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Reading :: Organizing Modernity (second reading)

Posted by: on Dec 17, 2008 | One Comment

Organizing Modernity: Social Ordering and Social Theory
By John Law

I reviewed this book a while back, and was not kind. But reading Law’s After Method made me decide to reread the book, especially after running across a reference to the project management aspects of Law’s case. So I took another crack at it. The second read was more positive. I still wouldn’t place this book high on a reading list — it’s still my least favorite of Law’s books — but it does have some virtues.

The book is a study of order and ordering at the Daresbury Laboratory. But — and this fact is what yielded my previous review of the book — it is just as much an introspection of the role and limits of the ethnographer in such a study, as the ethnographer is involved in his or her own ordering project. Law’s angst throughout the project is due to becoming acutely aware that his own ordering practices — what data he collects, what he chooses to analyze and write, how he presents the results — are as artificial and partial as those he observes at the site. This realization is often crippling, and Law writes of having to retreat from the site to his car to have lunch, of worrying that the real action was always happening elsewhere, of fearing the power and status of his participants. (Really, it’s a very fearful book, and intentionally revealing in its fear.)

Law argues that “perhaps there is ordering, but there is certainly no order” (p.1). So, he wonders, what material conditions enact this ordering? What are the social technologies of control? If we accept that there is no root order (p.2), and that the social is materially heterogeneous (p.2), how do we understand ordering? To find out, he embarks on an organizational ethnography of a world-class science lab (p.3), and he examines his own ethnographic work for ordering as well. The last he sees as vital: “Let me put it this way: as I describe the Laboratory I do not always want to make myself invisible. … I believe this would be wrong because ethnography is also a story of research – and in some measure a tale about the conduct of the ethnographer as well” (p.4).

And so, instead of going about this task the traditional way, with a well-developed methods chapter, Law engages in a lot of introspection in this book. At points I felt as if I were his therapist, as he claims that “we [ethnographers] all go native” (p.39); as he describes how his introvert nature led to feelings of shame and how his retreat to the library allowed him to regroup without shame (p.45); as he admits that he is “shit scared” during ethnography work and he wonders why other ethnographers don’t admit this (p.148); and as he frankly describes his fear of powerful people in particular. All of this was work for me, particularly in that I actually don’t identify with most of what he’s describing and trying to impute to ethnographers in general. At one point, he lucidly describes how enterprises as a matter of course maintain a front stage and a back stage, but then he explicitly disallows this approach from his own writing (pp.178-179). No back stage for Law: his ethnographic writing must be personal, reflexive, and bare: “And I choose to do this in a way which I now think is part humanist – that is by laying myself, as a person, on the line” (p.190).

But wait a minute. Law elsewhere argues (as a student of relational materialism should) that

a person is an effect, a fragile process of networking associated elements. It is an unusual theory of agency only to the extent that I want to fold the props – and the interaction with the props – into the person. And I want to do this because without the props we would not be people-agents, but only bodies. So this is a theory of agency, but it is more than a theory of agency. Or, to put it another way, it is a theory that is not simply about people. And here’s where I part company from some kinds of social theory. Unlike many, I don’t think that actors or agents necessarily have to be people. I’m uncertain, but perhaps any network of bits and pieces tends to count as an agent if it embodies a set of ordering processes which allows it (or others) to say ‘It is an agent, an actor.’ (pp.33-34)

Given this view that people are network effects, I am not clear on how Law achieves his revealing of the backstage, i.e., his baring of the self or authenticity. Particularly in this mode, writing, which as Law points out is ordering work: an effect of context that tends to hide that context (p.31). In writing the ethnography, Law has made conscious decisions to foreground or front-stage certain things while backgrounding or back-staging other things. To put this another way, Law’s revealing of his innermost thoughts is also constructed, and when he pulls the curtain aside to reveal his backstage, that act itself is a bit of misdirection, since the backstage itself has a backstage. As Law discusses earlier on in a bit on reflexivity, “there is no reason to suppose that we are different from those whom we study” (p.16).

Maybe here, at the end of the review, is a good place to discuss modes of ordering: “I think of them as fairly regular patterns that may be usefully imputed for certain purposes to the recursive networks of the social. In other words, they are recurring patterns embodied within, witnessed by, generated in and reproduced as part of the ordering of human and non-human relations” (p.83). And in these terms, we might think of Law’s self-reflexive ethnography as a mode of ordering, an attempt to adapt and further the genre of self-reflexive ethnography with the purpose of encouraging reflexivity across the social sciences.

And although this book forges some interesting connections for those interested in relational materialism, perhaps that’s the chief contribution of this book: to perform reflexivity in a way that allows budding ethnographers to communicate among themselves what sorts of challenges they face as they become ethnographers. On second reading, I could see this book being used as a performance in an introductory class on qualitative research methods.

1 Comment

  1. Becky
    December 29, 2008

    interesting review. makes me want to read the book for precisely the reason you mention–as a potentially useful tool for exploring those questions about reflexivity that inevitably arise when we talk about ethnography. at what point does the ethnography cease to be about the culture studied and more about the ethnographer who studies? can such distinctions be made at all?

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