This article investigates the specificity of sociological materials and methods in relation to other disciplines and practices art, literature, science and

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Mariam Fraser


This article investigates the specificity of sociological materials and methods in relation to other disciplines and practices (art, literature, science and journalism) and questions the opportunities for sociological attentiveness, experimentation and failure in the context of contemporary UK professional, institutional and academic/intellectual constraints. It asks whether materials and methods are ‘sociological’ to the extent that they tell about the problems of society, or whether it is the unique relation of sociology to its materials and methods that defines sociological practice. Exploring these questions in relation to a project that was researched and written during an extended period of unpaid leave (i.e. outside the profession and the institution), the article also examines some of the consequences of a changed relation between sociology and experience. What would be the implications if the aim of sociology was not only to theorise and explain experience but also, sometimes, to be an 'informed provocation' of experience? The second part of the article considers what the concept of ‘make-believe’ might offer sociology - not in terms of what sociology is, but rather in terms of what it does with its materials and methods. Finally, the article returns to the most common material that sociologists work with, words, and asks how it is possible to stay receptive to the vitality of words as forces in the research process.


Sociology, failure, experience, make-believe, words, imagination


Mariam Fraser

Mamlekat-e emkānant

The country of possibilities

In his book Telling about Society, Howard Becker discusses a vast range of materials and methods. As he describes it: 'from the social sciences, mathematical models, statistical tables and graphs, maps, ethnographic prose and historical narrative; from the arts, novels, films, still photographs and drama; from the large shadowy area in between, life histories and other biographical and autobiographical materials, reportage (including the mixed genres of docudrama, documentary film, and fictionalized fact), and the storytelling, mapmaking, and other representational activities of laypeople' (Becker 2007: 4). Becker does not bother to ask whether these materials and methods tell about society; rather, assuming that they do, he seeks to examine 'what the problems of different media have in common and how solutions [to representing society] that work for one kind of telling look when you try them on some other kind' (Becker 2007: 3).

Although the diversity of materials and methods that Becker considers is not conventional - indeed he claims at the outset that '[t]his was never a conventional research project' (Becker 2007: xi) - insofar as he expects the representations he examines to tell about society, the book sits comfortably, as it is intended to do, within sociology. This is not to suggest that Becker adopts an unproblematised conception of society, or indeed of telling. Modes of telling, as he illustrates, are cross-cut by different distributions of labour, competing conceptions of intelligibility, and unequal social relations. Becker dedicates several chapters to an examination of how different users read and understand representations of society, and considers some of the conflicts - often cast in moral terms (Becker 2007: 88) - that arise between users and makers of such representations. It is nevertheless striking, particularly as Becker explores materials and methods from a wide variety of domains ('from the social sciences ... from the arts ... from the large shadowy area inbetween'), that he should find that they all tell and, in telling about society, they all do sociological work (Becker 2007: 5-10).1

Becker's aim is generous. It is to illustrate that sociologists do not have privileged access to social analysis. Nevertheless, while this generosity is appealing, it is also the aspect of Telling about Society that prompts me to ask whether Becker might not, inadvertently, be giving away the potential specificity of sociology and sociological practice too quickly. I do not ask about this (I hope) in order to make 'a standard professional power grab,' as Becker puts it (Becker 2007: 6).2 My intentions are rather to explore, perhaps more cautiously, what the nature of the 'gift' of sociology might be (allowing that it might be more than one thing). For example: are the materials and methods that Becker identifies sociological because they tell about the problems of society? Or is it that the relation of sociology to its materials and methods is what enables it - that is, sociology - to lure those materials and methods into posing their own problems? If it is the latter, and if it transpires that a set of materials and methods did not tell, and/or if they did not tell about society, would they also not be sociological?

I have explored some of these issues elsewhere, by asking what would happen if the sociological problem (as it is defined by C. Wright Mills) was refracted through the virtual problem (Fraser 2009).3 My intention in this paper is to address them again, in a more practical vein, with reference to a project that has preoccupied me for the last three years. As I will be discussing below, this project came out of a series of unlikely coincidences and strange encounters which led me to take three years out of the institution and out of the profession in order to write what other people have called, on my behalf, a documentary novel or documentary fiction. A book, anyway, which may or may not be sociological. I will be exploiting the undecided status of the book (as sociology, or not) to ask, towards the end of the first part of this paper, how far a method, or a set of materials, can push at the boundaries of sociology before tipping it over into something else (art, perhaps, or literature). This is, again, a way of exploring the specificity of a ‘sociological’ problem, and how it might be defined. Using my project as the focus, I will suggest that the extraction of a problem from a research project requires a quality of attentiveness4 to materials and methods, to their particularity, and a willingness to be transformed by them. Transformation is more likely to be possible if the 'participants' in a research project are understood to be relational (that is, constituted in part through their relations with each other).5 Relationality is a helpful concept in this context, I think, because it implies that the problem is distributed across the research assemblage as a ‘whole’ rather than being located in the researcher, in the subject of research, in 'society', or even in their (methodological, epistemological, affective, etc) relations. Relationality also, inevitably, implies conflict (Fraser 2009).

I have organised the first part of the paper around the question, 'Where, or when, does a project begin?' which I will ask three times. I have done this because the discussion that follows focuses mainly on my own experiences, and this question is a way of drawing attention to the particularity of the analysis. It is also, perhaps, another way of asking 'where, or when, does a story start?' and storying6 is very much at the heart of my project and of this paper which, as I have already indicated, is partly about telling. In the spirit of storying, I end the first section with a few brief comments on what make-believe, as contrasted with making (Sennett 2008) or making up (Clifford 1986), might offer in terms of understanding sociological practice. The second part of the paper is something of a line of flight. Here, I consider the most common material that sociologists work with, words, and ask what are the implications of, and how it is possible to stay receptive to, the vitality of words as forces in the research process.


So where, or when, does a project begin? It is always difficult to know. I could say that I was browsing through periodicals in SOAS library when, entirely by chance, I came across a reference to a story called Irradiant, written by a tribesman from Lorestan in World War II occupied Iran. That story, and the correspondence relating to it, is in an archive in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. One reason why it is there, in the Bodleian Libraries' Oriental Section and Indian Institute, is because Irradiant is believed, by some, to be an epic account of an ancient Mithraic or possibly pre-Zoroastrian religion in Iran (Zaehner 1965, 1992).

The first time I came across a reference to Irradiant I only made a mental note of the story. But when I came across a second reference, also by accident (and let it be said that references to Irradiant in the English-speaking world are rare), I was prompted to trace the story to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It took a while for the library, by their own high standards, to locate Irradiant for me but eventually the archivist emailed on 20th March, 2009. That date happened, that year, to be the day of the vernal equinox. The day of the vernal equinox is New Year's day in Iran, the first day of the Iranian calendar, No Ruz, the most holy and joyful festival of the Zoroastrian year.

The Bodleian Library took some time to find the Irradiant archive because it did not, until I asked to read it, have a permanent shelf-mark. Indeed it did not have a permanent shelf-mark until I kept reading it. I am the first systematic reader of the archive (as a whole) and its most recent champion. I began by creating a rough catalogue of the contents for my own use (see also Bivar 1998), which was sometimes a disorienting experience, early on, because the materials were often transferred overnight, over a series of nights, into renumbered acid-free boxes and, in the process, slightly reorganised. That feeling of delirium, in the morning, on finding new boxes, and finding things or not being able to find things in them. The Irradiant archive is still officially uncatalogued, and will probably remain so until the paper in it has been conserved. This is something I am working on with the Bodleian. The materials in the Irradiant archive have transformed me from reader into sometime-archivist.

Previously, I had taught sessions to postgraduates on the philosophy and methodology of working with archives. Now, I attended courses on the principles and practices of researching and documenting information about archives. This involved learning how to arrange and describe information according to national and international archival standards and how to use archival software, such as EAD (Encoded Archival Description). I did this in order to be able to catalogue the archive professionally, or to be in a position to properly understand the cataloguing process were it undertaken by someone else, and/or to be well-informed about the process when it came to writing grant applications. With the support of Dr. Gillian Evison, Head of the Bodleian Libraries' Oriental Section and Indian Institute, I met with Virginia Lladó-Buisán, Head of Book and Paper Conservation at the Bodleian, to make a 'pitch' for the conservation of Irradiant. That meeting quickly taught me (with much amusement, at the time, and with some shame, later) how reduced my own understanding of the archive was. For me, conservation meant conserving the words in the archive - minimally, by transcribing them and/or better, and ideally, by having them digitised. For Virginia, it referred to all aspects of the archive, beginning, in the case of Irradiant, with the paper on which the words were written.

It was not as if I had not felt the thrill of the archive as a physical object, especially on that very first day when, in place of the single book I had been expecting, Colin Harris, Superintendent of the Special Collections Reading Room, wheeled out a trolley stacked high with odd shaped boxes. It was not as if I had not stifled my laughter in the sombre reading room when I realised it was not dust, as Carolyn Steedman (2001) put it, but rust which better characterised the Irradiant archive. (The rusting binders on the files and the paperclips). Nor was I unaware of the important role played by paper - mostly as a hindrance - throughout the life of Irradiant. And certainly, as I will be discussing below, I already carried with me a sense of the viscerality of words. But it was only during the meeting with the Head of Paper that the archive finally, literally, materialised before my eyes as Virginia talked me through the different papers and inks in it, and later invited me, generously, to the studios to see what kinds of papers the Bodleian Libraries have there, and what they do with them. Our application to the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust was not successful. But Virginia Lladó-Buisán, Gillian Evison, and Joan Lee decided nevertheless to go ahead with the conservation of parts of the Irradiant archive. When this is completed, it will be possible to apply for further grants for transcription and digitisation. And, ultimately, for cataloguing.

Clearly, the Irradiant archive is being transformed. I do not mean by this that by the activities of humans the documents are being differently organised, or differently shelved, or that they are supported on a page by a hinge of Japanese RK17 tissue, using wheat starch paste, rather than pierced by a fat metal file binder. Although there is this. What I mean is that, insofar as the 'participants' in the archive are constituted by their relationality, the archive is always, necessarily, in the process of becoming itself differently. All the 'participants' in the research process - the archival documents and objects, the forces which act on them (such as the law), and on which they act, the researchers/readers/archivists who work with them - are constituted by and transformed through their relations with each other. The letter that Cousin John opens in 1943, which tells of a Lor tribesman, is not the same letter that I open in the arched light of the Special Collections Reading Room. It is not the same letter in part because the 'participants' have changed, as have the patterns of our relations, but also, as importantly, because the many and diverse modes of relationality are different. This latter point is especially significant because it suggests that being attentive means not just being in a relation to materials; it is also about learning, in part from the materials, what kind of relation we are in. How do I open this letter? How does this letter open me? I will return to the significance of kinds of relations below and in the conclusion.

Where, or when, does a project begin? I started to answer this question by recounting the story of my discovery of Irradiant. But my discovery is only the most recent event in Irradiant's own story, which is long and twisty. A second response, then, could be to begin with Irradiant itself, which for many years, and in keeping with the notion that Britain rules Iran with a hidden hand,7 was thought to be a literary hoax. This belief was fuelled by the temporary 'disappearance' of the manuscript and by the kinds of people who claimed to have seen it, some of whom were instrumental in the 1953 coup against Dr. Mohammad Musaddiq, the hugely popular - if not, now, iconic - democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, who sought to nationalise Iranian oil. When I learnt who had been involved in the story of Irradiant, I expanded the field of my research and began to read documents relating to these figures, and the role they played in the coup, in the British National Archives at Kew. This is partly what my book is about. My book tells of how and why Irradiant came to be written; how it was lost, and then found; how it brought people together, how it separated them. I further amplify the Irradiant story in my book by making stories out of the many forces and relations that shaped Irradiant at the micro-level (paper, as I have already mentioned, is a crucial part of the life of Irradiant), as well as at the macro-level (I explore for example the role of British academics in devising and executing British foreign policy). In addition to this, I fold into the book a wide range of texts, including Iranian and British published memoirs; academic and popular histories; government and newspaper reports; reviews; classical and modern literature (poetry and novels); children's stories and nursery rhymes; and my own fictional inventions (characters and events). I also 'met with many ... people', as Becker describes the research practices of literary writers (Becker 2007: 215).

All of which sounds like a lot of telling. Yet the very proliferation of materials in this project, the excess of them even, suggests to me that these materials do not want to tell; or at least, that they are not for telling about; and certainly, that they will not be told. At the time, I did not know what to do with them or how to enter relations with them. Thus,8 although I found the Irradiant archive while I was on funded sabbatical leave, I arranged to have the rest of the year unfunded and later took a further two unfunded years.9 This put me in a position to cultivate, as Chris Salter describes it, 'another type of attentiveness' to the materials, the kind of attentiveness that often does not produce immediate (or even any) results, and that takes time (Salter 2011: 13).

It seems appropriate – before returning for a third time to the question 'Where, or when, does a project begin?' - to take the time to consider some of the relations between the practical conditions under which UK academics work and the more ‘abstract’ problem of the distinctiveness or not of British sociological methods, projects and their limits. To make the point again (and again and again) that the conditions under which most academics work in the United Kingdom do not usually allow, and increasingly disallow, for anything but the most over-determined and familiar 'attention' to materials and methods. Time is short. Research must be decided in advance. It must be decided in order for sabbaticals (that most material of professional academic resources) to be justified, and for funding to be secured. It seems especially significant to me, or symptomatic rather, that outputs - the form and number of them, as well as their places of dissemination - are often required to be identified before the research has been carried out. This is no less true of speculative research funding, which requires in advance some evidence that a piece of research will be 'adventurous and innovative' ( Although knowing what is going to happen in a research project is not always problematic,11 it often is. With regards to archival research for example, the possibility of stumbling into an unread or unresearched archive, and of living there for a while without knowing what it will yield, if it yields anything at all, is important because, in the UK, sources such as official correspondence and memoranda, in particular where recognised public figures are concerned, are very often over-­catalogued. Or as Peter Jackson puts it, 'weeded heavily before being released for public consumption' (Jackson 2010). Such stumbling-into usually occurs by way of lucky accident. But even accidents need the conditions to support them.

As do failures. It is interesting to note in this context that while scientific experiments and literary works frequently fail (differently, and with different implications), sociological failures are quite well hidden within the profession. And yet one of the ways that the materials with which sociologists work might be enabled to 'express' their own view on the purposes to which they are suited - whether, for example, they are suited to the mode of telling or not, and if so, how so, etc. - is if sociologists were more able to admit to those occasions when particular questions, concepts, methods, were not fit for purpose. In the current political climate in Britain, no academic (research project) can afford to fail, institutionally, unless it is for a reason that is acceptable to the institution.12 Before my unpaid leave was agreed, Human Resources sought my assurance that, during the period I was away, the work I would be doing would continue to contribute to my academic career. One of the reasons I was unwilling to answer this question in the affirmative was, I now think, not because I feared failure per se - I have certainly experienced and continue to experience the fear of failure of my book - but because I feared not being able to fail as a sociologist.13 Universities have become remarkably adept at absorbing, under the rubric of creativity, innovation, resourcefulness, experimentation, etc., all kinds of outcomes. In practice, this is often something to be thankful for. But it has a cost.

How, then, to fail? One way, as I have already implied, would be to produce something that is not fit for purpose. In Telling About Society, Becker suggests that a representation is whatever its makers and users agree to believe it is. He calls this 'the social agreement to believe' (Becker 2007: 115). It means that an object is judged by whether it is 'plenty good enough' for the purpose to which it is agreed to be put. For example: 'If it's a "realistic" novel, it doesn't include factual stuff that, if you look into it, isn't factual' (Becker 2007: 117). 'We would feel differently', Becker argues, about Dickens' Bleak House if it was not 'a realistic account of events that might well have happened' (Becker 2007: 124-125).14 We would 'probably judge it a smaller achievement' (Becker 2007: 125). More broadly, and more fundamentally, Becker makes claims for the aesthetic and affective importance of truth as 'an essential element in our appreciation of the work as art' (Becker 2007: 128).

Should the facts be factual then, and the fiction fictional, in order for a ‘representation’, as Becker puts it, to be fit for purpose? There is much at stake for sociology, raised as it was ‘between literature and science’ (Lepenies 1992), in the organisation of the relations between facts, truths, and fictions. Isabelle Stengers suggests the 'new mode of togetherness' invented by modern science turns on precisely this contrast: '[t]he whole of human invention, imagination, intentionality, and freely engaged passion is . . . mobilized in order to establish that there is one interpretation only, the "objective one," owing nothing to invention, imagination, and passion' (Stengers 2002: 251).15 It is not surprising, in view of this modern, western, scientific conception of the world, that these relations should have so troubled C. Wright Mills when he stalked the fields of science and literature, of abstracted empiricism and grand theory, in search of sociological imagination. None of these would ultimately do for Mills, not '[s]tudies of contemporary fact' (Mills 2000: 23) nor contemporary literature (Mills 2000: 17): 'What fiction, what journalism, what artistic endeavor', Mills wrote, 'can complete with the historical reality and political facts of our time? What dramatic vision of hell can compete with the events of twentieth-century war? What moral denunciations can measure up to the moral insensibility of men in the agonies of primary accumulation?' (Mills 2000: 17).

Mills' book was published on the eve of the 1960s, which was the decade in which the writers associated with the new journalism16 might well have raised their hands in positive answer to these questions. Truman Capote's (1981 [1965]) In Cold Blood, Tom Wolfe's (1981 [1965]) Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Joan Didion's (1974 [1968]) Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Norman Mailer's (1968) Armies of the Night, and Hunter S. Thompson's (1972 [1971]) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas17 were among the works that developed, John Hartstock argues, 'in response to significant social and cultural transformation and crisis. These were reflected in the civil rights movement, assassinations, disruptions in prevailing middle-class culture, the drug culture, growing environmental awareness, and of course the Vietnam War' (Hartstock 2000: 192). These novels and other shorter pieces of journalistic writing impress by their fieldwork, real-life observation, accumulation of empirical detail and by their atmosphere of authenticity and realism (Underwood 2008: 136) - captured, for example, in Wolfe's 'linguistic pyrotechnics that seemed to pose a taunt to advocates of standard English usage' (Hartstock 2000: 195). It is for these very same reasons, however, that these works are disquieting for they are, also, fictitious. Gay Talese, described by Tom Wolfe as the founder of the new journalism, summarises the different aspects and ambitions of the genre, claiming that while it reads like fiction, 'it is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage although it seeks a larger truth than is possible through the mere compilation of verifiable facts' (Talese in Hartstock 2000: 193). But this, for John Hersey, is exactly the problem. The reader of journalism, unlike the reader of fiction, should feel secure that 'NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP' (Hersey in Becker 2007: 130). For Hersey, the ethics of journalism demands that every journalist recognise the 'distortion that comes from adding invented data' (Hersey in Becker 2007: 130).

Hersey's point is indicative of 'an interesting asymmetry', as Sundar Sarukkai puts it, between the fictional and the real wherein '[a] drop of fiction is enough to spread through a narrative and make the whole narrative fictional. Whereas, on the other hand, a fistful of reality does not make a narrative a real one' (Sarukkai 2006-2007: 53-54). Literature no less than science, Sarukkai argues, is invested in the difference, and perhaps for good reason: the 'self-conscious' and 'carefully cultivated' appropriation of the fictional by literary practitioners and critics serves to protect literature from 'attempts to regulate artistic expression though constraints such as the real' (Sarukkai 2009-2007: 54). It also denies literature, however, the 'pragmatic nonchalance' with regards to fictions and 'unrealities' that, despite the ideal conception of science described by Stengers, characterises some branches of science, and especially mathematics (Sarukkai 2006-2007: 59). The very term 'distortion' for example, as Hersey means it (as an undesirable departure from 'reality'), is displaced in the use that physicists make of mathematical models. As Nancy Cartwright explains:

it is not essential that the models accurately describe everything that actually happens ... The requirements of the theory constrain what can be literally represented. This does not mean that the right lessons cannot be drawn. Adjustments are made where literal correctness does not matter very much in order to get the correct effects where we want them; and very often, as in the staging example [the staging of a historical episode], one distortion is put right by another. That is why it often seems misleading to say that a particular aspect of a model is false to reality (Cartwright 1983: 140).

How then, in the light of these different patterns of relations between facts, fictions, truths and realities, have I tried to understand my own book project? To what purpose is it fit?

Although the realism/realist genre in my book is discontinuous, it is partially organised around real historical people and events and in this respect it would be legitimate to ask whether, were one 'to look into it,' as Becker puts it, the facts are factual. Somewhat problematically, my answer would have to be that although the book includes 'factual stuff', it is neither fact nor fiction. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, many of the materials out of which the book is fabricated are not themselves strictly factual. Archival documents, for instance, are 'artful' in a banal sense insofar as an archive is, necessarily, a collection of artificially gathered-together entities.18 In the Irradiant archive, a number of the memoirs and diaries, and some of the letters, are also more literally artful: they have the distinct feel of fiction about them, or at the very least might be said to be highly edited with a view to privacy, posterity or possible publication. If anything were to be described as 'fictionalised reportage' in this context, it would be these documents.

Of course the original meaning of a document as 'a piece of paper with words that attested evidence' (Coles in Plummer 2001: 67) has long been contested. Document, the noun, derived from the Latin docere, to teach (to tell?), might still attest, but of what it teaches, or attests, is no longer considered to be self-evident. This point can be extended, without too much difficulty, from the archival materials on which my book partly drew to the published historical accounts of the period that I also used. These texts often have a literary quality in themselves, but also, more interestingly, frequently seem to be dramatisations of each other. Consider, for example, the following descriptions of a single event, the occasion on which two (maybe, or maybe more) secret service agents (or U.S. Army Colonels, or British diplomats) visited Ashraf Pahlavi, the twin sister of the Shah of Iran, to enrol her support in the coup against Musaddiq. The first set of extracts are accounts of what Pahlavi was offered in return for her help:

'a blank check' (Pahlavi 1980: 136).

'an unauthorized promise that he [her brother, the Shah of Iran] would be supported in the style to which he had become accustomed by the United States if the coup failed' (Gasiorowski 1987: 273, based on a confidential interview with the Colonel who was present on the occasion).

'if the coup failed, the United States would give her [Ashraf Pahlavi] sufficient financial support to go on living abroad in the style to which she was accustomed' (Elm 1992: 301, (mis)quoting Gasiorowski).

'a great wad of notes' (Dorril 2001: 588).

'a mink coat and a packet of cash' (Kinzer 2003: 7).

'a mink coat and a substantial though unspecified amount of cash (Louis 2006: 783).

And these are accounts of her response:

'her eyes lit up' (Louis 2006: 783, quoting Dorrill).

'her eyes lit up' (Kinzer 2003: 7, quoting Dorrill).

'her eyes lit up' (Dorrill 2001: 588, citing Special Operations Executive Norman Darbyshire).

'I was so stunned I didn't even hear the rest of what he was saying. Although I had very limited funds at this time, the suggestion that I would take money for an operation that would help my country made me lose my temper' (Pahlavi 1986: 136).

It is possible to describe my book as neither fact nor fiction because the materials on which it draws mostly refuse to identify themselves as clearly one or the other (regardless of the author's intentions or of the disciplinary, professional, institutional, legal, and commercial processes by which a text comes to be constituted as, say, a work of history).19

More significantly, however, the book is fit for purpose neither as the new journalism nor as sociology because it does not have a referent - 'truth' or 'society' - against which the distance required to conceive of fact and fiction could be measured. Should such a referent be taken for granted or is it an achievement, won or stolen and secured at a price? The reason that my book does not have a referent is not because of my theoretical and/or political commitments to, for instance, a particular conception of ‘the real’ or because of my aesthetic sensibilities and preferences, etc. It is, rather, because the book is concerned with a period in Iranian history when the relations between facts, truths and fictions were used and abused by some Iranians and especially by the British and the Americans. Or, more accurately, a period when many of the scales and perspectives by which realities are commonly constituted were purposely or inadvertently rendered inoperative. When there was no longer a 'horizon', as Veena Das puts it, 'within which [to] place the constituent objects of a description in their relation to each other and in relation to the eye with which they are seen' (Das 2007: 4). If the materials on which I draw in my book, when they are gathered together, that is, put into a relation with each other, do not tell, or do not tell about, and if they will not be told, perhaps one reason is because telling, as a method, as a 'how', as Alfred North Whitehead might put it (Whitehead 1978: 23) (telling as a mode of becoming), produces too stable a 'what' for the context, a too-unproblematised tale told, under the circumstances.20 For Becker, all materials and methods tell of something (society). But of is a place, a position, or a relation. What if there were no 'of' through which to lure a tale? No 'of' through which to be lured? 'What is it to lose one's world?', Das asks (Das 2007: 2). My book is about stories and storying. It is about words, language, literacy, educating, editing, translating and publishing. It is about the material and emotional experiences of reading and writing, and of learning to read and write. It is about propaganda, rumour, plots, plotting, coup-making and conspiracy-mongering. It is about authorship, signatures and signatories. Wilful obfuscation, lies and secrets are principal themes in the book.

This brings me, finally, to a third way of responding to the question ‘Where, or when, does a project begin?’ and to the words that are stitched into the emotional heart of the book: yekee bud, yekee nabud. In direct translation, this Iranian equivalent of 'once upon a time' means 'one there was, one there wasn't'. The words, with which so many Iranian stories begin, alert the reader to the instability of stories and their contents. They are an invitation to ask: To what does a story refer? Of what and when does it tell? In what different kinds of ways is it possible to believe in a story, or not believe, and with what consequences?

My book is an alloy of fact and fiction because, in order to problematise the tale and its telling, I not only tell tales, but I also story the activity of storying itself. I want the book not just to represent the feel of Iranian politics and the part played by the British in creating that feeling, but to actually walk the tightrope between the paranoid style, as Ervand Abrahimian (1993) puts it, that characterised politics in Iran (and which finally 'legitimated' the execution of thousands of so-called spies and traitors) and the justifiable suspicion of foreign powers, and especially the British establishment, based on well-documented accounts of their cloak-and-dagger activities. I want the book to be about the problem of storying, to story, and also to pose the problem of storying to the reader. In short, if these materials do not exactly tell, they are intended to provoke. In the book, this provocation unfolds in a number of different ways, by foregrounding the process of storying (or historying) for example or by exploiting historical facts, fictions, and the fact of historical fictions (such as Irradiant) to create a paranoid reader who cannot be sure - as one could not be sure, in Iran - of the tale told, the telling, or the teller.21

Could a book that seeks to provoke a feeling, the emotion of frustration (at least), or paranoia (at best), could it be fit for purpose as sociology? Or would it be a failure? For Becker, sociology tells about society. Why should it be obliged to do anything else? Other fields, especially art and literature, seek more explicitly to produce affect and to create novelty. In sociology, experience is usually something to be theorised and explained (how are experiences shaped? How they are produced? What is the relation between experience and the subject?) before it is something to be generated or manipulated (see Fraser 2009: 68). But what if the aim of sociology was, also, sometimes, an 'informed provocation' of experience? Is this a 'legitimate' activity for sociology? What would be the criteria for judging 'good' sociology if it were?


At the end of his book, Becker compares himself to a preacher. In his final lines he writes (somewhat dismally): 'Like every preacher, I hope the congregation listens, but I'm not too hopeful' (Becker 2007: 287). Perhaps he is right not to be too hopeful. It is difficult to be in a relation with a preacher who not only tells, but who also often ardently believes in what he is telling. I want to finish this first part of the paper by commenting very briefly on make-believe as another way of thinking not about what sociology is but about what it does with its materials and methods. The concept of make-believe is helpful, I think, because it does not exactly sacrifice the element of belief that is implicit in Becker's description of the sociologist as preacher, but nevertheless brings some reflexivity and humour to it. Make-believe is also, importantly, a way of acknowledging sociology's debt to, and its possible departure from, some of the more familiar ways of organising the relations between facts, truths and fictions.

There has, recently, been some considerable comment on making in sociology (for example Richard Sennett's (2008) Craftsman) and there has always been much to say about making things up in the social sciences. In his controversial introduction to Writing Culture (1986), James Clifford substituted the word 'fiction' for 'partial' and argued that anthropological ethnographies can be 'properly called fictions' not just in the sense of 'something fashioned', but in the sense of 'inventing things not actually real' (Clifford 1986: 6). Since Writing Culture was published, a vast and diverse body of literature has focused on what might be described as 'the telling of telling', which illustrates how the sciences and social sciences are a kind of story-telling, packed with hidden moralities, power relations, exclusions, rhetorical tricks, styles, and so on.

Making and making up: but not, interestingly, make-believe. This is curious, given how often make-believe features in anthropology. Perhaps it is something for the other, and not for the self.22 Make-believe does not, at least at first glance, appear to be an especially sophisticated concept but it has a useful elasticity about it and seems to me to have more integrity than making up. Make-believe does not mock or ridicule its element of belief in the way fiction potentially can and often does. As in Iran: 'you don't actually believe that do you? The British made it up!'. At the same time the 'make' in make-believe foregrounds the artificiality of belief. It is a reminder that sociological beliefs are something that have to be crafted, and also that belief is dangerous when it is manufactured. Make-believe can be methodologically pragmatic. It is often helpful for sociologists, no less than for physicists, to proceed, at different points in a research project, as if something were true, or to experiment with the location of the boundaries of 'existential commitment' (Cartwright 1983: 128-131). To suspend, at least for a while, their sense of disbelief in order to continue to think through (and with, and against) a problem. In this respect, make-believe is an aid to sociological imagination. However, if proceeding as if implies distance from and control over a piece of research, it is also the case that, sometimes, sociological make-believe is closer to faith: intimate, committed, complete. C. Wright Mills sought to exercise what he called 'the political task of the social scientist' in work, in educating, and in life (Mills 2000: 187). In Life and Words, Veena Das writes of her 'anthropological kind of devotion to the world' (Das 2007: 221).23 But make-believe is also resonant of magic, that most material of arts, which, like sociology - to gloriously corrupt the title of Wolf Lepenies' (1992) history of sociology - lies somewhere 'between literature and science.'

My focus is on make-believe rather than making-believe (cf. de Certeau 1984). This is in keeping with my introductory claim that, if a problem is to be extracted from research, it will be extracted from the 'whole' of the assemblage rather than any single aspect of it or any subject who participates in it (whether as researcher or researched). Make-believe is less about an author, is less author-itative, than either making up or making. One of the difficulties with Mills' and Sennett's work on craft is that, in both their books, novelty is for the most part located in the figure of the craftsman rather than in the problem. (And this is the case even when, or perhaps especially when, it is the craftsman who actively seeks out problems). To find novelty in the problem itself is not to exclude the craftsperson (or the researcher) but it is hold open the significance of that figure in problem-making. Finally, I think that make-believe is a fragile activity. It tends to be short-lived, and is contingent upon the materials at hand. Also, it is often tender.

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