On June 1, 2015, Professor Lucy Suchman delivered the CSISP/Sociology Annual Lecture at Goldsmiths entitled “Digital practices: some methodological reflections.” In this lecture, Suchman returns to her earlier ethnographic research on airline ground operations and the use of CAD software by structural engineers to develop an account of ‘digital practices.’ Connecting her earlier studies with current work on robotic warfare, the lecture outlines some of the important methodological issues these practices have raised and continue to raise in social research as well as in social life.
Drawing on a variety of empirical materials – videos recordings, screenshots, and annotated documents – Suchman makes the case for an expanded understanding of the digital: the lecture shows how capacities that are often ascribed to technology – to represent reality, order information, sequence action – are actually accomplished in practice by a far more heterogenous assemblage of entities, including people, settings and things. At a time in which ‘the digital’ is still – or once again – imbued with otherworldly capacities, Suchman’s work makes the important argument that such reverence is unwarranted if it does not also extend appreciation to the fallible bodies, the everyday situations, the mundane materials, the routine accomplishments and contingent arrangements with, and through which, the digital comes to matter.
Suchman opens this lecture with an image of digital practice. A human hand drawing onto an early CAD graphical interface, this image stages a particular human-machine configuration that “joins bodies, devices, figures and technologies”. Both retrospective and prospective, the lecture elaborates this image by returning to some of Suchman’s early studies, followed by a longer discussion of her current work on the use of drones and augmented reality in warfare. Suchman specifies her interest in questions of practice, deriving initially from the classical sociological tradition of ethnomethodology which views the social world as an ongoing, collective accomplishment, realised in the speech, habits, work and tools of actors in situ. Updating the Garfinklian maxim that for social scientists there is no such thing as a “time out” from method, Suchman elaborates the classical ethnomethodological account of practice through an engagement with contemporary work in both feminist and science & technology studies and the examination of practice in empirical settings.
Her discussion of work in an airport control room, for instance, highlights how the actual complexity of this technological system can only be appreciated when we examine it through practices like screen work, discursive communication and time accounting carried out by workers like Rick who operate in such settings. Rick’s working practices, Suchman shows, are not simply the messy, fallible human remainder of an otherwise functional technical system but instead, when looked at close-up, appear rather more extraordinary: in the airport control centre Rick navigates multiple temporalities, makes commensurable the work of heterogeneous agents and still finds time to make jokes with the ethnographers filming him. The complex forms of coordination that the control centre accomplishes may be enabled by digital technologies and media but, Suchman tells us, they can only be realised through the ongoing, creative participation of actors like Rick.
The account of digital practices that Suchman gives in this lecture is one that is intellectually challenging, particularly to those who seek to keep the social and digital ontologically separate. In developing this account, the lecture provides many indications of the value of her fieldwork approach for a sociology that aspires to be creative, collaborative and materially sensitive.