My Journey as a PhD- Visual Snow Syndrome

Today I am going to talk about something personal again. Last year I’ve been diagnosed with Visual Snow Syndrome (VSS) and I wanted to share my experiences.

First of all, what is VSS?

“Visual snow (VS) is a recently identified neurologic condition consisting of a constant positive visual disturbance described as uncountable tiny dots over the entire visual field. In addition to the static, patients very often report visual symptoms such as palinopsia, entoptic phenomena, photophobia, and nyctalopia”. (Puledda et al., 2020)

How I found out:

In retrospect I cannot pinpoint when exactly I GOT the symptoms of VSS, I might have had them all my life but I all of a sudden noticed them. I think I started to notice the symptoms after a quite stressful period when it became really difficult to read a certain book. Difficult is an understatement, it became impossible. The book used a particularly small, narrow font and basically no line spacing. What I saw was kind of a nervous picture, the lines and letter were kind of wobbling around and there was some sense of erratic movement that I could not pinpoint. In addition to this, things felt as if they were “burnt” into my retina. We all know this when we look at the sun too long and then look at something else, but I had it with everything that was slightly darker and in front of a mono-coloured surface. Moreover, these afterimages did not last 2-3 seconds but 30ish. I also noticed that looking at screens became difficult as if there was always something “in the way” and I tried to blink and squint but it did not help. Also, it was present 24/7, I COULD NEVER REST EVEN WHEN I CLOSED MY EYES!!


Symptoms:

So, my symptoms are very typical and include:

  • Visual snow (i.e. dynamic, continuous, tiny dots in their entire visual field)
  • Palinopsia (afterimages or trailing),
  • Enhanced entoptic phenomena (blue-field entoptic phenomena, self-light of the eye or spontaneous photopsia)
  • Photophobia (light sensitivity), and

In addition to this, migraine, as well as tinnitus, have been found in numerous VSS patients, suggesting that there might be a connection.

I think of VSS as tinnitus of the eyes…

This picture visualizes it quite nicely, but only shows half of what I see…

However, there is also an online page that lets you play around to visualize your symptoms. Unfortunately, I cannot layer e.g. VSS and the blurry vision, but this one comes quite close I would say:

http://VisionSimulations.com/visual-snow.htm?background=office1.png&density=0.67&speed=100&grainsize=1


Finding professional help:

But to continue with my story: Once I noticed the symptoms I stopped working and tried to relax, and thought it might be stress-related. I also called a doctor’s office about it but they also told me to stay put and wait a couple of days and to call them back if it did not get better, which it did not. So I went into the doctor’s office and we did a couple of tests, which were inconclusive. When I went back to the doctor the next day to get my blood tested he immediately sent me to the Eye Emergency unit at the hospital, where I spent my day going through tests, which, again, were inconclusive. My eyes seemed healthy. Based on my description I got the preliminary diagnosis: Visual Snow Syndrome. I had googled my symptoms the day before and I came across VSS before and TBH I was wishing for the doctors to tell me “Well, you’re going to be on sick leave for 2 weeks and then it is going to be fine”….but, unfortunately, they did not. I can tell you I was devastated. I did not want to have this.

Since it was just a preliminary diagnosis I was called in again a couple of weeks later, to see an ophthalmologist. He took quite some time to ask me questions and he also did some additional tests, again my eyes seemed healthy- everything pointed towards VSS. Luckily, he was one of the few that actually knew about VSS! After I had joined some of the Facebook groups, I later found out that it is not that common. He also ordered an MRI, because sometimes the symptoms point towards MS….uff…that was scary to know, but luckily it was not MS.

What was positive about this was that I knew what I had (most likely) but at the same time the ophthalmologist also told me that there is basically no help he could offer me, no treatment, no cure. He said that the VSS won’t get worse but he cannot really help me. He mentioned one medication, lamotrigine, which had shown SOME effects in individual cases. Lamotrigine is primarily a treatment for epilepsy and I decided to do some research into the trials that were done as well as into lamotrigine itself. After a couple of hours reading scientific articles I decided not to take lamotrigine, but to try to handle the VSS by myself- however, I do feel good that there might be an option in the future.


Back to my PhD…

As I said, after I got the VSS diagnosis, I was shattered and scared. I was ½ into my PhD and then this….I was hopeless because I already had tinnitus and had learned to live with it. I can tell you that it takes energy to not focus on it…or ignore it. But usually, I’ve become quite good at it. However, having something BESIDES that I also have to ignore all the time felt too much for me. HOW on earth was I going to do that?!* Doing a PhD is difficult enough….in addition to that, I just panicked because I thought my whole academic career was in danger…it basically IS reading stuff right?! After the initial breakdown and crying, I was entering the stage of denial, so I just stayed away from all screens for 5 days (which was a nice detox!) to test if it might just be stress. Yeah, it wasn’t that.

What gave me hope was my supervisor, who told me that there are people that are blind and have an academic career. I did not want to talk to him initially, because I was scared I could get fired or something (here in Sweden a PhD is treated as a job) because I could not fulfil my job requirements. However, I also had to accept that I could not work in the same way as before, so I decided to talk to him. I am really glad I did because he calmed me down tremendously. He even told me, that he knows of people that are blind and still have an academic career. That sounds a bit extreme, but it did calm me down and helped me realize that my career might not be lost. In addition to that, he also helped me to get a process going to get my workplace adapted to my symptoms. I am still amazed and grateful for how smooth that process went. However, since no one really knew what to do or to help me I had to find out myself what helped me and whatnot. I have to say that my workplace supported me incredibly much.

*I’ve talked so much about work and my PhD! However, I also wanted to point out that I am an avid gamer and was really worried about a potential end to the day-long gaming sessions….


Tried and tested remedies:

  • Coloured sheets: I ordered coloured plastic sheets from amazon ( https://www.amazon.de/gp/product/B07BGXXFC4/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o09_s02?ie=UTF8&psc=1 ). I read somewhere that it had helped some people, but that it really was an individual preference. For me, the dark blue ones work best. I still use it for some days on my computer screen and they help me a lot. The only down-side is that I haven’t found fitting ones for my desktop screen, so I still see where the two sheets overlap, so I am still looking for the perfect solution!
  • Glasses: There is a specific version of glasses or glass colour that helps migraine patients quite a lot, since they reduce light in a certain wavelength (I think?!). They are pinkish, at least the ones that I tried (FL 41). I just used them for a couple of minutes, and they did not really have an effect but could help if worn for a longer time. At the moment I do not feel the need to buy them, but I might do it at some point.
  • Sunglasses: When my eyes are strained, my sunglasses gave me some relief. I have “normal” brown sunglasses, but I’ve tested polarized sunglasses as well. I am not sure why but they seem to help me even more. Might get some polarized ones when summer comes here in Sweden J In general, I can say that summer is more difficult for me, because of all the light…good that the winters are that long here in Sweden 😀
  • Meditation: My VSS is always there, day or night, but how stressed I am or tense DOES highly influence how much I NOTICE it. So sometimes, when I feel too nervous or restless inside it helps me to meditate
  • Podcasts/Videos: Before I noticed VSS that much, I used to read A LOT- don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I’ve started to look for alternative sources. Instead of reading a chapter on a certain theory, I try to find a video or podcast. Specifically for philosophy/ontology/epistemology, I found a couple of brilliant podcasts, that actually got me interested in philosophy altogether (e.g. Philosophize this! On Spotify)
  • Static Videos: There are a couple of videos on youtube that helped some people. It is basically static and if you watch it for ½ hour it might help with the VSS. Some VSS sufferers even claim that they’ve cured their VSS with it. For me, however, it only helped for a couple of minutes, well, my static stood still but got moving again after that. So I did not continue.
  • VSI: The Visual Snow Initiative (https://www.visualsnowinitiative.org/) is an active community that also cooperates with a research group in Australia. In 2020, they’ve released a VSS remedy program, however, I have not yet gone through with it.
  • PDF: There is actually a feature in Adobe’s program to READ the PDF’s. Sometimes it works excellent, sometimes it is just utter BS. I think it has to do with HOW the PDF is formatted, unfortunately. For me, it was more work to get it going that it was of actual use, but there might be more sophisticated programs out there.
  • Blue Light Filter: I’ve changed the settings on all my devices and have activated a blue light filter. In addition to that, I’ve installed LUX on my Laptop, so that my screen is constantly yellowy/orangy. Works GREAT!
  • Colours: Colors in general play a huge role for me. Specifically in more office settings. For me, “nervous background” is great, if there are different colours and textures mixed together I do not see my visual snow, but a plain white wall…uff…please kill me..or my eyes. However, what works for me is grey. At my home office, my wall is grey, my desk, my laptop, the sides of the screen, all of it has kind of the same colour, which is great. At work, my table is now dark too, and I get dark sides everywhere around it, so I basically have a dark box 😀 It sounds depressing, but for me, it is just perfect, because there is not BRIGHT wall anywhere close to my eyesight!
  • ReMarkable 2: I think what made the biggest difference was when I could order this e-ink tablet through work. When I finally got it was like a revelation…My god, I could finally READ pdf and books again! I could continue to write a page about this marvellous thing, but in a nutshell: It feels like it has saved my life.

Current Situation:

Some days I just cannot continue to work and then that’s just it. I try to not be angry with me, disappointed or sad, it is just what it is. I will finish my PhD. It shook me quite much, to the core and it took a couple of months for me to enjoy life again and just feel like “yeah I can do it!”. There are still days that feel awful, some days I just wake up and the visual noise is more present than others, depending on how I’ve slept, my mood and all that…

However, on the positive side, I can tell you that I’ve started to read actual paper-based books again. Most of them work, especially the ones that have bigger font size and spacing. I’ve noticed that I should buy books in-store or check them before I buy them, I think I bought a book recently that I just opened and thought, well NOPE! But then I can still use the blue plastic sheets which make my life a bit easier.

It does suck to have a neurological disease that cannot be cured or treated or ANYTHING, but the human brain is also very flexible. For me, it took around 9 months to get used to it, to not wake up every morning, checking if it got better or not. Now, I just wake up and do what I gotta do. Some days are bad, and I cannot use the screen, but I have found my workarounds, and most days I barely notice it. Of course, there is a whole spectrum of VSS intensity, but for me, it just took time to accept and adapt! For now, I feel good and the VSS does not hinder me from doing my PhD…or playing games 🙂

Reference:

Puledda, F., Schankin, C., & Goadsby, P. J. (2020). Visual snow syndrome: A clinical and phenotypical description of 1,100 cases. Neurology, 94(6), e564–e574. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000008909

Digital Methods for Social Scientists

I participated in a Data Sprint a couple of weeks ago- for the first time ever! While it wasn’t exactly what I imagined it would be, it certainly taught me A LOT! In addition to this, I came across numerous new digital methods that I might or might not use, but I wanted to create list of them so that I do not forget them….and it might be an inspiration for others as well!

I’ve decided to add a couple of tools that I use in my PhD project and my intention is to update the list as well J


App Traffic: A tool to capture, inspect and playback the traffic of mobile apps. You have to register, but I think it is for free. As of January 2021, there are some limitations with regard to the compatible android versions.

AppTraffic (uni-siegen.de)


Cortext: Cortext is a platform that focused on the exploitation and analysis of heterogeneous textual data generated by new information technologies and communication. I think a registration is required

Cortext Manager – Cortext


Facepager: A tool that can extract data from the web, e.g. social media platforms or websites. Depending on the website provider, there are three different options:

  1. interacting with Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)2.
  2. Webscraping
  3. downloading and uploading media Files.

As of January 2021 it was possible to scrape Instagram as well, despite their newly updated API restrictions.

Home · strohne/Facepager Wiki · GitHub


Gephi: Gephi is the leading visualization and exploration software for all kinds of graphs and networks. PLUS: It is open-source and free

Gephi – The Open Graph Viz Platform


Imagesorter: Once scraped, this tool can be used to analyse pictures. It browses, traces and sorts images by color, name, size or date.

https://imagesorter.software.informer.com/download/


Iramuteq: Iramuteq provides a R interface for Multidimensional Text and Questionnaire Analysis. !!The page is in French, but I think Google translate worked pretty well.

Iramuteq — IRaMuTeQ


Lightbeam: Lightbeam is a browser extension for Firefox, so I cannot post a link here. Lightbeam displays third party tracking cookies placed on the user’s computer while visiting various websites. It displays a graph of the interactions and connections of sites visited and the tracking sites to which they provide information- in real time! I used this in a workshop with students inspired by this article () and it worked excellent!


Minivan: MiniVan, as “mini visual analyser of networks”, is an online tool for publishing and exploring networks.

Visual Network Analyser (medialab.github.io)


Netlytic: Netlytic is a community-supported text and social networks analyzer that can automatically summarize and visualize public online conversations on social media sites.


About – Netlytic.org


NodeXL: Social network analysis (SNA) tool. It costs to use the pro version- might be quite similar to Gephi but I wanted to include it.

NodeXL Pro Tutorials (smrfoundation.org)

NodeXL Viewer (demo-3dg-viz.herokuapp.com)


Rapidtables: Super easy and free tool to use and work on SVG files.

SVG viewer & editor online (rapidtables.com)


RawGraphs: A tool to visualize spreadsheets. ON their webpage they write that RawGraph is “The missing link between spreadsheets and data visualization” and this tool is absolutely FANTASTIC! It is easy to use, intuitive and the visualisatios are just breath-taking. Best tool I have come across in a while and I can only recommend it to every social scientist that wants to create kick-ass visualisationas based on their data!

Home | RAWGraphs


Table 2 Net: Extract a network from a table. Set a column for nodes and a column for edges. It deals with multiple items per cell. Super useful if you need a file that is compatible with Gephi!

Table 2 Net (medialab.github.io)


VoyantTools: Voyant Tools is a web-based text analysis, reading and visualization environment.

Home · sgsinclair/Voyant Wiki · GitHub


Wireshark: Wireshark is the world’s foremost and widely-used network protocol analyzer. I use it in combination with the MaxMind GeoIP Database (GeoIP2 Databases | MaxMind)

Wireshark · Go Deep.


YoutubeDataTools: This tool creates a list of video infos and statistics from one of four sources: the videos uploaded to a specified channel, a playlist, the videos retrieved by a particular search query, or the videos specified by a list of ids.

YouTube Data Tools (digitalmethods.net)


Overview:

Tools | médialab Sciences Po

Research Software by Bernhard Rieder (polsys.net)

My Journey as a PhD- Reflection 1st year

I’ve talked a bit about my background in the last post…or got it out of my system 😀 I mean there is a reason why some people claim that journaling helps so, let’s see about that J Moving on to my reflections on my first year as a PhD, which basically consisted of exclusively negative EVERYTHING!

However, let me start from the beginning:

Well, the first warning sign should have been how I reacted to getting a PhD position. I do not know why, it had been the goal I have been working towards for a long time, but when I got the news it was a very short-lived “Yayy!”, but it felt more as if it was more of a “ticking the box” moment of achieving something, that anything else. Like, ok did that, what is next now? I do not want to sound ungrateful here. Believe me, I know what incredible achievement it is, or at least I know how I should feel about it but I kind of keep this…hidden? A bit as if I think, meh, anyone could have done it. It is not REALLY an achievement. You HAVE to do MORE! PUSH yourself…

I’ve read quite about the initial feelings online and how other PhDs felt, and what I usually come across is this motivation diagram, which shows how PhD students feel about their thesis kind of. In addition to this a lot of people talk about the initial HIGH and EXCITEMENT they felt when they started their PhD…well, I can tell you I WAITED but it never came for me. Instead, I was terrified, all the time and doubting myself…CONSTANTLY! So in a way, I started with the valley of shit…

While I was waiting for the excitement boost, I also started to beat myself up for things I did not know (concepts, philosophers, traditions…) and tried to catch up and read more and more and more and more. MY “personality” kind of changed when I was at work/ a PhD environment: I would describe myself as a very confident, extrovert person, but I just switched completely, became super quiet, asked no questions and felt overall uncomfortable all the time. Reading seminars or anything where someone could ask me a question became moments of torture and massive inner stress…and I do not mean only the official seminars and lectures, but also lunch in the lunchroom. I never really felt like as if I found my place…or even DESERVED my place. I did not know how to talk to people what is the SMALLTALK you’re supposed to have during lunch?! I was just so tense ALL THE TIME!!!

Plus I felt like as if I was behind all the time, other PhD SAID they knew what they wanted to do and how, and I was just..ehm…IDK…I mean had an idea from the beginning, but others had an EXACT plan…So yeah. I was terrified and stressed.

I mean I know that it was not good to feel that way, so I started to google about this and came across forums and blog posts about other PhD students feeling similar and imposter syndrome. I read about it, not just online but even books…and even though some of it applied to me…I always thought yeah…this applies to others…but not to ME because I am worse…I’ve tried to tell myself the common things you should tell yourself, like; other have decided that you’re good enough to do this PhD, it is not your job to question that or every PhD project is different, you cannot compare yourself to others, compare yourself to yourself from a couple of months ago blablabla. You’re learning, view EVERYTHING as a learning experience. FUCK THIS!

Nothing helped. Some days and weeks I still felt like the worst failure in history, I cried and felt miserable and some days I could not get out of bed to do anything. I got so stressed about everything, and I also always felt bad…I questioned this whole PhD and the toll it was taking on my mental health.

I cannot really explain the desperate feelings I actually had…and I cannot say that I’ve completely overcome this…

I think pushing yourself is a good thing, but I’ve always done it in a really mean way. I am not kind to myself, quite the opposite, I am very self-critical, I expect so much from myself and I do not celebrate when I’ve finished sth or achieved something. Do not get me wrong, I appreciate the small things in life, and I would say that I am in general a very positive, optimistic person. I am happy when I catch the bus or if it snows outside 😀 But when it comes to ME, I am such a bad critic.

Weird thing is, that I EXCLUSIVELY got more than excellent feedback from my supervisors or comments on my assignment in courses…so why the bad feeling?!?!?!!?! I just could not stop it or help myself! Problem was/is that I simply do not believe them when they say something positive…or I think…why is this just a great text, not an EXCELLENT text, what could I have done more and BETTER?! Yeah, indeed, perfectionism is not really healthy, but it got me so far, what can I do now that it does hinder me instead of pushing me further?!

During my bachelor/masters, I always worked to push myself. To go the extra mile, to be mean and all this, but that was always during specific periods, just for an assignment and such, but now it is there CONSTANTLY! I guess this is the issue; well the issue is that I DO this, but I probably would have continued like this if the pressure was unbearable for just a short amount of time. However, this requires some action, and I know this. I am working on it and trying some things, but I will explain that in another blog post.

My Journey as a PhD- Starting Point and Background

Alright, I planned to start a blog a year ago…when I actually started my PhD, but it took my nearly one year to create one. Nevertheless, I want to talk about my experiences and feelings about different stages during my PhD so far. It might help others to see that they are not alone but is also thought to help me reflect on my path during this experience.

First off; how I experience my PhD highly depends on my background and the context I am in. I have recently listened to an interesting podcast about identity which raised many questions and also got me thinking. Let’s get started!

Last week marked 1 ½ year into my PhD, and I thought I would write a bit about my experiences during the first year, specifically about the start of my PhD. I know, kind of late, but yeah…time flies right? So, this is more of a personal blogpost…maybe also for me to read in a couple of years to see and reflect on what has happened since then. Well, I hope things have happened, especially with me feeling like an imposter (SPOILER!).

I think I have to start with yet another spoiler, I am not kind to myself, and that has proven to be incredibly difficult during my PhD so far. While it has helped me to push myself previously it has now become an obstacle, but I am getting ahead of myself here, so let’s start kind of at the beginning to give you some context.

I come from a non-academic, working-class family. No one in my family speaks a foreign language or has finished the Gymnasium*, attended university or graduated from one. My parents luckily were interested in education and we went to museums and libraries and watched tons of documentaries.

I do not want to blow my own trumpet (yeah maybe a bit) but I started school a year early and was always the youngest in school, but that was ok. I always felt good and had loads of friends. Things however changed a bit when I started the Gymnasium in 7th grade. The majority of my classmates now had parents with an academic background, who could help them, at least to a certain extent, whereas I kind of had to struggle through the subjects myself. I had one particular teacher, kind of old school, traditional, and she absolutely detested the thought of having working –class children at the Gymnasium, which she openly said on several occasions. One example was during a literature class; we talked about a book that we were supposed to read. She just went through the names of and to the students with an academic background she said, “Ah your parents will have it at home, no worries”. Then, she turned to me and said with a derogatory voice “Well, I guess you have to buy it then”…She also disturbed newspaper articles about the decline of the Gymnasium since more and more working class students are accepted. Well, one outcome was that I was very aware of my background…

So fast forward; I finished school with excellent grades and started studying, but there was always this nagging in the back of my head about me not belonging. This is basically where problems started. I had no idea where to go, what certain terms meant (what the HELL is an immatrikulation?! I had to practice that word a couple of times..), how to behave or whatever…It took me a LONG time to get used to the new environment….I think that my whole undergrad was just me feeling LOST…but somehow I also made it with good grades.

I never really reflected on HOW difficult that was, how much energy it costs to adapt and learn certain things, skills and competencies that might be normal for others, that come from a more academic background…

However, I always kind of felt like an outcast, as if I did not truly belong. I could handle the feeling during my bachelor and my master degrees. Yeah, I have two…probably also some kind of compensation, a proof to the world… that I am worth SOMETHING? (Well, this thought about worthiness/outside approval is a different topic I might talk about another time…).

When I learned Swedish, we read a book by Theodor Kallifatides, called “Ett nytt land utanför mitt fönster”. In the book, the author explores his origins and who he has become after thirty-six years in a new country. It is a thoughtful and deeply personal book about language and belonging, about memory, love and identity and depicts the conditions and possibilities of alienation. While the book certainly touched me concerning my feelings living in a foreign country, it also resembles my feelings of “in-betweenness” of my working-class family background and my academic career as well. I never truly feel as if I belong anywhere anymore. Sometimes I do not get what my family is worried about, what they talk about at academic reading seminars, I do not get some cultural references that Swedes share that grew up in the same social context, and I do not get things that my friends refer to when they talk about current things when they talk about in Germany.

I know, when I write this now it sounds like an absolute crisis…but I do not want to talk about that here. I am not even sure I view it as a crisis…anyway, what I really wanted to talk about was this feeling of alienation in both areas, my background and the academic area, and my struggle to reach that in a way. If I only study harder, if I only know more, if I wear the specific clothes, if I learned the discourses…if only…that was basically my motto, but whenever I felt I reached it, it was not really that, it was something else that I needed to improve to finally reach the feeling of belonging. (When I started listening to Linkin Park, Somewhere I belong was definitely NOT one of my favorites, but I can tell you I listen to it regularly now :D)

You know how the majority of people say that education is the way forward, also to “escape” or move between social “classes” (if you want to you that word)…or…well….are made to BELIEVE that it is the way to go. I think I’ve also always thought that way, study harder and you will get a good job, you have a better, easier life, you’ll be an academic. Therefore, I kind of studied like a maniac, not sure for whom.

At some point, I came across Bourdieu and his theory of capital, theory of field and habitus. Well, long story short, digging into this (structuralist) theory was kind of a revelation for me.

Based on this it became quite obvious, that it is so much more than education- but it also became obvious how difficult it is to change “one’s social class”. I also realized, how much energy all this costs, and this is something I have underestimated for a really long time, well forever. I mean it is not JUST your cultural capital (such as education), but also the social aspects, economic and finally the symbolic aspects which together stand in kind of co-evolution of the habitus, the norms rules and dispositions. The habitus includes e.g. lifestyle and taste and the individual’s habitus is characterized by the predominant habitus in the group to which the individual belongs. Habitus creates common ways of looking at the outside world and oneself. It is also a means of differentiating oneself from other groups, by the denial/rejection of other groups’ taste or lifestyle. This is all quite deeply ingrained and somewhere I heard (in a pod I think) that according to Bourdieu it is incredibly difficult to change one’s social class, given the given dimensions that it takes. So, it is not just education…I think I always knew it but I still put in so much energy into it, not thinking about the other parts that ALSO cost energy…Now I am not longer surprised that I am constantly tired and exhausted 😉

I am not sure if it is the same for other (PhD-) students coming from a non-academic background, but DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE the EXTRA work that you have had to put into to reach this point. All the extra stress, self-doubt and energy…be more proud of yourself and cut yourself some slack. I am trying to do that too!


*When I was a kid the German school system was organised like this:

  1. Elementary school (obligatory, age 6-10) –> everyone proceeded to –>
  2. “Orientierungsstufe” (orientation stage 10-12) –> teachers decided on–>
  3. One of the three options: Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium

Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium could be translated with “secondary” school, however Hauptschule is the lowest level, Realschule is the middle level and Gymnasium the highest level in the educational system. Finishing Haupt and Realschule would allow an apprenticeship, while Gymnasium would certify the student to proceed to study at a university.

All Data are Local by Yanni Loukissas: Summary and Review

In the seven-chapter long book, Loukissas sets out to demystify the notion of digital universalism by emphasizing data and their local connections. Therefore, the guiding question for the book is: How do local conditions matter for understanding data in everyday practice? Simply put, All data are local is the title of the book, but also the main statement that guides the book and is one- if not the most important- take-away messages of the book.

Data universalism : the ideology that leads us to falsely believe that despise our varying circumstances, “once online, all users could be granted the same agencies on a single network, all differences could dissolve, and everyone could be treated alike” citing Anita Chan. This perspective might institute a new form of colonialism, where practitioners at the periphery have to conform to set standards and expectations of a dominant technological culture (p.10)

In the introduction, Loukissas proposes to alter the views on data sets and instead discuss data settings. Reasons for this are that the term data set evokes the notion of a “something discrete, complete and readily portable” according to the author.” But this is not the case. I contend that we must rethink our terms and habits around public data by learning to analyse data settings instead of data sets”(p.2). Loukissas further states, that “too often we attempt to use a given data set as a complete work, such as a book, rather than viewing it as an index to something greater” (p.3). Data, therefore, are indexes of local knowledge. In chapter 2, Loukissas further discusses data, describing that “in common parlance, the term data can be used to mean secondary, digital representations of objects that hold scientific and cultural import. But data can also create an ontological “looping effect” whereby they help to shape practices and institutions that create them “ (p.52).

Overall, the book has six theoretical principles, four of which are exemplified by reference to concrete case studies:

  1. All data are local
  2. Arnold Arboretum: data have complex attachments to the world
  3. DPLA: data are collected from heterogeneous sources, with local attachments
  4. NewsScape: data and algorithms are entangled
  5. Zillow: Interfaces recontextualize data
  6. Data are indexes to local knowledge

Based on the fours case studies as well as additional practical examples in chapter 6, Loukissas provides a set of practical guidelines/implications to follow (see below).

Loukissas designates the first chapter to discuss data: the terminology, the language around data as well as ontological, epistemological and theoretical implications and approaches. Among them are STS scholar Latour and his approach to “immutable mobiles” (which Loukissas disagrees with)and inscription as well as CDS approach “data assemblages”.

In addition to this, Loukissas discusses Big Data and presents contrasting arguments. According to the author “the ideology of Big Data has infiltrated workaday practices with datasets that measure only in the tens of millions of entries. Big Data is not anxiety-inducing big, as big data also is represented by small, discrete signal, represented as 0 and 1s in computers” (p.16). This perspective on Big Data is connected to Loukissas disagreement with the opinion that anything can become data. In this particular context, Borgman is cited: “if it is taken up as evidence in an argument, including text, photographs and even traces of pigment from an archaeological field site. Making data means bringing a subject into a preexisting system, defined by durable conditions of data collection as well as storage, analysis and dissemination. Aspects of the original subject are inevitably lost in translation” (p.17). Instead, Loukissas presents his perspective on data, which he views as plural, small, operational and material.

Local data?

After setting the stage for the understanding of data, the central point of the book is discussed: what it means to be local. According to the author, the term local has a long tradition in social sciences and describes that “knowledge practices [are] grounded in particular places, usually those inhabited by small, indigenous, marginal or non-Western cultures” (p.19). The deep connection to knowledge becomes even more apparent when looking at local knowledge as way to notice and acknlowedge different meaning-making practices of different communities. This notion of knlwoedge practices seems to be similar to the (widely synonymously) used term “situated”. However, situated “is sometimes interpreted as being about social and material conditions exclusively, local puts more weight on the relevance of place”(p.19). While place is emphasised in local, local is more than place “as local is contingent on experience, defined by meaning and susceptible to changing social designations […] local transcends geolocations” (p.20).  Place comes up again in chaper 2, where place is defined as “an institutionally defined framework with social technological and spatial dimensions, in which data are created, displayed and/or managed, and that reciprocally, is shaped by those practices.” (p.52).

In the fourth chapter, In chapter 4, Loukissas describes the tension between global and local: “Understanding the relativity of the local also helps us to understand the ways the local is connected to the global. The local creates data, but the data produced may travel globally, running the risk that local origins become obscured when data is examined out of context. It is these contexts or local data settings that are examined to explicate the remaining principles of All data are local” (Tupling, 2020, p.1)

Here, Big Data comes into play, as “seemingly impersonal, large-scale data sets are also local” (p.21) and therefore “we should talk about all data sets in terms of their data settings” (p.1). Furthermore, local coexists with the global, “as data do not serve exclusively local needs, however, there is no global experience of data, only an expanding variety of local encounters. Data travel widely, but wherever they go, that’s where data are. For even when data escape their origins, they are always encountered within other significant local settings” (p. 22). While Loukissas highlights the necessity to consider the local perspective when talking about data, he also advises caution, as local not necessarily equals good. It might also “mean exclusionary, narrow, or even oppressive” (p.22) and can lead to so-called filter bubbles.

The second chapter focuses on the “complex attachments to the world” exemplified by a case study of a data setting in the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University. The chapter demonstrates the complex local attachments of data by diverse visualisations. By creating these visualisations, Loukissas shows how different visualisations can highlight variations in data, while at the same time also challenges conventions in data visualisations. Instead of removing anomalies and glitches, in short cleaning and therefore obscuring data, data visualisations should embrace these “artefacts”. In this chapter it becomes explicit, what Loukissas meant in the introduction, when he wrote that “in engaging with visualisations, the reader should be ready (as they must be with any evidence) to do to some of their interpretative work. Visualisations are also texts (p.8)”.

The 3rd chapter focuses on the principle “data are collected from heterogeneous sources, with local attachments”  and looks at the Digital Public Library of America. In this chapter, data are recognized as cultural markers of data collection practices, different from era and between institutions (Tupling, 2020). Loukissas shows that “even displaced and agglomerated data retain traces of their origins, embedded in classifications, schemata, constraints, errors, absences and rituals that resists simple translation and normalization” (p.53).

Following this, the 4th chapter looks at NewsScape as a case study about the entanglement of data and algorithms.

While Loukissas accredits the power of algorithms, he simulateneously opposes the common characteristics ascribed to algorithms such as being anonymous and opaque, “concealing the local conditions in which algorithms are produced” (Tupling, 2020, p.2). Furthermore, “algorithms are not processes, but artefacts, created by humans, whose decision making becomes ‘delegated’ or embedded into algorithms” (Tupling, 2020, p.2). Loukissas also reminds us that algorithms are a form of ‘human reading’ (p. 115) and are local, since they are reliant on data to function. In addition to that, algorithms and data are symbiotic, “together, data structures and algorithms are two halves of the ontology of the world according to the computer” (p. 104).

Drawing on some of the theoretical approach introduced in chapter 1, Loukissas demonstrates that neither realist nor constructivist approaches have a clear ground to explain agorithms, databases and reality. Instead, he proposed network perspectives, such as ANT, as an alternative entry point, where reality is not viewed as being at the beginning (input) nor its end(output). In a network perspective, elements such as reality, data, databases and reality, algorithms instead coevolve.

The fifth chapter focuses on interfaces and how they recontextualize data. “Users engage most often with the interface layer formed by tightly curated user experiences, to shield the audience from the messy sociotechnical conditions data collection as well as the implications of its use. Interfaces delocalised existing data sets, remove all traces of the places in which they are made, managed and otherwise  put to use. Then they present uprooted data within new contexts: unimpeded by the details of data production, unburdened by ethical quandaries that might accompany their use, free from concerns about their unintended consequences. Such interfaces are known by user experience designers as being “frictionless” (p.125) Interfaces establish the subjects positions that users of data are expected to adopt” (p.126).

As data need interpretation, letting data speak for itself is challenged by interfaces, in particular frictionless interfaces, which recontextualise data, and users make decisions that are led by how the data are presented to them through the interface.

6th chapter

In this chapter, Loukissas draws together the six principles and presents six (methodological) implications nd stresses the importance of viewing data as cultural artefacts, that are entangled with local settings and that they are not given. Furthermore, he highlights the necessity to think critically about the data we encounter, to reflect on the otherwise inviable attachments, values, absences and biases in data. One approach to make the invisible visible is by taking a comparative approach to data in which local data settings are compared to another locality as local condition is most productively understood not in relation to some imagined universal bu instead relative to another locality (p.8)

Loukissas furthermore reminds us that “we are all creating data just by living. But data aren’t simply a by-product of life. They are deliberately designed, as much as any visualization, in order to represent selected events or experiences” (p.169).

In the last summarizing chapter, Loukissas unites the principles of the book, and sets out to create practical and applicable ethics of data. Loukissas ends by outlining five steps towards achieving this: read, inquire, represent, unfold and contextualize.

Review

The book by Loukissas is an excellent first read for someone that is interested in social sciences, critical approaches and digital data. It covers crucial, theoretical points and approaches, without become too “dry” too read. On the contrary, Loukissas provides vivid case studies to support his points and beautifully crafted visualizations. In addition to this, the literature list that comes with the book covers many of the seminal texts in e.g. Critial Data Studies and is a good starting point to find additional literature. For me, personally, the book did not deliver substantially new or revolutionary insights, however, I have to pint out that I have been reading quite a bit in the area od critical data studies and science and technology studies. While I did recognize some of the arguments and literature, I applaud Loukissas for writing a book that makes this topic approachable for the broader public as well. Some of the points he made were definitely new to me, e.g. using the data setting instead of the data set and other mtheoretical and methodological implications he presented. Nevertheless, there are a couple of questions I am left with after finishing the book and/or parts I disagree or just other parts I wanted to point out.

  1. Local or indexes of local knowledge

Loukissas talks about data being local but at other parts of the book he writes that data should be vewed as indexes to local knowledge. To me there is a difference between the statement that all data are local or indexes to local knowledge. While reading the book, the distinction did not become clear to me.

2. Utopian?

First of all, I do understand, that the book that Loukissas has written is not meant as a “cookbook” or “roadmap” to how practically implemented the claims and implications he describes. Nevertheless, describing data settings is a cumbersome approach to using data, which would defy the positive aspects of using data in certain contexts. I do not believe, that it is possible to actually put anything to use, on a larger scale. On a small scale, in specific workshops or in research projects- definitely yes, but in general? What exactly is the impact of the book, despite being thoguth-provoking? It does not challenge the fact of accessability TO data, around data interpretation or the relative powerlessness of users.

3. Data is interpreted by frictionless interfaces that make decisions “for” the user.

Specifically in the chapter about interfaces, Loukissas does highlight the impact of design on users. How would designers design e.g. platform that could cause friction? Is that feasible? While Loukissas ascribes some of the responsibility to desginers, Williamson (2017) for example ascribes programmers with the responsibility in relation to data and ethics.

4. Lost in translation

Throughout the book, Loukissas problematizes data and algorithms and their local origins and connections. He views data as text and favours reading them in an interpretative context, taking e.g. the historical attachments into considerations. However, I am wondering if that is necessary. When writing scientific articles or books (language in general!), there is also a translation step involved, and attachments are lost. I am not sure how that has been problematized and to what extend historical attachments are taken into consideration. Looking at a books’ content from a more oucauldian perspective, they do contain concepts and notions that might have been appropriate at a specific era, palce and so forth, so I guess whenever there is a dissonance between what is accepted now and what is not accepted in a book might be when we take other attchments into consideration- a kind of temporal comparative approach I guess. However, even though we know OF the attacahments we still interpret the book from our current point of view.

5. Algorithms and Data

I would agree with Loukissas and his view that algorithms are artefact that are created by humans- to a certain extent. I would agree to a certain extend. While this might be true for algorithms written by a person, I doubt that this is applicable to machine-learning. Yes, they are also programmed by a human, but they are also designed to train independently, not even their initial programmers understand what is going on. In addition to this, Loukissas writes that “data aren’t simply a by-product of life. They are deliberately designed, as much as any visualization, in order to represent selected events or experiences” (p.169) and again, I would say that this might still be applicable nowadays, but- to get weird ideas- this might not be true in the future anymore. Simply viewing data as “plural, small, operational and material” might not change the fact that there might be deliberately designed, however independently developing machine learning teachnologies that will generate data as a by-product of life. HOW this data then is viewed, as a means for “objective” decision making or more as an index do local knowledge is crucial though.

6. Nobody is perfect

The book, to me, calls for a bigger change than actually expliclty stated in the book. While it demands to not clean data from “artefacts”, I would take a couple of more steps here. We should not stop at NOT clearning data, instead we should admin failure in more general terms. What I mean is that academic articles for example should not only report the positive findings, not only what worked, but also what did NOT work. Report failures, admit that things go wrong, basically accept that we are not perfect, the world is not perfect. This, in a way collides with the current trend of self-optimzation, the interest in “object” decision making based on data and the notion that AI is going to be a revolution. If we do not start by integrating failures, admitting prejudices, deeply embedded strucxtural discrimination, how on earth are we expected that algorithms and also AI are going to learn? What did we expect them to learn from us? We are not just good, there are negative things we need to address, and if we do not rethink our own attitude on a larger scale, it will not be enough to view scattered data settings.

7. The user?

Loukissas focuses almost excluslively on data, however, data, interfaces, platform are produced and used by programmers, usera, teachers, researchers… Who sits at the other end, according to Loukissas? The “user” in Loukissas is quiet generic and there is not much written about who the user is, not are the skills necessary to e.g. interpret data visualization or enganging with data addressed, discussed or problematized. If Loukissas would have done that, the book would be twice as long though- maybe a second edition is coming 😉

Loukissas, Yanni A. All Data Are Local: Thinking Critically in a Data-Driven Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2019.

Tupling, Claire. “All Data Are Local: Thinking Critically in a Data-Driven Society: By Yanni Alexander Loukissas, London, The MIT Press, 2019, Pp. 272, Cloth: £24.00, ISBN 978-0-262-03966-6.” Information, Communication & Society, September 10, 2020, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2020.1817523.


Assemblage Theory Part 4: Actor-Network Theory and Latour

Rigid, reified categories limit our understanding of the world, and hence the need to focus on dynamic, ever-shifting networks and associations that connect events across space and time. Social realities are not out there to be discovered by either social actors or scientific endeavors; they are performed by multiple actors. (Siakwah, 2018)

Today I will take a  closer look at the Actor-Network-Theory since it also (!) uses assemblages, but I think in a slightly different way compared to Deleuze/Guattari.

I came across a GREAT website (https://lemonlimebritters.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/week-3-assemblages-actor-network-theory/) which was a great start for me to understand ANT a bit better.

As always, this page is intended for my notes and idea and therefore it will contain sources from non-academic texts/pages as well as many quotes!

Actor-Network Theory

Wikipedia’s webpage about ANT defines Actor-network theory (ANT) as “a theoretical and methodological approach [in] social theory where everything in the social and natural worlds exists in constantly shifting networks of relationships. It posits that nothing exists outside those relationships. All the factors involved in a social situation are on the same level, and thus there are no external social forces beyond what and how the network participants interact at present. Thus, objects, ideas, processes, and any other relevant factors are seen as just as important in creating social situations as humans. ANT holds that social forces do not exist in themselves, and therefore cannot be used to explain social phenomena. Instead, strictly empirical analysis should be undertaken to “describe” rather than “explain” social activity. […]

Developed by science and technology studies (STS) scholars Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, the sociologist John Law, and others, it can more technically be described as a “material-semiotic” method. This means that it maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and semiotic (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and semiotic. Broadly speaking, ANT is a constructivist approach in that it avoids essentialist explanations of events or innovations (i.e. ANT explains a successful theory by understanding the combinations and interactions of elements that make it successful, rather than saying it is true and the others are false). Likewise, it is not a cohesive theory in itself. Rather, ANT functions as a strategy that assists people in being sensitive to terms and the often unexplored assumptions underlying them. […] It is distinguished from many other STS and sociological network theories for its distinct material-semiotic approach”.

So the questions that come up based on this Wikipedia article:

  1. “It posits that nothing exists outside those relationships”- What are the ontological/epistemological assumptions of ANT? Somewhere I read about the “flat ontology” connected to ANT, I think that it is connected to actors/actants being on the same level (but not 100% sure about that)
  2. “ANT holds that social forces do not exist in themselves, and therefore cannot be used to explain social phenomena. Instead, strictly empirical analysis should be undertaken to “describe” rather than “explain” social activity”- Is it just a way of DESCRIBING networks?
  3. What is a material-semiotic method?
  4. “It is not a cohesive theory in itself. Rather, ANT functions as a strategy that assists people in being sensitive to terms and the often unexplored assumptions underlying them”- I thought ANT was used to describe rather than analyze?
  5. It is distinguished from many other STS and sociological network theories for its distinct material-semiotic approach- What are the other sociological network theories? Do I know of them?
  6. Is ANT socially or technologically deterministic (or none?)?

So far the Wikipedia article has brought up more questions than it answered! However, I hope that I can answer them when I know about ANT.

Actor-Network Theory- Definition

I am not sure if it is possible to briefly define ANT, since there are different variations and also evolutionary versions of this..yeah what is it? Tradition, theory? Nevertheless, as Elder-Vass (2019) concludes, there are some elements and key concepts that are well-established in this tradition.

The main feature in ANT is its focus of actors and their effects on social processes. The actors in ANT can be either inanimate or humans, this perspective though si a radical notion as it attests agency to inanimate things.

“An actor can however only act in combination with other actors and in constellations that give the actor the possibility to act – this is because reality is assumed to be actively performed by various actors in a particular time and place. Thus inherent to ANT is a move away from the idea that technology impacts on humans as an external force, to the view that technology emerged from social interests (e.g. economic, professional) and that it thus has the potential to shape social interactions.”

Human ActorsInanimate Actant
Software developersLaptop
ReadersIpad
TeachersEmail
JournalistsInternet

Cresswell et al. (2010) write that “ANT has its own epistemological and ontological position, in essence considering the world as consisting of networks. These networks can include humans, things, ideas, concepts – all of which are referred to as “actors” in the network. Tracing of associations or relationships between network components (or actors) is a key activity in ANT”. However, on some articles human actors are referred to as actants (e.g. Lewis and Westlung, 2015).

The authors further explain that “ANT assumes that the sum of non-social phenomena can account for something that is social as a result of constellations of human and non-human actors constituting the network. It follows then that the ANT approach is agnostic with respect to the debate which has divided many sociologists in that it neither asserts that everything is socially constructed (social constructionism) nor that everything is pre-existent (realism)”.

An assemblage is an assembling of elements and actants in a flat ontology, meaning treating the elements equally – in simple terms, a modern approach to the egg v. chicken debate.

This definitely answered my first question!

ANT seems to be prominent approach in geography and I found an article by Siakwah (2018) who points out that “ANT is also known as an enrolment theory, a process through which varied actors are recruited to form a network depending on their interests or a shared, emerging problem (Crawford, 2005)”. The author also introduces another central concept: translation, which is sometimes referred to as the sociology of translation. Translation in ANT, “is a process through which an actor recruits other actors into the network so that whatever the recruited actors do will help strengthen and further the interests of the actor who recruited them (Callon, 1981). The translation process encompasses creating connections and alliances and establishing communication among varied actors (Brown, 2002). It is the stronghold (or ‘centre of calculation’) position that enables an actor to control and utilize other actors’ activities to further his/her interest (Latour, 1988)”.

Networks in ANT

Networks play a central role in ANT, as ANT focuses on investigating and theorising “about how networks come into being, to trace what associations exist, how they move, how actors are enrolled into a network, how parts of a network form a whole network and how networks achieve temporary stability (or conversely why some new connections may form networks that are unstable)” (Cresswell et al., 2015).

As we already know, networks consist of actors, but there are also intermediaries and mediators that can form relationships between actors. According to Creswell et al. (2015), “the difference between the two is that the outputs of intermediaries can be easily predicted on the basis of their inputs (a black box). In mathematical terms, the assumption here is that X directly causes Y. Mediators, on the other hand, transform inputs into unpredictable outputs. This means that they can also transform actions, making something happen that is not necessarily related to what set it into motion. In mathematical terms, the effect of X on Y is in this case influenced by some other variable such as Z. ANT assumes that the social world consists of many mediators, which tend to be the focus of analysis as they impact on social outcomes in often unpredictable ways and very few intermediaries”. “A key task for the ANT researcher is to explore how local networks are ordered and re-configured over time.”

Another interesting point was that the “composition of networks tends to become particularly apparent when things in a system go wrong; conversely, these inter-connections tend to be hidden when things are working smoothly.” (Cresswell et al., 2015). This reminded me of the characteristics of infrastructures as described by Bowker and Star (2000), which become visible upon break-down.

My question here is, therefore:

What is the difference between an infrastructure (according to Bowker & Star) and a network (according to ANT/Latour)?

Actor-Network Theory vs Assemblage Theory/Thinking Part 1

Elder-Vass (2019) points out that one of the most fundamental claims of ANT is that “our world is composed of assemblages (also known as actants, actors, actor-networks, and articulations, to list only the ‘a’s).” This was initially quite confusing for me to read since I did not come across it in relation to Latour. Also, Elder-Vass accounts for that, as he explains that the concept originally derived from Deleuze. However, the author also points out that “the version advocated in ANT is distinctive – or at least, it seems to have narrowed down the range of meanings found in Deleuze. As in Deleuze, the word (derived from the French agencement) refers to something that falls somewhere between a thing and a process, with elements of both. For actor-network theorists, assemblages are open, transient, unique networks of influences or associations.” To support his claim, the author refers to a citation from Latour’s book “Reassembling the Social”; “an actor-network [= an assemblage] is what is made to act by a large star-shaped web of mediators flowing in and out of it. It is made to exist by its many ties: attachments are first, actors are second” (Latour, 2005, p. 217)”.

Elder-Vass added the assemblage in this sentence and is not found in the book. One time Latour actually mentions assemblage is on p. 2, where he talks about “the assemblages of nature” to “scrutinize what is ‘assembled’ under the umbrella of society”. However, he does not clarify it further I think.

My questions:

  1. I am wondering if assemblages according to Deleuze are NOT open, transient and unique? I am not 100% percent sure that these are characteristics of ANT, as outlined by Elder-Voos
  2. Does that mean that actor-networks are assemblages? Why or why not?

Elder-Vass (2019) further explain that assemblages do not correspond to everyday concepts of concepts or things, but that “assemblages are not bounded in the simple spatial way that ordinary things are. An assemblage is not a thing, but a coming together of influences”. According to Elder-Vass, this notion of assemblages in ANT is further illustrated in Latour’s discussion of the “work of the French scientist Louis Pasteur on the process of fermentation, which Pasteur attributed to the influence of yeasts. Pasteur, Latour tells us, “encountered a vague, cloudy, grey substance sitting meekly in the corner of his flasks and turned it into the splendid, well-defined, articulate yeast twirling magnificently across the ballroom of the Academy” (Latour, 1999b, p. 145). “Yeast”, in this sentence, is not simply another name for the same “vague, cloudy, grey substance” that had always existed; rather, it is a different assemblage, in which Pasteur’s own theories are among the elements or mediators that are bundled with or attached to the grey substance. Latour calls this articulation – yeast is an articulation of some material stuff and the ideas produced by science that relate to that stuff (and indeed other elements too, including perhaps the equipment required to support those ideas and the publications in which they are asserted)” (Elder-Vass, 2019).

Elder-Vass (2019) highlight another focus of ANT; the refusal of binary divides, such as “society and nature, human and non-human, and subject and object (Latour, 1993). Latour’s notion of yeast, for example, no longer locates it unambiguously in the categories of natural, non-human, and object, because for him the assemblage we call yeast includes textual, human, and subjective elements. One might question whether earlier thinkers are quite as dualistic as Latour suggests, but there is no doubt that he takes anti-dualism much further than most of his predecessors. Latour has strong views about the implications of this perspective for the research process. Research, he argues, must “follow the actors” (Latour, 2005, p. 68), or follow “associations” (Latour, Jensen, Venturini, Grauwin, & Boullier, 2012, p. 591) – the connections that make up assemblages”.

However, as the author points out, following the actors/associations raises challenges for research. Elder-Vass gives a couple of examples which I would support, and which I think also apply to assemblage theory according to Deleuze:

  1. How is a researcher to identify an actor/assemblage in the first place, when the boundaries of actors are so open and fluid?
  2. Do actors exist in forms that the researcher is to discover, or is the extent of the network of connections that make up an actor a construction of the researcher?
  3. Can boundaries ever be drawn between actors? How can we identify the constituent elements of actors when those constituents themselves are to be conceived of as assemblages rather than as conventional physical objects?
  4. How is the researcher to resist the collapse of analysis into a mélange of vague influences between unbounded networks? (Elder-Vass, 2019)

Even though some of the questions are addressed in research, Elder-Vass (2019) criticizes that “often these problems are resolved in a way that subverts the official ontology of assemblages. Without any systematic means of delineating assemblages, the elements that are put together to define an assemblage are just whatever mix of ordinary observable objects and people that the researcher thinks are relevant to the problem at hand – people, flasks, grey substances, and recording devices for example – rather than assemblages [actor-networks] as Latour defines them. The assemblage [actor-network] concept is then rolled out whenever this crude empiricism needs to be clothed with some philosophical respectability. In such cases ANT functions not as a solution to any of the classic issues raised by empirical social research but as a means of evading them”.*

* In the quote above I added the actor-network in the square brackets.

Harsh criticism! I am not sure if it is justified as I have not read enough articles and research that uses ANT, but I do think that the question he raises are valid and should be addressed because, at this point, this sounds like an IMPOSSIBLE task and approach to use in research. Well, it is possible, but how should research generate a GOOD analysis of an assemblage? Where are the boundaries, if assemblages are made of assemblages?

Actor-Network Theory vs Assemblage Theory/Thinking Part 2

The article by Müller (2015) focuses on the similarities and differences between ANT and AT, which was quite helpful for me, so here are the main points/quotes that helped me get it.

From the beginning on, the author highlights the significant similarities between ANT and AT: “One way to think of ANT is as an empirical sister-in-arms of the more philosophical assemblage thinking. Like assemblage thinking, it is interested in the provisional, socio-material ordering of entities beyond one universal principle: […]: ‘There is no social order. Rather, there are endless attempts at ordering’ (Law 1994, 101). […] The parallels between the concepts of the actor-network and the assemblage are significant.” While there are clear parallels between ANT and assemblage thinking, there are also notable differences and Müller (2015) presents what he considers the 3 major ones: agency, concrete concepts and politics.

  1. Agency

“ANT insists that agency is exclusively a mediated achievement, brought about through forging associations. There is nothing outside associations, and to become capable of action, entities need to form aggregates and find allies to produce an actor-network. Thus, what becomes political is a matter of what is made political through associations: ‘the political significance of materials is not a given; rather, it is a relational, a practical and a contingent achievement’ (Barry 2013b, 183).

With its focus on relations of exteriority, on the other hand, assemblage thinking posits that the component parts of an assemblage can have intrinsic qualities outside associations that impact on and shape the assemblage. It posits an open-ended set of capacities that is unpredictable and exceeds the properties of the component parts (B. Anderson et al. 2012, 179–181)”. As a consequence, seeing the world through associations, ANT has been criticised for being blind to what remains outside associations but may shape them nevertheless. (see criticism)

In the article written by Siakwah (2018) the author explains that “agency [according to ANT] is distributed across humans and non-humans (Latour,1999). However, things do not act by themselves, in a self-contained manner (Law, 1994); instead, the capacity for agency is a relational feature that emerges through interactions. ANT is premised on how things are formed and shaped through networks, associations and assemblages (Latour, 2005). Networks are made up of heterogeneous actors and their relationships (Johannesson and Bærenholdt, 2009). The relative heterogeneity of the networked actors ensures their resilience and durability (Latour, 1991, 1988; Doolin and Lowe, 2002)”.

2. Concrete Concepts

“Compared to assemblage thinking, ANT offers a more concrete conceptual and methodological apparatus that can be applied to empirical work. Terms such as ‘centre of calculation’, ‘oligopticon’, ‘black box’, ‘immutable mobiles’ and ‘translation’ or ‘overflows’ help to make sense of the formation of associations. The pioneers of ANT have delivered a string of analyses to illustrate these concepts. This makes ANT wieldier for empirical application.”

3. Politics

I am not really sure about this point. Müller (2015) states that “researchers working in the spirit of ANT have developed a much clearer notion of ANT’s relation to politics” and then continues to elaborate on ANT and politics, leading towards incentive to call for ontological politics or Dingpolitik, however, he does not really mention politics from an AT perspective, so I cannot really draw any conclusions here.

Criticism ANT:

“Critics have taken the approach to task for eschewing to think about how power differentials, for example, race, gender or class, impact on who or what is able or unable to form associations in the first place and thus for failing to acknowledge unequal power relationships. ANT also does not distinguish a priori between humans and materials, ignoring that humans are capable of intentions and pursue interests whereas things are not. With its task of following the associations that form networks, critics claim that ANT risks describing endless chains of associations without ever arriving at an explanation for the reasons and differences in network formation processes. In a similar vein, ANT discards social context, for example, cultural or historical factors, for explanation, unless it can be traced in the formation of concrete networks. In so doing, it also neglects to problematise the researcher and how his or her position is implicated in fashioning ANT accounts of certain phenomena” (Müller, 2015).

Interestingly, Cresswell et al. (2015) conclude that the aim of ANT is “to gain detailed insights into how social effects such as power come into being”. Following this, they present a parable, initially described by Law: “He describes how objects such as a big office, a computer and a phone can serve to create the manager in an organisation as the source of power. The manager studied in isolation (as a person or “naked ape” as Law calls him i.e. without objects), as opposed to as part of a network, is viewed as relatively powerless”. […]

ANT assumes that if any actor, irrespective of its position, is removed from or added to the network, as is the case if technology is introduced into an organisation, then the functioning of the whole network will be affected. However, networks are constantly evolving as social reality is assumed to be both complex and fluid.”

While I would agree with the second part of this quote, I am hesitant about the first part. I am not sure if ANT, in general, is looking into power. Quite the contrary, when I read some of the articles, this was one crucial point that critics mentioned: ANT does not account for power differentials and therefore fails to acknowledge unequal power relationships.

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. First paperback edition. Inside Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The MIT Press, 2000.

 Cresswell, Kathrin M, Allison Worth, and Aziz Sheikh. “Actor-Network Theory and Its Role in Understanding the Implementation of Information Technology Developments in Healthcare.” BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 10, no. 1 (December 2010): 67. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6947-10-67.

Elder-Vass, Dave. “Disassembling Actor-Network Theory.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 45, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 100–121. https://doi.org/10.1177/0048393114525858.

Lewis, Seth C., and Oscar Westlund. “Actors, Actants, Audiences, and Activities in Cross-Media News Work.” Digital Journalism 3, no. 1 (January 2, 2015): 19–37. https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2014.927986.

Müller, Martin. “Assemblages and Actor-Networks: Rethinking Socio-Material Power, Politics and Space.” Geography Compass 9, no. 1 (2015): 27–41. https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12192.

Siakwah, Pius. “Political Economy to Globalized Assemblages: Actor-Network Theory, Hydrocarbon Assemblages, and Problematizing the Resource Curse Thesis.” In Network Theory and Analysis, edited by Amber Jorgensen. Mathematics Research Developments. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2018.

(Critical) Systems Thinking

Systems thinking provides a general, non-reductive approach to investigating phenomena characterized by feedback, unintended and long-term effects, chaotic dynamics, and emergent behaviors […]. It takes a holistic perspective, examining relationships between wholes and parts across levels of granularity. (Raymaker, 2016)

Unfortunately, I cannot remember where I read it but ins some article or book the author mentioned some similarities between (I think) assemblages and critical systems thinking. I have not read much about critical systems thinking and I neither know from which tradition it comes/ in which it is used nor do I know the specifics about its ontology/epistemology.

Nevertheless, I thought I would paste the parts of articles that I read and that I thought might explain this quite well. However, to get what CRITICAL systems thinking is I tried to look further into systems thinking, and, to be honest I was surprised what I found.

I found the article written by Kogetsidis (2010) intriguing, as the author starts of by elaborating on the philosophy of systems thinking. “The platform of Western culture in the past 20 centuries has been occupied by a methodology, which is built on a style of thinking focused on “either. . . or. . .” and makes us divide the concepts in a binary mode without paying much attention to the fact that often entities or concepts constitute subsystems of greater systems (Herrscher, 2006). This traditional scientific method, which is also known as reductionism, breaks down wholes into their parts and aims to offer an understanding of the whole from the understanding of its parts. This type of Newtonian-Cartesian thinking has helped scientists over the years to understand natural phenomena and has been the typical approach used in the natural sciences. The problem with the reductionist approach, on the other hand, is that it ignores the fact that the whole often takes on a form that is not recognizable from its parts and it is therefore the whole that gives meaning to the parts and their interactions (Jackson, 2003) […]. However, based on this perspective, problems are broken up in separate parts, and, as the athors further explain, this leads to the false assumptions “that the components of the whole are the same when examined singly as when they are playing their part in the whole, and that this division will not distort the phenomena being studied” (Kogetsidis, 2010).

“Systems thinking emerged as a reaction to reductionism and the failure of the traditional scientific method to cope with the level of complexity inherent in the biological and social domains (Jackson, 2003). With systems thinking, valid knowledge and meaningful understanding comes from building up whole pictures of phenomena, rather than breaking them into parts (Flood, 2010)”. (In Kogetsidis, 2010)

So, this is where the opposite to reductionism, and the basis for systems thinking comes in: holism.

According to Kogetsidis (2010), holism “adopts Aristotle’s principle that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” and as a result puts the study of wholes before that of the parts ( Jackson, 2003). Holism takes a broad view of the problem situation, tries to take all aspects into account, and mainly concentrates on the interactions between the different parts of the problem (Checkland, 1981). Unlike reductionism, holism does not try to break down wholes into smaller parts in order to understand them but ensures that the parts are functioning and are related properly together in order to serve the purposes of the whole ( Jackson, 2003). This whole is showing properties, which are properties of the whole, rather than properties of its component parts. Holism gives attention to both structure and process, provides a powerful basis for critique and should therefore be reinstated as an equal and complementary partner to reductionism (Jackson, 2012).”

While this sounds relevant to me and also seems to have similarities with assemblage thinking, I also want to point out that three main schools or “streams” evolved in systems thinking: primarily hard systems thinking and soft thinking (and the critical one that I write more about later on).

  1. Hard systems thinking: “Hard systems thinking, the first to emerge in the late 19th century, typically takes a mechanistic world-is-a-system positivist approach to inquiry”
  2. Soft systems thinking: “In the 1970’s soft systems thinkers challenged the utility of applying mechanistic thinking to complex social phenomena, which led to the world-can-be-understood- systemically interpretivist approach of soft systems thinking” (Raymaker, 2016)
  3. Critical systems thinking

Based on this I am not 100% sure if the description by Kogetsidis applies to both hard and soft systems thinking or just the latter.

Critical Systems Thinking

As the most recent systems thinking paradigm, critical systems thinking (CST) has challenged both hard and soft systems thinking, asserting that:

(1) the mechanistic positivism of hard systems thinking is indeed incompatible with social systems inquiry; however,

(2) soft systems thinking neglects power relations and therefore is insufficient for social systems inquiry, and further

(3) the black-and-white separation of hard versus soft systems thinking is not useful (Raymaker, 2016).

According to Jackson (2010) critical systems thinking developed primarly based on two reasons: “1. a growing critical awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of individual systems approaches, and an 2. appreciation of the need for pluralism in systems thinking.”

While this seems quite straightforward, Kogetsidis (2010) points out that “CST is perceived by systems thinkers has been through considerable debate over the years. CST can be seen as an evolving set of developing themes that provides a theoretical foundation and practical framework for reflective research and practice (Stephens et al., 2010).” And furthermore, that “ there is no single approach or set of principles that define what CST is (Flood, 2010)” however, “systems thinkers seem to agree on its critical nature”.

In the article, Jackson (2003) was cited, who summarized the features of CST by outlining three commitments:

• a commitment to critical awareness;

• a commitment to improvement;

• a commitment to methodological pluralism.

Raymaker (2016) further clarifies some of the essential features of CST: “Unpacking the criticism around power relations in particular, proponents of CST argue that without a commitment to human emancipation and critical reflection on power, systems thinking and its methods can be exploited by those in dominant positions—either deliberately or through lack of awareness—to maintain the status quo. This risk is structurally rooted in assumptions about the value-neutrality of methods (i.e., value systems are independent from a selected methodology; for example, choice of qualitative or quantitative inquiry is unrelated to the values of the investigators or study participants), and about power-neutrality between actors (i.e., individuals involved in inquiry are equitably positioned with respect to each other; Jackson 1990). […] To address its critique of systems thinking, CST has infused the systems thinking approach with the three intentions of (1) complementarism at the theoretical and methodological level, (2) critical reflection, and (3) dedication to human emancipation (Flood 1990, 2013; Flood and Jackson 1991; Jackson 1990).”

I also looked around a bit online and found this page: https://agilejar.com/2020/03/the-covid-19-case-as-an-example-of-systems-thinking-usage/

In my opinion, a nicely done page with pictures for clarification, however, it looks at “systems thinking” without differentiation. The reason why I mention this here is because I also listened to the https://www.philosophizethis.org/ podcast on Deleuze (well the first 3 in the series on Deleuze). Both the webpage as well as in the podcast a bike was used as a metaphor. The webpage referred to its parts without a connection to humans, in the podcast however, the bike was used as an example to clarify Deleuze’s nation of machines and to explain the virtual and the actualization of machines. (The bike needs humans=another machine to actualize itself, otherwise, it is just standing in the corner= virtual).

Jackson, Michael C. “Reflections on the Development and Contribution of Critical Systems Thinking and Practice.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 27, no. 2 (2010): 133–39. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.1020.

Kogetsidis, Harry. “Critical Systems Thinking: A Creative Approach to Organizational Change.” Journal of Transnational Management 17, no. 3 (July 1, 2012): 189–204. https://doi.org/10.1080/15475778.2012.706704.

Raymaker, Dora M. “Intersections of Critical Systems Thinking and Community Based Participatory Research: A Learning Organization Example with the Autistic Community.” Systemic Practice and Action Research 29, no. 5 (October 2016): 405–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11213-016-9376-5.

Assemblage Theory Part 3: Foucault’s Dispositif

For my PhD project I am going to look at data and Datafication, but I am still in the phase where I try to find the right “vocabulary” for my work, meaning I need to find a theory and approach that I can and will use. If you are reading this, please remember that this blog is meant for me, monitoring my progress and taking notes- that why you will find a lot of long direct quotes and questionable sources as well. However, this is part of me getting this!

Since I would align with the quite new area of Critical Data Studies, the term “data assemblages” is quite central- which is why I started to dig into assemblage in the first place. However, in on of the central texts ( Kitchin, Rob, and Tracey P Lauriault. “Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and Their Work,”) the authors write that they draw an Foucaults idea of the dispositif to chart and unpack data assemblages. Further they write:

“This notion of a data assemblage is similar to Foucault’s (1977) concept of the ‘dispositif’ that refers to a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions(in Gordon 1980:194) which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within society.

The dispositif of a data infrastructure produces what Foucault terms ‘power/knowledge’, that is knowledge that fulfils a strategic function: ‘The apparatus is thus always inscribed in a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain coordinates of knowledge which issue from it but, to an equal degree, condition it. This is what the apparatus consists in: strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge’ (in Gordon 1980:196). In other words, data infrastructures are never neutral, essential, objective; their data never raw but always cooked to some recipe by chefs embedded within institutions that have certain aspirations and goals and operate within wider frameworks.”

So, what exactly is a dispositif and why is it similar to an assemblage?

I have to admit that I absolutely got LOST while I tried to figure out what a dispositif is. The terminology seems to be an absolute mess, the French Dispositif has been translated into in English as; dispositive, apparatus, procedure, machine and others. Most common seems the translation to “apparatus” but some authors favor “dispositive” in English (e.g. Raffnsøe, 2016)

Furthermore, dispositif is difficult to grasp, also due to the fact that Foucault did not give a definition in one of his, as far as I understand. A often cited interview from seems to be closest to a definition: (in this translation, dispositif = apparatus)

“What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.

Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogenous elements. Thus, a particular discourse can figure at one time as the programme of an institution, and at another it can function as a means of justifying or masking a practice which itself remains silent, or as a secondary re-interpretation of this practice, opening out for it a new field of rationality. In short, between these elements, whether discursive or non-discursive, there is a sort of interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function which can also vary very widely.

Thirdly, I understand by the term “apparatus” a sort of–shall we say–formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function.” (taken from: https://foucaultblog.wordpress.com/2007/04/01/what-is-the-dispositif/)

Kind of as a reaction to the “emergence as a response to a urgent need”, Jäger writes that:

“Foucault apparently sees the emergence of dispositives in this way: an emergency occurs, an existing dispositive becomes precarious. As a result, a need for action arises, and the (Sozius?) or the hegemonic forces confronted with it gather together the elements they can get to counter this state of emergency, i.e. speeches, people, knives, cannons, institutions, etc., in order to seal the “leaks” that have occurred – the state of emergency – again, as Deleuze says. (See Deleuze 1992 and Balke 1998)

What links these elements is nothing other than that they serve a common purpose to ward off the momentary or permanent state of emergency. Whatever kind of “inner bond” that would link them together is not otherwise visible in Foucault’s understanding of dispositive.

But this bond exists in the form of the human-sensual activity or work that mediates subject and object, the social worlds and the representational realities with one another, that is, through non-discursive practices that do not appear explicitly in Foucault’s definition of dispositif.” (Jäger, 2000)

However, Wikipedia also gives us a Jäger’s definition of a dispositive, and he defines it as

“the interaction of discursive behavior (i. e. speech and thoughts based upon a shared knowledge pool), non-discursive behavior (i. e. acts based upon knowledge), and manifestations of knowledge by means of acts or behaviors Dispositifs can thus be imagined as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, the complexly interwoven and integrated dispositifs add up in their entirety to a dispositif of all society.”

I have to say that I am not sure about Jäger’s understanding of discursive and non-discursive practices though.

Another definition made by Frost (2015) emphasizes the power relations within it:

“The dispositif represents the network of power relations which articulates how a power not based upon classical conceptions of sovereignty manifests itself … . It is through the dispositif that the human being is transformed into both a subject, and an object, of power relations. “ (found here: http://compendium.kosawese.net/term/apparatus-dispositif/)

Seeing power as one of the main features of the dispositive seems to be in line with Foucaults thinking. On a webpage (https://michel-foucault.com/key-concepts/), dedicated to Foucault, I found the following definition of a dispositif:

“Foucault generally uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.”

The same page elaborates on Power, according to Foucault:

“Foucault argues a number of points in relation to power and offers definitions that are directly opposed to more traditional liberal and Marxist theories of power. It is important to note that Foucault refined his definitions of power over time and his views are not homogeneous.

Definitions

  1. power is not a thing but a relation
  2. power is not simply repressive but it is productive
  3. power is not simply a property of the State. Power is not something that is exclusively localized in government and the State (which is not a universal essence). Rather, power is exercised throughout the social body.
  4. power operates at the most micro levels of social relations. Power is omnipresent at every level of the social body.
  5. the exercise of power is strategic and war-like”

They do not explain what exactly heir notion of a social boy is though. About “body” they write the following:

“Foucault is particularly concerned with the relations between political power and the body, and describes various historical ways of training the body to make it socially productive. The body is an element to be managed in relation to strategies of the economic and social management of populations.”

So, a social body might just be a body that has been trained to be socially productive (meaning also adopting e.g. hegemonic structures I assume).

Wrana and Lange further elaborate, that Foucault “understands the dispositives – his newly introduced term for power-knowledge complexes – as an ensemble of discursive and non-discursive practices, but in the dispositive concept he merely adds them up without adequately determining their relationship “.

To sum it up a dispositif is:

  1. System of relations/connections/inner bond/link that can be established between elements (discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions)
  2. The established relations are power relations/ the dispositif is a power-knowledge complex
  3. Elements can be discursive or non-discursive
  4. Ever changing and its formation has its major function at a given historical moment
  5. Formation of it is responding to an urgent need and has  therefore a dominant strategic function
  6. validity is limited in space and time and is subject to its rules being followed and its institutions being used. Individual elements can also be part of several dispositives and be inherited by a new dispositive

Wikipedia offers the following example of a dispositif:

“The notion of dispositives can be explained by the example of archaeological artifacts: Objects whose use and purpose are no longer known to us pose riddles. What was object X used for? Who could – and was allowed to – use it? How often has the object been changed until it has reached its final form? How many discursive practices had to be gone through before it was agreed to design the object in this way and not otherwise? There was a time when it was evident – important or even necessary for survival. Today it no longer tells us anything. We miss the talk of that time about its purpose, its integration into a certain system of thinking and imagining the world – this discourse has ceased to exist. With it, the special theory of man’s position in the world, in whose context the object was relevant, disappeared. That which has been forgotten and that which we associate with it today forms in its entirety the dispositif X, or an overall dispositif “archaeological artifacts

It is not decisive which elements make up the dispositif, but how the elements determine the everyday discourses and practices that again produce objects and social facts that either reproduce the old dispositif or produce a new one.”

Attempt analysis according to Jäger(2000)

Discourses are not independent and autonomous phenomena; they are elements of and are the prerequisite for the existence of so-called dispositives. A dispositive is the processing connection of knowledge, which is included in speaking/thinking – doing – objectification. The basic figure of the dispositive can be imagined as a triangle or better: as a rotating and historically processing circle with three central passage points or stations of passage:

1. discursive practices, in which primarily knowledge is transported

2. actions as non-discursive practices, in which, however, knowledge is transported, which is preceded or constantly accompanied by knowledge

3. visibilities/objectivizations, which represent objectivizations of discursive knowledge practices through non-discursive practices, whereby the existence of the visibilities (“objects”) is only maintained through discursive and non-discursive practices.

The dispositive has a certain firmness, but is also always subject to historical change. Moreover, its constant influence by other dispositives must be taken into account.

Dispositive analysis, which deals with the processing connection of knowledge, action and visibility, would therefore have to complete the following steps:

1. reconstruction of knowledge in the discursive practices

2. reconstruction of the knowledge underlying the non-discursive practices

3. reconstruction of the non-discursive practices that led to the visibilities/objectifications and the knowledge contained therein

According to Jäger, it is necessary to firstly distinguish discursive and non-discursive practices, to analyse them separately, however I am not quite sure I got the distinction between discursive and non-discursive practices and whether or not it is actually possible to analyze them separately. Important here to mention is that Jäger also writes that discursive practices connect to sagbares/unsagares and non-discrusive practices, which he connects to Tätigkeiten. So, moving on trying to figure out discursive/non-discursive practices.

Wraner and Lange (2007) point out the problems that Jäger identifies: first, an all too verbally conceived “discourse” evokes a “reality” as its other, which is then, however, neither in itself nor in its relationship to the discourse adequately determined. Jäger’s critique could now be sharpened and formulated: The more one understands the discursive and the non-discursive as two separate realities, the more problematic becomes the resulting question of mediation. However, as the authors further elaborate, Foucault’s concept of discourse is “not characterized by an autonomous linguistic concept of discourse, as Jäger assumes, but Foucault attempts to conceptualize discourse as a boundary between the linguistic and the non-linguistic Sprachlichem & Nicht-Spachlichem)”.

Discourse, in that sense, I would conclude, is not a discussion, conversation, talk, dialogue, communication, conference, debate or essay, treatise, dissertation, paper, study, critique, monograph, but in a more theoretical sense.

As I have understood, Foucault has been quite infuental in discourse analysis, however attempts have been made tie extent discourse analysis to a dispositive analysis “which – starting from the discursive – includes an analysis of power relations and non-discursive practices.”

Since discourse, discursive practices, non-discursive practices are key here, I thought I would read a bit about that as well.

Discourse:

According to Wikipedia “Foucault (1977, 1980) argued that power and knowledge are inter-related and, thus, every human relationship is a struggle and negotiation of power.[19] Even further, he would state that power is always present and can both produce and constrain the truth.[14] Discourse according to Foucault (1977, 1980, 2003) is related to power as it operates by rules of exclusion. Discourse, therefore, is controlled by: objects, what can be spoken of; ritual, where and how one may speak; and the privileged, who may speak.[2] Coining the phrase power-knowledge, Foucault (1980) would argue that knowledge is both the creator of power and the creation of power. An object becomes a “node within a network”. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault uses the example of a book to illustrate a node within a network: a book is not made up of individual words on a page, each of which has meaning, but rather “is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences”. The meaning of that book is connected to a larger, overarching web of knowledge and ideas to which it relates.

One of the key discourses that Foucault identified as part of his critique of power-knowledge was that of neoliberalism, which he related very closely to his conceptualization of governmentality in his lectures on biopolitics.“

I came across a forum, where someone asked a question related to discursive practices:

 “Discourse is the collection of hegemonic accepted norms of any given period […]. In simple terms, discourse has mores or acceptable behaviors according to the discourse of the era. As discourse is constantly in flux, hegemonic acceptable norms are too. Discursive practices are the way in which discourse brings these hegemonic norms into life and are usually determined within the power/knowledge dichotomy.” (https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/10700/what-does-foucault-mean-by-discursive-practices-or-discursive-constitutions-in-d)

Explanation of one of Foucoults key terms (https://michel-foucault.com/key-concepts/):

Discourse is as Foucault admits himself a rather slippery notion in his work but at the most basic level he uses the term to refer to the material verbal traces left by history. He also uses it to describe ‘a certain “way of speaking”‘.

Discursive practices:

Key term Foucault (https://michel-foucault.com/key-concepts/):

 “This term refers to a historically and culturally specific set of rules for organizing and producing different forms of knowledge. It is not a matter of external determinations being imposed on people’s thought, rather it is a matter of rules which, a bit like the grammar of a language, allow certain statements to be made.”

Same forum I found an interesting reply in (https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/10700/what-does-foucault-mean-by-discursive-practices-or-discursive-constitutions-in-d):

“A discursive practice in foucauldian terms is “the process through which [dominant] reality comes into being”. This is a very nebulous process, of course, and Foucault focuses on questions of power. His notions of ‘governmentality’ and ‘biopower’, from his later work, are helpful to understand this. Foucault does not only focus on formal and semi-formal institutions like the state, the law, schools, clinics, prisons, the family, race, gender, and sexuality, or not just on what the critical theorists and neo-marxists call the ‘Culture Industry’ (like the media); he notoriously concerned with how power is inscribed on the body, at the level of people’s movement and perception of themselves. How does Power produce ‘docile bodies’? is another way in which he poses the question. Biopower in this sense refers to the capillary living network (like veins or hairs) of how Power is propagated and inscribed on docile bodies.”

“The word “discursive” also needs some explanation because “discourse” has accumulated many senses in recent years. In its original sense in applied linguistics, “discourse” refers to stretches of language above the level of the sentence in conversations or written texts. More recently, “discourse” has also taken on an extended meaning that differs from its use in applied linguistics in at least two ways. First, in the extended meaning of the word, language is not the sole system of signs to be studied as discourse; other semiotic systems are included, such as habits of dress, the built environment, and, of course, gesture. Second, the meaning of “discourse” has been further extended to include societal meaning‐making systems such as institutional power, social differentiation of groups, and cultural beliefs that create identities for individuals and position them in social relationships. This sense of “discursive” in “discursive practice” is accurately advertised in the description of the program in discursive practice that I quote from the Web site of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i: “The discursive practice approach is grounded in four insights concerning discourse. One is the affirmation that social realities are linguistically/discursively constructed. The second is the appreciation of the context‐bound nature of discourse. The third is the idea of discourse as social action. The fourth is the understanding that meaning is negotiated in interaction, rather than being present once‐and‐for‐all in our utterances.”

Studying discursive practices involves paying attention not only to the production of meanings by participants as they employ in local actions the verbal, nonverbal, and interactional resources that they command, but it also requires attention to how employment of such resources reflects and creates the processes and meanings of the community in which the local action occurs. As Erickson (2004) wrote, although the conduct of talk in local social interaction is unique and crafted by local social actors for the specific situation of its use at the moment of its uttering, it is at the same time profoundly influenced by processes that occur beyond the temporal and spatial horizon of the immediate occasion of interaction. The aim of discursive practice is to describe both the global context of action and the communicative resources that participants employ in local action. When the context of a practice is known and the configuration of communicative resources is described, the ultimate aim of Practice Theory is to explain the ways in which the global context affects the local employment of resources and vice versa” (Young, 2008)

Non-Discursive practices:

Foucault key term (https://michel-foucault.com/key-concepts/):

“In The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault lists non-discursive practices as including ‘institutions, political events, economic practices and processes’ (p.162). He also argues that discourse does not underlie all cultural forms. Forms such as art and music are not discursive. He also notes: ‘there is nothing to be gained from describing this autonomous layer of discourses unless one can relate it to other layers, practices, institutions, social relations, political relations, and so on. It is that relationship which has always intrigued me’.”

I have not read enough about Focuault to say that I KNOW what archeology/geneology in his approach imply, but this citation might come in handy later:

”While archaeology examines the unconscious rules of formation which regulate the emergence of discourse, genealogical analysis focuses on the specific nature of the relations between discursive and non-discursive practices, and on the material conditions of emergence of practices and of discursive systems of knowledge. Genealogical analysis is thus essentially a method for looking at the historical emergence in the search for antecedents. While archaeology examines the structure of discourse, genealogy gives a greater weight to practices, power, and institutions.

Summary:

So, if I had to sum up the dispositive in one sentence: the dispositif is a heterogenous ensemble consisting of discursive as well as non-discursive elements (discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions) that create the contingent power-knowledge complex also called dispositif.

Questions:

I am not sure if this brought me closer to understanding what an assemblage is, but it might help- and also the dispositif might be a theoretical lens I could use in my thesis instead. But to know that, I have to answer a couple of questions:

  1. What is the difference between dispositif and assemblage? RIght now I think it might be that the dispositif focuses more on knowledge/power while assemblage might focus more on agency, but not sure about that!

2. Why have Kitchin & Lauriault decided to go with data ASSEMBLAGES, without referring to either Deleuze/Guattari or DeLanda and why have they chose to name it data assemblages while citing Foucault’s DISPOSITIF?

3. Why haven’t they named it data dispositive? Or dispositive of a data infrastructure?

4. If there are connections/lines between the elements, isn’t it like a network? What is the difference to a network? Ecology/ Ecosystem and Actor-Network? What would be “my dispositif”?

Bibliography;

Jäger, Siegfried. “Kritische Diskurs- Und Dispositivanalyse.” 2000, Accessed August 6, 2020. http://www.diss-duisburg.de/Internetbibliothek/Artikel/Aspekte_einer_Kritischen_Diskursanalyse.htm.

Frost, T. (2015). The Dispositif between Foucault and Agamben. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 15 (1), 151–171. Available from http://lch.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/1743872115571697 [Accessed 12 February 2019].

Kitchin, Rob, and Tracey P Lauriault. “Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and Their Work,” 2014, 20.

Raffnsøe, Sverre, Marius Gudmand-Høyer, and Morten S. Thaning. “Foucault’s Dispositive: The Perspicacity of Dispositive Analytics in Organizational Research.” Organization 23, no. 2 (March 1, 2016): 272–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508414549885.

Wikipedia (Dispositif) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispositif

Wikipedia(Discourse) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse

Wrana, Daniel, and Antje Langer. “An den Rändern der Diskurse. Jenseits der Unterscheidung diskursiver und nicht-diskursiver Praktiken,” n.d., 30.

Young. “What Is Discursive Practice?” Language Learning 58, no. s2 (2008): 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00488.x.

Assemblage Theory Part 2: Guattari, Deleuze and DeLanda

What is Assemblage Theory? Guattari, Deleueze and DeLanda- Edition

The three main names that come up frequently when reading about assemblage theory are Deleuze, Guattari and Deleuze. So, what is the matter with the three?

Starting with Deleuze and Guattari, in whose philosophical work the concepts of assemblages play a crucial work. However, while Deleuze and Guatarri are often credited as having introduced assemblage theory (AT), the authors have never formalized it as a theory per se and De Landa states that it “hardly amounts to a fully-fledged theory”. I have seen that Deleuze and Guattari quite often are mixed with De Landa, suggesting that DeLanda approaches Deleuze/Guattari’s work to formalize a theory. I have found the article by Nail who closely examines the three authors and writes that DeLanda “relegate “Deleuzian hermeneutics” to the footnotes and focuses on developing his own “neo-assemblage” theory, “not strictly speaking Deleuze’s own” (DeLanda 4)”.  The author further suggests that there indeed are fundamental differences that need to be clarified when using both in e.g. the theoretical background. Based on this, it is necessary to look at both approaches to distinguish but also to find similarities between the two. I am not sure I can do this in detail right now, since I have neither read a Thousand Plateaus in its entirety nor have I had the time to read DeLandas work (but it is ordered!). Nevertheless, I need to move forward with my understanding, which is why I heavily rely on other people’s work. I will try to use this as a stepping stone for my understanding to be able to move on to Latour, ANT and Foucault’s Dispositif.

Deleuze & Guattari:

I thought that the conclusions that Nail draws in his text are nice and concise and give the first impression about Deleuze & Guattari’s AT:

“Deleuze and Guattari, do in fact have a “fully-fledged” assemblage theory. This theory is fully-fledged not in the sense that it explains all the consequences of the theory, but simply in the sense that it gives us the core concepts and typologies by which the theory can be successfully deployed. What Deleuze and Guattari call their “general logic of assemblages” is based on three major theoretical formations.

First, all assemblages are composed of a basic structure including a condition (abstract machine)*, elements (concrete assemblage), and agents (personae). Although the content differs depending on the kind of as­semblage (biological, amorous, aesthetic, and so on), the structural role or function of these three aspects are shared by all assemblages.

Second, all assemblages are arranged according to four basic political types: ter­ritorial, statist, capitalist, and nomadic. Each type describes a different way in which the conditions, elements, and agents of the assemblage are ordered. Each assemblage is always a mixture of these four types to vary­ign degrees.

Finally, all assemblages are constantly changing according to four different kinds of change or “deterritorialization”: relative negative, relativel positive, absolute negative, and absolute positive.

According to this general logic, all assemblages are political. If we want to know what an assemblage is, we need to know how it works. We have to do an analysis of the assemblage: what is its structure? what is its political typology? and what are the processes of change that shape it? Once we understand how the assemblage functions, we will be in a better position to perform diagnosis: to direct or shape the assemblage toward increasingly revolutionary aims. “ (Nail, 2017)

*(conditioned relations à DeLanda)

Not sure about the very last paragraph, but the rest sounds appropriate.

DeLanda:

Sellar  (2009) looks into Assemblage theory mainly referring to DeLanda and concludes that AT “offers a range of possibilities for the analysis of complex processes by incorporating principles of complexity and transaction into a theory with diverse applications across variously scaled human and non-human contexts”.

He continues by explaining that DeLanda’s “emphasises processes of formation over final forms; the importance of relations; and the constitution of territories rather than the delineation of boundaries.” This, however, sounds to me as if it is connected to the “assemblage” understanding in French/English that I mentioned in the first part, but not the agencement one that Deleuze/Guattari introduced. Is this one of the main differences?

The author further highlights potential benefits of this take on assemblage theory as outlined by DeLanda, “as it provides a unique way of considering the development of a social assemblage such as occupational science and the processes by which disciplinary territories are formed”. In addition to this, “the theory poses deep philosophical questions about the nature of any whole and, by extension, how we might conceive of human agency”.

Especially the part about the human agency was interesting here, and I will focus on the agency part.

Even though these two conclusions let me peek into the two approaches I need to read more and also re-read the articles. However, these two parts have given me some hints about some of the core concepts in AT which need understand:

From Nail article:

  • abstract machine & conditioned relations
  • concrete assemblage
  • personae
  • territorial, statist, capitalist, nomadic assemblage
  • Kinds of changes: relative negative, relative positive, absolute negative, and absolute positive

From Sellar article:

  • Relations and territories, which Sellar names as two of the key aspects of AT

I am also particulary interested how boundaries are seen/set in assemblage theory and how that connects/ conflicts with (critical) systems thinking.

Even though I am not “there yet” in my understanding of AT, I also need to have a look at Latour and Foucault, as they have ideas similar to assemblage theory, if I understood it correctly. So, while it might be a bit disencouraging to think that I am not there yet, I have to remind myself that this is a learning experience and that with every day I will get closer to understanding AT!

Nail, Thomas. “What Is an Assemblage?” SubStance 46, no. 1 (2017): 21–37. https://doi.org/10.3368/ss.46.1.21.

Sellar, Ben. “Assemblage Theory, Occupational Science, and the Complexity of Human Agency.” Journal of Occupational Science 16, no. 2 (July 2009): 67–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/14427591.2009.9686645.

Assemblage Theory Part 1

This series about assemblage theory is intended to follow my journey of understanding this theory, so some of what I write might be revised and changed in some of the subsequent parts.

What is an Assemblage?

Even though Wikipedia has a bad reputation within academia, I like to use Wikipedia as a starting point when I come across a new topic (and I also think that Wikipedia is a brilliant example of what open source can do!).

Wikipedia defines assemblage theory as follows:

“Assemblage theory is an ontological framework developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, originally presented in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Assemblage theory provides a bottom-up framework for analyzing social complexity by emphasizing fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities. Assemblage theory asserts that, within a body, the relationships of component parts are not stable and fixed; rather, they can be displaced and replaced within and among other bodies, thus approaching systems through relations of exteriority.”

Let’s see if this definition holds up after I read the articles that I have chosen. However, to understand what assemblage theory implies, I have to understand what an assemblage IS, which is what I will write about in this first part about assemblage theory.

Agencement vs assemblage?

Before diving deeper into what an assemblage is, there is one important remark to make here. Deleuze and Guattari speak of “agencement”, which is commonly translated as “assemblage”. However, translations can never be 100% correct, which is also the case here. Nail (2017) examined the two terms and explains that the french agencements has different etymological roots compared to assemblage.

agencer, agencementFrench: assemblageEnglish: assemblage
arrange, to lay out and to piece together a construction, an arrangement, or a layout = arrangement or layout of heterogenous elements.to join, to gather, to assemble, collection, set, a set of parts = gathering of things together into unitiesthe joining or union of two things, a bringing or coming together = gathering of things together into unities

The issue here according to Nail is the French word assemblage already exists and means the same thing as the English word “assemblage”. To address this, the author suggests, for English speakers, to “dissociate their understanding of the English word “assemblage” from the concept of agencement since it will only confuse things”.  However, I am not really sure what that means here. Should one be aware of this distinction? And then decide to e.g. use agencement to follow Guattaris/Deleuzes line of thought instead of assemblage or use assemblage and accept that it has an incorrect connotation? Does everyone, that uses assemblage theory understands the English assemblage not according to its dictionary definition but as the French agencement? I guess I just pay attention and find out while reading others’ work!

However, this small detour has not really brought me closer to finding out what an assemblage is. I found this article written by Sellar (2009) who defines assemblages as “a collection of heterogeneous parts and acts that form contingent relations across time to produce an emergent whole”. However, following this definition it sounds as if Sellar understands assemblages as a mix of agencements and assemblages- not sure if this clarified things or made it even more complicated?!  Even though I am hesitant to get into this, imo, complex theory, I think that assemblages cannot be understand while separated from the whole, so let’s move on and start looking into assemblage theory as a whole.

Sellar, Ben. “Assemblage Theory, Occupational Science, and the Complexity of Human Agency.” Journal of Occupational Science 16, no. 2 (July 2009): 67–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/14427591.2009.9686645.