Thursday, June 05, 2003

Reading:: Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology

Originally posted: Thu, 05 Jun 2003 19:27:09

Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology: Sociology of Science in the Real World
by Michel Callon, John Law, Arie Rip (Editor)

This collection, published in 1986, is a relatively early set of studies using actor-network theory (ANT), including a nice little glossary of terms. ANT has often been accused of being Machiavellian, and this book's introduction appears to confirm that accusation in its praise for Machiavelli's method and its suggestion that sociologists should imitate him. But what should be imitated, the authors argue, is Machiavelli's willingness to make even-handed observations, to follow the actors wherever they lead without favor or condemnation. (See Latour's argument in the latter chapters of Pandora's Hope for a convincing argument against the sort of amoral power-wielding that we often think of when we think of Machiavelli.)

So, in imitation of Machiavelli, the authors set out to make even-handed observations -- to follow the actors, which means following the texts (p.4), the many inscriptions that are made and circulated. These texts are seen as making possible the construction of linkages among other texts, work, and institutions (p.10). Obviously, this view is attractive to me as a person who studies texts and who has advocated following the texts (i.e., tracing the genres) in organizations.

One result of this methodological stance is that the authors are willing to set aside the macro-micro divide that has typically been assumed in sociology. That's a theme that appears elsewhere in the ANT literature. And I'm willing to go partway on it -- obviously macro, meso, and micro levels of activity are related, and I have gone so far as to claim that they co-constitute each other. But they're also useful analytical lenses, particularly when you want to examine activity in sociocognitive terms. ANT doesn't appear to do that. I tend to think that ANT is what distributed cognition would be if it were about politics and society rather than cognition. (And not coincidentally, some in the ANT are clearly very interested in Edwin Hutchins' work.)

The first half of the book concentrates on theory and involves the sorts of qualitative studies you might expect. The second half, though, involves a lot of quantitative analysis of scientific texts and their references. I found it to be interesting in theory and boring in practice. But I'm sure I should return to this book at some point and review the methods.

Blogged with Flock

Reading:: War of the Worlds:

Originally posted: Thu, 05 Jun 2003 01:48:00

War of the Worlds: What About Peace?
by Bruno Latour

War of the Worlds is a little pamphlet Latour published in the wake of 9/11, although much of it is based on essays written before the tragedy. It's hopeful. He wants to see this tragedy as a wake-up call, as a way for us to recognize that we are at war -- a war that, he contends, has been waged for a while but that the West has not acknowledged. Once we recognize this war, he says, we can possibly negotiate a peace.

The real value of the book is Latour's examination of ethnocentrism and multiculturalism (two sides of the same coin -- a familiar pattern in Latour's writing). He critiques them strongly, arguing that they rely on the notion that there is one nature but many cultures. That's a notion that the West has embraced, he says, and ultimately both Western ethnocentrism and Western multiculturalism assume that the one Nature is best apprehended by Western ways of knowing. We might appreciate that another culture believes differently about its gods, creation myths, you name it -- but deep down we believe that our methods have allowed us to see Nature more clearly than they. That, Latour says, is not only corrosive but from an ontological viewpoint, inaccurate.

Then we get into the problem of the book. Latour is very attached to democracy and democratic dialogue, as am I, and he wants to use democratic dialogue to negotiate a truce in this once-hidden, now revealed war of cultures. Great. Here's a passage discussing the shape these negotiations might take:

Take the case of religion, which, even more than Science, has to do with earlier, premature modernist projects to unify the planet. Can a positive constructionism be applied in this instance? Might not the nearly fanatical attachment to the non-constructed character of the unity of God be largely a response to the unifying role of nature, which the negotiations have agreed to limit? If the latter becomes negotiable, why not the former too? Do we mandate the diplomats to dare to say, for instance, of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he is well or badly constructed? .... Why not use [the discourse of fabrication] positively, and reformulate, in the company of the others, the question of the right ways of constructing good divinities? Would we not have here, instead of a hypothetical 'inter-religious dialogue,' a more fruitful and even technical exchange of procedures? The all powerful already existing absolute God sends his devout to holy war, but what about the relative God which might be unified in the slowly constructed future? (pp.45-46)

The quote is shocking, as I'm sure Latour meant it to be, but it also strikes me as naive. Whether there is a war of the worlds or not, those who created the event that frames this booklet were in important ways quite modernist -- well educated, literate (more so than most US citizens), schooled in the sciences and technologies. And their ideology -- this is the important part -- was also quite Western, owing as much to fascist ideologies of the last century as they do to Islam. They bought into modernism as much as the Western world did. (To borrow a mandate from Latour's earlier work: Follow the actors! Follow the texts!) And the notion of renegotiating God with hostile parties would not set well with them or even with non-modern non-Westerners. You'll find quite a few Western diplomats willing to negotiate in Latour's terms, but who will they negotiate with?

Blogged with Flock

Reading:: Pandora's Hope

Originally posted: Thu, 05 Jun 2003 01:17:14

Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies
by Bruno Latour

This is one of Latour's most enjoyable books. Latour was one of the first popularizers of actor-network theory (which he now claims should be called "actant-rhizome ontology" to be accurate) and continues to be a really interesting thinker. And writer. His style is really remarkable -- provocative, pugnacious, confrontational.

Latour's family also is known for wine, and in an interview a while back, he said that he only hoped that people enjoyed reading a Latour as much as they enjoyed drinking a Latour. For me, reading a Latour is very enjoyable and tends to be like drinking. His texts make me feel a little euphoric, a little gregarious, particularly since he sees humans sharing a world with nonhumans who are every bit as much socialized actors as we are. I enjoy that perspective. But the day after reading a Latour, I tend to have sort of an ontological hangover. As a colleague of mine said recently, Latour's extraordinary writing style comes at a price. Clear away the remarkable writing style (at its best here) and you see the same sort of academic argument you often see: position A, position B, and then Latour's position C.

In this book, position A is modernism and position B is postmodernism. According to Latour, they're two sides of the same coin, two ways of handling the Cartesian split and the related modernist settlement. What interests me is that he connects these to democracy, in which he seems to believe quite fervently. Well, me too. So his two chapters on the Gorgias -- the famous Socratic dialogue in which Callicles and Socrates create the false dichotomy of Might vs. Right, ignoring the teeming masses and their way of governance, democracy -- is really fascinating and thought-provoking. I see a lot of parallels with other movements that are concerned with democracy and modernist threats to it, particularly participatory design.

Latour's work is particularly interesting to me right now because I've been dealing with activity theory and genre theory to tackle problems of information design and knowledge circulation. See my upcoming book. But activity theory and Bakhtinian genre theory both developed in the Soviet Union, where it wasn't particularly safe to question the political structure, so politics are relatively undeveloped in both approaches. (Some may disagree with me here.) So I'm looking for ways to extend my genre tracing approach to involve the political dimension (and, inevitably, the rhetorical dimension that goes along with it). Of course, the schools of thought may be hard to reconcile, since activity theory was founded on Marxist thought and Latour has contempt for Marxism. I'm working on squaring that circle right now.

Blogged with Flock