Thinking about my Methodology

According to Latour’s descriptions in Reassembling the Social, being a good Actor-Network theorist means working with 4 different logbooks/notebooks/etc. These don’t have to be literal books, he notes, but instead need to just do a few specific things.

The First Notebook

One of the great things about researching and working with the internet and computers is that nearly everything you do leaves traces. What I’m going to suggest here is that the requirements of Latour’s “first notebook” are almost entirely met by merely researching in a digital environment. Here’s how he describes this first ‘Notebook’:

“The first notebook should be reserved as a log of the enquiry itself. This is the only way to document the transformations one undergoes by doing travel. Appointments, reactions to the study by others, surprises to the strangeness of the field, and so on, should be documented as regularly as possible. Without it, the artificial experiments of going into the field, of encountering a new state of affairs, will be quickly lost. Even years after, it should remain possible to know how the study was conceived, which person was met, what source was accessed, and so on, at a precise date and time.” (Reassembling the Social, p.134)

All the emails I send and receive are stored on the mail server (unless you delete them – but the near limitless space available to even free email accounts means precious few emails actually get deleted these days); Twitter chisels a copy of every tweet into a database somewhere; Facebook stores all your posts, likes, comments and everything else in it’s own massive server somewhere; and my blog (barring any catastrophic data failures) keeps everything I’ve ever written on it ready-to-hand and accessible at a moments notice.

When I tweet my surprise at a new and interesting thought or revelation about the study, twitter itself attaches a date and timestamp to it, and as long as I can retrieve the tweet later (or I’ve saved a link to the tweet) these reactions are recorded.

When I talk to someone about my research (frequently it’s Brendan Keogh or Adrian Forest or Daniel Golding) across twitter our conversation is saved, and keeping a log becomes the less important task. Being able to retrieve and reconstruct the conversation – even to be able to remember that it happened later to know to go back and look for it – becomes the more important aspect.

When I write up some early ideas on my blog BenAbraham.Net I am again recording some of the ‘artificial experiments’ of going into the field (as well as performing some of the things that L asks for in the third notebook).

My mobile phone becomes my diary of meetings, and is a record of all the times I’ve met up with other academics and bloggers.

Even after assembling all these distributed logs there will be things missing, but Latour is asking for diligence from his actor-network theorists, not neurosis.

The Second Notebook

Let’s take a look at what Latour says about the second ‘notebook’:

“A second notebook should be kept for gathering information in such a way that it is possible simultaneously to keep all the items in a chronological order and to dispatch them into categories which will evolve later into more and more refined files and subfiles. …This is the only way to become as pliable and articulate as the subject matter to be tackled.” (p.134)

This sounds to me like Latour is asking for the flexibility of digital information. Cut/Copy/Paste/Delete/Sort/Find/etc. All these things are possible with data in a digital format. And the point of it is to be as flexible as the subjects – if I’m using the same tools as the subjects, aren’t I being at least as flexible as them?

The Third Notebook

Latour describes the third notebook thusly:

“A third notebook should be always at hand for as libitum writing trials. The unique adequacy one should strive for in deploying complex imbroglios cannot be obtained without continuous sketches and drafts.” (p.134)

So this one is a place for random writing, notes and scraps, and in other words is about bringing the editing and revision process forward so it becomes part of the research process. This is what I’m doing with my blogging at BenAbraham.Net – I describe the blog in an info box on the side by saying the blog is ‘a diary of sorts for the things Ben writes that don’t have a home elsewhere’, and I frequently use it for self-contained ideas and pieces of writing.

The emphasis Latour places on the importance of the writing process is hard to overstate. His approach is one that does not see the generation of the ‘report’ as a response to the research, rather it is just as much a part of it:

“It is impossible to imagine that one would gather the data for a period of time and only then begin to write it down. Writing a report is too risky to fall into this divide between enquiring and reporting.” (p.134)

He also emphasises the difficulty of escaping the habits and routines of typical reporting:

“…many efforts have to be made to break the automatic writing up; it’s not easier to write textual accounts as it is in a laboratory to discover the right experimental design. But ideas, paragraphs, metaphors, and tropes might come haphazardly during the course of the study. If they are not allowed a place to find a place and an outlet, they will either be lost or, worse yet, will spoil the hard work of data collecting by mixing the meta-language of the actors with that of the analysts.” P.134-5

The Fourth Notebook

This one, I’m not so sure about:

“A fourth type of notebook should be carefully kept to register the effects of the written word account on the actors whose world has been either deployed or unified. The second experiment, added to the fieldwork itself, is essential to check how an account plays its role of assembling the social.” p.135

For this one… I didn’t seem to have a digital do-it-yourself. Or at least, I didn’t. So I started a new blog to help fill in some of the gaps of what I’m recording with twitter and Facebook and my blog and my phone and with emails, and everything else. That blog will become a daily progress diary where I’ll diligently attempt to record the work I’ve done that day as well as any reactions to my work. Some reactions have already happened: Roger Travis commented on Facebook when he posted a link to a piece I wrote a few months back that my project ‘looked interesting’ or something along those lines. So those kinds of reactions need to be recorded there (if possible).

I’d considered also using a hashtag for tweets that are PhD relevant, but that idea is kind of problematic and not entirely useful. How do I know when a tweet is going to be relevant to my PhD or not? I can’t always know in advance.