Respect the Gap

This weeks readings, particularly the one by Shaffir, talked about the importance of distance in the participant observation methodology to maintain valid results. While I don’t personally plan on using PO in my current research, the discussion brought to my mind larger questions about the nature of scientific knowledge. 

In his book Pandora’s Hope (a reading I have been doing for a different class), Latour discusses the concept of validity of scientific knowledge through circulating reference. While the original context was that of physical sciences, I am going to (attempt to) present this concept through a more ethnographic lens, as applicable to the participation observation methodology. I’m not sure what I’m hoping to achieve with this, but I’m finding these philosophies of validity much more interesting than a step-by-step guide to execute method ‘x’.

1. Knowledge is not an extraction of an essence from the world, but the enhancement (either through magnification or reduction) of the phenomenon.

A phenomenon, thus, is holistic not dualistic; abstraction is not the division of the teleology from a form (a Kantian dualist understanding of the world), but a magnification or reduction of the 'normal' (i.e. non-scientific) individual experience that underscores the original phenomena. Knowledge isn’t meta-reality, it is an extension of reality. Your abstraction is not the world, but it is a version of it (not in the relativist's socially constructed way, but a single thread running through the fabric of reality)

2. For knowledge to be an abstraction, it must produce a sign; this sign is separate from matter, thus creating a gap.

Abstraction is by definition an alternative view of the world, simplified to the course of understanding. There is a jump to be made, a gap between the world (matter, or in our case, an experience/social structure, etc) and the form (the sign or the observation/the theory). Like a gestalt shift, you can only see one at a time, not hold the views simultaneously; in other words, “In loosing the forest, we win knowledge of it” (Latour, 38). 

3. Signs are referent to matter

Like electricity running through a circuit, the element of truth runs through the signs and (this is important) is always connected to reality via this vein. Reference is not what you point to, somehow outside the discourse, but what you bring back inside to the discourse.


One of the dangers Luker described of being a member of an participate-observation is to be too close to the phenomenon that you fail to see the the assumptions, the theory. Shaffir echos this idea when he said it was important to "respect the gap" between you and the observational group. Quite nicely, Latour illustrates this gap in the diagrams.

If this gap is necessary to produce 'knowledge' (i.e. a form, a theory), what is lost in the jump? Latour makes it clear it is not reality (it must be connected to it, alway referential), but it is the whole of reality, in its massive unformed complexity. To destroy the gap, to close it, is to eliminate knowledge in the sense that no order is rising above it. Participant observation, thus, becomes dependent on the gap. 

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