All posts tagged with social science

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.”


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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