"In general, what passes for reflexivity in most social sciences is the sheer irrelevancy of questions raised by the analyst about some actors' serious concerns." (Latour 33)
The above from: Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
I have just started reading it today, and so far (touch wood), I am finding it refreshingly lucid and useful. Something that is not always a feature of social theory
Well, I finished the book and am find myself to be somewhat inspired by it; the explanations are mostly clear, and the basic message is simple: donâ€™t invent agencies and overarching â€˜framesâ€™ for whatever subjects you are studying â€“ listen to them and follow them where they take you.
Laying the whole mass of actors and connections on a â€˜flatâ€™ social world is a useful way of visualising â€˜socialâ€™ relations: no actor/actant is â€˜aboveâ€™ another, and all potentially influence each other. More importantly perhaps, all that connect are â€˜partâ€™ of each other, they have contributed to building the â€˜siteâ€™ as it is. Thus we are all sites, and understanding how sites are â€˜stabilisedâ€™ is an important way of effectively describing the situation.
Actor-Network Theory is an essentially descriptive process, and to counter accusations of â€˜mereâ€™ description he argues that if something is properly described, in all its minute detail, then no extra explanation (i.e. frame, context, meaning, â€¦) should be required. And he has a point there, though a difficulty is to decide when to stop tracing the connections between different actors, or actants.
In spite of what I said above about lucidity and all that, the last two chapters before the conclusion (â€œSecond Move: Redistributing the Localâ€, and â€œThird Move: Connecting Sitesâ€) get pretty convoluted. He comes across sometimes as somewhat structuralist/determinist: he mentions â€œstructuring templatesâ€ that circulate, and uses that analogy of â€˜plug-insâ€™ to explain how we cannot do anything (e.g. rationally choosing something in a supermarket) without having these â€˜plug-insâ€™ â€˜downloadedâ€™ from other sites. For me this ignores our basic sociality, and ability to negotiate with the world based on some basic instincts (i.e. survival, social, and reproductive). In a way, itâ€™s like heâ€™s being an â€˜atomised structuralistâ€™, or â€˜powerless structuralistâ€™ â€“ heâ€™s mapping out the social world in a â€˜flatâ€™ manner, arguing that all element affect others etc., but just saying thereâ€™s no central motor force to it all, which ainâ€™t a bad point.
In the second-to-last chapter, he asks what will be between the lines that connect the sites in the network, and starts to speculate about â€˜plasmaâ€™ and â€œvast outsideâ€ â€“ all very strangeâ€¦ My feeling is that there doesnâ€™t have to be anything â€˜betweenâ€™ the connections â€“ for the connections are what make our world, mediators affect it, things change, traces are left and actions initiated; but as he said, if it leaves no trace it is not there. I would also say, perhaps tautologically though, that what is visible is visible because itâ€™s part of â€˜societyâ€™; though heâ€™s arguing that with his method we can discover more, etc.
His conclusion (for anyone looking for a shortcut to reading the whole book ) isnâ€™t actually a summary of the book, but an argument for the political validity of ANT. He argues that ANT is political; proper data collection needs to let subjects have all their agency, and include all relevant entities; secondly, it is political because it has as a task to make the â€˜compositionâ€™ of the data in a manner accessible to all, and in a manner that loops between the elements and the composer (so to speak).