Comment on Mewes & Lippert “Data, Methods and Writing: Methodographies of STS Ethnographic Collaboration in Practice”

Comment by Andreas

In early July Julie Sascia Mewes (Ruhr-University Bochum) and Ingmar Lippert (Brandenburg University of Technology / IT University of Copenhagen) introduced to us their work on “Data, Methods and Writing: Methodographies of STS Ethnographic Collaboration in Practice” involving the editorship of a soon to be published special issue for Science and Technology Studies.

Methodography as a genre for STS ethnography stems from their diagnosis that methods, such as the ones used in ethnographic STS research, take part in shaping both knowledge and reality and do not necessarily follow protocol while doing so. As there is no strict method handbook for STS, Ingmars and Julies aim with the SI was “to push the authors to think about what they are doing in doing ethnography”, says Ingmar. According to him many STS papers are not very explicit about how they turned their data into stories. Julie’s and his concerns regard accountability relations in the field: “We are missing too much of the accounts’ hinterlands, how these accounts are produced, therefore the stories that we read are fascinating to read, but hard to challenge.”

The idea of methodography and the SI on it thus is to be reflexive of one’s own methods by being ethnographic about ethnography. The main questions driving this endeavor are “How do methods matter?”, “How are methods performed?” and “What are the methods performative of?”.

As all six papers of the SI (estimated to be published in August 2021; papers about to be published online first) give very different perspectives on how methodography is to be performed, Julie and Ingmar introduced them briefly one by one.

The contribution “Composite Method” by Bleumink, Jong and Zonga compares enacting two methods employed to research the absence and presence of race using facial composite drawing used in criminal investigations as an empirical case. The two methods were observational methods in a natural setting, i. e. a police station’s interrogation room vs. a video-supported experiment. The experiment configured collaboration and a creative process and showed how the experimental method was used to substantiate several ‘modes of doing difference’.

The chapter “Embodiment work in Ethnographic Collaborations” by Endsaltseva and Jerak-Zuiderent deals with ethnographic fieldwork with/in a Russian patient organisation. The authors analyse the embodied work of care in enacting and reflecting on method. Endsaltseva and Jerak-Zuiderent focus on the role and distribution of resources in powering the ethnographic collaboration. Collaboration, they state, always figures as composition, it moves and thrives in pausing. The authors argue for an epistemic process attentive to care, how research can be done more carefully.

In “Visualising Devices for Configuring Complex Phenomena in-the-making” the authors Karasti, Botero, Saad-Sulonen and Baker present research that is concerned with infrastructures for socio-ecological research in Finnland and Europe. They investigate visualisations as field work devices focusing on the research process and its re-imagination with the aim to achieve the work of intervention in collaboration.

With their contribution “Moving Ethnography” the PECE team reflexively discusses their making of PECE (the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography) as an infrastructure and their experimental ethnographic methods. Rather than stabilising knowledge, PECE is here analysed as opening up with regard to questions, data, finding and possibilities.

“Imagining Citizens as More than Data Subjects” by Grommé and Ruppert gives an analysis of the performativity of a workshop of (re-)imagining citizens by statisticans working at the national and international level. They identify ‘friction’ as characterising the collaborative engagement in the workshop’s speculative epistemic collaboration. Grommé and Ruppert put their analytical focus on such epistemic frictions. This friction was generative of possibilities “by being attuned to the inevitable complications of working together”, they suggest.

The final chapter “Say Why You Say It” by Jensen engages with the problem of ethnographic practice as well as writing as configuring its data. Jensen problematises the imaginary of delineating ethnographic from rhetorical effects in writing. The contribution shows in what way writing ethnography can involve a back-and-forth between so-called theory and so-called empirical data and questions the relationship between ethnography as a method and as writing. Jensen argues that writing forms a collective of heterogeneous companions – making the author appear as effectively performing a collaborative companionship.

These six different takes on methodography illustrate and allowe, also according to Julia and Ingmar, a glimpse of the diversity and richness of STS ethnography. Within the SI they identify three main intersections, which are not exclusive to STS, but touch on the whole of ethnography: Openness, composition/configuration and movement.

Openness refers to the open-endedness and the fragility of the ethnographic research process, which allow for (and as well demand) specific flexibility, openness regarding collaborators and their agenda and knowledge transfer (open data).

Composition/configuration points to the aspect that configuring a research space is not only enabling a specific version of this space but that the configuration is also performative of data. Configuration does not end with empirical research but remains as important during analysis and text composition, I. e. the analytical and conceptual framing.

Movement refers to the observation that across several of the contributions of the SI the practice of conducting a methodography is described in terms of a back-and-forth, of physical and intellectual movement alike, e. g. between empirical moments and theoretically informed concepts, mediated by writing and analysis.

In the following discussion the point was made that such disciplinary reflexivity is important but always bears the risk of closing a discipline of into itself, while there are global problems to the discussion of which STS could contribute to. Ingmar and Julie argued for a “a third way sideways”, that holds a space for productive conversation about how STS relates to the world so that STS’ capacities to analyse it and thereby contribute to solving its problems subsequently can be used more fruitful.

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