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Book Reviews: Reassembling the Social

Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, by Bruno Latour (2005). UK: Oxford University Press. x + 301 pp.  ISBN 0-19-925604-7.

Review 1 by Patrick McLane, University of Alberta

In Reassembling the Social Bruno Latour reevaluates the ambiguous term ‘the social.’ He claims that the dominant trend within sociology has been to conceive of the social as a given totality, “always already there,” which provides a solid base for understanding any other phenomena (p. 5-8). Against this tendency Latour contends that it is the social itself which requires explanation and insists that we must always ask how it is constituted; through which associations, involving what actors (p. 64). Only to the extent that the thinker pays attention to all the agents and relations involved in a given assemblage, he writes, does she have any right to posit a unifying theory of the whole (p. 5).

This is not only Latour’s rule for good science but a political maxim, actually a democratic ethic, which postpones the question of how we shall live together in favor of asking whether all are represented (p. 254, 259-260). It is an attempt to keep open the question “how many are we?” (p. 254, 260) and to resist the idea that the social world is an objective reality with incontestable boundaries – as if the fundamental political question of ‘who counts’ were already and forever resolved (p. 162-164, 260).

His worthy maxim for the social scientist is “‘follow the actors themselves,’… learn from them what the collective existence has become in their hands” (p. 12). By carefully considering the “idiosyncratic terms offered by the actors…” (p. 47), Latour argues, we will recapture the sense of the social as a precarious gathering of associations continually in need of reassessment and reconstitution (p. 233-234).

Yet the reader cannot fail to notice that, inasmuch as the book consists of an “opinionated and partial” (p. 12) diatribe against “mainstream sociology” (p. 40), Latour does not practice his own method. While he consistently denigrates those who accuse their informants of ‘false consciousness’ and tell them they must give up their own accounts in favor of scientific explanations (p. 48), this is precisely what Latour would like to tell the vast majority of sociologists. Social theory, from positivism to phenomenology, is said to have been wrong in its understandings and asked to acknowledge his superior approach to collective life (p. 61, 206).

This is not accidental, Latour himself comments that treating the discourse of social theory fairly would undermine his ability to assert the uniqueness of his work (p. 8-12). Yet it is frustrating, especially given that Latour’s attempt to separate himself from the sociological tradition openly contradicts his professed desire to foreground the study of attachments and interrelations (p. 217). The Achilles’ heel of the work is that the reader is left with the arduous task of tracing the affinities between actor-network-theory and the rest of sociology. In this light it may be productive to read Latour alongside other recent accounts of ‘the social,’ particularly those which offer an alternate account of the way the term has been understood within social science. For instance consider Singer (2006) and Sewell (2005), both of whom argue that ‘the social’ has frequently, if implicitly, been employed to indicate an indeterminate assemblage of diverse elements.

References

Sewell, William. (2005). “Refiguring the ‘Social’ in Social Science: an Interpretivist Manifesto” Logics of History, Social Theory and Social Transformation (p. 318-373). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Singer, Brian. (2006). “Thinking the ‘Social’ with Claude Lefort.” Thesis Eleven, 87: 83-95.

Review 2 by Florian Teufelhart & Wiebke Pohler, University of Munich (LMU)

In contemporary sociology there are only few theories that have challenged sociological thought in such a crucial way as the works of Actor-Network-Theory (ANT). After three decades of research, Bruno Latour, one of its famous advocates, provides for the first time a systematic, ordered and detailed introduction in ANT – Reassembling the Social. ANT stands for an innovative approach which declines modernitiy’s bifurcative groundings and draws attention to the very entanglements of “non-modern” actor-networks. Although ANT seems in this view to be quite unconventional, Reassembling the Social is based on a rather conventional question: What is (the) social?

To answer this question Latour starts – in a very polemic and therefore in a very entertaining way – with a critique of traditional sociology which is either applied to an abstract social force offering social explanations that may account for different phenomena of reality (as in the tradition of Emile Durkheim) or is limited to the mere encounters of humans (as argued by interactionism). The ANT critique of this ‘Sociology of the Social’ is that it clearly deepens the modern gap between the social and the non-social world. In contrast ANT takes up the position that there is no distinct domain or material, no type of connection, to which we could invariably attribute the label ‘social.’

As the title of the book announces, in presenting ANT, it is not the aim of the book to ‘re-define’ the social but to “re-assemble” it. In doing so, Latour introduces ANT not as a theory, but as a method, which main principle is following the actors (p. 12), i.e. tracing their multiple associations and translations. In this sense, the ‘social’ becomes a mode of associations (p. 9) between heterogeneous (human and non-human) actors, made by the actors themselves. Both the actors and their associations undergo a metamorphosis process (translation) in each mode of assemblage. So ANT obviously describes a field of controversies and uncertainties which cannot be reduced to a priori definitions (about groups, actions, objects, matters of facts or even the research-approach itself, p. 21 – 158) but depends on the very results of concrete assemblages.

Latour’s “sociology of association” is not restricted to give a “global” over-all explanantion or a specific “local” insight, but simply follows traceable associations throughout a network, which is neither local nor global, but totally flat (p. 165). An ANT analysis reaches as far as the actors’ translations go, not as far as epistemological separations admit. ANT wants to open eyes to see who is acting within any site and where the consequences of associations may travel. Especially in times of dislocated responsibilities and increasing tendencies of convergence (e.g. scientific, economic, environmental challenges) ANT may offer – in our point of view – new forms of symmetrical politics (which Latour describes here in a rather vague way, p. 247) that could offer new insights in matters of public concern.

To conclude: Reassembling the Social is not really an introduction to a theory as we use to know it. If you want to learn about ANT, it is not enough to read this book, but the book tells you how to learn about ANT: by doing ANT!

Anne

2 Comments

  1. klaus wrote:

    Bruno Latour and Peter Sloterdijk at Harvard GSD (via Klaustoon): http://klaustoon.wordpress.com/2009/03/24/bruno-latour-and-peter-sloterdijk-ii/

    Wednesday, March 25, 2009 at 01:26 | Permalink
  2. Y wrote:

    And for a work-in-progress using the Latourian idea of tracing networks in order to rebuild a political project, see also http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/2008/09/16/knowledge-and-praxis-of-networks-as-a-political-project/

    Saturday, March 28, 2009 at 12:18 | Permalink