Cleaning Up After Method (Law)

Law, J. (2004). After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. Routledge.

A first foray. I really enjoyed this book, and found it an incredibly rewarding read; well-worth the time I spent picking through it.

“If much of the world is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or doesn’t really have much of a pattern at all, then where does this leave social science? How might we catch some of the realities we are currently missing? Can we know them well? Should we know them? Is ‘knowing’ the metaphor that we need? And if it isn’t, then how might we relate to them?” (Law, 2004, p. 2)

My trajectory of method reading this month has been Maxwell — Creswell — Law. It would probably have been more (logical?) to start with Creswell instead of Maxwell, but Inter-Library Loan works on its time and not mine. Starting with Maxwell’s Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach and then progressing to Creswell’s Research Design did, however, allow me to see more clearly the subtle siren call of cleanness in method that Law describes. Maxwell has, compared to Creswell, a fairly moderate and expansive approach to methodology—his approach is emergent (the subtitle of the text says “Interactive”), where methods are designed out of a reflexive process, involving “tacking” (3) back and forth between design components (goals, conceptual framework, research questions, methods, and validity). Creswell has a much less flexible approach—the elements of a research design are much like components of a Mr. Potato Head—selected and put together for a particular kind of question in a particular kind of context for a particular kind of way. Creswell’s approach to method isn’t wholly un-kairotic, but it’s pretty close. Against these two, Law stands as a stark contrast, and I can’t imagine what would have happened had I tried to read Law first. (Which I almost had to, again, thanks to ILL scheduling). Creswell is precisely what Law is problematizing in his text, and even Maxwell’s more open approach is not without reproach: materiality and processes, sites, and agents in research are glaringly missing from the design components Maxwell is concerned with—not that they don’t exist, but they are more absent from design considerations than frameworks and methods and validity concerns. These things, Law would remind us, are not wrong, but they are not as innocently pure as we should like to think.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be dipping back into some generic writing/tc method discussion (reviewing some materials I haven’t really looked at since Intro to Methods) and then drinking deeply from the spring of my rhetorical analysis material (which I’ve seen more recently, but I’m interested to see what’s changed as my reading has progressed over these last months). In particular, I’m interested in how After Method and actor-network theory (ANT) can help me think through some of the problems presented by critical rhetorical analysis. (Critical rhetoric, is a line of rhetorical analysis stemming from the work of McKerrow and McGee; I also engage with the work done by Gee in critical discourse analysis and Burkean dramatism to flesh out practical and theoretical questions). How does Law help me speak to possible methodological questions and critiques—such the contested realm of the rhetorical critic as a composer of realities out of textual fragments; how does the critic interpret “correctly”? How does Law help me problematize the potential singularity-seeking of critical rhetoric, and how does he help me adequately work through critiques of domination and freedom, not only in the corpus I’ll be analyzing but in the a prioris of critical rhetoric itself?

Today, I’ll begin by briefly (hah) summarizing elements of Law’s text, and beginning to apply those ideas to critical rhetoric (CR). I’ll focus mostly on his discussion of Euro-American assumptions about reality, our ontology, and the implications of that for what he calls method assemblage. I will necessarily leave out swaths of his argument—it’s something you really must read for yourself to begin to understand at all. As I work through my rhetorical analysis/critical rhetoric texts and other methods, I will come back to the process of method assemblage as it colors my own emerging research design.

Law starts with Latour and Woolgar, and their work in ethnography of science, in particular highlighting what Latour called an inscription device: “a system (often including, though not reducible to, a machine) for producing inscriptions, or traces, out of materials that take other forms” (20). Essentially, an ID is something that transforms a material into a figure. So, graph curves, which are derived from figures, derived from extracts, derived from rats—each of these are inscription devices of the material they derive from, originating with the rat, the primary material. The important thing to take away here is that “particular realities are constructed by particular inscription devices and practices” (21). This is the fundamental truth that underlies the rest of Law’s text. Inscription devices (and thus methods) make substances; substances can’t be said to exist without the instruments (and the networks and hinterlands that construct those instruments) that write them into being. (People, in their personal subjectivity, then, can become one of many inscription devices at work in method–a device that is often the first to be erased by method.)

This conclusion upsets a host of Euro-American assumptions (Law calls these common-senses) about reality. First, we have a sense that there is a reality that is out there beyond ourselves. Law calls this a primitive, originary “out-thereness” (24).  This external reality is independent of our actions and participations (a quality he calls “independence”), it precedes us (“anteriority”), it has a set of definite forms or relations (“definiteness”), and it relies on a further assumption that the world is shared, common, the same everywhere (“singularity”). Latour and Woolgar’s implications for “out-therenesses” (31) are that we can’t separate out the making of realities, the making of statements about realities, and the creation of inscription devices that produced realities and statements. “All are produced together” (31). In rhetoric, that is, for those of us who recognize the many ways that “rhetoric creates reality,” this shouldn’t be a very trying conclusion.

The assumptions are part of what Law calls the “hinterland” of Euro-American methodological assumptions. The hinterland is a  “bundle” of extending relations (literary and material) that include statements about reality, the reality itself, inscription devices, and possibilities and impossibilities for reality. It produces “specific more or less routinised realities and statements about those realities” (33) and un-makes (or makes impossible) other realities as it does so.  Hinterlands (the metaphor is getting at the lands that lie directly behind a port or coastal region) are standardized packages of practices and devices, the stuff we just do. (This would, thinking of Burke, include such things as terministic screens—a helpful analogue to the hinterland.) Hinterlands become more and more concrete and more and more unchangeable as statements are piled on to it (and as the fundamental statements, the processes and modalities by which they are constructed, disappear under the weight of the formalized hinterland. For Law, the hinterland of scientific method works “to produce a reality that is independent, anterior, definite, and singular” (37). When we work out of a method, we are going to produce only that which the method is able to produce. Surveys will only tell us what we ask for, laboratories will obscure certain sets of practices in the service of others, and rhetorical analysis may only tell us what the a priori resources of rhetorical theory can see. Law, then, wants to call for methods that ignore the rules—or at the very least look back at the rules and think seriously about the methods that enact them, to try to see the hinterland, the “seven-eighths of the iceberg” that lie beneath the assumptions of our research designs.

Part of the answer—or a possibility for reaching an answer—is what law calls method assemblage – a process of method as an ad hoc crafting, a tentative creation of reality, a gathering of materials into one possible multiplicity. Method assemblage (taking assemblage from Deleuze and Guattari) is “the enactment or crafting of a bundle of ramifying relations that generates presence, manifest absence and Otherness, where it is the crafting of presence that distinguishes it as method assemblage” (42). It is crafting a hinterland that distinguishes between in-here statements, out-there realities reflected in those statements, and invisible processes and contexts out-there (whether purposefully filtered so that phenomena are see-able, or assumed invisible in their mundanity, or actively suppressed out of politics or other reasons). The notion is distressingly fuzzy and glories in its abstractness, but is helpful for thinking about what methods do ontologically, rather than how to do methods practically. Methods don’t merely discover and depict reality—they participate in the enactment of reality, of single realities among a greater multiplicity of reality. Different sites, different hinterlands, different assemblages create different perspectives, different stories, and thus different objects. An important political (I might use ethical) point, according to Law, is that with our various methods and hinterlands we discover multiplicity, but not pluralism (61). The absence of singularity doesn’t mean anything goes. It implies that realities overlap and interfere with one another—that we are what he calls “fractional objects” that are “more than one and less than many” (62). This is an important interpretive issue for rhetorical analysis, especially for a politicized critical rhetoric: One text can be many texts, but it still must recognize the power of fractionality, that interpretations must be responsible to other interpretations, that enacting truth displaces other truths.

As in critical rhetoric, absence figures importantly in method assemblage. Method assemblages bundle hinterland relations into three parts: whatever is present (whatever counts as part of the ‘in-here’ described by a method, a technical object), whatever is absent but made manifest in absence (to make present is to make absent, things that are not present in the reality but are part of the implications of what is present), and whatever is absent but Other (what cannot be made manifest, things that disappear because they are routine, not interesting, or repressed). Method assemblages create boundaries between the three—they are part of “a process of artful deletion,” because for a statement to work—to create reality—it must draw on things that are present and things that are assumed but not literally present, and it must also deny other realities so as to make a suasive case for its own singularity and definiteness. It detects, selects, and amplifies, not just represents. What this means (to helpfully misquote Law), is that Method is not Innocently Technical: “Method, then, unavoidably produces not only truths and non-truths, realities and non-realities, presences and absences, but also arrangements with political implications” (143). Method has (has to have) goods in mind, and ‘truth’ or ‘singularity’ is not the only good. Method is—whether we are aware of it or not—political, a statement for what is, what is good, and what should be good. This politicality, this outwardness of intent, is part of what has drawn me to critical rhetoric as a useful method. It is an explicit owning of its hinterland; it makes no claims to singularity, but embraces the fragment; it sees the critic as a contributor, a co-creator of the text with a goal of discovering and enacting “new and only partially connected realities” (93). Like Law’s actor-network theory approach to method, critical rhetoric has a set of goods in mind—goods that go beyond mere truth, that include it, but do not necessarily limit themselves to it.


More to come.


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