Now that I am officially ‘a professor’ and have graduate students to advise, one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is the difference between the literature that you think is important and insightful, and what the field as a whole considers important and insightful. Everyone has articles and inspirations which are uniquely their own and which no one else ‘gets’. Reading Maia’s great post on Reassembling the Social has made me rethink (again) my position on Latour, an author with whom I have a love-hate relationship. Independently of this and for rather obscure reasons, I have been reading around in the ‘social problems’ literature that bloomed in Sociology in, as far as I can tell, the mid-seventies and early eighties. As I was reading through it it struck me — here is Latour’s genealogy!
Perhaps this is obvious to Latourophiles, but in my experience it is quite difficult to decipher Latour’s intellectual origins. There are many reasons: Latour is fond of over-simplistic, potted histories of philosophy and sociology; he is removed from the usual institutional structures of the French system; his work is anglo-french in an unusual way; he draws on many sources; and finally, we often teach people as parts of genealogies that they might not consider themselves part of.
There are many ways to read Latour — a Deleuze knock-off, a student of Serres, the bridge between French philosophy of science and a ‘constructivist’ approach to social studies of science, a scion of ethnomethodology (or perhaps just Aaron Cicourel). And then I was looking at Cicourel’s webpage at UCSD, and then I see that Joseph Gusfield is in the sociology department there as well. And didn’t I read somewhere that Latour spent a year at San Diego at some point…?
So the next time you assign Pasteurization of France in class, why not try starting off with an apperitif of Gusfield’s The Culture of Public Problems: Drink-Driving and the Symbolic Order of Blumer’s “Social Problems of Public Problems” or Spector and Kitsuse’s “Social Problems: A Reformulation”?