Speedbumps

Posted: February 6, 2012 by tupakkat in Feb 8

In his venture to promote the Actor Network Theory as an alternative to what he calls “sociology of the social” and to view sociology in light of its etymological roots as “tracing of associations” rather than “science of the social”, Latour argues among other things for paying attention to non-humans in their function as actors.

Since the term “social” in Latour’s view does not designate a domain of reality but an association between entities which is recognizable only during the brief moment of contact (Latour 2007: 65) the notion of “sociologists of the social” that social ties are simultaneously durable and made of social stuff, is a grave mistake. So is the division between the material and the social and the exclusion of objects as agents. According to Latour, anything that modifies a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor or, if still without figuration, an actant (ibid.: 71), not in the sense of causality but as a “shade between full causality and sheer inexistence” (ibid.: 72).

Like Miller, who speaks about the humility of things, Latour aims at bringing objects out of the state of being “humble servants” by recognizing their mostly unnoticed impact on others. In this respect he complements the socials sciences with a crucial, hitherto rather ignored, perspective. Latour’s challenge and redefinition of long accepted terminology, however, in addition to his introduction of new concepts paves the way for confusion. Instead of introducing a new means of transportation, he attempts to re-invent the wheel.

My first question, therefore is: Why is a complete “new sociology” needed for the sole purpose of widening the sociologist’s spectrum? Speed-bumps, to remain with Latour’s example, are most likely not a result of ANT but a consequence of policy makers’ recognition of the fact that (for reasons that may be interesting for sociologists of study) a possible punishment caused by the undesired act of speeding is a more effective deterrent than an appeal to the human actor’s conscience. Undeniably does the concrete slab have enough “agency”, to speak with Latour’s terms, to influence the driver’s conduct. The interesting question behind it remains, however, why does it take a concrete slab where a sign used to be good enough?

While objects and their “agency” undeniably are under-acknowledged, it is not the object itself that is of interest to the human researcher but the human aspect behind it, the meaning attached to it by a human or the influence it has on a human.

My second question relates to the motive behind Latour’s approach: policy makers, professionals concerned with security, urban developers increasingly rely on things to provide their desired ends. They limit human agency through a use of things that impedes if not excludes undesired conduct (e.g. armrests on a bus stop bench to prevent homeless people from sleeping there). On the other hand it objectifies humans by placing them in the same category as a thing (see Nicholas Blomley, 2007 “How to Turn a Beggar into a Bus Stop”). Either way, the power relations remain between humans, not between humans and things. It is a human who placed a certain object in an impeding way, it is a human who defined a beggar as belonging to the same category as a newspaper stand. The power of the object is just the extended arm of a human being. Therefore, why and how is the sociologist hiding the real cause of social inequality?

 

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Comments
  1. Tupakkat,

    I find your second question interesting and it would be really useful to discuss it in class tomorrow. I felt that towards the end of the first section in Lautour’s chapter, he really makes a compelling case for objects by employing the language of marginality, representation and even referring to them as “humble servants [that] live on the margins of the social doing most of work” (pg. 73). I think the employment of this language is very deliberate. I think it would be interesting to draw out the purpose of using this language, especially in context/contrast to the points you have highlighted above.

    With regard to your first question, I agree that the driver’s relationship to the concrete slab is responsive to policy makes and effective deterrants, but it is also is interesting to consider other social links, such as the driver’s own selfishness in slowing down so that his suspension is not broken by the concrete slab. So I’m thinking that Lautner’s point would be to not consider one response (moral, altruistic or legal deterrant) as social while viewing the other response as purely objective or material. I think Latour stresses that it would be unmethodological for social scientists to pursue certain links and not others.

    Interesting stuff!

  2. tupakkat says:

    Sana,

    I agree with your response towards the concrete slab issue. Surely, both motivations are equally interesting and worthwhile to examine. However, I don’t see the distinction Latour makes or rather ascribes to “scientists of the social”. I follow Latour’s thought as to the different kinds of motivation involved, one has a moral aspect, the other a “practical” one, the former appeals to a person’s goodness and understanding the latter to a person’s love of their material goods.
    Both motivations, however, are induced by objects. The street sign is as much an object as the bump, they only appeal to different motivations. Choosing one or the other -from the viewpoint of a city planner- reveals much about the planner’s image of humanity – or maybe empirical research …
    So, yes, both processes deserve equal consideration and the distinction is highly interesting but as much as Latour criticizes sociologists for marginalizing objects, the idea of a “level playing field” does not really resonate with me.

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