Tag Archives: Latour

Political ecology as a fertile site for social theorizing

During the 1990s political ecology became an active field of inquiry into environmental degradation and, sometimes, environmental restoration. Political ecology also had the potential to contribute to the process of social theorizing, which stemmed from the implications of what this paper calls “intersecting processes.” This term signifies that political ecological analyses attempt to make sense of dynamics produced by intersecting economic, social and ecological processes operating at different scales.

Talk, 21 minutes Continue reading

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.

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.

Agency and structuredness

There has been a long history in social theory of discussion of how to relate social structure and human agency (Dawe 1976; Giddens 1981; Sewell 1992; Vogt 1960; see Taylor 1996 for bibliography in context of interpretation of science).  Concepts introduced in Unruly Complexity provide the basis of a framework for moving beyond the structure-agency dualism. Continue reading

Practice: Paying attention to what scientists actually do

Attention to practice—to what scientists actually do—was a key development in the interpretation of science during the 1980s.  This development is covered well by the collection of essays, Science as Practice and Culture (Pickering 1992a), and in the editor’s introduction (Pickering 1992b).  Pickering adds the term culture to denote the “field of resources that practice operates in and on” (1992b, 2), and stresses the importance of considering the temporal aspect of practice—the process of making science as against the products.  Latour (1994) also explores a process metaphysics for interpretation of science, which follows the philosopher Whitehead.  Even though the reconstructions of the Kerang Farm study and the other case in Taylor (2005, Chapter 4) do not trace the course over time of the researchers’ work, they share the emphasis on process and scientific practice.  Heterogeneous construction might be read as Pickering’s (1993) “mangle” and “impure dynamics,” and the imagination of scientists as his “modeling.”  However, although Pickering shares many of the concepts outlined in the previous post on construction of science, he theorizes practice mostly in terms of experimental practice (with one foray into conceptual practice).  In an effort to distance himself from previous work that focused on sociological explanations of scientific knowledge, he diminishes the role of wider social resources and avoids discussion of causes.  For Pickering, it is mostly because scientists tinker with tangible objects, whose resistance requires accommodation, that their goals and interests are subject to ongoing revision.  Studies of practice in this sense are reviewed by Golinski (1990).  In contrast, mathematical models or representations produced by researchers form the entry points in Taylor (2005, Chapter 4); intepreting them motivates my analyses.  I also remain interested in causes and explanation that span different domains of social practice.

Lynch (1993) presents a strong challenge to the aspiration of explaining science.  From an ethnomethodological perspective, he argues that sociological analysts cannot secure a vantage point that enables them to remain outside the vernacular language and epistemic commitments of the communities studied.  How particular results stand with respect to prior results, how a laboratory’s findings contribute to the disciplines, and so on are settled for all practical purposes by locally organized, embodied practices of handling equipment, making experiments work, presenting arguments in texts or demonstrations, and so on.  When this is observed carefully—ethnomethodologically—it bears little relation to practitioners’ accounts of what happened and why.  By implication, interpreters of science can do no better.

My response to this challenge is to note that descriptions are not explanatorily innocent and ethnomethodological descriptions privilege explanations of the action of individual agents that assume extra-local or trans-local considerations have no effect on their mental calculating or imagining.  It is not clear that this lack of effect—especially on unconscious mental processes and embodied physical responses—could be demonstrated ethnomethodologically.  Interrogating individuals about their motivations and memories, and asking them to display them to audiences would not resolve the question because practitioners, as Lynch argues, are not privileged explainers of their own practice.

Turner (1994) strongly criticizes the project of interpreting science in terms of practice, but his objection is not to interpreters looking at what scientists do, but to their explaining knowledge by invoking hidden, but shared premises or knowledge embodied in practices or routines.  This objection does not seem pertinent to interpretations of knowledge-making that tease out multiple, practical considerations.

Extracted from Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press).

Golinski, J. (1990). “The theory of practice and the practice of theory: Sociological approaches in the history of science.” Isis 81: 492-505.

Latour (1994). “Les objets ont-ils une histoire? Recontre de Pasteur et de Whitehead dans un bain d’acide lactique,” in I. Stengers (Ed.), L’effet Whitehead. Paris: Vrin, 197-217.

Lynch, M. (1993). Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action: Ethnomethodology and Social Studies of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pickering, A. (Ed.) (1992a). Science as Practice and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—— (1992b). “From science as knowledge to science as practice,” in A. Pickering (Ed.), Science as Practice and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1-8.

—— (1993). “The Mangle of Practice: Agency and Emergence in Sociology of Science.” American Journal of Sociology 99(3): 559-589.

Turner, S. (1994). The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presuppositions. Chicago: University of Chiacgo Press.

Causes, Explanation, and Nonpartitionability

Cause and explanation are vexed terms in interpretations of science (Woolgar 1981; Latour 1988a); in fact, they are in social science more generally (Lloyd 1986; Miller 1991). I am interested enough in the “heterogeneous constructionist” sense of causality and explanation reflected in Taylor (2005, Chapter 4) to explore it through the rest of the book. But I also recognize the importance of getting other interpreters of science interested in paying attention to scientists’ diverse resources (Taylor 2005, Chapter 5). This post, therefore, is intended to help readers position my account in relation to their own and other positions.

It is a lengthy note, but to shorten or omit this discussion would have reduced the chance of my attracting some sympathetic philosophers to relate my position to the terms of established philosophical ones, e.g., Mackie’s INUS conditions, Harré and Madden’s (1975) causal powers. Yet, this note avoids technical philosophical terminology, aiming to meet the needs of some general readers as well as those of philosophical specialists. (One specialist reference with particular affinity to the formulations to follow is Hart and Honoré 1959; see, in particular, the introduction and first two chapters.)

Descriptions favor certain explanations over others; by selection and juxtaposition they give weight to different factors and imply that some things happen because of previous and ongoing things. And, if there is a “because,” a how or why question is being answered, that is, an explanation is being given.

This said, I need to distinguish my formulation of causes and explanation from many others. I am not referring to the big-C Causality underlying grand trajectories of social development—e.g., in modernization theory or versions of Marxism—or to causes as the source of deviations in specific societies from those essential trajectories (McLaughlin 1989). My model of causes is not the physical sciences’ fundamental causes exposed one by one through suitably designed, repeatable, controlled experiments; nor do I want to promote explanation in the sense of statistical regularities. (The cases in Taylor 2005, Chapter 4 should indicate my willingness to explain singular, nonrepeatable situations; see Lloyd 1986 and Miller 1991). Finally, I am not interested in covering law generalization-abstractions for interpreting science.

This last formulation is the focus of Latour’s (1988a) polemic against explanation in general, in which he opposes tying a range of outcomes in one variable realm (science) to some feature of a relatively stable realm (society). Latour does not see social life as stable or as a realm separate from science. He wants to highlight the novel coalitions and outcomes involved in the production of science and society. Although I agree to a large extent with this perspective, the very network accounts he advocates build on multiple, diverse causes (Latour 1987).

Causal analysis of heterogeneous webs, as I formulate them (Taylor 2005, Chap. 4), proceeds in the spirit of historical explanation. That is, the analysis must attempt to identify numerous causes, no one overshadowing the others, but each in context making a difference and all together providing a composite or conjunction of conditions sufficient for readers to see why or how the situation or outcome under consideration happened and not some other possibilities (Miller 1991; Taylor 1994). In this sense, explaining is synonymous with giving an account of causes, that is, of conditions that would, if changed, make a difference to the outcome.

Some elaboration and refinement are called for. Causes and counterfactuals are bound together (see also future post on Counterfactuals); explainers choose to address certain contrasting possibilities and not others, and to allow for certain conditions to be changed and other conditions to be backgrounded because they are fixed or taken for granted. An audience-specificity tends to be imported by such explanatory choices. That is, although the hypothetical “if changed” need not be construed as the condition actually being changeable, acceptance of an explanation is enhanced, in practice, if an audience can be found or enlisted that considers that the condition is (or was) changeable. (Causes and realizable changes, not just hypothetical counterfactuals, tend to be bound together.) Explanations in the sense of sufficient composites should, in light of explanatory choices and their audience-specificity, always be viewed as provisional. They are subject to competition from other composites and likely to be superseded if the categories and detail of one of the others allows the reader to imagine more intimately how the agents were acting in the given situation (Foucault 1981; Humphries 1990).

Nonpartitionability of causes is an important feature of heterogeneous constructionist explanations (see feature i of the list at the end of Taylor (2005, Chapter 4). Given a number of focal causes, each of which make a difference in context, that is, in conjunction with other causes and background conditions, any analysis of the effect of a cause must operate jointly, not cause by cause. But, taken to the extreme of “everything is contingent on everything else,” this joint causation would be impossible for explainers and their audiences to handle. In practice, explainers discount some conditions as incidental, focusing, for example, on the modeler’s choice of software but not of, say, his use of baking soda for toothpaste. A variety of factors can take simplification further. For example, explainers can combine focal causes or background conditions into synthetic or structural conditions (e.g., centralized government policy-making); they can minimize the number of focal causes by shifting some or most to the background or incidental categories; and they can focus on causes of a similar kind (e.g., ones relating to the farmer’s decisions and not ones that spans the international economy and politics). This homogenization can even go so far as to lead to gross dichotomous categories of causes, such as natural and social, which are then held to “interact”—a bland term, often a smoke screen for the belief that one category is important, the other incidental. Heterogeneous constructionism, however, does not want to homogenize to that extent. While simplification is necessary for explanation, there is no logical or empirical reason for not choosing an intermediate level of simplicity or complexity, where the causes remain multiple and of diverse kinds. (The idea of diverse kinds assumes that we still permit ourselves the linguistic convenience of classifying into distinct kinds causes that are intricately interlinked.) At this level, it is difficult to “forget” that causes are causes-linked-in-context, and thus it is difficult to partition relative importance or responsibility for an outcome among separate types of cause. The character and implications of intermediate complexity (Taylor 2005, Chapter 5, section C), in which explanations preserve heterogeneity of causes and their interlinkages, warrant more attention from philosophers.

Finally, note that nonpartitionability does not mean all causes are equally important. Instead it means that causes are linked in context, so that the size of a cause’s effect is conditional on the given interlinkages. Similarly, something is not a resource until linked or mobilized. In principle, this conditionality includes backgrounded conditions, but, in practice, as long as change in the background conditions is not being considered, the conditionality tends to be omitted from accounts.

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

Foucault, M. (1981). “Questions of Method: An Interview with Michel Foucault.” I&C 8: 3-14.
Harré, R. and Edward H. Madden (1975). Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Hart, H. L. A. and A. M. Honoré (1959). Causation in the Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Humphries, J. (1990). “Enclosures, common rights, and women: The proletarianization of families in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” The Journal of Economic History 50(1): 17-42.
Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
—— (1988a). “The politics of explanation: an alternative,” in S. Woolgar (Ed.), Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Sage, 155-176.
Lloyd, C. (1986). Explanation in Social History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
McLaughlin, P. (1989). “Obstacles to a new sociology of agriculture: The persistence of essentialism.” Working Paper, Department of Rural Sociology, Cornell University.
Miller, R. W. (1991). “Fact and method in the social sciences,” in R. Boyd, P. Gasper and J. D. Trout (Eds.), The Philosophy of Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 743-762.
Taylor, P.J. (1994). “Shifting frames: From divided to distributed psychologies of scientific agents.” Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 2: 304-310.
—— (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Woolgar, S. (1981). “Interests and explanation in the social study of science.” Social Studies of Science 11: 365-394.

The relationship between interpretation in/of science and change

‘Gessen’s genetic counselors recommended an oophorectomy.  But Gessen balked…

Our culture doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to handle the consequences of the recent revolution in genetic testing.  But we’ll need it…’

Review of Gessen (2008), Blood Matters, in International Herald Tribune

10-11 May 2008.


In 1845 the young Karl Marx proclaimed that the ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’  But what mode of interpretation should guide people in effecting change?  That’s no simple matter. Marx himself spent the following forty years of his life elaborating his interpretation of historical and ongoing social transformations.

In 1865 Francis Galton, sought to promote social progress by interpreting patterns in data drawn from human relatives.  As Galton proclaimed early in his forty years of research:

If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that are spent in the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create! …Men and women of the present day are, to those we might hope to bring into existence, what the pariah dogs of the streets of an Eastern town are to our own highly-bred varieties (Galton 1865, 165-6).

Fast forward to 2008.  Genomics entrepeneur, Craig Venter, and science communicator, Richard Dawkins, converse about change that flows, almost without interpretation, from information about organisms’ genes:

Venter: [W]e isolated the chromosome from one bacterial species and transplanted it into another one. The chromosome in the species that we transplanted into was destroyed, and all the characteristics of one species went away and got transformed into what was dictated by the new chromosome… This was a precursor to being able to now design life… And we have major problems we’re trying to overcome by looking for solutions, changes in modern society.

Dawkins: It’s more than just saying that you can pick up a chromosome and put it in somewhere else. It is pure information. You could put it into a printed book. You could send it over the Internet. You could store it on a magnetic disk for 1,000 years, and then in a thousand years time, with the technology that they’ll have then, it will be possible to reconstruct whatever living organism was here now. So, this is something which was utterly undreamed of before the molecular information revolution… This is a major revolution. I suppose it’s probably ‘the’ major revolution in the whole history of our understanding of ourselves (Venter and Dawkins 2008).


This essay addresses the relationship of interpretation to change, at two levels.  One level concerns the revolutionary claims of molecular biology and biotechnology about using genetic information, read literally or with a minimum of interpretation (construing the term broadly), to reshape human life.  The other level, less grand in ambition, concerns the relationship in social studies of science and technology (STS) between interpreting projects in the life sciences and influencing their direction.  Claims like those of Venter and Dawkins are fantasies, they involve worlds envisaged and mentally inhabited so as to escape the practical difficulties of action (Robinson 1984).  In the material world many diverse materials, tools, and other people have to be engaged to realize any enduring result.  Social infrastructure has to be built if human life is to be reshaped.  This perspective matches interpretations in STS that emphasize the heterogeneous engineering or construction involved in establishing knowledge and making technologies reliable (Latour 1987; Law 1987; Clarke and Fujimura 1992, 4-5; Taylor 2005, 93ff).  However, two shortcomings in such interpretations concern me:  More self-conscious attention is needed to how such interpretations are intended to influence change in science or technology and in society.  In particular, more development is is needed in the conceptualisation of the structure of the social context of scientific and technological developments and of human agency in the ongoing restructuring of that context….

=Opening excerpt from “Infrastructure and Scaffolding: Interpretation and Change of Research Involving Human Genetic Information,” Science as Culture, 18(4):435-459, 2009


Clarke, A. and J. Fujimura (1992). What tools? Which jobs? Why right? The Right Tools for the Job:  At Work in Twentieth-century Life Sciences. A. Clarke and J. Fujimura. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 3-44

Galton, F. (1865). Hereditary talent and character. Macmillan’s Magazine 12: 157-66, 318-327

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

Law, J. (1987). Technology and heterogeneous engineering: The case of Portugese expansion. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes and T. J. Pinch. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 111-134

Robinson, S. (1984). The art of the possible. Radical Science Journal 15: 122-148

Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Venter, C. and R. Dawkins (2008). Life: A Gene-Centric View—A Conversation in Munich. Edge 235