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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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An off-cut from writing.

In his seminal work, We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour highlights (and criticises) two opposed strains of social-scientific thought. The first school to come under fire from Latour is the social constructivists. This mode of thought is one wherein most aspects of objective reality can be shown as determined by social convention. The classic example of this is gender. Western cultures have traditionally assumed that there are two genders that are constituted by possession of specific sexual organs. Yet we also know that a range of secondary sexual characteristics (and even primary sexual characteristics) are possible. The determination of gender categorisation into binaries is, therefore, a social choice made for various socio-legal and economic reasons (childbearing, for example). For Latour, however, the social constructivists falsely claim that they have privileged insight and are the sole class of people who can see through this social construction. Latour puts it that one strain of social scientists think that:

Ordinary people imagine that the power of gods, the objectivity of money, the attraction of fashion, the beauty of art, come from some objective properties intrinsic to the nature of things. Fortunately, social scientists know better and they show that the arrow goes in fact in the other direction, from society to objects.

With its ironic phrasing, Latour here criticizes the aloofness inherent in claiming to be able to see beyond the horizon of ordinary people.

On the other hand, Latour notes, the second strain of social-scientific thought scoffs at the idea that people might be free and claims that people are determined by objects. A good example of this would be the curious phenomenon that people in cars seem to drive closer to cyclists who are wearing helmets, apparently falsely and subliminally reassured by the presumed additional safety.1 Although it is unwise to conflate correlation and causality, the narrative here becomes one in which objects (helmets) here determine human behaviour (driving). Latour sardonically remarks on this thus:

the social scientists are standing guard, and they denounce, and debunk and ridicule this naive belief in the freedom of the human subject and society. This time they use the nature of things–that is the indisputable results of the sciences–to show how it determines, informs and moulds the soft and pliable wills of the poor humans. ‘Naturalization’ is no longer a bad word but the shibboleth that allows the social scientists to align themselves with the natural sciences. All the sciences (natural and social) are now mobilized to turn the human into so many puppets manipulated by objective forces– which only the natural or social scientists happen to know.

In other words, on one side of this type of thinking lies the assertion that human beings project value structures upon objects and then believe these value characteristics to be natural (gender, for example). On the reverse side, though, the methods of the social sciences involve studying, measuring and determining how objects, as though free of social construction, influence people’s behaviour (such as bicycle helmets). As Latour puts it: “In the first denunciation objects count for nothing; they are just there to be used as the white screen on to which society projects its cinema. But in the second, they are so powerful that they shape the human society, while the social construction of sciences that have produced them remains invisible”.2

Notes

1 Ian Walker, ‘Drivers Overtaking Bicyclists: Objective Data on the Effects of Riding Position, Helmet Use, Vehicle Type and Apparent Gender’, Accident Analysis & Prevention 39, no. 2 (March 2007): 417–25, doi:10.1016/j.aap.2006.08.010; These findings were extensively queried by Jake Olivier and Scott R. Walter, ‘Bicycle Helmet Wearing Is Not Associated with Close Motor Vehicle Passing: A Re-Analysis of Walker, 2007’, PLoS ONE 8, no. 9 (25 September 2013): e75424, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075424, although do read the comments on this second article to see how contested this is in the scientific community.

2 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 51–53.