Practicing What I Preach

Despite being recommended to me countless times, I have never kept a research journal. As my previous projects have normally been relatively brief in duration, I’ve relied on my memory, untidy scrawlings on papers and half-finished sentences to keep my records and reflections straight. However, for a six-month stint gathering vast amounts of data in a fast-paced organisation, I realised I needed to change my practice of recording my enquiries. I needed to follow the advice of one of the key theorists I am drawing from, Bruno Latour.

I am looking to Latour’s writing on actor-network theory[1] to help me understand how knowing is produced and performed in organisations. Latour’s work, among others, is useful for such an inquiry because he asks us to focus on all the little things that people do at work and, most likely, take for granted. Along this line, questions I was asking included: how do engineers arrange their desk space? Why do they have two monitor screens on their desk? How do they prioritise their emails? Do they allow email pop-ups? Do they screen their incoming phone calls?

By tracing how different things (such as documents, technologies, people, spaces, processes and software programmes) are distributed and arranged in certain ways, this micro-level focus can help us understand how things come together to work in practice and thus produce instances of knowing. This takes the focus away from understanding the individual as containing an ostensive, cognitive skill and towards the idea that knowing is intrinsically linked to practice and materials: to fluid action; to a performance of ‘things’ that is local and temporary.

In order for a social scientist to achieve this micro-level focus, Latour advises us to slow down and record everything, no matter how small or mundane – ‘from now on everything is data’. His well-quoted maxim is ‘to follow the actor’, an ‘actor’ being some one or some thing that, put simply, exerts force. He warns us, this following will be ‘agonizingly slow’!

To help me do this in the work place, I kept a daily report on Word on my laptop (instead of the four separate notebooks Latour recommends). I described the day’s interviews, meetings and observations and recorded noises, reflections, feelings and paraphrased conversations. I used a template[2] that consisted of the headings Observations, Academic notes, and Personal notes and subheadings including Objects and human relations involved, Theoretical links and Mistakes I made.

This allowed me to record the day’s events with an element of consistency and encouraged me to give a more complete account of my day. It also meant I didn’t rely on memory recall when it came to analysis. Recall is a dangerous method to rely on because it is notoriously inaccurate[3]. I think, as a researcher, there is the tendency that as the temporal and spatial distance from the event increases, the more likely we are to start taking the account for granted, rendering silent all the materials that gather, or have been gathered, to perform the event. The daily report was intended to remind me of all the traces I had followed throughout the six months and thus keep them visible for my analysis.

However, some days I couldn’t be bothered to complete the report as I felt nothing of interest had happened that day – I was tired; I had lots of other reports filled out, missing one wouldn’t matter. But then I’d pull myself up; Latour would’ve looked at me in that ‘I’m not cross, but I am disappointed in you’ way. After all, he did warn me: ‘If you don’t want to take notes and to write them down well, don’t try to get into sociology: it’s the only way there is to become slightly more objective’.

I was falling into the same trap as my participants. When I asked the participants if I could attend their meetings that day with them, they would often agree but comment ‘it’s a shame you couldn’t have come to the meetings on Monday, they were so much more interesting, Paul was getting so mad at George over the Hailey’s contract’. They equated drama, incidents and external meetings as being more ‘useful’ and ‘of interest’ to my study. They couldn’t conceive that the routine, the mundane, the taken for granted was not only of interest to me, it was crucial in understanding the bigger picture.

So every day I duly filled out the daily report, even if I felt my reflections were mundane and the only profound ‘Mistakes I made’ that day was spilling my coffee all over the desk I was sitting at. Hopefully, I will be thanking myself, and Latour, for these reports when I come to start my analysis next month.

[1] Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Adapted from one used in Schultze, U. 2000. A confessional account of an ethnography about knowledge work, MIS Quarterly, 24(1), pp. 3-41.

[3] For example, see psychological studies that suggest the dangers of memory recall in eyewitness testimonies (e.g. Loftus, 1979).



Filed under Actor-Network Theory

3 responses to “Practicing What I Preach

  1. Wow – what a great post. As a very new PhD student at Stirling (newbie since March 2013, folders and books still shiny) I am just trying to get to grips with ideas associated with sociomateriality and with Latour himself (listening to some Gifford lectures is reminding me that I have a long way to go with this), but reading your blog post was the first chink of light. You write about what has been vexing me which is how would I ever go about putting in to practice as a researcher some of these ideas. I’m just about able to describe them, but no way sure about what an approach to research would look like if it were underpinned by this or that theory. Thatks very, very much for this.

  2. Hi Julia, thanks so much for your comment, and welcome to Stirling. If you ever want to meet up on campus to chat through some sociomateriality/ANT thoughts, just let me know. A few of us in the School are drawing on different sociomaterial approaches and have been immersed in the literature for the last 18 months (and still trying to get to grips with it!). All the best with your work! Jenny

  3. Whoever would have thought we would have met up nearly two years after I made that first post to become study buddies, colleagues and friends! I love our puzzling conversations about the meaning of practice, about the perils of sociomateriality and the potential embarrassment of failing to adequately define everyday terms such as learning. Thank you for all your inspiration and encouragement. It makes a big difference.

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