Four Nails in the Coffin
In a lecture delivered in 1997 Bruno Latour identified the “things that do not work
with actor-network theory.” These were four: the word actor, the word network, the
word theory, and, last but not least, the deceptively unobtrusive hyphen. These four
inadequacies represented, Latour argued, “four nails in the coffin” of actor-network
theory (ANT) and revealed the design flaws that had been built into this “careless
experiment” in empirical metaphysics (Latour 1999).
Latour’s diagnosis was perceptive, for those are, if not conceptual weak
points, deliberately undertheorized concepts in ANT. Yet the corpse (if indeed there
was a body in that box) has proved to be livelier than the image suggested. In the last
two decades, ANT has traveled far and wide, insinuating itself into a variety of
disciplines in the social sciences and beyond and becoming a powerful counterpoint
to mainstream understandings of the nature and purposes of social theory.1
This is in fact what Latour hoped would happen. It was already too late, he
suggested in 1997, to recall ANT and fix its obvious shortcomings. “The only
solution,” he argued, “is to do what Victor Frankenstein did not do, that is, not to
abandon the creature to its fate but continue all the way in developing its strange
potential” (Latour 1999, 24).
This strange potential has been developed to such an extent that today ANT no
longer appears to us as a misshapen monster to be banned to the outer reaches of the
sociological canon. Quite the contrary, ANT has begun to look like a companionable
sort of fellow, a recognizable intellectual project sharing many of the features of
conventional social theorizing. This is paradoxical, or at least ironic, because ANT
started as an attempt to dissolve any received notion of “the social” as a distinct
domain or dimension of human action. In its origins ANT embraced, admittedly
tongue in cheek, the Thatcherite slogan, “Society does not exist.” Over time, however,
it has drawn the positive implication of this negative statement: if society does not
exist, then we need to equip ourselves with the means to bring it into being. Social
theory is one of those means.
This chapter will trace the emergence of ANT as an increasingly explicit, if
still resolutely unorthodox, social theory. One of the most remarkable aspects of this
evolution is that ANT has not acquired the status and capacities of a social theory by
means of increasing abstraction upon the particulars of a multitude of empirical case
studies. Rather, ANT has found its way to social theory through a series of deep and
transformative immersions into the peculiarities of different “regimes of truth” or
“modes of existence”—beginning with its original journey into the nitty-gritty of
scientific and technological innovation. In other words, the unfolding of ANT into a
full-blown social theory has involved a multipronged effort to account for what is
unique, specific, and empirically striking in different orders of action, without in the
process conceiving of those orders as separate “domains” or “regions” of a broader,
totalizing reality. Each of its empirical engagements has transformed ANT—or has
afforded ANT an opportunity to mutate and reinvent itself, which is in keeping with a
theory for which every act of translation, every displacement, involves change,
distortion, and ultimately betrayal.
The chapter starts by discussing the origins of ANT in the field of the social
studies of science (now most often known as science studies), its use of semiotics to
dissolve preexistent actor categories, and its (in)famous take on the agency of
nonhuman entities—the issue that came to differentiate ANT from the sociology of
scientific knowledge. The chapter will then describe the forays of ANT into the
realms of economics and law. This will help us understand how ANT departs from
traditional forms of sociological inquiry into markets and legal institutions as separate
“fields” or “domains” of social life. More importantly, it will offer us an opportunity
to observe how ANT tackles two classic questions of social theory: the problem of
calculation and the foundations of normativity.
I will then turn to the most deliberate formulation of ANT qua social theory,
what Latour has described as a “sociology of associations” in radical antithesis to the
conventional “sociology of the social.” I will conclude by discussing the growing
normative import of ANT and its progressive transformation into an explicit political
theory. For ANT’s success and expansion has thrown the theory into a position that
would have seem implausible when this monstrous creation took its first steps: that of
making discriminating value judgments on the contours of the good society. How
ANT addresses and elaborates its critical mission will determine the future evolution
of this ongoing experiment.
Before it became ANT, the work of Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, John Law, and a
handful of coreligionists belonged to a broad current of research that in the late 1970s
began to transform the social study of science and technology. Reviewing the origins
and sources of what is now known as science studies is beyond the scope of this
chapter, but key to the emergence of this field was a thoroughly empirical, often
ethnographic or microsociological approximation to the activities of scientists and
engineers, particularly in situations of conflict or controversy. Bruno Latour and Steve
Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (1979), a close examination of the process of fact-making
at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, was one of the seminal pieces of work in
this tradition and showed that conventional categories of sociological explanation and
contextualization did not live up to the richness, situatedness, and technical texture
displayed by science in action. By all accounts, the close scrutiny of scientists at
work—whether they were engaged in routine benchwork, writing and rewriting
scientific papers, arguing about the meaning of experimental results, or fighting for
their budgets—shook this cohort of social scientists out of received epistemological
wisdoms and led them to a radical reconceptualization of the nature of scientific
objectivity. ANT would emerge from this juncture as one of the most far-reaching and
successful interpretations of the entanglement of technical practices and scientific
knowledge-making—what Latour would characterize as the world of technoscience
Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life was originally subtitled “The Social
Construction of Scientific Facts.” In the second edition of the book (1986) the
adjective “social” was dropped, an omission that marked a sharp turn away from the
vocabulary and taken-for-granted categories of social science. “By demonstrating its
pervasive applicability,” Latour and Woolgar wrote in the revised version, “the social
study of science has rendered ‘social’ devoid of any meaning” (Latour and Woolgar
1986: 281). The progressive rejection of the idiom of “social constructivism” was not
exclusive to ANT, but a resolute move against social-scientific modes of explanation
and a distinctive reinterpretation of the modifier “social” would become trademarks of
The radicalness of this shift was best captured by Michel Callon in his famous
article on the “Domestication of Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay,” the
classic formulation of the ANT program of the 1980s (Callon 1986; although see
Callon 1975, 1981, and Callon and Latour 1981 for precursors). In his account of how
a handful of marine biologists were able to introduce scallop harvesting along the
coast of Brittany, Callon introduced a lexicon that did away with any a priori
distinction between social and natural entities. In Callon’s retelling, the success of the
researchers depended on their ability to forge an alliance with the scallops, which in
turn required negotiations with a multitude of intervening and interposing entities—
ocean currents, parasitic visitors, the behaviorally flexible scallop larvae, dissenting
scientific colleagues, and so on. Through a series of processes of interessement and
enrollment, the scientists eventually succeed in becoming the “spokespersons” for a
range of other actors and interests—actors and interests that, along with the scientists
themselves, were thoroughly reconfigured in the course of the controversy. The result
is an account that displays “the simultaneous production of knowledge and
construction of a network of relationships in which social and natural entities
mutually control who they are and what they want” (Callon 1986, 59).
Callon describes the displacements that the different actors undergo in the
course of the controversy as translations, a term he borrows from Michel Serres
(1974). The term is meant to be as vague and generic as possible—somewhere else
Callon (1981, 211) defines translation as the process of “creating convergences and
homologies by relating things that were previously different.” A translation, in other
words, is an act of invention that operates by joining previously disparate elements.
The inventive step implied by each and every act of connection is the fundamental
unit of analysis for ANT, and it implies movement, distortion, and metamorphosis.
Serres drew on information theory to characterize translation as an act of
communication that both transmits and distorts a signal, a mediation that inevitably
alters the message being communicated and thus creates a new, differential relation
between sender and receiver (Serres 1980; see also Brown 2002). Callon reinterprets
the concept to describe the constant repositioning through which a certain entity
emerges as a representative or spokesperson for others. “By translation,” Latour and
Callon write, “we understand all the negotiations, intrigues, calculations, acts of
persuasion and violence, thanks to which an actor or force takes, or causes to be
conferred on itself, authority to speak or act on behalf of another act or force” (Latour
and Callon 1981, 279).3
Negotiation, intrigue, calculation, persuasion, and so on—these modalities of
action must be understood as devoid of any anthropocentric connotation. The value of
a sociology of translation, the phrase use by Callon and Latour to describe this
approach before the label ANT became available, lies in its ability to multiply the
range of entities that can be shown to exert an active, mediating force in the
transformation of a certain state of affairs. Agency, in this particular understanding, is
a property of emerging associations—associations that bind human and nonhuman
entities in hybrid collectives and that acquire, under certain conditions and for a
specific duration, the property of actors (see also Law 1987).
To avoid the anthropocentric connotations of the term actor, Latour and
Callon would often use the term actant, which they borrowed from A. J. Greimas’s
theory of semiotics (Greimas 1973). An actant, in the ANT interpretation, is
“[w]hatever acts or shifts actions, action itself being defined by a list of performances
through trials” (Akrich and Latour 1992, 259). An actant, thus, is not a type of agent
or a category of being but the result of a process of acquisition and testing of
competences, the gathering and concentration of capacities that results from
assembling a multitude of entities and subjecting them to a test or trial of strength.
In the hands of ANT, Greimasian semiotics would become a powerful tool to
dissolve the nature/society dichotomy, and indeed any a priori categorization of the
actors involved in a controversy. All actors are automatically placed on the same
plane of signification, and their identities can be characterized by tracing the
establishment of semantic relations within a discursive or narrative context—what
Greimas would define as a process of interdefinition.
The potential but also the limitations of this approach became evident in
Latour’s famous study of the rise of Pasteur’s microbiology in nineteenth-century
France. The Pasteurization of France (published in French in 1984 under the title Les
Microbes: Guerre et Paix), takes as its empirical object a corpus of texts published in
three scientific journals over a period of fifty years (1870–1919). Latour then
proceeds by registering the entities mentioned in these texts and tracing the
connections posited between them. The analyst, Latour (1988a, 10) writes, “has only
to begin at any point, by recording what each actor says of the others. He should not
try to be reasonable and to impose some pre-determined sociology on the sometimes
bizarre interdefinitions offered by the writers studied. The only task of the analyst is
to follow the transformations that the actors convened in the stories are undergoing.”
The result is an account that describes how Pasteur and his laboratory become
central to an emerging alliance of microbes, farmers, hygienists, and politicians. This
multitude of actors eventually coalesces around the central figure of “Pasteur”—not
the brilliant mind canonized in hagiographic accounts of scientific discovery but a
composite actor-network that interrelates and transforms the interests of an array of
human and nonhuman actors.
Yet Latour’s use of a semiotic analysis to redescribe a historical process gives
rise to some equivocation. It is one thing to use semiotics to redescribe the
interrelation of actants in a certain discursive field—the purpose for which Greimas
deploys the method of interdefinition. It is a very different matter to deploy a semiotic
analysis to provide an account of the rise and power of a particular historical actor—
even if the account in question purports to simply emerge from a careful tracing of
textual references. Latour (1988a, 12) disavows any claim to historiographical
accuracy, emphasizing that “the presentation of the documentary materials does not
follow the historical path but rather the network of associations that slowly make up
the Pasteurian world.” Yet by the end of the book, we are left with an account that
both painstakingly records the materialization of “Pasteur” the semiotic actant and
appears to provide a full description of the processes by which Pasteur, the historical
actor, acquired his preeminent scientific and political position in nineteenth-century
France (cf. Lynch 1997, 109–10).
This conflation of semiotic deconstruction and sociohistorical reconstruction
would be at the root of some of the most perceptive criticisms of early ANT (Lee and
Brown 1994; Pickering 1995; Schaffer 1991; Shapin 1988). What the semiotic
approach allowed ANT to do, however, and this was its crucial advantage vis-à-vis
accounts rooted in traditional sociological categorizations, was to multiply the range
of entities that could be shown to act in a particular scientific controversy, to expand
the inventory of relevant characters in the unfolding and closure of technoscientific
disputes. The hollowness of its key terms—what Latour (1999, 20) has often
described as “the ridiculous poverty of the ANT vocabulary”—gave the theory the
freedom to register a multitude of agencies and connections without the burden of
fitting them into ready-made categories, and particularly without abiding by the
dichotomies of the social-scientific canon: human versus nonhuman, natural versus
social, intentional versus material, factual versus fictional, signifying versus
nonsignifying. The result is an account that can, when successful, represent the
stabilization of these opposites, and specifically the emergence of “nature” and
“society” as the result of processes of purification that transmute entanglements of
human and nonhuman entities into distinct and segregated domains.
Describing how “society” emerges as the result of controversies and as the
effect of acts of purification requires, however, that the social realm be rendered “as
uncertain and disputable” as the natural world (Callon 1986). This refusal to rest on
the solid ground of “society” would quickly differentiate ANT not only from the
sociological mainstream but also from the closely related sociology of scientific
knowledge that had emerged alongside it in the 1980s.
Symmetry and Nonhuman Agency
For proponents of a sociological analysis of the production and stabilization of
scientific knowledge, ANT’s attribution of agency to “nonhuman” actors was a step
back into naïve scientific realism or technical determinism. As Harry Collins and
Steve Yearly argued in their critique of ANT, the problem with an account that grants
“full agency” to the nonhumans involved in a controversy—the scallops in Callon’s
Breton fable or the microbes in Latour’s reconstruction of the rise of “Pasteur”—is
that “it must rest on routine methods of scientific research for that part of its evidence
concerned with the nonhuman actants” (Collins and Yearley 1992, 317). In other
words, the modalities of nonhuman agency that are revealed in ANT accounts are
typically those identified and characterized by the scientists who have won the
argument in question. The result, as Collins and Yearley (1992, 323) put it, is “a
prosaic view of science and technology,” one without the contextual richness
uncovered by sociological studies of scientific practice.
The dispute between ANT and the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK)
boils down to different understandings of the principle of “symmetry.” For SSK,
symmetry expressed a commitment to subject the different claims and counterclaims
of a controversy to the same sort of causal explanation. In David Bloor’s (1973, 173)
classic formulation, symmetry was “a refinement of the demand for impartiality” and
required that the social scientist employ the same explanatory register to account for
both sides of a dispute. “Not only must true and false beliefs be explained, but the
same sort of causes must generate both classes of belief” (Bloor 1973, 173–74). In the
hands of sociologists (and historians), this precept led to a “Strong Program” of
social-scientific explanation, whereby the unfolding and particularly the closure of a
scientific controversy were shown to be due to the operation of “shared
understandings,” “social mores,” or “forms of life” (e.g., Collins 1985).
For ANT, “symmetry” describes a rather different methodological
commitment, namely, a refusal to deploy any a priori distinction between human and
nonhuman entities, or between elements pertaining to Society and those pertaining to
Nature. Instead, “natures” and “societies” are understood as by-products of a more
elemental form of activity: the building of networks, the circulation of quasiobjects,
the execution of trials of strength. These are all deliberately generic categories of
action, designed to prevent any predetermination of what sort of entity might acquire
Thus in their response to the challenge posed by proponents of the Strong
Program, Callon and Latour emphasized their refusal to resort to social factors to
account for the resolution of technoscientific controversies. “We have never been
interested in giving a social explanation of anything,” they wrote, “but we want to
explain society, of which the things, facts and artifacts, are major components”
(Callon and Latour 1992, 348).
This repudiation of sociology’s “politics of explanation” (Latour 1988b) has a
complex set of sources. In spirit, the ANT position is perhaps closest to the
ethnomethodological injunction not to contextualize action but to explore how action
produces its own set of contexts. In the particular milieu of French sociology—and it
is imperative to remember that ANT was nurtured in an engineering school that was
geographically near but intellectually and institutionally outside the hallowed grounds
of Parisian academic sociology—the refusal to revert to a metalanguage of social
causes carried a direct challenge to the then-dominant interpretive schemes and in
particular to the critical sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.4
In practice, the ANT and the SSK versions of “symmetry” were incompatible,
but it took some time for this incompatibility to fully manifest itself. As Collins and
Yearley (1992, 311) argued in their critique of ANT, “[s]ymmetry of treatment
between the true and the false requires a human-centered universe.” Inversely, it is
only by not treating different human camps in a controversy symmetrically that early
ANT accounts could fully highlight the agency of nonhuman actors.
This is a point that Simon Schaffer made in his review of The Pasteurization
of France (“The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bruno Latour”). Schaffer argued that
Latour’s hylozoism—the attribution of life and agency to every element of the
universe—effectively transformed “Pasteur” (the semiotic actant) and by implication
Pasteur (the historical actor), into a sort of supernatural virtuoso. “Even though Latour
reckons he has pulled of the trick of decomposing ‘Pasteur’ into the constituents
which made him possible (hygienists, farmers, army doctors, the Imperial regime,
statisticians, and microbes), he has in fact restored the great microbiologist to the
status of a miracle-worker” (Schaffer 1991, 182).
A key and telling element in this elevation of “Pasteur,” in Schaffer’s view, is
Latour’s systematic understatement of experimental work. In The Pasteurization of
France, experiments are essentially trials of strength through which the scientist
attempts to enroll nonhuman entities in his endeavors; the laboratory becomes an
“Archimedean point” that allows Pasteur to shift scales and become the obligatory
point of passage for a new constellation of actors and interests (see particularly Latour
1983a). There is in this and other classic ANT accounts little interest in the
contingency and polysemic quality of experimental results—for instance, in the
fundamental ambiguity of experimental replication identified by the sociology of
scientific knowledge (Collins 1985). ANT underplayed these quandaries in order to
bring the enabling, agency-generating power of experiments into sharper focus.
Part of the problem with this approach was the crudeness and anthropocentric
connotation of the distinction between human and nonhuman, and the flattening
implied by an all-encompassing notion of “agency” (Lee and Brown 1994). ANT
managed to render visible a far greater variety of actors actively participating in the
unfolding of technoscientific controversies, but it did so at the expense of revealing
all these actors “as being the same” (Hennion 2012, 592), that is, as displaying a
rather generic, monotonous modality of agency (see Sayes  for a recent
taxonomy of nonhuman agencies in ANT).
Perhaps the most evident example of this reductionism was the treatment of
nonhuman organismic and animal agencies caught up in scientific work. Remember
that the title of Callon’s classic 1986 article speaks of the “domestication” of scallops,
and that Latour, when he describes the role of microbial life in Pasteur’s ascendancy,
often resorts to a language of mastery and domination. Over time, however, ANT
would open itself to more nuanced interpretations of the capacities of living things.5
This evolution demonstrated that there was room within the theory for more
discriminating understandings of action. In fact, any minimally attentive empirical
investigation will quickly show that the mode of operation of any actant—the kind of
force or pressure exerted by any assemblage—is in effect sui generis, and a good
ANT account should give this idiosyncratic quality enough room to manifest itself.
This appreciation for the distinctiveness of specific modes of being and acting would
emerge more forcefully once ANT traveled beyond its original focus on
technoscience and began to explore other orders of action.6
Economics and Calculation
In the 1990s, studies that claimed an affiliation with ANT began to proliferate across
the social sciences and beyond. This expansion of ANT was facilitated by the
minimalism of its theoretical elaboration, but the ease of travel sometimes resulted in
a straightforward application of its lexicon to different “domains,” without in the
process subjecting the mode of inquiry to any modification, qualification or
enhancement. These were, in other words, displacements without friction, translations
without betrayal, and as such they offered no opportunity to refine the apparatus that
had proven so fruitful in the study of scientific and technical controversies. As
Andrew Barry (2013, 418) has argued, ANT is best understood as “a range of pieces
of theoretical equipment, which may need to be tried out, modified or abandoned, but
never simply applied. Part of the difficulty of formulating actor-network theory as a
set of principles or concepts is that it should be adjusted in response to the experience
of empirical research” (on the lack of “applicability” of ANT, see also Latour 2005,
Two such adjustments to the experience of empirical research stand out in the
history of ANT and its evolution toward an increasingly explicit social theory: the
study of markets and the engagement with law. Here, I will briefly survey some of the
most significant work on markets and economics before discussing in the following
section ANT’s understandings of legal procedure and of the law’s normative force.
Market economics presents an enticing challenge to ANT: it posits a form of
agency—human, intentional, calculative, and embodying a peculiar sort of abstract
rationality—that seems deeply at odds with the kinds of hybrid actants ANT
highlights in the world of technoscience. “The market,” Callon (1999, 182) notes, “is
a considerable challenge for ANT because it introduces a strict separation between
what circulates (goods which are inert, passive and classified as non-human) and
human agents who are active and capable of making complicated decisions
(producers, distributors and consumers). Moreover, on the market, whether we are
referring to real markets or those of economic theory, the agents involved are
characterized by very specific and highly demanding competencies: they are
calculating, know and pursue their own interests, and take informed decisions.”
What would a theory bent on dissolving the centrality of human agencies and
the role of cognitive capacities have to say about homo economicus, the mythical
beast that inhabits the confines of the market? In effect, ANT would try to chart a path
that rejected the solutions provided by both mainstream economics and economic
sociology. “Whereas economics maintains the idea of a reality of ‘pure’ calculation,”
Michel Callon and Fabian Muniesa (2005, 1230) write, “the other social sciences try,
by contrast, to show that real practices are infinitely more complex and leave little
room for calculative practices per se.” In other words, the challenge for ANT was to
tackle what economics take for granted and other social sciences reduce to the status
of epiphenomenon of other orders of action: the specific sort of calculative
competence that characterizes economic action in a market context. The task, as
Callon and Muniesa (2005, 1229) put it, is “to address empirically the calculative
character of markets without dissolving it.”
Markets, in the formulation advanced by Callon and Muniesa (2005, 1229),
are “collective organized devices that calculate compromises on the values of goods.”
Device (dispositif) is the operative term here and is to be understood, in the Deleuzian
sense, as a tangle or ensemble of heterogeneous elements that creates a particular sort
of order (or sedimentation) while opening up trajectories of resistance and flight (or
creativity) (Deleuze 1989). Callon (1998b) would reformulate these two dimensions
as framing and overflowing, using the relationship between the two to recast the
crucial notion of externality. A market, in this view, is an always ongoing effort to
bracket or frame certain aspects of an object or a discrete set of dimensions of a
relationship. This framing creates a space or zone of calculability by demarcating a
narrow range of considerations relevant to a particular transaction. Calculation is
never “pure” and is resolutely not the result of a process of “abstraction.” It is rather
an operation thoroughly mediated by devices, and which often includes a complex
blend of qualitative judgment and quantitative computation.7 Economic actors are best
understood as agencements—another Deleuzian borrowing—that is, they express the
agency that pertains to a particular arrangement of tools, equipment, humans,
artifacts, algorithms, texts, and so on (Callon 2007a, 2016; see also Cochoy 2014).
The notion of “market device” has been used expansively by ANT scholars of
economics. It refers to “the material and discursive assemblages that intervene in the
construction of markets” (Muniesa, Millo, and Callon 2007, 2) and can encompass
both the kinds of equipment we often associate with the term technology—machines,
stock exchanges, telecommunication infrastructures—and an endless multitude of
seemingly lesser entities—from routine accounting techniques to the disposition of
desks in a trading room.8 Muniesa’s (2000, 2007) study of the production of prices at
the Paris Bourse electronic stock exchange, for instance, focuses on an algorithm that
produces a different aggregation of prices during the last minutes of trading. In
Muniesa’s (2007, 390) interpretation, prices are “material entities, always tied to
concrete arrangements.” Their signifying capacity (in the meaning of “sign” advanced
by C. S. Peirce) depends on at least three interrelated aspects: “their material shape
and display, the way in which they stand as a trace of something and, finally, their fit
to a series of connections to other actions” (Muniesa 2007, 390).
In sum, ANT understands economic action as a material achievement—homo
economicus is neither the fiction many social scientists assumed it to be (a
diminished, apocryphal version of homo sociologicus), nor the disembodied
expression of an innate capacity to behave in a utility-maximizing manner, as implied
by neoclassic economics. Homo economicus—and by implication economic action—
is rather the contingent offshoot of a gathering of instrumental agencies. What
emerges from these assemblies or agencements is not calculation as a human capacity
but calculativeness as an emergent quality of technomaterial arrangements.9
Within the broad range of entities that can play a constitutive role in the
creation of new market realities, ANT has paid particular attention to the tools
devised by economists themselves. In this interpretation, economics (understood
broadly to encompass marketing, accounting, and a range of other auxiliary
disciplines) does not observe or analyze an external economic reality but contributes
crucially to bringing a particular economy into being (Callon 2007a; Muniesa and
Callon 2007). This point has crystallized in a series of arguments about the
“performativity” of economics, particularly in relation to financial markets (see the
contributions in MacKenzie, Muniesa, and Siu 2007). The models, theories and
intricate mathematical formulae of contemporary finance operate as “an engine, not a
camera,” to use Donald MacKenzie’s (2006) pithy phrase (see also MacKenzie and
Even though ANT’s approach to markets and the performative effects of
economics has in principle a very broad empirical remit (see Çalışkan and Callon
[2009, 2010] for a reconceptualization of economic sociology in terms of the study of
processes of “economization”), a disproportionate amount of the scholarship
produced over the last decade has focused on financial markets and financial
technologies (Lépinay 2011; Preda 2009; Riles 2011). While this might reflect a
certain path dependency of the field—much of the initial work took stock exchanges
and financial trading platforms as its object of study—it raises an interesting question
about the elective affinities between the theoretical apparatus developed by ANT for
the study of economics and the specific features and capacities of financial markets. It
is as if finance expressed in the purest or most easily observable form the sort of
calculativeness that ANT places at the center of its understanding of economics. Or,
perhaps, financial economics demonstrate most sharply the performative quality of
economics because in the current politico-economic regime only finance seems to
possess the power to create market realities de novo.
The arguments, counterarguments, clarifications, and qualifications that have
accompanied the development of the performativity thesis have created a productive
trading zone between ANT and mainstream economic sociology (see, for instance,
Fourcade 2011). Yet they have also served to delineate the main lines of opposition
between ANT and its critics. In essence, those critics argue that ANT adopts
uncritically the language and assumptions of economics—an argument not too
dissimilar to the charge that sociologists of scientific knowledge leveled against early
ANT accounts of technoscience. As Daniel Miller (2002, 219) argues, “the theory that
Callon produces is in most major respects a defence of the economists’ view of the
world and a rejection of the evidence of how actual economies operate as available to
anthropologists and sociologists.” The discrepancy noted by Miller might be due to
differences in the choice of empirical object—perhaps if anthropologists and
sociologists had spent more time exploring the sort of financial and highly
technologized markets ANT has opened up for scrutiny, they would have had to
readjust their “social” explanations accordingly—but the broader point of the
criticism stands. The performativity thesis has placed ANT on very treacherous
terrain, forcing it to walk a very fine line between providing a thorough account of
what Muniesa (2014) describes as “the efficacy of economics,” and taking economic
theories at their word and thus legitimize “the economists’ view of the world.” When
that line is walked artfully, the result is an illuminating description of the
manufactured quality of economic reality, with a degree of attention to the inner
workings of markets and the role of economics in their construction that is unique in
the social sciences. When the balancing act fails, however, the analysis can quickly
degenerate into a convoluted acceptance of the claims of economists and economics,
offering a redescription of reality that merely echoes the hubristic power of market-
Part of the problem here is ANT’s choice of interlocutors within the discipline
of economics. In addition to the attraction to financial markets discussed above, ANT
has been drawn disproportionally to impeccably orthodox economic theories and
theorists and it has generally neglected economists with a more expansive definition
of economic rationality or a more embedded view of markets. For instance, Callon
borrows his key notion of calculativeness from transaction cost economist and Nobel-
laureate Oliver E. Williamson (1993), who identified it as the “general condition” of
“the economic approach.” There is little engagement with alternative schools of
economic thought or with authors who locate the study of markets within a broader
consideration of political economy or the public good. For some of the harshest critics
of ANT this amounts to a de facto intellectual alliance with neoclassical economics
(see in particular Bryan et al. 2012; Mirowski and Nik-Khah 2007). For more
sympathetic readers, the solution is to develop a more inclusive and less “economics-
centric” version of ANT, whether by expanding the definition of performativity to
encompass the operation of political actors (Blok 2011), or by incorporating the
question of performativity within a larger examination of the creation, stabilization
and transformation of markets (Pellandini-Simányi 2016).
In any case, these debates have pushed ANT to state more clearly its position
vis-à-vis the nomos in the oikonomos. The result is ambivalent. When Callon (2016,
17) argues, for instance, that “political and moral reflection is at the heart of markets
and not pushed out to their fringes,” he is allowing two parallel interpretations. On the
one hand, he is claiming that the organization of markets is a thoroughly political and
moral matter and that as such it requires mechanisms of public scrutiny and
democratic governance. At the same time, he is also making political and moral
reflection internal to the constitution of markets, one of the ingredients of their
articulation, and by implication calling into question the very possibility of an
external position from which the market itself—as a peculiar form of exchange and
social organization—could be observed or challenged. Indeed, in much of the ANT
work on economic action the extension of market logics is often treated as a fait
accompli. Moreover, the market itself becomes the key engine for the production of
new political realities. Markets, according to Callon (2007b, 158) “are a particularly
effective apparatus for spurring the proliferation of new social identities and
triggering the creation of unexpected groups that, once they exist, can demand to be
heard, recognized and received in a recomposed collective.”
It should by now be obvious that ANT will always resist adopting an
extraneous or “critical” position from which to adjudicate matters of concern. The
question is whether it can develop a more explicit and forceful normative orientation
on the basis of a thoroughly internalist (or internalized) account of action. ANT’s
engagements with law and legal institutions have brought this predicament into even
Law and Normativity
If ANT’s approach to economics sought to preserve the specific quality of economic
action—calculativeness—while revamping how we account for its emergence and
distribution, ANT journeys into the world of law have attempted a similar feat: to
produce an understanding of legality that is neither internalist—law as an autonomous
“domain” or “system” ruled by legal reason or autopoietic logic—nor externalist—
law as an effect or symptom of realities beyond the scope of its own form of
discrimination. Law, as we will see, emerges from this interrogation as a peculiar
“regime of enunciation,” liberal in the range of agencies and actor-networks it
deploys, yet capable of combining and refining them to produce an idiosyncratic
mode of veridiction.
Looking back at the controversies that surrounded the emergence of ANT in
the 1980s, this project would seem unlikely: actor-network accounts were often
criticized for being deeply uninterested in value judgments and averse to any notion
of ethos or normative orientation in science or elsewhere. Descriptions of science in
action as an agonistic practice (see in particular Latour 1987) seemed to preclude any
examination of transcendental orders of action (see Schmidgen (2013) for a more
And yet, there were rumblings of a legal mode of thought in classic ANT. The
emphasis on the role of inscriptions and the textual fabrication of truth in early
ethnographic investigations of scientific practice (i.e., Latour and Woolgar 1979)
would eventually offer an obvious point of comparison with the writing protocols and
paper-pushing procedures of the law. Moreover, the key ANT notion of “translation”
preserved in its French version (traduire) legal resonances that have been explored at
length in the work of Michel Serres (see in particular Serres 1985). Finally, Latour
has often put forward a constitutionalist understanding of modernity and its
alternatives—the Modern Constitution is how Latour characterizes the schism of
natural and social orders instituted by the Scientific Revolution and the
Enlightenment, a settlement predicated on a clear “separation of powers” between
science and politics (Latour 1993).
ANT’s most sustained empirical engagement with law and legal practice is
Latour’s ethnographic study of the Litigation Section of France’s Conseil d’État
(published in French in 2002 under the title La Fabrique du Droit, and in English in
2010 as The Making of Law). The choice of the Conseil as an ethnographic object was
exceptional (few outsiders, if any, had ever been granted the degree of access to the
institution that Latour enjoyed), and deeply consequential for how ANT would come
to think about legal normativity. As McGee (2014, 126) has noted, the Conseil is
probably the most “un-French” of French legal institutions, resembling in its peculiar
proceduralism common-law traditions of argumentation by precedent and adversarial
In The Making of Law, Latour delves deeply into the everyday routines of the
Conseil. Not only does he notice, in stereotypical actor-network fashion, how
assemblages of nonhuman entities (from paper clips to the layout of the hearing
chamber) shape law-in-the-making even in the most rarefied realm of administrative
law. He also zeroes in on the striking fact that the ultimate unit of litigation, the file or
dossier, is both physical artifact (the bundle of documents and statements that
demarcate the facts under consideration) and legal category (the case or specific
matter of concern over which the Conseil will adjudicate). “The judges,” writes
Latour (2010a, 192), “do not reason: they grapple with a file which acts upon them,
which pushes and forces them, and which makes them do something.”
Latour traces the meandering progression of the file through the chambers and
antechambers of the Conseil. What he observes is a peculiar sort of movement: a
winding, hesitant form of reason that advances bit by bit, methodically connecting
textual documents with worldly facts until it reaches a final and definitive judgment.
The “passage of law” (le passage du droit) is the phrase Latour (2010a, 119) uses to
describe this trajectory of infinitesimal shifts and displacements—“this slow
maceration which allows the connection of states of facts with the scattered pieces of
The discussion of the “passage of law” leads Latour to an elaboration of the
question that so preoccupies the counselors and commissioners of the Conseil (and
legal scholars at large): the emergence of law’s normative force, or, in Latour’s
(2010a, 143) formulation, the relation “between the transfer of force and the peculiar
movement of law.” As one would expect, this question is addressed without resort to
any external frame of reference—without resort, that is, either to the Nature that
grounds natural law theories, or to the Social Conventions and Social Facts that
provide a foundation for legal positivism. The question has to be answered in legal
terms. For the Conseil may marshal in its operation a multitude of agencies, but it
gathers these forces through a form of association that is unique to the institution. In
other words, the law is characterized by a mode of enunciation that is distinctively
and irreducibly legal. This formulation does not imply a tautology; it simply describes
a form of recursiveness. As Latour (2010a, 81) puts it, “There is no stronger
metalanguage to explain law than the language of law itself. Or, more precisely, law
is itself its own metalanguage.”
The feature of the legal mode of veridiction that emerges most forcefully from
The Making of Law is its hesitant nature. Law’s normativity, in other words, is not
grounded in the alleged solidity of its foundations but in the peculiar frailty and
delicacy of the operations that achieve the formal resolution of a legal dispute. This
hesitation is evident in every small shift of legal reasoning, and it produces a double
effect. On the one hand, it increases the room for maneuver—it “produces freedom of
judgment by unlinking things before they are linked up again” (Latour 2010a, 194–
95). On the other hand, the continuous opening and reopening of the matter under
consideration eventually grants the concluding decision a peculiar force. The slow
maceration of the dossier results in a verdict that is surprisingly hardy and cohesive, a
ruling that is able to exclude any further consideration or external factor and can stand
on the force of its own halting and meticulous reasoning. “Those who enunciate the
law,” Latour (2010a, 193–94) writes, “seem almost to measure the realization of their
performances by their capacity to have hesitated well, extensively, and sufficiently.”10
Despite Latour’s oft comparison of legal and scientific fact-making (the
Conseil as a legal laboratory, etc.), it is clear that the examination of legal practice
and legal procedure has inflected ANT with a new, or at least more explicit, concern
for distinctions and differences, a preoccupation with what is peculiar to an institution
that was not apparent in ANT’s original examinations of technoscience. Some have
seen in this concern with the identification of a legal “regime of enunciation” a
blunting of ANT’s critical edge. Alain Pottage (2012, 170) has criticized The Making
of Law for being “too indulgent of the lawyer’s sense of law,” not least by
prioritizing, to the exclusion of almost any other medium or register, textual processes
of legal fabrication. Latour, Pottage (2012, 167) argues, “uncritically adopts the
premise that there is an institution such as ‘law’ that has to be explained or
materialized by social science, thereby diminishing the critical energy that the theory
of actor-networks or of dispositifs might bring to the study of law.”
This line of criticism is right in identifying a point of transition in ANT’s
engagement with law, an alteration or redirection of its original critical impetus. Yet it
is possible to turn the argument around, and read the evolution of ANT
retrospectively from the vantage point afforded by its elaboration of the legal “regime
of enunciation.” Reading the theory backward (surely anathema to any ANT scholar
worth her salt), one can discover, or at least intuit, a “normative pulse” in all the
connections and associations that ANT has so lovingly traced since its origins as a
sociology of translation (McGee 2014, xviii). In this reading, every link in a chain of
translations, every bond in an actor-network, carries a normative force, a force that
can be captured semiotically as the changing valence of a performance. As McGee
(2014, 55) puts it, “alterations in the modality of doing correlate with modifications of
value—for practical purposes, a change in modality of doing is indistinguishable from
a change in value. This is a normative effect, then, but no normative criteria precede
it: the valence of the effect is determined by the particular alteration at issue, not by
any pre-given normative structure.”
This normative valence was initially denied by critics and proponents of ANT
alike. The former chided the theory for its perceived amoralism (the “power makes
right” line of attack against the original ANT studies of science in action); the latter
took great pride in not staking out any positive moral ground (viz the trademark
military metaphors and Machiavellian aphorisms in Latour’s work in the 1980s).
Progressively, however, the ventriloquism implied in ANT’s early claims to “speak
the language of the actors themselves” has given way to more assertive value
declarations. Perhaps it took the poisoned gift of comparison and a series of intense
investigative journey through modes of existence beyond those of technoscience to
introduce in ANT a greater willingness to make distinctions—including the
distinction between right and wrong (or at least between better and worse). It is in the
context that ANT has begun to formulate its own social theory, a peculiar
metalanguage of the social.
The Sociology of Associations
Despite being known early on as a “sociology of translation,” there was little in the
initial ANT explorations of the world of technoscience that would have recommended
them to mainstream sociology. Contrary to what some sociologists thought it was (or
wished it would become), ANT was most resolutely not an elaboration or application
of sociological modes of explanation to the domains of science and technology. As
Latour (2005, 94) puts it: “ANT is not the branch of social science that has succeeded
in extending its methods to scientific activity and then to the rest of society, but the
branch (or rather the twig) made of those who have been thoroughly shaken when
trying to give a social explanation of the hard facts of science.” It was in fact the
fundamental inadequacy of social theory to account for anything that was specific,
productive, and interesting in technoscience that prompted ANT to eschew “social”
explanations in the study of scientific fact-making and search for a new, all-purpose
theory of its town to replace the exhausted conceptualizations of the past. “[W]e have
concluded that, overall and in the details, social theory has failed on science so
radically that it’s safe to postulate that it had always failed elsewhere as well” (Latour
2005, 95; emphases in original).
In the book Reassembling the Social, Latour presents his alternative to an
always-failing social theory through the contrast between the traditional “sociology of
the social” and ANT’s own “sociology of associations.” The contrast is admittedly
schematic—Latour never spends much time parsing the classics of social theory, so
his broad-stroke disqualification of sociological traditions need to be taken with a
grain of salt—but it indicates the main thrust of the divergence. Briefly put, the
sociology of the social is in the business of finding “social explanations” or “social
causes” for existing phenomena or events. It understands the social as a fairly stable
set of forces or agencies, a substance that supports and stands behind a world of
concrete actions and interactions. The sociology of associations, in contrast, is
preoccupied with tracing the translations and mediations that give rise to collectives.
The social, in this interpretation, “is the name of a type of momentary association
which is characterized by the way it gathers together into new shapes” (Latour 2005,
65). It is not a level of reality or a kind of stuff but “a fluid visible only when new
associations are being made.” As soon as a preexisting “society” or “social realm” is
posited and deployed as an explanatory resource, this sort of association in the
making becomes invisible; the purpose of the sociology of associations is to make
those gatherings traceable again.11
To understand the challenge implicit in the call to a sociology of associations,
we need to revert to an old distinction introduced in early actor-network accounts, that
between mediator and intermediary. A mediator is a connector that introduces a
displacement in the position or valence of the newly related entities. Mediators
“transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are
supposed to carry” (Latour 2005, 37). Intermediaries, in contrast, connect cause and
effect seamlessly: they transport entities without distortion, exert a force without
modifying its carrier or target. In the ANT imaginary, a network is always a
concatenation of mediations—not, as the everyday understanding of the term often
conveys, a smooth, frictionless plane on which entities are connected without
undergoing change. Tracing a network thus involves describing a world in constant
transformation, a sequence of connections “where each point can be said to fully act”
(Latour 2005, 59).
The sociology of the social relies on intermediaries: “social” positions, groups,
structures, or networks are the dei ex machina that explain what actually unfolds in
the world. A sociology of associations, in contrast, increases the relative proportion of
mediators to intermediaries, deliberately depriving itself of any already-existing social
force or institution. It “has to pay the price, in small change, of what sociology seems
to stock on its shelves in infinite supply” (Latour 2005, 35).
The sociology of associations must thus proceed slowly—Latour (2003, 143)
calls it a “slowciology”—meticulously describing “the fragile and temporary
construction of social aggregates.” This is not to suggest that ANT concerns itself
with “interaction” at the expense of “context” or that it emphasizes “agency” while
understating the role of “structures.” The constant back and forth between these poles
is precisely what ANT hopes to avoid, replacing it with a different sort of activity: a
scrupulous attention to the distortions and dislocations each translation, each
mediator, introduces in the world. “Interaction” is in this sense as much an abstraction
as “structure.” Differences in scale—between, say, a “small” individual and the
“larger” society—are the result of processes of association or group formation, not
their precondition. As it did with technoscience, ANT introduces here a distinctively
flat topography with the purpose of better registering connections and associations
without the constraint of a ready-made dichotomy of the micro and the macro (see
Callon and Latour  for the original formulation of this program).
Social collectives might extend over time, but this does not imply that they
have a particular consistency due to their “social” nature. The durability of a social
connection simply points to the tenacity and endurance of a certain effort to collect a
collective. “An association is not a building needing maintenance and upkeep so
much as a gesture needing continuation, the performance of a dance much more than
a choreographic blueprint” (Latour 2005, 45; on gestures and ANT, see Hennion
It should by now be apparent that this sociology of associations displays, like
the rest of ANT, a peculiar understanding of the relationship between description and
explanation. The purpose of the social sciences is to produce accounts, and a good
account is one that describes “a string of actions where each participant is treated as a
full-blown mediator” (Latour 2005, 128). There can be no explanatory forces floating
behind, below or above the network being traced. “If a description remains in need of
an explanation, it means that it is a bad description” (Latour 2005, 137). It means, in
other words, that certain critical mediators have not yet been incorporated into the
With Reassembling the Social, then, ANT puts forward an explicit social
theory, even if, in characteristic fashion, it is a theory devoid of cause-effect relations,
or even of a basic typology of relevant actors or actions. This is a weak and literally
insubstantial social theory (Blok and Jensen 2011, 110). It is, crucially, a social
theory that is not meant to make theorizing any easier.
And yet, the sociology of associations does represent an important turning
point in the evolution of ANT. As Gad and Jensen (2010, 63) have noted, it signifies
“a more offensive stance regarding the capacities of ANT,” and particularly a greater
willingness to address the “social” as, if not a domain or region of reality, at least a
particular kind of circulation. Remember that in 1986, Latour and Woolgar had
dropped “social” from the subtitle of Laboratory Life with the argument that the
adjective was now “devoid of any meaning.” Twenty years later, Latour embarks on a
project to reassemble this category of being, even if it is in the form of an eccentric
and willfully unsystematic proposal.12 While this brings ANT into closer alignment
with other forms of social theory—to the extent that it introduces a degree of
comparability with alternative sociologies—it also curbs the radical innovativeness of
the original sociology of translation, the “free radical” quality of the actor-network.
As López-Gómez and Tirado (2012, 5) argue, ANT has become a theory “capable of
providing interesting answers to ordinary questions.”
ANT’s sociology of associations is also a theory of and for a certain era—not
because it is adapted to the proliferation of new communication media or to the
supposed emergence of a “network society.” As we have noted, the ANT
understanding of “network” differs substantially from—indeed, it is the opposite of—
what is usually understood by the term in the Internet era. Rather, the sociology of
associations is a contemporary theory because it addresses itself to key empirical and
political questions of our time. To begin with, it is a theory appropriate for a world
thoroughly shaped by technoscience, where technical controversies and reflexive
capacities proliferate seemingly without limit. The ability to create and trace
associations is now so vastly enhanced and so widely distributed that any pretension
social theory might have had to occupy a privileged or extrinsic position vis-à-vis the
actors it studies has lost much of its legitimacy.
It is also a time when the question of “the social”—its nature, its quality, its
very existence—reappears with a particular twist. An intensified awareness of
connectivity coincides with a deep sense of ambiguity about the boundaries and
consistency of our social aggregates. In what way are the constructs of electronic and
digital proximity “social,” and how do the patterns of circulation that create such
gatherings relate to their political quality? ANT’s flat topography resonates with a
situation of “context collapse,” as new media scholars would put it, when predigital
notions of social distance and social scale seem increasingly incongruent with new
In one of his commentaries on Gabriel Tarde’s work, Latour suggested that his
precursor’s monadological sociology had arrived on the scene far too early. “It could
be argued that a thinker of networks before their time could not transform his
intuitions into data, because the material world he was interested in was not there yet
to provide him with any empirical grasp” (Latour 2002, 118). The material world now
provides ANT with plenty of empirical grasp to pursue a sociology of associations.
The challenge is to make sure that this new sociology is not simply derivative of the
processes that have created the conditions for its existence—that the theory can
actually introduce a difference, translate the world in which it operates. That it can, in
other words, become an actor in the contemporary world and perform the social in a
particular way.13 This implies a capacity to differentiate and discriminate among all
the possible kinds of social aggregates, and a willingness to advance a positive agenda
about the sorts of collective worth gathering. Which leads us to our final question:
under what conditions, and in which manner, is ANT becoming a distinctively
In a discussion with John Tresch of his most recent project, An Inquiry into Modes of
Existence (AIME), Latour states the need to move beyond the deconstructive impetus
of classic ANT in order to establish a research program capable of identifying (and
possibly strengthening) the values that animate the lives of the Moderns. ANT, Latour
notes, “was very good at giving freedom of movement but very bad at defining
differences” (Latour, in Tresch 2013, 304). It expanded the room for maneuver by
ignoring the distinction between social and natural, human and nonhuman, knowledge
and action. It is now time, according to Latour, to transform the liberating power of
ANT into a constructive endeavor, to build on the foundations provided by ANT—on
“the firm ground of relativism,” as he puts it elsewhere (Latour 2005, 58)—and
conduct a positive anthropology of the Moderns. The ultimate goal of this new
intellectual project, Latour argues, is “to rebuild the institutions. To institute the
values which we think it’s important to have” (Latour, in Tresch 2013, 309).
The turn to “modes of existence” implies a redefinition of ANT’s normative
project—or at least a greater readiness to assert such a project (see Harman 2014).
Latour has offered glimpses of this enterprise throughout his writings. “[T]he
potentialities of ANT,” he wrote in 1999, “are still largely untapped, especially the
political implications of a social theory that would not claim to explain the actors’
behaviour and reasons, but only to find the procedures which render actors able to
negotiate their ways through one another’s world-building activity” (Latour 1999,
21). In his 2003 article “What If We Talked Politics a Little?,” Latour advanced a
restricted, more discriminating notion of the political as a peculiar “enunciation
regime,” a fragile manner of speech driven by an internal criterion of truth: whether it
manages to “trace a group into existence” (Latour 2003, 148), to define and
materialize a collective that is always in the making, that must constantly start over.
AIME takes the form of a collective inquiry—the book published in French in
2012 and in English in 2013 is only the first “draft” of an ongoing project hosted at
www.modesofexistence.org/—and it centers on the identification of a series of
“modes of existence” characteristic of the Moderns. In Latour’s formulation, a mode
of existence is a particular form or genre of world-building that is guided by its own
felicity and infelicity conditions and expresses an idiosyncratic discrimination of true
and false. Scientific knowledge, now recast as “reference,” would be just one such
mode (driven by an epistemological differentiation of true and false), but so would
“religion,” “law,” “network,” “metamorphosis,” or “double click,” to name a handful
of examples (AIME claims to have identified fifteen such modes so far). Each mode
represents a specific itinerary of veridiction, oriented toward a particular,
incommensurable definition of truth and thus moral in its own way (Latour 2013a,
Latour has conceded that this mapping exercise is resolutely parochial—at
stake is a more rigorous reading of “the regional ontology of the Moderns,” by which
Latour seems to mean the Euro-American tradition, or, in other formulations, “the
West.” A significant part of this parochialism stems from AIME’s references to
Christianity and Christian values. The book opens with an epigram from the Gospel
of John, Si scires donum dei (If you knew God’s gift), and the religious undertones
(and overtones) of the inquiry are unmistakable. Even if this is still “a religion without
belief” (Golinski 2010), Latour has been increasingly explicit about the Catholic
underpinnings of his intellectual endeavor, identifying a thread that runs back to his
1975 doctoral dissertation on Charles Péguy and the relationship between biblical
exegesis and philosophical ontology (Latour 2013c; see also Bordeleau 2015; Smith
2016). The provincialism of this enterprise offers obvious and clear lines of attack
(see, e.g., Fisher 2014; Viveiros de Castro 2016). Yet it is posited as a sort of
clarification exercise, a form of self-recognition oriented towards a better diplomacy
“both among the different regimes of truth in the West and between the West and
other cultures” (Latour in Tresch 2013, 303).16
AIME’s emphasis on the positive identification of values and the
discriminating function of theory resonates with other recent strands of work within
the ANT tradition. It is evident, for instance, in Annemarie Mol’s (2013) elaboration
of the concept of the “ontonorm” in her studies of diet and eating, or in John Law’s
and Marianne Lien’s (2013) project to make room for a notion of ontological
multiplicity that would also encompass “not quite realised realities.” As ANT
abandons its original antinormative prejudice and acquires a more explicit political
complexion, it increasingly places its research agenda in the context of pressing
contemporary crises. Latour, for instance, has framed much of his most recent work
around the challenges posed by the ecological crisis and the advent of the
Anthropocene (Latour 2013b, 2014a). Callon and his colleagues have formulated a
program for the “democratization of democracy” (Barthe, Callon, and Lascoumes
2001), and a strand of ANT work on economics has evolved into the study of
“civilized” or “concerned” markets (Callon 2009, Geiger et al 2014). Significantly,
the growing implication of ANT scholars in social movements, design work or artistic
performance, part of broader orientation in science studies towards collaborative
forms of practice, is pushing the theory in more experimental, less categorical
directions (DiSalvo 2012; Marres 2012).
Regardless of how one defines the civic mission of ANT—and whether one
chooses to retain this moniker or replaces it with a new one (hopefully something
more original than “post-ANT”)—it is clear that such a definition will be key to the
evolution of the theory going forward. If we are to lose the freedom of movement that
the original ANT program created, it must be to gain an inspiring program of action.
We can perhaps reconcile ourselves to seeing politics as just one mode of existence
among many, capable of achieving at best a modest sort of “mini-transcendence”
(Latour 2003), but this doesn’t make political action any easier. Calls to participate in
“the constitution of the collective” (Barthe et al. 2011) or to contribute to the
“composition of a common world” (Latour 2014b) need to be accompanied by
appealing formulations of the more-than-human telos of such an endeavor. Extracting
the full potential of this reluctant social theory requires an ongoing effort to translate
its idiosyncratic take on the world into compelling programs for change.
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1 An anecdotal marker of this expansion: the 1987 edition of Social Theory Today included one single
reference to work in the actor-network tradition. A footnote in John Heritage’s (1987, 265) chapter
on ethnomethodology mentioned Latour and Woolgar’s (1979) Laboratory Life as an example of a
study that “converges in atmosphere, though not in specific orientation, with the
[ethnomethodological] ‘study of work’ programme.”
2 For a discussion of the multiple and sometimes mutually exclusive varieties of “social
constructivism” that have proliferated in science studies, see Golinski (2008), Hacking (1999) and
3 This definition brings to mind a passage in Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Democracy and
Dictatorship: “To maintain and transmit a value system,” Moore (1966, 468) writes, “human
beings are punched, bullied, sent to jail, thrown into concentration camps, cajoled, bribed, made
into heroes, encouraged to read newspapers, stood up against a wall and shot, and sometimes even
taught sociology.” ANT can be seen as an effort to address all those modes of action (including the
teaching of sociology) through an apparatus that gives full representation to the many nonhuman
mediators implicated in those operations.
4 ANT’s epicenter in the 1980s and 1990s, the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation, is part of the
École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris, an elite engineering institution of higher
education. Many of the leading proponents of ANT—Michel Callon, Madeleine Akrich, and
Antoine Hennion in particular—were alumni of this Grande École and developed their distinctive
approach in interaction with engineering students. As Fabian Muniesa notes, this inflected the
peculiar kind of “constructivism” that characterized early ANT. “For ANT,” he writes, “reality is
constructed, but it is constructed in the engineer’s sense (solid reality as the outcome of an
organized, fragile, and laborious process of material articulation) rather than in the sense usually
put forward in standard social sciences (social construction considered in terms of social
conventions, belief systems, mental states or collective representations)” (Muniesa 2015, 62; see
also Hennion 2016). In the meantime, and in contrast, the sociology of scientific knowledge that
emerged in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s endeavored to assert itself as a full-blown
sociology, on equal terms with other branches of the discipline and differentiated only by its object
5 Latour’s own collaboration with primatologist Shirley Strum marks a point of transition in this
respect (Strum and Latour 1987). Even more significant is the influence of some of ANT’s most
important interlocutors, particularly Donna Haraway, Vinciane Despret, and Isabelle Stengers.
6 Antoine Hennion’s work on music lovers and other forms of amateurism exemplified early on ANT’s
ability to provide a more nuanced and variegated account of agency (Hennion 2015; see also
Gomart and Hennion 1999). Hennion’s exploration of the sequencing of activity and passivity vis-
à-vis technical objects echoes the idea of a ‘dance of agency’ developed by Andrew Pickering
(1995) in his studies of scientific work in particle physics and mathematics. What brings Hennion
and Pickering together, despite their disparate empirical objects, is a shared attunement to the
temporal dimension in the emergence of agency.
7 Frank Cochoy (2008) has introduced a range of terms—for example, qualculation, calqulation—to
capture the “impure” forms of arithmetic that characterize market behavior.
8 For extended empirical elaborations of how a market emerges from the assembling of material
mediations and technical capacities, see Coray Çalışkan’s (2010) sociology of the international
cotton market or Vincent Antonin Lépinay’s (2011) study of equity derivatives.
9 There are resonances but also clear differences between the ANT notion of agencement and the
sociological notion of embeddedness. Both characterize economic action as emerging out of
complex patterns of relationality. Granovetter’s understanding of “network,” for instance, is not
too dissimilar from ANT’s: he sees networks as creating new economic realities through their
shape or morphology, rather than as simply connecting preexistent actors and interests
(Granovetter 1983, 1985). Yet the differences are perhaps more telling. In ANT, an economic
agent is not (commonly) an individual, let alone a human one: it is typically a hybrid (or cyborg)
combining a multitude of human and nonhuman elements. Furthermore, in Granovetter’s work,
and in economic sociology more generally, economic action tends to emerge and flourish through
the multiplication of connections. ANT, in contrast, tends to dedicate greater attention to acts of
disconnection and disentanglement, to how the form of calculativeness specific to a market
economy emerges out of processes of severance or framing.
10 In Latour’s later work, hesitation would become one of the hallmarks of the religious “regime of
enunciation,” or of religion as a “mode of existence” premised on dubitation and reprise. “The
Scriptures,” Latour (2013a, 310) writes, “are only an immense hesitation about how to
comprehend a message whose distinctive feature is that it transports no information and requires
that it always be given a new direction in order to correct its interpretation.”
11 Latour has noted the influence of Gabriel Tarde’s (1843–1904) monadological sociology on this
conceptualization of a sociology of associations. The recuperation of Tarde’s oeuvre has allowed
Latour (2002) to present ANT as the alternative to a mainstream sociology founded on Émile
Durkheim’s injunction to consider “social facts” as things.
12 An important precursor within ANT of this program is John Law’s (1994) book Organising
Modernity. Based on an ethnography of a nuclear research center, the book addressed itself
explicitly to social theory and defined the social as a materially heterogeneous ordering process.
Law expands some of the methodological ramifications of this work in his book After Method:
Mess in Social Science Research (Law 2004).
13 As Latour (2014a) argues elsewhere: “There is a huge difference between being “modern” and
being “contemporary.” Actually knowing how to become a contemporary, that is, of one’s own
time is the most difficult thing there is.”
14 Latour’s use of “modes of existence” in AIME resembles the category of the “metapragmatic
register” in Luc Boltanski’s (2011) reformulation of the critical mission of social theory. Both
authors are attempting to develop a critical apparatus that builds on the critical capacities of the
actors they study but also possesses its own normative orientation, or pulse. For an analysis of the
affinities between ANT and Boltanski’s sociology of critical capacities see Guggenheim and
16 The self-avowed provincialism of AIME is best understood as analogous to the “provincialization of
Europe” proposed by Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000), an author who shares with Latour a desire to
resituate political and moral reflection in context of the Anthropocene (see Chakrabarty 2009).