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

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.

So ended the previous post.  My broad-brush interpretation of actant-anthropomorphism’s plausibility begins from the assumptions about human goals and cognition (item a) underwriting this approach.  These assumptions are similar to those of behaviorist psychology, which has always attempted to minimize the role of internal mental representations in explaining an organism’s behavior.  Provided only that the organism is internally motivated to satisfy its appetite, provision of food in experimental situations can reinforce the desired behavioral responses.  (Equivalently, when electric shocks are used for negative reinforcement, the organism only has to be a pain avoider.)  Similarly, L&C’s image of scientists, building networks in response to the stimulus of others building competing networks, reduces the psychology of cognitive agents to a bare minimum.  All that L&C need to assume is that scientists seek to accumulate resources, resulting, if successful, in “centers of calculation,” “obligatory passage points” (Callon 1985) and their becoming “macro-actors” (Callon and Latour 1981).  Governed only by this egocentric metric of resource accumulation, these agents do not have any practical imagination about constraints and facilitations influencing their possible action, let alone about the possible structuredness of those constraints and facilitations.

L&C’s scientists are, admittedly, more scheming than the pigeons or rats described by behaviorists.  Nevertheless, on the explanatory (not descriptive) level, the psychology of these scientists is minimal.  It is as if a coach of an American football team commanded the players to move the ball up the field against the resistance of the opposing team and asked them to refer only to that objective.  No anticipation of the coordinated responses of other players, either on their own team or the opposing one, could be used by the team’s players to decide on their moves.  Such a team would, against most opponents, fail to score.

Behaviorism is a dirty word; few social scientists or humanists admit to this disposition.  Latour’s counter to this accusation is that we should assume a minimal psychology to allow the agents to show us how they think about the world, what they see as resources, and whom they see as allies (pers. comm. April 1993).  Minimal psychology is a methodological assumption, not Latour’s belief about actual agents.  This distinction and rationalization, however, obscure what I see at stake about how L&C’s approach invites STS researchers to think about agents.

Consider this question:  What guidance does L&C’s psychologically minimalist method give us about the forms that agents’ action can take?  As a negative answer, the “no mental representations” dictum ensures two things:

a) agents are not internally bound—inborn dispositions, cognitive constraints, individual creativity, etc. cannot determine action and belief; and, more importantly,

b) agents are not Socially determined—with nothing in the mind of scientists, there is no place for interests, determined by the agents’ class (or other) position in the Social Structure, or for other external influences to reside.  (Social and Structure are capitalized to denote a gross and relatively static view, something given while the science in question develops, e.g., “In Capitalist Societies…”)

Given this absence of both internal and external constraint, it might seem then that anything goes; that every action is spontaneous and contingent.  Latour (1994), however, pulls us back from such an extreme position.  Technical mediations—”interruptions,” “translation,” “black boxing,” “delegation”—commonly modify an agent’s course of action.  Not anything can be done in science, technology, and society.  (In fact, humans are not humans without technical mediations; Latour 1994, 64.)  Notice, however, that the resistances are technical; there is no mention of sociological mediations, involving, say, ideology, socialization, or dominant metaphors.

Now what was at stake in the origins of L&C’s actant program is clearer:  From every angle possible the idea of agents’ actions being Socially determined had to be opposed (or made more difficult to conceive).  Technical mediations are stressed precisely because they are not social mediations, and the minimal psychology of L&C’s agents helps them resist Social determination.  The key issue here is not whether L&C are behaviorist insurgents in the STS ranks, but that we can view them as social theorists supporting a particular argument about relations between agents and society.  They are telling us how agents’ sociality influences their actions, and how society, in turn, is influenced by those actions.  Let me tease out that interpretation.

L&C’s method called for us to describe the heterogeneous networks of resources and allies that scientists in action mobilize as they resist other scientists in action (Latour 1987; Taylor 2005, 93ff).  The psychology of these agonistic resource-accumulators is minimal; their actions cannot be determined by Social Structures.  The sociality of these agents, however, is not minimal; in L&C’s descriptions agents are embroiled in contingent and ongoing mobilizing of networks of resources and allies.  This descriptive focus tends to keep causality distributed across networks, not concentrated inside socially autonomous agents.  (“Tends” because L&C’s individuals remain at the center of the networks.  If the networks become strong, L&C wants us to see the responsible agents as macro-actors, who were once micro-actors and are always vulnerable to becoming so again; Callon and Latour 1981.)

As a program of social theory, L&C’s method cannot be sustained consistently.  The resilience of at least some, if not most, of the strong networks will ensure their persistence for some period of time.  Persistent networks can be viewed as social structure (of a small “s” kind).  More subtly, any regularities in the opportunities and constraints that agents experience as part of their sociality invite interpretation as social structuredness.  Pursuing this interpretation, we could ask how agents’ actions generate, maintain, and undermine that structuredness.  Indeed, the agents themselves might consciously identify at least some of these regularities or structuredness.  The issue of social determination of the production of knowledge that L&C had hoped to banish is thus resurrected, albeit in a distributed rather than direct form.

To some readers, distributed social determination of the production of knowledge will sound like recent actor network theory (as articulated, e.g., by Latour 2005).  My critical interpretation of L&C’s program may nevertheless stimulate some readers to take a fresh look at their own ascriptions of agency to non-humans.  If so (or even if not), the critique invites readers to ask of any given account of knowledge production what it implies about the psychology of the human agents, the structuredness (if any) of the scientific, social and/or ecological dynamics, and the actions conceived or favored by the knowledge-producer (Figure 1).  In a nutshell, I advocate asking what we are supposed to be able to do with any knowledge claims.


Callon, Michel, and Bruno Latour. 1981. Unscrewing the big Leviathan:  How actors macro-structure reality and how sociologists help them to do so. In Advances in Social Theory and Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro- and Macro-sociologies, edited by K. Knorr-Cetina and A. V. Cicourel, 277-303. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Latour, Bruno. 1994. On technical mediation — Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy. Common Knowledge 3 (2):29-64.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Peter J. 2005. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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

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

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