Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Reading:: Power, Action, and Belief

Originally posted: Wed, 11 Jun 2003 00:27:51

Power, Action, and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?
by John Law (Editor)

It might be cheating to count this as a book since I only read three of the essays: Michel Callon's classic study of scallops and fishermen, John Law's (again) classic study of Portuguese navigation, and Bruno Latour's good-but-probably-not-a-classic essay on the nature of power. All three were well worth it in terms of understanding actor-network theory, but all three implicitly pointed out some of the problems as well.

Take Callon's study. It's a great way to illustrate the notion of translation, the notion of treason, and the principle of symmetry. I was particularly interested in how he uses symmetry to show how the fishermen were enlisted and translated just as the scallops were, and how both groups of entities had to be kept in line. Fishermen and scallops both vote; they both become unruly and betray the researchers. Great. On the other hand, I thought Callon went too far (or not far enough) to make his points. How is it that the fishermen and scallops are construed as being kept in line and as betraying the researchers, and not the other way around? Despite the principle of asymmetry, it seemed to me that Callon had made the researchers into tragic heroes, Machiavellian (and not in the positive sense).

Law's study was very nice, and it's no wonder that it was cited approvingly by Edwin Hutchins in his 1995 book on distributed cognition and ship navigation. Law convincingly argues that the Portuguese achieved naval dominance in part by "the creation of an environment within which vessels might operate with integrity" through new practices and artifacts, resulting in the projection of long-distance control. Although Law doesn't invoke Taylorism here, some of the practices he describes can be seen as its precursors. Fascinating stuff, and a nice point to move from ANT to distributed cognition if you're interested in doing so.

Latour's essay argues that power is not a possession, but a consequence, and that we should begin to see the enactment of power as translation rather than diffusion. One person does not possess more power than another, at least not in any empirical sense, but one person might be able to find ways to align her interest with others, to translate their interests so that they must take a detour and fulfill her goals. This notion of power is democratic (no surprise there) and materialist. Latour goes on to say that society itself is also the result of material tasks. We can see here where Latour wants to part company with folks like activity theorists, who want to use diagrams to construct overall pictures of cultures and activities. Rather, Latour believes that those pictures don't exist, since culture and activity are abstractions or stories that are made up after the fact. In his later work, Latour picks up the notion of rhizomes, as does John Law (whose book I'm working on right now).

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