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Latour (1987) has offered an ethnomethodological description of the process of scientific research, engineering, and the way technology is developed. Unlike common conceptual frameworks like TechnologicalDeterminism and SocialDeterminism?, his approach is not essentialist, "inevitable", or abstract. Latour argues from a reductionist stance, describing the actual work of scientists and engineers in the field and the physical devices they produce, building from there to describe how the entire social institution of research in constructed. His description avoids the mythological ostentation that determinist stances often lean towards, making it possible to actually trace in practice. By looking at science in action rather than in hindsight at "ready-made" science or technology, Latour's argument is much more compelling, avoiding the obvious contradiction that progress is not made by looking at the past in hindsight. Latour grounds his description of research and development in the present.

Latour frames his argument by noting that research and facts are always produced through controversy. He centres his description at the fulcrum between historical controversies that have already been settled — the typical fodder of technological determinist arguments — and new controversies that are erupting based on the past ones. This approach allows us to reevaluate determinist stances such as those taken by Marshall McLuhan? and the Toronto School in order to redevelop aspects of their theory of the impact of communications technologies and other media on society, particularly on the institution of research, by looking at how new mass media leads to the creation and settlement of controversies.

A particularly important aspect of his theory is that it unifies the methods of scholars and scientists. Typical distinctions between scientists and scholars are rather biased and mythological, and suggest things like "scientists argue with facts whereas scholars argue with opinions", implying that scholars are the weaker discipline. Latour, on the other hand, suggests that scientists also use rhetoric as they are also engaged in the art of persuasion, except their rhetoric is more powerful than those that appeal solely to emotion or even intellect. Scientists have developed new ways of convincing others of their ideas, such as giving demonstrations, describing experiments that others can repeat for themselves, and building machines of value that become implicated in society. To doubt any of this rhetoric is to doubt the fealty of ones own senses, and thus ones sanity, and since that is unpleasant people are compelled to go along.

The more people that go along with some notion, and the more that will treat that notion as true when proposing their own notions, the more that notion becomes a fact, simply because everyone begins to think of it as true. This process is not simple. First, if no one hears of your notion, it will not spread and thus be stillborn. It is not a fact because it is not opposed. Rather, the converse. It only becomes a fact the more it is opposed and withstands trials of strength brought forth by the opposition. A notion that withstands many trials of strength is sturdy enough to be built upon by successive generations of authors, and it is only then that they will begin to borrow the notion as a fact.

Once other researchers begin to build on the fact, it becomes what Latour refers to as a "black box", thus forming the abstractions used in technological determinism. These researchers necessarily take it for granted; qualifying their premises as uncertain would weaken their own argument. At this point, the controversy is settled unless a future interlocutor decides to take issue with it. Doing so can be very difficult, especially if many other facts have been built on top of the one in question. The interlocutor faces a huge throng of people, all with vested interests in preserving that fact, since their own research and careers depend on it. Nonetheless, as Latour quips, the rhetoric of science is one that causes people to question their own sanity, and therefore must be strong indeed. It is only for that reason that science can overcome conservatism and skirt orthodoxy. All one has to do is find a trial of strength that is not resisted, and the entire framework will fall down. As a consequence, scientists need to test a fact strongly before it is accepted, lest years of research are found to be in error. To do so, they need to enlist large numbers of people with various perspectives to look at the fact in all the possible directions.

Yet before one can even think of enlisting allies and interlocutors, one needs to be able to identify which people are suitable allies and interlocutors. After all, no doubt many people could enlist their friends and family on their side in an argument, but that does not compel others to believe what you say. What one needs are other people who can evaluate and construct suitable trials of strength, and moreover who are forced to compete voraciously for veracity. The academic solution is to engage with professionals whose entire livelihoods are inside a controversy because their entire social group is engaged in the controversy; unlike amateurs, these disciplined researchers cannot reject a disagreeable notion if it is true since they will be discredited by their peers, and then their funding will be cut. Creating disciplines, however, is difficult, since they naturally depend entirely on funding. One good method is to produce facts that can be turned into machines, that can in turn by sold commercially. As such, much academic research is currently done, or funded directly, by industry. Another method for non-commercial academics is to have a favourable patron, usually the government, that distributes money through universities and granting agencies to ensure it only goes to disciplined individuals, currently measured by how well cited a researcher is by disciplined peers. The latter group, therefore, must adamantly exclude others from their discipline in order to protect their source of funding; hence, AcademicPeerReview exists.

This exclusion cannot be bitter, however, since researchers often require the use of the "laity" to collect data (e.g. fossils, astronomical observations, medical studies, bug reports), providing funding, raise children who might become the next generation of researchers. As such, researchers must play a dual communications role of on one hand keeping themselves secluded and on the other hand providing value back to the rest of society. The typical method is teaching what they have learnt so that others can turn it into economic value, and then evaluate junior members of the workforce so employers have some faith that they are getting an educated workforce. Moreover, time spent at school should also enculture the next generation to think, behave, and value the principles of academic inquiry (Brown and Daguid, 2000). In the end, students get a smaller version of the certification system used by academics to ensure discipline (i.e. a degree) which they can use to market themselves (Brown and Daguid, 2000). With regard to the social construction of science, the more effective they are at marketing themselves, the more the ideas they have learnt at school will become implicated in the operations of society, and the more the rest of society will be forced to accept it, and thus an academic fact is transformed gradually into a society-wide fact. Since most observers are within the social network of their society, from their point of view, the society-wide fact appears as a natural fact. Observers outside this network will appear different or strange, and often denigrated as being illogical or even "primitive" by social Darwinists such as McLuhan?.

For our interests here, we can observe there are many linkages here that are dependent on MassMedia. So much of research is built around reaching to an ever larger network of people, whether to find like-minded people, to collect data, or to disseminate your notion in order to construct a fact. Therefore, research itself must be vulnerable to the BiasOfCommunication. Continued on MediaOnResearch.


Brown, J. S. and Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Latour builds his argument with a series of lemmas in three types: Janus heads, rules of method, and principles. This strategy is very clear, concise, and easy to follow. I summarize only the conclusions of the lemmas as map into the book, but I encourage you to read the book yourself because they won't make sense otherwise.

Janus heads.

Rules of method.

Quoted from Appendix 1 (p.258); page references refer to first mentions in main body of text.

  1. We study science in action and not ready made science or technology; to do so, we either arrive before the facts and machines are blackboxed or we follow the controversies that reopen them (p.15).
  2. To determine the objectivity or subjectivity of a claim, the efficiency or perfection or a mechanism, we do not look for their intrinsic qualities but at all the transformations they undergo later in the hands of others. (p.59)
  3. Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not its consequence, we can never use this consequence, Nature, to explain how and why a controversy has been settled. (p.99)
  4. Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Society's stability, we cannot use Society to explain how and why a controversy has been settled. We should consider symmetrically the efforts to enroll human and non-human resources. (p.141)
  5. We have to be as undecided as the various actors we follow as to what technoscience is made of; every time an inside/outside divide is built, we should study the two sides simultaneously and make the list, no matter how long and heterogeneous, of those who do the work. (p.144)
  6. Confronted with the accusation of irrationality, we look neither at what rule of logic has been broken, nor at what structure of society could explain the distortion, but to the angle and direction of the observer's displacement, and to the lenght of the network thus being built.
  7. Before attributing any special quality to the mind or to the method of people, let us examine first the many ways through which inscriptions are gathered, combined, tied together and sent back. Only if there is something unexplained once the networks have been studied shall we start to speak of cognitive factors.


Quoted from Appendix 2 (p.259); page references refer to first mentions in the main body of the text.

  1. The fate of facts and machines is in later users' hands; their qualities are thus a consequence, not a cause, of a collective action (p.29).
  2. Scientists and engineers speak in the name of new allies that they have shaped and enrolled; representatives among other representatives, they add these unexpected resources to tip the balance of force in their favour.
  3. We are never confronted with science, technology and society, but with a gamut of weaker and stronger associations; thus understanding what facts and machines are is the same task as understanding who the people are. (p.141)
  4. The more science and technology have an esoteric content the further they extend outside; thus, 'science and technology' is only a subset of technoscience.
  5. Irrationality is always an accusation made by someone building a network over someone else who stands in the way; thus, there is no Great Divide between minds, but only shorter and longer networks; harder facts are not the rule but the exception, since they are needed only in a very few cases to displace others on a large scale out of their usual ways.
  6. History of technoscience is in a large part the history of the resources scattered along networks to accelerate the mobility, faithfulness, combination and cohesion of traces that make action at a distance possible.

Other interesting places

The critique of TechnologicalDeterminism begins on p.132.

Interesting points

Van de Ven warned that when theories on a topic widely diverge, the advocates "for each theory engage in activities to make their theory better by increasing its internal consistency, often at the expense of limiting its scope...[S]uch impeccable micro logic is creating macro nonsense!" (p. 487)

Van de Ven, A. H. (1989). Nothing is quite so practical as a good theory. Academy of Management Review, 14 486-489.

A social constructionist view of OrganizationalKnowledge creation: The importance of SocialKnowledge?

In ScienceInAction?, Latour (1987) introduces the Social Construction of Science or a description of the processes involved in the development of scientific research, engineering, and technology (or new knowledge). Latour starts by examining the day to day activities of an individual in the process, then makes broader assumptions on how the entire social institution of research (innovation) is constructed (knowledge creation). A full discussion of Latour’s theory is outside the scope of this paper, but it is with his influence that the following argument for the social construction of organizational knowledge is made.

New knowledge starts with the individual knowledge worker (in the form of ideas); it is then the job of the organization to integrate this knowledge using a combination of mechanisms and technologies. Most knowledge-management theorists agree that a necessity for the dissemination of this new knowledge is the facilitation of social networks or a sort of sharing structure. To put it simply, knowledge is not created in a vacuum, it requires the worker to know how, and more importantly, with whom they should share their ideas. People choose to share their ideas with others based on both rationally cognitive and emotionally affective reasons. Generally, it can be stated that a person chooses to share their ideas with someone based on some value it brings to them (from financial reward in the form of a promotion to the esteem gained from recognition). There is also a penalty associated with sharing with the wrong people, risking the idea might be shot down, taken in a wrong direction, or stolen. In the case of a poor idea the worker may loose social status or validity.

The goal of any organization should be to make sure their employees’ ideas are being shared with the correct people. Those people who can assist and forward the creation of knowledge. Once ideas are shared and accepted they become knowledge implemented through practices, methodologies, procedures, or innovation. These pieces of new knowledge are what organizational knowledge creation strives for.

It is also important for the organization to make the originator look favourable. By rewarding the idea originator, their social status and value increases (something all employees of the organization compete for) and the organization encourages more innovation. In this case, both the organization and the worker benefit from the correct social interactions or networks.

If one accepts this idea, then social knowledge becomes a necessary part of organizational knowledge creation since it is an essential step in the process.

(Based on discussions with SunirShah) - MaxEvans


"...scientists need to test a fact strongly before it is accepted, lest years of research are found to be in error..."

This is a very weird sentence. Facts have to be tested? I would rather say theories have to be tested by facts. Typically "years of research" are not found to be in error, but "years of rhetoric" have been invested in error.

In general Latour's view look like a constructivist's view onto science without taking prototypical science (natural science) into account. The terms "reality", "model" or "prediction" do not even appear in the rhetoric.

The fundamental element of research also isn't the controversy, but questions and problems. E. g. there just hasn't been the chance to have enough controversies to produce the knowledge about the 2 million known chemical molecules, their properties and structure.

-- HelmutLeitner

It's not a weird sentence if you understand what a fact is (at least in this context). Facts don't exist by grace of god. Facts have to be constructed by society, and the process by which they are constructed is by surviving against criticism. Criticism operates through rhetoric. The difference between Science and scholarship is that Science has stronger rhetoric. The rhetoric of Science is a rhetoric of the senses: if you can see it with your own two eyes, it's hard to deny it.

The confounding point is the latter. Just because you see it with your own two eyes does not make it a fact yet. It only makes it a fact to you, but not to Science. You still need to convince other people of what you saw with your eyes before it is a Scientific fact. -- SunirShah

This remains weird, because then a fact is called a fact before it is tested and after it is tested too. This is inconsistent language use that also deviates from everyday language without need. Typically a scientist would talk about an observation and its reproducability.

Also, it is not typical that "unsecure facts" are put to a survival test. Typically you develop scientific methods that provides reliable results. As long as you follow these methods (standards of experimentation, statistics), you can be pretty sure that your results are accepted. - HelmutLeitner

a) My summary of Latour is not the same as reading Latour. b) "Typically you develop scientific methods that provides reliable results." How does that contradict what was said? The method's utility becomes a 'fact'. -- SunirShah

There's a scoping issue here too. Latour was not discussing the mythology or philosophy of Science, but Science in Action. That is, the daily activities of scientists.

The daily activity of the natural scientist is the experiment, not the rhetoric. -- HelmutLeitner

The experiment is the rhetoric. Read the book if you want details:

So what is the difference between rhetoric, so much despised, and science, so much admired? Rhetoric used to be despised because it mobilised external allies in favour of an argument, such as passion, style, emotions, interests, lawyers' tricks and so on. It has been hated since Aristotle's time because the regular path of reason was unfairly distorted or reversed by any passing sophist who invoked passion and style. What should be said of the people who invoke so many more external allies besides passion and style in order to reverse the path of common reasoning? The difference between the old rhetoric and the new is not that the first makes use of external alies which the second refrains from using; the difference is that the first uses only a few of them and the second very many. (Latour, 1987, p.61)

-- SunirShah

Anyway, the rhetorical devices of logic and mathematics are also relatively strong rhetoric, but not as strong as a direct appeal to your sense organs. Therefore, we have to test predictions with our sense organs in order to overcome the risk created by indirection. When they lead to predictions that hold, people gain more confidence and trust in thos predictions. More people increasingly depend on those predictive frameworks until they are difficult to dislodge.

That is until a contradiction emerges that is glaring and important enough to look for a better predictive framework. The contradiction could be an observation with your own eyes that contravenes theh prediction. Or it could be a logical flaw in the predictive framework. -- SunirShah

I really hate it when people interleave objections in someone else's text. -- SunirShah

These are typical constructivist and dialectic word games:

Hegel produced 20 volumes of that 200 years ago. he sold freedom as the privilege to follow the absolute monarch's laws. He splendidly lived on that. -- HelmutLeitner

The question is not invalid: how does a hypothesis become a fact? A scientist's assertions are not facts, no matter how much she believes them. There was a time when people did not believe in molecules.

The belief that Science is agreement is objectively false. Science is all about controversy. This conversation being an example. The agreement only comes after the controversy is settled.

Facts are unsecure. If they were secure, there would be no hope for Science to overturn an old theory; e.g. Einstein to Newton to Aristotle.

Experiment is not reality. That is part of the original Philosophy of Science. That's why it's called an experiment. It's an process to learn about reality, not reality itself. Don't confuse the two, or else you'll believe your experiment is valid when it may be defective.

Finally, bringing Nazis up is pretty ludicrous. Hegel's affiliation is irrelevant, and you hit GodwinsLaw. -- SunirShah

Sunir, I don't know why you bring up the Nazis. Hegel was a century before them and my "absolute monarch" referred to the Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm III, who won 1815 at Waterloo against Napoleon. 1817 Hegel was installed as a professor for philosophy at Berlin, a position he held until he died 1831. There he redefined what freedom (among all other terms of course) really means. Marx and the communists followed his dialectic constructivism most obviously, also redefining freedom, adapted for their purposes. -- HelmutLeitner

Read the Hawking quote on WhatIsScience, then you will see that a hypothesis never can become more than a useful theory, a model that works as far as we know. One might think that the theory is true, but this is only an asymptotic Simplification. A hypothesis is never a fact, except you want to say that "the writing of a sentence" is a fact. A fact is that we are currently writing here about science. -- HelmutLeitner

Now you are contradicting yourself. Just like Hegel, you are saying there are no facts. At least Latour describes a stable and graceful process to transition between those two mythologies of Science: there are no facts, and we are here to discover facts. There is no contradiction if you recognize facts as being the CommunityLore, and facts can only stabilize if they can survive strong criticism. -- SunirShah

Sunir, I do not say there are no facts. There are facts and I gave an example. Another fact is that you declared to visit Wikimania. I just say the word "fact" should be used in the everyday language sense, primarily as "something observable that happens in the real world" as long as there is no really convincing reason to redefine its meaning. It's against OccamsRazor to do so without need. A hypothesis is on the meta-level of description, so it doesn't fit the term "fact". It may be facts that a hypothesis is published, or that it is tested or that two people agree that it is an improvement. -- HelmutLeitner

The difference between Science and "something observable that happens in the real world" is that the latter is limited to folk knowledge, where Science tries to extend that same principle to wider and wider domains. 'Molecules' can also become a fact, but only through experiments that get at that information 'indirectly.' We do a lot of experiments, make predictions, and confirm predictions (again through many experiments), until the risk in relying on the hypothesis becomes low enough to form a StableBase to build upon. No one questions molecules now, and so new chemistry now talks about quantum effects operating within and around the structure of molecules.

The way Science works to building CommunityLore is that as more and more people's work become dependent on a hypothesis they treat as fact, there are that many more people and resources willing to defend that hypothesis as fact, and thus the 'fact' is very hard to overthrow. The difference between a Scientific fact and reality is that as facts are just CommunityLore, you can overthrow the fact by convincing everyone to believe something different. However, as long as their work is successful at operating in the world, overthrowing a foundation stone of their work will be very difficult. Success is the ultimate Razor.

The latter statement is so critical it should not be dismissed easily. Des Cartes's physics of vortices may have been an elegant and therefore convincing treatise (on an emotional level), it was useless in practice, and thus was utterly destroyed in the era of experimental Natural Philosophy since no one could do anything with it. Conversely, overthrowing Newton was really difficult, and required casting Science to wider and wider domains that do not correspond any longer to directly observable, common experience (speeds close to the speed of light).

It's important to note that our perceptions of the world are also indirect and often wrong. The difference is that our brain has instinctively put in a lot of cross-verifications to ensure our perceptions have a high correspondence to the external world. Science just does this at a social institutional level rather than at a biological level. And therefore our 'sense organs' do not have to be limited to an anthropological level (i.e. your hands, eyes, ears). We can build telescopes and microscopes. -- SunirShah

One of my university teachers once pointed out that all our instruments of measurement could at best notice differences of size d. All the data we can thus measure is limited to size d. In time we forget that this data are just measurements and they become established facts.

Until the day our technology has become advanced enough to measure difference smaller then d. New data comes in. Suddenly these pseudo-facts change, and these relative small changes often have dramatic effect on the hypotheses and theories that exist. He then pointed out that our theories didn't have to fit the facts: They just need to fit the level of detail we can measure at the moment. This means that theories need to fit the available data.

Science does not have absolute truths or facts. Science only has an ever changing current working theory about data which are limited in there accuracy and completeness. -- Gideon FormerContributor?

Maybe, depending on how you exactly define science and facts. In the context of this page, Sunir is summarizing the book by Latour, who has a very specific model of how science works and how facts are established. Spending time on offering alternate definitions of vocabulary in this context seems like a waste of time, since we can just accept Latour's statements and see where it leads us. After all, this is not the WhatIsScience page. :) -- AlexSchroeder

Alternatively we can doubt that his model has substance and that his arbitrary construction will lead us anywhere. Where does he lead us? That net rhetoric is science? The basic scientific stance "hypothesis tested by fact" becomes devaluated if the word "fact" is arbitrarily redefined. This is not some jargon, this is an attack on the substance of science, to subdue science to rhetoric success. -- HelmutLeitner

Um, not quite. If you mean to say that any kind of writing and talking (presumed definition of "net rhetoric") is the same as the scientific method according to Karl Popper (presumed definition of "science"), then cleary you are right. But that's not how I read what is written above. I did not read the book, but Sunir's summary above explains it quite well. Do you want me to rephrase it? -- AlexSchroeder

Latour is not attacking the 'substance' of science. This conversation is not going to go anywhere by casting rhetorical aspersions on a book you haven't read. What is with that? That's not useful. Let's focus on introducing new knowledge. I've read the book, and I'll try to explain it as much as I can. Bear in mind, it's hard for me to explain what Latour thinks in detail without posting his entire book online. If you're really interested, you should just read the book. That being said, I'll try to answer some questions.

Latour compares and contrasts science to rhetoric. The natural question arises, why is science is more successful than classical rhetoric, although much younger? Because rhetoric was the old best method of Philosophy at coming to social agreement, Latour describes science in the terms of rhetoric to demonstrate why Science is in practice better. It's true, what's most surprising is how similar science and rhetoric are in practice. Human nature continues to rule the day. For that reason, his explanation is valuable because it is so easily applicable in non-'Science' domains by average people.

However, he spends a considerable amount of time discussing how scientists use the external frame (i.e. the physical world) to overcome objections. His essential point is that it's hard to argue against your own two eyes. Thus, the scientific experiment is akin to the rhetorical tool of captatio in that it captures the audience. The audience cannot disagree with what they see. What they can argue with is how what they see has been produced, which is why it's critical important never to confuse experimental results with reality (note how this differs from your intentional misreading, "Experiment is not(reality) = rhetoric."), since your audience won't. It's also critical to have "solid" method, where solidity means it strongly defends against all criticisms brought forth, like a fortress against attacks.

We can keep arguing philosophically about what you feel Science should be on WhatIsScience, but I'm interested in this book because it eloquently describes field research on what scientists do on a daily basis to get work done (ergo, Science in Action), which is more useful when working with living people trying to get things done. You can refute his method, but you can't reject it just because living reality disagrees with philosophy and mythology and desire. Indeed, the value of this book is that it escapes the endless repeat loop of "What is Science" discussions throwing out aphorism after aphorism (sceptical! repeatable! predictable! objective! methodological!) by actually answering the question what actually happens when actual hairy human beings try to do science, and why they succeed.

More specifically, I am interested to see if I can apply his model to smaller situations, such as office work, which is where I make my money. -- SunirShah

I ordered the book. And this page is too big too keep revisions. Somebody should fix the script or I offer to make the switch to Oddmuse (best effort using the extensions currently available). -- AlexSchroeder

Sunir, I can't make the pieces fit together. You now talk about an alternative interpretation and comparison. The introduction sounds as if Latour had better a better, more convincing theory of science. Especially because current models of science are named essentialist, inevitable, abstract, determinist, hindsight-looking and mythological. I wonder how KarlPopper's model of science is made to fit these attributes.

With respect to office work I would assume that rhetoric will be more important for you than science, because science is tiresome and can't rarely be made to fit one's purpose. So in everyday situations we all are much better served with rhetoric. Marketing is rhetoric too. We also know that convincing images, metaphores help rhetoric. Facts and knowledge (science) help as well. Science is used in rhetoric and scientists use rhetoric. What is new or surprising about this? What is surprising about "seeing is believing"? What justifies writing a book about this? -- HelmutLeitner

Popper describes the scientific method. Latour describes the social process, if I read Sunir's summary correctly. For Popper, science is all about hypothesis and experiments to disprove them. Popper's only description of how one theory builds on another is very simplistic: Disprove existing hypothesis using an experiment, invent new hypothesis that can be disproven, try to disprove it. If it stands the test, it may rise to the level of a theory. Latour goes beyond that and looks at how some theories are harder to overthrow because the scientific community has a /vested interest/ in it -- their carreers, their grants, their school. And he goes on to explore /that/. This is not arguing against Popper. This is about the influence of social factors on the social process we call science -- the group of people that uses the scientific method as one of its tools to talk to each other. -- AlexSchroeder

I think I need to back down for now on the 'rhetoric' discussion. Part 1 of Science in Action is called "From weaker to stronger rhetoric", however, as you might be gathering, Latour takes the word 'rhetoric' and does quite a lot with it that is outside the common definition as a way of building his explanation of his research. Unfortunately, I've only read this section two times so far. I do not understand it as well as I need to in order to explain it clearly, as it is an elegant argument, it is quite clever. -- SunirShah

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