Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 12


I really enjoyed this week’s readings because they both addressed some concerns I’ve had about the human-centric nature of some research and discussions and offered useful ways to conceptualize the interactions between different types of agents.

 Pickering’s “mangle of practice” idea made sense to me, for the most part.  In fact, the least intuitive aspect of it for me was how a mangle (the laundering tool) fit with what Pickering was trying to convey.  On p.23 (footnote 37), he admits that the analogy breaks down if pushed too hard, but he also admits that it doesn’t match up precisely: you don’t just get “shirts out” if you put “shirts in”.  I think that I was too stuck on trying to match up what goes on in a physical mangle versus what goes on in the process he’s describing.  Ah well...  maybe we can tune the term eventually.

 The discussion of the implications for sociologists if they allow for material agency was interesting (p. 12) because it helped explain some of the preference for human agency in discussions.  However, I don’t quite buy the idea that material agency would automatically become the realm of scientists; there are plenty of humanities disciplines that seem perfectly appropriate for interrogating materials for information such as provenance (see Miller).  Perhaps Pickering was just describing the types of concerns sociologists at the time had, or he was aiming for a direct analogue to the type of interrogation done on people by sociologists.  

 The idea of material agency feels consistent with the idea that humans have limited agency according to many sociologists.  Just as humans can’t act from a completely free will and are in fact constrained by laws and limitations and influences from interactions with other agents, so too are material agents also restricted.  I don’t necessarily agree with all of this, but I find it pleasantly consistent.

 I also liked the idea of “interactive stabilization” (p. 61), how when a viable design for the xenon chamber was identified, both the activities of the research team and the device stabilized together.  There is something pleasingly organic to that process that is reminiscent of symbiosis ideas.

 Suchman’s article was also fun to read because she brought up thoughtful arguments about how humans arbitrarily distinguish themselves from machines.  She notes on p. 2: “the machine had access only to a very small subset of the observable actions of its users. Even setting aside for the moment the question of what it means to "observe," and how observable action is rendered intelligible, the machine could quite literally only "perceive" that small subset of the users’ actions that actually changed its state.”  Too often, humans forget or fail to see all of the little inputs that contribute to our observations of a situation, allowing us to interact in appropriate ways.  To extend the implied parenting metaphor on p. 5 (“contemporary discourses of machine agency simply shift the site of agency from people to their machine progeny.“), it would be as if a child were raised in a completely dark and silent light- and sound-proof room and then the parents acted surprised that the child could not see nor hear anything.  Would that child be any less of an actor?  (perhaps this becomes a philosophical values question)  More importantly, would the child’s inability to see or hear be sufficient to deny it agency?  Suchman asks the vital question: “Who or what within the situated practices of constituting agency does this work of "granting" of actor status?”  Plenty of sci-fi stories touch on this type of issue - the idea that humans are responsible for how machines, their created children, turn out (the iconic prologue theme from BSG played in my head as I read this article) and that humans would tend to reactively uphold separating boundaries out of fear, rather than, as Suchman offers, using boundaries to improve our interactions and to provoke more thoughtfulness.


I am massively sick so I do not yet know if I will be well enough to get myself to class tomorrow in order to kindly infect the rest of you. Regardless, I am well enough to post some points (which hopefully will make some sense) that I may have luxury/disadvantage of not having to defend in person. It is unfortunate timing because the performativity/material agency issue is one that I feel fairly strongly about (clear to anyone who has seen any of my presentations).

I thought the Miller piece was a great review and I will probably use it as a resource in the future. He highlights some of the main arguments and potential traps in looking at materiality. Miller notes arguments, such as Latour's, which see the social sciences as tending to leave material things in an incredibly weak position, being empty vessels to be filled with and subsequently signify immaterial cultural meaning. However, in seeking to reaffirm a reasonable place for things in our accounts of the world, one must strive to avoid sliding into technological determinism. Both are traps of reification, rendering one's abstract concepts and models for the world physical. The former approach does this through mapping the social and "social facts" onto artifacts while the latter attempts to reify into technology its perceived essence.

I hope to be diligent in avoiding these trappings by remaining mindful of the potential mechanisms for enacting any relationship I hypothesize. Latour makes this point in Reassembling the Social in his critique of certain Northamerican uses of Foucault, stating that power is not be some kind of immaterial ether but enacted in or enforced by particular activities.

I read the Mangle last semester but nonethesless enjoyed a reread of it. As I have been broadening my literature base, I have seen a lot of similarities between Pickering's ideas and those of phenomenologists and Gibsonian psychologists. As such, I think what is necessary in the social/humanities fields is to continue to develop studies of behavior without using psychologically or ecologically deprived notions of what it is to be human. That is, one must acknowledge people as having bodies, emotions and existing in material environments which play a role in the development of people and practices.


First, Miller. His reading of Bourdieu seemed to clash with mine. He cites ‘70, ‘77, and ‘79 within the text, concluding  that, “Bourdieu showed how practice and material taxonomies in some ways have to be understood to be just as important as social relations per se in the process of socialization (P 287).” It has been my reading of Bourdieu, particularly Distinction (1984) in which he concludes that one’s taste is a function of the individual’s habitus. Your upbringing provides the interpretive tools to (what is typically refered to as) appreciate art and good food. So, for instance, one’s contemporary liberal arts education says that the narthex of cathedrals built during the Gothic period were the only area the unbaptized were allowed to enter and thus any iconography depicting hell or purgatory could be taken to mean more than just scary pictures of goblins and the devil. The person who doesn’t have this knowledge only sees the devil outside of its historical/material context. Thus, as a matter of subject-object relationships- the object (cathedral iconography in this example) works in a fundamentally different way for the liberal arts graduate, than the architect, or the seminary student, or the American tourist. So here, I don’t see material taxonomies “as important” as social relations. Rather it is the social relations (that give us our habitus) that color our perceptions of material objects. The subject and object move in relation to one-another as a function of the subject’s knowledge of the object.

I do agree, however, with Miller’s discussion of the Internet as “the savior” of post-modern literature. George Ritzer gave a talk at the Theorizing the Web Conference that was rather convincing, on a similar subject. (The whole thing is here. I haven’t watched the video, only saw it IRL, so I can’t give you a time stamp for when he starts talking about this subject, sorry.) Ritzer argued that post modernity came to early, and it is the relationships and the computer-mediated-communication that the Internet makes possible, that provide a basis for what a majority of post-modern theory contends. Personally, I agree with this, but with a major caveat. Isn’t it possible that we built post-modernity into the Internet? In other words, was it this feeling of post-modernity that compelled its architects to produce such a technical artifact that made these post modern relationships easier to build and maintain. To reify this point, consider the “affinity group.” As soon as you join a facebook group, you are exercising the basic concept of the affinity group: that you build relationships and identify as peers through your self-understood identity, not by a label imposed from an external source through the discourse of biology (Women somehow share a commonality on the basis of their sex NOT their gender). Do facebook engineers provide this functionality because it is common to relate to one-another through this concept of affinity? As a counterfactual, consider Facebook, in its current technical state, but set in the 1950s. Would your (obligatory) response to your sex, automatically place you in a facebook group full of men or women? I would contend that there would be a “whites only” facebook. The point I’m getting at is, do we recognize the Internet as the post modernity we were pre-emptively writing about because it was constructed during a time when we were laying the semiotic and social groundwork for such a non-corporeal space?

Pickering- The Mangle deserves more citations than it has been given. It describes non-human agency much more elegantly than ANT or SCOT. I want to talk more about Pickering’s relationship to the Epistemological Chicken debate. This debate occurred (on paper anyway) in his own edited volume! What can we make of this? Pickering falls on the side of SSK with the large caveat that “SSK tends to treat the social as a nonemergent causal explanation of cultural extension in science. In contract, my studies convince me that the social is bound up with science ant itself subject to mangling in scientific practice (P 27).” This “emergent” mode, as Taylor already mentioned, is directly tied to the performative aspects of the theory. Collins and Yearly (the SSK proponents) make several powerful assertions. 1) “Symmetry of treatment between the true and the false requires a human-centered universe (P. 311).” 2) “Callon’s account of the negotiations between the scientists and the fishermen is a fine study of the relationships between technology and society. But as a social account of the marking of knowledge it is prosaic...(P. 314).” And 3) The french Actor-Network model is philosophically radical, but when we ask for its use, it turns out to be essentialyl conservative-a poverty method making it subervietn to a prosaic view of science and technology (P 323).” Callon and Latour retort, 1) [Collins and Yearly] are satisfied with the state of social studies of science. Most of the problems have been solved, important discoveries have been made, sociology is firm enough on its fee to study the natural sciences (P 343).” and 2)“...that although it [ANT] is experimental, uncertain, and incomplete, it should be carried al the way, with the help of the many clever and excellent scholars inspired by the various science studies schools... (P. 366).” It is my reading of this back and forth, that Pickering doesn’t want to get “left behind” -being caught up in the “spell of representation (P.13)”- but knows that ANT is prosaic. It is descriptive, but not analytic. The problem being, that ANT is comfortable with applying a narrative that is radical in its semiotics, but conservative in its explanation. The key is to take the bold stance of ANT, and see how it fairs in the emergent present. The result, it seems. is what Pickering calls The Mangle. I agree with it, but I don’t understand why (beyond the vanity of the intellectual) that neither side will accept its findings. It has the critical perspective of SSK, with the symmetry of ANT. Go figure.

Ron’s piece had me thinking of one particular thing. If we are willing to accept (and I do) that these indigenous cultures are engaged in the production of an embodied material knowledge of what we would call “nanotech” then what is western nanotech doing, other than boundary work? In other words, we are able to perceive these radically different case studies (Mayan Blue, wootz steel, etc...) as “‘retrospective’ nanotechnology” because we now understand the underlying physical chemistry of these technologies. I am drawn to the conclusion that this systematic understanding that western science provides, does little more than provide (epistomolgical? metaphysical? occupational?) categories for various technologies. That science vis-a-vis technology builds boundaries, and helps us apply the underlying mechanics of one technology to another (instead of going through decades of trial and error) and little else. If this is the case, why not make this the conclusion, if this is not the case, then what is western science’s relationship to these examples of indigenous knowledge?

I liked how Suchman approached these problems from “the other direction”  if one could say such a thing. It was an interesting perspective and made me wish I had finished reading The Social Life of Information who’s authors, she probably knows- since they all came from PARC. I often wonder what the world would be like if Xerox knew the importance of what they were doing. We’d all be using Xerox computers!


I always assumed narthex was a patch you wear to quit smoking. But I think Miller’s version of Bourdieu comes from Bourdieu’s study of Kabyle community, so that the material emphasis reflects a material economy more dependant on things like agricultural implements. Whereas the Distinction book is about elite French knowledge (as cultural capital) and thus doesn't emphasize material dependencies in the same way. [re-reading some passages from distinction this morning makes me think this is more complex; elite taste involves erasing a bodily connection:


I’d like to focus on the nano article, as a sort of last effort before I ditch this area all together. And I want to talk about what David Banks wrote.

I want to make something really clear, so that there’s no misunderstanding of what I’m saying. I don’t dispute any of the findings of Dr. Eglash’s paper, or of most of the notions that are brought up in the paper, related to nanotechnology usage within tribal or band societies. I may have a different understanding of it, but I don’t find anything in the article to be wrong or anything.

However, to say that it’s all already been done and we’re only doing boundary work on the basis of a few examples is a bit too much. Nanotechnology is not simply the notion of working within the realm not visible to the human eye, it’s a slew of things. There is research being done that has nothing to do with those discoveries, saying that it’s not actual discovery, is taking it too far.
There’s this notion, whenever you look into comedy that there can be two different comedians doing almost the same joke, without them ever seeing each other’s acts, knowing of one another, or even having the same social background. I think that this is the relationship of western sciences to these examples, as an answer to your question. I find it just as limited to deny the indigenous people’s knowledge as it is to deny modern-day scientists theirs. The notion that nanotechnology was both understood and used means that at one point there was a massive disconnect, maybe in communication, maybe in cultural ideals, wherein this knowledge was never transmitted. Had it transmitted properly we wouldn’t have had BuckyBalls, we wouldn’t have nanotech deemed an emerging field, and literally billions of your taxes poured into a slew of research topics related to it. To say that there is a clear cut relationship between these examples and current research that makes the latter a simple translation of the former is going on a limb.

I think it’s “retrospective” because these were examples of nanotechnology, as opposed to a society, or societies together using these ideas as a complete and full structure.

Also I think what you’re saying isn’t the conclusion because this was tool to be used as a way of legitimizing indigenous knowledge. But then again most of the things in the article went above my head.


This is an interesting debate we can get into in class. But just to toss more fuel in the fire: The article points out that salmon stocks *rose* under indigenous fishing, but drastically declined under European fishing. Europeans had the “more complete” model Morar champions above.


Parsing through these articles had me thinking quite a bit about the role of historians (particularly historians of technology like Galison – or even locally to our own pack - Atsushi) in providing the foundation for contemporary critiques of mechanical/systematic agency. Pickering’s use of Galison’s bubble chamber is an interesting one because, in contrasting the small vs. big science and the outputs of each in terms of instrumentality, it also serves to contrast the cultures and scientific societies that evolved reflexively with each. But Pickering too relies on the historian to develop his thesis of the mangled affair – Galison thus has a lot to do with how the bubble chamber gets represented as an artifact and social construct. This brings up the point Miller was raising in saying, “Material culture studies, at least, when practiced under the auspices of anthropology, has also tended to adopt a more ethnographic, or ethnographically oriented, approach to situating material genres. This in turn has led to an adoption of theoretical perspectives, whether these arise from phenomenology, dialectical reasoning or science studies, that problematize colloquial distinctions of persons and things.” While I don’t think Pickering would admit to studying material culture in the way Miller describes, I do think he does a good job going beyond a simplified anthropological or sociological ethnographic approach. In other words, “fundamental materiality” is well integrated into the mangle in its prioritizing historical accounts along with social critique.

That said, we now need to deal with what it means to be a historian of technology and how that position of privilege is also problematic despite its necessity. Ron – I think you would agree with me in saying your own article drawing parallels between indigenous and modern science rests heavily on historical record but you would not consider yourself a historian per se, correct? So then how do we - as social scientists - choose the historical accounts on which we base our claims? And if these end up being insufficient in form, how do we adapt them to fit our sense of how agency should be distributed more reflexively? One path suggested by Suchman… “My own analysis suggests that persons and artifacts do not appear to constitute each other in the same way. In particular, I would argue that we need a rearticulation of asymmetry that somehow retains the recognition of hybrids, cyborgs, and quasi-objects made visible through technoscience studies, while simultaneously recovering certain subject/object positionings – even orderings – among persons and artifacts and their consequences.” I guess my main point here is that material, or artifact culture studies flat out requires a new kind of technology historian that – rather than being seated in a traditional historian discipline – is seated with their historical expertise on the edge of sociological critique, writing historical accounts from this position that allows for hybrid study? I think thus far we have seen historical accounts of technology dictated by Eurocentric accounts and this is problematic for creating alternative accounts we like to see - and utilize - in STS.


The first time I read about non human actants and this fact that they have agency was January 2009 when I took the “ when knowledge collides” with Ron. Andrew Pickering brings an instrument into being.Everything that can do something has an agency,which can be called as material agency,  however since humans can plan, their agency is different than non humans.His emphasis on the power of materials can explain how  the manipulation of materials can distort scientific practcices however it puts the agency on humans and not non humans.

also for pickering science is not a scientific knowledge, indeed it is a practice because it is human activity.within this framework, two principles of contingency and temporality become important. Therefore, science to Pickering is not the story of observers and what they have observed. it is the about the practices and work behind this process of observation and discovery.

This attempt of Pickering to emphasize the agency of non humans reminded me of strong program which puts the agency on social factors such as disinterestedness , strong program also emphasize on scientific activities which should follow some tenants.

so the similarity between Pickering and Merton is that they put away the agency from individuals to other non individuals such as social factors or material factors.


Well, Miller drops in and does a really take on the conflict between materialist  and transcendentalist approaches to understanding human agency in an effort to break from that and talk more broadly about what agency is (I combine the Suchman and Miller in my head to this end) and what it could mean to examining the whole of categorization of various fields. The critical question at hand is "What is at stake in these assumptions about agency" and immediately the door flies open to two things 1. This question of "what are we and what do we do" which demands immediate attention 2. This derails our set on notions about what the progress of human understanding has been or needs to be. I point the dirty finger at existentialism for having a similar problem- To take it seriously demands that he reader stop of stop everything that they are working on to reorient themselves to this new value system which is not without it's own set of problems and hard to sum issues. For my work, though, I think this disconnection between the transcendental and the material gives me some good juice to talk about the underlying conflict between what is described as Anti-Rationalism. Perhaps a flavor of the rejection of perceived materialism in science/natural world would be useful.

I feel like some of this is sort of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater through (our conceptions of human agency), but I'm having a hard time separating it out. Maybe that's just familiarity.

Ideas about complexity Theory and Buy-in- Other phone number ordering http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/20611

In reading the mangle the second time, I'm all about the sort of fluid interaction that comes through, but I'm still kind of interested in that break where we know intuitively that what comes across as this recognizable thing how it is made up of all these ill fitting parts, but we fail to communicate our individual mangles between disciplines or between various power levels. It seems that those in power get to ignore the realities of their mangle and deny the mangle of those with lower status, but I might be focusing on DuBois a little much.

Do Economists Make Markets? http://amzn.com/0691130167