Friday, October 30, 2009

Notes from a morning seminar with Bruno Latour in Copenhagen

French sociologist of associations, Bruno Latour, seem to have finally caught a level of buzz, where he is payed more than moderate attention when visiting a city. Today at Copenhagen Business School, there's a waiting list for his Friday afternoon lecture, despite the fact that the auditorium holds almost 500 people. A few, mostly PhD students, got a head start this morning, however, when they filled a much smaller room to spend 2 hours with Latour in an interactive seminar. I was lucky enough to get a seat and thought I would share a few hand-written notes here. After all, the 'net' in the title of this blog is just as inspired by the net in Actor-Network-Theory as it is inspired by the net in internet. And the possible connections between these two nets was actually something that Latour touched upon:

"The possibilities of traceability has changed - (internet) data is uniquely adequate with ANT. You don't have to choose between the individual element and the aggregate, when mapping e.g. the blogosphere."

That is, when data-mining the internet for sociological purposes, it is not necessarily a good thing to use statistics, one should rather take advantage of the chance to look at the myriad of freely given individual information:

"The world is one big questionnaire, with millions of replies. If we could tap into just a tiny bit of that, it would revolutionalize social science."

That's exactly what this blog is and should be about! Social science should not have to feel inferior to natural science - social science actually has better access to valuable, individual cases. That again makes our object of study more complex than a stack of atoms, which to put it polemically makes social science the 'hard' science. Our object of study includes humans - and humans are much more likely to hide their complexity than non-humans - most of the time, because we as researchers makes them hide their complexity. Latour used yeast as an amusing example:

"Actually we are more fair to yeast than we are to humans, most of the time. It would be good to treat people as good as yeast. When you ask people to behave like objects, they just do it. Yeast doesn't, it just dies or starts to smell."

To use the vocabulary that we should ultimately abolish:

"We never use subjectivity enough in fieldwork, because subjectivity means to be subjected to the effects"

This could of course be understood in many ways, but maybe one thing to take away from this message is that we have to remain consciously subjective in order to track the objectifications that are in play around humans all the time:

"You should never assume that your study doesn't have an impact"

We of course also touched upon one of Latour's main missionary zeals, namely the craft of writing social science:

"Writing is our laboratory - what distinguishes good science from bad science"

"Power Point is not very persuasive"

"Repeating is making the thing happen again" (at least that's often what you're doing, when you think your just repeating. It's probably also why repeating can be so tiring)

"A good social scientist is somebody who's lucky. Natural scientists as well."

For Garfinkel-fans (which we maybe all should be?) this little gem came out:

"ANT is the continental way of doing Garfinkel, plus non-humans. But Garfinkel wrote like a pig. And thinking that writing badly is scientific is an epistemological mistake"

Let's finish with one of the most craved-for pieces of advice in empiral social science: When to stop? Latour of course regards this a silly question, given that there's almost always a format imposed on a study, but hints:

"When to stop? It depends on the effect you want to produce."

Very precicely said, in my humble opinion. I'll stop now.

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