I’ve been re-reading Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social, which is a book that landed me in graduate school in the first place, and has been a guiding text for me since. One of the reasons why I really like the book (other than his argument what constitutes the social) is that Latour is an excellent writer, with a sense of humor. It is remarkable because Latour native tongue is French, but (I believe) he wrote Reassembling in English. I wanted to copy this page because it so aptly characterizes my experience doing field work and the analysis/writing that I’m in the middle of. Latour humanizes the process of research, and makes you feel like you are doing ok, even when it feels like you are not.
What is an account? It is typically a text, a small ream of paper a few millimeters thick that is darkened by a laser beam. It may contain 10,000 words and be read by very few people, often only a dozen or a few hunder if we are really fortunate. A 50,000 word thesis might be read by half a dozen people (if you are lucky, even your PhD advisor would have read parts of it!) and when I say ‘read’, it does not mean ‘understood’, ‘put to use’, ‘acknowledged’, but rather ‘perused’, ‘glanced at’, ‘alluded to’, ‘quoted’, ‘shelved somewhere in a pile’. At best, we add an account to all those which are simultaneously launched in the domain we have been studying. Of course, this study is never complete. We start in the middle of things, in media res, pressed by our colleagues, pushed by fellowships, starved for money, strangled by deadlines. And most of the things we have been studying, we have ignored or misunderstood. Action had already started; it will continue when we will no longer be around. What we are doing in the field–conducting interviews, passing out questionnaires, taking notes and pictures, shooting films, leafing through the documentation, clumsily loafing around–is unclear to the people with whom we have shared no more than a fleeting moment. What the clients (research centers, state agencies, company boards, NGOs) who have sent us there expect from us remains cloaked in mystery, so circuitous was the road tat led to the choice of this investigator, this topic, this method, this site. Even when we are in the midst of things, with our eyes and ears on the lookout, we miss most of what has happened. We are told the day after that crucial events have taken place, just next door, just a minute before, just when we had left exhausted with our tape recorder mute because of some batter failure. Even if we work diligently, things don’t get better because, after a few months, we are sunk in a flood of data, reports, transcripts, tables, statistics, and articles. How does one make sense of this mess as it piles up on our desks and fills countless disks with data? Sadly, it often remains to be written and is usually delayed. It rots there as advisors, sponsors, and clients are shouting at you and lovers, spouses, and kids are angry at you while you rummage about in the dark sludge of data to bring light to the world. And when you begin to write in earnest, finally pleased with yourself, you have to sacrifice vast amounts of data that cannot fit the in the small number of pages allotted to you. How frustrating this whole business of studying is.
And yet, is this not the way of all flesh? No matter how grandiose the perspective, no matter how scientific the outlook, no matter how tough the requirements, no matter how astute the advisor, the result of the inquiry–in 99% of the cases–will be a report prepared under immense duress on a topic requested by some colleagues for reasons that will remain for the most part unexplained. And this is excellent because there is no better way.