To do is to be?

flickr photo by benwerd https://flickr.com/photos/benwerd/224640792 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Next Saturday is the 2016 Sheffield Institute of Education Doctoral Conference; I’m both co-organiser and  presenting a seminar. With my pilot study completed, and following a successful Confirmation of PhD seminar, I had a lot of potential topics from which to choose. In a weaker moment, I thought I’d talk about my preliminary findings, as revealed by the sociomaterial sensibility that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is enabling me to bring. The tricky part is that I’ve been wrestling with conceptual approach all year. I guess that’s why I chose to use it to frame my talk; at some point I have to lay out my understanding to scrutiny so that any weaknesses are exposed and I can begin to do something about them. Unfortunately I only have 30 minutes in which to discuss my findings, AFTER having introduced a perhaps unfamiliar audience to ANT, using my only limited (current) understanding. Here then, with only the space afforded by a brief blog post, I’ll attempt to summarise what I intend to cover.

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Mess of methods

flickr photo by kara brugman https://flickr.com/photos/hyperbolation/5477064887 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Earlier today was the first reading group that I’ve convened. My Director of Studies suggested it might be useful to unpick themes I’ve been wrestling with, as exemplified through a particular text – After Method, John Law, 2004. The idea that three learned people would give up their time to discuss a text with me was a complete but delightful surprise. Discussing an entire book was unlikely to be manageable in the available time, so I settled on one particular chapter; the one that had proved most challenging for me.

Chapter 7, Imagination and Narrative, calls into question the Euro-American view of reality as ‘independent, prior, definite and singular.’ Law does this using the example of an Australian guidebook which presents Uluru/Ayers Rock in two ways: the single, definite, realist geological narrative, juxtaposed with the aboriginal Tjukurpas which recreate and retell the stories of Uluru, bringing it into being with each practical enactment. The chapter opens with, for me, a tough paragraph. Tough because of the language and vocabulary used:

Method assemblage is the process of enacting or crafting bundles of ramifying relations that condense presence and (therefore also) generate absence by shaping, mediating and separating these. (122)

What it then goes on to do, is to introduce the ideas which will be covered in the chapter, though I have one of my supervisors to thank for pointing that out. I’d (initially) found it too impenetrable. Law’s work, and the earlier chapters in the book explore and propose that different realities are created by different methods. It took a while for that to sink in. Not the realist, perspectival view that we see things differently depending on how we look at them (an epistemological view), but that the very nature of a reality is brought into being by the methods assemblage used to enact it. Ontological politics –

If realities are enacted, then reality is not in principle fixed or singular, and truth is no longer the only ground for accepting or rejecting a representation. The implication is that there are various possible reasons, including the political, for enacting one kind of reality rather than another, and that these grounds can in some measure be debated. (162)

This was somewhat of a bolt from the blue, forcing me as it did to reassess my ontological stance. Actually it would be more accurate to say that it made me think seriously about it in a way I hadn’t previously done. Now I reflect back, although I’ve usually claimed a constructivist epistemology, I think I’ve been doing that from a realist ontology, in which I assumed an independent, single, definite reality existing out-there. What the whole book, and this chapter in particular, helped me do was to see that reality can be multiple, vague, dependent and brought into being as it is enacted. Chapter 3, Multiple Worlds, in which Law described the research of Annemarie Mol on atherosclerosis really helped here.

Even as I write this I’m feeling queasy. Although I’m beginning to rationalise these things in my head, I’m not sure I’m yet in a place where I can articulate them in a lucid form for others to read. Is that because I’ve not yet developed the vocabulary and grammar to do that, or that my conceptions are still poorly formed? So what should my next steps be? Again I’m thankful to one of the group who suggested mapping what Law was saying onto an example which has more practical ramifications for me. In terms of my own research into professional learning through Twitter then, perhaps I need to reposition? Starting from what the world knows about professional development and professional learning, and seeing how that marries with what teachers are claiming for Twitter, might be framing things too realistically. A stance which views professional learning as single, prior, definite and independent. How might things appear if instead, the myriad of ways in which teachers use Twitter and other sociomaterial assemblages, were enacting different realities? Professional learning becomes multiple, dependent, messy and contingent on the methods used to enact it. Maybe that better reflects the reality (realities?) of professional learning with which I’m familiar?

There were other aspects to the ‘reading’ that also unsettled me. Some of the observations which were made, at the time seemed clear, but in retrospect, I’m not sure I fully understood. This I know to be one of my weaknesses; I struggle to process information quickly enough to follow and synthesise multiple strands of a discursive argument in real time. I need to take things away and allow them to ferment. Looking back, I now know I’m not sure about how ‘politics was absent’ from the chapter. I (now) know that politics can be viewed as the struggle for power, though am still not sure how the chapter failed to deal with that, or perhaps more importantly, why that matters. I know this is one of the criticisms generally leveled at actor-network theory, so getting a better understanding of this has to go onto my ‘To do’ list.

One concept that Law used with which we shared (varying degrees of) ambivalence was that of allegory. Here once more I have no more understanding than a vague recollection of allegory in a literary sense. Memories of ‘O’-level English Literature and Shakespeare drift back. I struggled to see why Law invokes allegory as being particularly helpful. Do different levels of meaning and symbolic representation link with multiple realities? As Law himself intimated, there is an inevitable tension in re-presenting an aboriginal re-creation in the Euro-American format of a visitor guide. Was that where he was going? More homework for me to resolve.

One of the outcomes from this chapter which should inform my thinking, if I find the methods assemblage approach useful, is how I might represent what I find. Is the traditional, linear, definite, singular format of a thesis appropriate if multiplicity, mess and ethereality are what emerge? Perhaps aboriginal Dreamtime or the Dreaming might be able to inform my research? Specifically it’s timeless-ness. One telling of the Dreaming is ‘what happened in the past and how things came to be, what’s happening now and what will come to be in the future.’

Crass though it might initially sound, could Twitter reality be better expressed through indigenous metaphysics? It does after all have this strange temporality which moves back and forth; is recreated and retold.

Aboriginal method assemblages enact a spatiality that is indissolubly linked with the Tjukurpa, the telling, the re-enacting, and the re-crafting of the stories of the ancestral beings – events which exist, as we have seen, in an eternal simultaneous past and present.

Can I legitimately, sensitively and respectfully borrow from a different culture? Much to ponder.

I’m fairly sure that whilst writing my research proposal over a year ago, aboriginal philosophy and spirituality wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.

Why We Post – Facebooks?

An actor-network theory interpretation of Week 3’s activities on the FutureLearn ‘Why We Post’ course, prompted by a few brief comments from research participants in an all too short video.

Introduction

Week 3 opened as preceding weeks have done by introducing new field sites; this week was the turn of Turkey and South India:


Here we hear the views of a small sample of the people who live there, edited together to illustrate some of the findings from the study. On this occasion, one of the major platforms is allowed to take centre stage as the participants briefly describe how they used social media. In the accompanying course discussion, several fellow members remarked how dismissive some of those appearing in the video had been of how other people used Facebook – ‘they don’t get it’ remarked a young Indian man. My peers observed how strange it was that someone might think there was a right or wrong way to use social media. Perhaps this reflects their wider experience, being aware that different people use it in different ways.

As the course has unfolded, it’s become increasingly clear how risky it is to draw from one’s own cultural hinterland when interpreting the actions or views of people from other cultures. Although there appears to be some common uses of social media across cultures, we also see heterogeneity too. Rather than imagine this Indian man having a naive(?) view of social media, I wondered whether his notion that there is a specific way in which Facebook is used might be right? Or rather, that there might actually be different Facebooks, each individual user’s practice bringing their own Facebook into being? An example of the multiple realities I discussed previously?

Here then I’ll attempt to interpret three examples from the videos, illustrating three different Facebooks – the Three C’s (because all models these days have to start with the same letter don’t they?). To do that, I’m going to explore different Facebooks, by adopting an after-actor-network theory (ANT) sensibility, tracing associations and revealing the sociomaterial. Providing a detailed description of ANT is beyond the scope of this article (and possibly beyond me!), however, the aspects on which I’ll draw here include generalized symmetry (the idea that human and non-human actors should be afforded equal status), associations (the means by which actors become entangled and continue as such), and mediators and intermediaries (the former being actors which ‘transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they carry’ and the latter which ‘transport meaning without transforming it’ (Latour, 2005)). I’m grateful to Leonardi et al (2012) for helping me begin to understand sociomateriality by first breaking it into materiality (‘those constituent features of a technology that are (in theory) available to all users in the same way’), then reforming it by reminding us that materiality and its effects are actively shaped by and shape social practices.

General principles

Despite there being several Facebooks, there are nevertheless some universals which we’ll interrogate by starting our journey with an individual user who we’ll call Alex. For Alex to ‘get onto’ Facebook, a mediator is required; a device of some kind. That might be a laptop, desktop computer or tablet, or as is often the case, a smartphone. Alone and isolated however, our device (and Alex) remains unconnected. Some means through which the device can become part of the Internet is required – network connectivity. This may be through a fixed, hard-wired cable system; through a local wireless network or through a digital cellular (mobile) network. The device<->connection is significant in what it allows Alex to do and what behaviour it influences. A smartphone with 3g connection is (usually) always on and (usually) always connected. Alex doesn’t have to go to the device and switch it on; it’s ready and waiting … but it’s often impatient. This state of on-and-connectedness invites another actor onto the scene. Push notifications from Facebook (and elsewhere) change Alex’s behaviour over time; the insistent ‘bing’ causing an immediate Pavlovian response to check the phone. A different push notification, delivered whilst at a computer, also clamours for attention by popping up in front of Alex’s forefronted activity, but is rendered latent when you step away from the computer to brew a coffee.

Having leapt too far ahead, let’s retrace our steps to pre-Facebook. Until signing up for an account, Alex and Facebook were apart. Was it an intermediary that briefly came into Alex’s life, initiated the liaison, then moved on? Or a friend with whom Alex subsequently connected and who continues to influence and be influenced by her? The signup process itself might be viewed as an obligatory passage point through which all pre-Facebookers must pass, but as Light and McGrath (2010) observed, there is much to be learned from probing further. The information which is sought and the options offered present different alternatives and begin to set in train the potential for different Facebooks. What details did Alex share and how private did she choose to make them? Will others be able to find her and what she posts later? A few checkmarks (or absences) at this stage will determine the Facebook she starts out with, but also hints at a more fluid conception – a mutable Facebook.

Account created, Alex now has a profile to manage, a profile which might influence other actors in different ways. Also fluid, the profile can change as Alex’s attitudes change and consequently influence the way her network develops. Her profile is only one actor amongst the many now available to translate. The search tool can be used to find other actors, be they people or different forms of content; some will be mediators, some intermediaries. While Alex is reaching out to others, others will be reaching out to her through friend requests, likes, highlights, status updates and ads which arrive by email, push notifications or pop-ups. What will Alex choose to share? A simple textual status update, a YouTube video she found, a re-shared meme from a friend? And what will the outcome be? What fresh associations will those sharings forge and will they be fleeting or long lasting? Is a ‘like’ button an actor before it is pressed? There is much to consider and many traces to follow, even from vanilla Facebook, but let us now return to our Why We Post friends.

The first example I’ll be considering is Connecting Facebook which links you with friends and allows you to communicate with them; would the word ‘traditional’ be appropriate for something only a decade old? Next is Community Facebook where people gather around a shared interest and finally Commerical Facebook which supports business enterprise. I hope to show how different practices, in Mol’s (2002) terms, generates its own material reality; three separate actor-networks. Three Facebooks.

Connecting Facebook

But Facebook is more about connecting with your old friends.. after school your friends may be abroad or you aren’t able to meet or speak even if they are residing locally then you can chat with them on Facebook…that’s what Facebook is about

This Facebook is one where communicating and connecting with friends is paramount. Status updates, messaging and the video call assemble with friends to establish those connections, and continue to do so as network associations continue to evolve through new friend requests, both outgoing and incoming. The friend request as a feature is an important actor here, but perhaps one to be distinguished from individual friend requests (denoted by default colour), which once made and fulfilled, have played their part. It’s like the agency that sticky notes confer or the activity they encourage, versus the one-off outcome of a single sticky note. It’s the (never ending) sticky note pad, versus each note stripped off, used, then forgotten

It would be helpful here to have more data than the brief video sequence available, but instead let us imagine Ajay walking to work. A bing from his pocket signifies that a friend across the city updated his status. This status update prompted the Facebook app on Ajay’s phone (and those of other friends) to enlist the phone speaker to make a sound and provoke Ajay into an action. His entanglement with other actors like status updates, messages and video calls renews his associations. Each anticipates a particular input and encourages specific and different forms of communication; one can be conducted asynchronously and extends temporality, the others demand synchronous participation; a shorter, choppier form and existing of the moment. All are fleeting associations brought into being, then are gone or are relegated by the timeline, yet nevertheless act to maintain the networks. These are the individual status updates, as opposed the feature, status update; specific messages as opposed to messaging. Status updates are a permanent constituent of Connecting Facebook; status updates are transient. Both cause other actors to do things.

Community Facebook

I created a group there … It is called Dağıskal Network Photography. There, I post the photos I have taken and the ones I edited. Or interesting things in nature… I don’t actually have a purpose, I just want to share in order to get likes.

The usual Facebook actor suspects are to be found acting here, but other actors gain significance. A group has been and is being formed (and reformed), enrolled by another (non-Facebook) actor we’ll call ‘shared interest’ (photography). While other human actors continue to be associated with shared interest, they also remain associated with group. However people may have shared interest, but not yet be members of group. A friend request, a photograph, a status update may translate them into Community Facebook, or search may have helped them seek out group.

Photographs are actors perhaps brought into being by the smartphones which are likely also significant in enacting Community Facebook. The metadata baked into digital photos may have used GIS to imprint the location of the subject of the photograph, each perhaps acting in a different way on members of group. “Where is that temple, so that I can go there and produce my own photos?” “What setting was used to produce such an interesting effect?” The subject of the photo ‘out there’ is brought into Community Facebook, present only in this artefact, but able to act through it.

Commercial Facebook

You cannot have your make up done or your hair done and not have your nails done because this is the number one thing people look at, your nails. The kind of nails people upload is well, you have Instagram now, the ones who have me on Instagram or Facebook once I do the nails they’ll say ‘can you take a pic please’ and they will upload and they will say done by Giselle …


Commercial Facebook may be one of multiple Facebooks, but itself is also multiple. We have learned that some users use Facebook pages to construct storefronts which sell their wares or promote their business. Here however, the photos others post, their status updates, enacting their own Facebooks bring into being Giselle’s widely dispersed and diverse Commercial Facebook. The materials and design Giselle uses to adorn a client’s nails are enrolled by the same client’s smartphone into photographic form and through Facebook have greater reach. The Trinidadian need (as we learned from the findings) to cultivate one’s appearance and be seen to be doing so also contribute to Commercial Facebook. The photo of the nails may translate others to become new clients for Giselle, and who will then further enact and extend this particular actor-network.

Reflections

Another helpful actor-network term is black-boxing where associations between actors become stabilised to such an extent, they no longer needed to be considered as individuals. They are now black boxed as a single actor within the wider actor-network. I wondered whether to black box the device<->connection, but thought better of it. Change the device or interrupt the connection (highly likely with any form of wireless connection) and the associated elements within the actor-network are invoked differently. So no black-boxing here.

As my first ANT interpretation, I have to confess how much I struggled choosing words. This stemmed from three sources:

  • My inexperience with ANT
  • That there have been different phases of ANT. Undertaking a largely after-ANT view here, is it legitimate to use vocabulary and concepts associated with earlier versions?
  • I’m not sure yet how explicit it is necessary to be when describing the actions of actors. Do they have to be names as such?
    My worry now however is that I’m beginning to see multiplicity in everything.

Writing this has been a tortuous process for me, but one I needed to undertake to continue my journey of becoming more familiar with ANT. I felt clumsy and know this carried through into the writing, so if I have blundered do please point out my errors by adding a comment. Many thanks.

 

LATOUR, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the social. London: Oxford, .
LEONARDI, Paul M., NARDI, Bonnie A., and KALLININKOS, Jannis (2012) . Materiality and organizing: Social interaction in a technological world. Oxford University Press on Demand.
LIGHT, Ben and MCGRATH, Kathy (2010). Ethics and social networking sites: a disclosive analysis of Facebook. [online]. Information technology & people, 23 (4), 290-311.