6.15%: Taking Numbers at Interface Value (2017-12-05)
This article discusses a number, 6.15%, as it comes into being in the course of an evaluation study of education in a southern Afghan province. This number indicates that out of 100 school-aged girls 6.15 go to school. While this kind of number may invite refl ections on its epistemic accuracy, more often it draws attention to its inherent negative — the girls that do not go to school — substantiating a need for sustained international commitment. As this article will show, numbers work to establish girls as research entities, as part of populations, and as a concern for the Afghan government and the international intervention. This interfacing work of numbers — between girls, states, interventions, and research protocols — is often absent from academic work that takes numbers to be stable and passive tools with which the world can be known. This article, instead, takes numbers to have an internally complex multiplicity and to actively engage with their environments. In this article, I use the interface between numbers and environment as a space for ethnographic exploration of world-making. By describing three moments in the lifecycle of the number — data cleaning, analysis and presentation — I describe three distinct moments of interfacing in which the number comes to act in three capacities: effecting reference, constituting proportional comparison, and evoking doubt and certainty. Detailed understanding of numbering practices provides an opportunity to not just critically assess numbers as end products but to carefully assess the worlds that emerge alongside numbering practices and the ways in which numbers contribute in processes of governance.
Profiles of Malaria Research in Portugal (2018-07-23)
Synergies between globalization and knowledge economy were suggested to direct biomedical research towards economically-interested activities. In this context, research in malaria, a disease endemic to poverty, may be at a paradoxical stance. This study addresses this issue assessing whether malaria research is driven by the accumulation of economic and/or other forms of capital. Drawing upon academic and epistemic capitalism, malaria research is characterized through the analysis of all Web of science-indexed publications involving Portuguese organizations (1900-2014; n=467). First, data was systematized by content and bibliometric analyses. Subsequently, multiple correspondence analysis revealed a bi-dimensional landscape (who’s publishing; what’s published) and cluster analysis identified three profiles (beginners; local appropriations; global science). This study reveals the construction of Portugal’s scientific system and unveils the assimilation of dominant modes of organizing, doing and thinking despite malaria’s research low profit potential. Extending this approach to other biomedical fields can unravel the dimensions underlying science’s (re)construction.
Programming Visuals, Visualising Programs (2018-07-06)
This article examines the role of visualisations in astrophysics programming work, showing that visualisations are not only outputs for those producing them, but can help those developing them understand how to do their work. Studies of visualization in programming have mainly been of social and cultural factors influencing scientific research. We concentrate on the material aspects of scientific work, as of interest in their own right and on methodological grounds (since capturing the material practices of computer screen-work is an underexplored area). Using a ‘video-aided ethnographic’ method we analyse an episode of computational astrophysics involving the use of the Python programming language. We identify a selection of activities comprising the screen work of an astrophysics researcher to unpack how those activities contribute to the production of scientific knowledge.
The One-Dimensionality of Scientific Relativism (2018-04-26)
The historicist approach to science has been accompanied by a spatial one in the last decade or two. Referring to the cultural origin of the fundamental standards, advocates of the “geographical turn” claim that “just as there is a rich history of science, so there is a rich geography of science” (Withers and Livingstone, 2011: 3). The emerging localism is perpendicular to the old historical segmentation and the combination of the two present science as a bunch of quasi-independent cognitive endeavours scattered in time and space. Taking the debate about the existence of the N-ray as an instructive example, I argue that by developing location-independent disciplinary communities, history made the community-structure of science culturally unique. Different historical eras may use incompatible concepts, methodological norms, and epistemological standards, but as this diversity does not extend onto its synchronous dimension, relativism remains one-dimensional in science.
The Factish in the Field (2018-07-15)
Research in GM crops is of pressing importance to biotechnologists, development economists, government officials, and concerned citizens. Each of these stakeholders carries preconceived notions of success and failure that not only influence how data regarding GM crops is shared but also reify the objective reality of GM seeds as a technology that might exist outside the idiosyncracies of a farmer’s field. In this essay, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted among GM cotton planting farmers in Telangana, India to deconstruct the process by which scientific facts are created, leveraged, and then divorced from their subjective contexts in agricultural research. In paying closer attention to the ways that the science of agricultural development has limited possibilities of farmer experience and transformed GM seeds into autonomous beings, this paper attempts to take up Latour’s call for a compositionist investigation of a common world slowly assembled by its constituent actors.
Citizenship in Collision (2018-07-10)
In 2004, the Norwegian Accident Investigation Board (AIBN), previously restricted to civil aviation, was expanded to include a new section for road traffic, which was to investigate individual road accidents. The overall ambition behind the new organisation was to reduce the number of fatalities in road traffic. This article explores the idea that the main task of the Accident Investigation Board’s section for road traffic was to construct a new kind of narrative about road accidents, which would in turn open up new possibilities for intervention. The article examines what characterizes the narratives they have constructed and how these narratives interact with conceptions of risk and causality. It also discusses how they fit into the existing structure of road safety work in Norway. It concludes that the Accident Investigation Board’s narratives are implicitly political, as they partly deconstruct the notion of liberal citizenship underlying the legal system, and that this deconstruction can potentially have far-reaching practical consequences.
We Are Standing Together in Front (2018-07-10)
Reputation building and visibility represent pressing requirements for living and working in academia today. These demands have been key to the corporate world and are acted upon through ‘branding’ practices. ‘Branding’ has further been shown to impact on employees and workplace identities. In academia, researching identity work is especially important because of a competitive funding climate that requires research groups to resemble an outstanding image and reputation. At the same time, stable jobs are scarce, bringing forth insecure and volatile environments characterized for example by temporary limited contracts and required internationalisation in scientific careers. Based on ethnographic work in globally recognized life science departments, I explore how individual and departmental identities relate. Thereby, I propose the concept of ‘enrolling’, that conveys how a research unit acts as a ‘brand’, and show how ‘enrolling practices’ produces stability through coherence and distinctiveness in individual and collective identities. My analysis thus allows a critical reflection on academia and the re-orderings in today´s universities that create pervasive demands for living and working
Method Matters in the Social Study of Technology: Investigating the Biographies of Artifacts and Practices (2018-07-12)
Science and Technology Studies understandings of technological change are at odds with its own dominant research designs and methodological guidelines. A key insight from the social shaping of technology research, for instance, has been that new technologies are formed in multiple interlinked settings, by many different groups of actors over long periods of time. Nonetheless, common research designs have not kept pace with these conceptual advances, continuing instead to resort to either intensive localised ethnographic engagements or extensive historical studies, both of which can generate only partial and limited accounts of the processes they suggest are at playThere has, however, been increasing interest in extending current methodological and analytical approaches through longitudinal and multi-site research templates, which include the emerging ‘biographies of artifacts and practices’ (BOAP) framework. Since its onset in the 1990s, there are now numerous exemplifications of the BOAP approach. This paper outlines its basic rationale and principles, and its significant variations, and discusses its contribution to STS understandings of innovation, especially user-led innovation. We finish by arguing that if STS is to continue to provide insight around innovation this will require a reconceptualisation of research design, to move from simple ‘snap shot’ studies to the linking together of ‘a string of investigations’.
Futures Work as a Mode of Academic Engagement (2018-07-23)
Strategic research indicates a problem-oriented, collaborative process of knowledge creation. Analysing a Finnish research project Smart Energy Transition and a related Delphi survey, we conceptualize strategic research as ‘futures work’ and as translations of technologies, time frames and narratives into a future vision. We ask 1) What is the role of the notion of disruption in strategic research and in the acts of translation? 2) What are the available means of articulating “disruption” in a Delphi survey? and 3) How do academics carrying out strategic research align themselves as part of actor networks? We find that the notion of disruption mediates the boundaries between science, business and policy. Moreover, plural time frames of short-term changes in actor networks and long-term speculative visions enable boundary work. Alignment between actors hinges on methodology, specific academic backgrounds and expertize, public energy discourses, national and industry interests, as well as neoliberal policy approaches that see futures as business opportunities.
Something and Nothing (2018-07-06)
This paper explores the ways that qualities and quantities can be enacted, bringing realities into being and how qualities and quantities might also be undone, and sometimes in order to do realities better. In particular, undoing has become a focus for accountably resisting quantification. Utilising the neologism of the qualculation, the paper begins by exploring a particular kind of undoing: deletion. Questions are raised regarding the legal, technical and organisational aspects of deletion and then how we might bring ideas from Science and Technology Studies (STS) together to pose questions of deletion and accountability. Subsequently, data from a study of the development of an algorithmic deletion system is presented to explore qualculation, undoing, deletion, accountability and market value in action. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the nature of undoing qualculations, of how undoing is a constitutive action in itself.
Escaping Numbers? (2018-07-12)
Numbers have long been associated with statecraft. In bureaucratic processes of accounting, regulation was effected by forming centres of calculation. This paper suggests that contemporary post-bureaucratic regimes are evolving new forms of accounting, in which the centre inserts itself into individual sites to exercise authority. This ‘intimate accounting’ involves technologies of transparency through which individual sites such as schools are required to declare intimate information publicly. In turn, the public, armed with information, is exhorted to become informed and to exercise influence on institutions to excel and to hold them to account. Using the case of Australia’s ‘Education Revolution’, this paper describes the processes of intimate accounting. It then explores the efforts to resist, subvert and undo such calculations. Finally, it speculates on why these calculations have continued to appear robust in the face of opposition and what would need to be done to escape or resist such calculations.
Keywords: Sociology of Numbers; Education Policy and Numbers; Accountability
Calculating Therapeutic Compliance (2018-09-21)
This article discusses calculation practices in the development of a monitoring device, aimed at improving therapeutic compliance of children and teenagers suffering from a deformation of the spine. In managing the complexities of physical parameters, therapeutic measures and interventions in every day life, numbers are central participants in inferring from and interfering into bodies and behaviours. Numbers are input and output of such monitoring systems, translating, circulating and visualizing body conditions, therapeutic effects and suggesting action. At the core of this generative process of capturing and interpreting data are algorithms as common participants of managing the complexities of vast amounts of data and providing the basis for interference in people’s lives. They process data and provide seemingly unambiguous numerical outcome, based on mathematical-technological processing of information. Attending to the incremental process of “learning algorithms” as central part of the system’s development allows me to describe the robustness of certain modes of inference. Beyond using the specific case as an exemplary for computer-based numerical inference and interference, the article is an attempt to probe and complement two theoretical approaches to the numerical management of complexity: Helen Verran’s focus on numbers’ performative properties and the potential tensions arising from divergent numerical orderings; and Paul Kockelman’s sieving of inferential and indexical chains along the generation of meaning and ontological transformativities.