Imagination and the psychology of agents (as seen or hidden in social studies of science)

I would affirm that all human activity is imaginative, that is, the result of a labor process that grows out of the laborer’s imagination. Agents assess, not necessarily explicitly, the practical constraints and facilitations of possible actions in advance of their acting. Associating imagination and the labor-process is Marx’s idea. (See Capital, vol. 1, pt. 3, Chapter 7, sec. 1, reprinted, e.g., in Tucker 1978, pp. 344–45. Robinson (1984) provides a relevant discussion of this passage.)

The convention in social studies of science has been to avoid reference to an agent’s psychology for fear of shifting the terms of explanation from the social realm to an unobservable realm of the agent’s mind. I find dubious both the equation of social with observable and the empiricist rejection of unobservables. In any case, notice that imagination relies on a distributed, not an internal, notion of mind and psychology. Furthermore, psychological or cognitive models of the scientist as social agent are implicit in every explanation of the outcome of scientific activity. For example, Latour (1987) depicts scientists building “networks” in response to the stimulus of others building competing networks, and assumes that scientists seek to accumulate resources, all of which results, if successful, in “centers of calculation,” “obligatory passage points” (Callon 1985), and their becoming macroactors (Callon and Latour 1981). Like the psychology of pigeons in the accounts of behaviorists, the psychology implied is both strong and minimal—the scientists are governed only by this egocentric metric of resource accumulation; they are not assumed to have multiple projects in their lives and work. This, like most other models of psychology and rationality implicit in social studies of science, is quite restrictive, even when rationalized as a methodological tactic intended to highlight the flexibility of agents’ actions and network building (Taylor 1993).

Excerpted the Notes section of Taylor, Peter J. 2005. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. U. Chicago Press.

Callon, M. (1985). “Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay,” in J. Law (Eds.), Power, Action, Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 196-233.
—— and B. Latour (1981). “Unscrewing the big Leviathin: How actors macro-structure reality and how sociologists help them to do so,” in K. Knorr-Cetina and A. V. Cicourel (Eds.), Advances in Social Theory and Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro- and Macro-sociologies. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 277-303.
Robinson, S. (1984). “The Art of the Possible.” Radical Science Journal 15: 122-148.
Taylor, P.J. (1993). “What’s (not) in the mind of scientific agents? Implicit psychological models and social theory in the social studies of science.” Paper presented to Society for Social Studies of Science, West Lafayette, Indiana.
Tucker, R. C. (Ed. (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.

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