The Spatialization of Problem and Inquiry, Review of Problem Spaces by Celia Lury

by Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)

Celia Lury’s Problem Spaces opens with Whitehead’s grand and misunderstood statement on power and aesthetics: “Power is the compulsion of composition… the essence of power is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake” (Whitehead 1968:119; see Shields and Hardy 2021).  There is a compulsion to compose the world from indefinite and indeterminate to definite situations.  Hence “compositional methodology” considers forms and transformation of these arrangements.  Whitehead’s reference to “aesthetics” is misunderstood as he is not referencing just capital-A aesthetics of art but aesthesis, the collective experience of a context or event, including its degree of organized harmony or indeterminacy.

Lury begins by considering the co-constitution of inquiries and their problems.  Lury builds from Herbert Simon’s ‘problem spaces’ and William James Logic of Inquiry.  These are problematics that elicit inquiry and the formulation of problems based on how these “situations” are encountered and elements or objects in them are perceived.  A problem is “with-in and out-with” across a situation or problem space.  I imagine this as a productive, liminal line or threshold, which Lury later considers as an interface.  “Indeterminacy” is the label Dewey uses for the condition that sparks inquiry seeks to resolve perplexity and create a more determinate situation, which will in turn be the context in which new problems appear.  

“A situation “is not a single object or event or set of objects and events” (Dewey, 1938 12:72), either physical or mental. A situation is not an objective, perspective-free spatiotemporal region. Neither is it a subjective theatre of appearances. It is a “contextual whole” that forms the background of experiences and judgments about objects and events. Dewey rejects the idea that experience contains isolated particulars: “In actual experience, there is never any such isolated singular object or event; an object or event is always a special part, phase, or aspect, of an environing experienced world—a situation” (Dewey 1938 12:72 ). This suggestive but elusive phrase—“an environing experienced world”—is central to understanding what Dewey means by “situation.” A situation is environing in that it involves an environment, in a Gibsonian sense…. It is experienced in that it is pervaded by a quality felt by the agent or agents in the situation—indeed, experience for Dewey just is a particular kind of interaction between organisms and environments. A situation is a “world” not in the sense of The World but rather in the sense of having a particular sort of wholeness, unity, and comprehensiveness—as when we talk about “the world of baseball” or “the world of the modern-day engineer” or “the post-9/11 world” (Brown, 2012).

This is thus a version of American Pragmatism, and there is thus much shared background with grounded theory approaches. A precursor is Adele Clarke’s 2005 Stiuational Analysis – Grounded Theory after the Postmodern turn (Sage). Another is John Law’s 2003 plea for “Making a Mess with Method” in social sciences. Thought is tied to pragmatic needs in daily life and to human faculties.  Inquiry ends in judgment that actively changes a situation and its constituents; “judgment” is the “settled outcome of inquiry” (Dewey 1938 12:1-3). “By following the with-in and out-with of connection and context, the ‘across’ of translation, the ‘among’ and ‘between’ of interferences, the ‘through’ of the channels…the ‘alongside’ of the parasite, the ‘beyond’ of detachment (Serres 1994: 83 in, the doing of methods makes the present purposeful,” (p.161) and “aesthetic” in Whitehead’s language.  Problems and methods are spatializations, for example we are reminded of “methods as doings; that is as gerunds” (p.160-1)

Problems or necessary tasks are a dynamic part of situations which are never fully eradicated.  Its seems all problem spaces are situations; are all situations problem spaces too?  The identification and isolation of facts and their representation allow conceptualization and ideas.  These in turn enable an actor to not only reason but to make contrasting experiments to change the existing conditions.  There is a provisional and again pragmatic quality to facticity, but one that builds upon past experiment to develop models that can be generalized between situations.


Experience, not just situation, is a crucial term. It is less prominent on first read but essential in Lury’s discussion.  Experience is not just a psychological process but a collective phenomenon concerning states of the world which include not only “what is” but “how it comes to be,” its implications and meaning.  If I comment on the weather, I offer an experience of a situation, but so does a conspiracy theory, I would argue.  Experience and situations are thus negotiated and to disagree effectively, we at least parse an opponents presentation of the situation to evaluate it and to counter-argue against their presentation of facts as they see them.  I was missing this agonistic dynamic in this academic book.  What fiction stories and art works capture this?

Lury builds an argument for a “compositional method”, supplementing pragmatism with Donna Haraway’s feminist standpoint epistemology and Isaac Jullien’s portrayal of historical Chinese understanding of the relation between thought, context and action.  Crucially, she builds on Dewey’s innovative insight that facts and ideas develop in inquiry in coordination with one another (Brown 2012).

“We do not begin inquiry with an already set problem but with some implicit or poorly expressed perplexity, a problematic situation. A problem, or a problem statement, is an explicit formulation of the source of the perplexity; that is, it states what the difficulty is and which factors contribute to it. It is hard work to get the problem right: “A problem well-put is half-solved” (Dewey 1938 12:112 in Brown 2012).”

We are not provided with a discussion of attention but the text focuses on the circulation of forms (cf. Appadurai).  For example, models that are created allow relations that are identified in one place to circulate as both fact and structure to other places.  They encourage further research focused on the elements isolated in the model rather than local realities and do so powerfully as efforts are in effect pooled.  Lury traces discussions of the relation between social research and reality in the work of other thinkers such as John Law. Marilyn Strathern or Sloterdijk.  They remark on the tendency of social science to make explicit what is known but taken for granted or given.  “Explicitation” (Strathern) or “literalization” (Sloterdijk) not only clarifies but to do so represents reality in forms such as data.  “Datafication: in large data sets represents social reality to decision-makers, for example, the consumer price index or other forms of quantification, mapping and more recently, digitization in databases.   These have colonial qualities in enabling geopolitical control of peripheries by centres; for example, control of many aspects of Africa by outside interests – European, North American, Russian, Chinese, and so on.  


These systems of data are “platforms” that mediate between actors and the problem space.  They form a new layer of situations introducing a new architecture that Lury names “platformization.”  This “epistemic infrastructure” is not just a set of representations but platforms that construct facticity, thereby intervening in the way situations are constituted.  These platforms are shared across industry, social policy and politics, and research, cementing their infrastructural importance.  Lury argues that they have become boundary objects that mediate between these social fields.  

Platformization also favours and thus intensifies certain types of media and data circulation, sorting operations creating new centres of control and opportunity.  Methods find purchase in a double manner, first on the world and second the data representations of the platforms themselves.  This foregrounds the importance of data manipulation, mining and analysis.  Everything exists along with its digital double(s) in the platforms such that manipulating data or an identity in the digital world changes the life-chances of individuals or groups in the lived world.  Sundaram comments that these media and epistemic infrastructures amplify the negative challenges of fragile postcolonial sovereignties and informal economies.  Further examples in the book would clarify this better.  Mbembe and Roitman comment:

“Fraudulent identity cards, fake policemen dressed in official uniforms… forged enrollment for exams; illegal withdrawal of money orders…here things no longer exist without their parallel.  E very law is enacted is submerged in an ensemble of techniques of avoidance, circumvention and envelopment which in the end neutralize and invert the legislation” (Mbembe and Roitman, 1995: 340 cited p.173)

Unlike models that are “objects of study that stand in for a more general class of epistemic objects” (Guggenheim and Krause 2012:104) that create facticity through classifying everyday life into the parts or elements of a given model, platforms construct facts relationally and on the fly through network logics, much as a search engine does.   For example, Google does not need a pre-existing model of the relationships between tastes and purchases, rather they follow the links people create by making consumption choices.  Rules are elaborated by experimenting with data retrieval (p.65), rather than applying a pre-established rule to data in order to create an outcome.  This in vivo aspect creates emergent categories that shift over time.  Actors participation in a social process constitutes these relations. Platforms thus reinforce and then supplement the fact-creating and abstracting effects of model systems.  Rather than just indexing elements of the world, they are in an interactive feedback relationship with the world somewhat similar to the way symbols have effects in everyday life.  

This argument using Peirce’s semiotics is a difficult point to grasp on first read.  Central to the book, however, is an extended argument about the effects of “recursion”: measurements such as ranking a book as “number one” make it more likely to achieve high sales and to be read and thus become influential.  The datafication of ranking the book as a best seller feeds back into its ranking in the best seller lists.  We are easily captivated by this process.

Control, accountability and syndicated responsibility in complex projects such as in the way focused, technical decisions and assumptions shape components that may prove vitally determining for the entire ensemble in a situation.  Stengers sees the relation of inquiry and world as “reciprocal capture” in a “dual process of identify construction” (2010:36).


Information societies shorten the time between representation and intervening.  They allow closer relations between physical and epistemological objects than happens in model systems.  The relation between science and society is not one of opposition but of entwining.  “In such twists, science cannot be said in any simple sense, ‘inside’ society, or to be ‘contained’.  Instead…problems always become topologically, win-in and out-with problem spaces” (p.184).  Drawing on Hookway (2014), Galloway (2012) and Ash (2015), Lury develops the argument that the resulting topologies of knowledge and power associated with platformization are “interface effects.”  An interface is described as an emergent,  “dynamic boundary condition describing fluidity according to its separation of one distinct fluid body from another” (Thomson 2014:67).

Control is exercised at and via the interfaces of systems.  If we imagine a braided ropes, the interface exists along the surface of each rope where it contacts the other braids as well as to the exterior of the plait.  If the structural baggage of the term “platform” makes it difficult to grasp, I imagine the above problem space topology a “plait-form” (and Lury does sometimes hyphenate “plat-form”)  It may also be useful to simplistically imagine the required manoeuvres for untangling a plait as akin to Lury’s argument that “plait-forms” have force and effects themselves, capturing not only attention but efforts and requiring certain abilities and entailing ways of understanding reality more broadly.  This is a huge argument: the text can only gloss the ways in which interfaces double the process that is being controlled.  Backup, test, simulation are forms of how such interfaces operate as forms of situated power and control transitions, translations, transformations and changes of state across their surfaces.  Interfaces are active but virtual, inferred from their effects, as Hookway argues.  The politics of interfaces is that of the “Becoming topological” or perhaps more simply we might say the configuration of problem spaces (p.188).  Perhaps as the Taliban understood in their capture of border checkpoints to then control the territory of Afghanistan, an interface

“Takes its place as the zone across which all activity must occur in order to possess meaning, force, or power. It demarcates the site from which the parameters that define a system may be measured … It is the generative source from which work may be extracted from the system, and the entryway into the system from which influence and control over that system may be exerted. (Hookway, 2014: 43)”

Interfaces also configure the “compulsion of composition” across this threshold where methods have constitutive effects and contribute to the generative circulation of the problem (most obviously globally but also between social fields and disciplines) as a statement about a state of affairs.


“Compulsion of composition” is described as not a “mechanism” by which society internalizes science or knowledge of the world but an expansive force that generates problem spaces across a dynamic topology of constantly dividing surfaces.  It emerges in the organization of continuity in transformation (a basic feature of topological homeostasis).  A compulsion is an operation or interaction that cannot be resisted.  Not a prescriptively moralizing “should” but a “must”.  It has a fatalistic teleology.  The adoption of affective language of compulsion without comment is unhelpful and raises questions: whose compulsion?  As an emergent outcome it seems to echo Dewey’s “determinate state” in a situation.  This may not be the compulsion of a living being but of an inevitable interactive process or even embedded material properties.  Ultimately the compulsion of composition seems to describe inquiry as the captivated agent’s attention and experience is co-constituted with-in and out-with the situation.  Lury argues that this is not only a question of knowledge (knowability) or solutions (answerability) but is an interactive generation of responsibility (response-ability).


Methodology twist “the form of problems into forms of circulation” in a Moebius-strip topology  of sense making (p.204).  In so doing, they don’t merely inquiry but enact worlds, as Dewey argued.  Lury closes on an argument for attention to the priorities and effects of this ongoing composition and the need for a habitable world (see Space and Culture Habitable Spaces Issue 3 1998).

Problem Spaces is an important theoretical and methodological synthesis that revitalizes and revises pragmatism as a paradigm for the social sciences contra other paradigms such as positivism and realism.  It synthesizes provocative methodological cases.  As a contribution to methodology, this book informs the research process by situating inquiry and the social construction of facts in a firm relation to everyday life and its problems.  For example, it would be interesting to consider the negotiations that go on between investigators and research ethics offices and reviewers in terms of how problem spaces relate to proposed methods.  

This book is an advanced read with many pages offering material worth looking up for more detail (minor point: some sources such as Thomson or Mbembe are absent in the Bibliography).  Its palatability will be lessened for readers who are as attuned to the geopolitics of knowledge as Lury does herself hope for at several points in the book.  In Lury’s scan of various trends that decentre canonical disciplinary researcher-researched relations, the decolonial seems to end up subsumed under standpoint ethics and the increasing role of the observer in constructing facticity.  Decolonial disappears after this, and colonial is not even in the index.  Reading from Canada, where the legacy of British imperialism is painfully felt, perhaps these terms should now always be key terms in books written from London.  The leaves us with a final question: How do compositional method make a difference in peripheral contexts where social science issues are often life and death problems?

Sources Cited

Ash, J. 2015. The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Brown, M.J. “John Dewy’s Logic of Science.” Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for The History of the Philosophy of Science 2, no. 2 (2012): 258–306.

Connor, Steven. “Michel Serres’s Milieux,” 2002.

Dewey, J. (1969-91). Later Works 1925-1953. (J.-A. Boydston, Ed.) (Vols. 1–37). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John (1938).  Logic: The Theory of Inquiry,. Edited by Jo-Ann Boydston. Oxford: Henry Holt and Company.

Galloway, A. (2012). The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity.

Guggenheim, M., and M. Krause (2012). “How Facts  Travel: The Model Ystems of Sociology.” Poetics 40 (2012): 101–17.

Hookway, B. (2014). Interface. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Mbembe, Achille, and Janet Roitman. (1995). “Figures of the Subject in Times of Crisis.” Public Culture 7, no. 2 (May): 323–52.

Serres, Michel. Atlas. Julliard, 1994.

Shields, R., & Hardy, N. (2021). Radical Aesthesis: To Hear, to See, to Feel, Ethically. Discussion draft.  Edmonton Alberta: University of Alberta Space and Culture Reading Group.

Stengers, I.  (2010). Cosmopolitics. Translated by R. Bonono. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Minneapolis, Minn.: Minnesota University Press.

Thomson, J. (2014). Collected Papers in  Physics and Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitehead, A. N. (1968 [1938]). Modes of Thought. New York: Free Press.