Order and Continuity: Methods for change in a topological society
Looking around us, we can see a remarkable proliferation of metrics, maps and models taking place today. This 3 year project is investigating the implications of these experiments in method. By conducting studies of modeling, brand valuation, the networking of digital publics and the mapping of the global cities, this project asks, what trust we can place in the use of practices of sorting, naming, numbering, and calculating as they are brought together by commercial, government and other agencies in ‘method assemblages’? Can efficacy be reconciled with reliability and validity? Do the methods being used today connect to individual or collective motivations for change? If not, what measures might do this?
As methods proliferate and come into competition with each other, the project seeks to find, if not common values, at least shared criteria by which we might evaluate methods. Finally, the project will also investigate whether and how these proliferating methods of social research are changing what they measure. It will consider whether the specific characteristics of the changes being produced in this way can be understood in terms of society becoming topological. This means it will look at the characteristics of the kinds of change produced in social processes of ordering and continuity of transformation, and investigate the implications of these for processes of social differentiation and inequality.
Celia Lury (PI, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, Warwick)
Tuur Driesser (PhD student, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, Warwick)
Esteban Damiani (PhD student, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, Warwick)
Szymon Piatek (PhD student, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, Warwick)
The project explored the changing relations between social science and society. The project employed the concept of a problem space as a framework within which to investigate issues of methodology across a variety of sites, and contribute to debate on the status of knowledge practices in decision-making practices by individuals and organisations.
Key findings include the importance of understanding today's problem spaces as i) dynamic, ii) non-linear and iii) more-than-representational.
i. That problem spaces are dynamic is not a new finding. However, the project was able to document and investigate some of the ways in which new kinds of research infrastructures allow for the exploitation of dynamism in myriad ways: including not just ‘real time’ research, but also through the development of critical pathway analysis, agile methodology, prototyping and so on. The adoption of a variety of interdisciplinary methodologies – including design methodology and complex systems thinking - by many different groups of practitioners was identified as significant in opening up different ways to think about the temporalities of problem spaces, including ways to bring the future into the present in methodological practices of anticipation and speculation.
ii. In some methods and some disciplines, the process of enquiry in problem spaces has always been seen as non-linear, while in others non-linearity has been difficult to acknowledge. The project was able to document the ways in which data, methods and problems are brought together in complex ways to acknowledge non-linearity, with lines of enquiry commonly being developed at multiple levels, across contexts and with different temporalities.
iii. More-than-representational is used here as a general term to describe the increasingly heterogeneous semiotics of problem spaces. It refers not simply to the rise of multiple forms of data in conjunction with each other – including notably images as well as words and numbers, but also mixed registers of signs – symbols, indices and icons, each of which convey meaning and enable communication in different kinds of ways. The project found that what might be called the zone of indexicality is a key site of methodological innovation.
A further finding is the importance of participation – understood in its broadest sense - to these methodological developments. This participation can be understood in terms of a continuum – from participative to participatory. However, this single dimension – active/passive - is not adequate to capture the heterogeneous forms that participation takes, nor the ways in which relations of observation, responsibility and accountability are distributed unevenly across calculative infrastructures. The project also found that the changing semiotic composition of knowledge infrastructures interacts in complex ways with changing forms of participation. The methodological links between representation and representativeness that are currently being developed and tested in a variety of contexts – such as for example, in the new interdisciplinary constellation of data science - was identified as a key site in debate about the legitimacy of new forms of governance and collective political action.
A second overarching aim of the project was to explore the implications of the methodological developments described above for forms of social inequality and patterns of inclusion, exclusion and belonging. Here the findings are preliminary, and suggestive rather than conclusive. However, the studies completed so far suggest that the social and cultural effects of these methodological developments is such as to: introduce new forms of competition through the proliferation of different kinds of rankings; encourage new forms of individual and collective identification as a consequence of the changing way in which categories are made; and produce new forms of stratification. These findings point to the value attached in the original proposal to understanding methods as having the power to enact social worlds.
Together the project’s findings provide a reasonably strong evidence base from which to confirm the claim that society is becoming topological. The evidence for this claim will be developed in full in future publications where it will be explicated by exploring the social and cultural implications of what is described as a moving ratio or rationality for contemporary forms of sociality.
26 October 2017