Seeing Like a Market and its Problems

UntitledFinally, a paper co-written by myself and Nick Mahony entitled ‘Marketing practices and the reconfiguration of public action‘ is published, in print, in Policy and Politics. It was made available online almost exactly a year ago. One of the odd things about the drawn-out rhythms of academic publishing is the tendency to be presented with previous versions of your own self. The paper arises out of a small research project on market segmentation methodologies that Nick and I worked on together when both at the OU. The Report from that project was published by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement.

The new paper develops a more theoretically oriented argument about how to interpret the increasingly widespread use of a range of marketing technologies in non-commercial fields, including the public sector, by charities, by political consultants, and in the third sector. So, in that respect, its part of an ongoing argument I have been making (both in publications and on this blog) about the limits of standard ways of using concepts such as governmentality and neoliberalism in critical social science.

It is also, I can now see, now it is finally done and dusted, one of a series of ‘occasional papers’ in which I have tried to make use of the idea of  ‘problematization‘ to reframe the ways in which one might pursue the vocation of ‘critique’, including pieces on ideas of security and public life in Dialogues in Human Geography, a more  theoretical treatment of how this idea helps us read Foucault in, and an ongoing effort to use the ideas to make sense of the proliferation of urban concern across any number of fields.

So, anyway, one more time, here is the abstract of the Policy and Politics piece:

“Market segmentation methodologies are increasingly used in public policy, arts and culture management and third sector campaigning. Rather than presume that this is an index of creeping neoliberalisation, we track the shared and contested understandings of the public benefits of using segmentation methods. Segmentation methods are used to generate stable images of individual and group attitudes and motivations, and these images are used to inform strategies that seek to either change these dispositions or to mobilise them in new directions. Different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibilities for public action on different issues.”

Bite Size Methods

“Finding something is easy: it’s knowing that you ought to have looked for it that is hard. You search for known items only once you have done all the real work. In the really important cases, you search for known items only once you already know what they are going to say. In short, if we knew ahead of time what the questions were and what books probably answered them, there would be no reason to do the research.”

Andrew Abbott, 2014, Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials.

Bite Size Methodology: Methods of Discovery

“Most teaching on methods assumes that the student will start a research project with a general question, then narrow that to a focussed question, which will dictate the kind of data needed, which will in turn support an analysis designed to answer the focussed question. Nothing could be further from reality. Most research projects – from first-year undergraduate papers to midcareer multiyear, multi-investigator projects – start out as general interests in an area tied up with hazy notions about some possible data, a preference for this or that kind of method, and as often as not a preference for certain kinds of results. Most research projects advance on all of these fronts at once, the data getting better as the question gets more focused, the methods more firmly decided, and the results more precise. At some point – the dissertation-proposal hearing for graduate students, the grant-proposal stage for faculty, the office hour with the supervising faculty member for any serious undergraduate paper – an attempt is made to develop a soup-to-nuts account of the research in the traditional order. Now emerges the familiar format of puzzle leading to literature review leading to formal question, data, and methods. Even then, the soup-to-nuts menu is likely to be for a different meal than the one that ends up in the final paper.”

Andrew Abbott, 2004, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. W.W.Norton.

Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.