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.

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