Concepts of Observation

Oscillations can be observed in many different fields, but the concepts of what it means to be an observer vary from case to case. In the so-called natural sciences, the observer often relies on a sophisticated technological apparatus to measure the state of a system in oscillation, with state changes often happening in very rapid successions and therefore on a very short timescale in relation to the social time in which the researcher as a person is embedded. On the other hand, oscillations measured and described in the natural sciences can also span decades, centuries, or thousands and millions of years, for example when describing changes in climate conditions or cycles in the constellations of astronomic systems.

In the natural sciences, the point from where an observation is made is often assumed as outside of the observed system. There are scientists on one side of the description, providing accounts of what they have found out about systems they methodologically assume to exist independently from themselves. However, when scrutinizing aspects of these descriptions, such as the time frames mentioned above, we cannot look past the socially constructed nature of these fundamentals: The base frequencies of measurements are translations of seemingly independent natural phenomena into semantics that make sense for humans, with their learned knowledge of cycles in their lives. This is different at least in the more systemic approaches of social sciences, where the observer is generally understood as a part of the observed system (for the debates surrounding this perspective, see Abbott 2004: 41). Still, even when this basic understanding exists, for example in ethnography informed by constructivism, the actual descriptions generated from research in these areas often treat the observer as transparent, as having no or little influence on the outcome. Even if we take the sociality of research processes and scientific discourse into account, there is one major aspect still left out of the equation: If the researchers and their work are part of the same system as the processes and subjects they are researching, then the output of their research will inevitably have an influence on the field of research. This has been a topic in epistemology (Glasersfeld 1996) and discourses around qualitative research methods and in some approaches in epistemology for decades (Atteslander 2003), but its practical implications remain largely underdeveloped. Returning to the paradigm of oscillations, the research output creates a new signal of oscillations ready to interfere with the oscillations taking place in the field. The signal could, for example, oscillate around the question of relevance of the findings, their validity, or their applicability to other fields. There could, and often will, also be more than one oscillation connected to the output of a research project. For example, in my study of a network of electronic musicians in Berlin (Grote 2014), different series of local events such as concerts and DJ gigs happened in parallel to record releases which were mainly announced online. Both areas were coupled as part of the same cultural scene, yet their internal temporal structure was in fact very different.

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