Incubations: Inventing Preventive Assemblages

Michael Guggenheim, Bernd Kräftner, Judith Kröll

In remembrance of Stefan Beck

Incubations: A Methods Primer

This chapter introduces, in a programmatic form, our own take on inventing the social. Incubations take off from current attempts in the social sciences to create ‘inventive methods’ (Lury and Wakeford 2011), speculative methods (Wilkie et al. 2016) and design experiments (Binder et al. 2015), or to expand the methods and devices of social science beyond texts (Becker 2007). But incubations are not so much a specific method as an attempt to reorient the basic assumptions of social science towards a strong notion of inventing the social. What follows is programmatic account followed up by one example. But this account is also skewed, as it rationalises a messy process. Rather than create a blueprint, a recipe or a toolbox, we began with a variety of projects (Guggenheim et al. 2006; Kräftner and Xperiment! 2005; Kräftner et al. 2010; Guggenheim et al. 2016; Guggenheim 2011) that finally prompted us to think about what holds these projects together. Incubations, as should become obvious, are not rule-bound practices, but attempts to invent the social under specific circumstances. The following account merely suggests, based on experience, what to pay attention to when embarking on your own incubation.

To begin with, here is a definition: An incubation is a socio-technical device that uses situational, social and time-based pressure to invent the social and represent it with a wide variety of media. This idea draws conceptually on three historical meanings of incubation that appear to be unrelated to the problems of social research, yet which contribute in important ways to our definition of incubation as an approach to inventing the social. First, in Classical antiquity, an incubation is a healing process that is attempted when usual forms of healing do not work (Meier 1949). A patient is brought to a temple and sleeps there, where she experiences dreams. If she has the ‘right’ dream, she is healed. From this first meaning, we can learn two things: incubations are experimental forms that replace other, more standard forms of practice. More specifically, they experimentalise lay-expert co-operation: Rather than an expert applying external knowledge and medication to the lay person, in an incubation the expert helps the lay person to have new kinds of experiences.

Second, an incubator is a pressure cooker, a device invented in the laboratory of Robert Boyle by his assistant Denis Papin (Papin 1681). The pressure cooker uses pressure to fuse ingredients in novel ways. It speeds up chemical processes and softens ingredients. From this second meaning we can learn that incubations bring actors and actants together, applying to them a kind of pressure that reconnects them in novel ways. Incubations re-order social situations by intervening in them.

Third, the term ‘incubator’ became applied, around 1880, to a new device that creates a safe environment for premature babies. These early incubators, however, being made from non-transparent materials, created a barrier between mother and child that in some cases led mothers to stop caring about their babies. Pierre Constant Budin thus invented a version made from glass, which preserved the delicate atmosphere needed for the care of the infant without creating an opaque barrier between mother and child (Baker 2000: 323). The incubator thus became a device that shielded a precious being from the world, while at the same time allowing primary care. Later, incubators became complex and expensive technical devices with ventilation and heating. To finance them, they were exhibited, which in time led to ubiquitous incubator shows at trade fairs, zoos, fairgrounds such as Coney Island, and other unlikely places (Silverman 1979). For our purposes then, an incubator is also, based on this third definition, a device for carefully creating unusual and unlikely consumption contexts for delicate objects of social scientific knowledge.1

From this description it also follows what an incubation is not. Firstly, an incubation cannot, and should not, be defined in terms of the media it uses (such as ‘documentary photography’, ‘art installation’ or ‘ethnography’). An incubation can be any of these, but incubations do not start with such media in mind. Secondly, an incubation is not an ‘intervention’, as opposed to a scientific research project or an art project. An incubation is all of these, and can result in any of them, but at its heart it cannot be reduced to any of them exclusively. Third, an incubation is not a project in which artists and social scientists collaborate in an inter- or trans-disciplinary way in the sense that social scientists do science and artists do art and then these two things are combined. An incubation includes strategies, elements, material and epistemic practices from both of these fields, but it does not neatly separate them into art and social science. To start with separate media, technologies, professions, spheres and skills, and to ponder how these can be brought together, is the opposite of the logic of an incubation. It is an artefact of organisational specialisation, but to begin with an incubation this specialisation has to be resolved first, rather than becoming the problem of the project itself. An incubation needs to draw on whatever technologies, logics and skills seem necessary, rather than being defined by them from the outset.

We begin the article by explaining how incubations are a particular form of inventing the social. We then discuss a particular project, ‘Straight from the Heart: Prevention Indices and Divinations of Researchers’ with regard to the three main characteristics of incubations given above: the creation of an experimental situation, the application of pressure and the design of a careful presentation context.

Incubations as Inventing the Social

Before we present our example, it will be helpful to clarify how incubations are a form of inventing the social. The phrase ‘inventing the social’ can be understood in multiple ways. First, by inventing the social we can understand what Hans Joas has termed ‘the creativity of action’ (Joas 1996). Such a notion of inventing the social refers to a sociological conception of agency, specified in different ways in the writings of classical social theorists influenced by pragmatism, such as G. H. Mead, Alfred Schütz, Herbert Blumer, Berger and Luckmann, and Harold Garfinkel, which foregrounds the creativity, contingency, inventiveness and production of novel forms of sociality in all forms of action. This first view of inventing the social opposes structuralist and rationalist accounts of action by stressing that even in the most humble interactions, novel forms of the social constantly emerge, and that the role of the social scientist is to observe how this emergence takes place.

We can adopt this view for the practice of social science. If any kind of interaction invents the social, then any practice of a social scientist invents the social too. This is the second version of inventing the social. As Law and Urry put it, ‘theories and methods are protocols for modes of questioning or interacting which also produce realities’ (Law & Urry 2004: 395). Thus every text on a social practice not only describes it, but also adds a new version of it to the world. Methods are inherently inventive (Lury & Wakeford 2011).

A third version of inventing the social adds what Ian Hacking has called ‘looping effects’ to the picture (Hacking 1995). Re-descriptions of the social offer actors new ways of understanding themselves, and produce new forms of action by adapting or resisting these descriptions. Take as an example the way that the term ‘performativity’ has been used in social studies of finance (MacKenzie & Millo 2003). Economists, when they describe the world as being run by efficient markets, do not merely describe this world, but equip the actors with concepts and devices that then perform the very things the economists purport to describe. This kind of argument is primarily directed against a traditional sociological critique of economics which claims that economists do not adequately describe social realities. In a different theoretical register, Pierre Bourdieu has observed very similar things in the case of opinion surveys. Bourdieu demonstrates that questionnaires make people express ‘opinions’ on topics they would not have opinions about were they not participating in a survey (Bourdieu 1984:.412 ff.; Law 2009). According to this view, efficient markets and opinion surveys do perform what they do, but this is at least in part because social scientists equip actors with the means of enacting these things. Inventing the social would then mean that social scientists equip the world with the means to create new worlds.

These three versions are descriptive and do not presume that the actors they refer to actively seek to invent the social. The invention of the social is here a by-product of ordinary or social scientific actions. In particular, in the case of performativity, it is an important part of the analysis that it claims to reveal the performative elements of what economists or survey researchers conceive of as description. All these three versions, then, describe features of (particular kinds) of actions, not differences between kinds of actions. They ignore the possibility of actions or forms of social science that do not invent the social.2 All three notions are part of a theoretical debate about the concept of action or what it means to do social science, rather than a debate about different kinds of actions or social science.

A fourth form of inventing the social can be seen in lay practices that experimentalise the social in formats that are similar to social science, in ‘experiments in living’ (Marres 2012). This fourth form, it could be argued, is a systematic transport of the breaching experiment (Garfinkel 1967) into practices of the self. It is a form of creating the social by lay people through the means of effecting systematic breaches and changes in their own conditions of living (also see Whatmore 2009). It is here that incubation as ‘inventing the social’ comes into its own, where it specifies a particular practice rather than a re-description of generic practices.

But such experimentalisations of the social have rarely been taken up by social scientists, because to do so would be to break with a number of assumptions about how to conduct social science. To understand this break, it will help to look at some typical descriptions of such experimentalisations. For example, Law and Urry, in the article cited above, argue for a move from re-describing social research to re-designing it: ‘If social investigation makes worlds, then it can, in some measure, think about the worlds it wants to help to make’ (Law & Urry 2004: 391). For Law and Urry, what follows are different assumptions about what we could call the form of the world. For them, social worlds should be invented as ‘multiple’ and ‘complex’ (Law & Urry 2004: 397–404).

Yet multiplicity (Mol 2003) and complexity (Law & Mol 2002) have been used in this research tradition primarily as descriptions. If we are to understand them as inventionist terms, we can perhaps best conceptualise them as differing from the tradition of action research (Fals Borda 2001). In most action research, the world is imagined not as multiple and complex, but as shot through with power relations, and the goal of the researcher is not so much to allow other forms of complexity and multiplicities, but to change the world in ways that are conceived of as more just by the social scientists. To understand multiplicity and complexity as elements of a form of inventing the social implies that any attempt to invent the social aims at complicating things and opening up possible actions for any participant, rather than closing them down.

For Law and Urry, the problem of complexity and multiplicity is interwoven with the different forms that social science takes. When they write that they want to ‘imagine … fluid and decentred modes for knowing the world allegorically, indirectly, perhaps pictorially, sensuously, poetically, a social science of partial connections’ (Law & Urry 2004: 400), these suggestions echo the criteria for what Luciana Parisi calls ‘speculative methods’ (Parisi 2012). For Parisi, a speculative method ‘demands of thought to become felt, fact to become potential, imagination to supersede observation, object to affect method, method to become transformative of the object’ (Parisi 2012: 241). Such a method ‘may contribute to push social research towards the designing of unknown objects by exposing their particular perspectives about the importance of an event’ (Parisi 2012: 242).

In their different ways, these accounts of social science converge in a move from purely textual accounts of the social, to different pictorial, sensual and objectual accounts of inventing the social. This expansion of the media of social science is surely welcome (see Guggenheim 2015). The traditional scepticism within social science against other than textual media is unfounded, and given the practice of the natural sciences, rather hinders than enables better translations of the world. Elsewhere we have explained that social scientists often assume a media determinism for visual media. As expressed in the statements above, they believe that visual representations are in themselves more or less objective, or more or less capable of inventing the social (Guggenheim 2015).

But we suggest reading this shift to the visual, objectual and so on as indicative of an underlying problem: If ‘theories and methods are protocols for modes of questioning or interacting which also produce realities’, as Law and Urry claim in the quote above, then the focus of research shifts from an end result to the practice of doing it. Instead of focusing on the research articles as accounts of what has been done during a research project, incubations as a particular kind of inventing the social imply a focus on the ‘modes of questioning or interacting which produces realities’.

This is where the three characteristics of incubations mentioned in the introduction become relevant. To question and interact in order to produce realities suggests first of all suitable setups; second, it suggests some form of pressure to soften established situations; and third, it suggests carefully designed products in adequate consumption contexts.

In our view, such a shift implies moving away from taking methods as pre-existing tools that can be used for all kinds of realities. It certainly asks us to refrain from identifying a researcher with particular theories and methods. To say, ‘I am an ethnomethodologist’ or ‘I do ANT’ would imply a strange way of inventing the social. Rather than questioning and interacting, to identify with a theory or method in such a way would assume a machinic idea of theories and methods. Moreover, such an idea would make theories and methods part of the identities of researchers. It would assume a world with which a researcher always interacts in the same way. This is highly unlikely to invent relevant forms of the social, if we imagine the social world to be complex and multiple.

Instead, an incubation asks us to understand research problems as requiring adequate ways to question and interact with them. Rather than beginning with a particular method, or particular media, an incubation begins with a problem, and the call to question and interact with it in ways such that the social is invented in novel and adequate ways.

The reason why incubations often move away from purely textual forms of research can be found in the three dimensions of incubations given above.

In many cases, the search for adequate experimental situations and adequate forms of pressure and consumption contexts does lead away from purely textual modes of doing research, but not for the sake of non-textual approaches as such, but because purely textual approaches are often inadequate to incubate a given problem. As can be seen from the example that follows, one main problem here is that incubation often requires working together and interacting with a multiplicity of actors. For many of these actors, what is a normal mode of data production and presentation for a social scientist is a highly unusual way to interact with the world. Such a radically asymmetric protocol for inventing the social is, however, rather unlikely to work. The reason why scholars such as Law and Urry ask for the visual and the poetic lies probably here: it aims for a format in which the asymmetry between the production of social science and other actors is flattened.

This, however, should not be read – as it far too often is in defences of visual sociology (see for example Leavy 2008: 344) – as an attempt at popularising social science with other media. The logic behind such ideas of popularisation suggests that images are easier to understand than texts. Social scientists do their difficult job, and once they have finished, they use images to make it easier for lay audiences to understand it. This, however, leaves the asymmetries between different media and between social scientists and their audiences intact, and merely serves to dumb down social science.

In contrast, incubations aim to invent the social by challenging the practices of social science as much as those of the other actors involved in a particular incubation. An incubation is not based on the fiction that the power differentials between researcher and researched can easily be flattened. Rather, it takes the power differentials seriously by creating challenges for the researcher and the researched. By denying the idea that the researcher can simply enter a situation with theories and methods that she masters, symmetry is achieved by loosening the researcher’s grip on what she thinks she knows what to do, and how to do it. This is why the organisation founded by two of the present authors (BK and JK) is called ‘Research Centre for Shared Incompetence’. How is it possible, then, to invent the social?

Create an Experimental Setup

Incubation in antiquity was an experimental setup that was only used once other methods had failed. It was a form of hope in experimental methods: ‘Therapeutic optimism is unlimited and never punished’ remarks Meier in his standard book on incubations in antiquity (Meier 1949: 59). The patient sleeps on the steps of the temple and dreams. What matters is the right dream, and the right dream cannot be planned for. Whether it was the right dream is only known after the fact, when the patient wakes up. Incubations cannot be repeated, planned or standardised. In incubations the expert does not so much apply her superior knowledge, but rather accompanies a lay person on an experimental path. The same is true for incubations in social science.

This means that great care is needed in deciding where and how incubations in social science should be housed. Social science departments may not be the most suitable places to do so. The organisational background that we have found to be the most enabling for our project work is a mixture of direct funding for specific projects, combined with either specialised departments devoted to non-disciplinary research, or a (loose) attachment to STS, sociology or anthropology departments. Since funding explicitly for incubations does not exist, we depend on funding possibilities that at least encourage projects at the border of social science and the arts.

Incubations need materials, some of them costly, others simply unusual at social science departments. Working with materials requires machines and studios (Farias & Wilkie 2015). The offices and seminar rooms in social science departments are often not very convenient for the multiple affordances of an incubation. Work with humans necessitates spaces that are comfortable and that do not implicitly replicate the affect and organisational structure of offices. Universities are also not strictly suitable for incubations, because they tend to formalise acceptable forms of research, both by specifying discipline-specific standards and by increasingly restricting ethical review procedures, which are formulated according a very particular kind of research that depends, for example, on anonymisation (Clark 2012).

Straight from the Heart: Prevention Indices and Divinations of Researchers (2008)

The project on which we report had its beginnings in unusual circumstances. As a group, we already had extensive experience of conducting incubations. Our collaboration began three years previously when we were directors of the exhibitions ‘die wahr/falsch inc.’, a ten-module exhibition in Vienna (Guggenheim et al. 2006). Already for that collaboration we began working in a mode in which there was no clear-cut division of labour, and in which all the team members carried out the conceptual and practical work together. For that exhibition, BK and MG had already collaborated with the late Stefan Beck at the Institute for European Anthropology at Humboldt University Berlin for a module titled ‘Who With Whom. Heredity in Action’ on Thalassemia in Cyprus.

The beginning of ‘Straight from the Heart’ lay in another project of Stefan Beck and his research group, entitled ‘Preventive Selves – Interdisciplinary Investigations into an Emergent Form of Life’. This was a collaboration with the department for general practitioners at the Charité (the university hospital). ‘Preventive Selves’ sought to understand why people, although they are aware of various truths about how to prevent cardiovascular diseases (such as the fact that unhealthy eating habits or smoking increases the risk) do not adhere to this knowledge. They researched the lived realities of particular groups at risk (migrants) (Niewöhner et al. 2011), but also the interaction between GPs and patients in consulting sessions (Heintze et al. 2010). The project members themselves identified its key shortcoming: observing and interviewing ‘preventive selves’ did not really give a full picture of these selves.

The project leaders asked us whether we could contribute to the project by exploring new methods of thinking about what they called ‘preventive assemblages’ (Niewöhner et al. 2011). From the very start, we decided not to focus again on patients and their role in the assemblage, as we felt that their role was already overdetermined by the research of the project itself, as well as by the many other research projects that either sought to improve prevention or were critical of the governmental logics of state-led prevention projects. Instead, we decided that we would turn the logic of experts and patients around and create preventive assemblages with the project members themselves. We would intervene in the making of preventive assemblages at the level of those who develop these concepts, which includes ourselves.

How would it be possible for us to collaborate with anthropologists and doctors to think about and invent professional preventive selves, rather than produce prevention as a solution to which the population should adhere? What could be a suitable setup for doing so? Our basic idea was to build a laboratory that would allow us to explore a number of methods to produce various versions of preventive selves.

First we needed to create an organisational setting that would allow us to operate such methods. We knew from the beginning that, for practical reasons, our laboratory would best be set up at the respective institutes. We needed to create a space not within the control of these institutes – a liminal space that would clearly indicate that this was not part of the ongoing practices of these departments. In the case of the Department of European Anthropology, we could use a corridor that connected two parts of the department. It had a balcony that was often used by smokers. It also had a sink. It was neither an office nor a classroom, and it contained some ragged furniture that we could make use of. On the same floor as the Department of Medicine was a former dental clinic, now abandoned. We set up our laboratory there, in a bright, empty, tiled space (Fig. 3.1).

A room does not determine an organisational environment. Research environments are not only spatially, but also organisationally and practically tightly controlled through disciplinary practices, organisational rules and ethical reviews, and these prescribe what kinds of the social can be invented. Our project took place in a complex organisational space: our research participants were also our research funders, and they owned the spaces in which our experiments took place. At the same time, the research project did not need to undergo ethical review, as, at least at that time, sociological and anthropological research in Germany did not need to undergo ethical review, and also the project took place below the radar of any overseeing body. But we were crucially aware of the fact that the project took part within an organisational environment in which ethical issues are seen as crucial, and further, in which ethical and methodological standards are very different for the two groups.

The logic of ethical review aims at preventing too much invention of the social. Ethical review is by its very nature conservative. It is geared towards preserving the social world as it is. It assumes that research participants have a right not to be bothered by researchers and that researchers need to guarantee demonstrable benefits to society if they want to bother other people. Particularly in the social sciences researchers are assigned the position of documenting the ethical review without being able to influence, control or even change social situations.

Fig. 3.1 The prevention laboratory at the Department of General Practice, Charité, Humboldt University (photo: Bernd Kräftner)

But incubations work against this logic by aiming to provoke, change, influence and ultimately invent new forms of the social. The methods used in ‘Straight From the Heart’ could potentially be challenging to the research participants, who were themselves researchers. We thought that we would need to establish a space that would set out its own rules, but at the same time make the research participants aware of this unusual situation and create the possibility of discussing it with them. To accomplish this, we developed an informed consent sheet that notified participants of their rights to object and disagree with the research altogether, to provide alternatives to it, to stop us from continuing, to intervene in the procedures, and to obtain the material produced.

This model for informed consent became a device for creating a research environment of our own definition, rather than simply copying an existing logic of negotiating the relationship between researcher and researched. The model functions by openly contesting existing definitions of informed consent, but it also invites the test persons to contest our notion of informed consent.

Our project also highlighted a crucial problem with the consent forms themselves: even when they are considered as a basis for discussion, rather than simply a form that is signed, they focus on abstract options of action to be taken in particular situations that are yet unknown to the participants. It is only in, and more often after exposure to particular situations that research participants can form an opinion, an emotion or a (dis)agreement. This is precisely what happened. No participant challenged our review form, and signed it without further ado, some of them slightly bemused at the wording that gave them more power than other forms. Yet during the sessions, the participants did not exercise this power to challenge what we did. They would be interested in our research, they would ask us about particular steps, but no one considered different courses of action. Some of them would be rather confused, and even felt misled afterwards.

The experimental space was not only set by discursive means, but at the very beginning of each session was enacted by two events. First, when entering the space, we presented the participants with a variety of things they could consume (Fig. 3.2).

We offered them ostensibly healthy food such as apples, but also ostensibly unhealthy foods such as cheap cakes and chocolate. We also offered them cigarettes, wine and schnapps. The gesture of offering such a variety of consumables was on the surface a gesture of hospitality. But it also gestured at the organisational space in which this was taking place. Smoking in the buildings of the university is forbidden, as is drinking alcohol at work. As our experiments took place immediately before, during, or after the participants’ work, these were also offers to break written and unwritten codes of the organisation. When asked, we explicitly claimed to take responsibility for breaking these rules, yet obviously, we could not guarantee what would happen. Our gesture of hospitality was at the same time an invitation to a performative negotiation of the nexus of the logics of prevention, a challenge to how these are built into the rules of workspaces and an exploration of the desire of groups and individuals to transgress these rules. Smokers happily accepted our offers to smoke, and some drank wine.

At the same time, our offers of food created a liminal space in the very organisations in which the experiments were conducted, and produced data on how to negotiate such a space. On a basic level it gave us data about how many people consumed which kinds of goods. On a more sophisticated level, it gave us recordings of conversations about how the research participants created and negotiated this space.

Second, after discussing informed consent, the next step was to ask the participants whether we could take a drop of blood from them (Fig. 3.3).

Fig. 3.2 Consumption offers at the Department of European Anthropology, Humboldt University (photo: Bernd Kräftner)

Fig. 3.3 Kit for blood taking (photo: Bernd Kräftner)

We made it clear that there was no medical justification for this procedure (we used the blood later as a central element of the posters for the exhibition: see the discussion in section 4 below). The blood-taking became a prompt to create a social situation in which the relationship between researcher and researched was put to test (and which would result in a visible product of this test: a drop of blood). This opened up the issue of why people allow their bodily integrity to be challenged, and for what reasons such a transgression can occur.

We offered that we would take the blood, or that they could do it themselves (many of the participants were doctors, and thus used to doing it). We would also point out that the person who would take the blood, Bernd Kräftner, was originally a trained doctor, and thus technically allowed to do so, yet that he had not practiced for more than twenty years. Rather than putting the blood away in a capillary tube, we would drop it onto a piece of paper. Thus the blood did not disappear, but remained visible for the participants.

Asking for a drop of blood had a similar effect to offering food. It questioned and created a space that is usually taken for granted in research. It pointed to the fact that breaking boundaries of the skin and taking bodily fluid is a procedure we are used to under specific conditions. Giving a non-medical justification opened a space to discuss the logics of violating bodily boundaries. At the same time, the offer that they do it themselves and the explanation of our own (lack of) qualifications to do it, questioned the expert-lay divide ingrained in research practices. The offer, after all, was not merely a choice, but also opened up the unspoken assumption that researchers are better qualified to do what they do than their research subjects. Our offer explicitly acknowledged that at least the doctors among the participants were probably better qualified to do it than we were.

Applying Pressure: New Forms of Provocative Containment

The other two characteristics of an incubation both refer to the uses of controlled environments. The first, the pressure cooker, is historically a precedent of the second, the baby incubator. Both are spaces that control atmospheres (also see Calvillo, this volume). But while the baby incubator tries to care for particularly vulnerable beings, the pressure cooker transforms and softens objects.

As John Evelyn reported at the first demonstration of a pressure cooker by Denis Papin at the Royal Society in 1682, it is a procedure ‘by which the hardest bones of beef itself, and mutton, were made as soft as cheese’ (Evelyn 2009: 393). Such a softening of the materials is exactly what is intended in a research incubation. Hardened positions, worldviews and bodily practices stabilised by habitus are softened and opened up to collective transformation.

Incubations do not produce pressure on the participants because we oppose their views, even if they may be politically opposed to ours. For an incubation to work, it needs to apply pressure to all of those involved, including the incubators, to produce new situations and new solutions to commonly perceived problems.

A common version of pressure in incubations resembles what Lezaun, Muniesa and Vikkelso call ‘provocative containment’, a term they use to describe the experiments in social psychology of Lewin, Moreno and Milgram. Provocative containment is the idea that researchers can create a space in which they ‘choreograph situations of induced spontaneity’ (Lezaun et al. 2013: 279; also see Brown 2012). While Lezaun et al. situate ‘provocative containment’ as a research practice in a specific epoch, and see its remnants in artistic, therapeutic and managerial practices, incubations reinvent it as social research, but with a twist.

What distinguishes the pressure of incubations from those earlier experiments is that the latter aim to solve social problems, as defined in social psychology, while the former try to open up and change how we look at certain issues. While the social psychologists usually ‘realised’ something they knew and intended, but which did not exist in its pure form outside the laboratory (democracy, authority etc.) (Lezaun et al. 2013: 289), incubations instead aim to explore an issue and create new worlds. In the words of Vinciane Despret, it is a matter of ‘genesis’, ‘of raising more interesting questions that enable more articulated answers, and therefore more articulated identities’ (Despret 2004: 125).

What emerges in the incubation is not simply ‘data’ that we then use to test a hypothesis, but rather, the ‘choreography’ or performance is a central outcome itself, a pressure-induced invention of the social. For this reason, it is part and parcel of the incubation to be open for interruption and interrogation by the participants before, during and after. Also, the props and the control exercised over the participants have no hidden meaning or plot. There may be surprise, in the sense that the incubators know what is coming next while the participants do not, but nothing is hidden from their view.

The laboratory for testing ideas of prevention implied pressure of this kind from the beginning. The set-up was explicitly informed by the organisational logics of provocative containments. It was an artificial space, governed by an artificial logic that had no equivalence in the world outside our experiment. It was a laboratory space in the narrow sense of the word: it was a controlled space that aimed for ‘placeless’ and ‘inconsequential’ intervention (Guggenheim 2012). The laboratory did not aim to produce a knowledge that is specific to a time or place, or that would change the world outside the laboratory. Rather, we sought to produce a knowledge that could only be produced by the specific laboratory. As a pressure-inducing mechanism the laboratory was specifically targeted to what we assumed to be a research problem: that doctors and anthropologists, precisely because they work on the topic of prevention, are very difficult research participants when it comes to their own ideas and behaviours of prevention. Their habitus – as is ours, as incubators – is geared towards turning questions regarding their own ideas and lives towards ‘problems’, that are considered to be off-topic, too personal, too complex and irrelevant to explore (see the ‘unclassifiable professor’ in Bourdieu 1984: 418).

Pressure induced in the laboratory has two sources. First, the strange organisational space, which explicitly suspends normal interaction protocols, as outlined in the previous section. Second, more specifically, pressure is induced by prompts for the research participants to do certain tasks, such as the offer of food, or the request for a drop of blood. In the latter example it is also obvious that the pressure induced does not only affect the research participants but also us: the task is a task that mediates the relationship between the researcher and researched. Other than in the cases of provocative containment, incubators do not control the situation behind the backs of the research participants. Instead, we create and open up a situation that has to be negotiated by us and them together. The researchers are not observers, and neither are they puppet-masters that create a spectacle, but they are implicated in the negotiation of the social.

Other such tasks consisted, for example, in an adapted version of SEIQoL, an established test for assessing the quality of life (Hickey et al. 1996). In SEIQoL, a participant freely names five elements central to her life (such as, for example, family, work, playing volleyball, going to the pub, attending the opera), and rates these relative to each other with the help of a five-segment colour wheel. The advantage of this method with regard to other quality of life measurements is that the results are quantifiable and comparable, yet are based on individual choices for those elements of life, rather than on predefined ones. For the participants, this was a well-known and unsurprising device. But then we added a surprise element. After they had completed the task, we asked them to pair a soft-toy animal to each of their elements and explain the selection (Fig. 3.4).

Fig. 3.4 SEIQoL with soft toys (photo: Bernd Kräftner)

Further, the participants were asked to answer a number of questions regarding their ideas about prevention, and specifically about the implied futures of prevention, culminating in the question ‘When you have grown older, will you have thought enough about whether you did enough to live longer?’3 Such questions are not usual in surveys, because they do not assume that the respondents will have an opinion about what is asked. Even though the participants deal professionally with the subject-matter of the questions, it seems likely that the questions will actually instigate new thoughts because of their complexity. But these questions are also atypical of expert interviews, because they address, in the modus of prevention, the future of the experts’ bodies themselves, and not their views about the world. They ask the respondent to transport herself into the future, to invent a situation in which she thinks back on her own life and answer in the present about this future situation. They help the respondent to invent her own future.

Pressure in an incubation is theatrical, similar to the examples of Lezaun et al. (2013). It is a prompt to act in new ways. But it is also different, because it is not about staging unwitting participants, but about making them reflect on and explore their relation to the world.

Creating Careful Consumption Contexts for Delicate Objects

The third incubator, the baby incubator, was developed as a very unusual technical object. It was first and foremost an incredibly complex technical step to create an atmosphere for babies. But the design of the incubator also had to mediate between the needs of mothers and doctors. Incubators had to allow two groups to care for babies: mothers, and experts such as doctors and nurses. The invention of glass incubators allowed the needs of these two main groups to be calibrated: it allowed the experts to control the environment, while at the same time it allowed communication by mothers with their infants. Incubators, then, are devices that balance and mediate between closeness and distance, between impermeable boundaries and bodily closeness, between sight and touch, between professionals and lay users. In a later phase, this mediation included a third element, namely audiences that did not have an obvious connection to the babies. The reasons were historically specific: to finance the expensive technology, some doctors decided to show them to the general public at a cost. This was so successful that soon there were incubator shows in zoos, on Coney Island and in other such places.

Similarly, incubations in social science need to balance and mediate between the researchers, the research participants and wider audiences. The balance is similar to that of a baby incubator. What is the right distance between the researchers, the research participants and other audiences? What are adequate means to create such a balance? How can the delicate interactions during the research process be preserved and made public?

A particular problem of incubations is that the route of translations from the world to the research result is not fixed. The research article is but one among many options in which an incubation can be presented to the public. As incubations are very often local and situational inventions, specific for particular constituencies and audiences, they very often profit from installations, performances, and exhibitions and other place-specific presentation forms. These allow for different forms of translating the originating research materials into materially inventive forms. If incubations can be said to invent the social, then a central element of these new forms of the social is their adequate translation into materialisations.

When carrying out incubations, we never have a predefined idea of what the end result will be in terms of the media used. Terms such as ‘exhibition’ are merely convenient placeholders for locally specific forms of presentation. They are convenient precisely because ‘exhibitions’ are not media specific, but allow for a suitable combination of drawings, photographs, performances, texts and audio material. The guiding question then is always which presentation format translates the originating material in a way that is both true to the originating research problem and adds the right kind of surprise.

For the project on prevention, we initially intended to stage an exhibition. Given that the exhibition had to take place at the Department of European Anthropology, we were confined to a corridor with two opposing walls and no usable floor-space. To mitigate these space restrictions we decided to create a series of posters. The posters would refer back to scientific posters that often hang on these walls and those of the Department of General Medicine.

The first poster was deliberately designed to resemble one that doctors might present at a conference (Fig. 3.5).

It was planned according to the same rules that govern the design of such posters: it contained a layout that would give an overview of the research question, the methods, and the research participants.

The other sixteen posters were based on two materials gained during the experiment, namely the drops of blood we took at the beginning and the soft toys used in the quality of life tests. We used both of these as backgrounds to contain the other forms of data gathered (Fig. 3.6, Fig. 3.7).

Fig. 3.5 Introductory Poster (image: the authors)

Fig. 3.6 Example poster based on flying animals (image: Bernd Kräftner)

Both posters refer back to ancient forms of prevention and of forecasting, namely those of haruspicy (divination by entrails) and augury (divination by the patterns made by birds in flight) (Cicero 1923). Forecasting the future of our bodies, exhorting ourselves to live longer and better, is now framed in a normative terminology of modern facts. We can analyse this terminology and critique it as a form of governmentality. As an incubation, we chose to transform it and bring it back, so highlighting parallels with earlier ways of dealing with the problem of forecasting bodily futures. We returned to the idea that the future of our bodies can be found in our blood. Yet in our version, this future is not found in a blood test, but in the appearance of blood itself.

Fig. 3.7 Example poster based on blood (image: Bernd Kräftner)

Onto these two kinds of divination we plotted the various kinds of data gathered by our experiments, namely the qualitative answers given to various questionnaires, the outcomes of SEIQoL, and the drawings the participants were asked to do to explain the relationship between them and the medical system. The data then invent the social in yet another way: rather than following established routes of either aggregating data and losing the individual, or focusing on individuals at the expense of aggregation, new social bodies were presented, in which numbers and qualitative data emerged as collective divinations.

Conclusion: When Not to Do Incubations

As with other powerful technologies, there are risks and side effects inherent in the use of incubations. There are also many conditions for which the use of an incubation is at best pointless and at worst dangerous. It may seem from the above that incubations can be used to invent the social anywhere and at any time. But incubations are fraught with problems, and these should not be omitted. Also, inventing the social is not a goal in itself. Invention is not better per se than non-invention. The idea of inventing the social runs the risk of following a modernist logic of celebrating invention for itself.

But apart from the organisational, reputational and practical difficulties, as related throughout this text, there are also a number of occasions when incubations are not very helpful. Incubations are needed when situations appear to be stuck in routines, and when ‘more of the same’ would not help to produce particular outcomes. Here, incubations are the perfect means of translating a situation and coming up with new forms of describing and representing such situations. However, if a phenomenon is new, unknown, or of such a large scale as to require an overview, then an incubation is of little help.

Incubations work best when applied to stable and continuous situations, involving persons who know what they want, and to organisations that function smoothly, but are in danger of becoming stuck in routines. Here, incubations can create new translations and transformations that allow for enlightenment and serendipity. If a situation, an organisation or the persons involved are highly unstable, an incubation is of little help. If we are confronted with a social dispute and one side needs help in the form of arguments (textual, visual or otherwise), an incubation operates as a detour and may merely exacerbate the situation. If a situation is very fraught with internal and unresolved difficulties, unless all participants agree to it, an incubation may similarly make matters worse. Also, an incubation is not a mediation or a form of therapy, and the people doing them are not mediators or arbiters for conflicts. The use of incubations happens at your own risk. But do not be scared of it.


1 Today, business incubators are a conceptual legacy of baby incubators: instead of a machine, these are organisations to stabilise and nurture a fragile object.

2 For example, ethnographers of professions, such as doctors or economists, give professionals the tools to understand themselves as professionals, who then may use these descriptions for their own purposes.

3 The questions are influenced by the famous questionnaire of Max Frisch (Frisch 1974). It contains questions such as ‘Would you prefer to have died, or live on as an animal? Which one?’


Baker, J. P., ‘The Incubator and the Medical Discovery of the Premature Infant’, Journal of Perinatology, 5 (2000), 321–28.

Becker, H. S., Telling About Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Binder, T., E. Brandt, P. Ehn, and J. Halse, ‘Democratic Design Experiments: Between Parliament and Laboratory’, CoDesign, 11.3–4 (2015), 152–65.

Despret, V., ‘The Body We Care for: Figures of Anthropo-Zoo-Genesis’, Body & Society, 10.2–3 (2004), 111–34.

Bourdieu, P., Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, 1984).

Brown, S. D., ‘Experiment: Abstract Experimentalism’ in N. Wakeford & C. Lury, eds, Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 61–75.

Cicero, M. T., De Senectute; De Amicitia; De Divinatione (Cambridge, MA.; London: Harvard University Press, 1923).

Clark, A., ‘Visual Ethics in a Contemporary Landscape’, in S. Pink, ed., Advances in Visual Methodology (London: SAGE, 2012), pp. 17–36.

Evelyn, J., ‘Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn’ (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2009/1850).

Fals Borda, O., ‘Participatory (Action) Research in Social Theory: Origins and Challenges’, in P. Reason & H. Bradbury, eds, Handbook of Action Research. Participative Inquiry and Practice (London: SAGE, 2001), pp. 27–37.

Farias, I. and A. Wilkie, Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies & Displacements (London: Routledge, 2015).

Frisch, M., Sketchbook 1966–1971 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974).

Garfinkel, H., ‘Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities’, in H. Garfinkel, ed., Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 35–75.

Guggenheim, M., ‘Laboratizing and Delaboratizing the World: Changing Sociological Concepts for Places of Knowledge Production’, History of the Human Sciences, 25.1 (2012), 99–108.

——‘The Media of Sociology: Tight or Loose Translations?’ British Journal of Sociology, 67(2012), 345–72.

Guggenheim, M., B. Kräftner, and J. Kröll, ‘Creating Idiotic Speculators: Disaster Cosmopolitics in the Sandbox’, in A. Wilkie, M. Rosengarten and M. Savransky, eds, Speculative Research: The Lure of Possible Futures (London: Routledge, 2016) pp. 145–62.

Guggenheim, M. J. Kröll, B. Kräftner, A. Martos, and F. Oberhuber, eds, Die Wahr/Falsch Inc. Eine Wissenschaftsausstellung in Der Stadt (Wien: Facultas Universitätsverlag, 2006).

Guggenheim, M., ‘The Proof Is In the Pudding. On “Truth to Materials” in STS, Followed by an Attempt to Improve It’, Science Technology and Industry Studies, 7.1(2011), pp. 65–86.

Hacking, I., ‘The Looping Effects of Human Kinds’, in, D. Sperber, D. Premack and A. J. Premack, eds, Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Approach (Wotton-under-Edge: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp.351–83.

Heintze, C., et al., ‘Counseling Overweight in Primary Care: An Analysis of Patient-Physician Encounters’, Patient Education and Counseling, 80.1 (2010), 71–75.

Hickey, A. M., et al., ‘A New Short Form Individual Quality of Life Measure (seiqol-Dw), Application in a Cohort of Individuals with HIV Aids’ BMJ (Clinical research ed.) (1996), 29–33.

Joas, H., The Creativity of Action (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Kräftner, B., and Xperiment!, ‘What Is a Body/a Person? Topography of the Possible’, in B. Latour and P. Weibel, eds, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 906–9.

Kräftner, B., J. Kröll, and I. Warner, ‘The Syndrome We Care for’, in Xperiment!, A. Mol, I. Moser and J. Pols, eds, Care in Practice. On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010), pp. 301–22.

Latour, B., ‘Drawing Things Together’ in M. Lynch and S. Woolgar, eds, Representation in Scientific Practice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 19–68.

Law, J., Seeing Like a Survey, Cultural Sociology, 3.2 (2009), 239–56.

Law, J., and A. Mol, eds, Complexities. Social Studies of Knowledge Practices (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).

Law, J., and J. Urry, ‘Enacting the Social’, Economy and Society, 33.3 (2004), 390–410.

Leavy, P., ‘Performance-Based Emergent Methods’, in S. N. Hesse-Biber and P. Leavy, eds, Handbook of Emergent Methods (New York: Guilford Press, 2008), pp. 343–57.

Lezaun, J., F. Muniesa, and S. Vikkelsø, ‘Provocative Containment and the Drift of Social-Scientific Realism’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 6.3 (2013), pp. 278–93.

Lury, C. and N. Wakeford, eds., Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social (London: Routledge, 2011).

MacKenzie, D., and Y. Millo, ‘Constructing a Market, Performing Theory: The Historical Sociology of a Financial Derivatives Exchange’ American Journal of Sociology, 109.1 (2003), pp. 107–145.

Marres, N., ‘6 Experiment’, in N. Wakeford & C. Lury, eds, Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social (London: Routledge, 2012) pp. 76–95.

Meier, C. A., Antike Inkubation und moderne Psychotherapie. Mit einem Geleitwort von C. G. Jung (Zürich: Rascher, 1949).

Mol, A., The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

Niewöhner, J., et al., ‘Cardiovascular Disease and Obesity Prevention in Germany: An Investigation into a Heterogeneous Engineering Project’, Science, Technology, & Human Values, 36.5 (2011), pp.723–51.

Papin, D., A New Digester, or Engine for Softening Bones: Containing the Description of Its Make and Use, Etc (London: Malincroft Chemical Works, 1681).

Parisi, L., ‘Speculation: A Method for the Unattainable’, in C. Lury and N. Wakeford, eds, Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 232–44.

Silverman, W. A., ‘Incubator-Baby Side Shows’, Pediatrics, 64.2 (1979), 217–141.

Whatmore, S. J., ‘Mapping Knowledge Controversies: Science, Democracy and the Redistribution of Expertise’, Progress in Human Geography 33.5 (2009), 587–98.

Wilkie, A., M. Rosengarten, and M. Savransky, eds, Speculative Research: The Lure of Possible Futures (London: Routledge, 2016).