Monday, January 26, 2009

Overview of Latour's _Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory_

This is a brief overview of Latour's most recent text, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory

Introductory Material
With this text, Latour wants to show why “the social cannot be construed as a kind of material or domain and to dispute the project of providing a ‘social explanation’ of some other state of affairs” (1).

He wants to redefine the notion of the social by going back to its original meaning and making it able to trace connections again. Social is about connections and relationships, but not in the typical “sociological” sense, which views the social too narrowly, excluding non-human agents/actors.

His “other approach” to the “default position” of social scientists claims that “there is nothing specific to social order; […] 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…” (4). It’s all or nothing—one school of thought claims that everything can be explained through social factors, while the other claims that there is no such thing as “the social” or “a society” (5).

The default position of social theory, as he describes it, includes among its tenets:
--there exists a social "context" in which non-social activities take place
--the social is a specific domain of reality
--the social can be used as a specific type of causality
--the full effect of the social is only visible to the social scientists' more disciplined eyes

Latour uses the term “social” to refer to the “trail of associations between heterogeneous elements.”. Extends sociology to mean “any type of aggregate from chemical bonds to legal ties, from atomic forces to corporate bodies, from physiological to political assemblies” (5).

He desires to see sociology acknowledged as a “science of the living together/assemblages of nature,” acknowledging that both “science” and “social” are problematic terms.

Defines the social “not as a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing, but only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling” (7). (Re)expands the meaning of social to apply to more than only humans and modern societies. Corals, baboons, trees, bees, ants, and whales are also social. This is probably the most controversial or “political” element of his ANT.

“In the course of the book we will learn to distinguish the standard sociology of the social from a more radical subfamily which I will call critical sociology. Critical sociology is defined by three traits: 1) it doesn’t only limit itself to the social but replaces the object to be studied by another matter made of social relations; 2) it claims that this substitution is unbearable for the social actors who need to live under the illusion that there is something ‘other’ than social there; and it considers that the actors’ objections to their social explanations offer the best proof that those explanations are right.” (9)

Latour refers to “traditional” sociology “sociology of the social” and the broader view “sociology of associations” (“associology”) (9)

ANT is particularly (and possibly only) useful “in situations where innovations proliferate, where group boundaries are uncertain, when the range of entities to be taken into account fluctuates…” (11).

“…I’m not interested in refutation […] but in proposition. How far can one go by suspending the common sense hypothesis that the existence of a social realm offers a legitimate frame of reference for the social sciences?” (12)

Latour acknowledges the density and difficulty of ANT: “Traveling with ANT, I am afraid to say, will turn out to be agonizingly slow. Movements will be constantly interrupted, interfered with, disrupted, and dislocated by the five types of uncertainties. In the world ANT is trying to travel through, no displacement seems possible without costly and painful translations. Sociologists of the social seem to glide like angels, transporting power and connections almost immaterially, while the ANT-scholar has to trudge like an ant, carrying the heavy gear in order to generate even the tiniest connection” (25).

Five major uncertainties / types of controversies about what social realm is made of:
--the nature of groups: there exist many contradictory ways for actors to be given an identity
--the nature of actions: in each course of action , a great variety of agents seem to barge in and displace the original goals
--the nature of objects: the type of agencies participating in interaction seems to remain wide open
--the nature of facts: the links of natural sciences with the rest of society seems to be the source of continuous disputes
--type of studies done under the label of a science of the social as it is never clear in which precise sense social sciences can be said to be empirical
The chapters that follow take us through each of these “uncertainties”

Once we are accustomed to these many shifting frames of reference a very good grasp of how the social is generated can be provided, since a relativist connection between frames of reference offers a better source of objective judgment than the absolute (that is, arbitrary) settings suggested by common sense” (30).

It’s crucial not to begin with a pronouncement of the sort: ‘Social aggregates are mainly made of (x).’ ANT doesn’t take it as its job to stabilize the social on behalf of the people it studies; such a duty is to be left entirely to the ‘actors themselves’” (31).

In order to have “group existence,” there must be spokespersons to speak for that group.

Part I: How to Deploy Controversies About the Social World
How to deploy the many controversies about associations without restricting in advance the social to a specific domain? Focuses on why we shouldn’t limit in advance the sort of beings populating the social world.

Part II: How to Render Associations Traceable Again
How to render fully traceable the means allowing actors to stabilize those controversies? How it’s possible to render social connections traceable by following the work done to stabilize the controversies followed in the first part. ANT has tried to render the social world as flat as possible in order to ensure that the establishment of any new link is clearly visible.
To conclude, by showing why the task of assembling the collective is worth pursuing, but only after the shortcut of society and ‘social explanation’ has been abandoned”

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.