After Method: Mess in Social Science Research by John Law

Addressed particularly to budding academics.

I wonder how revolutionary this book was in 2004 when it first appeared. Even now, in a world where text books and zoom classes teach neat methods for students at university level – eg Neuman’s Social Research Methods, considered a classic, doesn’t mention Law’s work, at least in the two editions I have – it apparently goes against the grain. We have a picture of how scientists to their thing, and no amount of pointing out that they live in messes quite contrary to those expectations, actually sinks through. Consequently, those in the field possibly hampered with the label social ‘scientists’, need to deliver packages which make sense even though they are generally investigating things that don’t.

The book also feels prescient. Everything he says about the mess of reality, the inability to grab it without it slipping away, relates even more to the world of twenty years later when we are all hooked into the internet, with reality being all the murkier as a consequence. This is how he introduces the problem in 2004:

No doubt some things in the world can indeed be made clear and definite. Income distributions, global CO2 emissions, the boundaries of nation states, and terms of trade, these are the kinds of provisionally stable realities that social and natural science deal with more or less effectively. But alongside such phenomena the world is also textured in quite different ways. My argument is that academic methods of inquiry don’t really catch these. So what are the textures they are missing out on?

If we start to make a list then it quickly becomes clear that it is potentially endless. Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or don’t have much form at all, unpredictabilities, these are just a few of the phenomena that are hardly caught by social science methods. It may be, of course, that they don’t belong to social science at all. But perhaps they do, or partly do, or should do. That, at any rate, is what I want to suggest. Parts of the world are caught in our ethnographies, our histories and our statistics. But other parts are not, or if they are then this is because they have been distorted into clarity. This is the problem I try to tackle. If much of the world is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or doesn’t really have much of a pattern at all, then where does this leave social science? How might we catch some of the realities we are currently missing? Can we know them well? Should we know them? Is ‘knowing’ the metaphor that we need? And if it isn’t, then how might we relate to them? These are the issues that I open up in this book.

I am charmed by the idiosyncrasies of composition in this book: it has Interludes, which reminds me of Eugene O’Neill. Again early on, he has this, in a box headed The Pleasures of Reading.

Why do the books fall into two heaps, the novels on the one hand, and the academic volumes on the other? Why do the novels get themselves read at the weekends, or on holidays, or in the ten minutes before falling asleep at night? Why do the work-books get read in the day, at prime times?

Then again, another kind of question. How do these different kinds of books get read? Why is it that reading a novel brings pleasure not only for its plot and its characterisation, but also for its use of words? If we reflect on the sheer pleasure of reading a well-crafted novel, one in which the words are carefully chosen, put together just right, then we may ask the question: what is the pleasure in reading an academic book? And how many academic books are really well written at the word-level? At the level of crafting?

How these two kinds of books get read is often, perhaps mostly, very different. If we read novels we read them, often, as an act in itself, for the pleasure of the read, the ‘good read’ of the airport novel, or the crafted text of a Barbara Kingsolver or a Penelope Lively or a J.M. Coetzee. They are pleasures in themselves, intrinsic. Whereas I guess we do not often read an academic book for the pleasure of the read itself, the pleasure, so to speak, of the journey. Rather we read it for the destination, where it will take us, where we will be delivered. We take pleasure, to be sure, in a well-crafted academic book – the ones that come to mind for me are, perhaps, mostly by historians. But the interest is different.

Perhaps, then, the distinction is between means and ends. Novels are ends in themselves, worth reading in their own right. Academic writings are means to other ends. The textures along the way, the actual writing, these are subordinate to those ends. It may be more agreeable to travel first class than third, but in the end we all arrive at the same destination.

What difference would it make if we were instead to apply the criteria that we usually apply to novels (or even more to poetry) to academic writing? Wouldn’t the library shelves empty as the ranks of books disqualified themselves? What would we be left with? And, more importantly, if we had to write our academic pieces as if they were poems, as if every word counted, how would we write differently? How much would we write at all?

Of course we would need to imagine representation in a different way. Poetry and novels wrestle with the materials of language to make things, things that are said to be imaginary. It is the making, the process or the effect of making, that is important. The textures along the way cannot be dissociated from whatever is being made, word by word, whereas academic volumes hasten to describe, to refer to, a reality that lies outside them. They are referential, ostensive. They tell us how it is out there.

How, then, might we imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself with the quality of its own writing? With the creativity of writing? What would this do to the referent, the out-thereness?

Some on Goodreads criticise him for being verbose and/or long-winded – the book could have been shorter than it was – but it’s always hardest to be the one who does it first. While acknowledging those who go before him, he wants to paint a big picture  a new one, not the nth version of The Scream. It’s easy to empathise that this is a struggle. He isn’t really writing for us, who know the story by now and for whom none of it can be a surprise. He’s writing for hostile academics who may be colleagues, may be enemies and may, most challengingly, be one and the same.

Having to apologise for the very idea of trying to write ‘well’ is part of that. As Binmore explicitly, and others no doubt keeping their disappointment to their chests, have realised, writing well does one no favours in the academic world. Best advice in this regard to budding academics is to get that urge to write well out of your system by writing Mills and Boons anonymously. It will have the bonus of supporting you financially so that you won’t need to rely on food stamps and living out of your car to make up for the exploitative conditions of being a junior academic. Write well in your day job and it will get backs up and create mistrust, the more so if you actually have something to say.

That said, After Method has been cited academically well over six thousand times. Law survived. But will you?