Provocative containment and the drift of social scientific realism

06 December 2012

Journal of Cultural Economy

DOI: 10.1080/17530350.2012.739972 Authors: Javier Lezaun, Fabian Muniesa & Signe Vikkels

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The post-World War II period gave rise to a large number of social-scientific techniques for investigating and intervening in social reality. A particular group of these, exemplified here by the experiments of Moreno, Lewin, Bion, Milgram and Zimbardo, worked by establishing suggestive micro-realities in which participants were exposed to, or experimented with, selected ‘social problems’. We investigate the nature of these techniques – being simultaneously highly artificial and disturbingly realistic – and propose the notion of ‘provocative containment’ to understand their operation and effects. We point to five ingredients of their characteristic mode of operation – expressionism, incitement, trauma, distillation and technology – and argue that they do not serve to represent a simplified version of social reality, but rather to ‘realize’ particular forms of social life intrinsic to the medium of provocative containment.