Tag Archives: Latour

If the shoe fits…

We have a rule in our house. No recounting your sleep dreams to each other…

So last night I had this crazy dream, I was in Tokyo and I was carrying three talking chipmunks in my backpack, when…

Zippit, my loved one. Not on my time. This dream-event never happened and, in this current dimension, most likely never will. Therefore, this is a selfish monologue of which I want no part. Take it to Russell Grant.

However, for this blog I have decided to break with this rule just once (and for which I duly apologise, but I’ll make the ‘dream’ bit as short as possible).

A few nights ago, I dreamt I took into a shoe repair shop five pairs of patented, high-heeled shoes that needed re-heeling. The cobbler lined them up on the counter and asked,

“Ah, I see these are Latour shoes. Can’t you wear something that is more comfortable? These look very awkward to walk in”.

“No, no”, I replied, “I need to attend all these events this year and I must wear these Latour shoes to look the part. As you can see, they’ve taken a bit of a bashing as I’ve tried to break them in, but they’re getting more comfy.”

“Ok”, she replied, “that will be £55”

“£55!!”, I remember exclaiming – and this is when I realised I have been a student too long – “Do you do student discount?” and brandished my student card.

I got them dream-repaired for £46 – result!

So, this dream sequence stayed with me over the next few day and got me thinking about how we choose the terminologies we work with, or even as we try to shoe horn them in, when analysing and theorising our data. I won’t be the first to admit that learning about ANT has been like learning a whole new language where the wrong subject-object-verb configuration can reveal you as an ANT interloper. Each word has to be carefully picked up, held against the light, and inspected for its suitability and sense-making for an ANT-styled sentence. After all, the description in ANT is the analysis.

However, appropriating terminology adopted, or created, by fellow ANT authors is only affording me to make sense of my data to a point. I am struggling to find the right combination of words to fully express my analytical concepts. At my last supervision, it was suggested that I could start shaping my OWN terminology to help me conceptualise my data!! This is probably the biggest, scariest outcome of my PhD process so far. I now have a RESPONSIBILITY to add to a new language – a new way of describing – that needs to make sense of a very complex ontology. So, I am excited, but nervous, as I start playing around with new configurations of words, verb conjugations and meanings. ‘Playing’, I think, is the key notion here. I am allowing myself some time to play with the words and this can only help my thinking process as I cut, paste, delete, paste, cut, and delete some more. I am hoping in the next few months I can start replacing those dream high-heels with a few pairs of lovely comfy flip flops that won’t make my feet hurt so much….

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Writing it right: Getting back to basics

The time has come. I am committing words to Word and beginning the official drafting of my thesis. The main aim of my thesis is to present, in writing, an original piece of research. In my case, I have been tracing the social connections of professionals in an emerging organisation in order to explore their knowledge practices. For six months, I have followed engineers and the objects of their practice in a renewable energy organisation, gathering transcribed interviews, jotting down observations and writing-up descriptions.  As I draw all of this written data together to start my thesis writing, I am reminded of one of Latour’s[1] (2005) questions: what are we actually doing when we trace these social connections?

In answer to his own query, he states that we trace social connections by writing down accounts. But what is an ‘account’? Latour maintains that an account is a text, written on paper that is read by a (normally small!) number of people. He contends that this writing of a textual account should not be sniffed at as:

the simple act of recording anything on paper is already an immense transformation that requires as much skill and just as much artifice as painting a landscape or setting up some elaborate biochemical reaction.  No scholar should find humiliating the task of sticking to description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. p. 136-7

Although Latour admits that the social scientist should not be concerned with ‘good style’ when writing their account, as we are rarely likely to achieve the skill of a poet or a playwright, I can’t help but think differently as a PhD student. When it comes to submitting your thesis you know the examiner’s critical gaze is judging not only how ‘good’ the account is in tracing the social connections but also the accuracy of the grammar, the exactness of the punctuation marks and how successfully the style engages the reader.

At this stage in your education, it is assumed by many (both supervisors and students) that the main capacity required to draft this staggering tome – one’s dexterity of the English language – is finely honed and primed for use at a moment’s notice. Passive or active verb structure turmoil, semi colon or colon anxiety, and second person pronoun confusion should be the least of the student’s worries at this point. Shouldn’t  learning the rules of grammar and punctuation belong to the English classes of our early school years?

Yet I have noticed that friends and colleagues seem to have had different experiences of learning grammar and punctuation at school. Then, when we come to actually writing one of the most important documents of our careers, we seem to have varying levels of understanding as to what constitutes ‘correct’ grammar and punctuation[2]. If we take to heart Latour’s counsel, ‘that good sociology has to be well written; if not the social doesn’t appear through it’ (p.124), I feel there is a need to ensure PhD students are equipped with the basic rules of grammar and punctuation during their PhD journey – and this level of training should not be sniffed at either. After all, in qualitative work, the written word and the ‘thick description’ is the essence of your thesis. This grammatical top-up can be as simple and effective as a couple of day-workshops. For example, at Stirling we have the option of attending workshops focused on writing for each particular year of our PhD (an external trainer at Grammatology runs these for us). These are by far the most useful training days I have been on as a PhD student. And I can now go forth on my academic journey having learnt that you never start a sentence with a conjunction…


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

[2] I know I am still learning how to be grammatically ‘correct’ in my writing, but I like to think I have an awareness of when a sentence ‘looks’ and ‘sounds’ right. I can thank my 5th grade English teacher for this – Ms B. had a penchant for endless grammatical workbook exercises.

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