Today I’m getting up my courage to do a truly descriptive study for my dissertation. I had a bit of practice writing good descriptions in a class last term with Curtis LeBaron, but I’m often encouraged to explain or posit causes and effects. My inner philosopher has always been troubled with that approach. I find myself getting defensive in meetings where people push me to think about what my work will mean for systems design. How can I know until I really know what’s going on in the little bit of the world I study? I’m not alone in wanting more description. I’ll always have Bruno Latour. In fact, the title of this post is a line from On Using ANT: a dialogue by Latour. It’s a chapter in The Social Study of Information and Communication Technology (C. Avgerou, C. Ciborra, and F. Land, eds).
I’ve read that dialogue a number of times in the last few years, and every time I read it, I am met with a disgruntling mix of emotions. I find the dialogue quite motivating. Latour’s professor encourages his student to go into the world and write his dissertation. Not to explain but to describe. And in describing to write and write and write. Not to dwell on frameworks or to think his dissertation will enlighten his subjects or even change the world. I like to describe; I’m game. Latour’s professor is also frustrating though. The (near) end of the dialogue sums it up (S = student, P = professor):
S: But, your sort of "science", it seems to me, means breaking all the rules of social science training.
P: I prefer to break them and follow my actors . . . As you said, I am, in the end, a naive realist.
S: But see, I'm just a Ph.D. student. You're a professor. You have published, you can afford to do things that I can't. I have to listen to my supervisor. I simply can't follow your advice too far.
The student nailed my concern. How can I afford to do actor-network theory (yes, Latour describes it as Doing ANT) when nearly all of social science is asking me to build a framework or build on a framework and then to explain? Sigh.