Places and Frames: Reading Bruno Latour on Holiday

If anybody fancies some heavy but rewarding reading try Bruno Latour’s recently published book on Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. I took it on holiday, along with a pile of other books , including Friction and Global Shadows. In the event, or lack of it, I only managed to struggle through the Latour. And once I had read it the other books didn’t seem as inviting, although they are probably a more engaging read. Latour’s book seems to be directed not at the experience of reading so much as the consequence of having read. It takes the reader on a mental journey over difficult terrain, the terrain metaphor resurfacing throughout the book via a play on the acronym ANT and the notion that ants are somehow grounded and hence capable of dealing thoroughly with whatever minutiae are blocking their paths
to unspecified destinations.

Reassembling the Social is one of those books written against in order to work out what it is for. In this instance, its directed against sociologists, whom Latour divides into two types: sociologists of the social and those who claim to practice critical sociology. Latour argues that both kinds of sociology and their practitioners do not conform to what might be the expectations of scientific approaches to the study of society. This is because they rely on pre-existing notions of what the social is and does to account for what people do and why they do it. The idea of society in such accounts fails to explain the very thing which is the object of study. As a consequence the motivations of social actors are always silenced and ignored. The silenncing of social actors is paradoxical for what claims to be a science of the social which ought to be able to demonstrate how things happen or rather how happenings are made. The making is the social process which is both material and symbolic. There is then no break between material culture and cultural material. The object of study includes objects, the subject object divide is collapsed and the sociology of the social superseded by a sociology of association, that is the relations through which actors achieve agency to effect happening.

Latour says much more than this of course in this complicated text, some of which reiterates previous insights and ideas. He makes pertinent points about the sociology of the social’s preoccupation with context and place, hence the eternal return conceptually to the analytical split level of the global and the local. I will try and think more about this when I get around to reading Friction as an `ethnography of global connections’. But in the meantime I think that Latour’s arguments about place are worth exploring for the way they jog ones’ perspective and decentre comfort zones about where we are and what we are claiming to describe when we set out to describe other places. Latour proposes that there is nothing intrinsically contextual about place, that place is simply a staging or framing for traces and associations, near and distant, past and present. Context as such does not exist as a factor which explains or accounts for a place. Placeness is brought to a situation through framing, and only part of this situation is localised.

There is some truth in this way of thinking. As write this I am in what I had on first contact thought of as a post Augean non place, not Manchester although I am sure that others consider it so, but a holiday island in the Mediterranean, the kind of island so subjected to the onslaughts of package tourism and the internationalization of consumption that it seems to no longer have any real identity or sense of location. Among the Irish pubs, the West African street traders selling carved elephants, the Mexican, Chinese and Indian themed restaurants , the International Herald Tribune on the newsstands and the televisions broadcasting UK news and sport, you have to actively look for faint signs of some other more original identity. Latour’s account makes me reconsider my position. If place is frame rather than context then what I am witnessing is a framing of wider traces, some place.


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

5 thoughts on “Places and Frames: Reading Bruno Latour on Holiday

  1. One can understand this differently. Framing is a human perceptual consciousness mostly tied to a spot in which the human is active. So that the room, or street, or other places hold together in a consistent way.

    Our tools of communication really don’t work so well around that premise stated above. One could see how say Google Earth allows a more substantial media representation of ‘context’ or the properties of being in a local space matters.

    Let me say this in the context of a large state like the U.S., the economy runs on the efficiency of how communications allow people in the U.S. to interconnect. For example using GPS drivers are alerted to traffic snarls which makes office workers get to work on time and saves money.

    Local information integrated into the large scale network properties of society such as what Google provides are likely to offer ‘context’ as an automated rather than a largely handicraft like local context now familiar to people in the city.

  2. I’m glad this book is appealing. Most of the time I find myself using the term “deeply troubling” to describe it… not in the sense of being wrong or unreadable, but in the sense that one says of the slightly psychotic actions of a teenager that they are deeply troubling. I’m not sure what he will do next.

    I’ve only ever been able to read (and teach) latour as a methodological innovator–not as a theorist. Despite the name “actor-network theory” i’m adamant that it is a method, not a theory. Science in action was a handbook, in this sense, but a handbook that required its users be willing to give up some fairly sacred beliefs about the way science and epistemology are supposed to work–but if you do so, then the method can yield really creative and liberating fieldwork and follow connections. I’m not sure whether Re-Assembling the Social will have the same effect. It’s not quite as accessible and not quite as much fun–and there are a lot of straw men cluttering up the arguments–but in the end I think it reads best when read as a response to a lifetime of trying to teach students to do research in a novel way.

    I wonder whether people find him troubling because the method doesn’t imply any theory. I wonder whether this is part of his appeal too… that the method is so open ended as to provide people with a liberating way to think and theorize.

  3. To ckelty, Latour also has commented that his version of ANT is method not a theory, so you are not alone in your view.

    To Doyle, You must read this book. In it you will find Latour points out that the networks you described in your comment have nothing to do with actor-network theory. One of his main motiviations for writing this particular volume is to clear up the mistaken view that he is talking about what we conventionally call a network. Indeed, ANT may cover ground that may be described using conventional ideas of network, but these kinds of network in no way define or circumscribe ANT.

  4. One of the most interesting things about Latour is that he engages with the social in a way that explains endurance (persistent features of the social) without turning it into structure – “the social” as ontological starting point.

    This actually implies that his work, whilst being a statement about ontology (apriori theories won’t get you very far in studying the social since they are actually part of how the social aggregates are brought into being), it is also a call towards a practice approach where analysis proceeds by connecting academic debates with ideas that are actually formative within what is studied.

    Now this is theory or not depending if, following the insights of practice theorists such as Bourdieu, and the radical approaches to epistimology such as those deployed by Laclau, you consider all theory as method. Theorising is something we do, and however much we would wish otherwise, in our academic quest for immortality, nothing we say or do lasts forever.

  5. “If anybody fancies some heavy but rewarding reading try Bruno Latour’s recently published book on Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor Network Theory.”

    I’ve had that book on my shelf for a couple of years now, and never got past the first chapter. The man does not make a book for light read does he. Maybe after reading this thread, I’ll just back on that horse.

Comments are closed.