PhD Course at the Graduate School, Arts at Aarhus University.

May 15-19. 2017, hours 10.00-16.00.

The primary objective of the workshop is to incite reflection on how concepts participate in processes of research, analysis and knowledge production. Developing understandings of what concepts do in knowledge production processes will strengthen students’ ability to engage concepts generatively in their own work.


As researchers of digitized worlds we work with concepts. Concepts are abstractions, but they are also concrete instruments, which, more often than not, sit in uneasy relation to empirics, and bodies. Concepts support us in assembling and disassembling worlds, including the worlds that we call ‘theoretical’. Sometimes we refer to concepts as tools, but in this Ph.D course we wish to address them in as companions in analysis. Concepts are in some sense ‘of’ us, but they are ‘not us’.

Language philosophers like Wittgenstein pointed out that concepts are embedded in language and make worlds. In this course we look closer at how concepts have their own in-built worlds and are set in relations. When we recognize concepts’ relational work they become visible as ‘clots’ of practices in the here and now (Verran, 2007). They acquire agential quality as they afford, resist, become frictional. They produce specific openings and close down others and include imbricated visibilities and invisibilities. They make us do, make us think, and invite us to explore the limitations of the thinking they produce. In short, they become lively, making separations and connections.

What is a concept? Here’s some answers given recently: an ally as companionate as a dog (Strathern, 2014); embedded in technical artifacts (Morita, 2014); a creative force whose agency is partly invisible (Jimenez & Willerslev, 2007); a concrete-abstraction that allows for inquiry into radical otherness (de la Cadena, 2015). In the course we explore the companionability of concepts and their capacity to work as experimental openings specifically in relation to the new data sources that have become available to social science researchers as ‘big data’ or ‘the internet of things’. Thinking with Haraway (2003) and Clarke (2005) the course asks about concepts and their entanglements as specific kinds of socio-materiality. What we would also like to bring attention to, are the multiple ways by which concepts accompany us in fieldwork or other modes of data generation and in analysis. Concepts can be lively, they tend to change over time, and they may take us by surprise. Or they may be stale, recalcitrant and reluctant to offer any openings. In any case they are fellow travellers and getting to know them in their difference is worthwhile.

In the workshop, we will work with concepts that we ease to the foreground in working with the texts provided by the participants. We will discuss how concepts partake in empirics; how they feature in analyses, and generally inquire into how they figure as companions. We will collaboratively explore concepts as material-semiotic entities embedded in practices, and ask what it might take to enter into companionship with, say, an algorithm, a prototype, a database, a number, or governance, as concept. In particular, we are interested in events where difficulty is encountered in recognising our companions as concepts.

The discussion of companion concepts may relate to the question of how we extend and stay with the various moments of not-knowing, encountered during fieldwork into our analyses and dissemination, extending possibilities for openness. At the workshop we will discuss techniques to be explicit about commitments, how to carry them along in our fieldwork, and take care with them in writing. The workshop will explicitly work to complicate usage of concepts in storytelling and analytic writing that assume we know what concepts are and how they relate and make us relate to our ethnographic material. At the end of the course participants will have formed different relations to the main concepts they use in their projects. And have learned to be differently affected by concepts in future research.

Read more and sign up for the course no later than 15 March here.