Just before then end of 2015 I took part in the “What have the ANTs ever done for us? Packing your cases to follow the actors…” discussion on the Networked Learning Conference 2016 forum. A couple of people (Steve Wright and Chris Bigum) were kind enough to point out the shortcomings in my understanding of actor-network theory, but also generous enough to provide pointers to sources which might help me “reposition my thinking.” Since then I’ve also explored a few other sources, so just wanted to test my realigned understanding by summarising some of my thoughts.
One book which is often referenced as an influential example of the application of science and technology studies (STS) is ‘Of Bicycles, Bakelite, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change by Wiebe Bijker. It constructs cases for three technological developments in which the social and technological elements are inextricably intertwined. Although the development of Bakelite appealed to me as a materials scientist and the development of the fluorescent tube as a physicist, it was the historical development of the safety bicycle that really captured my attention. It was also that study which provided my first conceptual breakthrough. The modern safety bicycle was only arrived at following an evolutionary path which discarded a number of earlier iterations. One of these had been the Ordinary bicycle, which we often refer to as the Penny Farthing. Bijker advocates an approach involving interpretative flexibility which asks us to consider the views of different social groups, but of two in particular. For the ‘users of the Ordinary,’ this was a difficult bicycle to master, but consequently portrayed them as riders as daring and allowed them to display their athletic skills and prowess. For them, the Ordinary was the Macho Bicycle. For ‘non-users of the Ordinary’ however, how difficult and risky it was to ride made it an Unsafe Bicycle or a non-working machine. Essentially then, the single bicycle, the Ordinary, has been deconstructed into two different artefacts, the Unsafe and the Macho. These are socially constructed artefacts with different properties as defined by different social groups, rather than being intrinsic to the machine. The Ordinary is no longer a single artefact, but multiple. This was new for me; the two social groups didn’t have different perspectives of the same device, they actually constructed two completely different realities!
The second source which nudged me in a new direction was The Zimbabwe Bush Pump by de Laet and Mol. The eponymous pump has enjoyed considerable success in bringing easy access to sources of water in remote African communities. It was a device that reduced the labour involved in fulfilling that most basic of needs; collecting drinking water. It was also a device which could easily be reconfigured, either in response to local needs, or when repair became necessary. A secondary effect was found to be that communities enjoyed improved health, since the water source was free from contamination, unlike the open sources previously used. To health workers then, the bush pump was a source of clean water. As a reliable and adaptable device, designed and built in Zimbabwe and championed by the government, it was also, for the state, a national asset; an emblem they could trumpet as a success. De Laet and Mol describe this as a ‘fluid’ device – ‘a device installed by the community, a health promoter and a nation-building apparatus.’ It is a different device when awaiting despatch from the manufacturers to when it is assembled and functioning in a rural village. Once again then we see multiplicity.
The final piece which helped my mini-breakthrough (much more preferable than a breakdown!) was in a text recommended by both my supervisors and the contributors to the forum discussion – After Methods by John Law. One chapter in particular helped; that which discussed Mol’s account of atherosclerosis in The Body Multiple. It is proposed that this condition has to be brought into being, and only when doctor and patient come together. Prior to this, the patient has leg pain when walking, or cold feet for example. It is only when that patient comes before a doctor, who, with their hinterland of education, skills and experiences, is able to interpret the symptoms as poor circulation in the leg arteries, which in turn is caused by atherosclerosis. In the pathology lab however, under the microscope, atherosclerosis is thickening of the intima; a layer of cells which line blood vessels (like a furred up pipe). Atherosclerosis may be produced in the doctor’s clinic and the pathology lab, but it is enacted elsewhere. The radiography lab for example, where X-rays and dyes can be used to show blood flows easily or not. Or for medical sonographers who use ultrasound and the Doppler Effect to detect differences in the speed of flow. As Law has it – “each of these method assemblages is producing its own version of atherosclerosis: that there are multiple atheroscleroses.” Methods, or perhaps more accurately, methods assemblages shape reality.
This has required me to shift from my single-world viewed from different perspectives, to a multiply produced world where different social and material relations produce different realities. As Law advises, one consequence is that if the methods we choose to use are capable of producing different realities, then there are potentially profound implications of how we deal with our research findings.