Methods as Devices

by Evelyn Ruppert April 20, 2015

Kurt Lewin and colleagues experimenting at the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, 1939. Photo credit: Frederick W. Kent Collection, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa.

Evelyn Ruppert provides a reflection on The Social Life of Methods: Devices Special Issue of Journal of Cultural Economy (Volume 6, Issue 3, 2013), which she co-edited with John Law.

What is the value of considering social science methods as devices? To answer this we started with a dictionary definition: a device is a thing designed and adapted for a purpose or function. However, we then noted that almost any human activity such as the design of a nuclear plant, identity card, supermarket or newspaper could be understood as a device. True. But it is exactly this point that enabled us to argue that methods are, and are like, other human activities: they are patterned teleological arrangements that purposefully assemble, organise, and arrange worlds in specific social and material patterns. They do ‘social work’. From farmers managing their cattle, behavioural ecologists observing meerkats and psychologists conducting contained experiments, the articles in the special issue explore diverse devices – and not just those of social science – and how they are active in the making and shaping of the worlds they seek to know and direct. In this way, the device draws attention to how ‘devising’ the social is an activity not only of social science.

What the contributions do is make problematic the assumption that we can know what any device will do in advance. From the things, people, assumptions, materials, and so on that get assembled in doing the ‘social work’ of methods there is much that happens which isn’t necessarily written on the package. That is not to say that the ways devices are initially configured, strategically ordered, and organised are inconsequential, but it may be that they are only provisional and what is included is not always obvious to us. That is, the arrangements assembled as part of a device are active, alive and lively – have social lives – and how they play out and what gets assembled and provoked are contingent and empirical questions. We thus described devices as more rough-and-ready assemblages rather than well-oiled systems; more messy than tightly organised with lively relations and collateral effects that are both explicit and implicit. It is this liveliness and life of devices that the articles bring attention to through a diverse set of papers that attend to what we refer to as the ‘triple life of methods’ – from how they are shaped by the social (e.g., see Marres and Weltevrede), format the social (e.g., see Lezaun et al.) to how they can also be used opportunistically for political advantage (e.g., see Erturk et al.).

But this argument raises a tricky problem. If other actors can intervene, if implicit assumptions are active, if other things can happen along the way, then are devices beyond our control and what they make happen beyond our responsibility? The authors nor we provide an easy answer to this. Rather we note that it is the recognition of this triple life of methods that opens us up to asking critical questions about our methods: what are they doing? what do they imply? what do they enable? what agendas do they serve? what kinds of worlds are they opening up? and what kinds of worlds are they closing off?


Special Issue Table of Contents

Introduction: The social life of methods: Devices

John Law & Evelyn Ruppert

The fieldsite as device

Matei Candea

Devices as rituals: Notes on enacting resistance

Vicky Singleton & John Law

Provocative containment and the drift of social-scientific realism

Javier Lezaun, Fabian Muniesa & Signe Vikkelsø

Anticipating failure: Transparency devices and their effects

Penny Harvey, Madeleine Reeves & Evelyn Ruppert

Scraping the social? Issues in live social research

Noortje Marres & Esther Weltevrede

(How) do devices matter in finance?

Ismail Erturk, Julie Froud, Sukhdev Johal, Adam Leaver & Karel Williams