BIOGRAPHIES: Bruno Latour
by Heather Vidmar-McEwen
Bruno Latour, best known for his contributions to the philosophy of science and science studies over the past thirty years, has had a major but underappreciated impact on the discipline of anthropology. A philosopher by training, an anthropologist by experience, and currently holding a position in sociology, Latour’s work on the social construction of science and the social life of scientists has had a twofold effect on anthropology. The first has been to provide a method for self-critique of the discipline through his program of social studies of science. The second has been to develop the idea of culture as a network of associations through his version of Actor-network Theory (ANT), which focuses especially on the relationship between science, technology, and society. Neither of these contributions has been uncontroversial, the first being tied up in the great debate between positivism and social constructivism of the Science Wars, the second drawing attack from various camps for its equalizing of human and object and its focus on knowledge production as the driving force in culture.
Within anthropology, Latour’s work has not been used or debated as widely as it has in other disciplines such as the history and philosophy of science or sociology, but his contributions can be felt in an indirect—and, occasionally, direct, way—through the importance of his (and others’) ideas of culture as a process and network and of knowledge as a socially constructed phenomenon. The lack of attention to his work is likely a product of historical circumstance in which the discipline has sought to define itself in distinction to other social sciences such as sociology. At the same time, with anthropology’s increasing focus on Western and “developed” societies, Latour’s work could provide an important counterpart to other French theorists such as Foucault and Bourdieu, that have found their way into the discipline. It is unfortunate that anthropology has not engaged with Latour’s work in a more extensive way, as the controversy his ideas have raised in other disciplines could provide anthropology with a vibrant vehicle for discussion of such important topics as the nature of the discipline of anthropology, self-critique and authority, the relationship between science and technology, the role of objects in culture, and the idea of cultural processes.
Latour was born in 1947 in Beaune, France. Latour’s early studies in Dijon were in theology and philosophy. He received his doctorate in philosophy in 1975 from the University of Tours. His dissertation work was on Charles Péguy, the Catholic socialist poet and essayist. While performing military service in Africa, he became interested in anthropology, and later performed fieldwork in Côte d’Ivoire. Working for the Institut Français de Recherce Scientifique pour le dévelopement en Coopération (originally the Office de la Recherche Scientifique Coloniale [ORSTROM]), Latour was involved in furthering the Institute’s mission of “promoting science and technology in developing countries” (Stanford Presidential Lectures 2006; the majority of this brief biography is compiled from this source and also Bruno Latour Homepage 2006).
In the early 1970s, Latour became interested in the anthropology of knowledge, joining his philosophical studies of epistemology with his experience studying culture in Africa. He put his ethnographic skills to work studying communities of scientists. In 1973 he met Roger Guillemen, a French neuroendocrinologist working at the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. With funding from Fullbright and NATO, Latour undertook an ethnographic study of the Salk Institute in 1975. The product of the study, co-authored with the sociologist Steve Woolgar, was the 1979 Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. This book launched Latour into the growing field science and technology studies (STS) that had been founded in Britain by Woolgar and others including Harry Collins, David Edge, and Michael Mulkay (Stanford Presidential Lectures 2006). Laboratory Life was followed up in 1987 with an expansion of his social constructivist take on science in Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Etzkowitz 1987).
With the success of Laboratory Life, Latour became interested in the historical and philosophical relationships of science, technology, and society. During the 1980s he completed a project on 19th century French science, culminating in Les Microbes: Guerre et paix (1984) and its English version, The Pasteurization of France (1988). It was during this period that he helped to develop Actor-network Theory. ANT (discussed in more detail below) represented a move away from his social constructivist position to a more moderate stance that saw society as consisting of networks of individuals and objects acting and being acted on in an attempt to garner favor for a particular cause (in the case of Latour’s research subjects, the cause of promoting a particular version of scientific knowledge).
In the 1990s, Latour abandoned ANT, ceding that the objections others had raised to it—that it was reductionist, and that it prioritized knowledge, science, and technology as the driving forces in all cultures—were in fact accurate. He did not give up his position that the sciences are best studied as social entities, and continued to support the idea of critique of science with STS through his book Pandora’s Hope (1999) (Fuller 2000; Yearley 2002). With this type of direct critique of science no longer his main pursuit, he instead focused his work on the relationship between science and technology themselves, and particularly the concept of modernity as it relates to science and technology. His books We Have Never Been Modern (1993) and Aramis (1996) discuss that relationship, the former with a historical and theoretical critique of the concepts of premodernity, modernity, and postmodernity, and the latter with a case study of the failed Paris Aramis transit project (Cambrosio 1993, Harbers 1995).
In the early 1990s he accepted a position in sociology at the Centre de sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole nationale supérieure des mines in Paris, and he continues to hold that position as well as other visiting faculty positions today. His most recent works have delved into ideas of embodiment and objectification, with projects including the art exhibit Iconoclash on the concept of the object in culture. In other recent works, such as his pamphlet War of the Worlds: What about Peace? (2002) and the book Politics of Nature (2004), he has used his status as a leader of a postmodern critique of science to discuss the political and social implications of technology.
Contributions to Theory in Anthropology
The Social Construction of Science
Latour’s work has had a major impact on the social studies of science and the developing discipline of science and technology studies (STS). His work has been critical in founding one side of the debate that has come to be known as the Science Wars. This debate focuses on the creation of scientific knowledge, with positivists arguing on one side for the idea that scientists discover truth using a series of natural and logical processes, and with STS scholars such as Latour arguing on the other side that scientific knowledge is socially constructed. Latour’s position is drawn from the philosophical arguments of Wittgenstein and the Strong Program in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. The idea of the social construction of scientific knowledge argues that scientists in a given situation are working within a culture, with its own unique set of values and practices. This culture is responsible for determining what types of knowledge are seen as “correct” in the eyes of scientists and, later, in the minds of the public who consumes scientific information. Positivism itself is therefore seen as a socially constructed phenomenon that allows its adherents to accept certain kinds of knowledge as truth but not others (Haraway 1980).
Latour’s contributions to the Science Wars, beginning with Laboratory Life and continuing in expanded form in Science in Action, was to provide the social constructivists with the ethnographic tools to study the culture of scientists and scientific institutions. At the same time that he was pulling anthropological method into science studies, his work was being added to the postmodern critique of the authority of anthropology. At a time when some sectors of the discipline of anthropology was undergoing a crisis over what gave anthropologists in a postmodern and postcolonial world the ability to make authoritative statements about culture, Latour and other social constructivists provided a strong critique of social science, but also a way out of the conundrum. By establishing the sciences, including social sciences like anthropology and sociology, as socially constructed cultures, Latour’s and others’ work leveled the discipline to yet another object of study. This allowed an anthropological self-critique of the ways the discipline constructed knowledge about other cultures. Latour’s work effectively provided a theoretical basis for self-reflexivity that at the same time could preserve anthropology as an authority on culture by giving it the critical tools for that self-analysis.
The critique of the social constructivist theory is that it ends in relativism. Given that the charge of relativism is commonly made against many forms of postmodernism, this was not terribly troubling to the social constructivists. They argued that a socially constructed discipline of science could at least be studied using tools already familiar to anthropologists, rather than existing outside of the concept of culture and thereby necessitating an entirely unique set of analytical tools.
The Relationship of Science, Technology, and Culture
At the same time that Latour was arguing for the idea of science as socially constructed, his early works made the related claim that technology, science, and the social are one and the same. The reason for this is that the technology used by scientists in performing experiments has been created through previous scientific discovery and shaped by the assumptions and predispositions of whatever discipline uses it. Thus the assays used in the Salk Institute to extract organic molecules for study are merely a product of the history of biochemistry and the particular goals and resources of the discipline and of that particular lab (Latour 1987; Latour and Woolgar 1979). Latour argues for a theory-ladeness of things, with objects obtaining an active status in the cultural system of science.
Science in Time and Space
Related to Latour’s association of science, technology, and the social as cultural constructs is the idea that all scientific cultures are situated in historical time and space. The contextualization of scientists, their objects, and the knowledge they produce within a given era is in line with the contemporaneous critique in anthropology of the static, ahistorical depictions of culture. Rather than following the traditional notion that societies—particularly non-Western ones—exist as static entities unchanged by particular local and global historical circumstances, this critique argues that anthropologists must include chronological context in their study of culture, in spite of the potential for messy and tangled contradictions and questions that this can often raise.
Actor-network theory was developed by Latour and his colleague at Mines Michel Callon and the British sociologist John Law. Latour’s version of this theory argues that cultures work as networks, with objects and people as acting and being acted on to create culture. Also known as the material-semiotic method, ANT proposes that culture is a process in which objects (the actors, be they human or non-human) and ideas interact on the same level and with the same ability to create change in a culture (Actor-Network Theory 2006). The driving force behind the process in these networks is the desire on the part of individuals, institutions, and objects to win acceptance for a particular kind of knowledge. This acceptance is garnered by the actors interacting with one another, sharing and trading knowledge and expanding the network. Thus the scientists at the Salk Institute created and promoted their form of scientific knowledge through their interactions in the lab with each other and with their experiments and equipment, and also with those outside the lab through collaboration, publication, and competition (Latour 1987; Latour and Woolgar 1979).
Actor-network theory was never taken in by anthropology to the same extent as its counterpart, Bourdieu’s practice theory (Bourdieu 1977, 1990). This is perhaps because Latour’s version of ANT was focused on the production of scientific knowledge, and therefore took as a given that science and technology would be the driving forces behind the actors’ networks. As such it did not have the same immediate application in many anthropologists’ minds as did Bourdieu’s focus on daily practice.
The second major critique against ANT, and the one that has been the most controversial, is the creation of objects as equal players with humans in the network of culture. This lack of distinction between object and human is in line with Latour’s insistence that nature and culture are epistemologically inseparable and that science cannot stand outside of culture to study nature. The equation of object and human as equal actors in a system is at once useful to and problematic for anthropology: useful in that it provides a clear place for material culture and historical narrative in understanding culture, problematic because it blurs the line between people and objects as instigators of culture and culture change. Nevertheless, ANT has continued to be a useful starting point for understanding cultural systems in which the production of knowledge is a major goal, and Latour—despite his general abandonment of the theory in the 1990s, has accepted that a limited use of ANT can be profitable in understanding institutions of knowledge production such as science and academics (Actor-network Theory 2006).
The Future for Latour’s Work in Anthropology
The marginality of Latour’s work in mainstream anthropology is largely the product of the marginality of STS within the field of history and philosophy of science. The major criticisms of STS—that it is “unscientific, antiobjectivist, and antirealist” and that it fails to recognize the good and true work science has done—parallel the general feeling in anthropology that the postmodern critique of the discipline was useful, even necessary, but is not a platform that can be actively continued if a productive future for the discipline is to be obtained (Fujimura 1998:348). Because ANT has remained marginal to other actor-focused theories, Latour’s work has sat largely unappreciated in the discipline of anthropology. Despite the potential problems with social constructivism, STS, and ANT, Latour has had an important and real impact on the discipline, even though his name is not cited with nearly the same frequency as Bourdieu or others. What he has done is to awaken anthropologists to the notion that their own discipline has been shaped—to one extent or another—by the social workings of anthropologists. It is now taken for granted that we as anthropologists should consider the things that we do and say as constructed out of our unique and peculiar position as anthropologists, and this is largely because of Latour’s influence in promoting STS as a viable contender in the philosophy of science.
Selected Bibliography of Bruno Latour
Major Books and Edited Collections (In English):
1987 Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
1988 The Pasteurization of France. Alan Sheridan and John Law, trans. . Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
1993 We Have Never Been Modern. Catherine Porter, trans. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
1996 Aramis, Or, The Love of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
1999 Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
2002 War of the Worlds: What about Peace? Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
2004 Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Catherine Porter, trans. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
2005 Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Latour, Bruno and Peter Weibel, eds.
2002 Iconoclash. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
2005 Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar
1979 Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Los Angeles: Sage.
Selected Articles and Book Chapters (In English)
1978 Observing Scientists Observing Baboons Observing.... In Baboons Study: Myths and Models. New York, Wenner Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Studies.
1981 Is it Possible to Reconstruct the Research Process: Sociology of a Brain Peptide. In The Social Process of Scientific Investigation, Sociology of the Sciences, a Yearbook. K. Knorr, R. Krohn and R. Whitley, eds. Pp. 53-77. Dordrecht, Reidel.
1988 The Politics of Explanation: an Alternative. In Knowledge and Reflexivity, New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. Steve Woolgar, ed. Pp. 155-177. London, Sage.
1989 Clothing the Naked Truth. In Dismantling Truth: Reality in the Post-Modern World. Hilary Lawson & Lisa Appignanesi, eds. Pp. 101-128. Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
1990 Postmodern? No Simply Amodern: Steps Towards an Anthropology of Science, An Essay Review. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 21:145-171.
1991 Technology is Society Made Durable. In A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. J. Law, ed. Sociological Review Monograph N°38. Pp. 103-132.
1992a One More Turn after the Social Turn: Easing Science Studies into the Non-Modern World. In The Social Dimensions of Science. Ernan McMullin, ed. Pp. 272-292. Notre Dame University Press: Notre Dame.
1992b Where Are the Missing Masses? Sociology of a Few Mundane Artefacts. In Shaping Technology, Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Wiebe Bijker and John Law, eds. Pp. 225-259. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.
1999 When Things Strike Back a Possible Contribution of Science Studies to the Social Sciences. British Journal of Sociology 51(1): 105-123.
2003a A Dialog on Actor-Network-Theory With a (Somewhat) Socratic Professor. In The Social Study of Information and Communication Study. C. Avgerou, C. Ciborra, and F.F. Land, eds. Pp. 62-76. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
2003b Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry 30(2) : 25-248.
References (other than Latour’s works)
2006 Actor-network Theory. Electronic document, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor_network_theory, accessed April 28.
1977  Outline of a Theory of Practice. Richard Nice, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1990  The Logic of Practice. Richard Nice, trans. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bruno Latour, Article
2006 Bruno Latour. Electronic document, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruno_Latour, accessed April 28.
Bruno Latour Homepage
2006 Bruno Latour. Electronic document, http://www.ensmp.fr/~latour/, accessed April 28.
1993 Review of Aramis, ou l’Amour des Techniques and Nous n’Avons Jamais ete Modernes: Essai d’Anthropologique Symetrique. Contemporary Sociology 22(4):485-487.
1987 The Process of Science. Science, New Series 238(4827):695-696.
Fujimura, Joan H.
1998 Authorizing Knowledge in Science and Anthropology. American Anthropologist 100(2): 347-360.
1999 Authorizing Science Studies: Or, Why We Have Never Had Paradigms. American Anthropologist 101(2):379-384).
2000 Review of Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Isis 91(2):341-342.
1995 Review of We Have Never Been Modern. Science, Technology, and Human Values 20(2):270-275.
1980 Review of Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Facts. Isis 71(3):488-489.
1998 Anthropology and the Cultural Study of Science. Science, Technology, and Human
Stanford Presidential Lecture Series
2006 Bruno Latour: Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts. Electronic document, http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/latour/, accessed April 28.
What is Actor-network Theory?
2006 What is Actor-Network Theory? Electronic document, http://carbon.cu.denver.edu/~mryder/HC_data/art_dff.html, accessed April 28.
2002 Review of Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Science, Technology, and Human Values 27(1):165-167.
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