Reassembling the Social: Chapter 1: First Source of Uncertainty

Key Terms: Enroll/Enrolled/Enrollment; Infralanguage; Ostensive and Performative Definitions; Intermediaries and Mediators

In my reading of this chapter, Latour continues to distinguish between two approaches to sociology: the sociology of the social and the sociology of associations.

Actors (including sociologists) enroll in groups. Sociologists of the social see the enrolled and their enrollment as constitutive of durable, fixed boundaries that clearly and firmly delineate one group from another. “The main feature of this world is to recognize, independently of who is tracing them and with what sort of tools, the unquestionable existence of boundaries” (28).

An alternative perspective sees boundaries as mutative, existing provisionally as demarcated by actors themselves, “situated” as opposed to “existing”. “The first source of uncertainty one should learn from is that there is no relevant group that can be said to make up social aggregates, no established component that can be used as an incontrovertible starting point” (29). The person interested in tracing associations will begin “precisely with the controversies about which groupings one pertains to, including of course the controversies among social scientists about what the social world is made of” (29).

As a methodology, ANT finds more value in the stories, voices, definitions  and jargon of actors themselves than the narratives of those who study them. An ANT analyst observes the tracings actors leave behind as opposed to demarcating those boundaries from the start.

Latour then offers a four-fold “list of traces left by the formation of groups” (30).

  1. Groups speak. They have spokespeople. People define the groups that they enroll in in many different, sometimes contradictory or confusing, ways through “group makers, group talkers, and group holders” (31).
  2.  Actors delineate the groups they enroll in. Sociologists of the social view actors as mere informants whose perspective is necessarily limited by the context of the group in which they preside. Such an analyst imagines seeing “big picture,” both spatially and temporally, so to speak.  By contrast, an ANT analyst will “set up as the default position that the inquirer is always one reflexive loop behind those they study” (33).
  3. Actors attempt to delineate the groups in which they enrolled with “fixed and durable” boundaries. Such delineations can be traced in innumerable ways, though the intent, in all of the complexity and variability of such a task is to make the boundaries “finite and sure.” An ANT analyst is uninterested in fixed boundaries; rather, the ANT researcher will follow and trace the actors’ efforts at delineation and definition.
  4.  Analysts themselves are among the spokespersons of groups. Any observer of groups, in other words, contributes to the delineation of the group itself.

 

Groups, or “social aggregates” (34) can be defined in two manners: ostensivly and performativly. Ostensive definitions form groups as rigid structures, static, already-there. Performative definitions see groups/aggregates as in flux, active–performing. “For sociologists of associations, the rule is performance and what has to be explained, the troubling exceptions, are any type of stability over the long term and on a larger scale” (35).

Latour looks to the “sometimes exquisitely small differences between the many ways in which people ‘achieve the social’ “ as the meticulous work of an ANT analyst (36-37).

Finally, a distinction is made between intermediaries and mediators. An intermediary “is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs” (39). A functioning computer is offered as an example; while it may be complex, its use is straightforward (things change if the computer breaks down, though). “Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (39). A conversation is proffered as an example of mediator; it may look simple enough, but its output of “passions, opinions, and attitudes bifurcate at every turn” (39).

After reading through the uncertainties outlined in this chapter, “Readers can begin mapping the many contradictory ways in which social aggregates are constantly evoked erased, distributed, and reallocated” (41).

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