All posts in blog tagged with open notes

first-gen goes to grad school

First-generation, or “first-gen,” students are the first in their families to go to college. When a first-gen student graduates from college and gets into a graduate program it’s a cause for celebration, but the story doesn’t end there.

Using focus groups conducted with first-gen students in grad school, I gained insight into the challenges these students face on their way to academic success—insights we can use to make sure that these high-potential students thrive.

I reached 4 main findings:

  1. First-gen students don’t always know how graduate school works. What’s worse, people in the university often make assumptions about what these students know: for example, about how to get financial support, find academic support, or fit into their programs socially and culturally. This often places first-gen students in an awkward position: they must admit that they don’t know these things and face the shame that comes with that admission, or hide their ignorance and constantly feel like they’re lost.
  2. First-gen students often feel like they’re stuck between worlds: the culture that they come from and the culture of academia, which is new to them. Since they often don’t feel like they fully belong to either world, graduate school can be a lonely experience for them.
  3. It turns out that the length of time in graduate school influences how first-gen students feel about the experience. Contrary to my initial expectations, the longer first-gen students are in graduate school, the more they may feel like they don’t belong, in contrast to other students whom first-gen students feel “always knew they’d be there.”
  4. To address these issues, first-gen students build community and support systems among themselves and institutions are often eager to help. Despite their good intentions, institutions are often not equipped to address first-gen graduate student challenges, since there is little research into these issues.

It is my hope that research like this will help close that knowledge gap. This research is also important to me because I’m a first-generation student myself and I experienced much of this firsthand.

I recently completed my own graduate school journey along with thousands of other Bruins. However, the findings in this project raise the possibility that education alone isn’t the great social equalizer it’s so often framed to be. Sure, it’s a start. But there are many hazards along the way that we still need to address and I feel fortunate to have learned the tools of social science research in the MaSS program to understand, address, and contribute to this massive undertaking. After all, the best social science is the kind that brings people together.

clip art courtesy of the noun project’s arejoenah and Elena Rimelkaite

righteous dopefiend

Bourgois and Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend is a photographic ethnography of heroin addicts in San Francisco’s Edgewater neighborhood. The six assigned chapters introduce the project and the theory of abuse, race relations, gender relations, community, informal economies, and policy recommendations. The book is structured in terms of co-written text, photographs, and ethnographic field notes taken directly from Bourgois’, Schonberg’s, and others involved in the project. Co-written text structures the book and situates the various narratives in the broader theoretical contexts of deindustrialization, neoliberal reformations of public services, and gentrification. The accompanying black and white photographs anchor the representations of bodies and spaces to narrative descriptions in addition to creating affective reactions from the reader. Field notes, much like the photographs, serve as short vignettes where observations and conversations are foregrounded and theoretical subtexts and historical contexts are backgrounded.

Bourgois and Schonberg’s theory of lumpen abuse intersects Marxist critiques of capital with Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic violence and Foucault’s theory of governmentality. The authors further situate their field research in what Holocaust survivor Primo Levi calls a “gray zone,” a compromised situation where survival and self-preservation override all moral imperatives. Lumpen proletariats, the “scum, offal, refuse of all classes” in Marx’ words, are the leftovers of capitalist society, having no productive purpose because of “large scale, long-term, transformations in the organizations of the economy.” Furthermore, symbolic violence and governmentality work hand in hand to maintain lumpen populations in the margins of society; middle class values frame addiction as a personal choice and in turn these values are codified into policies. As such, the subjects of Righteous Dopefiend inhabit the gray zone these policies create and endure ongoing abuse at the fringes of society.

Despite their marginal position, the righteous dopefiends Bourgois and Schonberg study sustain the racist and gendered habitus of the society they’re alienated from, to the degree their addiction allows them. In chapter 1, the authors describe the processes of “apartheid” the homeless camps exhibit and document racist boundary-making white and Latino addicts engage in to distinguish themselves from blacks. Nonetheless, racism does not trump addiction, with most of the subjects putting their differences aside the moment “dopesickness” was imminent. Al and Sonny’s interracial friendship subverts the informal apartheid of the Edgewater camps. Al’s willingness to partner up with a black man is contextualized by the authors’ observation that Al grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. Similarly, in chapter 2, Tina and Carter’s relationship preserves gender binaries and patriarchal dynamics. However, Tina, a dynamic presence in the camp, is subverts these tropes through her transactional vision of sex work and independence.

Chapters 3 and 5 concern bodies, whether in the hospital or at work. The images in chapter 3 drew the most guttural reactions from me, especially when accompanied by the graphic description of the various injuries (self-inflicted or medically-inflicted) that the Edgewater residents experienced. The authors’ description of how abscess treatment changed from debridement to lancing was a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak chapter that documented how the medical establishment abused these bodies, often on purpose, given the middle-class values upholding the policies of the medical establishment. Chapter 5 similarly deals with the informal gig economy the Edgewater homeless engage in and the different levels of exploitation they endure. The authors do a great job contextualizing the availability of work in Edgewater along a continuum of increasing globalization, privatization, and gentrification and situating the subjects of the study outside of a sustainable living wage even if their addictions were not an issue.

Bourgois and Schonberg’s conclusion make several pragmatic policy recommendations that address the neoliberal model that dominated when the book was written and continues to today. An interesting suggestion they make is heroin prescriptions. Considering the opioid crisis we’re currently in and the moral panic that has created, I’m not certain that recommendation is currently viable. If anything, the moral argument against that suggestion would point to the current crisis and assert that preventative opioid prescriptions don’t work. Regardless of the policy recommendations, Bourgois and Schonberg’s book humanizes these marginal subjects, undoing some of the symbolic violence we’ve become so accustomed to. Given the imagery and the narratives, I don’t think I’ll be able to look at a person on the side of the freeway and judge them in the same way I used to; in my eyes that makes Righteous Dopefiend a tremendous success.


Bourgois, Philippe, and Jeffrey Schonberg. 2009. Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.

renegade dreams

Laurence Ralph’s Renegade Dreams centers on the community of Eastwood and the intersection of gang life, postmodern urban development, and media portrayals of this West Side Chicago neighborhood. Ralph focuses on individual perspectives to move away from essentialized versions of the “urban ghetto” in America and instead understand how these individuals navigate and negotiate their precarious existence precipitated by failed institutions and paternalistic policies. Ralph approaches the past “as an ambiguous space” that is “somewhere between history-as-registered and history-as-lived.” Through his ethnographic research, Ralph soon discovered that to many Eastwoodians history is emergent; in other words, their interpretation of what happened in the past, what they’re doing about it in the present, and what will happen in the future is heterogeneous, contested, and open ended. By understanding history in ambiguous terms, Eastwood residents frame tragedy, bodily harm, and urban isolation as sites of inspiration and potential for change.

Throughout the book Ralph introduces each chapter with a field note vignette drawn directly from his notebooks, setting the tone for each chapter by describing his feelings, doubts, and concerns while still in the field. Part one of the book contextualizes the theory of isolation as experienced in Eastwood. Chapter one provides a historical context of Eastwood vis-à-vis redevelopment efforts spearheaded by a well-intentioned but ideologically problematic church organization and the activist group protesting their proposal. Gangs play a salient role in the redevelopment since the “urban blight” gang members embody is an easy target for Chicago’s establishment to rally against. Further, the values the Chicago establishment espouse are reflected in the Eastwood Community Church’s (ECC) “rehabilitative” redevelopment plan. The Neighborhood Coalition provides a counternarrative to the rehabilitation narrative, pointing out the political and economic imperatives to redevelopment before the neighborhood ends up as “rubble and ash” and pragmatically engaging Divine Knight gang members to intimidate policymakers into hearing the coalition’s concerns. Though the coalition’s effort ultimately fails, the chapter complicates the roles of the ECC, the Neighborhood Coalition, and the Divine Knights in negotiating the future of Eastwood.

The next two chapters explore the narratives gang members from several generations tell themselves about the Divine Knights and how the performances expected and often required of gang members keep them stuck in the organization. Nostalgia serves frames emergent histories told from the perspectives of an old timer, a current gang leader, and a gang member still in high school and discusses the social capital that various types of shoes represent in the present. Ralph contextualizes the disdain both the old timer and older gang leader show current renegades in terms of their respective historical contexts, noting that even seemingly superficial concerns renegades discuss are reflections of these emergent narratives. Ralph uses Blizzard’s story in the next chapter to illustrate the self-fulfilling prophecies ploys for authenticity result in. Attempts at legitimacy, often fueled by popular culture tropes expressed in hip hop, lead men like Blizzard to make poor decisions, ultimately landing him in prison. Tosh, similarly imprisoned by gang life in his own body, uses his “failed” narrative to build a different sort of legitimacy, this time as a storyteller.

Part two of Ralph’s book explores the resilience of dreams through the Crippled Footprint Collective (CFC) and HIV education efforts in Eastwood. The CFC is a loose collective made up of wheelchair-bound former gang members and their efforts to reclaim their “damaged” bodies as tools for violence prevention. Ralph focuses on Justin’s efforts to share his testimony with current gang members at the House of Worship and outlines the considerable effort Justin goes into to make sure this meeting happens. Justin’s testimony is incredibly moving to the young gang members with its relatability. Ralph ends the chapter by highlighting how Justin transformed tragedy into a pathway for peacekeeping in the Divine Knights. Similarly in the next chapter, the multifaceted efforts to rehabilitate HIV positive residents remove stigma from their illness and serve as narratives of transformation for the community at large to follow.

Ralph’s conclusion is the best example of engaged social science in Renegade Dreams. Ralph spends considerable time discussing the issue of framing when studying Eastwood using the case study of a viral video portraying community violence. Ralph argues that the dominant narratives in America made it easy to frame this video as just another example of urban gang violence. However, in light of the previous chapters, the reader is provided with a more nuanced and plausible explanation for the violent death Derrion Albert through the lives of numerous Eastwoodians: the intersection of neoliberal policy reforms, isolation, and institutionalized racism in urban America.


Ralph, Laurence. 2014. Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

yo mama’s disfunktional!

Robin D. G. Kelley’s Yo Mama’s Disfunktional! outlines the ideological culture war African Americans have engaged in through the latter half of the 20th century. By reframing the root causes of social issues in terms of individual actions, neoliberal/neoconservative agents minimize the role of policy and maximize the role of poor people of color in their own demise. Despite being written in the 90s, many of the issues Kelley brings to the forefront in his book continue to be relevant.

Kelley wrote the book in response to what he considers most prevalent and damaging “yo mama” joke in modern American society: the demonization of black mothers (and by extension black culture). Kelley describes how social scientists invented this version of “black culture” that is centered on poverty, (bad) behavior, and deficits. This oversimplified version of “blackness” glosses over hybridity and complexity in the black experience in America. These constructs, in turn, help justify the enactment of neoliberal policy decisions and provide vitriol for neoconservative ideologues to blame “black culture” for the social woes many black people experience.

Kelley provides case studies of basketball and hip-hop cultures as examples of this process of essentializing, leading to policy, leading to behavior, leading to additional essentializing, and so on, in a worsening cycle of judgement and policy action. Kelley argues that neoliberal reforms themselves created the rampant unemployment and social dilapidation that contextualize the emergence of basketball and hip-hop cultures in black America. Nevertheless, Kelley asserts that many social scientists, policymakers, and ideologues treat the hybridization of work and play these cultures represent as outcomes of black priorities and not as strategic decisions in response to structural deficits and symbolic violence levied upon the black community. Meanwhile, the neoliberal establishment argues that government assistance is precisely what led people to deficit situations in the first place, with “bootstrap” solutions serving as the only appropriate way out of these deficits. Kelley responds to this neoliberal ideal by suggesting that black Americans should feel entitled to the assistance they deserve as tax-paying citizens and that self-built ideologies are myths upheld by corruption and government subsidies (in other words welfare systems) for the rich.

Kelley also attacks the ideologies espoused by activists in the left framing class struggle as more important than “identity politics.” Kelley situates these arguments within neo-Enlightenment thought and teases out the racist/sexist/prejudiced/politicized perspectives hiding behind their supposed “universalism.” Kelley also cites racist construction worker unions in the 60s and AFL-CIO’s alignment with cold war policies as examples of prejudiced/politicized action even within the “universalist” framework. Kelley’s last chapter then surveys examples of (then) current union activism that best approach the slogan from the Black Women’s United Front: “abolition of every possibility of oppression and exploitation.” Two salient trends in these examples of union activism include the tendency for labor in the United States (and the world) to become increasingly contingent/subcontracted and the approaches organized labor takes to unify a decentralized mass of workers.

Kelley’s book is disappointingly relevant, despite being as old as many third and fourth year undergraduate students currently enrolled at UCLA. The culture war waged against people of color is ongoing, with social media and the internet amplifying these battles daily, and giving contingents on multiple sides of these arguments the means to wage post-mortems after every such engagement. Just last Friday (editor’s note: 4/20/18 at the time this was written), Candace Owens, a black neoconservative personality, spoke at UCLA and engaged in the very rhetoric Kelley described 20 years ago. She accused Black Lives Matter activists protesting the event of engaging in “a culture of victimhood” and praised her audience for embracing “a victor” culture. Then rapper Kanye West tweeted that “[he loves] how Candace Owens thinks” and dozens of ideologically driven blogs and news outlets responded. Nevertheless, these tools are also available for activists and radicals as well, with the potential for widespread, decentralized social movement in the vein of the Black Women’s United Front constantly evolving and hopefully emerging.


Kelley, Robin D. G. 1997. Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Beacon Press.

down out & under arrest

Forrest Stuart’s Down Out & Under Arrest paints a cinematic picture of life in Los Angeles’ Skid Row through his ethnographic research of police, residents, and advocacy populations over five years, 2007-2012. Though he never intended for his research to involve the police, it became inevitable for him to engage Central Division officers in his research after repeated interactions Skid Row residents resulted in Stuart describing a pattern of behavior he termed “becoming copwise.” According to Stuart, the process of becoming copwise among residents of Skid Row was a defacto “folk ethnography of policing” that extracted successful behavioral interventions residents could engage in to minimize their interactions with aggressive policing. Because cop wisdom was an effect policing had on his original research subjects, Stuart had to engage police officers and police leadership to understand the causes behind the policing choices that led Skid Row residents to their cop-influenced behavior.

Though chapter 1 wasn’t assigned, I couldn’t resist reading it given the context it gave about Skid Row’s current structure. What was most helpful about this chapter was the three-arc history Stuart sketched about Skid Row, from paternalistic, to maintenance-centric, and back to paternalistic. As I read the assigned chapters, it was useful to map the subject’s behaviors to these historical framing elements and the therapeutic policing pattern Stuart experienced first-hand.

Chapter 2 discusses the police. It’s shrewd for Stuart to begin his ethnographic analysis with cops since they are shaping the behaviors chapters 3-5 will describe most directly. The most important takeaway from this chapter is that regardless how “evil” the officer’s actions seem to Skid Row residents, readers, or even Stuart himself most of the officers believe they are acting in the best interests of Skid Row’s residents. It would have been easy to make this book into another cop-hating piece of social justice research. Instead, Stuart complicated Central Division’s role in the matter, painting many officers’ arrests as interventions on behalf of Skid Row residents that stemmed from a deep commitment to the community and its people. The symbiosis this police paternalism had with the shelters was also very enlightening, given the shelter’s deeply ideological expression of assistance. It is precisely through this ideological disconnect that Skid Row residents framed police actions as victimization rather than assistance.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss two approaches to “becoming copwise,” through a group of friends and the “Skid Row weight pile” and through a group of street vendors. Ironically, both versions of cop wisdom resulted in individuals performing “police work” on themselves and others because of their interpretations and applications of their unique “folk ethnographies of policing.” The Skid Row weight pile chapter really broke my heart. The weight pile crew’s worst crime, in my estimation, was that of creating an unsanctioned therapeutic intervention that ran counter the “approved” ideology of recovery. Stuart did such an excellent job painting these characters that I hope a great director and screenwriter pair up to make an amazing movie out of chapter 3. Chapter 4, though less cinematic is perhaps more interesting in its implications, since self-policing among street vendors has effects beyond the vendors themselves. Again, through their “folk ethnography policing,” street vendors are quick to identify and eliminate those elements in their block that “don’t belong,” including drug users, white people, and women.

Stuart’s methodological appendix was useful describing the effects of his positionality and the rationale for his sampling strategy, two items that were closely entangled. Stuart’s identity, appearance, and occupation was a challenge for engaging with Skid Row residents and an advantage when interacting with cops. Though his intended research subjects were Skid Row residents it quickly became obvious he would have to engage police officers in an “inconvenience sample” of interactions that ran counter to the data he had collected about police behavior thus far. After a surprisingly easy integration into the cop community, it became necessary for Stuart to engage with yet another “inconvenience sample,” this time of policing and community activists (Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Catholic Worker). This “switching sides” upset many of the officers he had worked with, ending much of his access to him and potentially making him a target for police retaliation. Though methodology is often labeled “the boring stuff” in social science research, I found Stuart’s openness about his methods and commitment to rigor, despite the inconvenience it would cause, extremely validating to his work.


Stuart, Forrest. 2016. Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row. University of Chicago Press.

engaging contradictions: theory, politics, and methods

This week’s reading establishes the idea of activist research. Hale’s introduction outlines the structure of the book, engaging with the various themes the volume will cover and making a case for activist scholarship. Hale begins by showcasing the contention between traditional scholarship and its positivist, neoliberal, objectivist application and politically aware scholarship, with its dialogical, person-centric collaborative approach. He spends the rest of the introduction countering three arguments against activist scholarship: that it is not methodologically rigorous, that its politics get in the way of its outcomes, and that practice makes for bad theory. Ultimately, Hale’s goal for this book is not that of a roadmap to follow but a provocation to pursue and reclaim scholarship for one’s own truths.

Part I of the book includes chapter 1-3 and covers the conceptions of space within an activist framework. Gilmore engages marginalized people within forgotten spaces by referring to the Malay term desakota which translates to town-country, a space that is neither urban or rural. I grew up in Kern County, where some of Gilmore’s research takes place and can attest to the prison infection the area has experienced over the last 30 years. Nabudere, continues by outlining the movement towards subject-centered research in the global south and describing participatory research approach or PRA and how it was deployed in Africa. Using this work as a compass, the Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute was been established to preserve and connect the multiplicity of knowledges, traditional and otherwise, that a place like Uganda supports. Finally, Lipsitz writes to legitimize activist social movements and the knowledge they produce in order to “break the chains and to steer the ship.”

Part II in the book complicates the role of the researcher in activist work, introducing notions of positionality into activist scholarship. Pierre’s piece begins with a pithy observation from a Ghanaian asking her about her research: “[r]ace? [t]hat’s a U.S. problem.” The rest of the chapter goes on to disentangle the role of the researcher in defining the issue under study and how complicated that becomes when studying another culture. Pierre ends by noting the importance of situating knowledge, both one’s own and that of one’s subjects. Costa Vargas’ piece is my favorite in this week’s assigned readings. Very much like quantum physics, Costa Vargas warns against the impossibility of observing without influencing and makes the strongest case for becoming the subject through his research in the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) and the Community in Support of the Gang Truce (CSGT). Rather than engaging in the traditional participant observation, Costa Vargas inverts the anthropological standby into observant participation, the only way to researching activist groups like these is to become one of them. This piece was my favorite because it dealt with recent history, local politics, and COINTELPRO, a very relatable cocktail of information.


Hale, Charles R., ed. 2008. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. 1st ed. University of California Press.

poovey, haraway, and knorr cetina

The Modern Fact, The Problem of Induction, and Questions of Method by Mary Poovey

Poovey’s text is a Foucauldian genealogy about the reification of the concept of modern fact through British history and the unresolved tension inherent to the definition of the concept. This tension, or what she calls an “epistemological peculiarity” about modern facts underlines their ambiguous nature. Sometimes facts can be considered objective, atomic building blocks removed from context and assumption. On the other hand, fact can be construed precisely as evidence in support of a theory or a hypothesis and can never be freed from context or assumption in support of a theory. Poovey grounds her observations in the vicissitudes of this dichotomy, tracking how the definition has changed from the late 16th century to the first half of the 19th century.

She grounds her genealogy in the double-entry book of the 16th century and its use of the financial proto-fact as a proxy for honesty built on simultaneously “objective” albeit arbitrary data. Similarly, she sketches the creation of disciplinarity to approach this “epistemological peculiarity” through the use of experts in deducing models of reality over induction and observations. Over time, the reliance of models and systems created the building blocks for postmodern knowledge or symbols based on symbols without a referent grounding them. In other words, the abstractions based on systematic knowledge eventually became the objects of these nascent disciplines.

Poovey avoids describing this process as one of a rupture from a previous system of thought, rather her history is one of continuity of thought despite the complexity involved. Further, she avoids relying solely analysis of discourses (“rule governed practices”) in her exercise because a study of the epistemology of fact better lends itself to exploring commonalities within discourses and how their eventual disaggregations came to be. Lastly, Poovey argues by quoting Shapin and Schaffer that “questions of epistemology are also questions of social order.”

Poovey makes a point to distance herself from other Foucauldian scholars that often use historical methods to “unmask” the evils of the past. Instead she offers a historical reading that tries to locate the “field of connotations” contemporary with when the text was created and the subsequent history of (mis)readings of that text, instead of asserting the text was blind or duplicitous about its agenda.

Poovey describes her ambitions for the text as follows:

One of my greatest ambitions for A History if the Modern Fact is that it will encourage others to map the complex history of the relationship between numerical representation and figurative language within that epistemological unit I call the modern fact instead of simply asserting, as I too often do here, both that this relationship existed and that it has been obscured by the history of disciplinarity in whose shadow we work.

What this means for social science can be explained by the four themes Poovey lists at the end of this chapter: reconsidering intersection of politics, governance, and objectivity; becoming aware of the role of belief and faith (whether secular or religious) inherent to knowledge systems and the infrastructures they support; “the elaboration of a nontheological discourse about human motivations or subjectivity;” and the reification of abstract subjects and the effects these manifestations have.

A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century by Donna Haraway

The manifesto sets its intentions by describing the ironic myth Haraway is trying to build to integrate feminism, socialism, and materialism. The image of the cyborg ends up serving this purpose best, given its ambiguous nature, straddling both imagination and reality. Haraway’s fragmented and allusion-filled text is obsessed with liminalities and serves as “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.” In other words, the cyborg is a reminder of our complicity in the creation of boundaries but also our way out of those restraints.

Haraway warns that “the most terrible and perhaps the most promising monsters in cyborg worlds are embodied in non-oedipal narratives with a different logic of repression, which we need to understand for our survival.” Cyborgs are not a panacea, they can become the new forms of our domination; for ”we are living through a movement from an organic industrial society to a polymorphous, information system—from all work to all play, a deadly game.” Haraway goes on to describe the modes of domination cyborg worlds may take.

This article was written in the eighties but it’s oddly prescient; Haraway is eerily on target in the dichotomies she catalogs in her “informatics of domination” and the role the information economy and communications would eventually play in our lives. Similarly, what she calls “the homework economy” or the “feminization of labor” is basically equivalent to the contemporary concepts of the “gig economy” or the “independent contractor model.”

Of course, not all is negative and this passage sets up the transition to the more utopic visions of the cyborg identity:

The permanent partiality of feminist points of view has consequences for our expectations of forms of political organization and participation. We do not need a totality in order to work well. The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve contradiction. Perhaps, ironically, we can learn from our fusions with animals and machines how not to be Man, the embodiment of Western logos. From the point of view of pleasure in these potent and taboo fusions, made inevitable by the social relations of science and technology, there might indeed be a feminist science.

In other words, by attempting to “self-actualize” the feminist movement for all, the movement reproduces forms of domination and control. Haraway suggests that the only way to we might be able to escape from domination is to embrace the fluidity that science and technology suggest and through a superimposed multiplicity of identities (a chimera), forge ahead illegitimately. By embracing the instability inherent to the cyborg identity, Haraway asserts that “this is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia.” In other words, the cyborg doesn’t aim to unite, it aims to enrich and diversify through its bastard mutant replication.

Through the metaphor of the cyborg Haraway suggests it becomes possible (if not outright necessary) to escape from the restraint of dualities controlling our society and our bodies. As cyborgs performing social science, it’s our duty, according to Hathaway, to break away from phallogocentric narratives and instead seek and develop the marginal, the imperfect, the insubstantial.

Toward an Understanding of Knowledge Societies: A Dialogue by Karin Knorr Cetina

Knorr Cetina’s approach in this chapter is that of a dialogue to responses to her work. Knorr Cetina states that she “summarized comments made to me about the work I am describing in this book and presented them, along with my responses, in dialogue form.” This isn’t clear from the chapter alone. However, the quote describing her method is included in a transcription note found in the introduction to her book.

The dialogue isn’t exactly combative but it seems that the summarized audience she is speaking for as “reader” is often confused about the nature of her inquiries. Nonetheless, this absence of consensus seems to serve a broader design, as she concludes the chapter by asserting that, “according to [her] model, [the reader and Knorr Cetina] shouldn’t [reach consensus].” Knorr Cetina is thus explaining her broader point about epistemic cultures through the unfolding of this imagined dialogue. The crux of her argument can best be summarized by her perspective on ontology:

For me, ontology is something quite different. It refers to a potentially empirical investigation into the kinds of entities, the forms of being, or the structures of existence in an area. It is an interest that prompts one to look at the way the empirical universe happens to be configured into entities and properties. By not fixing an ontology from the start-by not committing oneself to the thought that the modern world is populated by rational actors, as in rational choice approaches, or by liberal actors, as in political theory, or by systems, as in systems theory-one can see the configuration of several ontologies side by side and investigate their relationship.

Part of the frustration “reader” feels arises from the dynamic, polysemic world of ontologies interacting Knorr Cetina argues for through her piece. To her, knowledge takes local forms from individual dynamics and grows into collective structures, whether as small as individual labs or as massive as High Energy Physics (HEP) experiments. Additionally, the way a knowledge unfolds is wholly dependent on a myriad of historical, environmental, institutional and interpersonal contexts.

“Reader” expresses horror at the implications and seemingly infinite variety this suggests. Nonetheless, Knorr Cetina assures “reader” that knowledge societies are legitimate units of analysis and returns to examples from the HEP world and molecular biology labs to illustrate these differences. For example, according to Knorr Cetina, HEP work often depends on consensus given the size and funding involved with high energy physics problems. As such, summaries of previous work buttress future work, setting the conventions for how constituent labs will operate within large scale HEP experiments and providing a forum for presenting both conclusive results and inconclusive, albeit edifying for the methods involved, results. In contrast, molecular biology labs are much more independent regarding funding and must instead rely on an unstable social bartering system for resource distribution and have a higher likelihood of big personalities dominating the conversation.

The implications for social science are straightforward, especially when working within/among a multitude of disciplinary perspectives. Knorr Cetina suggests through this piece that understanding the different epistemic cultures at play in a complex system should be taken into consideration when attempting to reach consensus. Rather than applying a potentially biased vision of consensus, Knorr Cetina’s piece suggests “variation in the ways agreement, conformity, or stability are reached.”

s&i notes

front matter

standards: don’t be encyclopedic, find standards that are interesting and unpack the implications. in terms of RAND i’d imagine this would be the report format and language tied to it.

next week we don’t meet (2/19). The following week (2/26) requires a storyboard. 2/21 she’s available for drop in here b/w 9-12

begin considering the infrastructure for yr paper; start assembling the media clips as well.

homework: bib and standards piece (100 words?)

bib is more on research, theoretical underpinnings of video. annotation describes how piece illuminates work.

kristen checking in for next writing response. email questions, no festering if confused.

bib: approximately ten resources, 2-3 sentences

writing response: focus on question of topic?

definitions of infrastructure

networks, connectivity, wittgenstein’s series of games, a series of broken systems.

wk 6 a good check up, we’ve obfuscated enough, best to talk about what it means now.

other definitions, see if they match up on our own.

systems that enable circulation of goods, knowledge, meaning, people, and power Lockrem and Lugo

material forms that allow for the possibility of exchange over space. they are the physical networks through which goods, ideas, waste, power, people, and finance are trafficked Larkin

material sites and objects that are organized to produce a larger, dispersed yet integrated system for distributing material of value, whether water, electrical currents, or audiovisual signals Parks

a collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructural foundation OED

layers of an onion. web, relative. it means something, it’s submerged, communicates something.

it’s infrastructures all the way down.

larkin on infrastructure life in africa:

everyday life plus ambient experience (five senses)

why are standards important

allow moving accross time and space. controls the ebb and flow of innovation; have a constraining role. bring stability. vector for growth; ascii makes everyone opt in. a normalizing influence. set expectations, coverage over space and time, enable modularity. ownership.

susan leigh star passage

. “The power of feminist analysis is to move from the experience of being a nonuser, an outcast or a castaway, to the analysis of the fact of McDonald’s (and by extension, many other technologies) — and implicitly to the fact that ‘it might have been otherwise,’ —there is nothing necessary or inevitable about the presence of such franchises” (38).

making a case for feminist analysis in the analysis of standards; token identities are scratching the surface and privileging the standard-setters. Multiplicities exist and non-majorities are at state of alienation attempting to interact with the network.

“And part of the public stability of a standardized network often involves the private suffering of those who are not standard — who must use the standard network, but who are also non-members of the community of practice” (43).

standards come with a cost; some of us don’t fit within the standards the infrastructure was designed for.

free meels being pb sammies, parent fought to keep 2000 to make the school pb free. needed to acknowledge it.

she is pointing at new ways of seeing possibilities in the world by seeing what the world is like for people that don’t fit standards.

“Similarly, our experiences of enrolment and our encounters with standards are complexly woven and indeterminate. We grow and negotiate new selves, some labelled and some not. Some are unproblematic in their multiplicity; some cause great anguish and the felt need for unification, especially those that claim sovereignty over the entire self” (50).

the nonbinary gender student anecdote and being forced to choose.

interpolation into a network is work and suffering for many.

“Because we are all members of more than one community of practice and thus of many networks, at the moment of action we draw together repertoires mixed from different worlds” (52).

switching between networks and being between networks is painful and interesting.

“This is that which is permanently escaping, subverting, but nevertheless in relationship with the standardized” (39).

the high tension zone that’s full of possibility.

“We are the ones who have done the invisible work of creating a unity of action in the face of a multiplicity of selves, as well as, and at the same time, the invisible work of lending unity to the face of the torturer or of the executive” (29).

symbolism of the standard; putting in a wheelchair ramp as a symbol in a place lacking them.

role of standards as information scientists

what are we losing when we create systems that exclude? challenging interpolation hurts them and us.

digital archivist, special collections


acronym central. shira will try to explain all of them, will go fast.

what are they

standards for digital archives are new; it’s a new field. no right way, definitely some wrong ways.

digital archives: digitized material available online

sorta true. most people in the field refer to material created and managed in digital form.

born digital

digital archives

lives at the intersection of archives, libraries, and digital preservation

holy cow look at this slide:

the lifecycle of digital archives


negotiate appraise, collect. looking at stuff when it’s physical. but what if you get a hard drive or a floppy disk or another floppy disk?

files have complex interdependencies; filesytem, os, the software that created it, video cards that made it. basically it’s hard to tell at a glance. then what about the contextual information, i.e. how did they end up there, who else used them, etc.

our ability to archive is contingent of how much metadata we gather on the onset.


two thirds of a standards trifecta. third one tbd.

standards definition is confusing af.

OAIS get put keep and show stuff.

ISO standard means there’s wide consensus; oais & paimas written for space data; very specific context! (consultative committee for space data systems)

designed to fit ALL formats and systems. routinely fail to meet specific needs of special collections and archives. i.e. digital av material.

born digital material very heterogenous in nature made outside of controlled condition. reminds me of the zappa collection.

i.e. archivist gets call that x died and they want to donate the stuff. can you come get it? negotiating with widX. contents come into a box; “poor sucker” processes it.

a world away from OAIS and PAIMAS. many questions should have been asked that never will be answered.

standards in theory are great but pretty unrealistic in reality. curators wouldn’t be able to say what the standards are. they exist but tend to be ignored.

curators model paperwork on traditional (i.e.) physical material. very difficult to make born digital content pllay nice.

[council on library and information resources book.] (

important doc. check it very often.

takeaway: standards exist but they fail to account for all circusmtances possible circumstances

practitioners come up with standards to fill gaps.


transforming materials into an archivable collection. i.e. packing up physical material and putting in archival boxes.

but what do you do with floppys, cds, or zip drives?

can you say you have ownership of the files until you remove them from the media? nope. you don’t have ownership until the media is out.

all media is ephemeral. it will fail. there’s an imminent threat.

if you lose a hard drive then you lose the files.

keeping things in the original order in physical archives; how do you work with those ideals in born digital?


hundreds of 8 inch floppy disks. don’t have the technology. acquisition process; curators didn’t really know to think about whether we would have access to 8 inch floppy drives.

media that we can access is archived as a disk image. filesystem + files. bit for bit copy. HOW EXCITING OMG. files need to be mounted.

depending of image to be imaged we need different hardware; kryoflux lets floppy logic talk to usb.

write blockers: one way flow of information. write blockers allow for an audit trail. this comes from the law enforcement community.

crimes committed by computers need the audit trail. infrastructure had to be built from scratch so that things would be admissible in a court of law; entire industry rose to meet this need. computer forensics.

digital archivists were like yay! we need all this. of course this raises a bunch of moral questions.

arrangment & intellectual control

going from hot mess hoarder shoebox and milk crate to pretty catalogued metadata.

forensic toolkit, ftk. fbi uses it. bitcurator oss version. ftk is powerful; scary.

search for identifiable information like ssn, cc info, dobs. or if donor requests specific redactions (i.e. “don’t include emails b/w me and my dad”)

ftk/bitcurator helps this process

finding aids: dacs & ead

basically, if you ever encounter an archival guide from the oac like the roberti collection.


dacs and ead have some gaps. they are supposedly content neutral. but born digital doesn’t work! dacs and ead are also supposed to hand in glove they often disagree.

lack of guidance for born digital description leads to finding aids that suck since collection descriptions will vary.

i.e. linear feet to hard drive? number of files? gigs? megs? there’s a ton of variation. finding aid: 8 inch audio cassette. audio space cassette. and eight other ways. lots of others. diminishes usability of collections; very difficult to express quantity, quality, usability of stuff.

also, makes a ton of work.

uc guidelines for born-digital descriptions

hurray, a homebrewed standard! on github.

gives a ton of information. in addition to filelist there’s a ton of metadata in numerous (often redundant but in a good way) formats. sisyphian effort.


i hate the term. it’s better to say files are preservation ready. preservation is ongoing in digital. it’s a misnomer. physical is getting paper ready to sit on shelf for 200+ years.

digital has 3 reqs: bit preservation, accessibility, management. fixed, constant data; available, findable data; timeproof data and all of the above since preservation is an active on-going process.


audit and certification to do this in a trustworthy manner. there’s a way to get certified. two orgs in the world have gotten certified; it’s ridiculous. the standard is used as a benchmark but not used really. aspirational not implementable.

OAIS, PAIMAS, & TDR: the trifecta; get stuff, keep stuff safe. OAIS also focuses on putting stuff and showing stuff. PREMIS, NETS, Dublin core: other standards. keep stuff safe (metadata standards).

standards have yet to catch up.


marc & rda standards made to describe books. not appropriate for hierarchical archival collections. but they’re helpful for discovery!

i.e. susan sontag we have her books but also her papers!

the grid is missing the access x’s because archivists worry about that last! i.e. ndsa levels of preservation doesn’t even have a column for access.

shira is working on getting access in the ndsa.

hooray we finished!

tooltip sez: Fortunately, the charging one has been solved now that we’ve all standardized on mini-USB. Or is it micro-USB?


susan sontag: email folders she didn’t use, then researchers see it and freak out.

method for dupes: let the researchers figure it out. we’ll give them all of them.

donors want to organize stuff; sometimes they have to be discouraged (i.e. leaving all versions of drafts). messy desktops are more interesting than sanitized stuff.

conversations with donors; they think things are a mess. exercise; deduction of arrangement of things based on looking at your colleagues laptop. imagine that exercise. how would you describe what you have to a stranger.

be more choosey

famous people get more crap archived. uc value score: 0-25, five different categories. research value, object value, historical value, quality of documentation (+ one more forgotten one). based on that number that will determine the research workflow.


bitcurator user forum will be here in september. come to it if you’re interested in forensic stuff.

miriam has cards; they do hire; contact!

last half hour: storyboarding

cells and panels represent what the camera sees. great way to plan sequene of shots and take stock of the media we’ll need. a great way to frame the story we want to tell as well.

can submit on paper or print on template. now there’s a storyboarding menu item on the class website.

lots of options. ppt is even good. use clip art or even stick figures; no high expectation of artistical ability.

six shots would be short; 5 to 6 minutes is a lot of time to fill. ideally spell out but if you’re collaging you can summarize.

purely visual or with audio? next milestone includes script but this time you have the option to include some audio and what not.

hands on drawing!

pinterest board of images

the power of science will solve the social!

what does this have to do with a 760pp novel?

vo: gravity’s rainbow straddles science and humanity refusing to absolve either.

cut at 50 seconds in i’ve just been blown away

vo: the rand corporation seriously thinks about serious things and the implications of these serious things.

vo: the pynchon connection is not accidental. he worked in yoyodyne after all.

vo: the atrocities and horror of world war II had to be worth something. the modern think tank was formed from this notion of salvaging the technology and methods of a total war.

project research and development or rand in military speak began in 19– at ____. rand’s golden age corresponds with the emergence of systems analysis and its deployment to social science endeavors in the immediate aftermath of world war II and the bbeginning of the cold war.

systems analysis is an analytical approach to complex problems. rather than interacting with thousands of rapidly moving variables the approach instead aproaches problem solving in terms of systems and the interactions between these systems.

give example of systems analysis, sattelites? nuclear war?

the marriage of the hard and soft sciences gave birth to the public policy professional and eventually the pardee rand school of public policy.


Disclaimer and Reflections on Essays

I did not follow the recommended reading directions for reading Mythology Today first, since Barthes’ essays were too provocative to “ruin” with a long theoretical piece as the starting point. My observations are thus presented in the order I read the pieces (chronologically with the book). Then I try to tie them together theoretically in the end, emphasis on try.

I will begin with a quote from the second to the last paragraph of the “World of Wrestling”:

The grandiloquence is nothing but the perfect intelligibility of reality. What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.

Barthes builds to this conclusion after dissecting the physicality, theatricality, and reception of French “amateur” wrestling in addition to defining what this flavor of pugilism is and isn’t.

The contrast wrestling plays to boxing is crucial. Boxing has an end, a clear winner, a goal. Wrestling on the other hand, is pure causality stripped from narrative and context. The excerpt above states this fact in a nearly biblical tone and the conclusion to the essay that follows continues with the religious undertones by describing the transmutation of men to gods while in the ring. And what exactly is godly to Barthes?

Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a justice which is at last intelligible.

Intelligibility and nature are two themes that keep appearing in Barthes’ essays. In “Soap-powders and Detergents” the intelligible forms of detergents are psychoanalyzed in their media representations and their contradictory nature exposed and challenged. For how could abrasives meant for cleaning be simultaneously light, fluffy, and ethereal while remaining stain fighters? The punchline for this essay (Unilever owns both Persil and Omo) slowly begins the process of uncovering the deeper insights Barthes will talk about in “Myth Today.”

The punchline to “Operation Margarine” is very similar to “Soap-powders and Detergents” in the sense that they both nod towards exposing the way “Established Orders” are reinforced. In “Operation Margarine” Barthes describes the process by which airing grievances serve as “inoculations” for further resistance, starting with two examples from the army and one from the church, and ending with advertising’s take on margarine. These examples start as grievances but end asserting the inevitability of an established order and the ultimate foolishness of a true rebellion in resistance to this “natural order”.

Barthes expands in “Myth Today” how bourgeois foster an illusion of camaraderie with the petite bourgeois through their dissemination of bourgeois representations. “The New Citroen” is a moment of apotheosis for that process wherein “the object here is totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediatized, actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petite bourgeois advancement.” The New Citroen was the piece that profited most from reading “Myth Today” given Barthes’ exposition on bourgeois/petitee bourgeois dynamics.

Reflections on Myth Today

This piece is a bit confusing given the levels of recursion Barthes demands along with several instances of recycled etymologies like signifier, signified, sign, and signification. Nonetheless, if one keeps in mind the linguistic undertones of the descriptions, “Myth Today” gives social scientists a very useful toolkit for exploring semantic systems and ideologies.

There are strong linguistic undertones to this piece. Barthes lays the foundation for mythical analysis by describing first order semiotic systems, consisting of three dimensions: signifier, signified, and sign. Barthes uses roses representing passion to a basic semiotic system, with rose serving as signifier, passion as signified, and the relationship between these two as the sign.

Barthes describes myth as a second order semiotic system, made from chains of first order symbols and resembling the first order schema. In contrast with the first order dimensions of signifier, signified, and sign, second order dimensions include meaning, concept, and signification. If first order semiotic systems are language, second order semiotic systems are metalanguage, serving a descriptive function to language. Herein begins the recursive move in mythical understanding, since first order symbols are nested within second order symbols and both rely on a very similar three-dimensional relationship.

This three/dimensional relationship at both language/metalanguage levels begins with the binary relationship between signifier and signified or meaning and concept. The third dimension is the relationship between these binaries, whether sign or signification.

Signification takes the binary process between meaning a concept and abstracts it to a naturalistic causal relationship at the metalanguage level. This doesn’t happen at the language level, since the relationship between signifier and signified are already much simpler than between meaning and concept. Why is this the case? First level semiotic systems are at the scope of the sentence and grammar; they are limited in the complexity they can convey given how small a function they play. Second order semiotic system are scoped at a much larger level and can reference our history and experience as social beings. Nevertheless, the relationship between binaries expressed in second order semiotic systems irons out the complexities suggested by this semantic richness. This simplification process happens through the building of a narrative that suggests a naturalistic causality between meaning and concept, in other words, the construction of a myth.

Myth then, hides ideology and the semantic processes that scaffold this ideology. What is then is the motivation behind becoming a “mythologist” and learning all these discursive moves?

The fact that we cannot manage to achieve more than an unstable grasp of reality doubtless gives the measure of our present alienation: we constantly drift between the object and its demystification, powerless to render its wholeness. For if we penetrate the object, we liberate it but we destroy it; and if we acknowledge its full weight, we respect it, but we restore it to a state which is still mystified. It would seem for some time yet always to speak excessively about reality. This is probably because ideologism and its opposite are types of behavior which are still magical, terrorized, blinded and fascinated by the split in the social world. And yet this is what we must seek: a reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge.

In other words, mythical processes permeate the fiber of our society in the service of ideologies. However, to be aware of this is to deconstruct the myth and thus remove its power. A powerless myth, though “liberated” is devoid of its discursive power. To understand a myth’s discursive power, then, one is forced to tolerate its “mystified” state thus yielding to the myth’s power again. This cycle, though frustrating, is the only way to grasp the totality of a myth and is the heuristic the mythologist must follows to study myth.

Speaking about myth in these overly general, linguistically rigorous modes hides the value of mythological analysis. Examples do a much better job at explaining these linguistic relationships and the larger implications these processes suggest. As such, the structure of Barthes’ book makes a lot of sense, since he provides a bank of narrative references over the course of the text before explaining the rationale for these examples through “Myth Today.”

My favorite quote from this piece, by far, is the psychoanalysis of the grammar example with the lion:

There is no doubt that if we consulted a real lion, he would maintain that the grammar example is a strongly depoliticized state, he would qualify as fully political the jurisprudence which leads him to claim a pray because he is the strongest, unless we deal with a bourgeois lion who would not fail to mythify his strength by giving it the form of a duty.

This passage almost takes the form of a parable. A “real” lion would see through the artifice of the grammatical example and assert its political nature, lest it were a bourgeois lion. In that case the lion would hide behind mythmaking to reframe its political action as “duty,” fitting it within an ideological framework that supports bourgeois values.

In terms of social science, Barthes’ piece serves as a compass and a reminder. To navigate a complex topic, keeping the language and metalanguage processes of myth in mind assures the researcher will remain on task and not accidentally serve the ideology that is held up by myth. Similarly, Barthes’ warns the researcher to not lose the ideology through the process of deconstructing the semantic process of the discourse altogether. By oscillating between both semantic and ideological registers of a myth a social scientist achieves a more holistic version of truth.

frontier expansion


Taylor describes how the science of interpretation grounding hermeneutical science under a three-part rubric:

There are, to remind ourselves, three characteristics that the object of a science of interpretation has: it must have sense or coherence; this must be distinguishable from its expression; and this sense must be for a subject.

The “hermeneutic cycle” begins when an interpreter is misunderstood. An attempt to gain clarity by explaining context begets the need to explain further context ad infinitum. In defining this hermeneutical science, it becomes easy to encounter recursive cycles of meaning-seeking that loop through these three characteristics to interpret a text.

Logical empiricists sought to break out of this cycle by establishing an ideal of verification that grounded a hermeneutic process in the acquisition of brute empirical data to build the foundations for interpretative processes. For logical empiricists, a theory not grounded in brute empirical data was unverifiable and therefore, invalid. Taylor then uses inconsistencies in the assumptions behind meanings and the embeddedness of these assumptions inside of the empiricism of Political Science to methodically chisel away at the logical empiricists’ claims about brute data and its contribution to verifiability.

Taylor asserts that:

We have to admit that inter-subjective social reality has to be partly defined in terms of meanings; that meanings as subjective are not just causal interaction with a social reality made up of brute data, but that as inter-subjective they are constitutive of this reality.

In other words, meaning, the building block of interpretation, can’t be the result of brute data observed within “objective reality” since meaning itself is bounded and constructed through the actions of people in a society. Though we are losing the ability to “predict” social science outcomes by letting go of the logical empiricists’ processes, by embedding our hermeneutic science with an awareness of this “inter-subjective social reality” we are more at liberty to interpret the world as we see it unfold. Though we lose the predictive ability of the natural sciences, we gain a historical context, which according to Taylor, is a better way to study the science of man.

Taylor concludes:

Thus, in the sciences of man in so far as they are hermeneutical there can be a valid response to ‘I don’t understand’ which takes the form, not only ‘develop your intuitions’, but more radically ‘change yourself’. This puts an end to any aspiration to a value-free or ‘ideology-free’ science of man. A study of the science of man is inseparable from an examination of the options between which men must choose.

In short, by releasing the yoke of brute empirical data, social scientists are better able to study and interpret their reality and possibly gain the insight to do so with other realities.


Tully asserts the importance of centrality of Wittgenstein for understanding critical public philosophy and spends considerable time debunking Habermas’ justificational/validational and Taylor’s interpretative/hermeneutic forms of critical reflection by highlighting their inherent conservatism despite their radical criticism. According to Tully, Habermas and Taylor are but two of many examples that take for granted the assumption “that the only free and rational way of thought and action is one governed by a canonical type of critical reflection.”

Tully’s debunking processes constitute the bulk of this article and the selected passages all come from the last section of the article since it is here that Tully synthesizes the Wittgenstein’s implications towards critical reflection. I particularly enjoy the ancient city metaphor used to describe language games:

Our language games of critical reflection, like our language as a whole, ‘can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses’. The contemporary and historical study of these practices of critical reflection in Western and non-Western societies might be called a ‘genealogy of the critical attitude’.

The implication of this ancient, ever changing language-landscape is that knowledge, interpretation, and critical thinking processes are inherently situated within this place and that regardless of the fancy structure we create to criticize and reflect upon an issue, we are doing so by building on an existing foundation of language games.

As such:

By disengaging from the debate and engaging in this practice of reflecting on two well-known language games of critical reflection, we have come to understand that no type of critical reflection can play the mythical role of founding patriarch of our political life presumed of it in the debate, because any practice of critical reflection is itself already founded in the popular sovereignty of our multiplicity of humdrum ways of acting with words. This conclusion, far from leading to uncritical acceptance of the status quo, enables us to realise that submission to one regime of critical reflection, as the alleged self-certifying guarantor of our freedom, would itself mark the end of our free and critical life.

In short, by committing to parsing language through a singular lens of critical reflection, we are walling ourselves inside the structure of its particular language game and preventing ourselves from enacting its very purpose, that of practicing “a free and critical life.” Tully suggests instead that we ground our critical reflections within Wittgenstein’s truly subversive philosophical critical practice that is inherently distrustful of language and forces us to constantly question the very structures language itself creates. Keeping this in mind is crucial to practicing an unbounded, truly critically insightful comparative social science. Therefore, Tully pithily concludes that:

However, since it is ‘our forms of language’ themselves which lead us into the sorts of misunderstandings we surveyed in this chapter, it always will be necessary to bring along Wittgenstein’s distinctive philosophical practice of critical reflection to test our use and abuse of these languages of critical reflection. For philosophy as Wittgenstein practiced is just this critical attitude – ‘a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’.


Gadamer argues for clearer hermeneutics of historical thinking. He begins by asserting the problem embedded in within historical objectivism:

In our understanding, which we imagine is so innocent because its results seem so self-evident, the other presents itself so much in terms of our own selves that there is no longer a question of self and other. In relying on its critical method, historical objectivism conceals the fact that historical consciousness is itself situated in the web of historical effects.

The objective view of history subsumes the interpreter’s context at the expense of a stronger truth; by removing the subject from the interpretative process historical objectivism behaves like “statistics, which are such an excellent means of propaganda because they let the ‘facts’ speak and hence simulate an objectivity that in reality depends on the legitimacy of the questions asked.”

In approaching a hermeneutic of historical thinking, Gadamer suggests that it’s useful to know our “horizons” of knowledge and those of the historical texts we are interpreting to gain a more insightful meaning. By “horizons” Gadamer means that the “finite present” is bounded by limitations which frame all forms of knowledge. As such:

If we fail to transpose ourselves into the historical horizon from which the traditionary text speaks, we will misunderstand the significance of what it has to say to us… …when someone thinks historically, he comes to understand the meaning of what has been handed down without necessarily agreeing with it or seeing himself in it.

Understanding, interpretation, and application form the classical basis of hermeneutical thinking and Gadamer suggests that these three processes are inseparable and occur simultaneously in our contemporary understanding of the interpretative process. The applicability of interpretation being inherent to the hermeneutic process reinforces the importance of the agent in realizing the interpretation. Regarding its application to historical thinking, Gadamer states that:

Our thesis is that historical hermeneutics too has a task of application to perform, because it too serves applicable meaning, in that it explicitly and consciously bridges the temporal distance that separates the interpreter from the text and overcomes the alienation of meaning that the text has undergone.

In terms of social science, Gadamer’s thesis dovetails nicely into Taylor’s assertion of the science of man as an inherently historical process. By framing the importance of the agent of interpretation in resolving the “alienation of meaning” texts undergo, Gadamer encourages the exploration of the various subjectivities that intersect when one studies a text. The polysemic nature of this understanding thus supports Tully’s commitment to Wittgenstein’s critical attitude towards understanding and language.

On a purely observational note, the Gadamer text has the best explanation for “hermeneutics” since it grounds the term within its mythological roots by stating how “the interpreter of the divine will who can interpret the oracle’s language is the original model” of this very process. Something about the etymological webs of association this explanation suggests made the term click for me.

Lastly, and tangentially relevant this analysis is engaging further in the etymological language game and being slightly disappointed that “hermeneutic” and “mercurial” are two very similar words that mean very different things.

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