I just read this article from John Law that basically confirms what I talked about in my prior post on theory in anthropology. Essentially he argues that theory is tied up with practice. He uses an example from his own work of salmon farms in Norway to explore what this means for Science and Technology Studies, Actor-Network Theory and its successors in particular, but I feel that the insights apply equally to anthropology and other empirical social sciences. Here are some quotes:
“This paper [Callon's 1986 paper on Scallops in Saint Brieuc Bay] is immensely popular and this is partly because Callon had the bare-faced effrontery to treat scallops and people symmetrically – that is to say, in the same terms. His argument was methodological. It was that if there are differences between people and scallops (and obviously there are) then these are an effect of the relations in which they are embedded – relations which work to enact their differences. The implication is that if we are to understand this process – how it is that entities such as fishermen or scallops take shape – we need so far as possible to explore how this happens without making prior assumptions about the character or form of what is being generated. Scallops, fishermen, and scientists – all are generated in the relations that develop between them.”
“Nevertheless, Callon’s ‘scallops’ piece is perhaps the first and clearest STS methodological and empirical statement of resistance to human exceptionalism. And, as is obvious, the move was thoroughly theoretical as well. It showed what happens if we attend to how it is that objects – or realities – are generated in relations, and to how those relations are done in practices. Crucially, it showed that it is possible to dissolve a-priori divisions between nature and culture and explore how these are put together – and separated – in practice.”
“Two points. First, it is wise to be a little careful when you go fishing for philosophical resources. These indeed have their own context, and sheer eclecticism is pretty risky. This is because it is difficult to know when you are getting yourself in to unless you exercise suitable caution. So that is one argument and it needs to be taken seriously. On the other hand it also pays to be somewhat disrespectful. Philosophy has a tendency to present itself as foundational – or as a ground-clearing exercise necessarily undertaken before particular disciplines can get to work. But this is not how it is in practice, at least most of the time. It turns out that anthropology, or indeed physics, prosper perfectly well in the absence of philosophical clarification. So it is in this spirit that I want to suggest that for our purposes philosophy is best thought of as a source of possible insights. Indeed, if we look at it in this way, then it is not very far removed from fieldwork materials. It becomes a set of specificities, a collection of possible resources, an aid to thinking, and a set of sensitising suggestions.”
“There are many stories to be told about what a salmon is, but if I am to talk about this from an STS point of view then I need to weave together the three kinds of answers that I have rehearsed above.
- First it is important to tell stories that undo the obviousness and the taken-for-granted of the solid; it is necessary to tell stories about the dispersed and heterogeneous networks of practices that generate the possibility of being a salmon. This is old ANT.
- Second, (more old ANT) it then becomes important to talk about modes of assembling – about how the salmon puts itself back together again once it has been taken apart and distributed into practices.
- But then, and third, it is necessary to address the issue of excess. STS in its ANT mode needs to say something about the moments when the beast slips out from the edges of our human practices; about the moments that hint at fishy heterotopias. It becomes important to note those moments and to try characterise them. And then, and as part of this, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that it, the salmon, goes to places where people cannot follow; to places that people do not know.”
“[Theory] informs how we see whatever it is that we are looking it, and it is something, a set of propensities and sensibilities, that shapes what we look at and poses questions, issues, possibilities of whatever it is that we come into contact with.”
That last quote is what I was trying to say with my previous post, but may or may not have conveyed sufficiently. It’s nice and concise – an excellent definition of theory, in my opinion.