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Edwin Sayes “Actor-Network Theory and Methodology”

March 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Sayes, Edwin 2014. Actor-Network Theory and Methodology: Just what Does it Mean to Say that Nonhumans Have Agency? Social Studies of Science 44(1): 134-149.

In the first instance, the term ‘nonhuman’ is intended to signal dissatisfaction with the philosophical tradition in which an object is automatically placed opposite a subject, and the two are treated as radically different. (136)
More systemically, we can say that the term is used to denote entities as diverse as animals (such as scallops – Callon, 1986), natural phenomena (such as reefs – Law, 1987), tools and technical artifacts (such as mass spectrometers – Latour and Woolgar, 1986 [1979]), material structures (such as sewerage networks – Latour and Hermant, 1998), transportation devices (such as planes – Law and Callon, 1992), texts (such as scientific accounts – Callon et al., 1986), and economic goods (such as commodities – Callon, 1999). What is excluded from the circumference of the term are humans, entities that are entirely symbolic in nature (Latour, 1993: 101), entities that are supernatural (Latour, 1992), and entities that exist at such a scale that they are literally composed of humans and nonhumans (Latour, 1993: 121, 1998). (136)
Nonhumans (I): nonhumans as a condition for the possibility of human society
More specifically, it is the actions and capacities of nonhumans that are seen as a condition for the possibility of the formation of human society (Latour, 1993: 111, 1996b: 238). Indexicality, to deploy the language of ethnomethodology, is seen as temporality objectified through the mobilization of nonhumans. Leviathan becomes possible only when more than purely social ties are involved, when certain ties can be sufficiently stabilized, or placed in a black box. (137)
Nonhumans (II): nonhumans as mediators
In a now canonical article, Callon (1991) stresses an important distinction between intermediaries and mediators. While an intermediary is a placeholder in the sense in which it merely does what anything else in its position would do (Latour, 1992: 229), a mediator is something morethan this. Conceived only as a neutral placeholder, it is easy to consider a nonhuman as merelyan intermediary: it is merelythe sum of its constitutive parts, or its constitutive relations, and it merelydoes what anything in its place would do. However, conceived as mediator, a nonhuman is necessarily seen as adding something to a chain of interaction or an association. In classifying nonhumans as mediators rather than intermediaries, it becomes impossible to treat nonhumans as simple substitutes for human actors. Nonhumans, like anything else that is placed between two actors, are understood as continually modifying relations between actors (Latour, 1999, 2002a). (138)
Nonhumans (III): nonhumans as members of moral and political associations
We see, here [in the case of a seatbelt that won’t let you start your car unless tightened], the potential for a truly categorical imperative – a norm that is truly objective. With the help of a new type of moral or political actor, the texture of morality and politics has changed. The form of dissent is slowly narrowed and, in the final two scenarios, eliminated. It is, we might easily quip, far easier to make docile nonhumans than to make self-disciplining actors. As Callon (1991: 157, n. 28) writes in a particularly evocative phrase, ‘[t]he telephone creates a common space that integrates just as much as Durkheim’s religion or Bourdieu’s habitus’. The suggestion is incredibly powerful: that our collectives have, in effect, outsourced some of their regulating principles, some of their politics, some of their morality. (139)
[…] we should not be concerned with whether nonhumans are understood to possess the ability to make moral or immoral decisions – this is not suggested. Rather, what is elided and made impossible is the question of responsibility – of which individuals and groups should be held accountable for our moral and political associations. (140)
Nonhumans (IV): nonhumans as gatherings
The relevant point for current purposes is that morality and politics should not be linked to nonhumans separatedfrom all other actors, but to associations. This does not mean, to be sure, that nonhumans are divorced from the question of morality or politics. Rather, it means only that when one considers the relationship between a nonhuman and morality or politics, one must consider the associations of which it is a part. This is a point that is, in general terms, elementary for ANT, and develops into foregrounding the ways in which nonhumans are gatherings. (140)
What does it mean to say that nonhumans have agency?
ANT, in fact, attempts to pluralize what it means to speak of agency. As has already been noted, agency is decoupled from criteria of intentionality, subjectivity, and freewill. At first sight, it may look like this decoupling actually amounts to an amputated and restricted vantage-point (see, for example, Amsterdamska, 1990: 499). However, such a view would seem to be premature. Indeed, while intentional action is still recognized as a typeof action, this is not to the exclusion of all other forms of agency (Latour, 2005: 71). At the same time, ANT invokes not causal agency in the strictest of senses, but something ‘more’ (Latour, 2005: 70). What is this ‘more’? The best answer seems to be the following: ‘there might exist many metaphysical shades between full causality and sheer in-existence: things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on’ (Latour, 2004b: 226; see also Latour, 2005: 72). (141)
Latour (2005: 71) maintains that one need only ask of an entity ‘[d]oes it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?’ If we can answer yes to these two questions, then we have an actor that isexercising agency – whether this actor is nonhuman or otherwise. […] the ‘standard measure’ of agency becomes dehumanized: the ability to make a difference. (141)
The primacy of methodology in ANT
For ANT, a theoretical statement could never determine the extent to which nonhumans act and the nature of this agency.This is, and remains definitively so for the perspective, an empirical question. Latour (1998) is explicit in this regard: ANT has no general theory of agency. Thus, claims concerning the agency of nonhumans are part of the conceptual infralanguage of the position. (142)
Conclusion
Simply put, nonhumans do not have agency by themselves, if only because they are neverby themselves. (144)
By foregrounding the role of methodology, we better understand what it means to say that nonhumans have agency. For instance, this foregrounding allows us to understand that the term ‘agency’ is almost empty of meaning for ANT. Indeed, it lacks specificity – referring instead to a collection of possible modes of relating to other entities while not requiring any of them. (144)