Bruno Latour: “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory”

In his 2005 book, Latour takes square aim at the discipline of sociology, critiquing it as confusing cause and effect in a magic trick that forecloses the process of tracing the very social connections and formations that it seeks to explain. Traditional sociologists start with a macro-scale entity or force–”society” or “culture”–that they then use to explain myriad local interactions. Every action is embedded within social structures. Latour argues that social forces are in fact too weak to account for anything like the complex and durable structures we see in the world. Baboons have the same basic social skills as humans; the reason human culture is so complex, durable, and asymmetrical (i.e., contains so many reified power differentials) is that these weak social ties are transformed or translated into material structures. If we want to understand how social structures, let alone put ourselves in a position to take control of them (that is, to “reassemble” them) we must dispose of the assumption that the local is explained by the global, and start tracing the process by which the local GENERATES global structures. Society is not a force that determines the actions of its local actors; rather, local actors, through their interactions, determine the form of the social.

For Latour, this causal reversal is more than just a project to reinvest the individual with agency (explained away by sociologists), but more radically to invest non-human objects with agency as well. The “actors” in Actor-Network-Theory are not just humans but automobiles, airplanes, power lines, speed bumps, and paper clips. Latour is not claiming, of course, that such object possess anything like human intentionality, but merely that they matter when considering webs of interactions; they act on other objects. Thus, leaving them out of the picture is to radically skew the nature of social structures. How ideas are translated and communicated (through communication networks, for instance) is just as important as considering their “social context.” In fact, no explanation is possible without them: “It’s the power exerted through entities that don’t sleep and associations that don’t break down that allow power to last longer and expand further—and, to achieve such a feat, many more materials than social compacts have to be devised.” (70)

The social is produced; if we are to study it, we must start with its sites of production: labs, offices, studios, building construction sites, etc. In short, we must study the sites where innovations occur. For Latour, this insight arose from his work in the sociology of science, a limit case where the attempted explanation of physical objects via recourse to social theory failed so radically “that it’s safe to postulate that it had always failed elsewhere as well.” (94)

Latour’s solution is to start with local interactions and begin to trace out the network of connections that ties together humans and objects in durable structures. This implies a topological change in sociology itself: instead of nesting certain scales within larger scales (such as explaining a Paris labour protest as caused by “French social structures”), ANT requires a “flat” topology, where all associations are assumed to be on the same scale and plane. The temptation to “jump scales” must always be guarded against. Within the flat network of associations that the ANT scholar traces, every actor is considered as a mediator, translating one kind of information into another; thus there is only one scale.

The tools Latour presents here are useful in a number of ways. First, he reinvigorates political engagement: by tracing out myriad mediations, the seams of society are exposed and its fragility revealed; by reinvesting the individual actor with causal significance, political agency no longer seems illusory or futile. Second, Latour helps us reconstruct the essential role that objects play in power structures. Eschewing both social determinism and technological determinism opens a space for a renewed engagement with material objects as actors within our social networks. Finally, Latour provides a methodology for arriving at a participatory construction of the collective: “sociology is best defined as the discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective.” (247)

-ZH

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