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

By Bruno Latour | Go to book overview

Second Source of Uncertainty:
Action Is Overtaken

In most situations, we use ‘social’ to mean that which has already been assembled and acts as a whole, without being too picky on the precise nature of what has been gathered, bundled, and packaged together. When we say that ‘something is social’ or ‘has a social dimension’, we mobilize one set of features that, so to speak, march in step together, even though it might be composed of radically different types of entities. This unproblematic use of the word is fine as long as we don’t confuse the sentence ‘Is social what goes together?’, with one that says, ‘social designates a particular kind of stuff’. With the former we simply mean that we are dealing with a routine state of affairs whose binding together is the crucial aspect, while the second designates a sort of substance whose main feature lies in its differences with other types of materials. We imply that some assemblages are built out of social stuff instead of physical, biological, or economical blocks, much like the houses of the Three Little Pigs were made of straw, wood, and stone. To avoid this confusion between the two meanings of social, we have to open a second source of uncertainty, one dealing this time with the heterogeneous nature of the ingredients making up social ties.

When we act, who else is acting? How many agents are also present? How come I never do what I want? Why are we all held by forces that are not of our own making? Such is the oldest and most legitimate intuition of those sciences, that which has fascinated since the time when crowds, masses, statistical means, invisible hands, and unconscious drives began to replace the passions and reasons, not to mention the angels and demons that had pushed and pulled our humble souls up to then. In the previous chapter, we learned to trace social connections using the unexpected trails left by the controversies about group formation. Social scientists and actors were on par with each other and both raised essentially the same type of question: How do we know what the social world is made of? We now have to learn how to exploit a second source of uncertainty, one that is even more

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