By Renae Fomiatti and Duane Duncan
A fledgling group of PhD students and researchers from NDRI’s Melbourne office came together for the reading group’s first meeting on a Wednesday evening. Over haloumi fries and beverages at a local pub in Fitzroy, Melbourne, the group discussed a chapter from John Law’s book After Method (2004), alongside Robyn Dwyer and David Moore’s (2013) paper ‘Enacting multiple methamphetamines: The ontological politics of public discourse and consumer accounts of a drug and its effects’.
Over the last decade Law’s After Method (alongside other works from science and technology studies, actor network theory and feminist science studies) has been used widely in Australian sociological qualitative scholarship on alcohol and other drugs. The ideas brought together and explored in After Method – enactment, performativity, multiplicity and ontological politics – have been central to what has been termed the ‘ontological turn’ in the social sciences. In a recent editorial, Fraser describes this as, ‘a turn towards the idea that the ontology of things (the nature of their being) is constituted in practice—in the ways those things are understood, responded to and even researched’ (2017, p. 130). In After Method John Law draws together and synthesises the work of other scholars working in STS and ANT (e.g. Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar and Annemarie Mol) to draw attention to the performativity of scientific and other knowledge-making practices, and to pose a performative ontology of reality. One feature of STS ethnographic and practice-based analyses of knowledge making is their insistence on the materiality of the world, and the agency of things (other than humans). We discussed how this is in contrast (and response) to social constructionist approaches which interprets all things to be products of discourse and power, their meaning – and agency (i.e. subject positons) – established in language.
We tackled chapter two of After Method entitled ‘Simplification practices’, which offers an account of the laboratory ethnography conducted by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar in Laboratory Life (1979). In Laboratory Life (1979), Latour and Woolgar describe how scientific practices, instruments and tools – or what are termed ‘inscription devices’ – isolate, detect and name material substances. For instance, they discuss how extracts are taken and produced from rats, which are subsequently placed in a machine, that are then converted ‘into an array of figures or inscriptions on a sheet of paper’ (Law, 2004: 20). At this juncture, the group had an unexpected conversational detour into the materiality of rats. Although ‘rats’ may precede the reality of their incorporation into diagnostic assays, their existence as real (as ‘rats’) is always dependent on their realisation in other assemblages of practice. Even if a thing’s existence might be settled (such as agreement that a rat is a rat is a rat), Law also helps us to see that such is not a reflection of an external reality accurately captured and represented in language, or scientific knowledge, but an effect of repeated and iterative practice.
Importantly, in this sense, Latour and Woolgar, and subsequently Law, emphasise that inscription is distinct from description. The reality of particular phenomenon (of particular interest to our reading group were phenomena such as drugs, ‘alcohol-related violence’, take-home naloxone, performance and image-enhancing drugs, testosterone, hepatitis C and bodies) are forged and constituted through their inscription and enactment (and re-enactment) in networks of scientific and other knowledge practices. The reality of any given phenomenon is settled once all the traces of its construction have been erased: ‘reality becomes the determining factor’ (Law, 2004: 37). Thus, it is not simply that reality always existed, out there, and has now been agreed upon to be accurately found to exist, but that the controversies and messiness involved in the making of a reality are deleted. Then, according to Law, the statements about the thing and the thing itself become ‘inverted’, so that ‘the object becomes the reason why the statement was made in the first place’ (ibid).
On this view, one of the central thrusts of this chapter is STS’s challenge to Euro-American metaphysics and common-sense realism that the world is independent, anterior (to us), definite in form and singular. With the recognition that ontology is inseparable from practice, we arrive at the notion of ontological multiplicity (the topic of the following chapter explored through Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple). That is, across differing and various sites of practices, different and multiple realities are performed. Law is careful to highlight that a recognition of multiplicity is not the same as suggesting that all realities are possible and can get made. Instead, existing ‘hinterlands’ of relations, knowledges, practices, objects and actors hold realities in place, both shaping and constraining how and which realities get made. A talking point for our reading group was the way in which the notion of ontological multiplicity can avoid adopting a relativist stance (i.e. the idea that all differences are equal and should be respected). On this point, we returned to Law’s engagement with the political implications of multiplicity. If reality is multiple, the purpose of critical qualitative sociological work, particularly in a field as politicised as alcohol and other drug use, must surely be to nurture, tend to and compose those realities that do less harm. In this sense, we agreed that ontological multiplicity is unlike relativism in that it offers an explicitly political and ethical stance.
Dwyer and Moore’s article on the ontological multiplicity of methamphetamine takes up these insights and applies them to the study of public discourse on methamphetamine. They note that methamphetamine is routinely enacted a ‘stable, singular and definite object’ that causes psychosis across a range of empirical sites including drug education, health promotion, media, professional training and policy and research texts (2013: 207). Yet turning to consumer accounts they argue that consumers of methamphetamine foreground the variability of its effects – including its pleasures – and its contingency on local, social and cultural contexts and practices, including sleep, work and social relationships. Here, we spoke about how knowledge making practices don’t simply unearth or bring to light a new reality; they’re involved in the contestation of the prevailing reality, and the effects of this reality. Thus, in relation to methamphetamine for instance, it is not simply that the dominant biomedical frameworks fail to account for the diversity or contingency of experience, but that their dominance produces problematic categories, identities, and responses, which themselves reify the realities generated and sustained in biomedicine, neuroscience and psychology and their hinterlands. The determinism in each of these frameworks privileges pharmacological or neuro-chemical, or psychological realities – buttressed by the Euro-American metaphysical assumptions about the singularity of reality. Attending to the ways in which these objects are stabilised in ‘(one) biomedical hinterland’ (Dwyer & Moore, 2013: 210), permits attention to the contemporary ontological politics of drug use, in which reducing drug use rather than reducing harm from drug use is prioritised.
This is conceptually-driven work that expertly explains and uses the central concepts outlined in After Method. In this way it was a helpful and complementary reading for our group, whose different members come at STS from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and with varying levels of experience. Although After Method tends to focus on scientific practices, the implications of its arguments about the nature of reality and the messiness of reality-making is relevant to the study of all knowledge practices, including our own methodological ones. In this way revisiting these ideas, or encountering them for the first time, was a useful departure point for the group as we grapple with STS’s difference from social constructionism and its relationship to post-humanism. These themes emerged in different guises throughout our discussion and we look forward to discussing them next month when we read Cameron Duff’s Deleuzian and ANT-inspired work on drugs and assemblages of health.
The CST Reading Group: Renae Fomiatti, Duane Duncan, Emily Lenton, Nyssa Ferguson and Gemma Nourse
Dwyer, R., & Moore, D. (2013). Enacting multiple methamphetamines: The ontological politics of public discourse and consumer accounts of a drug and its effects. International Journal of Drug Policy, 24, 203-11
Fraser, S. (2017). The future of ‘addiction’: Critique and composition. International Journal of Drug Policy, 44, 130-134.
Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Law, J. (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. London, England: Routledge.