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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
Research heuristic: what device is it

Research heuristic: what device is it

The researcher’s kitbag should include several analytical heuristics you can apply to your case. These are not ready made pop up explanations. They are designed to aid thinking about why the social world looks and operates the way it does. This one is a version of Becker’s (1998) machine trick: ‘Design the machine that will produce the result your analysis indicates occurs routinely in the situation you have studied.’ It means working out what problem the institution, policy, device or system you are working with is solving. That is different from what it purports to be solving or what its designers intend.

Examples from technology design are good ones to start with as they embed solutions that might not always be articulated but are there. The Segway is a two wheeled self balancing electric personal mover. It began to be sold in 2001. It was notorious for the buildup to the launch during which fevered speculation about what it was and the impact it would have ran rampant. Without knowing exactly what it was people mused it would revolutionise urban life. The Segway itself was expensive and did not appear to solve any problem people actually had. It did not fit into any transport category or replace any existing transport device with something better. It was illegal and extremely anti social to use on pavements. It was slow and off putting to use in traffic.

We can apply the above trick to understanding it by defining the problem it actually addressed which was: very affluent urban dwellers walk too much. It would be better if they did not walk short distances and used this device instead. That was not a problem needing solved. We can then infer other effects of the Segway which would have come into being if it had taken off. We could call this the Uber stage. Uber sought like many other tech platforms to change transport regulations throughout the world in its favour. If Segway had followed the Uber path it would have spent vast amounts lobbying governments to allow its use in pavements, provide infrastructure to support it, and encouraged users to use it regardless of local rules. Then we would have a class of urban pavement users zipping along on their devices. Walking would become a highly stratified practice of those who cannot afford, use or refuse a Segway type device crammed into special lanes on the pavement while Segway users zipped past.

Some answers to the Becker question might sound a bit sarcastic, for example: the problem prisons solve is that criminals need places to pass on skills and drug dealers need a captive market. That’s just one of the answers though. There are  many other problems prisons are solving which highlight the absence of effective institutions to do their job such as warehousing people with severe mental health and substance use problems. That should give us a few clues to the kinds of problems social institutions they could be solving, those they should be solving and those they are solving. My surmise is that it is effective to examine each institution or social phenomena as if it were a device, bringing us back to the machine trick. In my understanding the device is more like an assemblage in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense, a skein of elements which are not necessarily logically coherent nor a unified whole, but which have powerful effects in the world. A drug trafficking network is a device in this sense, assembled from smartphones, dead drops, mules’ bodies, tourist towns and cheap airfares.

Summary of Becker’s tricks by Kathy Roulston:

Becker, Howard S. Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while you’re doing it. University of Chicago press, 2008.


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