Sunday, May 31, 2015

Latour: The Fourth Uncertainty - Matters of Fact vs Matters of Concern

Continuing on the (one sided) conversation of ANT with Latour we have the 4th source of uncertainty which is Matters of Fact vs Matters of Concern.  I guess, starting off here, that one cannot debate matters of "fact" because they are facts and therefore immutable, whereas "concerns" are broad categories and the "answers" will most likely be in a state of flux.

ANT is the story of an experiment so carelessly started that it took a quarter of century to rectify it and catch up with what its exact meaning was. It all started quite badly with the unfortunate use of the expression ‘social construction of scientific facts’. (p. 88)
I am wondering what is so unfortunate about 'social construction of scientific facts'.  Is it that the word "fact" was used? or is it the "social" in 'social construction'?  Or is it both? I know that Latour seems to have an issue with how 'social' has been defined (wonder what he thinks of 'social media') but it seems that this chapter is also focusing on the semantics of the word 'facts', as it related to explorations of knowledge. I do think that as humans we want facts because of desire to have something tangible at the end of our explorations.  If at the end we have something fuzzy, did we accomplish anything through our hard work?

Unfortunately, the excitation went quickly sour when we realized that for other colleagues in the social as well as natural sciences the word construction meant something entirely different from what common sense had thought until then. To say that something was ‘constructed’ in their minds meant that something was not true. They seemed to operate with the strange idea that you had to submit to this rather unlikely choice: either something was real and not constructed, or it was constructed and artificial, contrived and invented, made up and false (p. 90)
Ah! I guess I should have read a little further into my own copy/pasting.  Well, words have no meaning but for the meaning that a community of speakers endows upon those words and expressions. I can see how constructed might mean un-natural (as in a building is constructed), however just because something is not found in nature it doesn't mean that it is not true.  I am standing in a constructed building, using a computer which was constructed, in order to put together this blog post. Does this mean that what's being created is not true?

yet, it became painfully clear that if we wanted to go on using the word construction we would have to fight on two fronts: against the epistemologists who went on claiming that facts were ‘of course’ not constructed—which had about as much sense as saying that babies are not born out of their mother’s wombs—and against our ‘dear colleagues’ who seemed to imply that if facts were constructed then they were as weak as fetishes—or at least what they believed fetishists ‘believed’ in. (p. 91)
Huh...interesting. So, I guess part of the issue here, again, is what sorts of meanings we put on the words that we use.  I am wondering if the hurdles to come to an agreement over how to use language will be as hard as having someone else's epistemological standing validated by the status quo.

This is why I thought it more appropriate to do with constructivism what we had done for relativism: thrown at us like insults, both terms had a much too honorable tradition not to be reclaimed as a glorious banner. After all, those who criticized us for being relativists never noticed that the opposite would be absolutism. And those who criticized us for being constructivists would have probably not wished to see that the opposite position, if words have any meaning, was fundamentalism (p. 91)
No comment - just an interesting note about the various opposites.

Our colleagues prefer to say: ‘Social explanation of science has failed because it is contradictory.’ Or they might say: ‘It has succeeded fairly well, let’s go on with business as usual.’ But ANT proposes: ‘It’s a great opportunity now that it has failed so thoroughly since it may finally bring social theory to its senses.’ In the same way as church fathers celebrated Adam’s sin as a felix culpa (a fortunate fall from grace) because it had triggered Christ’s redemption, I could say that the failure of a social explanation on science has been the great chance for social theory. (p. 97)
Religious imagery aside, I am actually wondering if contractions are always a problem.  It seems to me that there are some problems in experimental physics (for example) that seem contradictory but we still study to make sense of them. Things work, so there must be something there, hence more studying of things that appear contradictory. To me it seems like a great opportunity to continue learning, and to try and solve a suborn puzzle. Why assume that is has failed due to contradictions? Why not study the phenomenon more and gather more data to analyze?

Such is the interpretation I chose to give to the ‘Science Wars’: scientists made us realize that there was not the slightest chance that the type of social forces we use as a cause could have objective facts as their effects (p. 100)
But... when is a fact a fact? Is a fact perpetually a fact or can a fact lose its "factness"?

ANT does not assert that all the other domains of social science are fine and that only science and technology require a special strategy because they are so much harder, so much more important, and so much more respectable. It claims that since social accounts have failed on science so pitifully, it must have failed everywhere, science being special only in the sense that its practitioners did not let sociologists pass through their turf and destroy their objects with ‘social explanations’ without voicing their dissent loud and clear. (p. 101)
I guess... But isn't ANT meant to look at the fleeting social connections?  I guess I am back to contemplating the meaning of the world 'social' within this context...

So, ANT cannot share the philosophy of causality used in social sciences. Every time some A is said to be related to some B, it’s the social itself that is being generated. If my questioning of social explanations looks unfair, blind, and obsessively literal, it’s because I don’t want to confuse the assembling of the collective with the mere review of the entities already assembled or with a bundle of homogeneous social ties (p. 103)
No comment - just thought the above was interesting. Wish I had taken a side note on the PDF on this one...

We have now reached the very birthplace of what has been called ‘actor-network-theory’ or, more accurately, ‘sociology of translation’— unfortunately the label never held in English. As I said, ANT is simply the realization that something unusual had happened in the history and sociology of scientific hard facts, something so unusual that social theory could no more go through it than a camel through the eye of a needle (P. 106)
Quite interesting.  While ANT is a bit of an odd acronym, I prefer Actor-Network to the 'sociology of translation'. It seems to me that 'translation' is just as vulnerable to definitional issues as the word 'social'.

The social of sociologists thus appears exactly as it always was, namely a superfluity, a purely redundant rear-world adding nothing to the real world except artificial conundrums—just like the ether before relativity theory helped physics (p. 107)
I wonder how my sociologist-colleagues would feel about this ;-)

From the first three uncertainties, we have learned that studying their relations might be empirically difficult but is no longer a priori forbidden by the ‘obvious objections’ that ‘things don’t talk’, ‘fish nets have no passion’, and ‘only humans have intentions’. Social is nowhere in particular as a thing among other things but may circulate everywhere as a movement connecting non-social things. Stage two: social is back as association. We don’t know yet how all those actors are connected, but we can state as the new default position before the study starts that all the actors we are going to deploy might be associated in such a way that they make others do things. This is done not by transporting a force that would remain the same throughout as some sort of faithful intermediary, but by generating transformations manifested by the many unexpected events triggered in the other mediators that follow them along the line. This is what I dubbed the ‘principle of irreduction’ and such is the philosophical meaning of ANT: a concatenation of mediators does not trace the same connections and does not require the same type of explanations as a retinue of intermediaries transporting a cause. (p. 107)
It's interesting, this made much more sense to me (or was much more of an "aha") 10 days ago when I first read it.  At the moment I think that I highlighted this because it highlights the approach that ANT takes toward non-human actors - in other words non-human actors are actors in their own right. The one thing that is making the mental gears turn, which I have italized above, is making me wonder what the system-wide effects in our interpretations are if we look at a connection from A----D as one concatenated connection vs. A--B--C--D vs.  A--B----D vs. A----C--D.

To designate this thing which is neither one actor among many nor a force behind all the actors transported through some of them but a connection that transports, so to speak, transformations, we use the word translation—the tricky word ‘network’ being defined in the next chapter as what is traced by those translations in the scholars’ accounts. So, the word ‘translation’ now takes on a somewhat specialized meaning: a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting (p. 108)
I think this connects with my previous point about the word translation. This is a non-mainstream meaning of the word. Interesting relationship, from plain ol' transport of causality to co-existance, but what does it really mean? Does it mean that both mediators (actors?) are of equal importance within their connected network? Co-existence generally means that the two aren't competing, but I didn't think that actors in a social network competed in such a way.

If some causality appears to be transported in a predictable and routine way, then it’s the proof that other mediators have been put in place to render such a displacement smooth and predictable (see Part II). I can now state the aim of this sociology of associations more precisely: there is no society, no social realm, and no social ties, but there exist translations between mediators that may generate traceable associations. (p. 108)
The italics are mine. Interesting, but how do we define traceable associations?  Are they strong bonds? weak bonds? no bonds (we're just playing archeologists)? If there are strong or weak bonds between mediators, does that not imply some sort of a system, even if voluntary?

So this is where the fourth source of uncertainty can help us. If we accept to learn also from the controversies about non-humans, we soon realize that matters of fact do not describe what sort of agencies are populating the world any better than the words ‘social’, ‘symbolic’, and ‘discursive’ describe what is a human actor and the aliens overtaking it. (p. 110)
No broad response back to Latour about this - I just found this quote pretty interesting and adding to the description of what ANT is. It's one of many quotes collected to find out what ANT is all about. Latour is presenting this almost like a murder mystery...

To our great surprise, once the artificial boundary between social and natural was removed, non-human entities were able to appear under an unexpected guise. For instance, rocks might be useful to knock an idealist back to his senses, but rocks in geology seemed to be much more varied, much more uncertain, much more open, and deploy many more types of agencies than the narrow role given to them in empiricist accounts (p 111)
The thing that got me thinking here is the whole notion of a "tool".  We think of tools as lacking some initial motivation to do something.  A hammer for example has the use of hammering, or removing, a nail (at least that's the intended purpose - what it allows you to do is a whole other kettle of fish). Here we can see this specific tool given a place in some sort of social interaction, but does the tool really matter, or does it not?  The computer mediates my communication with the audience of this blog, but does a tool, that doesn't have mediatory allowances, matter in an actor-network graph?

ANT is not interested only in freeing human actors from the prison of the social but in offering natural objects an occasion to escape the narrow cell given to matters of fact by the first empiricism. (p. 114)
Hmmm... so I guess with ANT we are giving non-human objects equal consideration in the network of actions and how those are translated?

 The discussion begins to shift for good when one introduces not matters of fact, but what I now call matters of concern. While highly uncertain and loudly disputed, these real, objective, atypical and, above all, interesting agencies are taken not exactly as object but rather as gatherings. (p. 114)
No comment - just interesting quote.

This is exactly what the fourth uncertainty wishes to thrive from: the mapping of scientific controversies about matters of concern should allow us to renew from top to bottom the very scene of empiricism—and hence the divide between ‘natural’ and ‘social’. (p. 114)
Again - no comment - just adding this to my "trying to understand ANT" pile...

Such a multiplicity does not mean that scientists don’t know what they are doing and that everything is just fiction, but rather that science studies has been able to pry apart exactly what the ready-made notion of ‘natural objective matters of fact’ had conflated too fast, namely reality, unity, and indisputability. (p. 116)
I wonder if he is getting a a duality in Actor-Network with this.  Each network is an actor, and each actor is comprised of a network (or networks)?

There is unity and objectivity on one side, multiplicity and symbolic reality on the other. This is just the solution that ANT wishes to render untenable. With such a divide between one reality and many interpretations, the continuity and commensurability of what we call the associations would immediately disappear, since the multiple will run its troubled historical course while the unified reality will remain intact, untouched, and remote from any human history. (p. 117)
Just an interesting quote. Note to self - add notes to margins...

Controversies over ontologies turn out to be just as interesting and controversial as metaphysics, except that the question of truth (of what the world is really like) cannot be ignored with a blase´ pose or simplified a priori by thumping on desks and kicking at stones (p. 118)
I am getting flashbacks from 802 with this quote ;-)

Scientific practice is the drosophila of social theory since it offers an exaggerated and scaled up version of what can later be studied in much more inaccessible domains. Once you learn how to respect shifting ontologies, you can tackle more difficult entities for which the question of reality has been simply squeezed out of existence by the weight of social explanations. (p. 119)
Not sure what to make of this, especially the weight of social explanations.  To some extent I thought we were discounting them up to now... :-/

When we list the qualities of an ANT account, we will make sure that when agencies are introduced they are never presented simply as matters of fact but always as matters of concern, with their mode of fabrication and their stabilizing mechanisms clearly visible (p. 120)
As I read this, again, I am wondering if agencies (and connections) are therefore (to some extent) in the eye of the beholder.  How one analyzes something, and from what frame will make a difference in how one perceives agency...

That's it for the 4th uncertainty.  One more to go!

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