part of the world is. I’ll start with a real research example of mess, namely, the treatment of ALD. I will then show that realism, at least in its conventional versions, has a highly prescriptive version of the nature of the real, one that rules that reality cannot be a mess. Next, I will make a post-structuralist case for understanding method as the simultaneous enactment of presence and absence. Traditional methods, I will argue, “Others” the possibility of mess. The nice clear research findings which fill the journals rise from an Othered bed of confusion, paradox and imprecision. I want to find ways of living with and knowing confusion. I want to lie in the bed we’ve made.

I've had a bit of fun with this, and I hope John Law will forgive me. My point, of course, is that it is possible to summarize his introduction (and therefore his paper) in three simple declarative sentences: (1) The world is messy. (2) The methods of social science demand neatness. (3) This paper shows that our methods need to be messier. Now we know what we're dealing with. We have an argument we can assess, and we therefore also have a framework in which to decide whether the paper accomplishes its aims.

This week, that's what I'll do. I'll assess the argument. Let me declare at the outset that my view is that sociology should try to make orderly sense of what Thomas Kuhn, citing William James, called the "bloomin', buzzin' confusion" of reality. I guess I'm on the side of the hygiene that Law wants me to abandon. But that's fine. I recognize and acknowledge his statement of the status quo and I'm going to listen to his arguments and engage with them.


Presskorn said...

One way, I suppose, to make a less messy description of Law's initial picture is to clearly identify its elements. We may, for instance (altough it's no coincidence that I notice), note that the top text box - "When does one have the thought: the possible movements of a machine are already there in some mysterious way? — Well, when one is doing philosophy. And what leads us into thinking that? The kind of way in which we talk about machines." - is a partial quotation of Witt., PI, §194.

Jonathan said...

It's a fallacy, though. A messy world does not require messy research methods. What he really wants to say is that very streamlined, unnuanced methodologies cannot do justice to the complexity of the real world. He might then argue that the results of more sophisticated methods seem messier, but are still advantageous.

Thomas said...

@Presskorn: yes, that's a good place to begin. The picture is obviously needlessly messy and is, I think, entirely his own handiwork.

@Jonathan: I agree, and that's partly the line I'll be taking. But there's also the sense in which my apartment may be messy on any given day but its structure (walls, furniture, doors, windows) is pretty orderly and sensible. A sociologist doesn't need to explain the exact position of every sock and moldy bread crumb (am I leaving a bad impression of myself?). In fact, the extent and regularity of the mess can be quite neatly measured and even, often, explained. The sociologist who despairs at understanding is too much like me on the day that I despair at cleaning it up. The problem is not insurmountable. It's like the difficult but not impossible problem of representation.