Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 7

David B.

This week’s reading was very diverse. Seeing how several different authors composed very different research projects was very compelling. I suppose the problem I had with all of them, was that the real problem of creating the method- the Mangle if you will- is often concealed in the finished product. Its like learning wood-working from looking at several finished pieces of furniture. This is what methods books are for, I suppose, but I kept thinking about what these people did to display their final product as the result of deliberate and intentional research design.

The DiSalvo reading seemed to be the closest we got, to an admission that the research design had to evolve over the course of the investigation. They intended to investigate a certain kind of making process, but what they got was something slightly different:

“Keeping the activities open and allowing for speculation had another, unexpected effect: it enabled participants to veer away from the charge of designing systems in which robotics and sensing were central, to instead imagine, invent and design for the use of these technologies as supporting elements in other kinds of systems.”

I enjoyed the Haraway piece, but I don’t think I got a lot out of it, re: the designing of research projects.


I guess the purpose of the Haraway essay was is less self-evident than I had hoped -- that was intended as an opportunity to reflect on the non-innocent nature of visual data, and the opposite problem of quantitative data (assumed guilty in much of STS) in research. More about that in seminar...


I found the Agre piece to be incredibly interesting. I think it clearly highlights the risk involved in when immersed in one kind of theoretical worldview. Agre is persuasive in describing his experience of the way in which his previously taken-for-granted acceptance of AI concepts as cutting him off from (authentically?) experiencing the world. The computational metaphor, for Agre, framed his interpretation of experience so deeply as to make seeing the world from any other angle extremely difficult. Agre argues that one must therefore aim to defamiliarize ideas in order to see contingency or imagine alternatives. In this piece I see some of my own worries about theory. On one hand there is the risk of one’s self become so entangled with a certain perspective on the world as to lose sight of how everyone is able to see it. On the other hand, I think there are downsides to attempting to remain too detached, remaining on the periphery sticking one’s toe into the water waiting for it to be “just right.” Put perhaps more clearly, I’m not sure if one can remain agnostic in respect to the reality of the phenomena being observed.  

I was a bit lost at some points in the Haraway piece though I get her point on how if a subaltern group refuses to engage in math and science to support their positions then they end up being much weaker rhetorically. My personal feeling when I hear about science, math or any kind of knowledge being gendered or discriminatory is that such knowledge shouldn’t be cast off but, instead, a new tradition of engagement with that knowledge should be pursued by that subaltern group. That’s at least how I presented it to tribal elders at Ft. Belknap when I worked at the college there, though not very convincingly. I think that it is sometimes difficult to present because identity for many subaltern groups (generalizing here) can be wrapped up in historic notions of that identity. My last year on the res involved managing a grant where the math curriculum needed to be restructured to be more technologically advanced, effective and culturally relevant, simultaneously and on top of a 5-6 class teaching load. I was not convinced, and to some extent still not, that a western style curriculum can be “nativized” using a perspective that is completely backwards looking and without enforcing some assumption of what their culture “should” be. Like students mentioned in Ron’s piece, my students were often more interested in contemporary African-American culture than what one would term “their culture.” Of course, I have to admit that there is a potential catch-22. To develop a forward looking mathematical-scientific culture, for any non-white male group, you need a trained, but not colonized, cohort to start the whole process.

As one could guess, in light of my background, I found a whole lot points in Ron’s paper that reminded of things I thought about when teaching. The fundamental goal of “[empowering] students’ sense of ownership” is something I think should be a fundamental goal of any teaching endeavor and I think the innatist myth in regards to math is a cultural construction which needs to die if we are to get diversity in any highly technical field.

I am curious about how CSDT could be extended to address class as well as ethnic background. Having "Shopclass as Soulcraft" on my mind from a recent conversation with Dan, I think there is a similarity between the kind of primitivism projected onto to minority cultural groups as is projected onto blue collar and craft labor work. This is reflected in the adage "it is better to work with one's mind than one's hands." I am of the opinion that often too many students get funneled into science and engineering (my brother is an example of an engineer stuck doing paperwork when he would rather be building) when what they would prefer is something more hands-on. However, hands-on work (even of the skilled kind) is popularly demeaned as being intellectually inferior to white-collar and academic work. I think this attitude does a lot of work to help idolize and legitimate the myth that one is capable of being and that it is desirable to be detached from the world in one’s mind (rather than engaged with it with one’s body) and accurately represent it from such a view.


I enjoyed Martin's article on polio vaccines and AIDS, both because it dips into public health and social justice issues, and because Martin thoughtfully discussed the ideas of participation, intervention, and partisanship in research.  Okay, also because he "stuck it to the [Science] Man" - made the exclusive group listen when they didn't want to, and thus increased critical discourse.  I ended up writing more than I'd planned here because the "Prime Directive" question is of great ethical concern to me - I like to help people out, and I like to disrupt oppressive power structures, and finding out that it CAN be acceptable to do so in some cases is heartening (though I don't intend to indulge overmuch!)


1) There is always partisanship

2) Accept that there is always partisanship

3) What's a reasonable level of intervention that could normally happen without you?

4) Scientists have feelings too.

Starting towards the end of the article, Martin points out that there is always de facto partisanship simply because a researcher narrows the scope of a research project based on logistics, funding, time, and personal interest.  It seems to be the hope in academia that over time, someone will be interested in something that hasn't been looked at yet, a kind of intellectual matchmaking service.  

From this then, the question is "how much partisanship is involved?" and "how will it affect the subjects during and after the study?"  I liked that Martin redefined some of "captured" partisanship to a more open acknowledgment of consent and interaction; I am certain that someone somewhere has thought, "Oh, I'll just accidentally leave this information lying out here in the open where anyone could see it... lalalaaa..." so as to assuage their conscience about their involvement in providing illicit information to a disadvantaged group.  Acts by commission rather than omission, as the bioethics community likes to distinguish it.

So we're left with a need to distinguish levels of intervention since it's inevitable that some intervention, and likely some partisanship, will occur.  Here it would be useful to look at whether some normal part of the socialscape would be a person doing similar things as the intervening researcher.  For example, while I was playing WoW and posing as a dude and informally observing things, friends I'd made would talk to me about their problems offline, or I'd help someone with a guild event.  Is that within the normal scope of what a player would do in-game?  Sure.  Now, if I somehow got Blizzard to set me up with an omnipotent GM account where I could do anything in-game I wanted, would it have been reasonable for me to use my GM powers to give super-weapons to my friends? Nope.  (hush, Dan)

On the one hand, Martin didn't do anything hugely out of the norm for investigative journalism in general - ignored sources are broken to the public in various ways, information is distributed in decentralized, unofficial ways.  That is part of the normal ecology of communities and institutions (just as virus epidemics infect a large established population occasionally).  But on the other hand, Martin's dismissal of scientists as being immune to oppression by researchers accepts the idea that science does in fact dominate Western culture.  As we saw in the refusal by the established science community to recognize Pascal's work, one could see the institution of science as an oppressive regime, with holders of unpopular ideas as people in need of a voice as much as any disenfranchised people (though there may be a reason they're unpopular...).  Also, it is important to remember that the original polio vaccine recipients were being exploited (and were still being exploited) by the vaccination activities (if the link is accurate), so is it wrong to potentially oppress the oppressors?  Finally, if someone came along and expressed an interest in helping to publish a paper you'd been putting your heart and soul into for a long time, wouldn't you be in a vulnerable position?  


Taking the Haraway piece relative to the other readings I found her comment, “A speculum does not have to be a literal physical tool for prying open tight orifices; it can be any instrument for rendering a part accessible to observation,” to be particularly appropriate.  In most respects this article cluster addresses how social science research has the potential to unpack commonly held misunderstandings of how knowledge is produced and communicated in various contexts.  In the case of Haraway’s breakdown of media and statistical (qualitative & quantitative) portrayals of feminist and anti-feminist constructs of the body, she states her interest in the kinds of technologies that turn “body into story, and vice versa, producing both what can count as real and the witnesses to that reality.”  In Martin’s article we see the same procedural take on what constitutes ‘real’ research given venues, audiences, and what correspondences are recognized as back-door vs. legitimized by normalized scientific processes.  Agree lays out his attempt to insert sociological considerations into dominant forms of engineering-language in his field of AI with mixed results.  In the end concluding,  “A critical technical practice will, at least for the foreseeable future, require a split identity -- one foot planted in the craft work of design and the other foot planted in the reflexive work of critique.”

This is where I see the Ethnomathematics and DiSalvo’s robotics projects as being useful demonstrations of, if you will, speculum in practice - simultaneously straddling research design and critique.  If Haraway’s image of a virtual fetus is meant as a stand-in for new modes of thinking of the body (both empowering and disrupting) then reflexive computing technologies – CSDTs and community robotics workshops - have similar effect but with the preemptive/intentional purpose of highlighting assumptions in the undercurrents of math and design respectively.  From DiSalvo, “In order for people to think critically about how the capabilities of environmental sensors might intersect with their own community issues, they must make the connection between data sources, what that data means for their local community, and how they might act upon, or with, that data.”  But, in following the other trajectory of these readings – participant research – I think we also need to consider whether or not the potential effectiveness of speculum in practice come as a result of bringing more resources (technology) or new models (contextualization) to bear.  In the end we might ask, does it matter which? For the sake of social change, maybe not.  For the sake of social science, most definitely.  Making the distinction, however, is the Achilles heal of participant researchers.


I feel as though I’m missing something if the aim was to outline some considerations of a practice for designing experiments, but the readings do provide a number of useful insights for thinking bout the design while working on it. In particular, the Agre piece as being particularly useful as a way of thinking about living on the boundary of a discipline where you are trying to bring critical practice into an area where it doesn’t have the same background as the social sciences. I’ve been thinking about how the social sciences have the advantage of having had many failures to learn from in the development of critical practice. Invariably, any sociological education is going to have a long list of “don’t do what these guys did, they were wrong” discussions that help illuminate some of the broader concerns that must be carried into research to avoid new mistakes. Talking about the Chicago School’s analysis of the city helps us think about how our own underlying assumptions can produce some questionable conclusions. We’re forced then, if I’m understanding Agre, to float up and down within a research field. Down- Deep into the logic, concerns and focus of the field, and Up- questioning the underlying ideas that drive the discipline.

Martin’s look into the polio hypothesis is also useful here because he used his position as a person who might be considered deep in the scientific world to assist some one with a novel idea who lacked the depth within the field. The impression that I got was that the social implications of the research, that science might receive a black eye for its possible role in HIV/AIDS transmission, is fascinating because I can see how it flies in the power of established structures. Even if it doesn’t do the sort of questioning about the scientific relationship to the origin of the epidemic, The idea that all research is evaluated and considered on the value of its arguments is plainly false and Sylvan’s research is rejected for various structural reasons. While it’s not to say that all Up ideas have dramatic insights (sometimes it really is just a lack of understanding), this example showed a case where the assumptions about the peer review’s system to evaluate without bias failed.

The Haraway piece was interesting in talking about images and the risks of research, as Ron pointed out, and it brings to mind another question that I have been batting around lately. If the goal of STS is to bring critical attention to the connections between technology and representations of ourselves, are we activists trying to be academics or academics who have activist sympathies? In discussing feminist research aims, Haraway suggests that any research worth doing is going to pull us into some form of an activist role in relation to the subaltern culture. Or, if we fail to address these concerns, we may end up being an activist on behalf of the dominant culture.

The DiSalvo piece was interesting to me in that it beings with the aim to introduce communities to robotics in a way that gets them to think more broadly and creatively about participation and sensing for their benefit. I feel a little let down that it ends with the sort of exploratory “This could work” angle rather than taking a stand that this is something that should be continued. What is fascinating, though, is that the study gets them to create some ideas about how to creatively deploy this technology beyond the initial expectations of the researcher. DiSalvo goes with the modification to expand the program and enriches what might be a useful community method of desalinating information even if it requires revising and expanding the expertise involved. By doing this DiSalvo is acting as an activist by showing that people should be able to disseminate information across radio ways and that sensing technology should be somewhat related to the experience and understanding of the community and acts as an activist for one kind of community information relationship.


I want to be constructive this week, so I’m going to try to focus (mostly) on positive ideas. The first is a question I have for Dr. Eglash. The way I read it, and it’s usually wrong, so please excuse any total stupidity, the article was weaved around the idea that without the grants the design would’ve been completely different and wouldn’t have stretched out to so many differing populations. Is that true? Would it have changed much? I ask because this brings something else as a question, how much of the design of the research experiment ultimately is in the hands of a body of people/institutions and not in the researchers’ hands? Since we’ve had discussions of how one is to write in a certain way to get a certain grant, etc. that means that the design of what will be the experiment is already half decided by the biases of the committee, the rigors of the funding agency, etc.

I found the following passage in the Martin piece to be emblematic to what I see in social science through STS, and I would like to have any student in the class try to explain to me how this is not wholly unreflexive and blind:

Intervention can be a form of cultural imperialism if and when the analyst behaves in a way that is oppressive for the community being studied. This is unlikely to be a problem when social scientists intervene in the scientific enterprise, which itself is the dominant culture of knowledge in western societies, at least when social scientists tackle stronger rather than weaker elements in the scientific community.”

I swallowed the notion that simply admitting your bias isn’t enough, embracing and injecting it is the way to go, because that’s where I saw things going anyway, but this passage infuriated the heck out of me. The amount of “we can almost never do any wrong” in here is sickening, and in my eyes practically erases any other mildly phrased and more level-headed ideas. It sounds like “it’s ok to do wrong to somebody who is in power, just because they are in power, no matter if they’re good or not, because if we do that, what we just did is not actually considered wrong.”

To Taylor’s last point, I feel that he’s going into murky waters. The American system, if we are talking about the American ideas of brains over brawns, has a sort of triptych that I’ve seen over and over, and this is the conclusion of an outsider, so please don’t automatically pin me as the elite in charge of keeping itself alive. The triptych I see is this: there’s poor people for which we need to feel guilty about and go out of our way to help, no matter what, there’s people with a limited education that have decent paying jobs that we secretly despise because we believe that their lack of education makes them vote Republican (“backwoods people clinging to guns and bibles”) and even worse we openly despise them for the anti-intellectual movements that they espouse, and then there’s the people with either higher education (college degrees, or higher) or with a lot of money (that may or may not have college degrees, but have a sense of the world by interacting with educated individuals, or by just being smart - e.g. Bill Gates), that if they don’t have the same views as us are automatically seen as the equivalents of the second group, no matter how much they know, their potential to do good, etc. And this is to get to my question from last week. We’re in a department, heck a discipline, that teaches us that there is no “one answer” or “one universal definition” of something, yet most of the people in the department believe that Feminism, Atheism, Marxism, the Political Left, and other few “universal definitions” of “good”, are the only ways and look down upon those with differing views.

That much for positivity, huh? But once I started writing, I bypassed my notes of “i liked this”, “i found this interesting” and let my passions get the best of me. I just hope this doesn’t damage my image of a like-minded individual in the eyes of my colleagues. :P