The Mangle in Practice: Science, Society, and Becoming

The Mangle in Practice: Science, Society, and Becoming

by Andrew Pickering

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In The Mangle of Practice (1995), the renowned sociologist of science Andrew Pickering argued for a reconceptualization of research practice as a “mangle,” an open-ended, evolutionary, and performative interplay of human and non-human agency. While Pickering’s ideas originated in science and technology studies, this collection aims to extend…  See more details below


In The Mangle of Practice (1995), the renowned sociologist of science Andrew Pickering argued for a reconceptualization of research practice as a “mangle,” an open-ended, evolutionary, and performative interplay of human and non-human agency. While Pickering’s ideas originated in science and technology studies, this collection aims to extend the mangle’s reach by exploring its application across a wide range of fields including history, philosophy, sociology, geography, environmental studies, literary theory, biophysics, and software engineering.

The Mangle in Practice opens with a fresh introduction to the mangle by Pickering. Several contributors then present empirical studies that demonstrate the mangle’s applicability to topics as diverse as pig farming, Chinese medicine, economic theory, and domestic-violence policing. Other contributors offer examples of the mangle in action: real-world practices that implement a self-consciously “mangle-ish” stance in environmental management and software development. Further essays discuss the mangle as philosophy and social theory. As Pickering argues in the preface, the mangle points to a shift in interpretive sensibilities that makes visible a world of de-centered becoming. This volume demonstrates the viability, coherence, and promise of such a shift, not only in science and technology studies, but in the social sciences and humanities more generally.

Contributors: Lisa Asplen, Dawn Coppin, Adrian Franklin, Keith Guzik, Casper Bruun Jensen,Yiannis Koutalos, Brian Marick, Randi Markussen, Andrew Pickering, Volker Scheid, Esther-Mirjam Sent, Carol Steiner, Maxim Waldstein

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Editorial Reviews

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“Andrew Pickering is a major figure in the field of science studies. In the original, widely cited and widely admired but still controversial The Mangle of Practice, he developed a number of important concepts that are strongly resonant for many members of the current generation of scholars, researchers, and theorists in the social sciences and humanities. This new, very substantial, highly readable collection will be illuminating for readers interested in science studies, post-humanist approaches to ethical-pragmatic issues, and/or new directions in ontology.”—Barbara Herrnstein Smith, author of Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth, and the Human

“Andrew Pickering’s ‘mangle of practice’ is one of the key contemporary interpretive frameworks that question the society/nature dichotomy. His proposal makes distinct contributions not only to science studies but to all disciplines engaged in post-humanist projects of knowledge production and committed to bypassing the sterile dichotomy between rationality and relativism. Applying Pickering’s mangle to problems ranging from natural resource management to the dynamics of police work, this timely collection demonstrates the power and flexibility of Pickering’s proposal.”—Mario Biagioli, author of Galileo’s Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy

“This excellent collection offers cutting-edge theorizations of cultural practice, showing how science and society work with and against each other across a broad cultural landscape. It is especially welcome that the essays explore, often profoundly, a number of phenomena—practices—which have rarely if ever been addressed previously, but which are shown here to possess unexpected complexity and significance.”—Arkady Plotnitsky, author of Complementarity: Anti-Epistemology after Bohr and Derrida

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Duke University Press
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Science and Cultural Theory
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The Mangle in Practice

Science, Society, and Becoming


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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4373-8

Chapter One

A Choreography of Fire

A Posthumanist Account of Australians and Eucalypts


In this chapter I ask whether there is anything to be gained by taking seriously a posthumanist analysis of the relationship between humanity and the natural world, one that in fact extinguishes dualism and produces only naturecultures (Haraway 2003b, 5). I will examine this question through an analysis of the relationship between eucalyptus (gum) trees and Australia. Most humanist accounts, such as those developed in "traditional" social anthropology and sociology, privilege the activity, agency, and representations of humans, and in so doing render the natural world and its individual species as passive and of interest only insofar as they provide a palette of meanings for essentially human symbolism, dreamings, imaginaries (see Rival 1998; Douglas 1975, 1996). Such an approach has an impeccable track record ranging from Emile Durkheim to Mary Douglas, and it is not one I want to challenge here per se. What I do want to challenge is the implicit assumption that this approach is all there is to the relationship between nature and humanity, or all we can say about it. Rather than only inquire about the meaning of nature (or gum trees in this case), I also want to inquire about what it is they do, and, importantly, what implications those actions have for the world, themselves, humans, and "the social."

Following Andrew Pickering's advice in The Mangle of Practice (1995) that we place ourselves in the action-in medias res or "in the thick of things" where the play or dance of agency takes place-my analysis never assumes that eucalyptus trees and humans exist in separate worlds but rather that what happens to both is emergent and co-constitutive. If we allow that gum trees are neither purely natural nor purely social but both (what we might call a relational entity, after John Law [1994, 1999]), then what does this say about environmental discourses that endorse and seek to reproduce (or restore) so-called primordial natures in light of the claim by Tim Low (2003) for a New Nature (in Australia)? In this chapter I suggest that wilderness and environmental policy in general need to be mangled. I also support those who argue that agency needs to be understood always as an artifact of time-of social, ecological, and glacial times (Macnaghten and Urry 1998; Jones and Cloke 2002).

As Stephen Pyne notes, "Eucalyptus is not only the Universal Australian, it is the ideal Australian-versatile, tough, sardonic, contrary, self-mocking, with a deceptive complexity amid the appearance of massive homogeneity; an occupier of disturbed environments; a fire creature" (1992, 25). Here Pyne is using gum trees as representations of Australia. This notion, along with similar material from art, literature, and the media, provide considerable mileage for the sociology of Australian nature. For example, narratives about gum trees tell us a great deal about Australian processes of nation formation; it was against the gum tree that a viable Australia was wrought (the motif of the so-called Heidelberg school of art is "the now relaxed" pioneer with his axe [see Allen 1997]); it was with the gum tree and against the oak and the plane tree that a distinctive modern Australia was asserted (introduced species were to be chased out while natives were to be embraced, and enthusiastically planted); and it was under and for gum forests that an econationalism was forged against global capitalism (gum trees hereby enter a final phase as sacred intensities of Australianness with its back against the wall). How they have changed as objects in the Australian imaginary makes perfect sociological material by describing so well the colonial and postcolonial connection between an emerging Australia and its totemic nature. But Pyne is surely also being ironic: How can we be so much like a tree and yet remain so unlike one-so outstandingly human against the woodenness of a mere tree? Pyne is not making much of a humanist point, but the point is the humanism of the writing slips in with little or no thought required. After its human representations there is little or no sociological content left to a gum tree. Or is there?

Pickering (2000) reminds us of C. P. Snow's description of the "two cultures" of the humanists and the scientists of British society in the 1950s and the yawning gap they produced. But whereas in the 1950s the two cultures barely knew about each other and had little need to do so, in recent years this congenial polarity is short-circuited by inconvenient new phenomena, such as biopolitics, environment, and natureculture. Where does the science of biopolitics end and the humanity begin? Similarly, what is a "proper" nature, or a "proper" environment? Who can tell us, science or the humanities? What is the expertise we need to have in order to think through issues raised by genetic modification? What is a genetically modified organism-nature or culture? No matter what we consider we seem to encounter agency that slides backward and forward across this once-stable boundary and across "inscription devices" and "enactments" with multiple implications culminating in what Donna Haraway terms "states of disorder" (Law 2004).

Pickering defines the humanities as humanist "inasmuch as they study and theorise a world of humans amongst themselves." The sciences are "antihumanist" precisely inasmuch as they study and theorize a material world from which humans are absent. Only in science and technology studies, he argues, has an attempt been made to close the gap, but this simply produces new tensions: "So, 'bridging the gap' between the two cultures creates a different gap. Now the mainstream scientists and humanists appear as a monolithic bloc, united in their dualism, against which Science and Technology Studies [STS] ... appears as a strangely nondualist formation, or, as I am inclined to say a posthumanist one-where the word 'posthumanist' denotes a decentred perspective in which humanity and the material world appear as symmetrically intertwined, with neither constituting a controlling centre" (2000, 3). The significance of this observation and its implications for a much-strengthened sociology has been demonstrated only too well in Pickering's analysis of New Orleans and the agency of the Mississippi River (this volume). Showing how both the river and the city were entwined in an emergent becoming, the city from this perspective (i.e., in the thick of things) seemed less of an impregnable blue-printed design of humanity than the delicate and endangered artifact of an experimental choreography between nature and culture. From this perspective the events directly surrounding Hurricane Katrina were interesting: the failure to grasp what had happened stemmed in part from a false belief in the city as a supreme humanist triumph over nature. At the same time the extent of the damage to the social fabric of the city illustrated just how much the river was involved in the city's life and shape.

One of the striking things about Pickering's chapter in this book is both its simplicity and its profound implications. It is simple because a place like New Orleans is, of course, intimately bound up with the specific waters of the Mississippi; it is so obvious it hardly needs to be stated. Yet it is also profound because most academic writing on the city supposes it to be a binary opposite of nature-its antithesis or defeat. It is a space devoid of nature, sanitized by human technologies and governed by civic orderings. Sarah Whatmore and Sarah Hinchliffe (2003, 4) argue that urban theory and planning practice exemplify what Tim Ingold (2000, 181) characterizes as a "building perspective" where "the organization of space cognitively precedes its material expression; built environments are thought before they are built." In a manner similar to Pickering's depiction of the artist Mondrian, Whatmore and Hinchliffe argue that the "thoroughly humanist commitments of this perspective are evident both in the genius of the architects/planners whose visions materialise into the city and in the strictly human terms in which its fabrication and inhabitation are conceived" (4).

But Pickering is not alone in noticing the necessity of a symmetrical, monist view of the city, nor the fantasy of humanist order. Nigel Clark (2003), building on Mike Davis's claim that California is "configured by waves of dynamic instability," goes one step further in claiming that most cities (and by implication the experiences of most people) are characterized by their location in sites of "turbulence" and by turbulences that they themselves set in motion. He argues that while social scientists have "been obliged to take into account the human impact on the biophysical environment, this is not the same as engaging with ecological processes and events that impact on social worlds." Clark considers the themes of extreme weather, seismic unrest, plague, and predation, and he reminds social scientists that, ironically and perversely, humanity has tended to look to nature for a sense of order and equilibrium. More than this, in modern societies this Edenic fantasy has been responsible for garden cities and for rural or hillside suburban developments built in such spectacularly dangerous places as the Australian bush or the Californian chaparral. As Davis writes of California, "Statewide some seven million inhabitants-the whitest and wealthiest segment of the population-now live in the suburban-chaparral border zone where the wildfire is king." The consequences are staggering: "Two-thirds of all homes and dwellings ... destroyed by wildfire since statewide record keeping began in 1923 have been burnt since 1980. Individual fires there can cost between $1 and $2 billion on assured items alone" (1999, 145). According to Clark, though, this is not exceptional: order and balance are the exception not the rule. If this is so we would expect turbulence and tensions between nature and society to be both normative and constitutive of both. As things stand this is not how most sociologists conceive their subject matter, but what happens when one places oneself in medias res? What is at stake? And what advantages derive from post-humanist approaches?

The first and most obvious advantage is that such approaches open up a world of research possibilities that were precluded by the very nature of the Great Divide. Relationships that were once unthinkable can now be thought; relationships that were once understood as structured can now be thought of as fluid and open. This makes a huge difference. A good example is the recent research by Haraway (2003) and Franklin et al. (2005) on the relationship between humans and companion dogs. Truly symmetrical investigations into this relationship were unthinkable until quite recently. Dogs were held to have little or no communicative competence and humans were held to be conscious of the world only through their own social symbolism. The simultaneous denial of communicative competence to animals and the assertion of human tendencies toward anthropomorphism descends from George Mead and has remained very influential in scientific and psychological discourse. But as Clinton Sanders remarks, Mead was also influential in those rare moments when sociologists considered the human-animal relationship: "Since animals were not fully fledged social actors from the Meadian point of view, their encounters with humans were one-way exchanges, lacking the intersubjectivity at the heart of true social interaction. People interacted with animals-as-objects. The dog owner's babbling endearments to his or her canine companion is engaged in a form of happy self-delusion; he or she is simply taking the role of the animals and projecting human-like attributes into it" (1999, 118-19). This thesis also rules out the need to look closely at the relationship itself. After all, it is a fantasy creation of the human, and what the dog is thinking or doing matters very little. The asymmetrical nature of this exchange is mirrored in other follow-up studies that try to focus on the cause of health benefits resulting from companion animals. One of the more common is to measure blood pressure before and after a human interacts with (looks at, strokes, accompanies) an animal, as if only human agency and human thoughtfulness are at play and need to be understood.

While we can agree that human agency, thought, semiotics, and imagination are critical to understand our relations with animals, and inevitably play an important role in explaining them, we do not have to agree that this is all we need to attend to nor where the whole answer lies. The most obvious posthumanist thesis is that there are two other objects that demand to be investigated: the companion animals themselves and the relationship itself. Again, the statistical studies of companion species and human health suggest that human self-delusion may be less important than the type of relationship and the species in question. Cats are equally the objects of human projection, but statistical studies show that they offer less health benefit than dogs (Freidmann, Thomas, and Eddy 2000). Research might show the relationship to be both a Hybrid cultural form and one built on agency rather than on imagination. If this Is so, then we would be in a position to be able to refine, direct, train, and target the effect more easily. Policies could be directed to maximize the health benefits, which in Australia alone are estimated to be worth $988 million and represent 2.7 percent of the nation's health expenditure (Headey 1998). More specifically we could then ask: How do dogs and humans shape each other in species-specific ways? This is an entirely new kind of question with pragmatic, practical, and ontologically new dimensions.

However, the posthumanist ontology is also concerned with the nature of conscious agency and the limits of control that it can attain. Posthumanists dispute the very possibility of the humanist project as an ordering of the world, and they argue that "the very illusion of control speaks a fundamental ignorance about the nature of emergent processes through which consciousness, the organism and the environment are constituted" (Katherine Hayles 1999, 288). As Jeff Malpas and Gary Wickham (1995) argue, failure and instability are built into human ordering attempts just as much as success and stability. This is because ordering attempts that push into the world are always incomplete and are frequently the subject of other orderings that may not be compatible. Malpas and Wickham identify the problem in the relation between governance and "known objects": "Governance is thus predicated on the resistance of object, not only in terms of the being of the object as something recalcitrant, but also in terms of the object as in some sense separate from that which governs. Moreover since every project is always enmeshed with other projective activities, there can be no guarantee that such projects, though connected, will even be wholly consistent with one another" (46). However well we research social orderings, our labors will be for nothing unless we pay equal attention to the objects they order, their social life, and their relationships.

Both Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway have consistently pointed out the deceit of humanism. "Mastery through the exercise of autonomous will is merely the story," Hayles argues, "consciousness tells itself to explain results that actually come about through chaotic dynamics and emergent structures. If ... there is a relation among the desire for mastery, an objectivist account of science, and the imperialist project of subduing nature, then the posthuman offers resources for the construction of another account" (1999, 288). In this account emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism; distributed cognition replaces autonomous will; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanist subject's manifest destiny to dominate and control nature.


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