How can we close the gap between reality and theory? How can we explain a reality that is fluent and that is always changing when the theoretical constructions we use for it are going slower than the world outside? Those questions were proposed by Hugo Zemelman (2012) in a paper about epistemic thinking.
According to Zemelman, we should avoid using a predicative discourse that it is also attributive of property, —it means full of contents— for approaching reality. In other words, this is a theoretical discourse, a model of thinking that is using either old or outdated words for referring to novelties. For illustrating this point, the author presented some examples of a set of theoretical concepts: “Occident”; “indigenous person”; “white person”; “race”.
Epistemic thinking, on the other hand, is a kind of way of approaching the reality that doesn’t have any content. It means that instead of trying to interpret what is outside, through the usage of pre-prepared concepts, one should be placed in the circumstances. For being more precise, the core of the epistemic thinking is paying attention to the question rather than the predicate.
In this way, Zemelman is proposing us that instead of always naming things one should ask how many names those things could have. This proposal is a provocation, an invitation to abandon the rigid theoretical way of thinking that aim to explain the world through the usage of a homogeneous set of concepts for going instead to “particular.”
So, what is next? How can we approach a “particular case” using a model of thinking like this one? How can we get some stability in our research, and being able to construct a delimited particular case, whether both our study object and the way for approaching it are unstable and relative? The short answer is that we do not need more stability than the one that an always being transformed plasmatic reality can give us.
That stability is, in fact, a temporal stabilization of something, a set of mobile structures that are continuously changing. So, more than being a practical inconvenience, epistemic thinking is a well accurate methodological possibility for following and describing those kinds of temporal formations without the necessity of solidifying them.
For example, if I am carrying out a piece of research about the transformations of Times Square and my results are that this plaza now is, in fact, a new place due to the “gentrification” process that after the 90s occurred, I am not doing anything new. Even, a kind of research like that is not even neccesary. What is the point of moving the same theoretical concepts along different geographies?
Basically, we are not presenting anything, we are just copying and pasting theoretical concepts, that instead of clarifying the reality, are hiding it. As an anticipated conclusion, if we want to understand how a specific urban transformation occurs, we should be able to go into that transformation, frame and decompose it, following the trajectories of the elements participating inside of it and, finally, translating and representing the whole process.
The substantial difference between those two ways of approaching, in this case, Times Square is that in the first scenario we are using, in a non-reflexive way, preset-generic concepts like if we would be preparing a kind of recipe for applying in any “urban case,” without taking care about their specificities.
The self-called Urban critical studies are an example of that first way of thinking. They are using a theoretical model for situating almost every situation happening in our current reality into a prefabricated framework such as capitalism, or in the case of the example above, gentrification.
The result of using this way of thinking is hiding and invalidating the complexity and multiplicity of that communal life we call as “the society.” A theoretical way of thinking will always take what is happening outside for proving its point of view and reinforcing its arguments.
Meanwhile, the second way of thinking is going to the outside for learning from the reality and constructing its own set of concepts based on a collective and mutual process of communication between the researcher and the world that is there. In an epistemic way of thinking, the reality, that group of things happening before our intervention, is not employed for reinforcing our theories basically because we are not pre-elaborating anything for going to the field.
Using an epistemic method for working is traveling light without the necessity of carrying out unnecessary solidified previous theoretical discussions that could distract us, shifting our gaze away from describing and decomposing the life outside.
If you are not familiarized to the before mentioned method for constructing techno-scientific controversies (Latour 1987, 2005; Venturini 2010) you may think that “describing,” as our principal task in radical ethnography, is a total exaggeration as a well pretty näive attitude. But do not worry about that, you are not the first one who think in that way about the act of describing.
Tim Ingold already wrote about it in his well-known paper “Anthropology is not ethnography” (2006) and then later again in “knowing from inside: reconfiguring the relationships between anthropology and ethnography” (2015). According to this author, ethnography is just a descriptive activity due to its nature is learning about the object. Meanwhile, anthropology is a transformative one because its position is studying with the object.
My position is that doing ethnography we can also learn with and about the object at the same time. This work is proof of that. But let’s continue focusing on the “descriptive work” as the core of radical ethnography. And for doing that, let’s go some paragraphs back, to the one where I presented my anticipated conclusion. It is precisely there where I want to draw your attention right now.
So far we have been talking about the potential of using an epistemic knowledge for approaching the reality through the construction of particular cases. Those constructions, as we said before, do not have any preset concepts, their shapes are plasmatic, and their nature is completelly unstable.
The way I consider the best for approaching that collective world is through the elaboration of descriptions of the processes of momentary stabilization of groups of elements The method I consider the best for approaching that collective world is through the construction of long descriptions about the stabilization of temporary groups that are constructing new sorts of associativity and transforming, in that way, th urban structure. Those descriptions are composed of five moments that should be present if we want to understand how a specific urban transformation occurs.
(So, we should be able to) (1) go into that transformation, (2) frame and (3) decompose it, following the trajectories of the elements participating inside of it and, finally, (4) translating and (5) representing the whole process. As we can see, describing is much more complex than taking a look at the outside and writing what I am seeing there.