MCC Introduction to Communication Research Methods blogs


Below are reproduced the complete texts of the blog posts I wrote for the required methods class in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU. Over the course of the semester, we read the work of professors in the department who came to visit, as well as many optional texts discussing various research methods.

You can skip to any blog post that interests you! You may need to click twice instead of just once.

Depression and paranoia, mathematics and metaphor and more

Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” is a rich text containing far more than I will attempt to summarize here, from discussions of what is meant by queer reading, to analysis of what unites Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, to personal reflection on friendship and health and death. Two elements that particularly resonated with my experiences were the extended comparison between depressive positionality and paranoid positionality, and the clear parallels (tempered by crucial differences) between Sedgwick’s discussion of strong versus weak theories and the mathematical and computational theorizing that constitutes my formal academic training up to now.

Sedgwick explicitly differentiates this text’s usage of the term “paranoid” from any “pathologizing diagnosis” (pg. 5); the point is not ableist or sanist dismissal of paranoia’s value as a source or type of knowledge, but rather insistence that paranoid inquiry should not be “entirely coextensive with critical theoretical inquiry”, instead being “viewed as one kind of cognitive/affective theoretical practice among other, alternative kinds”. I found the conceptual (but always moving, never static) opposition between paranoid positionality and depressive positionality initially quite surprising, but ultimately convincing. Although I believe it is more common to associate depression with decay than repair – at least, that is my own association – Sedgwick argues that “it is possible in turn to use one’s resources to ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole” (pg. 6) and “move towards a sustained seeking of pleasure (through the reparative strategies of the depressive position)” (pg. 9). This is in contrast to “the terrible alertness to the dangers posed by the hateful and envious part-objects…from the world around one” (pg. 6) and “the self-reinforcing because self-defeating strategies for forestalling pain offered by the paranoid/schizoid position” (pg. 9).

While this contrast is instructive, it is also worth highlighting Sedgwick’s note that “powerful reparative practices, I am convinced, infuse self-avowedly paranoid critical projects” and conversely, “paranoid exigencies are often necessary for non-paranoid knowing and utterance” (pg. 6). In other words, Sedgwick does not engage in essentialist, dualistic, or otherwise falsely dichotomous thinking. In that spirit, I wish to conclude my discussion by rejecting any strict distinction between humanistic theorizing on the one hand and mathematical theorizing on the other, and instead highlighting the similarities between both styles of thought and argument. Intentionally or not, Sedgwick’s use of terms such as “topology” and “domain” with highly technical definitions is particularly evocative on this point, as is the use of “strong theory” and “weak theory”. In mathematics (and branches of science like physics that rely heavily on it), a “weak” theory is one that makes fewer assumptions and with it, less specific predictions. A “strong” theory is more specific and more strongly predictive, but applicable to fewer situations, because the assumptions that underlie it apply to a smaller number of situations. This characterization of “strong” and “weak” theories is related, but not identical to that found in this text.

Historically, like paranoiacs, mathematicians have been notorious for being “drawn toward and tend[ing] to construct symmetrical relations” (pg. 5). This quasi-religious belief in a deep structure which precludes coincidences – which I share – is repeatedly but arguably circularly confirmed by the joy of mathematical inquiry, which characteristically begins with an extremely minimal base, and step by step proceeds to construct the most elaborate edifices imaginable of implications logically derived from these axioms. The reality or unreality of these posited entities is completely beside the point from the perspective of the pure mathematician, although the correspondence of the model (or equivalently, metaphor) to the world is of course of the utmost importance to the scientist, engineer, etc. I percieve a parallel to the practices of reading that Sedgwick examines in this essay. My own interest in academic theory and research methods derives largely from my participation in political and community organizing work, and in that sense can be characterized as reparative insofar as I am interested in building “something like a whole – though not, and may I emphasize this, not necessarily like any preexisting whole” (pg. 6). Simultaneously, I recognize the value of paranoia for its contributions to encompassing critical theory, even as I reject “the monopolistic program of paranoid knowing” (pg 13). There is no more contradiction between these styles of reading and knowing than there is between literature and mathematics, or between science and art – each is appropriate to a given situation and intention. I greatly appreciated Sedgwick’s text for helping to clarify many of my own thoughts on these and related matters.

A gentle introduction to archival research

Jason Gallo’s casual and highly accessible “Doing Archival Research” contains a wealth of information useful to a novice would-be archival researcher. I was accustomed to thinking of archival research as a methodology in itself, so it was a little surprising to read that “archival research cannot be contained by a single methodology” (264) because of the wide variety of document types each requiring a distinctive method of analysis (including quantitative and statistical methods). Now, however, it already seems so obvious that I will likely soon forget that I did not always know it – a surefire sign of clear and persuasive presentation. I was also struck by the accord of much of this advice with wisdom from the new field of “data science” which rarely cites history as a source, for example the question of the “reliability of data you plan to collect” (265) as the final of the “4 Vs of data science”: volume, variety, velocity, and veracity. The traditional computer science maxim “garbage in, garbage out” is equally applicable in this context – a sort of converse to how “archival research is broadly applicable to almost any discipline that does not rely strictly on empirical experimentation” (264), as opposed to being restricted to history as would be my first association.

While on the theme of technology: I was struck by how much advice in this 2009 piece was dominated by discussion of the web, online pre-research before arriving at archives, and even how “most archives allow laptops but have stringent rules about bringing outside paper products and writing utensils into their collections” (267). It left me very curious as to the nitty-gritty of how scholars operated in archives as recently as a decade or two earlier, knowledge that is certainly within living memory, as well as likely being recorded in similar pieces from previous academic generations. I also wondered about the specific histories that have led various archives to implement their differing security policies regarding accreditation or access to classified material, and whose job it is to assess the effectiveness of these polices in preserving documents or protecting sensitive information.

As a technologist, organizer and now novice media scholar who is making an effort to integrate anti-ableism into all aspects of my practice, I was very glad that Gallo made a note about accessibility: “public archive facilities must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act” (272), and that it is always worthwhile to call ahead about specific accommodations. I also appreciated Gallo’s emphasis on relationship building with archivists as a key element of research success – I’ve worked a lot in settings where the invariable social character of work is obscured by an overemphasis on the technical, with inevitably detrimental consequences resulting from such a warped perspective. At the same time, the highly specific advice about the use of systems such as the “Archival Research Catalog (ARC)” of the National Archives (279) is invaluable to a person new to that archive in specific or archives in general. The related comments about the use of cameras and photocopying equipment – and many others throughout the piece – may seem painfully obvious, but as a former teacher of young students, I am impressed by the feat of taking so much normally implicit knowledge and making it extremely explicit and clear.

In summary, this informal piece is unlikely to tell much or anything new to experienced archival researchers, but I would strongly recommend it to novices such as myself!

Presences and absences in “STS as Method”

John Law’s “STS as Method” is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking summary of a discipline which has (if not always first or uniquely) developed essential analytical concepts such as: “co-production”/“co-construction” to describe the mutual shaping of technology and society; the inevitable specificity and locatedness of all knowledge; principles of symmetry for treating “true” and “false” knowledge, and for treating human and non-human actors; the “ontological multiplicity” resulting from understanding of objects as a product of practices, therefore meaning that objects are not static or singular but rather varying and multiple just as practices are; and far more. On the first page, Law gives the definition that “STS may be understood as the study of method in practice” (31) and goes on to discuss the indispensable role of case studies in which “theory, method and the empirical get rolled together…all part of the same weave and cannot be teased apart” (32). Law also makes clear from the very beginning that for many if not most STS authors, questions of “how, if at all, we might intervene in these processes [of how science and technology shape the world]” (31) are fundamental motivations, and makes related claims throughout about “the politics of things” (32), that “scientists and social scientists need to be accountable for what they write” (35), that “methods are never simply techniques” (47), and finally, that “things never have to be the way they are” (49).

One of the most thought-provoking elements of actor-network theory, which I’ve also had the chance to study in Mara’s STS seminar, is what I would call (borrowing a term with some other definitions already) the antihumanism of treating human and non-human actors as fundamentally homogeneous; Law cites a particular study which “treats the fishermen, the scientists and the scallops in the same terms. All are strategists and tacticians…there is no difference in principle” (41). This methodological approach, while presenting obvious practical challenges, is conceptually appealing as the logical endpoint of the rejection of Enlightenment and descendant categories of “humanity” which have historically excluded Black people (among others) and perpetuated a great deal of dualistic and binary thinking, contra an approach in which “essential differences disappear” (43). I believe this move is far more powerful than this text explicates; I would like to particularly put it in dialogue with Afro-pessimism and other Black thinkers who have critiqued the separation and privileging of humanity as an analytical category, and the relationship between various humanist and scientific bodies of thought and the current linked social/ecological/political crises that are often laid at the feet of “humanity” broadly and not the specific actors who have caused and are perpetuating climate change, white supremacist policing and militarism, and any number of other interlocked oppressions.

In a piece that ranges across such a broad and diverse terrain, the absence of marxism in the list of influences (naming “actor-network theory, feminist material-semiotics, and postcolonialism” (49)) specifically and the discussion generally is remarkable, especially given that “radically relational” (41) is an equally apt description of dialectical materialism as it is of actor-network theory. I relate this to my critique of whiteness as a weakness in method. Summarizing Haraway’s attempt to retain a notion of objectivity while also dispensing with the “God trick” of claiming to see from everywhere and nowhere, Law writes that “scientists and social scientists need to acknowledge their own social location. And second, they need to treat that location, its prejudices, and its blind spots as matters of critical inquiry in their own right” (35). In partial attempt to do just that, Law acknowledges how the “unwitting ‘Northern’ character of STS knowing spaces sets stark limits to alternative ‘Southern’ forms of STS” (48). In failing to engage with the “power and obduracy” (48) of marxism in spaces where STS has been so weak, Law fails to carry his own method through – much as Marx himself has been rightly critiqued for, by countless feminist marxists and marxists of color, as well as by non-marxists and anti-communists.

It is noteworthy that despite its European region of origin, various marxist traditions have by now for the better part of a century been far more powerful in the Global South than in the Global North. Traveling farther beyond the ivory tower than most academics could ever hope their work will reach, these theories were considered indispensable tools by millions of anti-colonial revolutionaries the world over, including the leaders of successful struggles for the political independence of the majority of the world’s population up to and including the military expulsion of settlers from countries like Algeria. In a text which explicitly names how “in any given location it is easier to know in some ways than others” and names the riskiness of “Excessive commitment to activism? The wrong kind of activism?” (48), the complete lack of engagement with such an influential and long-lasting body of theory – not to mention other bodies of academic theory such as disability theory with a lot to say about science, technology and society – is glaring and difficult to justify. The most generous interpretation I can offer is that perhaps following Wittgenstein, Law passes over in silence what he is not competent to speak on, particularly in such a short piece of writing; but given the long and sorry history of left anti-communism as a powerful reactionary influence in allegedly “progressive” spaces, I am suspicious of a white academic’s decision to erase the existence of such an obviously relevant family of theories whose insights – for example about the class and national character of technology’s historical development – would greatly enrich STS, and particularly “alternative STSs” (48).

Notwithstanding these serious weaknesses, there are so many other rich ideas I cannot explore here – “power generates silences” (38) is a resonant phrase I found especially pregnant with possibility and metaphor. Despite my frustration with feeling obligated yet again to fill in missing pieces of a picture that the people who created it – with far more resources than I have ever had access to in my life – should have included in the first place, I feel nevertheless that much is recoverable from Law’s method, or “travel guide” in Latour’s memorable phrase. I appreciate “STS as Method” for the contributions it does make.

Spatial History

Richard White’s very short paper “What is Spatial History?” introduces a “spatial turn in history” (1) that involves trans-disciplinary collaboration among teams of researchers of varying statuses to create visualizations that depend on digital history, or “the exploitation of kinds of evidence and data bases that would be too opaque or too unwieldy to use without computers” (1). White highlights the “conceptual focus on space” (1) that departs from the professional norm in history to focus on chronology – sometimes to a fault such that historians “write history as if it took place on the head of a pin” (1), in contrast to the recognition by spatial history “that space is neither simply natural geography nor an empty container filled by history. It is rather something that human beings produce over time. Spatial relations shift and change. Space is itself historical” (2). Writing that he is almost “so simplistic as to say that if space is the question that movement is the answer” (3), White discusses the use of relatively new technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) to render historical maps commensurable with “modern space and mapping projections…[and] modern projections of the globe” (4) as well as “visualize space in ways that go far beyond mapping” (4).

While making the case for the usefulness of these tools, White also gives critical attention to the ways “GIS often ends up emphasizing not the constructedness of space but rather its given-ness” (5), which can fail to represent or capture how “not all people at all times have constructed space in ways that can be easily made commensurable with absolute space” (5). White concludes the essay with notes on representational and relational space and their relationships to absolute (physical) space, e.g. in the practicality of measuring distance in terms of time or cost as well as miles, and recapitulates the critical importance of “using computers to visualize the data…and thus the construction of space” (6) as a “a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past” (6).

I found this paper interesting for several reasons, starting with the fact that at least since the time (over ten years ago by now) that I studied special relativity in college physics and internalized the inseparability of space and time, the disciplinary separation between history and geography has seemed extremely forced and artificial to me. Obviously, all historical events take place in space, and conversely, all spatial processes unfold over time. (I previously briefly expressed the same thought on Twitter last year while in the midst of applying to graduate school, an undertaking that brought into sharp relief for me the arbitrariness of the contemporary academic division of knowledge.) As someone who nearly ended up in a Geography program (at CUNY) before deciding on media studies here at MCC – currently with the thought to give my loose disciplinary allegiance to history, while still wishing to make use of my technical background and bring together at least some of my longstanding but often divorced interests in computing, ecology, police/prison abolition, translation, mathematics, and Black histories and geographies in the Western Hemisphere – White’s article gave several interesting pointers regarding the emergence of a new disciplinary formation with obvious relevance to at least one of my possible academic futures.

As ever, there are more gems in this brief article than can be explored in this even shorter blogpost, like White’s note on translation and the mediation of knowledge that “what is often clear enough in French becomes fashionably murky in English” (2), and the incomplete discussion of geographic scale and “spatial practice” (2). Another longstanding interest/intention of mine is in producing visualizations that use mathematical metaphors of fractals as an aid to intuition regarding how similar core-periphery dynamics play out on different scales from the “micro” to the “macro” (a distinction that in practice I often find useful if not indispensable, but in principle would prefer to do without, much like the human/non-human distinction). For example, numerous feminists of color have documented the kinship between gendered exploitation within say a household, and the exploitative relationship between the Global North and Global South, as well as various scales in between such as the relationship between Manhattan’s concentration of billionaires and the Bronx’s poverty. Most of the few examples I have seen that gesture towards what I seek (like this blog post on “beautiful fractals, ugly inequality”) provide a purely static view, whereas I am most interested in somehow showing unfolding processes of movement and development over time, particularly as they relate to various more or less objective markers of class such as race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, relationship to land, income, wealth, and far more. Something closer to what I seek is “Humans of Simulated New York”, which when oriented towards planning as opposed to merely analysis eventually should ideally end up as a simulation in service of socialism, expressed at least as early as Chile’s CyberSyn under the marxist Allende government before the US backed coup. This is too large a topic to explore here, so let me conclude by noting that clearly the broader the geographic and chronological scale, the more challenging such a project would be at every level from the conceptual to the technical; however it happens, I hope for the opportunity in the next several years to work with others to contribute to spatial history in my own way!

In the Wake and in the academy

The first chapter of Christina Sharpe’s “In the Wake” is a work of literally breathtaking penetration and beauty. Using six distinct definitions of “wake” – “the keeping watch with the dead, the path of a ship, a consequence of something, in the line of flight and/or sight, awakening, and consciousness” (17-18) – in combination with an autobiographical narrative about the lives and deaths of her family members, Sharpe situates Black life in the encompassing afterlives of slavery to show how “in the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (9). I feel it would be vain to attempt to summarize her wide-ranging topics and themes, so I choose to focus my engagement on her theorizations regarding method, discipline and the academy.

Sharpe is clearly not a supporter of the status quo operation of the contemporary university, recognizing that the “epistemic violence…[required] for Black academics to produce legible work in the academy often means adhering to research methods that are ‘drafted into the service of a larger destructive force’, thereby doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise” (13, internally quoting Saunders 2008a, 67). I have already felt this acutely in my brief time at MCC, and I recognized myself easily in Sharpe’s self-description of how “the precarities of the ongoing disaster of the ruptures of chattel slavery…texture my reading practices, my ways of being in and of the world, my relations with and to others” (5). My incessantly writing notes into my copies of assigned readings is one such reading practice: a means of “talking back” (16, internally quoting Rankine 2015; Simone Browne also uses the identical term in “Dark Matters” ch. 1, pp. 33, 36, 61, 62) to texts that either fail to engage with anything I care about or actively erase the existence of the communities I am committed to. My constant awareness of my own precarity and vulnerability to racist violence up to and including premature death, notwithstanding my relative class privilege, renders me often hesitant and tentative in the ways I speak aloud (when I do so at all), for fear of alienating others or making a target out of myself; and yet I attempt to follow Dionne Brand in “her refusal to think return, her dislodging of belonging” (19) and remember that since there is absolutely nothing I can do to be fully accepted by “the larger antiblack world that structure[s] all our lives” (4), I may as well speak and write as honestly and fearlessly as I know how.

Armed with the consciousness that “the methods most readily available to us sometimes, oftentimes, force us into positions that run counter to what we know” (12) and the confidence that “our knowledge, of slavery and Black being in slavery, is gained through our studies, yes, but also in excess of those studies” (12), Sharpe states that “We must become undisciplined. The work we do requires new modes and methods of research and teaching” (13). (This also calls to my mind Dora Silva Santana’s quote from her job talk on “methodological disobedience”.) To develop “a kind of blackened knowledge, an unscientific method…this gathering, this collecting and reading toward a new analytic, as the wake and wake work” (13) towards a “wake theory” (21) which would allow us to “think (and rethink and rethink) care laterally” (21) in the face and in the midst of “quotidian catastrophic events” (21) is the ambitious goal Sharpe has set for herself. I look forward to making the space to read the rest of this book, but even before having done so, speaking as a political and community organizer first and foremost (and an academic a distant second), there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the concluding hope of her chapter “that the wake and wake work might have enough capaciousness to travel and do work that I have not here been able to imagine or anticipate” (22) will certainly be realized, if it has not already.

I conclude with a reflection on Sharpe’s poignant quote, when discussing the murder of her nephew, that “There are other stories to tell here; they are not mine to tell” (6). Her self-reflexivity, honesty, modesty and sensitivity is heartening in a way that I cannot translate into words, and it reminds me of Eve Tuck’s related but not identical statement in “R-Words: Refusing Research” that “there are some forms of knowledge the academy does not deserve” (224) – whether the stories are ours to tell, or not. For us as “Black peoples in the wake with no state or nation to protect us, with no citizenship bound to be respected” (22), to be obscure, unknown, invisible, illegible, fugitive is one of the most common and effective defenses against legal and extralegal anti-Black violence. Even as I seek through my writing, teaching and other practices to make certain elements of my knowledge more widely circulated, understood and accepted, I hope that I never lose sight of the indisputable fact – which I already knew very well before my decision to re-enter these spaces – that for all it holds, the white-dominated academy is not, has never been, and will never be the truest standard for measuring what knowledge is valuable and correct. Given the “reappearances of the slave ship in everyday life in the form of the prison, the camp, and the school” (21) – higher education certainly being included in the carceral category of the school – this also is a way to “think the ways the hold cannot and does not hold even as the hold remains” (21).

From Affective Architectures to abolition

Kelli Moore’s “Affective Architectures: Photographic Evidence and the Evolution of Courtroom Visuality” brings together diverse academic fields including visual culture, affect theory, architecture, legal scholarship, and Black studies to consider the impact and broader signification of images in domestic violence trials. Using theories from these and other disciplines to make sense of her experiences as a legal spectator in US courtrooms, Moore “examine[s] affective immersion among witnesses and spectators engaging with digital visual material in law’s environments” (208), distinguishing “minor affects…[such as] disconcertion, irritation, and confusion” (217) from “major affects” or “grand affects” such as “rage, shame and fear” (211) and making the case for the critical importance of the so-called “minor”, in the course of “theorizing…a minor literature on legal spectatorship – a critical discourse that attends to the production and circulation of minor affects” (211), where the “minor literature” is “a literature within law communication – a literature of mediatized testimony” (212).

Moore draws a connection between the above-named minor affects and several meanings of “imbalance” (212, 217, 218, 219) through a multiply-laden meaning of “vestibule”/“vestibular”. A “vestibule” is literally “a chamber opening into another”, and can be used as an architectural term, but is more commonly used in the sphere of anatomy, where it can describe the inner ear, which controls the human sense of balance (“vestibular balance”) that Moore here describes being thrown off (particularly in witnesses who are often survivors of domestic violence) by the throwing of projections, specifically by “prosecutors [who] often circulate evidentiary images of wounding directly to jury hands in addition to projecting them on screen” (213). However, even in the restricted domain of the human body, “vestibule” can refer to other body parts such as the opening of the vagina, as Moore points out in the final two paragraphs of the article’s penultimate section, which bring in Hortense Spillers’ “flesh”/“body” distinction and description of “the liminal, queer element of black presence in a white hetero-patriarchal domestic community…[with] black life as vestibular to American culture” (218), following the various meanings of “the vestibule as a transitional space: from the Middle Passage, in which slavery is imposed on black Africans by wounding the flesh, to the transitional meaning of the architectural vesitibule, including the vestibule’s anatomical reference of the female gendered body” (213). All this and much more comes together in the conclusion, which considers the “potential of legal spectatorship for theories of visual culture” (219) and, in an extremely sharp final sentence, locates “the courtroom as a space which rehearses looking practices from slavery to adjudicate domestic abuse in the contemporary” (220).

The above paragraphs hardly do justice to this highly dense article, which defies summarization. I hasten to clarify that I do not use “dense” as a term of abuse or criticism, but rather consider it a positive attribute to pack so much content into so few pages/words, although only when I reached the conclusion did I finally feel my comprehension dawning of how all of these varied concepts and literatures cohere, an understanding which is still no doubt incomplete. While in the introduction Moore helpfully lays out some of the stakes of her intervention – for example, that “architecture has failed to address ‘the full complex of issues engaged by visual culture studies’” (207) – nevertheless I am certain that many subtleties of how she relates to existing literatures escape me, given my relative unfamiliarity with most of the fields she is clearly immersed in. While I am interested in deepening my knowledge of some of these disciplines, particularly Black studies, what resonated with me the most as a reader was the analogical reasoning I could employ between Moore’s analyses and my own experiences as a courtroom participant – most recently and frequently as a spectator performing court support for my comrades in the same “courtroom audience…facing the stand frontally, much like a theater or cinema audience” (209) where she locates herself as a researcher, but also in my experience as a criminal court defendant viewing a very similar scene from a rather different vantage point.

The decidedly academic style of this piece renders it unsuitable for direct consumption by most of the people directly and negatively impacted by the racist so-called “justice” system, but I believe this theorization nonetheless has potential to indirectly give aid to our communities, particularly based on my personal interactions with Moore (or Kelli, as I would call her in such an interaction), and her evident interest in prison abolition from comments and questions I have heard her pose, for example when Professor Sami Schalk came to MCC (to give a talk about her book “Bodyminds” and her upcoming project about the Black Panthers’ groundbreaking but little-recognized work on disability justice). The final sentence quoted previously, in particular, demonstrates Moore’s clear understanding of the connections between anti-Black oppression past and present, although that conclusion, and the piece as a whole, do yet leave me wondering what is to be done with this critique. There is no doubt in my mind, as a police and prison abolitionist, that these courtrooms and architectures must ultimately be done away with, but obviously that is easier said than done, and offers limited guidance for engagement in the meantime, which is of course not optional either for people targeted for prosecution by the carceral state, or for people dealing with intra-communal violence from which the state disingenuously holds itself out as a protector. I look forward to engaging with her work more deeply as I attempt to bring my own diverse interests together, both across academic fields, and beyond the academy.