Ontographology Cards: Oblique Strategies for Interdisciplinary Teams (sort of)

This is my first attempt to write up an ongoing project I’m in the early stages of undertaking, as well as solicit much needed feedback on it. It’s emerged from the Digital Social Science forum I’ve put together for the Independent Social Research Foundation. The forum has been setup to develop an interdisciplinary space within which the Digital Social Sciences can thrive. What are the Digital Social Sciences? That’s a good question. Part of the problem facing the Digital Social Sciences is the vast array of disciplines and approaches being subsumed under this term: Digital Sociology, Digital Anthropology, Digital Geography, Social Informatics, Human-Computer Interaction, Web Science, The Digital Humanities, Data Science, Critical Data Studies, Platform Studies, Software Studies. The forum is seeking to promote interdisciplinarity in order to bring together varied methodologies from across the social sciences, explore implications and develop innovative approaches to work in the future. In practice this so far involves: a conference stream on Digital Methodologies beyond Big & Small Data, a conference panel on Digital Futures, special issues of various online magazines exploring these themes, an essay competition in Big Data & Society and a workshop on conceptual challenges in interdisciplinary social media research. 

Underlying some of this activity has been an interest I’ve had for some time in the relevance of social ontology to the digital social sciences. I would understand Ontology quite straight forwardly as the study of what exists and what existent things have in common. But I think Tony Lawson’s distinction between Ontology in this sense and Ontographology is very useful: the former being the study of things and the latter the study of how those things are theorised. Given their rapid proliferation, comparative Ontographology could be an important exercise in clarifying the internal structuring of the Digital Social Sciences, as well as identifying convergences and divergences in how they conceive of their often overlapping objects. But it could also be a tool of productive criticism, for instance drawing out contradictions between implicit and explicit ontological commitments. This would be a matter of mapping ontological issues being confronted across disciplines and fields, asking fundamental questions of philosophical ontology informed by the questions of regional or scientific ontology already being asked within specific disciplines and fields. The concern here would therefore by taxonomic: bringing clarity across fields of study and elucidating key issues where the impulse towards clarification is contentious. Part of the ambition here would also be meta-theoretical: mapping the diversity of different approaches to these questions and bringing them into the same argumentative space. Rather than their current existence as incommensurable paradigms, not permitting of intellectual advancement through dialogue with alternative understandings.

When looking for comparable projects, I came across a really interesting undertaking initially funded by the National Science Foundation in the United States. The Toolbox Project is intended as “philosophical technology” which “abstracts away from specific problems that research teams face” in order to seek common ground across disciplinary divides, understood to be anchored in their shared identity and practice as research scientists. As they describe it, “disciplinary membership is marked by a set of commitments, often unconscious, that condition what one takes the world to be and what one seeks to know about the world” (O’Rourke and Crowley 2013). The intention of the project is to elicit these commitments through an instrument compromising 34 philosophical statements concerning ontology and epistemology, using a Likert scale to record strength of agreement/disagreement with each one. Potentially ambiguous terms are not clarified, with such ambiguities potentially generative of important dialogue in the ensuing workshop. After each collaborator completes the instrument in such workshops, they are invited to discuss their responses beginning anywhere they choose. The workshop lasts for 90 minutes and is lightly facilitated, with the accumulated evidence from its application internationally giving strong grounds to believe there’s much of use to interdisciplinary teams here.

There’s an explicit assumption of disciplinary unity here which I’d take issue with, both in the sense of imputing a artificial homogeneity to disciplines like Sociology and obscuring the excluded heterogeneity of disciplines like Economics. But as I understand their methodology, I don’t think this assumption has practical consequences because the facilitation of the workshop is light touch and any intra-disciplinary heterogeneity obscured by their framing assumptions would likely show up in the open discussion. However I do think there’s an important issue concerning the restructuring of the social sciences, which Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald refer to as a shift in the plate tectonics of the human sciences. The social sciences are under external political pressures of varying sorts across national contexts: the necessity to demonstrate ‘impact’ in the UK, attacks on political sciences in the US, closing social science and humanities departments by ministerial fiat in Japan. Meanwhile, new fields are emerging continuously, often at the intersection of the natural and social sciences: such as “social neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and social epigenetics” as Nicholas Christakis in a much circulated call to ‘shake up the social sciences’ a couple of years ago. There are both internal and external pressures chipping away at a unity to disciplines which I think the Toolbox Project team have already overstated.

This isn’t so much a critique as an observation about a changing disciplinary environment in which interdisciplinary communication between practitioners from settled disciplines can be assumed to differ in kind from communication between those from unsettled disciplines. It’s communication on these frontiers that interests me, specifically in relation to socio-digital novelty and how we facilitate its investigation across disciplinary boundaries. The novelty of these objects incites their investigation across these boundaries and it also foregrounds the role of their conceptualisation. But in no sense do I think the two approaches are mutually exclusive. One is intended to lay the ground for collaboration in preparation for it, the other is intended to be iterative and ad hoc.

However this is all still rather vague and that’s part of the problem. My concern is with how objects are characterised, implicitly or otherwise, as well as how convergent or divergent characterisations shape practice in ways which help or hinder collaborative endeavours. The obvious thing to do therefore is to start with a focus on objects but this leaves a question of generality. The potential objects are too broad if specified by me in advance and, at least at this stage, they’re likely to reflect my own disciplinary baggage in precisely the manner that I’m suggesting needs to be overcome. Nonetheless for the first workshop, I’m contemplating starting with some generically familiar objects (e.g. Facebook, a tweet, a platform) chosen in a way which will hopefully be jarring for their varying degrees of abstractness or concreteness. At first people will work individually, being asked to draw and/or describe this given object on the Artefact Cards provided:


The limited space afforded by the cards is precisely the point. What are the most essential features? Participants will then be given a list of questions to consider in relation to what they’ve drawn:

  1. What is X?
  2. What is it similar to?
  3. What is it different from?
  4. What do we know about it?
  5. How do we know this?

Then each group will pool their cards and consider them collectively. Which cards can be grouped together? Which are very different from each other? The idea is to group the cards and discuss why they’re doing this in the process. Each of the smaller groups will then be invited to give an account of why their cards have been categorised in the way that they have, encouraging them to reflect upon the underlying fault lines which find expression in the approach they’ve taken to the same task. The end result of the session will hopefully then be a collection of ‘tweet’ cards, a collection of ‘Facebook’ cards and a collection of ‘platform’ cards, as well as photos taken of how each set of cards have been collated together within the group and an account of the reasons for this.

This is my first sketch of what this part of the session at the workshop will look like. I’m hoping it will provide a ludic twist on the sequence of speakers and ensuing discussion which constitute the rest of the session. In the meantime, I’m trying to read as much of the literature on interdisciplinarity as I can, particularly that which focuses on the practical reality of day-to-day work across teams. I don’t think I’ll have developed the Ontographology Cards by the workshop, if indeed they ever see the light of day, but I’m hoping that their eventual form will start to take shape through small scale experiments like the one I’m undertaking at the workshop in July.

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