Structures and Relations: Seeing the Entwined Lives of Concepts in an Exercise of Conceptual Flocculation

In asking about the lives of “structure” and “relation,” I do not take a head on approach. Rather, I sidle up to the concepts. John Dewey, whose early twentieth-century method in these matters I admire, called it “a flank approach” when he took on the concept of “The State” in his 1927 The Public and its Problems (Dewey, 1927). Such a military metaphor is not for me. I prefer to imagine a child on a playground asking, “Can I play with you?” Thus, I begin by playing a game with other concepts: “assemblage” and “polity.” I could propose this game by analogy to mathematical method, imagining it as a peculiar wordy calculus involving differentiation and provisional (re)integration. But I prefer analogy to chemistry. Telling it as the chemical method of flocculation, I take the anthropologically entwined pair of concepts, “structure” and “relation,” lyse them so that they float apart and, in reacting with other concepts as little wordy stubs, change their form, and rise to the top in a process of analytic flocculation. In subsequently being skimmed off, these novel concepts become useful in catalyzing divergences.

Around ten years ago, I claimed that it is useful to think of collective method in knowledge and culture work as a complex form of assemblage. In developing this proposition, I worked with two quite disparate exemplars of such work: a nineteenth-century British scientific expedition and a twenty-first-century Indigenous Australian digitization project. Attributing a precise meaning to the commonplace term, assemblage, one that went on from the STS sense of sociotechnical bricolage, but also quite different than post-structuralist “assemblage theory,” my 2009 concept of assemblage envisioned complex material-semiotic entwining of two distinct moments of generalizing—a one-to-many, inductive form, and a whole-to-parts abductive form of generalizing. In this Field Note on the concepts “structure” and “relation,” I pick up that proposition, this time focusing on the work that concepts do to mediate relations in the workings of these complex processes of structuring assemblage.

Continue reading

Special Focus: Structures

In the course of the twentieth century, structure became a central category of thought across a wide array of sciences. From linguistics to anthropology, psychoanalysis and history, the epistemic aim of analyzing structures guided a diverse range of research programs. And yet, the quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. To grapple with these changes in the epistemic virtues guiding the work of anthropologists and their historians, as well as structures’ many afterlives outside of the academy, this Special Focus Section aims to adopt a broader historical view of the phenomenon by shifting analytic attention away from specific structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry.

Table of Contents