check out rodney benson’s challenge to ‘new descriptivism’

In case you missed it, Rodney Benson has an excellent piece here, delivered as a response on a panel at the Qualitative Political Communication preconference. It’s well worth the read, in part because the case he makes deserves to be considered and incorporated in many areas of sociology well beyond communication research. It’s also refreshing to see substantive, synthetic, and critical points raised in a panel response — #ASA14 discussants, read, consider, and emulate!

Personally, I think Benson remains too kind to ANT. My feeling is that ANT’s dogmatic stance toward description tends to be theoretically very naive with respect to representation: stubbornly constructivist on the question of what other people are doing, phenomenologically naive on what they themselves are doing. In particular on questions of the ontological status of evidence, I think this has led mostly to a kind of holier-than-though confusion not particularly good for description or explanation!

That said, the branch of ANT that Benson pays most attention to–the role of objects and technologies–has been productive, though even there there’s too much commitment to the “shock value” of the idea that objects might act and not enough analytical theorization of the status of objects vis-a-vis the social constellations from which they emerge and which they constrain and enable.

I know, I’m not being charitable to ANT, and I hope others will swoop in to disagree.

Beyond the specific ANT controversy, though, it’s worth theoretically-minded social scientists reading Benson’s critique and assessing how to achieve explanation and critique given the descriptivist tools that seem currently ascendant.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

5 thoughts on “check out rodney benson’s challenge to ‘new descriptivism’”

  1. Andy,

    Thanks for the link! And fascinating. I think there is definitely something to his critique, but I wonder if it’s partly a problem of focusing too much on the programmatic statements of ANT (Latour, Callon, Law) and not enough on the best examples of empirical, ANT-inspired work (Gabrielle Hecht, Gil Eyal, Annemarie Mol, Timothy Mitchell, etc.). And I don’t think this is just a problem of where *critics* focus. I think part of what Benson is reacting to is the way that many ANT-inspired researchers work hard to sound like Latour and reproduce those canonical claims (that objects have agency, that we should start with a flat ontology, etc.). This might be a terrible analogy, but it would be as if people debated the relevance of causal inference approaches only by reading Pearl’s textbook and not by looking at actual empirical examples, and worse, that everyone trying to do causal inference approached it by trying to re-justify every methodological claim made by Pearl or Morgan and Winship and not by implementing those mandates in solving actual problems.

    So, I’d like to see more of the “is ANT useful?” debate focus on empirical exemplars and a bit less on theoretical manifestos, just as I’d like to see more people doing ANT focus their attention on trying to produce those accounts rather than on reiterating endless variations of ANT dogma.

    As an aside, I also think ANT is often offering, or at least enrolled in, explanation, despite its occasional protestations. I’m just not sure we have the right language to think about the kind of explanatory work it’s doing. Isaac Reed and I are working on that question a bit, and hopefully we’ll have something to show for it soon. We agree with you that ANT (and related kinds of historical accounts of the assemblage of networks, crystallization of fields, etc.) need to attend better to, as you put it, “the ontological status of evidence.”


    1. I’m looking forward to reading your paper with Isaac. And I agree that some empirical work drawing on ANT has been very productive and useful. But what Benson points out is that when it’s useful (aka explanatory), it violates many of those manifestoes!

      Concepts like affordance and assemblage are great examples – I think there are actually lots of ways in which these explain productive discord between action fields and/or stability over time. But they can only be relied up on to explain these if we take the concepts out of the ANT framework and give them a more pragmatist spin.


  2. I wrote my lengthy response to Rod over at the Qualitative Political Communication Research blog. I agree with Dan, if you look across the careful empirical work of folks who have taken inspiration from ANT, I think you clearly see the ways this often historical work develops explanatory accounts. That said, I agree with you regarding the ways in which representation is often unproblematically bracketed in ANTs programmatic statements.


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