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Mapping Controversies and/as research?

Several ’Mapping Controversies’ courses have been taught in Copenhagen for some time now, at various places and with various titles. Earlier this week some of the people involved in these efforts sat down for a one-day seminar to discuss whether there is something under the umbrella of ’Mapping Controversies’ that can be taken from an existence as pedagogical tools towards research contributions (at this point I am using ’Mapping Controversies’ as a placeholder for multiple activities instead of offering an authoritative definition).

The seminar was funded by the Digital Humanities Lab Denmark (DigHumLab) and hosted by the Techno-Anthropology Research Group (TANT) at Aalborg University Copenhagen. For a ’Mapping Controversies’ teacher and practitioner such as myself, the seminar came across as a rare chance to discuss among peers where our work might be heading. Here follows an account of the discussions.

The day started with Anders Kristian Munk’s keynote, which played with the idea of treating Mapping Controversies as a patient that we could expose to a collaborative medical examination. The metaphor was successful because it invited Anders to think about the biography of the patient, starting with its early Mertonian childhood in the 1950s, where it realized that the norms of scientific communities were usefully exposed for study when they broke down into controversies.

Then followed the formative years of SSK and ANT in the 1970s and 80s, after which the patient ’came into its own’ as a way to teach STS to engineering students. This was soon followed by a severe midlife crisis, however, where the patient started to get increasingly worried about democracy and the need to reestablish the respect for what scientists do. The midlife crisis kick started a lively ’second youth’ in the 2000s where the patient suddenly set out to fix both social science and the broken public sphere with large EU-funded projects like MACOSPOL and EMAPS.

While noting Mapping Controversies’ new sense of mission and newfound ability to attract other actors, Anders Munk’s patient metaphor of course implied that all is not well. He gave two examples of cutting edge mapping controversies research, but largely left it up to the other participants in the medical examination to suggest a diagnosis and possible treatment. Four ’doctors’ took the lead here.

First, Anders Blok noted how MC was doing well as a teaching tool, but not so well as a method for basic social research. The treatment that fits this diagnosis, ’Dr Blok’ argued, is to specify what exactly we do research on when we ’map controversies’. He provided three alternatives, and then three reasons why he preferred one of them. The first possible answer would be to say that mapping controversies means to do research on techno-scientific controversies. The problem is that this is not new. The second possible answer is that we do mapping. But this just means that we are doing inquiry as all researchers are. The third possible answer is to say we do research on digital methods, which was Dr Blok’s recommended treatment. The advantages of rallying under ’digital methods’ he mentioned included: 1) The chance to contribute to innovation in research devices in social science, which seems to run on techniques developed in the 1960s or earlier. 2) The chance to explicate the social life of methods, to find new allies. 3) The chance to disentangle and rearrange the many partial connections of mapping controversies in order to find a balance between isolation and megalomania.

The intervention by Blok brought up some discussion over where to position oneself vis-a-vis the two schools of mapping controversies that have established themselves most visibly: Amsterdam and Paris, or to be precise, Bruno Latour’s médialab at Sciences Po and Richard Rogers’ Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. Blok allowed himself the useful simplification of self-identifying as an ’Amsterdamian’ to express an interest in ’digital grounding’. Digital grounding is Rogers’ (2013) term, which is used to describe the idea that digital findings do not necessarily have to be ’grounded’ in offline inquiry, but could also be grounded in additional web data. For Dr Blok this was not so much a claim he wished to make, but rather a good research question for focusing on methods innovations: How does digital grounding work?

The half-serious self-description as an ’Amsterdamian’ led Anders Kristian Munk to intervene with the comment that one of the main interests in Amsterdam seems to be media studies, something that there was general agreement was not the main purpose for us. At this point it became clear that Blok’s self-description as an Amsterdamian was a negative rather than a positive statement, serving to avoid the Parisian school, where Mapping Controversies run the risk of posing as some kind of heroic social science on digital steroids. As Blok put it, the point would be to be able to stay in conversation both with media studies and anthropology, engaging with a range of empirical objects and asking methodological questions in the same tonality as elsewhere in social science, such as investigating carefully what it means that digital data is often found rather than made by researchers.

Next up was Mark Elam, who built on Anders Munk’s reminder that there have been controversy studies going on for a long time. With the recent interest in digital data, Dr Elam warned, we run the risk of becoming picky in our choice of controversies: It can be tempting to choose according to data availability. But this might not lead to the most interesting controversies.

At the same time, Dr Elam suggested that the patient was doing well on other frontiers. The ’coming crisis of empirical sociology’ argument (Savage and Burrows 2007) was presented as having created a wave of interest that one might link up with in efforts of ’retooling the sociological imagination’. This latter slogan was well received in the room as a way to point to a middle ground of digital methods craftsmanship, perhaps between the ’abstract empiricism’ of computational social science and the ’grand theory’ of revolutionary claims about the digital.

Dr Elam also suggested that in addition to the work of C. Wright Mills, STS sensitivities would be another ally for developing a craftsmanship that understands our own methods as processes of technical mediation. This led on to a general discussion on how STS also contributes with an idea of ’controversy as method’ in the sense of insisting on the non-stabilized and relational understanding of our objects of study. One question that followed from this was how to make best use of digital traces that exactly seem to offer more dynamic and unsettled data than social science is used to.

The third diagnosis and treatment was offered by Anders Koed Madsen who emphasized Mapping Controversies as a specific mode of seeing that can bring emerging categories to the front, challenge existing hypotheses, and explicate translation work and the contingencies of invariants. Dr Koed’s suggested medication was thus based on pragmatist perception theory.

This line of thinking led to several observations, including Dr Koed’s own recent experience that Mapping Controversies-inspired visualizations can work as breaching experiments in organizations by offering them new ’modes of seeing’. It was also noted that working in this way with visualizations that point out contingencies and brings forward assumptions and disagreements might make it hard to generalize to a ’larger public’, making the maps valuable mostly as comparative resources.

One of the comments that were made suggested that this way of thinking about mapping controversies shifted focus from basic research to concrete interventions in organizations, etc. Here, it might be important to keep trying to ask new questions and not just raise key STS questions in new ways, although that certainly also has value.

Another issue that emerged here was that different disciplines bring different epistemic interests into mapping controversies – from a sociologist’s interest in social change, over a geographer’s interest in mapping, to an organization studies interest in organizational norms.

The final intervention was made by Torben Elgaard Jensen who started out by flattering the patient that it worked well as a practical teaching device that did not require large theoretical grounding. This was also a diagnosis, however, since theoretical considerations might be lacking when the ambition becomes research rather than teaching.

Dr Elgaard Jensen challenged mapping controversies by presenting his recent attempts at making scientometric and semantic mapping do work for him in a case study on psychologists. He suggested that mapping might work as a device for falsifying of troubling received ideas, in much the same way as STS has deployed anthropological studies or historical studies to questions ideas such as the rationality of science or the efficiency of technology. He argued that taking your own medicine in this way has worked well with other patients, for instance the field of European Ethnology (Munk & Elgaard Jensen, forthcoming). In the early 20th century, ethnologists held a number of assumptions about culture, but when they embarked on a systematic mapping of cultural elements, it turned out that all of the initial assumptions were either wrong or simplistic. This paved the way for the far more complex notion of culture, which the ethnologists hold today. The way forward, Dr. Elgaard Jensen suggested, is to find ideas in STS that one should be able to map, but which might turn into similar productive disasters, when the actual mapping is attempted. This brought forward discussions over the case study as the method of choice in STS and how digital methods would tie in to this time-tested approach, including the risk of producing maps as a quick-and-dirty way of producing some grounding in a new and relatively unknown field.

After these rich but also exhausting interventions and discussions, we took a breath of air on the rooftop terrace at AAU-CPH, which fittingly enough offered a sweeping view of Copenhagen, but also seemed to rest on quite fragile foundations, or at least half-invisible ones.

The day ended with the remaining doctors writing down their final diagnosis and suggested treatment for the patient known as Mapping Controversies on small, round pieces of cardboard (also known as paper plates). One diagnosis said ”Stress (Trying to do everything at once)” and came with the friendly advice from the doctor to go ”easy on the networks and forget about democracy”. Another doctor’s note echoed these ideas and added: ”Accept that you are a mess. Use that productively”. I will leave you at this point to imagine what some of the other diagnoses/treatments sounded like – and come up with your own.