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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