Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Latour: First Source Uncertainty - there are no groups!

Look for traces of the "social"
One of the things I like about Rhizo14, and our collaboration, is that we keep going, exploring our participation, and collaboration post Rhizo14 through a variety of lenses.  This keeps the mind active and exploring new areas.  I've been meaning to get acquainted with Actor Network Theory (ANT), but the time is rarely right. Classes, work, other projects conspire to distract me :-).  That said, with a presentation looming for some of us in the rhizo14 group, it's time to read about ANT.  The book recommended is Reassembling the Social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory by Bruno Latour.

I am currently 100 pages in (out of 300) and I am getting the sense that Latour likes to write, and likes to give a lot of examples, but doesn't really get to the point - at least quickly enough for my satisfaction.  If one thing can be said about me is that I am stubborn.  I will get through this book.  Now how to segment it and talk about it?  I think I will do so in chapters.  The first part of the book had 5 chapters no 5 different sources of uncertainty.  The first one being "No group, Only Group Formation".  I think I will be devoting a blog post for each source of uncertainty, and decide after I am done how to tackle Part II.  The way this is going to work is as follows: I have highlighted various parts from each chapter - something that made my mental gears go. I will present the passage and add some commentary. I think this works since I don't, yet, have an overall idea of ANT.  Latour, as I wrote, doesn't get to the point as quickly as I had hoped, and the only overall picture I have is this: You can't see social, you can only determine its presence from the marks it's left behind, sort of like the footsteps in sand above.

A given trait was said to be ‘social’ or to ‘pertain to society’ when it could be defined as possessing specific properties, some negative—it must not be ‘purely’ biological, linguistic, economical, natural—and some positive—it must achieve, reinforce, express, maintain, reproduce, or subvert the social order. (p. 3)
So, what I am given to understand from this is that perhaps humans aren't social animals biologically speaking, as we have been told many times, but rather social does take work, in a variety of areas, in order to happen and to be maintained. No surprises there.

The duties of the social scientist mutate accordingly: it is no longer enough to limit actors to the role of informers offering cases of some well-known types. You have to grant them back the ability to make up their own theories of what the social is made of. Your task is no longer to impose some order, to limit the range of acceptable entities, to teach actors what they are, or to add some reflexivity to their blind practice (p. 11-12)
This reminds me a lot of critical theory, ethnography, and autoethnography; in other words things discussed in research methods courses. It basically seems to me that Latour is critiquing traditional research, and ontological perspectives, that see people in a community as informants rather than as co-creators of reality.  While I don't disagree, not everyone would agree.  It, thus, seems to me that ANT tends to lean more on the critical side of things rather than on the positivist side of things.

There’s no question that ANT prefers to travel slowly, on small roads, on foot, and by paying the full cost of any displacement out of its own pocket. (p. 23)
A little poetic license here by Latour, but it does give you the sense that if you are using ANT as part of your research, be  prepared for the long-haul.

it seems that the most important decision to make before becoming a social scientist is to decide first which ingredients are already there in society (p. 28)
Why is this the most important decision?  Why not start as a tabular rasa?  Granted, we all come to the table with biases and pre-conceptions that we don't always acknowledge, or they don't bubble up to the top, but why start defining which ingredients are important before you start? What if you discover something on the way that is important enough to consider?

If someone pointed out to me that words like ‘group’, ‘grouping’, and ‘actor’ are meaningless, I would answer: ‘Quite right.’ The word ‘group’ is so empty that it sets neither the size nor the content. (p. 28)
No comment in specific on this one - I just liked that he pointed out the arbitrariness of vocabulary and started getting a bit into semiotics.

ANT doesn’t claim that we will ever know if society is ‘really’ made of small individual calculative agents or of huge macro-actors; nor does it claim that since anything goes one can pick a favorite candidate at whim. On the contrary, it draws the relativist, that is, the scientific conclusion that those controversies provide the analyst with an essential resource to render the social connections traceable. ANT simply claims that once we are accustomed to these many shifting frames of reference a very good grasp of how the social is generated can be provided, since a relativist connection between frames of reference offers a better source of objective judgment than the absolute (that is, arbitrary) settings suggested by common sense (p. 30)
I guess this was the first mention of what isn't...and what it kind of is.  ANT is relativist.  At the moment it doesn't appear to be a methodology, but rather a way of approaching the analysis and processing of what goes on in a situation which we might term social - i.e. there is some sort of interaction between the actors (human or non-human)

Group formations leave many more traces in their wake than already established connections which, by definition, might remain mute and invisible. If a given ensemble simply lies there, then it is invisible and nothing can be said about it. The ensemble generates no trace and thus produces no information whatsoever; if it is visible, then it is being performed and will then generate new and interesting data. (p. 31)
This reminds me a lot of things that we in the MOOC community (ha! I guess for ANT to be happy I'd have to define community...but I won't at the moment) have discussed since my foray into the MOOC arena in 2011.  If you aren't active in a MOOC, if others can't see you, or see your acts, or see consequences of your acts (those invisible traces), then you are invisible and nothing can be said about you.  The area, in MOOCs, that has generated a lot of discussion (and handwringing) over the years has been the issue (non-issue in my mind) of "dropouts".  We assume that because people aren't visible that they have dropped out.  However, I would say that there is a difference between someone who had consciously (to some level) made the decision to not participate visibly,  someone who has made the decision to drop out, and someone who is plainly inactive.

First, to delineate a group, no matter if it has to be created from scratch or simply refreshed, you have to have spokespersons which ‘speak for’ the group existence  (p. 31)
That's quite an interesting concept, and one that I struggled with a bit when it came to the Rhizo group that I've been working with.  They are all great people, but my initial group framework included such a spokesperson or group "leader" to pull and organize certain projects through. We didn't always get this. What we got was a swarm, and unlike the Borg, the swarm didn't have a spokesperson.  Many of us spoke of our experiences of the group, but I don't think we had a unified persona.  I still don't think we do, but I don't think that's a problem.  There is something that binds us, but what is it? Can you quantify that?

Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what. (p. 31)
I thought that this was an interesting characteristic of groups, according to Latour, to point out.

There is no group without some kind of recruiting officer. No flock of sheep without a shepherd—and his dog, his walking stick, his piles of vaccination certificates, his mountain of paperwork to get EU subsidies. If you still believe groupings exist ‘by themselves’, for instance the ‘individual’, just try to remember how much labor had to be done before each of you could ‘take your life into your own hands. (p. 32)
This quote to me brings me a few quote up to the spokesperson.  The same things I wrote about the spokesperson could apply here.  I do think that we all act as recruiters for our swarm, but unlike traditional recruiters that bring in people without necessarily consultation of the group at large, when we have an idea we consult the swarm.

whenever some work has to be done to trace or retrace the boundary of a group, other groupings are designated as being empty, archaic, dangerous, obsolete, and so on (p. 32)
Not quite sure what this means... Thoughts from others reading Latour?

So for every group to be defined, a list of anti-groups is set up as well. (p. 32)
I don't know if I agree with this assertion of Latour.  It is certainly true that some groups did have anti-groups (axis and allies comes to mind in World War II), but that seems to me to be one type of inter-group dynamic.  I do think that there are groups that are not defined by the people who they are not. I do think groups can co-exist without having opposite groups be there as well (in fact or in someone's mind).

when groups are formed or redistributed, their spokesperson looks rather frantically for ways to de-fine them. Their boundaries are marked, delineated, and rendered fixed and durable (p. 33)
Spokesperson aside, I do think that we tend to view groups as defined, marked, and delineated.  We are a group who plays ONLY nintendo games, and nothing else.  We are a group that ONLY drives chevrolet cars. We are a group that ONLY discusses Deleuze & Guatari.   While that may be true in some instances, I don't think that is is true in all instances.  I think that boundaries are porous and permeable. I do think that if those boundaries become too porous they no longer exist, and there is, potentially, no defining feature of the group which attracts and keeps members there. However, I don't think that  the boundaries are as hard as one might imagine. I think boundaries that are too hard, or too soft, pose issues and problems for group formation and maintenance.

among the many spokespersons that make possible the durable definition of groups, one must include social scientists, social sciences, social statistics, and social journalism. (p. 33)
Just some examples from Latour...

For ANT, if you stop making and remaking groups, you stop having groups. (p. 35)
So, for ANT, the end product (group) is not the goal.  It's all about the journey and the acts undertaken to form, maintain, and remix groups - this is what is important.  Pretty interesting - and a little Zen I think.

The problem with any ostensive definition of the social is that no extra effort seems necessary to maintain the groups in existence, while the influence of the analyst seems to count for nothing—or simply as a perturbing factor that should be minimized as much as possible (p. 35)
Interesting thoughts. Anyone who's been in a group knows that it's hard work to keep the group going and connected.  This brings us back to the researcher as an observer of the group vs. researcher as participant. Back to epistemological questions.

OK, that's it for now.  Your thoughts on groups?

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