[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s reading was Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory.]
Something tells me Bruno Latour would not like the analysis of “social networks” in my research. Latour breaks down both “social” and “networks,” as well as several other terms in a useful theoretical book. However, I find his deconstructions only partially useful, as his theoretical arguments do not always seem practical.
In order for Latour’s reassemblage of the social to have significance, he must first object to the current definitions of social. Though he might not argue as strongly if not trying to be somewhat provocative, it seems Latour is content to throw the baby out with the bath water. Latour seems most concerned with the improper usage of the word social. He may even be correct. However, to discount the value of studying social structures or social influences seems extreme. Latour can find fault in the words we use to define these phenomenon, but I find the content of the research and not the words used to describe the field more important.
Though I felt Latour got too obsessed with defining social, I find Latour’s definition of a network, “Network is a concept, not a thing out there” (131), incredibly useful. In my own research, I have attempted to visualize networks, which is difficult if a netowrk is not a thing to see. The danger with visualizing networks is that the personal relationships that comprise a social network are very diverse and dynamic. Relationships change over time and are never quite as simple as lines connecting names. The very act of visualizing a social network seems to cheapen the intimacies of personal relationships by equating deep friendship with acquaintance. However, in reality, there is little alternative. As historians looking at personal relationships in the past it is very difficult to partially understand on personal relationship let alone a vast set of them. Instead of giving up on quantifying something that is in reality impossible to fully understand, I prefer to take what little understanding I can. Even if I cannot fully grasp the depth or shallowness of a past personal relationships, I find exploring these relationships, even speculatively, more useful than ignoring them.
He does not “discount the value of studying social structures or social influences.” On the contrary. What he is saying is that you can’t study social structures if you have already made up your mind what “social” means and you are simply looking for illustrations of that ready-made definition. He is not obsessing about the meaning of words. For ANT, the meaning of a word is always part of a heterogeneous network, therefore when you are concerned with definitions, you are concerned with the content and structure of the whole heterogeneous network that produces that meaning.