When things strike back: a possible contribution of ... ?· Bruno Latour When things strike back: ...…
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<ul><li><p>Bruno Latour</p><p>When things strike back: a possible contributionof science studies to the social sciences</p><p>ABSTRACT</p><p>The contribution of the eld of science and technology studies (STS) to main-stream sociology has so far been slim because of a misunderstanding about whatit means to provide a social explanation of a piece of science or of an artefact.The type of explanation possible for religion, art or popular culture no longerworks in the case of hard science or technology. This does not mean, it is argued,that science and technology escapes sociological explanation, but that a deepredescription of what is a social explanation is in order. Once this misunder-standing has been claried, it becomes interesting to measure up the challengeraised by STS to the usual epistemologies social sciences believed necessary fortheir undertakings. The social sciences imitate the natural sciences in a way thatrender them unable to pro t from the type of objectivity found in the natural sci-ences. It is argued that by following the STS lead, social sciences may start toimitate the natural sciences in a very different fashion. Once the meanings ofsocial and of science are recongured, the denition of what a social scienceis and what it can do in the political arena is considered. Again it is not by imi-tating the philosophers of sciences ideas of what is a natural science that soci-ology can be made politically relevant.</p><p>KEYWORDS: Epistemology; science and technology studies; method; naturalsciences</p><p>INTRODUCTION</p><p>I forgot who the famous philosopher was who used to quip that all was wellwith the social sciences except for two tiny words: social and sciences.Although a change of millennium possesses no deep meaning, save forChristians for whom it is a telling event in the history of Salvation, andalthough thousands of years is much too vast for the juvenile social scienceswho never had to celebrate any anniversary longer than a few centuries, theyear 2000 might none the less be a good occasion to meditate, once again,about the claims of the social sciences to be just that: sciences of the social.</p><p>The time is all the more auspicious since a minuscule sub- eld ofsociology, called science and technology studies (STS) has for the lastBritish Journal of Sociology Vol. No. 51 Issue No. 1 (January/March 2000) pp. 107123ISSN 0007 1315 London School of Economics 2000</p></li><li><p>twenty- ve years shed some light on what is a natural science and put intodoubt what a society is. Today, it might be possible to ask anew what arethe social sciences in the light of the sociology of the natural and social sci-ences. What fecund areas of research could open up in the near future?The task is not that easy since STS have so far led the same sort of life asearly mammals when dinosaurs were roaming the Earth. Hidden in periph-eral niches, they were awaiting for better days to explode in many new loca-tions. Although I do not expect (nor hope!) a comet to wipe out the BigAnimals, I do think STS will have a more conspicuous place in the delicateecology of the social sciences, once the demise of a few traditional Big Prob-lems will have left some space for its proliferation. The dif culty is thatbecause of its very invisibility, STSs contribution to mainstream sociologyis not easy to grasp (see Jasanoff, Markle, Peterson and Pinch 1995 for anintroduction, Biagioli 1999 for a useful reader and Knorr-Cetina 1999 fora recent major contribution).</p><p>The of cial version would have it that STS has contributed to a socialexplanation of phenomena judged until now irrelevant for sociologybecause they did not pertain to the social realm at all, namely matter,ef ciency, and objectivity. According to tradition, the work of sociologistsbegins and ends with socially relevant topics. If a cyclist falls off his bicyclebecause it has hit a rock, social scientists confess, they have nothing to say.It is only if a policeman, a lover, an insurance agent or the Good Samari-tan enter the scene that a social science becomes possible, because we arenow faced, not only with a causal sequence of occurrences, but also with astring of socially meaningful events. Not so for STS practitioners, who deemsociologically interesting and empirically analysable, the very mechanismsof the bicycle (Bijker 1995), the paving of roads, the geology of rocks, thephysiology of wounds and so on, without taking the boundary betweenmatter and society as a division of labour between the natural and the socialsciences. Although this equanimity (or symmetry as it is called in thejargon), is ercely disputed in our sub eld, there is complete agreement inSTS on the importance of extending the research programmes of the socialsciences beyond the former realm of what was considered until now as thesocial (Bloor 1991; Law 1986).</p><p>The question I want to tackle here, at the occasion provided by thechange of digits in the way that we (in the developed part of some of thericher societies) compute years, is how much of the usual business of thesocial sciences is to be modi ed by such an extension to natural phenom-ena.</p><p>NOTHING SUCCEEDS LIKE FAILURE</p><p>The rst dif culty is to go beyond the boundar y of the social in order tograsp natural and material objects. I would be tempted to phrase the situ-ation in the following paradoxical way. If a social explanation of the natural</p><p>108 Bruno Latour</p></li><li><p>sciences and of technologies succeeds, then it fails and the rest of the socialsciences disappears as well. While if it fails, it is interesting but so super cialthat we cannot be safe in the hope of becoming real scientists because wehave missed the thing under study. In both cases, STS appears as the fatumof the social sciences. I will defend this paradox rst, before turning, in thenext section, to the positive, although counter-intuitive, contribution ofSTS.</p><p>What could it mean, according to mainstream social sciences, to providea social explanation of a natural phenomenon? It is to show, they believe,that a quark, a microbe, a law of thermodynamics, an inertial guidancesystem, and so on, are not what they seem to be incontrovertible objec-tive entities of nature out there but the repository of something else,which they are hiding, re ecting, refracting or disguising. This somethingelse, in the tradition of the social sciences, is necessarily some social func-tions or social factors. Providing a social explanation, thus, means thatsomeone is able in the end to replace some object pertaining to nature byanother one pertaining to society, which can be demonstrated to be its truesubstance (see Hacking 1999, for a remarkable feat of analytical clarity).</p><p>There are very good reasons for such a research strategy to be ef cientsince it worked, social scientists believe, in the paradigmatic case of religionduring the founding moment of the disciplines in the nineteenth century.At the time, sociologists easily convinced themselves that to explain rituals,faiths, apparitions or miracles, that is, transcendent objects to which theactors attribute the origin of some action, it was perfectly possible (if notalways simple) to replace the contents of these objects by the functions ofsociety which they were both hiding and impersonating. Those types ofobjects were called fetishes, that is, place-holders for something else (seePietz 1985 for a genealogy). Once the substitution of the false objects ofbeliefs with the true objects of society has been effected, there is nothingmore to comprehend in religion other than the power of society it soef ciently hides and expresses. So when our colleagues hear that there exista sub- eld dedicated to science and technology, they cannot but imaginethat this eld has tried to do for materiality and objectivity what has beendone rst for religion, and later for many other topics such as popularculture, media studies, politics, art, law, gender and so on. What has to bedone, it seems, is changing the object of attention wrongly assumed by theactors into the real object which derive from society.</p><p>Except of course, that such a substitution cannot be accepted so easilyabout a topic science, objectivity, universality which alone is not like allthe other objects of study in the social sciences. This is because it is some-thing to be looked down and explained, but also something that is to belooked up as the ultimate source of explanation. </p><p>Science, they say, (and this in itself is the most damning confession)cannot be treated as lightly as the rest (meaning that they would beenready to treat the rest lightly!) because it lies at the heart of what it is to</p><p>When things strike back 109</p></li><li><p>be a social scientist and is the only goal worth sacri cing ones life: know-ledge of what the social is made up.</p><p>This is the reason why what could have been warmly welcomed as theexpansion of the project of the social sciences to a new domain STS addedto those of religious studies, class studies, urban studies, gender studies andso on has quickly become a poisoned chalice that decent social scientistswould have much preferred not to have received or been offered.</p><p>The reason for this uneasiness is not hard to understand. In their hearts,social scientists deeply doubt the quality of their own explanations, so muchso that they do not want to be submitted to a treatment they deem delete-rious for all the other subjects! Hence the trap of re exivity so well analysedby STS (Woolgar 1988). We can sociologize everything (including the socialsciences) but only as long as we do not sociologize the natural sciences.Why? Because for many sociologists, to provide a social explanation ofsomething means to destroy this object, to debunk the false beliefs that ordi-nar y people entertain about them, and then to replace the idols by a trueobject of science; or to show that such a replacement is impossible since acertain degree of a not so naive illusio, of false consciousness, is necessaryfor the social order to work (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).</p><p>This taken for granted assumption about what is the normal modusoperandi of a social scientist makes one very dgety when approaching theSTS literature. Since social scientists themselves believe that a social expla-nation destroys its object, what will happen if the natural sciences areundergoing this radical treatment? Are they not going to disappear in theway religion has? Worse: if the natural sciences are submitted to this sub-stitution diet, how long will the objectivity of the social sciences resist? Inthe same ways as the Revolution kills its children, are we not going to seethe whole edi ce of science (natural or social) crumble? Even worse: sinceproviding a social explanation means that one replaces an object of beliefby a social function, it means that the ultimate source of enlightenmentrelies entirely on the fragile shoulders of social scientists requested toprovide a watertight knowledge of society able to take the place, not onlyof God (a piece of cake?), but of the laws of nature as well. Are the socialscientists really up to the challenge? And if they are not, if their knowledgeis weak, will it still be possible to activate the modernist project that requiresfor the emancipation of the people an absolute bedrock of indisputableobjectivity to spur the masses into action? These are the questions agitatedin the so-called science wars. If such is the can of worms that STS hasopened up, it might be safer to close it, and fast! It seems that by extend-ing the project of the social sciences to Reason itself, STS has gone beyondreason!</p><p>This is why STSs contribution to mainstream social sciences has beenso limited: it has always been followed by an evil reputation. You cannotwork in this domain without being immediately saddled with hugephilosophical problems that are tied to your case-studies. Relativism,</p><p>110 Bruno Latour</p></li><li><p>incommensurability, subjectivism, postmodernism, are shot at you evenwhen you deal with such innocent topics as a mathematical proof, a neuro-transmitter, a Monte Carlo calculation or an automated subway. Behind themost innocent eld-work, always appear the forked hoof of the devil.Whereas there is no difculty in showing that Rembrandt was the CEO ofa cottage industr y playing the speculative market, that cargo cults are theexpression of deep colonial frustration, that class interests and product dif-ferentiation mark every instant in the carrier of homo academicus, it stirs asmall scandal to deploy the British Empire in the physics of Lord Kelvin(Smith and Wise 1989), or the whole of imperialism in the setting up ofprimate visions (Haraway 1989). Somehow, for those topics, and only forthose, society and sociality do not seem to be able to meet the bill.</p><p>Faced with such opposition, it is not even possible for the STS prac-titioners to play it safe, because of the second feature of what is a socialexplanation as traditionally construed: either it destroys its object, or itignores it altogether! Why, could the wary social scientist ask, not limitSTSs claims about scienti c practice to the narrow boundaries of the social,as the early founders of the sociology of scientists and engineers (by oppo-sition to that of science and engineering) had very reasonably done in the1950s (Merton 1973)? All dif culties would evaporate. Yes, that is the point:everything would be vaporized, including the goal of social sciences as well.To be sure, there would be no scandal left if it was generally assumed thatthe social explanations limited themselves to those elements which, intechnology surely and even in science, pertains to the social realm: powerrelations, legitimacy, ideology, biases, money, and some distribution ofsymbolic capital. But, if only the most supercial aspects of physics, math-ematics, neurology or ethology are being touched upon by STS, it meansthat, when dealing with a hard object, the social sciences have to give up.Yes, the problem of accepting STS as a bona de domain of social sciencewill have disappeared, but this neutering of science and technology studieswill also have demonstrated that giving a social explanation of any object isa tantamount to limiting oneself to what is not objective, but only social. Onecan become accepted in the salons of social sciences, only on the conditionof not providing an explanation of what one deals with. What was invisiblefor all the other sub- elds, because their social dimensions seemed toexhaust what there was to know in them, appears in a full light when dealingwith the sociology of the facts of natural sciences.</p><p>The quandary with which I started this section, may now appear in all itsforce. If STSs claims are arrogant, they seem to destroy the foundation ofwhat is a science, natural or social, but if they are modest, what they destroyis the very idea of a social explanation of something that escapes the socialdomain. If STS has succeeded in providing a social explanation, then it isbound to fail or at least to die like Samson under the stones of the temp...</p></li></ul>
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When things strike back: a possible contribution of Latour When things strike back: a possible contribution of ‘ science studies’ to the social sciences ABSTRACT The contribution of the ” eld of science and technology studies (STS) to main-stream sociology has so far been ...
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