Saturday, April 27, 2013

P 7/13: Organizing modernity

Filed under: research — plinius @ 8:43 am

I first read John Law’s Organizing modernity ten or fifteen years ago.

I thought it was original, well-written and exciting. Law spent a year observing the activities in a large UK laboratory in the late eighties. His approached the organization like an anthropologist – and combined observations, personal experiences and theoretical questioning in an attractive way.

Picture: Daresbury laboratory

Last week I read it once again. The book is still engaging. But now I am more conscious of its weaknesses.

British common-sense

Twenty years ago deconstruction was a big thing. John Law had learnt from Foucault, Baudrillard and Derrida. He questions himself as well as his informants. He is much more accessible than the French nouveaux philosophers, though. British common-sense shines through.

I accept that all orders are social constructs. I am all for the sober analysis of dogmas, myths and ideologies. Deconstruction is a useful tool. But the moment we generalize the tool, we lose more than we gain. Systematic deconstruction is a dead-end. It can be done once or twice, to shake things up. Provoking the established order is always fun. But deconstruction is necessarily parasitic. It feeds on existing social orders. There must be something to take apart.

More importantly: deconstruction is a purely verbal game. It separates theory from practice. In the midst of furious discussions, life goes on. Experiments continue. Salaries are paid. People go home for dinner. Even Derrida gets hungry.

But Law writes well. So I have collected some of his sentences. Partial truths are also useful.

Quotations from Law

Page 1

  • This is a book about organizing and ordering in the modern world.

Page 2

  • The social is materially heterogeneous: talk, bodies, texts, machines, architectures
  • When we write about ordering there is no question of standing apart and observing from a distance.
  • We’re caught up in ordering too.
  • For about a year I became a fly on the wall in a middle-sized formal organization, a very large scientific laboratory.
  • I listened to participants. I asked them questions.
  • I was present as the managers wrestled with an increasingly intractable set of financial and organizational problems.
  • So I watched them trying to throw an ordering net over the activities within the organization.

Page 3

  • As we have lived through a period of liberal economics triumphant, politics and political changes have reached deep into our lives.

Page 4

  • As I describe the Laboratory I do not always want to make myself invisible.
  • I want to tell tales about processes of ordering and organizing.
  • I want to tell tales about the very important but very local social philosophies which we all embody and perform.
  • And I want to tell personal tales about research.
  • For research, too, is aprocess of ordering.
  • And, like many processes of ordering, research is hard.

Page 5

  • The social, all the social world, is complex and messy.

Page 7

  • The vain and brutal search for pure order has been around for as long as human history.
  • But this search has become sharpened, more systematic, and more methodical as time has passed.
  • There are many ways of telling tis story
  • Michel Foucault described the rise of disciplinary technique – strategies for ordering human bodies, human souls, and the social and spatial relations in which we are all inserted.
  • Bruno Latour spoke of the development of intermediaries, part social, part technical, and the simultaneous denial of such “hybrids” in favour of a purist distinction between nature and culture.
  • Zygmunt Bauman has identified the search for root order with the basic project of modernity itself.

Page 10

  • Robert K. Merton held that true scientific knowledge did not need sociological explanation precisely because it was true – the product of proper scientific procedures.
  • David Bloor argued against this and said, by contrast, that both true and false knowledge deserves sociological analysis.

Page 15

  • There has always been tension in sociology between those who want to explore how things got to be the way they are, and those who prefer to talk about structures: those, in other words, who would like to cleave to an order and assume that the maintenance of that order is a second-rank, qualitatively different, technical problem.
  • Karl Marx was on the ordering side of this divide, committed to a sociology of verbs, for he saw capital as a process, a movement, a set of time drawn-out relations, rather than something that could be locked up in a bank vault.
  • But the insight that society is a process is even more deeply embedded in the interpretive sociologies.
  • Symbolic interactionism treats bopth the pattern of social relations and the self as an interactive product or outcome – which reproduces itself (or not) in further performance and interaction.
  • Nothing is necessarily stable, and consistency is a product.


  • Law, John. Organizing modernity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. – 219 pp.

To be continued …


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