Relativity and an ontology of the particular

The elaboration of a “particular case” has two stages. The first one is selecting a specific portion of spatialized reality for being decomposed and analyzed. The reality, in a pragmatic view the world that is there, is the group of things that exist before the researcher’s interference. In other words, in an urban-open scenario reality is a collective unfinished construction made-up of an x number of elements, happening simultaneously, without any kind of intervention from our side. It means it is a specific group of differences. World, nation, country, city, neighborhood, zone… Those are just some of the ways —accurately or not— we have been using, mostly connected with a spatial demarcation, for trying to gather and to grasp the reality. This primary reality can also be measured in terms of time, relation, action, and affection. 

The second stage is about affecting that selected portion of reality through the construction of a mobile and flexible epistemological structure for unraveling, translating and representing what is happening inside of that selection. Summing it up, we can say that (1) a particular case obeys to a continuous process of interpreting a located reality through the description of both the elements that are composing that reality as well as the trajectories and entanglements where those elements act. (2) The construction of a particular case is completely tied to a pragmatic point of view, skeptical and relativist, near the model proposed by Bruno Latour (2005) for elaborating techno-scientific controversies. 

But let’s continue for a moment inquiring into the spatial dimension of reality. We can agree that there is a located reality happening outside. It is, basically, an undetermined amount of situations occurring at the same time, in the same place and produced by any kind of actors. We call the sum of those situations as collective life. This is a collective one because it obeys to a continuous process of construction where dissimilar elements can participate in a symmetrical way. But far of being a positivist scenario, this process of construction is a plural elaboration of temporal associations, through the implementation of mobile structures. Those structures are non-stabilized frames that allow the collaboration and the momentary coercion of a specific group of elements.

Representation of a temporal association

There is a mobile structure (yellow) shaping the temporal association that is composed of the whole elements participating in this collective life. The size of the yellow dots represents the influence and the weight of each element into the entanglement.

We have, thus, a communal life happening outside, where an undetermined number of elements are composing temporal stabilizations in a specific space. Those elements are using mobile structures for acting among that common life. This kind of structures, that are neither stable nor solid —we could say that those are plasmatic ones—, work as cooperative entanglements where each one of the elements that are participating helps to keep both the temporary shape and the aim of every group formation. The concept of ”mobile structure” is proposed for understanding how elements spatialize their relationships. This idea is more fluent and less solid than the one of “net” due to the shape and the objective of each communal formation, as well as its ways of association, depending on its own specificities. It does not always have to be in the form of a network.

The proportions, dimensions, and limits of “that piece of reality” that we decide to select for decomposing are conditioned to the intentions and capacities we have as researchers for conducting our own work. If we accept the proposal of understanding reality as a plasmatic element, we should also accept first, the uncertainty and instability that this situation produces and second, that the current measuring elements we have for approaching “urban-places” perhaps require being readjusted to this situation. Having this in mind, one of the things that we first should take care about is the set of metaphors we are using —inside and outside of academic scenarios— for naming and representing that primary reality where we chose “particular cases” from. City, for example. 

We already wrote that the particular, that plasmatic specialized portion of reality we choose for constructing our field, has a shape. Also, that its shape is temporal and that it depends on the way how the mobile structures inside of it are organized. With this in mind, we can say that the form of spatiality is relative and totally dependent on the kind of relationships and entanglements present into that spatial configuration. But moreover, we can agree that space is not just a container, it is an unfinished product, produced collectively, that it is also participating in that specific construction, we call as reality. As the last point, we also can agree that there is not a recipe we can apply for selecting and framing a “particular case”, more than just going out and following the elements that are composing it. 

Everything is relative here: the spatial demarcations of the portion of reality we chose, as well the kind of structures, number, and type of elements that are composing it. Constructing a particular case is, more or less, building a temporal device for “just observing” (Venturini, 2010) the effervescent and collective life happening outside. The fabrication of this device, besides having the “three commandments of observation [proposed by] the cartography of controversies: 1. you shall not restrain your observation to any single theory or methodology; 2. you shall observe from as many viewpoints as possible; 3. you shall listen to actors’ voices more than to your own presumptions” (260), also requires from us using the device itself in an empty way.

What does it mean? Well, it means that our particular cases should be constructed and operated without any kind of preset. That is without having any concept or theory per se for being either, tested or spatialized in the field. In that way, for talking about economy, migration or religion —for giving some examples— we should first have to find them in that portion of the reality we want to decompose, instead of inducing, in a sort of deterministic exercise, the structure and singularities of the reality to the shape we want. To sum this up, a “particular case”, in radical “urban” ethnography, can be understood as a permanently under construction territory which its content and conformation are uncertain. Anything can be inside.

Proposal for a particular case

As the last point about this anthology of the particular, and because its own nature of being always into a process of change, the framed reality we chose as a “particular case” will be identified using the temporary label of ”urban transformation”. This is, basically, a concept that reunites the specific kind of changes, entanglements, negotiations, group formations, and momentary constructions happening in those big agglomerations of elements that, again, we call as cities. The advantage of using this concept is that as well as the object that it is representing, anything can be inside. It means that when we use ”urban transformation” for talking about a particular case, we are not restricting it to a specific domain and therefore denying its multiplicity.