Reassembling the Social – Latour

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

In Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour argues that the use of the word “social” by social scientists or sociologist has come to wrongly describe something stable that can be used to describe a phenomenon when, according to Latour the idea of social needs to be redefined to allow for mobility, change, and tracing of connections again. In other words the social is not that which is already assembled, but that which is in constant action and flux. In the introduction, Latour states, “I am going to define 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” (8).  He goes on to state that, “it is no longer enough to limit actors to the role of informers in offering cases of some well-known types. You have to grant them back the ability to make up their own theories of what the social is made of. Your task is no longer to impose some order, to limit the range of acceptable entities, to each actors what they are, or to ass some reflexivity to their blind practice” (11-12). In other words, the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) Latour proposes is a new methodology for the study of sociology is just as much a shift in power mechanisms as it is a shift in approaches to research. In Chapter 1, Latour argues that the shrinking definition of the social has likewise diminished the science and productivity behind its study.  ANT broadens the concept of social again by seeking to find order after the study of actors, rather than imposing order beforehand. By allowing the actors to act, Latour states that important controversies arise. By tracing these controversies, the social is revealed. In Part One of the book, Latour also outlines five sources of uncertainty that arise in the practice of ANT and which may be overcome: 1) no group, only group formation 2) action is overtaken 3) objects too have agency 4) matters of fact vs. matters of concern 5) writing down risky accounts. Of key interest to me, are the first three sources of uncertainty. In response to the first uncertainty, Latour remarks, “whereas for sociologist the first problem seems to settle on one privileged grouping, our most common experience, it we are faithful to it, tells us that there are lots of contradictory group formations, group enrollment (29). Where the second uncertainty is concerned, Latour states, “action is not done under the full control of consciousness; action should rather be felt as a nod, a knot, and a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled. It is this venerable source of uncertainty that we wish to render vivid again in the odd expression of actor-network” (44) Furthermore, Latour argues that efforts to unite the complex interplay of agencies under the banner of one large agency such as “society” or “culture” should be avoided (45). “Action” Latour states, “should remain a surprise, a mediation, an event” (46). That action can remain so is due to agency that, according to Latour, either does something (and exists) or does not (and doesn’t). He states, “If you mention an agency, you have to provide the account of its action, and to so you need to make more or less explicit which trials have produced which observable traces” (53). That said, Latour suggests too much time has been spent on the question of “which agency to choose and not enough on hoe each of them was supposed to act” (58). In reference to the third uncertainty, Latour states, “If action is limit a priori to what ‘intentional’, ‘meaningful’ humans do, it is hard to see how a hammer, a basked, a door close, a cat, a rug, a mug, a list, or a tag could act….By contract, if we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actions and agencies then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor – or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant” (71). Latour is careful, however to clarify that he is not implying that object determine action, but that objects can influence, block, making possible, etc. certain actions (72).

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