Locating Latour

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”?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Locating Latour

  1. Latour is not that hard to read if you accept, as you allude, ‘his canon’ and bending away from the mainstream. What i’ve always loved about him is that when you do read his stuff, Pandora’s Box, Aramis, or the Love of Technology, Laboratory Life, Making things Public, don’t expect to understand in terms of what you know but rather in terms how you know. From Latour we learn an analogy for the construction of knowledge. For example in scientific practice naked access to truth is not possible it must always be mediated through statements and entities like citations, equipment, reputation and laboratories. For example a microbe (which we do not dispute exists) is not visible without a microscope (a human fabrication), and a fact (like the microbe) does not become so without negotiating the nexus between fact and construction, or in other words gaining credibility from a group of peers, through scholarly publication or successful grant application. The establishment of scientific facts like the establishment of discourses and cultural knowledge is a social process it is never passive, objective or an ahistorical truth. They all exist, rise and fall on historical and intercultural evidence. I wish Latour was taught more in Anthro departments his cultural observations are much more alive to me than most syllabus material and it creates great debates from all sides too. I wonder why you say to read Blumer, who i also love, in relation to Latour, why not read Latour chronologically instead? That is ‘his canon.’ The bits, a tad like Bourdieu’s intellectual framework, fit together coherently if you follow the connections from one subject/text to another. Intellectuals who built thier own concepts and frameworks are often, in my opinion, conceptually and interestingly stimulating. Something Latour most definatly is. great blog by the way.

  2. One origin of this Latour post was the “Anthropology of the NYRB” post and the comments that grew up around that — particularly the idea that in the academcy and in general, good writers get read more than bad writers. Latour’s popularity certainly can be accounted for because of his prose style — he manages to be both easy to read and, when necessary, eloquently cryptic in that French way that Americans have grown to love. His ‘potted histories’ also have the virtue of allowing readers from a variety of disciplines to orient themselves to his program because they cast a very wide net in terms of intellectual history.

    But the idea that Latour is totally sui generis and has no intellectual genealogy is, to my mind, mistaken. Although the interesting thing about him is that at times his writing works to make you _think_ that’s the case.

  3. I agree, my point must have got lost – i was not trying to say he has no intellectual genealogy – of course he must and i do like your point about “Everyone has articles and inspirations which are uniquely their own and which no one else ‘gets’.” Rather i was trying to make a point about the construction of knowledge and how his books taken together are themselves a project in the production of cultural knowledge about knowledge. His own intellectual origins are thus not his point but rather the origins of intellectuality itself are what he concentrates on bringing out. Thus to understand or ‘get’ Latour’s writings, IMHO, one does not need to go into his library of wonders or intellectual genealogy, although there is nothing wrong with that, but rather one will get most by putting them all together, like the building blocks of a column that if you climb on it, let you get a different perspective on what the social sciences are, were and could be.

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