Reading Counting, accounting, and accountability: Helen Verran’s relational empiricism”

Just read Martha Kenney’s Count­ing, account­ing, and account­ab­il­ity: Helen Verran’s rela­tion­al empir­i­cism”.

The art­icle is cur­rently avail­able through the Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence Online­First ser­vice. Inten­tion­ally or not, it sits nicely with oth­er art­icles brought togeth­er to exam­ine .

Ken­ney, M. (2015). Count­ing, account­ing, and account­ab­il­ity: Helen Verran’s rela­tion­al empir­i­cism. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 1 – 23.

Kenney’s art­icle is very much a homage to Helen Ver­ran and her won­der­ful book Sci­ence and an Afric­an Logic. She pays spe­cial atten­tion to Verran’s efforts at decom­pos­i­tion and frames these through a lens of account­ab­il­ity. Care is giv­en by Kenny to dif­fer­en­ti­ate this kind of account­ing from that of con­tem­por­ary neo-liberal bur­eau­cra­cies” that run the risk of strength­en­ing the aca­dem­ic cul­ture that priv­ileges cri­tique and rev­el­a­tion over oth­er, more subtle and cre­at­ive, approaches.” (p. 8)

What I par­tic­u­larly like about Kenney’s read­ing of Sci­ence and an Afric­an Logic is the emphas­is she places on Verran’s gen­er­at­ive cri­tique’ and, in these same terms, the way we might come to under­stand the empirical/ethnographic account.

Ver­ran [...] helps us see eth­no­graph­ic writ­ing con­ven­tions as gen­er­at­ive, not of true rep­res­ent­a­tions (tra­cings of real rela­tions) but of prom­ising fic­tions, echo­ing Strathern’s defin­i­tion of eth­no­graphy as an effort to cre­ate a world par­al­lel to the per­ceived world’” (p. 10).

For me, this is such a help­ful way to think about the accounts we pro­duce as field research­ers. It gets us past ques­tions about fac­tu­al or real­ist rep­res­ent­a­tion. It reminds me of some­thing I heard the sing­er PJ Har­vey say on Radio 4 a while back. Talk­ing about Har­old Pinter’s poetry and the poetry’ of Kubrick’s films, she evoc­at­ively describes what she sees in them:

As with Pinter and Kubrick, then, I appre­ci­ate Ken­ney remind­ing us that eth­no­graph­ic accounts such as Verran’s must be written/read as an altern­at­ive way of fig­ur­ing and pay­ing atten­tion to dif­fer­ences that may enable dif­fer­ent forms of response and par­ti­cip­a­tion.” (p. 11)

See, for example, Mar­tin, A., Myers, N., & Viseu, A. (2015). The polit­ics of care in tech­nos­cience. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 1 – 17.
I dashed to make a writ­ten note of this, but have since found the inter­view online, here — time = 9:21.

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