This panel considers the politics of descriptive meetings as an empirical base which operates as a practical concern and as the intellectual ground for drawing together different disciplinary contributions. We ask, how precisely do descriptions express meetings, for whom and under what conditions?
The recent call for a descriptive (re)turn from Heather Love (2010, 2013, 2015) is the product of a meeting between - i.e. a coming together of - literary criticism, cultural studies, philosophy and sociological/STS research. Extending Love, description is a key methodological practice and, insofar as it is social and collaborative, descriptions themselves express meetings by virtue of what they bring together. But descriptions are not neutral precisely because they are forms of social (and technical) practice. They produce different kinds of meetings depending on how they are pursued and put together. While they do bring together, they can also produce points of theoretical, methodological and indeed political divergence, exclusion and, from there, realignments of many kinds. Descriptive meetings can arise from a wide range of interactional practices from consultations, to interviews, observations and engagement with people, texts and objects, or they can be concentrated in places where consensus is built or forged, where instructions, objectives or rules are handed down or, in more antagonistic terms, where consensus is critiqued or instructions, objectives and rules opposed. The most overt end of the antagonistic meetings descriptive practice fosters encompasses climate change denialism and political economic positioning across the left and right but there is also the battle within academic disciplines and workplaces. In this panel we consider the politics of descriptive meetings as an empirical base which operates as a practical concern and as the intellectual ground for drawing together different disciplinary contributions.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Describing the unexplained: rethinking the 'thin' and the 'thick' as practical problems for anthropology
Working with the category of 'Chronic Kidney Disease of 'Unknown Origin' as a contemporary medical enigma, this paper examines the methodological value of 'thin' and 'thick' descriptions when producing explanations of unexplained phenomena
In recent years, across countries in the global south, e.g. Central America, Southeast Asia and parts of Mexico, there has been an unexplained increase in Chronic Kidney Disease, newly categorised as Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Origin (CKDu). CKDu has been described as a 'medical enigma' because it cannot be accounted for in conventional aetiological terms, i.e., it is not directly attributable to increases in diabetes or hypertension, but variously linked to social, cultural and environmental concerns. CKDu affects a comparatively younger demographic, is linked to informal, precarious work, (e.g. agri-industries and mining), as well as to long-term environmental harm. Those affected by it tend to be from poor communities, often working with pesticides, and/or in the context of heavy metals and contaminated water supplies. However, despite growing efforts among different scientific communities, the search for single causes and the reliance on conventional analysis has made little progress. CKDu, as its classification suggests, resists standard explanations and approaches across both the biosciences and the social sciences. As a consequence, no one discipline can claim epistemic authority on the issue. Taking CKDu as a contemporary empirical case, I ask, when ontology is itself at stake, are we faced with a descriptive challenge or an interpretive one? On finding new virtue in 'flat' readings and 'thin' description, I engage Heather Love's orientation to the descriptive turn as a provocative extension of the turn to practice, to examine what we are pragmatically confronting in the enigma of CKDu.
Taking sides: the syringe and the problem of description
This paper is concerned with research methods and their descriptive effects. Focusing on Howard Becker's sociology of drug use it addresses the politics of descriptive methods as relational practices that produce meetings between objects, people, publics and policy.
Howard Becker's methodological practice of description has been debated, critiqued and renewed in a range of fields including drugs research, sociology, STS and more recently Heather Love's (2015) re-appraisal of the social science of deviance for the humanities. Much of this debate concerns the politics of social research methods and their descriptive effects. Taking up these empirical concerns with the construction of social scientific knowledge this paper returns to the problem of description in Becker's work. Focusing on his sociology of drug use it addresses the politics of descriptive methods as relational practices that produce meetings between objects, people, publics and policy. In so doing it explores how description is contested, problematised and transformative. Reviewing the methodological significance of the syringe as a visual object in Harm Reduction research and the public education campaign 'Rachel's Story' the paper situates the problem of description as a site for political intervention, empirical engagement and thinking with objects.
Just what are we doing when we're describing AI? Harvey Sacks, the commentator machine and the descriptive turn in artificial intelligence
Revisiting Sacks' 'Sociological Description' in light of Love's 'descriptive turn', this paper explores the problems different kinds of observer have in describing what AI does and how using two examples - Google's AlphaGo on stage and a commercial natural language processing algorithm at work.
Heather Love and colleagues, in a series of much discussed papers, advocate an approach to analytical work that would focus on surface rather than hidden orders and 'build better descriptions' by drawing on particular kinds of sociological research as a source of proximate inspiration. Reflecting on Love and colleagues' proposals, we return to the work of one of those they cite, Harvey Sacks, to ask 'which surfaces?' and 'better for what?' as a way of contributing to the debate they sought to initiate. We use a peculiar 'descriptive assemblage' proposed by Sacks to explore the 'descriptive politics' of contemporary AI. In 'Sociological Description', Sacks imagines a 'commentator machine' composed of two parts: a doing part and a describing part. This machinery does things while providing simultaneous commentaries on those doings. We are interested in the kind of commentator machine contemporary AI might be, i.e., in what the saying and doing parts are and how their relations can be resolved, and in exploring the problems different kinds of observer of AI have in describing it. AI and machine learning technologies are often said to speak for themselves, the proof of their efficacy displayed in what they do. Reviewing two examples involving 'higher' and 'lower' profile AI - the gameplay of Google's AlphaGo and the work of a commercial NLP algorithm - we examine the descriptive 'meetings' involved, the troubles they reveal and what we can learn from them when it comes to describing what AI does and how.
The art of description in establishing failures in healthcare
This paper examines the work involved in replacing a dominant description with an alternative. Drawing on the Morecambe Bay Investigation, this paper traces how descriptions weaken or gather force as they travel through different forums and processes, and are presented to different audiences.
In 2008, 5 'serious untoward events' occurred on the maternity unit of Furness General Hospital. The prevailing view, held by clinical staff, hospital managers and executives, was that these events were unconnected and did not signal failures in care. The events were subject to a number of investigations but were never examined together until the Morecambe Bay Investigation was commissioned in 2015. The consensus, that these events were unconnected, was maintained by the testimony of staff and governance procedures conducted by managers and executives. This articulation of events prevented the incidents from being considered together until the Morecambe Bay Investigation. Drawing on the report of this investigation, this paper examines how the prevailing view was dismantled and replaced with a very different description. It explores the work required parents affected by the events to become activists, engaging with governing bodies and legal processes, challenging the descriptions given by clinicians, lobbying for inquests, mobilisation of social media, and preparedness to engage with the national press. This paper engages with longstanding STS concerns about knowledge and performance. It examines knowledge claims - their positionality, weighting, authority and mobility - as description is used to replace an established description. But the success of a description is distributed more widely than the description and describer. This paper traces how descriptions weaken or gather force as they travel through different forums and processes, and are presented to different audiences - all pivotal to whether a particular description may hold as a reliable account of events.
In between silence and re-describing matters of care: an attempt at ethnography of cognitive dis/ability
We explore how silence surrounding cognitive dis/ability is created and dispelled, in care and in STS research. Could the ruins of disabling discourses left after the attack of critique be repopulated by re-describing critical matters of care?
While engaging with people living with dementia – at home, in community services, in health care centre – we have encountered multiple ways of staying (together) with trouble. As a group of researchers with different backgrounds and working with different partners, we drew up patterns capturing the idiosyncratic dignity of multiple ways of living with dementia. In ensuing consultations, we have realized that while our texts acknowledged the complexity of caring efforts dedicated to maintaining the coherence of living and dying, the moments when actions and accounts of people identified as disabled were displaced into the realm of the untranslatable by reference to their cognitive disability, were not convincingly articulated. The on-going reflection has led us to question whether our interest in the locally built patterns of coherence, as well as the grounding of the research in ANT and material semiotics, hasn't given our narratives unduly non-problematic and happy impression. What was missing in the networks and panoramas described, and what was redundant? What's to be deconstructed and what's to be composed? And how and with whom do we find out?
We respond to this challenge by exploring how – in care and in STS research – is the silence surrounding cognitive dis/ability created, maintained and dispelled. In addition to this shift from composition towards critique, we want to make opposing move as well ¬– we ask if it's possible to dispel the silence over the ruins of disabling discourses left after the attack of critique by re-describing critical matters of care.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.