Thursday, 21 May 2009

Translation Deficits

Joost van Loon examines the 'translation deficit' between Actor Network Theory and Science and Technology Studies.

Although Actor Network Theory (ANT) is now a well-established, albeit often misunderstood, domain within the social sciences, it has not travelled very well beyond Science and Technology Studies (STS). Using a phrase from Latour himself, one could argue that ANT suffers from a 'translation deficit' when it comes to social science research beyond STS. It is not very interesting to dwell too long on the reasons for this translation deficit but it helps to distinguish three possible factors:

  1. The radical nature of the philosophical roots of Latour’s ANT which are an unusual mixture of William James’ radical empiricism, A.N. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and Friedrich Nietzsche’s accomplished nihilism (or relativism as Latour prefers to call it).
  2. The fundamentally empirical nature of ANT-analyses, which forces one to do ANT rather than talk about it.
  3. A reluctance of social theorists, in particular, to separate critique from prejudice and thereby to start taking actors and action seriously. That is to say, when attempts are being made to ‘export’ ANT-analyses across boundaries, there are significant numbers of gatekeepers blocking the passageways like security guards at airports.

As Latour himself has insisted over and over again, Actor Network Theory is deceptive and therefore perhaps not a very good phrase to describe what is done under that heading. It has led to the suggestion that it is merely a theoretical position that aims to describe networks of actors and in that way it has been interpreted as another version of network theory along the lines of, for example, Ohmae and Castells. In order to avoid such confusion, Latour has toyed with a number of phrases that better describe what ANT might be, such as ‘sociology of translation’ and more recently, ‘sociology of associations’ (Latour, 2005). I prefer Annemarie Mol’s label: ‘empirical philosophy’.

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