I am reading more from John Law, specifically, “Making a Mess with Method” – available online HERE
This bloke is a good bloke, in my humble opinion. He writes well – what he says is interesting and useful to my work, it is comprehensible to the theoryaphobic like me, but his writing is also entertaining and engaging, which is a very rare indeed. There are a lot of academics with brilliant ideas, but who are seemingly incapable of expressing those ideas to the layman, leaving us with pages and pages of impenetrable psychobabble to wade through. Not so John Law. Praise be! I wrote to him to tell him this…..
and he actually wrote back!!
Thank you so much for your email. I’m very happy that some of the things
I’ve written have been useful to you! I do care about trying to write things
well, and I’m really pleased that you think I have managed. The topic of
your PhD is really interesting … please do keep me in touch.
With best wishes,
But back to the point.
Making A Mess With Method, to my mind, champions the right to disorder. Or not even that, actually. There isn’t really a word meaning ‘devoid of order’ – I don’t mean “chaos.” Law uses the example of trying to map the ‘typical’ movements of patients with alcoholic liver disease throughout a health care system – and finds it impossible. There is no such thing as ‘typical’ in this situation. It is not meaningful to generalise too much either. There is a huge emphasis in research – even in social science research – to come up with clear, coherent, demonstrable and repeatable results from whatever it is you are studying, but this is not always as straight-forward as it sounds, and more significantly, these results are not always the most useful. Sometimes, it is not possible to impose order on things. Doing so, forcing your data into definite, quantifiable results, changes the nature of the research and does not produce an accurate representation of the subject being studied. Results cannot be ordered, definite and straight-forward if the subject of the study was not this way in the first place.
I have had this argument over and over again with Carl, my husband and a hardcore scientist. He describes what I do as ‘waffly nonsense’, can’t see the point of it, keeps offering to help me make maps or run statistical calculations for me, and claims ‘social science’ is a contradiction in terms. (-It is, scientists are never sociable!!). He will always choose the quantitative over the qualitative, as if ‘pure’ science has the monopoly on research methodology. But this does illustrate my point: I am concerned with the ‘social’ – “human” geography. And humans do not fit tidily into boxes. Sometimes, there is no ‘typical’ pattern to human behaviour. We are not always logical, sometimes the meanings behind our thoughts and actions are not straight-forward, nor definite nor obvious. Sometimes you cannot make generalisations, even based on huge amounts of data and doing so could dehumanise the research. We are messy because we are human, and being messy is part of what makes us human in the first place.
And now I am distracted by the desire for a cheese sandwich. I shall indulge this urge, and leave this thought train in this blog so as not to impose order on my writing. Inner editor begone!!
During construction of aforementioned sandwich, I ponder potential uses for the green beans left in the fridge, remove a ferret from the laundry basket, and scan in a picture of a duck that was sent to me for the RASC website. I have also now got the song “My God is drowning in the bath” by Amy X Neuburg stuck in my head, as if from nowhere. Are these the typical actions and reactions of a postgrad student? Very probably, thinking about it. But this behaviour is hardly definite, logical or easily understood from a detached viewpoint.
I am studying the coffee industry. Again this is not as simple as it sounds. The ‘industry’ is not a definite, singular, entity. It is a network, a production process – a huge array of different actors and agencies, both human and nonhuman, all linked with complex but mainly co-operative, economic, reciprocal and sometimes semiotic relationships. If these relationships, or the agents break down or disappear for whatever reason, then the ‘industry’ does not function. And as it is a production process, I would argue that without functionality, the process ceases to exist. It disbands into separate agents with no connections between them, and the industry-network is no longer there.
This view is obviously the result of being force-fed Actor-Network “Theory” for the last few months solid. (To my mind, it is not a theory, but that is a different story/narrative/impassioned rant). What feels like a lifetime ago, I started digging into the idea of commodity chains – which can be a much simpler way of looking at production networks. Commodities simply progress along this chain from production to consumption. I would love to be able to impose this sort of logical order on to the coffee industry, but I know now that it would never work. There are too many humans involved.
Instead, I am dealing with Commodity Fishnets. The production of “coffee” – and indeed, waste and quality if I am ever to get to the point of my project, – the leg, in fact, are bound up in an immense, complex and global network of independent actors, agents and relationships (the fishnets). There is some hierarchies within this network, power is not balanced or equally distributed – the waistband and toes are stronger than, say the knees. Sometimes, the whole pair of tights appears so tangled that from the researchers point of view, it seems impossible that they could ever fulfill their purpose and cover the leg or produce coffee. FairTrade, sustainable development initiatives and such like reinforce the relationships in this network, and can make the holes in the net appear smaller. Events like the coffee market crash and the dissolution of the International Coffee Organisaton in 1989 ladder the tights, perhaps irreparably.
And also like my fishnets (which are from Primark), construction of this industry is based on exploitation and child-labour.
In some respects, even this is imposing order on to what I’m studying, but for the simple reason of needing to talk about this meaningfully – expressing my ideas in a manner comprehensible to others – I think fishnets is suitably complex, non-straightforward and indefinite representation. At the moment, my fishnets are still very tangled and have plenty of holes and ladders in them. But even if they never become clear and detangled, at least I know exactly what I am looking at.