Friday, August 10, 2012

"What is Context and How to Deal With It?": Nicholas Rowland Reviews Kristin Asdal and Inguun Moser

Philosophy has taught us that it is difficult to examine something from "outside."Things are always understood from within the parameters of a framing order. That framing order is not irrational--but it is arbitrary. One measures distance in relation to the spatial capacities of the human beings who do the measuring, and the culture of measurement is centered on creating meaningfulness between measurement and the person measuring. Likewise, few have found it possible to de-link human institutional systems from biology 
 (Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)
or social scientists, and especially those studying social systems, this issue, which I will call the problem of "embededness" (or context) strikes at the center of their own field mythologies.  If the study of social systems, for example, cannot escape the deep webs of frameworks within which they are studies, then all social science ultimately must devolve into a study of the frameworks within which they operate.  For Philosophers, this is not surprising.  For social science, it poses quite starkly a great contradiction--the more they seek "truth" (in whatever form they seek it, the more they will find the limits of their endeavors in the contexts in which that truth is sought. 
Yet, if embeddedness is everything, might it also be nothing?  That is, might presuming embeddedness, embracing the framework within which analysis occurs, provide a space, however limited and arbitrary, within which the social sciences might seek to distill truth as they have come to understand that term as a cultural artifact of the systems within which they operate. Can one be content (as academics have come to understand that term within the cultural structures of their fields)  to build worlds within semiotic space without the need (beyond acknowledgement of the foundational framework within which investigations are undertaken) to engage that space itself.  
This unquestioning "inwardness" has been essential to the construction of human systems--law, religion, social, etc.--for a very long time. It produces stability but also the possibility of deep revolution. This is the problem of modernity itself, now come home to roost within the very fabric of the self-conception of the social sciences themselves.  This appears to be the focus of the July issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values is out (July is volume 37, number 4).  My colleague and guest writer, Nicholas Rowland has produced a review of the issue (Best STHV issue in a while, Installing (Social) Order.) and now tackles the first of the articles: Kristin Asdal and Inguun Moser, "Experiments in Context and Contexting," Science, Technology and Human Values 37(4):291-306 (2012). Rowland's review, cross posted from STHV, Special Issue on Context: Comment One,  and my comments, follow:

Rowland writes:

 First paper is "Experiments in Context and Contexting" by Asdal and Moser.

Original Abstract:
What is context and how to deal with it? The context issue has been a key concern in Science and Technology Studies (STS). This is linked to the understanding that science is culture. But how? The irreductionist program from the early eighties sought to solve the problem by doing away with context altogether—for the benefit of worlds in the making. This special issue takes its points of departure in this irreductionist program, its source of inspirations, as well as its reworkings. The aim is not to solve the context problem but rather to experiment with context and what we label contexting.

Reaction and Commentary:

The scope of this opening piece is like any introduction to the the topic, as one would expect in an edited book or special edition. Typically, and this is no exception, it is at once not broad enough or deep enough to adequately do this, but does a fine job of setting up the relevant lines of research, which are developed in papers afterward.

Still, context is not really defined (in the old fashioned, positivistic sense), even though the abstract sort of promises something of a definition. Instead, a bit of a dance is initiated. Context is raised as a hopeless sociological concept, which has traditionally been used to explain all manner of relevant issues for sociologists such as group-level human behavior, social trends, and the like. However, this traditionalist vision of context is challenged by a traditional vision of context, but this time from Science and Technology Studies, namely, the irreductivist camp otherwise commonly known as actor-network theory. From the vantage point of ANT, we can be critical of the reductive potential of "context" (and many other constructs that aid in sociological explanation generation). We see that, while context is useful for sociologists, it is also something we cannot see, that is, we cannot observe it directly; however, so reified in sociological circles, context is something you feel like you might be able to snap a picture of!

The definition of context, then, is exchanged for a 'balance' (like in a ledger, but for theory): the authors write:

We suggest a series of moves [read: assumptions and rules of thumb] that may keep the irreductionist program alive while at the same time acknowledging that context is something we cannot escape (p. 293).

This is an insight drawn largely from Donna Haraway's commentary on what to do about 'nature'; a notion that is hopelessly troubled, but something that we nevertheless cannot do away with completely. In this way, they suggest 'context' is a similar sort of concept.

Here is where a missed step took place. Context is not a concept (in the singular). Instead, context triggers the same sorts of issues that 'nature' does, and 'the body', 'the economy', or 'the state' do ... they are 'differentiated singularities' (to use a phrase from the special issue) or, to use a phrase I am more familiar with, they are multiple. In this case, hence, my insistence that 'context' must strike a balance (of sorts) on a ledger for theory; balancing the traditional ways of using the term with new ways for understanding both the same term and a new version of it. The trick, then, of course, is to determine what links them together or when one version/face of context appears rather than another.

As a closing comment and insight, one of the reasons that context can balance so many seemingly incommensurate definitions is because of its centrality to the social sciences. The upshot: do away with context (context dependence, cultural context, organizational field or environment, and so on) and much of the conceptual infrastructure supporting sociological analysis and explanation generation techniques goes with it. One might say that you cannot have sociology without it. Jens Bartelson once wrote a terrific book, good for students (if read slowly) and advanced colleagues (still, take your time), about 'the state' as a multiple concept, which he studies both historically and conceptually as it was born in political philosophy and then as the term was migrated to political science in The Critique of the State. One insight from the book: the state cannot be defined, but instead balances sets of abstractions about itself, sometimes abstractions so contradictory that they appear impossibly incommensurate; however, such (multiple) concepts as the state or the law become the fodder that disciplines are made of, so close to the heart of the discipline as they are buried.

Rowland's position is nicely summarized in an earlier post:  Best STHV issue in a while, Installing (Social) Order.  Rowland, then, focuses on context as abstraction; and he posits that abstraction ought to be irrelevant to the work of social science.  That is,"contexts do not exist, but actors do and there material and organizational consequences do too." ( Best STHV issue in a while).  Context, then, rather than serving as a superstructure framework that weakens the integrity of thew project of the social sciences, ought to be internalized within the analytical framework of particular investigations.  Context, in other words, becomes in Rowland's words, "contexting"--the science of starting from the observable consequences of actors, an essence of Action Network Theorists (ANT).

Rowland makes a good point here.  ANT acknowledges the semiotic nature of meaning, and focuses on the consequences of observable relationships between signs, symbols and interpretants, though of course they use language appropriate to their respective fields.   But that inward focus then leaves untouched the broader issue of context that trouble others--the issues of the meaning of meaning in the absence of referents.  And that is, in the end, the great post modern difficulty within which the social sciences find themselves.  In order to make meaning one must create a structure in which the extraction of meaning is possible.  That structure, as ANT would have it, may be understood as the aggregation of phenomena that may contribute to a particular condition or affect a particular action. Action provides the evidence of structure, and structure is the object of inquiry--contexting perhaps.  The "situatedness" of that "contexting" outside of the framework of the premises and beliefs within which meaning is made among the group of actors studied then falls somewhere else--outside the analytical parameters of the field.  But there is a danger as well.  For the insider, it is the possibility that analysis will fail because of the embrace of the parameters of the system studied--a failure to recognize system premises and taboos may make observation less valuable.  For the outsider, a failure to embed oneself within the system may make it harder to gauge the strength of system assumptions and their consequences in action; that in turn may produce the possibility of distortion in assessing action itself.

The inside-outside problem of the context debate will not be "solved"; it can be observed, refined and understood as a set of limitations on social scientific analysis (as it should in a related sense serve as a caution in the so-called natural sciences). The question then, isn't escape, but the transparent exposition of the parameters within, and the expressed limitations of, the acts of social scientific examination itself.

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