Wednesday, June 25, 2003

(Reading Roundup: Latour Reviews Hutchins)

Originally posted: Wed, 25 Jun 2003 10:43:47

Reading Roundup. Still working on Star's Ecologies of Knowledge, but I got sidetracked when I discovered that UT has an online subscription to Social Studies of Science and some similar journals. I printed almost a ream of articles by Latour, Bowker, and similar folks and have almost finished reading them. In the mix: Latour's review of Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild from Mind, Culture, and Activity (a great journal that I didn't know UT even had a subscription to).

The latter was highly interesting because it begins to help me piece together something I began thinking about early in the blog: the relationship between actor-network theory and distributed cognition. Both take radically symmetrical (or I should say, symmetrical and therefore radical) views of the relationships between humans and nonhumans. Both attempt to eschew a micro-macro distinction. Both are pragmatic, broadly speaking (in passing, I note that Star draws the same connection between ANT and American pragmatism that I speculatively drew earlier in this blog.) But ANT comes out of sociology while DC comes from cognitive anthropology (if such a thing still exists). ANT avoids cognitive explanations while DC incorporates them by narrowly defining cognition and moving it primarily outside the head.

Other little differences begin to add up. Latour declares the macro-micro distinction dead, but I can think of few examples of his work that examine the fine details of human activity -- and even these fine details are described in general terms, along the lines of "then the lab tech cuts off one of the rat's toes." Hutchins similarly avoids a macro-micro distinction, but he uses cameras and coding schemes to dissect minute practices in ways that I can only describe as microanalytical. Latour focuses on chains of translation and displacement, while Hutchins describes chains of transformation through computations. Latour wants to make nonhumans actants, so he describes them in terms we normally reserve for humans (allies, traitors, compliant, recalcitrant, etc.) -- one envisions Latour living in a Disney cartoon where teapots sing and doors grumble, although Star cautions us against reading Latour through the lens of pantheism. Hutchins wants to stretch cognition across artifacts, so he describes it computationally and calls people a special kind of media, which on its face appears to be the opposite of Latour's tactic, creating a symmetric vocabulary by describing humans in terms reserved for nonhumans. (Of course, there's a long tradition of this in cognitive science and in Taylorism for that matter.)

I think the underlying difference between ANT and DC is that they're working on different problems. ANT isn't trying to unify the social and the cognitive -- Latour and Woolgar, in fact, decared a "moratorium" on the cognitive, believing it to be empty. On the other hand, I think that in some important way DC *is* trying to unify the two, just as activity theory is. So I'll have to investigate.

I'll also have to reread Geoff Bowker's book Science on the Run pretty soon. I just reread another one of his Schlumberger pieces and can see some resonances with my current project. More on that later.

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