Sunday, September 10, 2006

Encounters After Method

As a devout technophile, perhaps the only thing that makes me more excited than the fact that I will be submitting my first assignment for gradschool online, on a blackboard site designed for the class, is the discovery that the author of the book that the assignment is a response to has a website to further explore issues raised by the book.

The point which John Law makes in various forms in this text is that the conventional methods of social science research are limited and limiting in their scope, and that, as in any situation, that much sought-after, 'objective' 'truth' on which the idea of modern science is based, is more than a little elusive. Perhaps it is because I come from a third-world country, and an institution within that country that has always been closer to the perimeter than the average academic ivory tower, or perhaps it is simply the very specific set of mentors who have shaped my own reading and research to date, but somehow a lot of this questioning of the Euro-American conventions of research and scientific method feels rather familiar. Isn't the idea of plurality one of the founding tenets of postmodernism? And while John Law points out that a simple binary between ideas of singularity and plurality is as undesirable as any other essentialist construction of the empirically ‘knowable’ world (Law, 2004: 63) it feels like common sense that social science exists in the indistinct hinterlands (27) constructed by, for example, religion, or myth, because it recognizes the possibility of a functional overlap. Would religion even be an area of study within social science if it were not recognized that the metaphysical realities of a religion-based understanding of the world overlap with the empirical realities of the practitioners of that religion, to one degree or another?

It seems to me that the essence of what John Law proposes is a self-reflexive mode of research, a formula which probably inevitably comes to bear most strongly on the write-up, in whatever form it may take. Conventionally, a “methods” section of a scholarly paper is included in order to give the reader an indication of the processes that shaped, for better or worse, the data collected. While Law does suggest that it is only the “most novel” of the inscription devices that tend to make it into these methods sections (36), at least in scientific, rather than social science, monographs, the reality is that the purpose of this practice of writing up method is to create an environment in which the structuring devices are visible alongside the worlds they produce. When this alone proved insufficient, most specifically in the post-colonial moment, when the ethnographer could no longer be understood as an educated white male from an imperial center, practicing his craft in a rural, colonized but ‘uncivilized’, far-flung periphery, the move towards “writing in” the ethnographer began. Scholars from Clifford Geertz (1960) to John Chernoff (1979) began writing a new style of ethnography that made the presence of the ethnographer more strongly felt than had previously been common practice. And when even this proved insufficient, the likes of Louise Meintjes (2003) responded to Geertz’s call for a “thickly descriptive” ethnography (Geertz, 1973) that refers not only to the nature of research, and the identity of the ethnographer, but also to the intimate detail of circumstances surrounding the performed reality under scrutiny.

I recognize, then, that there have been successful attempts at achieving what Law seeks to synthesize in After Method. And yet, as I page through the text for what feels like the hundredth time, though it is probably actually the fifth or sixth, with my eyes growing bleary from the effects of one too many late night, and the impact of a residual jetlag impinging on my spacially displaced, third-world, feminist, elitely educated, economically privileged, racially complex self, with the sounds of a city and them memories of a distant home, the music of my homeland – music adopted by my people from one generation of immigrants to my spiritual, but potentially not historical homeland, I wonder, “when is it enough?” At what point does the reflexivity have to give way to the real business of trying to make sense of this delightfully complex world we all inhabit? When is it just alright to pick a structure and run with it? When does the mess yield to the method?


Chernoff, John. 1979. African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1960. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

___. 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Law, John. 2004. After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. London and New York: Routledge
Meintjes, Louise. 2003. Sound Of Africa! : Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio. Durham, NC : Duke University Press.

No comments: