How we create the tools to think about things
In Re-Assembling Reality #18, we considered the process of objectification — how we turn entities into objects.
When we turn a stone into an arrowhead or a dog into an experimental specimen, the thing under consideration — the stone or the dog — already appears to our senses as a distinct entity or being. The objectification takes place through the way we relate to the thing, turning it into an object of our manipulations, transformations, or investigations. A less evident form of objectification — but one that is central to the work of modern science — is the creation of intellectual objects — objects that we use to mentally manipulate, analyse, compare, and model things.
The universe is doing something. As we try to get our heads around it, as we tame it, rationalize it, systematize it, abstract it, we create an intellectual object. There is nothing strange about this. To think of every falling raindrop and orbiting planet and bouncing billiard ball independently as its own special case would be overwhelming. So we come up with some systematization to help us get a handle on things. Maybe it is not quite right, but it is better than nothing.
An intellectual object is a specific type of idea, thought, or thing in the mind, that has the properties of an object: it’s an idea that can be distinguished from other ideas, that has its own content, that can be examined from different angles and perspectives, that can be confronted with or combined with other intellectual ideas to see what happens, and that can be handed over to other people, so that they can examine it in the same way.
An intellectual object can be derived from a tangible being. An anatomical model of a human, for example, is an intellectual object derived from the observation and dissection of real humans. The model, however, is not the same thing as the thing that it models.
Within current models of human bodies, we treat blood as part of the circulatory system which carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and is pumped by the heart. We also treat blood as part of the immune system. These statements regarding how we consider blood are statements about our anatomical models.
The bodies of humans a thousand years ago were pretty much the same as the bodies of humans today. Our biology has not changed radically. And yet our anatomical models have.
Historical anatomical models, such as Galen’s model, did not view blood as part of the circulatory system, or as a thing that played any significant role in distributing oxygen around the body. Among other things, Galen didn’t think that blood circulated, and he didn’t see oxygen as distinct from air, and he thought that air just flowed freely through the body through arteries. His anatomic model was an intellectual object: it was derived from observation of the human body. Today, the Galenic model is no longer used; modern biology has developed different models of human anatomy . We know that none of these models are identical to the body. Models can change even while the body does not. The map is not the territory.
Models of the electron as intellectual objects
Intellectual models can also be derived from things that are intangible. Our picture of the “electron” is an intellectual object.
Electrons seem like pretty well established things. We know the charge on an electron. We know the mass of an electron. So it is perhaps surprising how much we struggle with getting a handle on other seemingly simple aspects of an electron, like how big it is.
Many theories treat an electron as a point particle. Indeed, relativity theory requires the electron to be a point particle. This is simple. And it is consistent with a lot of experimental data. While we have not been able to experimentally say the electron radius is zero, we can experimentally say it is certainly, at least ten million times smaller than a proton, and probably even smaller than that.
Unfortunately, the electron is a charged particle, and compressing an electron’s charge into such a small space would take energy. This energy would have a mass (because of relativity) and that mass would be very much greater than the observed mass of the electron.
So what do we do? We use two entirely separate mental pictures (intellectual objects) of the electron.
For one, we assume that an electron’s mass is entirely due to the self-energy of holding its charge together, and we calculate the minimum possible size for an electron. This is called the classical electron radius, and it pegs the electron as being more than twice the size of a proton. This accords with the observation that electrons don’t rip themselves apart. But it does not accord with the experimental observation that electrons are certainly ten million times smaller than a proton, or the theoretical requirement that electrons have zero radius.
For the other model, we assume that the electron has a radius of zero. This is consistent with the observation that electrons are properly tiny, and theoretically infinitesimal. It does not fit with the observation that electrons have finite mass and don’t rip themselves apart.
How do we square this circle? We have no idea. If you work it out, you can claim your Nobel Prize. Until then, we live with two distinct apparently contradictory intellectual models in physics.
The hole in the ozone layer as an intellectual object
The “hole in the ozone layer” is another example of an intellectual object. We cannot sense ozone directly. The ozone layer can be measured by ground-based or satellite-based spectrometers. These detect absorption of light by different chemicals. From the absorption spectra, we infer the presence (or relative absence) of ozone. From this we notice that there is a region over the south pole that has (seasonally) rather less ozone than we would have expected. This was dubbed the “hole in the ozone layer.”
Molecules fly around constantly: oxygen, water, ozone, nitrous oxide. The atoms in them combine and recombine to make different molecules. They get moved around and mixed between different parts of the atmosphere. But in this otherwise undifferentiated mass of air, there is one bit of the atmosphere we have dubbed the “stratosphere”. And there is one bit of the stratosphere that we have dubbed as having a “hole” in it.
This “hole” has a size and a shape. It has causes (like CFCs) and effects (like excess UV radiation at ground level). It has a character (it is problematic) and a teleology (it needs to be “solved” or “fixed”).
We can discuss this hole: is it growing or shrinking? How are we to mitigate the problems it causes? Or what actions might we take to fix it? And yet all of these conceptions of a “hole” are constructions, at least one step removed from molecules combining and recombining high over the South Pole. As such, the hole in the ozone layer is an intellectual object.
Intellectual objects in the social sciences
The social sciences are largely concerned with creating intellectual objects to model and manipulate things that rarely appear as such to our senses. The social sciences are interested in humans taken as individuals, and they’re also interested in human groups: societies, populations, social classes, families, clubs, corporations, tribes, workplaces, religious communities, neighbourhoods, social networks, age cohorts, schools, states, empires, cricket clubs, fandoms, and so on. Like the ozone layer, most of these groups of people do not appear to our senses as objects: they are not physically held together, they might be dispersed in different places and moving in different directions. And a crowd of people walking in different directions in Moscow’s Red Square is not a group, it’s merely an assortment of individuals.
Groups are not physical things. How can we get a handle on them? Maybe I could take a group picture of the Astanov family, but the whole family only comes together once a year, during the feast of Saint Nicholas. The group picture wouldn’t tell me much about the relationships between the family members, and what they do most of the time. And most other groups — the residents of the Vista Paradiso high-rise apartment estate, the employees of Google, the members of the Chinese Communist Party, the fans of Harry Potter, the citizens of Japan, the followers of Islam — are too big to even fit into a group picture. And yet, many groups last for a long time, have a structure, and do things regularly.
While we tend to think that groups are made of people, just as important are the relationships between people. Often, these things are invisible and intangible. In order to understand those relationships, we need to make models of them. To understand family relations, anthropologists make kinship charts. To understand organizations, they make organizational charts. To understand social networks, they plot them on graphs. These representations are intellectual objects. What social scientists do is turn amorphous assemblages of humans into intellectual objects.
Turning cosplayers into an intellectual object
A few years ago, students in my anthropology class were required to do a project investigating people who adorn their bodies. Fifty pairs of students each found and interviewed one person in Hong Kong who adorns their body in a certain way. Students interviewed a large variety of people including people who tattoo themselves, die their hands with henna, have body piercings, wear jewellery, wear religious costumes, and so on. While “people who adorn their bodies” is a category of people who possess a shared attribute, they are not a group because they either don’t have relationships with each other, or if they do, the adornments are not a key feature of their relationships (such as a person with body piercings being served in a McDonald’s by a person with tattoos). But among the people interviewed by the students were a large number of people who practice cosplay. All of these people had similar interests, shared similar ideas, did similar things, talked about these things with each other in person and on social media, and even attended events specially devoted to this practice. Using these measures, cosplayers could be identified as a group.
I had never heard of cosplay before, and I was curious to know more about this group. What are its characteristics? Who is it made of? How does it behave? In order to answer these questions, I need to be able to, figuratively, pick this group up, turn it around and look at it from all sides, even open it up to see what’s inside, and see what kinds of forces are shaping the group. The problem is that most of the time cosplayers are normal people mixed in with the rest of the population; invisible in the crowds on the street or in the metro. Only occasionally do they visibly appear at cosplay events. And even then, the things that make them a group — not their costumes, but their relationships, their friendships, their connections, their jealousies and competition, their leaders and their followers — are largely invisible.
To know more about the individuals who make up this group, a quantitative social scientist might count things about them. How many cosplayers are there in Hong Kong? How old are they? What’s their income? What’s their ethnicity? What jobs do they have? How big are their families? And so on. And having measured them, you could compare them with people who tattoo themselves. And you could explore correlations. For example, are youth more likely to cosplay or to get tattoos if they come from lower or higher income families? Are boys or girls more likely to do so?
But none of these measurements tell us much about the relationships that establish cosplayers as a group. So, to understand them, not as individuals but as a group, my student anthropologists thus needed to go “into the field” — to meet with them, to interview them, to observe and participate in their activities, at different places and times, with different people. In order to conduct the field research, the researchers needed to build trust with them, to become friends with them, to do things together with them — to treat them as persons, not as objects.
But all of these relationships, which allowed the students to know cosplayers personally, are not sufficient for the study to be “scientific”. Active cosplayers already know all about the cosplay community, but that doesn’t make them into anthropologists. That will only happen after the researchers go to their computer and transcribe their interviews and observations: turn them into textual objects, in computer files or on paper. Once that is done, you can manipulate them — you can read them back and forth, scribble or type notes on to them, put interviews of people who had never met each other side-by-side, and draw out the connections and differences between them.
You can only do this if you are no longer treating your cosplayers as persons. You are no longer talking with them, but you are writing about them, in ways that are different from the ways they talk to you. When you treat the cosplayers as an object, you want to look at them from all sides, and even open the object up to see what’s hidden inside. Once you have all your materials together, and you put them side by side, you’ll be able to connect a lot of dots, and to see a lot of things that the cosplayers knew but didn’t tell you, or didn’t tell you because they didn’t know.
Now you write your report, and publish it as a book. Based on your observations you have written a portrait of “cosplayers,” who are now an intellectual object. You have defined who is a member of this group for the purpose of your model. Some groups have clear and well-defined membership criteria, such as members of a political party. Other groups — such as cosplayers — don’t have clear membership criteria: how often do you have to cosplay, and how much do you need to know about cosplay, in order to “count” as a cosplayer? In order to build your model, you needed to come up with your own criteria for defining who the model is meant to represent. Cosplayers themselves might have their own opinion about who is a “true” cosplayer — or they might have different opinions and even debates about this. You may take these opinions into account, but ultimately, it is you, the writer of the report, who will decide who you define as cosplayers, and it is you who will explain your choice. You will describe their characteristics, what they do, how they do it, how the group works. You will also describe other intangible things that impact on the cosplayers as an object: the anime industry, the events industry, the educational system, Japanese pop culture, globalization, cultural alienation, changing gender norms, etc.
Through your book, the people you spoke with and observed were the source material with which you constructed an intellectual object, which is printed onto a physical medium: a digital file or a book, that anyone can open up, read, analyze, take up from different angles, debate, and even combine with other objects. And you wrote it in such a way that it could be compared with other intellectual objects: your study of cosplayers in Hong Kong could be related to studies of cosplayers in Japan and in the United States; or alongside studies of Hong Kong manga and K-pop fandoms.
The cosplayers — now objectified — can be analyzed, either through the book, or through new research beyond the book. They can be viewed from different angles, and combined with other intellectual objects such as studies on manga fans.
An individual cosplayer occupies a point inside the model you have constructed, and they see the cosplay world from that vantage point. But you are outside the model you have constructed, and from that outside perspective, you and others can look at the model from different angles, which are not the same as the cosplayers inside the model.
Thanks to your book, you might even become recognised as an “expert” on cosplayers. Even though, after finishing your study, perhaps you no longer have personal relationships with the cosplayers, and you are unable to cosplay yourself. By turning cosplayers into an object, you revealed a lot of things about the world of cosplayers that even they did not know. So when they read your book, they might tell you that they learned a lot from your “outsider’s perspective.” But then, they might tell each other that, in spite of your book and your “expertise”, you know nothing about cosplay. Because you’ve never spent hours devoting your time, your money and your energy to making cosplay costumes with your own hands, and because you’ve never experienced what it feels like when, in full cosplay outfit, you feel like you are no longer yourself but have become an anime character from Black Butler or Boku No Hero Academia.
And even if you have done all these things and are a good cosplayer, what makes you a social scientist is not the fact that you know how to create cosplay outfits or compete in cosplay tournaments, but that you know how to make intellectual objects and compete in academic tournaments: undergraduate research papers, postgraduate admissions exercises, peer review of journal submissions, academic job and promotion applications. In these tournaments, if you are competing within a discipline of social science, your knowledge of cosplay will hardly matter: what you will be judged on is your ability to construct intellectual objects out of humans.
This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.