Gemma John, Senior Researcher at Foster + Partners
Social anthropologists are familiar with participant observation as a method that enables them to become fully immersed in the worlds of their ‘subjects’.
It is a little more taxing to conduct participant observation as a researcher in an architectural practice. There is simply not enough time to delve into the lives of others despite needing to know more about them for the purpose of architectural design. But, time is not the only constraint, since it is often impossible to gain access to the end-users of a building. So, in what is she participating? Perhaps she is a participant observer of the life of an architect, for whom architectural tours are a matter of routine.
Touring an existing building enables architects to gain insight into how people might behave in a new building. Architects are interested in how people navigate (the layout of services in a building), how they communicate (the circulation routes needed in a building), how they interact (the floor-space required for a specific activity), and how they experience (the indoor environmental quality). They hope to gain a good understanding of these four criteria – navigation, communication, interaction, and experience – from an existing building to come up with a (better) spatial strategy for a new building. They will also look out for areas where there is a ‘misfit’ between the building and its occupants in as much creativity lies is coming up with a design that is a better ‘fit’. In this sense, architects find out about the people in a space by studying the design of the space itself. As one space is the model for the next one, one group of people become the model for the next group.
The tour guides (anyone from facilities managers to company directors) consciously draw parallels between the building and the people that use it. As two, intimately connected entities, they are regarded as shaping one another. Indeed, Blier notes: ‘As in the study of humans, it is necessary in the analysis of architecture to look at each building as an active living organism’ (1987: 2). People and buildings are not only regarded as intimately connected then, they are both organisms thus take the active approach to living.
The tour guides will take an architect around the building, through the front of house public areas such as the reception, and the canteen, and back of house private areas such as the staff offices, meeting rooms, and stationary cupboards. They will explain the life of the building – or organism - in relation to its occupants (also organisms), explaining how their patterns of behaviour are shaped by the building itself - the height of the ceiling, depth of the floorplate, and layout of the furniture.
Architectural tours can be elaborate, lasting several hours. They require considerable social investment. Once someone has been on a tour of another person’s building, they are expected to offer a tour of their own building. There is the expectation of reciprocity; one tour leads to another, and another, and before long, architects, facilities managers, company directors are enmeshed in network of relations, displaying their own value through their ability to talk about each other’s building. Tours are a form of exchange, a means of engaging in relations through which the participants can themselves grow.
The building itself is an aesthetic display of these relations. It emerges out of all the other buildings that an architect has visited, and out of his or her relations that have been either been exhibited or reinforced through the gift of a tour. As Strathern (2010) notes, as an aesthetic, it has to ‘make aesthetic sense, it has to be acknowledged by everyone that it is appropriate – and not just a matter of number, or the size, or the colour’. It has to be appropriate according to the amount of social investment (relations) that has gone into it. The building itself has to take a particular aesthetic form. Otherwise, people will not recognize it. Otherwise, it will fail to impress people.
Otherwise, people will not want to tour it.
Gemma John is a social anthropologist. She was a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) between 2010 and 2013. She is currently a Senior Researcher at Foster + Partners, a well-known architectural practice.
Rebecca Coleman, Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London
One of the central lessons I take from the CRESC work on the social life of method is that methods actively participate in the making of worlds. In this post, I sketch out some of the conceptual background to how I am taking up this important insight in a current book developing methods for studying futures. The book, titled Engaging Futures: Methods, Materials, Media (which is under contract for the Future Media Book Series, Goldsmiths Press), is a speculative, interdisciplinary multi-media project that draws on a series of methodological experiments concerning temporality, and futurity especially. In particular, I’m interested in making connections between the CRESC work and other arguments about methodologies and methods that have recently emerged in sociology and other social sciences, and the new materialisms.
To say that methods make worlds is to reformulate a distinction between ontology and epistemology; between a real world somehow ‘out there’ waiting for researchers to discover and uncover, and the systems of knowledge and practices via which researchers study that world. It is thus to see methods as performing (Vannini 2015), enacting (Law and Urry 2004), or inventing (Lury and Wakeford 2012) the world (at least in part). While these accounts of methods have their own distinctive trajectories and cannot be collapsed into each other, what they have in common is a concern with how methods can create novelty. They are in this sense future-oriented.
Andrew Barry, Georgina Born and Gisa Weszkalnys argue that:
An invention can be understood as the introduction of a type of novelty into a particular domain, one that cannot be explained away as the consequence of pre-existing factors or forces, and which serves to protend and open up the space of future possibilities’ (2008: 25-26).
For Barry, Born and Weszkalnys, invention can be a hallmark of interdiscipinarity. In the sense that they propose here, interdisciplinary work is ‘oriented towards making a difference’ (Lury and Wakeford 2012: 11). Inventive methods, Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford explain, ‘are able to grasp the here and now in terms of somewhere else, and in doing so – if they can also change the problem to which they are addressed – they expand the actual, inventively’ (2012: 12, reference omitted). Inventive methods are interdisciplinary – entangling practices and concerns developed in specific contexts, putting them to work in others, and potentially creating new contexts. They are also world-making in that they may ‘expand the actual’. And they are also processual, open-ended, and future-oriented; they introduce novelty into a situation and in so doing both engage the present in terms of ‘somewhere else’ and ‘open up the space of future possibilities’.
The issues of novelty and the future are also of concern in recent new materialist work. Through its focus on matter as in the process of materialisation, one important aspect of the new materialisms is an understanding of the world as open-ended, and with the potential to become different/ly. Materialities are future-oriented temporalisations, where temporality is non-linear; the future is not that which inevitably unfolds from the past and present in a causal fashion, but is better understood as a virtual possibility that may, and may not, be actualised.
More specifically, while the new materialisms has until now been a largely theoretical field, some approaches to methodologies and research practice/practice research are beginning to emerge (e.g. Hickey-Moody and Page 2015, Barrett and Bolt 2013, Manning and Massumi 2014, as well as a number of practice-focused workshops taking place at new materialist conferences and training schools; see references below). In the Introduction to their collection, Anna Hickey-Moody and Tara Page argue that ‘[p]ractices, teaching and art production practices are modes of thought already in the act. Contemporary arts practices call us to think anew, through remaking the world materially and relationally’ (2015: 1). Here, then, they draw attention to the processual and entangled qualities of practice; thought and act are relational and material processes of making, and these processes are creative. Put slightly differently, new materialist research practices are oriented to the new and novel.
A further contribution to new materialist research practice is explained in Barbara Bolt’s introduction to her and Estelle Barrett’s collection, Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ Through the Arts (2013), where she inquires into the matter of creative arts practices. Arguing that ‘art is a material practice and that materiality of matter lies at the core of creative practice’ (2013: 5), Bolt notes that, nevertheless, ‘[t]he material facts of artistic practice appear so self-evident and integral to our understanding of art that it might seem unremarkable to frame them in terms of the material turn’ (2013: 5). In other words, while materials are an integral part of – indeed they are core to – artistic practice, they are not always reflected upon. Framing materials in terms of the ‘new materialist turn’ therefore enables an explication of their properties and the work they do. For Bolt, ‘materials’ refer to a wide range of ‘bodies that enable art to come into being – the material bodies of artists and theorists, the matter of the medium, the technologies of production and the immaterial bodies of knowledge that form discourse around art’ (2015: 7).
The discussion so far clearly raises a number of issues that are beyond the scope of this post. However, given the connections between these emerging and sometimes disparate fields of research, in the book I’m currently working on, I pose a number of questions regarding method:
Across all of these deliberately wide-ranging case studies is a concern with how different methods, media and materials engage and produce temporality. For example, I ask, what materials and media emerge as significant in these case studies? I will discuss how glitter became a popular and productive material in the collaging workshops, how I worked with the cardboard packages in which Amazon products were delivered in the mail art project, and how different mediums produce different encounters with time on the walks. Indeed, a particular aim of the book is not to employ methods on or to time and futurity, but to develop temporal methods; that is, to deploy and reflect upon a range of approaches to engage temporality. In this sense, in emphasising and attending to the material processes of research, the book is interested in both the research process, and the processual quality of temporality, exploring the ways in which futures are in the making.
More information on the book, including an occasional blog on research-in-process, can be found at temporalrepertoires.org
Barad, K. (2007), Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Barrett, E. and Bolt, B. (eds.) (2013) Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ Through the Arts, New York: I.B. Tauris.
Barry, A. Born, G. and Weszkalnys, G. (2008) ‘Logics of Intedisciplinarity’, Economy and Society, 37(1): 20-49.
Deleuze, G. and Parnet, C. (1977/2002) Dialogues II, London: The Athlone Press.
Hickey-Moody, A. and Page, T. (eds.) (2015) Arts, Pedagogy and Cultural Resistance: New Materialisms, Washington: Rowan and Littlefield.
Law, J. and Urry, J. (2004) “Enacting the Social”, Economy and Society, 33(3): 390-410.
Lury, C. (ed.) (forthcoming) International Handbook of Interdisciplinary Research Methods, London: Routledge.
Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012), ‘Introduction: A Perpetual Inventory’, in (eds.) Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, London: Routledge: pp. 1-24.
Manning, E. and Massumi, B. (2014) Thought in the Act, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Vannini, J (ed) (2015) Non-Representational Methodologies: Re-Envisioning Research, London: Routledge.
7th Annual Conference on the New Materialisms, University of Warsaw, Poland, 21-23 September 2016.
COST New Materialism Training School, Research Genealogies and Material Practices, Tate Modern, 27-29th May 2016.
Hannah Knox, UCL Anthropology
Writing this post two days after Donald Trump’s election as US President, and in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, questions about the relationship between methods and politics seem more important than ever. In this post I outline a new project I am working on that will entail research in a social space in which ‘Brexit’ is a live topic – the coastal estuarial landscape of the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy that crosses the boundary between The Wirral which voted ‘remain’ and North Wales that voted ‘leave’. However I chose this as a research site long before Brexit, identifying it initially for the way in which it constituted a rather different set of political relations not between leavers and remainers but between economy and environment. My hope for the project going forward is that by focusing not on Brexit per se, but, as originally intended on the place of data practices in navigating relations between economy and environment, we might be in a position to provide some different languages for talking about contemporary politics and some alternative methods for engaging relations that no longer neatly divide along class, race or left/right political lines.
Over the summer I have been doing some pilot research towards a research collaboration with Damian O’Doherty (Manchester Business School) and Marco Ferrari (Folder Visual Research Agency). We are interested in exploring how a combination of ethnographic research, data analysis and information design might be deployed to provide insights into what constitutes liveable landscapes under conditions of environmental and economic strain.
We have found it highly productive to situate this question in relation to a specific field site – the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy, that straddles North West England and North East Wales.
This tidal estuary, like many similar estuarial locations in the UK and beyond, is a place where questions about future liveability cast trajectories of economic development out into wild territories of rising sea levels, animal subjectivities and ethno-geological histories. Projections of economic futures to inform infrastructure development here sweep out across a wilderness of mudflats and marshland. As they do so they become caught in the wilds of industrial nature with all the agentive complexity that the landscape contains. Here in the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy spectres of financial accumulation and energy extraction rub up against the materiality of particulate sedimentation: sandbanks, mudflats and dunes that have emerged out of a process of non-human accretion in a slower temporal register to the hyperactive circulations and accumulations of financial capital. Natures intertwine with economic models to produce foraging economies, tourisms of beauty and dreams of conservation but also a landscape of extraction, contamination and transportation. The estuary brings together and entangles economy and environment in ways that trouble the central dualisms that are normally deployed in the description of what might constitute a liveable life. Our project is thus not only an inquiry into the question of who gets to define liveability (economists or conservationists, policymakers or local residents), but also a study of how liveable and unliveable lives emerge out of situated relations of material and informational entanglement.
In the spirit of SLOM:Lab and an acknowledgement that methods make worlds, one of the things we are trying to do in this project is not only to describe but also to participate in the practice of producing this liveability. Central to this project is an attempt to find languages or concepts that can help us move beyond a dialectical view of environment and economy – where we remain locked in a back and forth between texture and numbers, nature and culture, abstraction and thick description. We start from the position that it is it insufficient to see environment as the basis of economy, or the economy as determinant of environment and we are committed to exploring modes of description and analysis that elicit alternative relational trajectories that require different modes of representation and different practices of participation.
Our research is in part a project of working out how to participate in the question of liveability by producing our own interventions that cross cut the kinds of divides that are constantly produced in the question sustainable livelihoods. We intend to do this by conducting an ethnographic project which takes as its starting point not community, nor place in any straightforward sense, but rather the implications and potential of practices/methods of data-modelling around which the estuary is being composed. Part of this project is understanding the data practices that are already at play and making these more visible. Another part of the project is bringing alternative data practices to bear on this estuarial space.
On the one hand then we intend to study data practices that inhere in things like the “bird-food model”. Taking this model as what I have recently taken to calling ‘an ethnographic probe’ and tracing the relations that become made and compromised by such models our aim is to ask questions about how different worlds get made, brought together and held apart. What understanding of livelihood comes to the fore when we begin to describe the involvement of ex-fishermen and their wives in both data collection and the maintenance of buoy-based monitors?
What story can we tell of sustainable living when we consider how the number of oystercatchers attracted to the estuary is held in tension with migrations of labourers from South Wales who come to the estuary to fish for local cockles, displacing the labour of fishermen from the local area? How do data tables, digital sensors, and website that grid and connect information interplay with the movement of vessels, salmon and sediment in the estuary? How might this be described, visualised and made newly present in the estuary itself?
Conceiving of data relations not as the simple imposition of one logic on another but rather as an instance of worlds in composition we have also been led to ask what role counter or alternative data practices might play in composing the estuary anew both for us and for those who live there. How as ethnographers might we produce our own ‘ethnographic probes’. Working with Marco Ferrari of Folder, a design/art /data architecture research agency, one of the aims of the project is to develop a mode of data-ethnography where the participatory mode of ethnography is brought together in the design of equipment that can elicit alternative relations, descriptions and modes of engagement between anthropological researchers and the worlds we research. In this tidal estuary might we find ways of measuring and mapping tidal flows and economic movements, for example, in ways that illuminate the interplay between tides and different kinds of lives? Who would we need to talk to and work with to do this? What effects might it have?
We are at the stage of reading and assembling examples of those who have begun this work before us. I see this very much as a continuation of the work of SLOM:Lab, a project that is explicit about taking methods not just as descriptions but as ways of world making. I hope that by being bold and experimental in devising different methods, this project will take the question of the social life of methods forward into explicitly political conversation about what world we live in and how we might participate effectively in its reconstitution.
Further information about the research project can be found here
Evelyn Ruppert, Goldsmiths, University of London
SLOM:lab owes its existence to a particular situation and intellectual project. It follows from work we did as postdoctoral researchers who met during various moments in the ten-year period when the Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change (CRESC) was funded by the ESRC (2004-2014). While continuing in a limited form till 2017 thanks to continued investments by the University of Manchester and The Open University, we have all moved on to new jobs and projects. That said, it is through the support of the continued investment in CRESC that many of us were able to meet again and reflect on what initially brought us together. Critically, it was in relation to a research theme that joined us intellectually during our time working at the Centre that continues to join us across disciplines, jobs and interests. It was a crosscutting theme known as The Social Life of Methods (SLOM), which continues to animate our relations and discussions. Currently convened by Hannah Knox, it was initially led by John Law, Evelyn Ruppert and Mike Savage who outlined the theme in a CRESC working paper. In brief that paper advanced the argument that methods are both shaped by and shaping of the social worlds we research and seek to know. A number of CRESC-related publications followed from this early work including two journal special issues with contributions from many CRESC researchers: The Device (Journal of Cultural Economy) and The Social Life of Methods (Theory, Culture & Society). Additionally, John Law and Evelyn Ruppert edited a book, Modes of Knowing: Resources from the Baroque, with a new academic open access publisher, Mattering Press.
It is worth noting that SLOM was introduced at a particular and arguably critical moment in the genealogy of social science research methods. It was a moment when new and innovative social science research methods were being introduced and also proliferating in locations outside of the academy. New methodological repertoires were emerging that go beyond text and number to engage with visual, digital, audio and other registers of sensing, knowing and enacting worlds. And expanding methodological work was happening in governments, community organizations and the private sector that challenge the hegemony of social science methods. It is in relation to these and other developments that we sought to bring critical attention to what we identified as the politics of a changing terrain of knowledge practices. Additionally, we identified these changes as not simply methodological but involving epistemological and ontological assumptions. For those reasons SLOM called for reflexivity and answerability to the methodological choices and worlds we and others are making.
When we gathered together some years later in 2016 we found that many of these questions and issues continue to permeate our research albeit in varying ways. But that we think is one of the strengths of SLOM – it is a ‘living’ concept that is generative of different modes of thought, experimentation and practice. Indeed, through various projects – which we will gather together on this website - our continued work with the theme has further elaborated questions of change, ontology, temporality, failure, power, anticipation, technological mediation and speculation. It has also opened up questions of the pragmatics of doing risky research; the challenges of working with large research teams and doing transdisciplinary projects; the implications of rapid response rather than slow research; and the ethics of participatory and collaborative research with humans and nonhumans. No doubt more questions permeate our work but these exemplify some of our past and current concerns with method.
We seek to continue our discussions and the development of what SLOM is and could be by connecting and reflecting on our various empirical, practical and theoretical engagements. It is through those engagements that we aim to develop how and why thinking about the social life of methods matters to our work and the kinds of responsibilities it imposes upon us.