Reading through the overview of the event, the organisers asked how my research seeks to map out alternative social words and the role of research in creating the potential for the emergence of the ‘otherwise’. The ‘otherwise’ in the call was framed in terms of the capacity for social science research to create a more just or equal world.
Today I want to offer one way of thinking about how we frame social science research questions. In doing so I want to caution against approaches which, however well meaning, centre on ‘big’ problems, framed in a general sense in relation to the concept of world. While issues such as climate change, poverty, homelessness and debt, amongst myriad others are undoubtedly real, there is an issue when assuming that a set of general problems are experienced within a shared horizon that is implied in the use of the term ‘world’.
Indeed I have two issues with the concept of ‘world’. The first is that the term ‘world’ or even ‘worlds’ implies some kind of shared horizon of meaning, where actors can potentially agree on what particular problems are and how they can be resolved. This is problematic on existential grounds. From an existential perspective, as Heidegger argues, horizons are not shared and human politics is precisely the battle over what constitutes this shared horizon of meaning and thus shapes what issues appear as issues or problems at all. For example, think of the struggles between climate scientists and climate change deniers who use climate data to shape the conditions of possibility of debate between man-made and natural variability in climate systems.
Secondly, the term world has problematic spatial connotations linked to ideas of scalar notions of relationality. If we understand ‘world’ as a shared planetary space, it often implies a holistic relational system, where all objects are potentially connectable. In doing so, problems are framed as solvable if we can only understand the nature of these connections. This account of ‘world’ is problematic on ontological grounds. Simply put, not all entities do or even can encounter or connect with one another within a relational field. For instance, while we exist in an environment filled with radio waves, we cannot contact them and they cannot contact us without some digital device to act as an intermediary.
Rather than framing social problems in terms of ‘world’ or ‘worlds’, which then enables problems to be classified as bigger or smaller, or more general or more particular, I want to argue that social science problems be framed in terms of what Simondon terms ‘the abstract’ and ‘the concrete’.
The distinction between the abstract and concrete is key to Simondon’s account of technical objects. For Simondon, most technical objects begin as abstract sets of systems that can operate more or less independently from one another. Through processes of technical development, these systems become more closely integrated to one another, creating ever more interconnected and relational systems. For example, Simondon gives the example of a combustion engine. He suggests that ‘an air cooled engine is more concrete than an water cooled engine’, because the air used to cool the engine is drawn into the engine by the very working of the engine itself and involves ‘thermal infra-red radiation and convection…that cannot be prevented’, whereas a water cooled engine requires a water pump, which receives its energy from the engine indirectly, via a drive belt. The concrete machine is thus a machine in which each part is closely integrated with one another, often requiring one component to feed or fuel another part. If one part breaks down, then the machine itself quickly stops working. As Simondon suggests, in concrete machines, there is a ‘convergence of structures into a structural unity rather than the seeking of compromises between conflicting requirements’.
While social science problems are not the same as petrol engines, I do think we can use the difference between the abstract and concrete to frame what problems are and how they can be addressed. To illustrate what this means, I want to briefly turn to an ESRC research project I am leading that examines how access to high cost short term credit, such as cash and pay day loans through digital interfaces is shaping peoples experiences and understandings of debt. Rather than beginning with assumptions around whether debt is good or bad or identifying groups that are ‘at risk’ of using these products, we can instead seek to identify the processes through which debt becomes concretised as an object through a set of techniques, procedures and technologies that convert the abstract contract of credit into production of particular concrete bodies, subjects, affects and experiences. For example, how are interfaces designed, where are websites accessed and so on. The outcome of this research would hopefully be the creation of ‘concrete abstractions’ particular expressions of abstract ‘open’ processes in concrete forms.
In conclusion, then I would suggest that we don’t think about big problems, but don’t think about small problems either. Think in terms of the abstract and concrete. How can you create concrete abstractions that enable potential solutions to appear as possibilities? I would suggest that such answers could begin from a position of theoretical adventurousness and empirical modesty.