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By 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 AN theme, “Science and Anthropology”, have considered the science of anthropology as if there were no anthropology of science. Long debates over the “scientificity” of our discipline — whether it should imitate the natural sciences, define itself separately, limit itself to hermeneutic circles or recast itself as travel literature — imply that science consists of a body of method and rigor that exists entirely “off camera.” The discussion does not recognize that for the last 20 years the practice of science has been carefully documented by ethnographers who have fundamentally modified the definition of scientific practice in the natural sciences — work that has clarified what it 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 own discipline; 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 tribute to Marshall Sahlins. Each stage represents a change in the relative balance between anthropology and its subject matter. In the first stage, the cultures of the world were hardy and anthropology weak or barely existing. In the second, as anthropology gathered momentum, gained chairs, journals, endowments and field sites, its subject matter — traditional cultures  — weakened and began to disappear. It was as if the ethnographer — an antithetical King Midas — had been cursed with the gift of turning everything to dust. This was the turning point of Tristes Tropiques. By the third stage, anthropology had reached the peak of its power, yet unable to bear the vision of this field of ruins and gnawed by the guilt of shouldering “the White Man’s burden,” it began to denigrate 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 much present. 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 disavowed by postmodern criticism: “reanthropologizing” whole regions of the earth supposed to have faded into the monotonous homogeneity of a global market and deterritorialized capitalism. It is in this fourth stage that, for the first time, we may anticipate both strong cultures and a strong discipline of anthropology. The newly reinvented cultures are much too robust to dwell upon our past misdeeds or present lack of heart. The current situation needs an anthropology willing to embrace its 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 the discipline clings even more vigorously than to its cherished guilt. Although there is considerable discussion about the scientific method in introductory social science textbooks, methodology never appears in the natural science textbooks of physics or chemistry. To be sure, epistemologists and philosophers of science write a great deal about “the scientific method,” but natural scientists sensibly enough do not bother to read them. It is only the social scientists who, insecure about their own scientific status, take these discussions seriously. Rigor in science is more a question of logistics than method, for objectivity, certainty and control 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 scientific community. It is, thus, only the social scientists who put the cart before the horse by discussing the rigor and certainty of a fact, before having defined the new agencies under examination. Such methodological rhetoric in anthropology carries no more meaning than the construction of a highway, six lanes wide and several hundred meters long, located in the middle of nowhere. It would be robust and “rigorous,” yet where would it lead? What kind of traffic is it designed to carry? 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 anthropology stand if it tries to imitate not the purity of what it imagines in the natural sciences, but the real productivity of those disciplines — embodied in the new agencies they mobilize? One would never guess from the discussion thus far in the AN 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 selfish genes. Understanding the theology of Australian Aborigines is as important as charting the great undersea rifts. The Trobriand land tenure system is as interesting a scientific objective as the polar icecap drilling. If we talk about what matters in a definition of a science — innovation in the agencies that furnish our world — anthropology might well be close to the top of the disciplinary pecking order.
Celebrate Our Achievements
Even more absurd in this debate about over scientific anthropology, is the fact that no one has acknowledged that anthropology is already one of the most advanced productive and scientific of all the disciplines — natural or social. Ethnographers despair of reaching what they and their forebears 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 this scientific 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 on shaky 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 soothe the worries of our profession. What could be more local, idiosyncratic, fragile or collective than the painstaking extraction of data from a nerve ending by neurobiologists described by Michael Lynch 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 narrative dilemma of their own reflexivity, read the extraordinary description of mathematical practice by Bryan Rotman, Ad Infinitum: The Ghost in Turing Machine — Taking God out of Mathematics and Putting the Body Back In (1994). Rotman describes how the textual mathematician sends the semiotic slave Agent to perform automatic calculations that no one else has the time or the energy to do. There is even a comparative ethnography of formalism in Helen Watson’s work on the arithmetic of Aborigines and Australian white settlers. The more that the experimental sciences, formalism and intellectual technologies are studied by anthropologists, the less intimidated and the more optimistic anthropology as a science among the scientific disciplines should become.
It is now possible to draw upon the subfield of the anthropology of science to define what a scientific application of anthropology should be.
The ethnography of science channels the reflexivity on the practice of anthropology in a productive and comparative fashion, and away from the self-destructive denigration of its own accomplishments. To be sure, the actual practice of anthropology must be put back into the picture: the building of museums, writing of diaries, funding patterns of public agencies, styling of narratives, interviewing informants, even the passage from fieldworker to tenured professor. None of this description weakens the quality of information produced, however. Anthropology, along with biology, chemistry, physics, economics and statistics, produces a universality solid enough for all the practical purposes in the sciences.
By integrating anthropology within a broader comparison of all disciplines — natural and social — we can eliminate the question of the “Outside Observer” which has so paralyzed epistemological debates in our filed. There is nothing especially cold or uninvolved in the production of science. On the contrary, experimental scientists are involved, close to their subject matter and passionate. What matters in the production of facts is not the “Objective Gaze,” but what properties might be maintained in the transformation of information through successive media. More information is being produced by transporting data from the Pacific Islands to the University of Chicago, from there to the card files compiled by Lévi-Strauss in Paris, back to the PhD program in New Zealand and thence to the texts used in schools throughout the Pacific. The more mediations, the better. This is as true for chemistry as for botany, psychology and ethnography. To believe that involvement, transformation, adulteration, reformatting and displacement weaken a “Pure Science” of “Pure Objectivity” is to have never seen a practicing scientist at work.
Through the new history and sociology of the sciences, anthropologists can learn the many ways in which politics, instead of being deleterious to the sciences, is in fact beneficial. Contrary to the claims of epistemologists who try to separate science from politics and facts from values, no scientific discipline could have survived had this been the case. The slogan, “Science is politics pursued by other means,” actually helps science because it insists on those other means necessary to build a society. To reason in 1996 that science is a fortress that could survive only if it were more insulated from the larger society — and that anthropology is tainted because of its innumerable ties to the larger collective — is more than a sin, it is absurd. Such reasoning ignores the history of the natural sciences, in which science does not occur as a foreign body within a culture; it is part and parcel of the collective.
Finally, the comparative basis offered by an anthropology of all the scientific disciplines, affords a new perspective on the question of what it is to be a natural or social science. If anthropology is the study of cultures, it covers only a tiny part of its program if. It leaves nature outside its purview. This includes the unexamined extraterritoriality, extrasociality, extrapolitics granted nature by the Occidental self in its understanding of its history. Ethno-sciences take a completely different shape when they begin to include physics, chemistry, botany, high technology and medicine. We no longer study belief systems, but also truth systems, where the very notion of belief evaporates revealing a new field that I have called “symmetric anthropology.” To be or not to be scientific is not the question. Rather than assuming this defensive posture, I believe that it is much more productive to be offensive in all meanings of the word — and to include both the natural and social sciences in the usual field sites of anthropology. It is here that anthropology’s next discoveries lie, and here that we — according to Sahlins’s Law — can be finally of use to our subject matter.
[Trained first as a philosopher and later as an anthropologist in the Ivory Coast, Bruno Latour has turned to field studies of scientists, engineers, and innovators in general. He has recently published We Have Never Been Modern (1993) on the notion of a symmetric anthropology that would include science, and Aramis or the Love of Technology (1996), which details the life and demise of an automatic subway system. The anthropology of science is part of a larger community called “science studies” that includes historians, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and economists of science and technology. Latour refers interested readers to Sharon Traweek’s Beam Times and
Life Times: The World of High Energy Physicists (1988) and A Pickering’s Science as Practice and Culture (1992). Latour wishes to thank Monique Stark for kindly correcting his English in this text.]
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