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Bruno Latour - Not the Question

Bruno Latour - Not the Question

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Published by Sa Mu
texto do Latour, introdução a um volume do Antropology Newsletter sobre antropologia e ciência. Texto chato de achar...
texto do Latour, introdução a um volume do Antropology Newsletter sobre antropologia e ciência. Texto chato de achar...

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Published by: Sa Mu on Aug 22, 2010
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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 [5] — 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 
Tristes Tropiques
. 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
vanishing subject matter! Postmodernism prevailed.We are now entering a fourth stage, where the presumed vanishing cultures are very muchpresent. They are active, vibrant, inventive, proliferating in all directions, reinventing their past,subverting their own exoticism and turning to their own good. the very anthropology so disavowedby postmodern criticism: “reanthropologizing” whole regions of the earth supposed to have fadedinto the monotonous homogeneity of a global market and deterritorialized capitalism. It is in thisfourth stage that, for the first time, we may anticipate both strong cultures and a strong disciplineof anthropology. The newly reinvented cultures are much too robust to dwell upon our pastmisdeeds or present lack of heart. The current situation needs an anthropology willing to embraceits formidable achievements and to further extend its many valuable insights.
Methodology vs Content
But then we confront the second obstacle, that antiquated theory of science to which thediscipline clings even more vigorously than to its cherished guilt. Although there is considerablediscussion about the scientific method in introductory social science textbooks, methodology neverappears in the natural science textbooks of physics or chemistry. To be sure, epistemologists andphilosophers of science write a great deal about “the scientific method,” but natural scientistssensibly enough do not bother to read them. It is only the social scientists who, insecure about theirown scientific status, take these discussions seriously.Rigor in science is more a question of logistics than method, for objectivity, certainty andcontrol are required only when masses of data must be stored, transported, combined or modeled.“Scientific” has two different meanings: logistics on the one hand, and content on the other.Science is at its most productive when it defines new agencies that share their life with a scientificcommunity. It is, thus, only the social scientists who put the cart before the horse by discussing therigor and certainty of a fact, before having defined the new agencies under examination. Suchmethodological rhetoric in anthropology carries no more meaning than the construction of ahighway, six lanes wide and several hundred meters long, located in the middle of nowhere. Itwould be robust and “rigorous,” yet where would it lead? What kind of traffic is it designed tocarry? These are the questions that take precedence over the actual dimensions of the road.Once we have rejected the useless dreams of methodological rigor, where does anthropologystand if it tries to imitate not the purity of what it imagines in the natural sciences, but the realproductivity of those disciplines — embodied in the new agencies they mobilize? One would neverguess from the discussion thus far in the
that anthropology has elicited, mobilized, stored,documented, archived, compiled, theorized, assembled and modeled more new facts and agencies
than many disciplines purported to be more “natural,” “rigorous”, or “scientific.”The description of kula is on a par with that of the black holes. The complex systems of social alliances are as imaginative as the complex evolutionary scenarios conceived for the selfishgenes. Understanding the theology of Australian Aborigines is as important as charting the greatundersea rifts. The Trobriand land tenure system is as interesting a scientific objective as the polaricecap drilling. If we talk about what matters in a definition of a science — innovation in theagencies that furnish our world — anthropology might well be close to the top of the disciplinarypecking order.
Celebrate Our Achievements
Even more absurd in this debate about over scientific anthropology, is the fact that no onehas acknowledged that anthropology is already one of the most advanced productive and scientificof all the disciplines — natural or social. Ethnographers despair of reaching what they and theirforebears have already achieved: a bewildering redefinition of the humans who populate the world!Imagine a world stripped of all anthropological discoveries. What a desert it would be without thisscientific discipline. Only physics matches anthropology’s ability to generate a multiplicity of agencies and hybrids.The guilt-ridden anthropologist will say, “Yes, maybe we have accumulated lots of factoids,but they are not scientific enough. The are too controversial, immersed in narratives, dependent onshaky protocols and highly idiosyncratic. We should be ashamed of not living up to the ideals of epistemology.”A careful reading of the ethnographies that describe natural science practices would soothethe worries of our profession. What could be more local, idiosyncratic, fragile or collective thanthe painstaking extraction of data from a nerve ending by neurobiologists described by MichaelLynch in
 Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory
(1985)? If you believe that only anthropologists are caught by the narrativedilemma of their own reflexivity, read the extraordinary description of mathematical practice byBryan Rotman,
 Ad Infinitum: The Ghost in Turing Machine — Taking God out of Mathematicsand Putting the Body Back In
(1994). Rotman describes how the textual mathematician sends thesemiotic slave Agent to perform automatic calculations that no one else has the time or the energyto do. There is even a comparative ethnography of formalism in Helen Watson’s work on thearithmetic of Aborigines and Australian white settlers. The more that the experimental sciences,formalism and intellectual technologies are studied by anthropologists, the less intimidated and themore optimistic anthropology as a science among the scientific disciplines should become.

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