Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social

Students on our Philosophy and Mental Health graduate programme often look to Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory as a framework for thinking about disputes about mental healthcare. To keep up with them, I had a quick look last night through his 2005 book Reassembling the Social.

Whilst it is largely negative in tone, some of the first half of the book in particular, is a clear statement focusing on five key issues which help characterise ANT. But a first pair of distinctions between the approach to sociology Latour favours (a ‘sociology of associations’) and a more tradition approach – the ‘sociology of the social’ – is key.

First, sociology of the social assumes that there is a fixed social order to be investigated, a social order that serves an explanatory purpose. By contrast a sociology of associations looks at the particular associations rather than imposing an assumed social ontology. That methodological difference fits an ontological orientation. Sociology of the social assumes that ‘social’ refers to a type of material akin to what is wooden, steely or biological. A sociology of associations, by contrast, denies that there is any such substance.

It claims that there is nothing specific to social order; that there is no social dimension of any sort, no ‘social context’, no distinct domain of reality to which the label ‘social’ or ‘society’ could be attributed; that no ‘social force’ is available to ‘explain’ the residual features other domains cannot account for; that members know very well what they are doing even if they don’t articulate it to the satisfaction of the observers; that actors are never embedded in a social context and so are always much more than ‘mere informants’…and that ‘society’, far from being the context ‘in which’ everything is framed, should rather be construed as one of the many connecting elements circulating inside tiny conduits. With some provocation, this second school of thought could use as its slogan what Mrs Thatcher famously exclaimed… ‘There is no such a thing as a society.’ [Latour 2005: 4-5]

This distinction later helps with Latour’s reflections on the so called ‘science wars’ (a vile phrase). The idea that scientific facts might be ‘socially constructed’ has two quite distinct interpretations. On a debunking reading, ‘social’ picks out a particular kind of social fabric and thus equating natural scientific facts with it undermines or transforms them. Latour insists that such explanations fails: ‘for the first time, social scientists had to study something that was higher, harder and stronger than them. For the first time, the explanandum resistsed and grinded the teeth of the explanans’ cogs to mere stumps.’ [ibid: 98]

But there is no need to assume a debunking reading of constructionism and indeed, Latour tells us, it came as a surprise to him when people did.

For someone who had never been trained in critical sociology, it was hard to imagine that people could use causal explanation in their own discipline as proof that the phenomena they were accounting for didn’t really exist… [ibid: 92]

To bring constructivism back to its feet, it’s enough to see that once social means again association, the whole idea of a building made of social stuff vanishes. For any construction to take place, non-human entities have to play the major role and this is just what we wanted to say from the beginning with this rather innocent word. [ibid: 92]

I think that there is still some difficulty here in the way Latour is happy to talk of the construction of facts. If he had said, the construction of our view of, or beliefs about, or knowledge of, the facts, there would be so much less for a realist (philosopher or scientist) to worry about.

These largely negative points are augmented by a similar modesty in assumptions about the nature of agency and of action (objects can act, for example). In effect, Latour commends no prior theorising (not even philosophical theorising about a priori limits on agency, for example). He follows the Wittgensteinian maxim: don’t think, look!

But this suggests a problem for identifying a positive story. This book is pitched at a higher level rather than offering worked examples. But even worked examples would have to follow the context driven approach outlined here. And thus conclusions about levels of organisation, or claims about agency in one area cannot be applied elsewhere. Thus it’s hard to learn what ANT is either by general principles or by concrete examples.

PS: The CBC podcast on Latour is here (in the second half of the show).

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social, Oxford: Oxford University Press