Epistemology and research methods

I almost have to post this, because I went on a rant in IRC about the breakdown of research methods across disciplines leading to reinventing the wheel. I am just going to paste the logs because oh god, why not. I changed two usernames because I’m weird and care about privacy on the internet, sometimes. I also fixed one typo, though it was in no way a meaningful typo.

12:26:59 AM <redacted1>: morbidflight: coding?
12:27:11 AM morbidflight: qualitative data, not programming
12:27:12 AM morbidflight: like
12:27:23 AM <redacted2>: night
12:27:24 AM morbidflight: creating a theoretical framework within which to analyze said messy qual data
12:27:27 AM morbidflight: night <redacted2>
12:27:38 AM morbidflight: but doing it from a bunch of reading and categorizing
12:27:46 AM morbidflight: it’s honestly a pretty similar task to classification in general
12:28:21 AM morbidflight: although, and we’ve talked about this before, qualitative researchers don’t tend to talk to the kinds of people who are trained in classification and so that task gets seen as bitch work while coding and qualitative analysis in general is seen as this high-level thing
12:28:40 AM morbidflight: anyway i have a grudge against that because any ontological construct is high-level work and should be recognized as such
12:28:59 AM morbidflight: and understanding the similarities in said work can help ethnographers et al. learn to manage their task in a different way
12:29:00 AM morbidflight: etc
12:29:31 AM morbidflight: yet another example of the segmentation of academic work leading to breakdowns in potential communication and collaboration
12:29:48 AM morbidflight: i mean imagine if you had a hardcore taxonomist on every anthropological team that worked with qual data
12:29:51 AM morbidflight: that’d be pretty swanky
12:30:05 AM morbidflight: i mean you’d have to argue with them about the fundamental principles of organizing knowledge but hey
12:30:14 AM morbidflight: epistemology amirite
12:30:40 AM morbidflight: itt: i care too much about research methods

A long-standing issue of mine is that I see a lot of great theoretical work being done in libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions, and by the people who study them. This work often engages with larger topical debates, such as the entire field of digital humanities (I mean seriously, who other than an information professional are you going to talk to about creating an accessible web-based database of digitized texts?), and yet these larger debates treat this work as “infrastructure” or “the help.” NOT TO MENTION the often gendered breakdown of this labor. I didn’t use the term “bitch work” lightly, above.

On that note, have a look at this article from a few weeks ago that I tweeted on June 6. Infrastructure is what makes it all possible.

On Digital Humanities and community

A funny thing about Digital Humanities is that whenever two or more DH people (I know the accepted phrasing is Digital Humanist but like, lol no) get together, they have to agree on what DH means for them. Quite often it’s a strategic term, deployed more to establish an in-group and an out-group, than a real marker of a community of practice.

Although, that’s an interesting digression: understanding DH as a Wengerian Community of Practice, with peripheral identities and marginal identities and trajectories of participation. But as interesting as that path is to follow, I think I’ll wait a bit to pursue it.

Returning to the main topic of discussion: “DH.” The construction of DH as a discipline is quite strange to me, because of this phenomenon. I talked about fields and disciplines earlier on this blog, but I’d argue that DH isn’t really a field either. If disciplines are identified by shared methods and fields identified by shared objects of study, DH is identified by…a social network. There is a set of people who use the term in describing what they do, and this set of people meets in a variety of venues. DH is a particularly patchwork network, moreover, so these venues don’t necessarily overlap. I’ve been to a few DH conferences/events/thingamajigs in my time, and while there are certain people I’ve seen repeatedly, the vast majority travel in their little packs that don’t necessarily overlap with my pack (which for two years was the Boston-area DH group, based out of my home lab).

In sixth grade there was a system for class changes: the administration assigned each student to a “pod” of 4-6 people with an identical schedule. At this stage in my education history, there wasn’t anything too complex so scheduling this was not a problem. It helped us get used to our schedules, and also helped us feel a sense of stability when, for the first time, we were moving rooms every class period.

The DH community is kind of like this: there are pods based around projects and places, and these pods move through the currents of the community.

I’ve had the fortune, or the misfortune, to leap away from my pod and find myself in a new place with new projects and people. So, going to the first gathering of the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium was an enlightening experience. I’ll write more about that another day (no promises), but suffice it to say I met people and learned about projects, and I’m looking forward to see where this pod is going.

In which your author revises her opinion of Suchman

Technologies can be understood as materials whose stability relies upon the continuous reproduction of their meaning and usefulness in practice.

– Suchman (1993), “Working Relations of Technology Production and Use.”

I’ve had similar thoughts and read similar thoughts strewn over papers before but this is a perfect crystallization of the nature of technology. I think this has to go on my mythical quote board, to pull out whenever someone questions why I care about smashing up materiality and practice and context and performance into a great big ball of “research material.” It’s why, although I focus on games, I also look at literature and scanlation (lol yeah really) and “new media” in general.

But I’ll be honest, this works just as well to explain myths, or methods, or anything used by people to make meaning. Which makes me wonder: what if technologies are tools for meaning-making? As in, understand technology as anything that a person uses in order to add meaning? I know this is sloppy, but I feel like it kind of has to be in order to capture the human elements of this. I’m suggesting we look at myths and methods (just to be consistent here) as technologies in the production of meaning.

tl;dr: Suchman got this one right on the nose, and I’m grateful for it.


I was in North Carolina for the weekend and I found out about a THATCamp being held in the Triangle (THATCampRTP: Digital Knowledge), so I figured I might as well go. It was on Friday, March 28, and lasted all day. I personally had a great time, but I like this sort of event where talking and meeting people and learning skills is involved (I think that’s why I like school, and why I like it better when it’s less formal).

I don’t have much to say from it, so I’m going to try something experimental: a list of things that I know now that I didn’t before attending, in no particular order  (I lied, it’ll be vaguely chronological).

  • I can play around with hardware and circuits and software just by plugging something into my computer
  • I miss working with breadboards and circuits and I should pick up a kit and try stuff on my own
  • It annoys me when people assume I don’t understand basic things and explain those to me, rather than actually listening to my question.
  • Lunch with friends is always good and sometimes it’s easy to forget that academics are people too (as an academic, no less).
  • I hate when people dominate discussions, and I hope I don’t do it. There’s a fine line between making your point and refusing to let others make theirs.
  • Preaching to the choir is fun but usually not very productive, but sometimes it is!
  • On that note, I really need to look into more legal issues/scholarship: I’m talking about games in culture, and law is part of culture.
  • Safe spaces are important to me, and I will do whatever is in my power to help make them so for other people. And I will expect the same in return.
  • That said, I understand that there is a lot of work to be done and that not everyone has the energy/spoons/desire/whatever to do it, and that’s OKAY.
  • There’s a lot of effort that goes into constructing a document to which multiple people can agree and that reflects the competing goals and desires of many. I commend anyone who takes this on.

I’m lucky, here at this blog. I’m the only one whose goals and desires inform it, because this is my space and my writing. And that reminds me of the last thing I learned:

  • I need to write, learn, communicate, and teach. I wouldn’t be me without doing all that. Yes, I need to slack off and take time off and isolate myself sometimes, but when it comes down to it, the production of knowledge is what I want to help with.

New journal of Porn Studies

Thanks to some people who I follow on Twitter, I found out that the first issue of Porn Studies is out now. This is a free, open-access, peer-reviewed journal devoted to porn studies, and just glancing at the titles, it seems like a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to porn (online, manga, whatever your fancy). There’s a roundtable discussion with contemporary porn actors including Stoya (who is fast-becoming my favorite porn star) and Courtney Trouble. There’s some book reviews, including one of the Feminist Porn Book, which I believe is related to the founding of this journal and to the feminist porn conference. Which leads me to a small, but important point: one of the articles includes a term that I would consider questionable in the title, and makes me slightly uncomfortable with recommending this issue outright.

The article in question (link here: title includes defamatory terms for trans* individuals) is an overview of trends in contemporary US adult film production, distribution, and consumption. Naturally, there are some trends that are highly exploitative, and rely on exploitative terminology to identify themselves. The author of this article, Tibbals, includes a footnote explaining her use of terminology, but I don’t think this is really enough to justify the use of slurs in the title, even if it is contextualized within the article. I get that there’s a fine line between using a term that may have been reclaimed by a community, and using a slur, and I commend the thought that clearly went into this decision, but I think it was a misplay to have a defamatory term in the title.

I also recognize that I am speaking from a position of privilege about this, and also a position of trust in the editorial staff for this issue. I’m assuming good faith here. You may decide that you don’t want to, and that’s totally fine.

Moving on: there are a few articles that feed into that thing I was talking about – the online porn and intimacy post from a few days ago. I think within the next few days I’ll read those articles and the book review (and maybe even have a look at the book in question) and try to contextualize those vis-a-vis that post. Maybe I’ll even feel inspired to draw up some design briefs! (Lol. Unlikely.)

Text as interface

While reading Lucy Suchman’s Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions (2007), I had a moment of analogizing texts to machines. Suchman’s argument takes machines as non-human actors (with limited agency) in a network, where ties are created through sensing and communication. There’s a spectrum of engagement with respect to this network, and in Suchman’s view, the designer is present in the network.

So here I am, reading this, and I realize that the span of engagement actually captures what we’ve agreed to disagree about with respect to literary analysis. The gamut from New Criticism to symptomatic readings to Reader Response theory to authorial intent: this is what Suchman captures, except swapping out key terms. Instead of “author,” we have “designer;” instead of “reader,” we have “user.” And instead of “text,” we have “machine.” Or do we?

Figure 8.2: The analytical framework. From Suchman (2007).

Figure 8.2: The analytical framework. From Suchman (2007).

On page 123 of this edition, Suchman includes “Figure 8.2: The analytic framework.” This figure depicts a four-column framework breaking down the interaction between user and machine into the following: 1) actions not available to the machine, 2) actions available to the machine, 3) effects available to the user, 4) design rationale. 1 and 2 comprise the user, and 3 and 4 comprise the machine. This framework drives Suchman’s (conversation) analysis in the meat of her original dissertation: Chapter 9 in this volume. This is the center of my analogy, because I argue that this framework also captures how people and texts interact. I’m going to include a picture of my notes; please indulge me. I’ll also try to recreate it in text below.

My own analogy of textual interpretation to Suchman's User/Machine assemblage.

My own analogy of textual interpretation to Suchman’s User/Machine assemblage. Also, you can see my jawbreaker nails.

So the way I see it is that in Suchman’s analysis, the issue confronting human-machine interaction was the problem of communication and sensing: the machine only has access to so much, and the user only has access to so much. With reader-text interaction, it’s a very similar issue. The reader only has so much knowledge of the author’s brain to go off, and the author only has so much access to the reader’s brain. This is a general issue with all communication, I suppose, and it gets back to what I was talking about with the contextual theory of communication. But using Suchman’s framework as a model, we can begin to see the text as the surface on which the (implied) author and the (implied) reader have access to one another.

The text is the interface.

On a contextual theory of communication

Normally people think of communication with a transmissive view, i.e. there is a sender, a signal, and a receiver, and each part of this process can be checked for success or failure. Carey talks about this as the predominant mode in American discourse on communication, and that hasn’t changed much since he wrote in 1989 (Communication as Culture). He also talks about an alternative view, the ritual view, wherein communication acts like reciting lines of a play or of a religious service, reinforcing a community’s ideals.

But both of these views depend on a receptive audience: in the transmission view, the audience receives a new belief, and in the ritual view, the audience enforces an existing belief. I think this can be limiting, especially when we think about actual vs. imagined audiences, and if we think about art that may not be intended to encode a message but just to show something.

So what if it’s more like, communication is that which affects an intellectual context and you can walk through that mind landscape and react to it how you will? What if we throw word bombs at each other’s mind palaces? And more importantly, what would it mean to begin to analyze language/communication/representation from this perspective?

I had to reread the first chapter of Communication as Culture before I let myself write this post, and in so doing I realized that Carey approached this idea himself. Reality, for Carey, is constructed through symbolic representation (aka, communication).

…communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (Carey 1989, 23)

There’s another part of Carey’s argument about communication: it is social, public. It doesn’t necessarily presume an audience devoted to decoding, but it does presume an audience. Our communicative acts are visible. This is less symmetric than the transmission view of sender/signal/receiver, but more personable. More human.

Although, one important caveat about the similarity between my argument and Carey’s is that I believe this is what Carey refers to as the ritual mode, while I think it’s something other than that.

Two references which prompted me to consider the question of audience and art/communication (also more reason for me to read Dewey, I guess):