Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory

Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory

Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory

Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory

Synopsis

Reassembling the Social is a fundamental challenge from one of the world's leading social theorists to how we understand society and the 'social'. Bruno Latour's contention is that the word 'social', as used by Social Scientists, has become laden with assumptions to the point where it has become misnomer. When the adjective is applied to a phenomenon, it is used to indicate a stablilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that in due course may be used to account for another phenomenon. But Latour also finds the word used as if it described a type of material, in a comparable way to an adjective such as 'wooden' or 'steely'. Rather than simply indicating what is already assembled together, it is now used in a way that makes assumptions about the nature of what is assembled. It has become a word that designates two distinct things: a process of assembling; and a type of material, distinct from others. Latour shows why 'the social' cannot be thought of as a kind of materialor domain, and disputes attempts to provide a 'social explanations' of other states of affairs. While these attempts have been productive (and probably necessary) in the past, the very success of the social sciences mean that they are largely no longer so. At the present stage it is no longer possible to inspect the precise constituents entering the social domain. Latour returns to the original meaning of 'the social' to redefine the notion, and allow it to trace connections again. It willthen be possible to resume the traditional goal of the social sciences, but using more refined tools. Drawing on his extensive work examining the 'assemblages' of nature, Latour finds it necessary to scrutinize thoroughly the exact content of what is assembled under the umbrella of Society. This approach, a 'sociology of associations', has become known as Actor-Network-Theory, and this book is an essential introduction both for those seeking to understand Actor-Network Theory, or the ideasof one of its most influential proponents.

Excerpt

The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.

What I want to do in the present work is to show why the social cannot be construed as a kind of material or domain and to dispute the project of providing a ‘social explanation’ of some other state of affairs. Although this earlier project has been productive and probably necessary in the past, it has largely stopped being so thanks in part to the success of the social sciences. At the present stage of their development, it’s no longer possible to inspect the precise ingredients that are entering into the composition of the social domain. What I want to do is to redefine the notion of social by going back to its original meaning and making it able to trace connections again. Then it will be possible to resume the traditional goal of the social sciences but

* A shortened reference format is used in the notes; the complete bibliography is at the end. This somewhat austere book can be read in parallel with the much lighter Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant (1998), Paris ville invisible, which tries to cover much of the same ground through a succession of photographic essays.

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