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Reassembling the social

November 19, 2012

In his work, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Bruno Latour considers the meaning of the term, ‘social’. I honestly haven’t read it fully, but it’s something to return to….

He writes: “…when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumptions about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.” (p.1, italics in original)

“Translated from both the Latin and Greek, ‘socio-logy’ means the ‘science of the social’. The expression would be excellent except for two drawbacks, namely the word ‘social’ and the word ‘science’. The virtues that we are prepared nowadays to grant the scientific and technical enterprises bear little relation with what the founders of the social sciences had in mind when they invented their disciplines. When modernizing was in full swing, science was a rather powerful urge to be prolonged indefinitely without any misgivings to slow its progress down. They had no idea that its extension could render it almost coextensive with the rest of social intercourse. What they meant by ‘society’ has undergone a transformation no less radical, which is thanks in large part to the very expansion of the products of science and technology. It is no longer clear whether there exists relations that are specific enough to be called ‘social’ and that could be grouped together in making up a special domain that could function as ‘a society’. The social seems to be diluted everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. So, neither science nor society has remained stable enough to deliver the promises of a strong ‘socio-logy’.
In spite of this double metamorphosis, few social scientists have drawn the extreme conclusion that the object as well as the methodology of the social sciences should be modified accordingly.” (p.2)

“What is a society? What does the word ‘social’ mean? Why are some activities said to have a ‘social dimension’? How can one demonstrate the presence of ‘social factors’ at work? When is a study of society, or other social aggregates, a good study? How can the path of society be altered?” (p.3)

“There is a clear etymological trend in the successive variations of the ‘social’ word family (Strum and Latour 1987). It goes from the most general to the most superficial. The etymology of the word ‘social’ is also instructive. The root is seq-, sequi and the first meaning is ‘to follow’. The Latin socius denotes a companion, an associate. From the different languages, the historical genealogy of the word ‘social’ is construed first as following someone, then enrolling and allying, and, lastly, having something in common. The next meaning of social is to have a share in a commercial undertaking. ‘Social’ as in the social contract is Rousseau’s invention. ‘Social’ as in social problems, the social question, is a nineteenth-century innovation. Parallel words like ‘sociable’ refer to skills enabling individuals to live politely in society. As one can see from the drifting of the word, the meaning of social shrinks as time passes. Starting with a definition which is coextensive with all associations, we now have, in common parlance, a usage that is limited to what is left after politics, biology, economics, law, psychology, management, technology, etc., have taken their own parts of the associations.
Because of this constant shrinking of meaning (social contract, social question, social workers), we tend to limit the social to humans and modern societies, forgetting that the domain of the social is much more extensive than that. De Candolle was the first person to create scientometrics – the use of statistics to measure the activity of science – and, like his father, a plant sociologist (Candolle 1873/1987). For him corals, baboons, trees, bees, ants, and whales are also social. This extended meaning of social has been well recognized by socio-biology (Wilson 1975). Unfortunately, this enterprise has only confirmed social scientists’ worst fears about extending the meaning of social. It’s perfectly possible, however, to retain the extension without believing much in the very restricted definition of agency given to organisms in many socio-biological panoramas.” (p.6, italics in original)

“Is a science of the social possible again provided we modify, because of what has been elarned from the sociology of science, what is meant by ‘social’ and what is meant by ‘science’?” (p.247, italics in original)

Ref: Bruno Latour (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York etc.

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