Lowest common denominator agency in Latour and actor-network theory: What’s (not) in the mind of scientific agents?

Knowing Nature: Conversations at the Intersection of Political Ecology and Science Studies is a new anthology published by the University of Chicago Press.  My contribution, “Agency, structuredness, and the production of knowledge within intersecting processes,” includes the following critique of actor-network theory:

The playfulness of accounts of actants [a term used in actor network theory to describe human, other living beings, and non-living things alike] might seem to animate the discussion of the non-human contributions.  [However] such accounts can reduce everything to a lowest common denominator and dull the analysis of human purposes, motivations, imagination, and action.  The interpretation [to follow] also introduces a theme that informs the other two sections [of my contribution]: the psychology of agents is an arena in which researchers are implicitly arguing about the production of knowledge in relation to social causality as well as to social actions that are conceivable or favored.  Expressed in another way: STS [Science and Technology Studies] researchers are arguing about knowledge production in relation to the structuredness of society as well as to the actions of human agents in the production and reproduction of structuredness (Figure 1).

* * * * *

On Christmas Eve of 1976 in the Bay of St. Brieuc in Brittany, deep down in the water thousands of scallops were brutally dredged by fishermen who could not resist the temptation of sacking the reserve oceanographers had put aside.  French gastronomes are fond of scallops, especially at Christmas.  Fishermen like scallops too, especially coralled ones, that allow them to earn a living similar to that of a university professor (six months’ work and good pay).  Starfish like scallops with equal greed, which is not to the liking of the others…

These were the words of Bruno Latour, in Science in Action (Latour 1987, 202).  He continued:

Three little scientists sent to the St. Brieuc Bay to create some knowledge about scallops love scallops, do not like starfish and have mixed feelings about fishermen.  Threatened by their institution, their oceanographer colleagues who think they are silly and the fishermen who see them as a threat, the three little scientists are slowly pushed out of the Bay and sent back to their offices in Brest.  Whom they should ally themselves with to resist being rendered useless?  Ridiculed by scientists, in competition with starfish, standing between greedy consumers and new fishermen arriving constantly for dwindling stocks, knowing nothing of the animal they started to catch only recently, the fishermen are slowly put out of business.  To whom should they turn to resist?  Threatened by starfish and fishermen, ignored for years by oceanographers who do not even know if they are able to move or not, the animal is slowly disappearing from the Bay.  Whom should the scallops’ larvae tie themselves to so as to resist their enemies? (Latour 1987, p. 202-3)

The situation Latour described was first presented by his colleague, Michel Callon:

The researchers place their nets but the collectors remain hopelessly empty.  In principle the larvae anchor, in practice they refuse to enter the collectors.  The difficult negotiations which were successful the first time fail in the following years…  The larvae detach themselves from the researchers’ project and a crowd of other actors carry them away.  The scallops become dissidents.  The larvae which complied are betrayed by those they were thought to represent (1985, 219-20).

In Latour’s and Callon’s descriptions the same language was being employed for fishermen, scientists, scallops.  They were all agents, actors, or, the term Latour and Callon favored, actants.  This equivalence was not just playful language; it was a matter of method.  Callon again:

The observer must abandon all a priori distinctions between natural and social events.  He must reject the hypothesis of a definite boundary which separates the two.  These divisions are… the result of analysis rather than its point of departure….  Instead of imposing a pre-established grid… the observer follows the actors in order to identify the manner in which these define and associate the different elements by which they build and explain their world, whether it be social or natural (1985, 200-201).

In these quotes Latour and Callon (hereon: L&C) were clearly anthropomorphising— animals, here the scallops, act just as much as scientists in the Bay of Brieuc do.  In classical anthropomorphism, however, animals’ behavior is explained as if they had goals like humans (or, more generally, as if they feel, imagine, and represent like humans) and behaved accordingly.  L&C departed from this in two ways:

a) the image of human cognition is reduced to humans having simple goals, specifically, to resist and to overcome resistance—a form of simple agonistic behavior.  For L&C, scientists use laboratories, technical artifacts, allies, and other resources to shift the world, working against its inertia and against others trying to shift the world in different directions (Latour 1987); and

b) equivalence in the terms describing the actions of humans and animals: they all “resist.”  To act, to be an agent, is to resist.

The terminological equivalence allowed L&C to oppose other commentators on science who would have scientists (or other humans) be the only source of resistance.  It also ensured consistency in a larger scheme, evident in subsequent texts of L&C, that extends beyond human and other living agents to include technological objects.  Objects resist, so, if “act” is equated with “resist,” objects, such a scalloping dredge, can, like humans and scallops, be actors, agents, actants.

An obvious objection to L&C’s anthropomorphism is that STS accounts depend on the scientists to reveal the animals’ cognition, perhaps even to reveal their behavior (Collins and Yearley 1992, 312ff).  This conceptual flaw seems to create a big problem for the actant program: if the program cannot be operationalized, its empirical adequacy can hardly be established.  Significantly, the equivalency of actants has not been put on an empirical footing—we know nothing about scallops’ cognition and little about their behavior two decades after L&C’s 1980s work.  Nevertheless, the actant terminology has become very popular in STS.  The plausibility of the actant-anthropomorphism must be drawing from another source.  To be continued in next post.


Callon, Michel. 1985. Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay. In Power, Action, Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?, edited by J. Law, 196-233. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Collins, Harry M., and StevenYearley. 1992. Epistemological chicken. In Science as practice and culture, edited by A. Pickering, 301-326. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action:  How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.


One thought on “Lowest common denominator agency in Latour and actor-network theory: What’s (not) in the mind of scientific agents?

  1. Pingback: Lowest common denominator agency in Latour and actor-network theory: What’s (not) in the mind of scientific agents? II « Intersecting Processes

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