Not the QuestionBy Bruno Latour (
Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation, École des Mines, Paris
)Anthropology News Vol. 37, N. 3, March 1996, AAA (pp. 1; 5)
To be or not to be scientific is not the question. Contributions to this year’s
theme,“Science and Anthropology”, have considered the science of anthropology as if there were noanthropology of science. Long debates over the “scientificity” of our discipline — whether itshould imitate the natural sciences, define itself separately, limit itself to hermeneutic circles orrecast itself as travel literature — imply that science consists of a body of method and rigor thatexists entirely “off camera.” The discussion does not recognize that for the last 20 years thepractice of science has been carefully documented by ethnographers who have fundamentallymodified the definition of scientific practice in the natural sciences — work that has clarified whatit means to be scientific.Before the current debate can draw on the sources of the anthropology of scientific practice,we must consider two obstacles. The first concerns the confidence of anthropologists in their owndiscipline; the second involves the relative emphasis of methodology over content in definitions of science.
Four Stages of Anthropology
There exists in anthropology a Law of Four Stages, which I call “Sahlins’s Law,” as a tributeto Marshall Sahlins. Each stage represents a change in the relative balance between anthropologyand its subject matter. In the first stage, the cultures of the world were hardy and anthropologyweak or barely existing. In the second, as anthropology gathered momentum, gained chairs, journals, endowments and field sites, its subject matter — traditional cultures  — weakened andbegan to disappear. It was as if the ethnographer — an antithetical King Midas — had been cursedwith the gift of turning everything to dust. This was the turning point of
. By thethird stage, anthropology had reached the peak of its power, yet unable to bear the vision of thisfield of ruins and gnawed by the guilt of shouldering “the White Man’s burden,” it began todenigrate its own achievements and to deconstruct itself to death. In a symbolic sacrificial rite of atonement, anthropology thus endured the very destruction it thought it had wrought upon its