Talk at INCITE-ing Transformation in Social Research

On Sat­ur­day (12 Oct) I pre­sent­ed a short paper reflect­ing on INCITE’s achieve­ments over the last 10 or so years at “INCITE-ing Trans­for­ma­tion in Social Research
Ref­er­enc­ing her New Media’s Inter­me­di­aries arti­cle, I want to glimpse back to reflect on how Nina Wake­ford posi­tioned INCITE and made sense of it against a back drop of cul­tur­al the­o­ry, sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy stud­ies, CSCW and sociology
.. And, in doing this, I also want to peer for­ward, to con­sid­er what trou­bles there might be ahead, and what pro­duc­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties we might imag­ine for ourselves.
I use glimpse and peer because I only have a mea­gre 15 mins or so to think through the sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ments of INCITE and what could come next.
I want to add too that I mod­est­ly and prob­a­bly unwise­ly claim to have a priv­i­leged posi­tion from which to do this, as I was part of a neigh­bor­ing if not always neigh­bourly group when INCITE was launched in the Soci­ol­o­gy Depart­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sur­rey some time back at the turn of the millennium.
New Media’s inter­me­di­aries” locat­ed INCITE at the inter­sec­tion of empir­i­cal prac­tice, tech­nol­o­gy design and crit­i­cal the­o­ry. It cast those heav­i­ly impli­cat­ed in the ‘mak­ing of tech­no­log­i­cal things‘ — tech­nol­o­gists, design­ers, etc. — as cul­tur­al inter­me­di­aries, and placed INCITE’s schol­ars along­side them, ‘doing’ the brico­lage of design ori­en­tat­ed ethnog­ra­phy and social analy­sis. As such, INCITE was unique for its time, aim­ing to not just pro­duce soci­o­log­i­cal com­men­tary on the pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of tech­nol­o­gy, but to par­tic­i­pate in those self­same acts of mak­ing and doing.
From the floor below, in Surrey’s soci­ol­o­gy depart­ment, I remem­ber feel­ing a sense of awe (if not slight bewil­der­ment) at how peo­ple like Nina, Kat, Kris, etc. were so adept­ly able to jug­gle the mid­dle-ground, shift­ing between know­ing and making.
INCITE, as the inter­me­di­aries arti­cle recounts, was not just inno­v­a­tive, though. It was pro­duc­tive­ly dis­rup­tive. It sought to rede­fine the design work it was involved in, dogged­ly inter­ject­ing its “par­tial trans­la­tions” — seen through the soci­o­log­i­cal gaze — in order to see design from somewhere/someone else.
The 73 bus was, of course, canon­i­cal in this respect. When tech­no­log­i­cal projects like ubi­comp were espous­ing their mar­ti­ni solu­tions — any­time, any­place any­where — INCITE astute­ly chose to make tech­nol­o­gy and its design about place and about very par­tic­u­lar kinds of peo­ple. More­over, it reflect­ed back on the soci­o­log­i­cal analy­sis it pro­duced, look­ing for ways it might say some­thing about social life beyond the sanc­ti­fied aca­d­e­m­ic text.
For INCITE these exper­i­ments were large­ly with the visu­al, exper­i­ment­ing with the link­ages between col­lab­o­ra­tive visu­al work in design and modes of soci­o­log­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal inquiry and pro­duc­tion. So, we must know that INCITE was and con­tin­ues to be an inno­v­a­tive col­lec­tion of peo­ple and prac­tices, chal­leng­ing and reg­u­lar­ly dis­rupt­ing the sta­tus quo.
Nina would have it not oth­er way!
And yet, with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, my rear­ward glance is now to see the inter­me­di­aries arti­cle as a strug­gle, a strug­gle with what soci­ol­o­gy has to offer in a busi­ness pre­dom­i­nate­ly involved in mak­ing and sell­ing more stuff.
Deal­ing with an intel­lec­tu­al lega­cy in which the forces of/on pro­duc­tion are known to be plain bad, it rep­re­sents a strug­gle with how to take respon­si­bil­i­ty — to be soci­o­log­i­cal­ly respon­si­ble for how things are made and for whom. In the arti­cle, I take the man­i­fes­ta­tion of this to have been:
1. a com­mit­ment to tell it how it is, or at least to pro­vide some par­tial insights into the mul­ti­ple ways things are and get done, and
2. to bring some­thing home — that is, back to sociology.
Again, with hind­sight on my side — and all that comes with oper­at­ing in an always emerg­ing milieu of ideas and the­o­riz­ing — I want to think about what else INCITE might have been doing and to see their project more as a mov­ing on and throw, rather than some­thing set in the past.
It’s easy and per­haps blind­ing­ly obvi­ous to say now, but I see the INCITE in the New Media’s inter­me­di­aries piece doing some impor­tant ground­work in a move towards the inven­tive meth­ods and dig­i­tal and visu­al soci­ol­o­gy that the Gold­smiths Soci­ol­o­gy Depart­ment has become syn­ony­mous with. Let me try to explain this briefly, if I can.
In sev­er­al ways, I see Nina’s piece fore­shad­ow­ing John Law’s STS trea­tise, After Method, by invit­ing ques­tions about what we accom­plish when we apply soci­o­log­i­cal meth­ods — in this case for the pur­pos­es of design. As with Law and oth­ers — such as Annemarie Mol — this isn’t mere­ly about what meth­ods we use, but a recog­ni­tion of and respon­si­bil­i­ty for the ways of know­ing we are enact­ing in and through these meth­ods. More­over, it is to ask how we might apply them dif­fer­ent­ly, to imag­ine oth­er worlds or “out-there-ness­es” (Law).
Nina address­es each of these issues in her note — yes, with a phas­ing of the time — but still deal­ing direct­ly with what soci­o­log­i­cal method does. So the-INCITE-of-over-a-decade-ago is forc­ing the soci­o­log­i­cal gaze back in on it self, seek­ing active­ly to do what the anthro­pol­o­gist Annalies Riles refers to as ‘turn­ing the net­work inside out’. As with inven­tive meth­ods and dig­i­tal and visu­al soci­ol­o­gy, meth­ods are recog­nised as not just pro­ce­dur­al but epis­temic and pro­duc­ing multiples…
Yet it is here, when we look to con­tem­po­rary the­o­riz­ing that it’s hard not to see a leap or shift in INCITE’s think­ing,… or at least I find it a lot hard­er to join the dots. Where­as method was, back in 2003, a strug­gle to dis­cov­er what is there — to tell it how it is — it has come to be some­thing we under­stand as entan­gled in and enact­ing what we might rather grand­ly think of as ‘regimes of exis­tence’ (a phrase I bor­row from Genevieve Teil).
The meth­ods of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy — INCITE’s includ­ed — are the appa­ra­tus­es through which the regimes come to be. They are impli­cat­ed in ontics, in the world com­ing to be the way it is. They —the meth­ods — are active­ly mak­ing dif­fer­ent cuts into worlds that are always in a state (or should I say state­less­ness) of con­stant becoming.
So our soci­o­log­i­cal meth­ods are not just tools for respon­si­bly telling cul­tur­al inter­me­di­aries how it is, but through which we enact one kind of world over anoth­er. They fore­ground one set of ‘par­tial con­nec­tions‘ — to tie this back to Strath­ern — over others.
What’s more, our meth­ods — our tools — are no more or less impli­cat­ed than oth­ers’. The weight­ings may be dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent cas­es, but we all at one point or anoth­er serve as these cul­tur­al inter­me­di­aries. There is no out­side in this busi­ness. No gods trick or even less­er-gods trick.
For INCITE this is what now makes method cen­tral not just as a tool of trans­la­tion, a bound­ary object, but also as agen­tial in what is real (for agen­tial real­ism see Barad). So, yes, I see INCITE’s con­cern for method hav­ing been there, right from the begin­ning. But this new move to the inven­tive has an onus on meth­ods that I take to be dif­fer­ent,… The work here is to encounter the mul­ti­ple worlds of becom­ing. The inven­tive meth­ods are meant to keep the trou­ble going between dif­fer­ent worlds and force us many inter­me­di­aries to be account­able for the cuts we make. And, of course, these meth­ods are rec­og­nized by INCITE to have pol­i­tics. They are under­stood to be regimes through which polit­i­cal and moral worlds are made, remade and undone.
Although it may not offi­cial­ly or entire­ly fall under the ban­ner of INCITE, in spir­it, I see Kat’s work as exem­plary in this. Her inven­tive enact­ments — the trans­mis­sions and entan­gle­ments — are pre­cise­ly about the com­pli­ca­tion of method, the uncer­tain­ty about who is talk­ing to whom, and how. Her work — along with col­leagues like Julian McHardy — aims to reveal the work being done in method. It imme­di­ate­ly unset­tles the uni­for­mi­ty and neat­ness of cuts to show them as always already being enact­ed. More­over, it dis­rupts who exact­ly we imag­ine to be the inter­me­di­aries. The voic­es of cor­po­rate enter­prise, local design­ers, artists, cyclists, aca­d­e­mics and publics are entan­gled, intentionally.
It is method then that I want to claim has changed most sig­nif­i­cant­ly for INCITE.
Look­ing for­ward, it’s this kind of work that inevitably sets INCITE up for mak­ing choic­es about the worlds it wants to per­form and how — through the the­o­ret­i­cal, empir­i­cal and design brico­lage — it does so.
Design and the inter­ven­tions into it — through inven­tive meth­ods — offer up the oppor­tu­ni­ties to move on from sell­ing peo­ple more stuff, to pro­vid­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of doing the world dif­fer­ent­ly. But here in lies the rub. How should this move be made? A move from meth­ods that aim to tell it how it is — as if we were some how removed from that — to inven­tive meth­ods that con­vey to us how it could and should be?
My own ideas here are per­haps side­step­ping the prob­lem. I imag­ine our part in a breed of machines and human-machine entan­gle­ments that speak to par­tial­i­ty, mul­ti­plic­i­ty and unend­ing becom­ings. As INCITE has shown us, DIY and Mak­er cul­tures are the nat­ur­al pre­de­ces­sors of such imag­i­nar­ies… and, now, with com­pa­nies like Intel mov­ing into the fray, they’re look­ing to be a lot less counter-cul­ture than they once did.
I can’t help but won­der about main­stream cul­ture though (if that’s not too trou­bling a con­cept). What will par­tial­i­ty, mul­ti­plic­i­ty and con­stant becom­ings look like here? I doubt every­one is geared up for hack­ing and exper­i­ment­ing with cul­tur­al forms in the mak­er spir­it. I expect it won’t be enough to hand over the choic­es to every­one. I expect in one way or anoth­er I and oth­er heres are going to have to make some choic­es about the worlds we want to be…
…and I, at least, am still pret­ty uncer­tain how I’ll go about that.
It is here, once again, that I’m tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from INCITE.

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