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Latour, Bruno

Bruno Latour.jpg

Bruno Latour (1947- ) is unquestionably among the top foundational figures in science and technology studies, but his reputation and significance are broader. He is increasingly recognized in France for his provocative and controversial commentaries on the political scence. At the same time, he is also internationally recognized for his contribution to the arts (recently, he has served as curator for two major exhibitions that received international recognition). Of his career, Latour says the following: "When we start to bring together science and society, all sorts of new avenues are reopened, in politics of course, but also in the arts." Any reasonable account of Latour's life and career would need to explain why Latour drew this conclusion from his study of science and society.

If the rationale for Latour's triple interests (science studies, politics, and art) is not immediately and intuitively apparent, one cannot deny the success of his career accomplishments in all three areas. In 1982, Latour was appointed to a full professorship at the Centre de sociologie de l'Innovation (CSI), at the Ecole nationale supérieure des mines, in Paris. Working with CSI colleague Michel Callon and John Law, Latour pioneered a new, and significant, STS theory called actor-network theory (ANT). In 2006, reflecting his growing interest in politics, Latour resigned his École des mines position in favor of a professorship at the prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, popularly known as Sciences Po. This is one of the French university system's ultra-selective Grands établissements, the pinnacle of French academia, which provide both a broad liberal arts background and sophisticated technical training for the next generation of French civil servants, administrators, CEOs, and politicians). Recently, Latour has served as curator for successful art exhibitions at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, Germany, including "Iconoclash" (2002) and "Making Things Public" (2005).

Education and early career

Latour was born to a Burgundy family of négociant-éléveurs (wine merchants and growers) that owns Maison Louis Latour (not to be confused with the famous Château Latour, a celebrated Bordeaux vineyard). He describes the family as "typical provincial bourgeoisie" (cited in Crawford 1993) -- which is, perhaps, an understatement; the family is quite wealthy and is the largest holder of wine-producing land in Burgundy. In spite of a tradition of handing down the family business from father to son, Latour showed more interest in attending university than minding the grapevines. As Latour himself stresses, though, he did not attend the ultra-selective Wikipedia:Ecole normale supérieure, the elite institution that trains France's civil servants and technocrats. Instead, he studied philosophy and Biblical exegisis at the Université de Bourgogne, in Wikipedia: Dijon. Upon graduation he passed the agrégation examination, which certified him to teach philosophy at the secondary school level. Subsequently, he attended the Université de Tours, a newly founded university, where he studied the theology of Charles Péguy (1873-1914). In 1975, he received his doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation titled "Exégèse et ontologie: une analyse des textes de résurrection."

It is interesting to speculate how Latour's career would have developed were it not for one of those contingencies that historians so dearly love. His graduate study was interrupted by military service. But Latour did not find himself on the front lines of battle. Instead, he was sent to the Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), in West Africa, where he was appointed to ORSTOM (Institut Français de Recherche Scientifique pour le développement en Coopération), a school devoted to teaching science and technology as an instrument of economic development. It so happens that ORSTROM's director at the time, Marc Augé, is an anthropologist whose subsequent career has been at least the equal of Latour's; since leaving OSTROM in the early 1980s, he won an international reputation for his work in anthropology. He is currently the President of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Under Augé's expert and inspiring tutelage, Latour learned the fundamentals of anthropological fieldwork by doing an ethnography of French technical training, which he completed and published in 1974. Latour's interest in the anthropology of science and technology, and his collaboration with Augé, led him to conceptualize a pioneering field research venture: a study of the "daily activities of scientists in their natural habitat" (Latour 1979: 274), the research laboratory. The study was made possible thanks to Latour's connection with Roger Guillemin, an internationally regarded scientist who happened to grow up in Dijon, just a few miles down the road from Latour's family home. Guillemin's celebrated work in neuroendicrinology had resulted in an appointment at the Jonas Salk Institute for the Biological Sciences in La Jolla, CA. Augé and Latour correctly concluded that this connection promised to yield forth that which any field ethnographer desperately desires, namely, permission to insert oneself in the midst of other peoples' lives, and make a nuisance of oneself, for a one or perhaps two years.

In 1975, with his Ph.D. and an invitation from Guillemin in hand, Latour received a Fulbright grant (1975-1976) and moved to La Jolla to begin a two-year ethnographic study of Guillemin's laboratory. (The second year of research was funded by a NATO fellowship.) As will be seen, Latour's experience in the La Jolla laboratory sowed the seeds of his break with the Strong Programme, the then-dominant theoretical perspective in STS.

Life in the laboratory

Latour's two-year ethnographic study of the neuroendocrinology laboratory of Roger Guillemin in La Jolla, California resulted in one of the enduring classics of the STS literature, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), written in collaboration with British STS scholar Steve Woolgar.

This widely-read work demonstrated the shortcomings of the standard view of science, and particularly the Wikipedia: scientific method, in which the replication of experiments are seen to play a conclusive role in "falsifying" inadequate theories. As Latour and Woolgar discovered, what goes on in laboratories conforms only poorly with the normative myths of science. Typically, experiments produce data that is not only inconclusive, but downright confusing; faced with a growing mountain of disorderly and inconclusive data, scientists struggle to inconclusive data that is attributed to failure of the apparatus or shortcomings in the particular method that was used. In addition, a scientist's expertise consists of a great deal of experientially learned, tacit knowledge that is used to make decisions about whether to keep or discard a problematic data set. The results of laboratory research are rarely as conclusive as the standard view of science would suggest.

Latour and the Strong Programme: The beginnings of doubt

Working with Woolgar introduced Latour to the Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), which emerged from the work of David Bloor, Barry Barnes, and Steven Shapin in an interdisciplinary program at Edinburgh University called the Science Studies Unit. Unlike previous sociological studies of science, which brought in social explanatory factors only for failed scientific ventures, the Strong Programme argued for a principle of symmetry: a Strong Programme analyst uses the same type of explanation -- psychological, social, and cultural -- to explain the vicissitudes of successful as well as unsuccessful objects of study in science. The Strong Programme is therefore a form of social constructivism, which regards the "facts" of the world around us as artifacts created and sustained by human agency. The first edition of Laboratory Life, contained the phrase "social construction" in the subtitle, and the Strong Programme is repeatedly mentioned in the text. At the same time, in retrospect, it is also clear that Latour was beginning to develop an approach that would, in time, lead him to break ranks with the Strong Programme.

The book's thesis, to be sure, is phrased in terms that are consonant with what Latour and Woolgar see, correctly, as the Strong Programme's major theoretical contribution: What goes in scientific laboratories does not conform to the picture of science developed by rationalist philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper. According to these philosophers, science advances because scientists discovered a set of rules (e.g., the scientific method) that, when followed scrupulously, produce knowledge. But Latour, in Guillemin's lab observed no orderly progress from one meticulously crafted experiment to the next. In contrast, each experiment generated a "disordered array of observations," in which each new data point introduced a "seething mass of alternative explanations" (36). A great deal of time was consumed as the research team debated the various alternative explanations, trying to find some sort of justification for choosing one over the others. In contrast to the picture presented by the mythical Scientific Method, the choices were far from clear

As attested by the Science wars of the 1990s, the Strong Programme's position comes across to scientists -- not surprisingly -- as an attack on the legitimacy of science and, potentially, on their own reputations. After all, in order to draw a contrast between themselves and their scientific adversaries, scientists themselves emphasize their objectivity and vehemently deny that bias affects their research results. They have discovered the facts; their adversaries, artifacts. Thus, as Latour recalls in Science in Action (1992), Guillemin was able to show that his adversary, Schally, had not discovered an important new hormone; in reality, it was a contaminant (a piece of haeomoglobin).

When viewed through the Strong Programme's lens, particularly as that lens is focused by its more radically relativist proponents, there are no facts, only artifacts, produced in equal measure by the winners as well as the losers: both groups are, as Latour caustically put it, "denied access to the Real" (Latour 1996: 79). Taken to its logical extreme, the Strong Programme propels one into a world in which there is no Archimedean point: science turns out to be no more privileged than any way of seeing the world, and it provides no grounds whatsoever for distinguishing among competing truth claims. Inevitably, the more radical versions of the Strong Programme would bring Latour into direct conflict with Guillemin -- he would have to argue, in essence, that the natural world had nothing to do with the laboratory's research conclusions. This would be tantamount to claiming that Guillemin imposed an arbitrary order on the "seething mass" of confusing, disordered observations -- in other words, that Guillemin's facts were artifacts after all.

To the extent that it could imperil Guillemin's reputation, this interpretation would be a rather shabby way to repay Guillemin, who is after all practically a kinsman, for his hospitality; of course, this has not stopped other S&TS laboratory ethnographers from questioning the facticity of a studied lab's work. But Latour was not willing to do that. In retrospect, Latour says, his unwillingness to toe the Strong Programme's line is best explained by the fact that he is French, not British; the Strong Programme, Latour says, arises in the first instance from a long, nasty, and peculiarly British war between totalizing scientific empiricists and their critics. Latour therefore felt no pressure to adhere to the Strong Programme Latour's discomfort with the Strong Programme's relativism must have been complicated by the fact that, in 1977, two years prior to the publication of Laboratory Life, Guillemin was awarded a Nobel Prize for the very work that Latour had himself observed.

Trials of strength

Of all the reasons Latour rejected the Strong Programme's relativism, undoubtedly the strongest was that it simply did not accord with what he observed in the laboratory: the scientists were struggling with something non-human that possessed, if not the strength of an Archimedean point, an undeniable facticity. Latour calls these non-human entities objects (alternatively, actants), and their most important quality is their ability to withstand trials of strength.

(note - this article is actively under revision!)

What is an actant?

The Strong Programme strikes back

In the years to come, Latour realized that the Strong Programme brought with it what he saw as sociological reductionism: an unwarranted and limiting insistence on explaining all scientific phenomena by exclusively social factors.

After a research project examining the sociology of primatologists, Latour followed up the themes in Laboratory Life with Les Microbes: guerre et paix (published in English as The Pasteurization of France in 1984). The book is most decidedly not about Pasteur, whose work, Latour argues, cannot be explained by the crude tools of the Strong Program:

Conservatism, Catholicism, love of law and order, fidelity to the Empress, brashness,

passion—those are approximately all we get of the ‘social factors’ acting on Pasteur. But they are not much if we put on the other side all the scientific work to be

explained. (Latour, 1988, pp. 257–258)

There were plenty of other brash, conservative Catholic scientists in France at the time, Latour points out, including some passionate ones, but none of them discovered the anthrax microbe. Still, it is clear from the book's approach that Latour is reluctant to explain the spread of Pasteur's ideas -- the Pasteurization of France -- by The book's focus, in contrast, is the hygienics movement, a broad-based, late nineteenth century social movement that, Latour says, was largely responsible for disseminating Pasteur's discoveries.

More deeply,though, at issue in this book is how Latour is going to be able to bring "non-human" forces into the book without re-introducing the standard view of science through the back door -- and what is more, in such a way that the approach would provide new, useful tools for STS research. Latour's solution to this puzzle is to look for the alliances that are formed between human and non-human actors; the stronger among them become "obligatory rites of passage." The laboratory can control the microbe, so the scientists say, in effect, "you must take us into account and go through our laboratories if you are going to solve the problems of society" (1988: 39).

The alliances vary in that some of them are more able to withstand what Latour calls "trials of strength" than others; if the human or the non-human actor is unable to deliver the goods consistently, the alliance is weak and may disappear. Prior to Pasteur's discoveries, the hygienists were "everywhere, but they were weak" (1988: 41) because their non-human actors were not very reliable; sometimes they could prevent infections, but commonly, they couldn't. Worse, they didn't know why, and all along they were bedeviled by theories of "morbid spontaneity" (1988: 21). The hygienists adopted Pasteur's discoveries with enthusiasm because, with Pasteur's help, they could more effectively discipline the microbes and enlist their support as reliable allies. Able to form novel alliances, the various versions of the hygienics movement that spread outward from Pasteur's laboratory used their "strong" alliances to construct new patterns of social relations.

For Latour, the unprecedented structure of newly formed non-human and human alliances put the last nail of the coffin of the Strong Programme, which tries to use society to explain our notions of nature. But this approach rests on a fallacy: The Strong Programme was trying to use the explanandum -- society, that which needs to be explained -- as the explans, that which explains. How can this be possible, Latour asks, when de novo social relations are the product of our interaction with nature? Society and nature, concludes Latour, are "co-produced" (Latour 1992:287).

The second, less-frequently-read part of the book is a philosophical manifesto, which adds up, according to Latour, to proof of "the impossibility of a [purely]social explanation of science." This statement coupled with Latour's decision to drop the word "social" from the subtitle of the second edition of Laboratory Life, signals Latour's open break with the Strong Programme. As Latour explains it, this break was required by the [[Strong Programme]'s failure to take the principle of symmetry to its logical conclusion:

You have the first asymmetry [good science explains success, society explains failure] ..., and the remedy for that is Bloor. But his remedy is also an asymmetrical argument because he explains both [successful and unsuccessful science[</nowiki] terms of the social. To be sure, <nowiki>[Bloor] is not an idealist--as are some of the other descendants of the Edinburgh school--and for him the social is only one half of the explanation, but the other half is completely unclear. I think now the only way to achieve Bloor's goal is through what Michel Callon calls the generalized principle of symmetry. It goes like this: let's treat society and nature symmetrically. This new symmetry principle is much different from Bloor because Bloor is a radical Durkheimian thinker, which is to say that society "up there" should be able to explain true and false belief in the same terms--the inputs of nature being necessary to anchor our beliefs, but not to shape them" (quoted in Crawford 1993: 255-256)


  • Latour, Bruno and Woolgar, Steve (1979). Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Sage, Los Angeles, USA.
  • William Kornfeld and Carl Hewitt (1981). The Scientific Community Metaphor, IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, SMC-11.
  • Latour, Bruno (1988). The Pasteurization of France, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., USA.
  • Latour, Bruno (1989). La science en action : Introduction à la sociologie des sciences, La découverte, Paris.
  • Latour Bruno (1992). "Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts", pp. 225-258 in: Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, edited by W.E. Bijker & J. Law, MIT Press, USA.
  • Latour, Bruno (1993). We have never been modern, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., USA.
  • Latour, Bruno (1996). Aramis, or the love of technology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., USA.
  • Latour, Bruno (1999). Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., USA.
  • Latour, Bruno (2002, 2004). La fabrique du droit. Une ethnographie du Conseil d'Etat, La découverte, Paris.
  • Latour, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press, UK.

"Pandora's hope : essays on the reality of science studies." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

"Aramis, or The love of technology." Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1996.

"Eclaircissements, or Conversations on science, culture, and time." Michel Serres with Bruno Latour; translated by Roxanne Lapidus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c1995.

Pasteur : une science, un style, un siècle; édité sous le parrainage de l'Institut Pasteur. Paris : Perrin, 1994.

De la préhistoire aux missiles balistiques: l'intelligence sociale des techniques; sous la direction de Bruno Latour et Pierre Lemonnier. Pari: La Daecouverte, 1994.

"Nous n'avons jamais été modernes, or We have never been modern." Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

"Microbes, or The pasteurization of France." Translated by Alan Sheridan and John Law. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

"Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

"Laboratory life : the construction of scientific facts." Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar; introduction by Jonas Salk ; with a new postscript and index by the authors. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1986.

"The three little dinosaurs or a sociologist's nightmare" » in Fundamenta Scientiae, vol 1, pp.79-85. 

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