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After Method

After Method: Mess in Social Science Research

by John Law

read in Dec 2022

book info on goodreads

In “After Method”, John Law challenges traditional social science research methods and their Euro-American assumptions. He proposes new ways of thinking and practicing social science research to better capture the complexities of the world. John Law emphasises the need to unmake methodological habits that prioritize certainty and universalism, and instead embrace multiple, diverse, and uncertain methods. In other words, he calls to embrace the mess in the world and in social science research rather then trying to reduce it. The book also highlights the importance of recognizing that realities are not secure but must be practiced, and that the world is not passive but enacted. In line with Rorty’s work, Law calls for alternative metaphors and activities in academia that find ways of living in uncertainty and elaborating quiet, slow, or modest methods without accompanying imperialisms.

“This book is […] about what happens when social science tries to describe things that are complex, diffuse and messy. The answer, I will argue,is that it tends to make a mess of it. This is because simple clear descriptions don’t work if what they are describing is not itself very coherent. The very attempt to be clear simply increases the mess. So the book is an attempt to imagine what it might be to remake social science in ways better equipped to deal with mess, confusion and relative disorder.”

One important aspect of social scientific research practice, according to After Method, are the messy and uncertain ways in which knowledge is produced through inscription devices. The production of scientific reality is shaped by the “hinterland” of standardized packages, which extends far beyond the limits of what we usually imagine as “method.” This hinterland includes factors such as language skills, management capacities, and political and economic agendas. The stability of scientific reality is secured by the expense of creating alternative realities, and the hinterland of methods enacts realities that then enact the conditions of possibility of further research. The alternative that After Method proposes is to follow Latour and Woolgar’s symmetrical inquiry and devise a new vocabulary to disentangle the normativities of standard methods-talk from their stories about how methods work in practice. This is where Law defines the concept of “method assemblage”.

“So assemblage is a process of bundling, of assembling, or better of recursive self-assembling in which the elements put together are not fixed in shape, do not belong to a larger pre-given list but are constructed at least in part as they are entangled together. This means that there can be no fixed formula or general rules for determining good and bad bundles, and that (what I will now call) ‘method assemblage’ grows out of but also creates its hinterlands which shift in shape as well as being largely tacit, unclear and impure.”

The approach developed in After Method allows for investigating the complex and overlapping lives of objects in a world where different realities partially intersect and interfere with one another. The metaphor of fractional objects, which are more than one and less than many, may help to understand the complexity of these relationships. Law reviews Annemarie Mol’s study of atherosclerosis and by doing so demonstrates how objects can be separated and recombined to produce composite entities, and how separation may occur between different patients or acknowledging differences in the conditions of possibility. Mol’s alternative metaphysics of enacted fractionality suggests that realities are real enough and may take the form of in-here objects or processes, and out-there contexts of one kind or another that go along visibly with those objects. In an ontological politics, the good of making a difference will live alongside - and sometimes displace - that of enacting truth.

Law explores the concepts of presence and absence in relation to the crafting and enacting of boundaries between what is present, what is absent but manifest, and what is absent and Other. These boundaries are necessary and each category depends on the others. The inquiry into slow method suggests imagining more flexible boundaries and different forms of presence and manifest absence.

“What is being made present always depends on what is also being made absent.”

The book highlights the use of allegory to make visible the invisible and create new realities, often resulting in non-coherent and ambiguous manifestations. It emphasizes the importance of crafting a coherent account of reality, which requires determining what is to be made manifest and what is to be Othered. The inquiry must be allegorical, as nothing speaks for itself, and denies the possibility of non-coherence and multiplicity. It highlights the problem with Euro-American metaphysics, which lacks symmetry and assumes coherence as a good without acknowledging non-coherence.

“And this is what allegory always does. It uses what is present as a resource to mess about with absence. It makes manifest what is otherwise invisible. It extends the fields of visibility, and crafts new realities out-there. And at least sometimes, it also does something that is even more artful. This is because it makes space for ambivalence and ambiguity. In allegory, the realities made manifest do not necessarily have to fit together.”

Interestingly, Law offers the example of Australian First Nation people and much of what he argues for in terms of knowing resonates with the ideas in Sand Talk. The displacement of native owners in Australia in the 1940s-1960s disrupted the continuous process of creating and recreating the land, kinship, religion, and ancestral beings. Aboriginal method assemblage emphasises the importance of continuous effort and process, with nothing becoming autonomous and everything needing to be re-done and re-enacted. Unlike Euro-American mediation, Aboriginal mediation recognizes that process is inescapable and nothing is fixed.

In After Method, John Law develops an incredibly rich vocabulary and set of metaphors to reimagine social science research. For him, method is not just a set of procedures for reporting on reality, but rather a performative tool that helps to produce realities. Method assemblage is a continuous process of crafting and enacting necessary boundaries between presence, manifest absence, and Otherness. Making anything present implies that other related things are simultaneously being made absent, and thus representations go along with something out there to represent. This has an important implication. If no enactments in reality stay automatically in place, if instead they are made and remade, then that means that they can, at least in principle, be remade in other ways.