Reassembling the Social, by Bruno Latour

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I finally finished the Latour, about a month after starting it, which is about how long it took me to read his previous book, The Politics of Nature. It’s a hard book to review; the goal of the book is to explain actor-network theory, which Latour co-created based on the social studies of science, but is sufficiently obscure that even after twenty years of refinement, there is still great confusion about what it actually means. So Latour wrote this book to be the definitive explanation of actor-network theory. And 260 pages later, I’m still not sure I can sum it up.

The book is an attack on traditional sociology; on the second page, he starts things off with “‘socio-logy’ means the ‘science of the social’. The expression would be excellent except for two drawbacks, namely the word ‘social’ and the word ‘science’.” (p. 2) The main issue he has with traditional sociology is that it assumes that its purpose is to study society and social forces. What’s the issue? It assumes that such a thing as ‘society’ exists to be studied. Latour makes the claim that it does not. He compares it to classical physics, where it was assumed that there must be an “ether” for waves to propagate in; Einstein developed the theory of relativity which showed that no such absolute frame of reference existed.

He believes that ‘society’, as a concept, is a premature assemblage of entities. It has not been collected together with due process, as described in the process of creating a collective. Because it is assembled too quickly, it smooths over the bumps and ignores the things sticking out when it tries to jam everything together. These inconsistencies are what first gave Latour in his study of science the hints of the path forward.

Latour follows the same path he has always followed, as he described it in Science in Action; he follows the actors. He listens to what people say and the reasons they give for doing it. And then he traces those reasons back to other reasons, and figures out what forces are acting on the people. And it turns out it’s never “society” at the end of the various chains. It’s other people, other actors.

So here’s the basic idea of actor-network theory, as far as I can tell. Social forces and society don’t exist, per se, or at least not in any sort of abstract global sense (I covered a bit of this in a previous post). Social forces are the result of other entities influencing us in a variety of ways. Latour makes the claim that traditional sociology (which he calls the “sociology of the social”) removes initiative from its agents; in other words, people are treated as mere intermediaries of social forces, unable to overcome their social programming. My analogy would be the juvenile delinquent, who is treated as if he had no other choice than to become a criminal because of his social situation.

Instead, Latour proposes the actor-network as a central concept. The actor is acted upon by a variety of mediators, each of which is pushing him in a direction. The actor, instead of being a singular point which can be knocked around like a billiard ball by social forces, is instead a star-shaped network, deeply entwined with other actor-networks, such that it is difficult to trace back any sort of singular reason why the actor does anything. The actor-network has enough different influences that it comes down to choice, influenced by other factors certainly, but not compelled by them.

So how does one do an actor-network analysis? Latour includes an excellent 15-page interlude, where he writes an imaginary dialogue between a business student who wants to analyze the networks within a corporation and an actor-network theory professor. The student keeps on looking for reasons behind people’s actions, a unifying theme that he can write a thesis on. The professor points out that the idea that an academic can drop in on a corporation and discern an underlying force that the employees themselves were unaware of is hubristic, at the least. The professor recommends instead following the employees around, listening to what they have to say, and constructing an understanding of what is going on from their words and actions. There are no hidden forces, just people and other actors (bureaucracy, laws, architectural patterns) interacting with each other.

Latour uses this dialogue to poke fun at his caricature of the traditional sociologist, who parachutes into an organization, comes up with an overarching theory, imparts it to the participants to edify and enlighten them, and leaves. These overarching theories always start to fall apart when you try to apply them to something, much like the classification systems in Sorting Things Out. Latour calls such theories panoramas, in that they provide the illusion of displaying the whole landscape, but are merely shadows on a wall; “They design a picture which has no gap in it, giving the spectator the powerful impression of being fully immersed in the real world… it’s this excess of coherence that gives the illusion away.” (p. 188)

The real world is messy. There are always conflicting priorities and influences that must be resolved in any local situation. I started reading the Amartya Sen book on identity, and he makes the same point – that we have a multitude of identities we can choose from; Sen says “The difficulty with the thesis of the clash of civilizations begins well before we come to the issue of an inevitable clash; it beings with the presumption of the unique relevance of a singular classification.” A worldview of Western civilization versus Muslim civilization is a Latour-ian panorama, which ignores a wealth of other possible classifications (as people, as workers, as husbands and wives and parents and children, etc.).

One of the common criticisms of actor-network theory is that because it is always so relentlessly focused on the local situation and local causes, no general principles can be derived from it. How can Latour claim to be scientific if there are no general principles? In a nice bit of table turning, Latour uses the example of science to illustrate his viewpoint. There is a platinum kilogram kept in France that is the definitive kilogram. Yet we don’t have to go to France every time we want to weigh something in kilograms. We use instruments which have been calibrated against other weights, which have been calibrated against other weights, until somewhere back in the chain, something was compared to that definitive kilogram. We can trace the chain of evidence back through each of those measurings. So there is no such thing as a universal kilogram, abstract and ethereal; the “kilogram” is constructed through well-understood chains of mediation radiating out from the definitive kilogram.

Latour makes the same claim as to how universal social concepts can be created through his methods.

“Can we obtain some sort of universal agreement? Of course we can! Provided you find a way to hook up your local instrument to one of the many metrological chains whose material network can be fully described… No discontinuity allowed, which is just what ANT [actor-network theory] needs for tracing social topography. Ours is the social theory that has taken metrology as the paramount example of what it is to expand locally everywhere.” (p. 228)

So what’s the point of the book? I think the main thing I take away from it is this viewpoint that things need to be continually reinvented and retraced. America is not an abstract concept, hovering in some sort of Platonic ideal space waiting to be discovered. It is an idea being constructed by the manifold ways in which people interact; in the terms of the Politics of Nature, it is a collective always being reconstructed. The same holds true for any sort of social concept that you can think of, from family to a company to friends; they don’t exist unless they are continually retraced and recreated by participants.

I also like his contention that things are complicated, that there are a multitude of influences at every step. We are not mere puppets being yanked about by social forces. Although we are being buffeted about by influencers, we are true actors who can create our own path incorporating those influences. One last quote:

Sociologists are often accused of treating actors like so many puppets manipulated by social forces. But it appears that puppeteers … possess pretty different ideas about what it is that makes their puppets do things. Although marionettes offer, it seems, the most extreme case of direct causality – just follow the strings – puppeteers will rarely behave as having total control over their puppets. They will say queer things like ‘their marionettes suggest them to do things they will have never thought possible by themselves.’ When a force manipulates another, it does not mean that it is a cause generating effects; it can also be an occasion for other things to start acting. … So who is pulling the strings? Well, the puppets do in addition to their puppeteers. It does not mean that puppets are controlling their handlers – this would be simply reversing the order of causality – and of course no dialectic will do the trick either. It simply means that the interesting question at this point is not to decide who is acting and how but to shift from a certainty about action to an uncertainty about action – but to decide what is acting and how. (p. 60)

I’m still not sure I have a firm grasp on Latour’s ideas here. I’ve got an inkling, though, and I’ve got some ideas as to how to apply them in a less theoretical domain that I’ll try to get to later this week. There’s also loads of other interesting ideas that he brought up that I didn’t get to. But I’ve undoubtedly lost all of my readers by now, so I’ll stop here.

13 thoughts on “Reassembling the Social, by Bruno Latour

  1. To use another metaphor: in molecular dynamics, concepts like “pressure” and “temperature” only make sense if we’re looking at immense populations from a very long way away; if you look up close, all that you see is individual molecules colliding. Is Latour basically saying that we don’t have enough elements in our social systems to warrant rescaling to macroscopic field variables in the thermodynamic limit instead of tracking individual events? That certainly makes a lot of sense.

    I’m interested to know what he says about collectives, because despite the need to follow individual actors, it certainly seems that there are collections of individuals that can be regarded as distinct entities, different than just the composition of the individuals that make them up.

  2. See this is where I get a bit fuzzy.

    I think what Latour is saying is more that sociologists have a tendency when looking at groups of people to claim there is an invisible force acting, and they call that invisible force society or social forces (or “market pressure” or corporate culture” or “self-interest”) and then go home, and he says that’s premature. But I don’t think he ever really gives a good example. Although he does have an entertaining digression at one point explaining why ANT came out of science studies, because in everything else sociology had studied, sociology was the science, and therefore could claim to be more objective and more “real” than what they were studying. When they tried to pull that on scientists, they were slapped down; he says “social theory has failed on science so radically that it’s safe to postulate that it had always failed elsewhere as well”.

    As far as collectives, one of Latour’s points is that if a force is invisible and unacknowledged by any of the actors in a situation, then it doesn’t exist. Collections of individuals that act as a group acknowledge the group’s existence and its influence on their actions. Then the group is an actor/collective in its own right. This is why he emphasizes following the actors. If there is an influence on them, you can find it. And humans are not the only things that can be actors; one of the things that warps people’s minds about ANT is that it includes non-human actors. So objects or groups can be included as actors, but they can’t be used to fill in the blanks in an explanation – they have to be studied rigorously and followed and their effects recorded.

    Man, it sounds so mystical and weird in shorthand. Oh well.

  3. Actually, that makes perfect sense. There are no forces, only actors. If you cannot identify an actor as a specific, investigable entity, rather than some abstract concept, you’re dodging the question and your answer is useless.

    So, if we say that Suzie starts smoking at age 14 because of a force, “peer pressure”, that’s a premature answer that doesn’t say anything. Why does peer pressure work on Suzie but not on her demographically-identical friend Amy? How do we alter peer pressure’s effect? Why does it work differently for cigarettes vs fashion? None of those questions are answerable.

    Whereas if we say that Suzie begins smoking as a response to the influence of various specific actors, we can look at how she responds to each actor and why the actors exert that influence, and get somewhere. Influence 1, media: the characters she identifies with in movies smoke. Influence 2, relatives: her parents smoke, even though they tell her not to, as do most of her relatives. And so on…


  4. I searched “Bruno Latour” on blogspot and found your interesting comments. Having just read the book myself, I wanted to respond to the example given by Beemer, above.

    I don’t think Latour’s point is that ANT seeks to break down abstractions like “peer pressure” into specific causal factors like media, relatives, etc. I take that to be the aim of traditional (positivist) sociology.

    I read Latour to be saying, instead, that an ANT account starts by assuming a fundamental, intractable uncertainty about agency. In other words, the social scientist can never say with any certainty who or what the “real” actors are in any situation, just as the actors can’t. (He critiques critical sociology in part for its presumption to be able to solve the problems of “who or what is acting,” while ordinary people can’t.)

    I’ll need to go back and reread this, but I think that what Latour is urging “scientists of the social” to do is to examine and trace controversies about agency–that is, to follow competing accounts of who/what is doing the acting or causing the action, and to see how these controversies are or are not resolved. (I understand this to be what he was doing in his earlier work on Pasteur.)

    So with respect to the example you gave, Latour might ask us to examine competing accounts of what causes teenagers to take up smoking–to look at how different accounts mobilize different sets of actors and try to institute different “common worlds” as a result. Another constructive example might be the multiple competing accounts of what caused the Littleton high school shooting. A few might have claimed that the two boys were acting by themselves, but other accounts claimed that, for instance, the boys’ parents, Marilyn Manson, bullies, violent video games, Nazis, or the NRA were also acting when the shots went off. Now, depending on which of these agencies we collectively decide are responsible for the shooting, how we organize ourselves–how we compose our common world–will vary. We might end up banning violent video games; we might end up putting the parents in jail; we might end up exiling Marilyn Manson, etc. In short, I think the point is that how we settle controversies over competing accounts of what acts in the world helps determine what we will include in, and exclude from, the collective.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful review, which I enjoyed reading.

  5. i enjoyed your review, (I use shrook to trace blogs using Latour or ant).
    I suggest another analogy: just as a puppeteer pulls strings and there seems to be some resistance or some sense of agency on the part of the puppet……maybe on the internet you post a blog, it pulls some strings, I respond (or not), I too have agency. in responding the effect of agency appears more obvious. (So too does my computer platform, and my web-browser). But if I dont respond in a way visible to you, if nothing happens with such a posting do you write more or less about the issue? I still have agency.
    I posted recently about the scurge of web spamming that resulted in pulling my strings to the extent that I was having to put an extra barrier up for posters to my blog, and worse, I found myself talking to the spammer slime!
    I have added you to my delicious readership! I look forward to more.

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